The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Saturday, August 02, 2008

The wistfulness of an expat.

Sometimes shopping is not just shopping, sometimes it is reminiscence.

Last week I bought something for a very strange reason. I didn't buy it because I wanted the contents of the container, per se - I wanted it because of what it said on the container: "Waitrose".

Now, "Waitrose" may not mean much to you, but to me it means: childhood, adolescence and youth.

I should explain. The supermarket nearest my longest term home, in my formative years, was a Waitrose. It is a chain of supermarkets in the UK. It is by no means the biggest chain of supermarkets - but it is the one that I visited most often, it being on our doorstep.

So perhaps you can now understand my reaction when I saw that familiar brand staring back at me from a pot of jam in Cold Storage in Singapore. "Waitrose", it I found my hand reaching out reflexively to this otherwise unremarkable pot of jam, reaching out to recapture a part of my earlier life.

It felt odd to see a name from my youth, in the UK, on a pot of jam, in Singapore. It felt as if, for a moment, I had stepped back in time, to that earlier home, and that I was no longer in Singapore, with my own family, and my own home. I picked it up, not because I felt like eating jam - for I am not a regular eater of jam, and had only eaten it once or twice in the past several years - but because it was a way of reconnecting myself to my younger days.

The following morning, I had Waitrose jam on toast for breakfast. It tasted rather good - but for reasons unconnected to its flavour - it was all the associations it had, that made it meaningful.

Singapore is a very alien country, compared to the UK, given its origin as a British colony. It is much less like the UK than one would have thought, given that history. A Chinese way of thinking pervades the way things are done here - and the result is altogether different from what one might expect.

Thus, I don't expect to see fragments of the UK appearing in Singapore - and when I do, they are welcome, for they remind me that once I had another life, with other thoughts and understandings. Once I lived in the UK and could never have guessed that, one day, I would live in Singapore.

Life is strange like that.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 11:15 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Theres 7 Marks & Spencers in Singapore so nostalgia is a short walk away to the MRT.

Its there anything in Singapore that makes you jump for joy and feel sorry for the poor saps labouring away in the old country who are not in the exciting far east?

4:49 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi AA,

Unfortunately, I didn't visit Marks and Spencers so often when younger, in the it has less nostalgic value.

Your question has made me pause for thought. I think there is nothing in Singapore that is not available or surpassed somewhere in the UK (except the sunshine)...and there is much in the UK that is not available here. It is partly due to size, partly due to cultural emphasis. So, there are quite a few things from the UK that I miss.

Now, one thing I am glad of in Singapore is the relative rarity of personal violence. As a family man it is a relief not to have to worry too much about that.

"Exciting far east" is a strange description if it is meant to include Singapore. "Exciting" seems to imply spontaneity and fluidity of action, in some way: Singapore doesn't have either quality since it is highly controlled. Singapore is too predictable to be exciting to anyone who has become familiar with it. It is a very strange place, however, and can entertain one for quite a few years, discovering just how strange it is. (I have done so).

I miss free education in the UK (I pay too much for my kids to go to preschool). I miss free healthcare and free vaccinations (Singapore's system wants stupid money for 180 dollars per dose for four doses of Pneumonia vac. for kids...disgusting.) I miss the greater variety of people, backgrounds and life experiences to be found in the UK. Singapore is not plural or multi-cultural by comparison to London - far from it.

I miss watching TV interviews and seeing people who actually have something to say and say it in an interesting way. I miss Standard English, for Singlish can be very tiring on the mind and ear.

I miss newspapers that are not afraid to challenge the way things are.

There are many things the UK has that Singapore does not. In exchange for all of them, one gets safety, predictability and eternal sunshine. One of these is important. The others can be boring after a while.

However, I like my home in is very restful and beautifully situated. I like the fact that the kids can play in safety. I have come to understand more of the world since I came here - and come to appreciate better what I once had, for now I see it more clearly. I have also met some interesting people since I came here.

Singapore is a country in which people are just beginning to awake after being in an enforced slumber, for too long. It is difficult to say where this will lead them. It will be interesting to watch and find out. The internet dialogue is very revealing of how people are thinking and feeling here and I think that is a healthy development, for the people of Singapore.

Best wishes to you, AA.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

By the way, AA, wages in Singapore appear to be much lower, for many jobs, than they would be in the UK. So I am not sure that it is the Old Country in which people are labouring away so much...


10:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was a tongue in cheek comment which I thought you as an English should be able to get it.

Why do you continue to stay halfway across the world away from UK in such a culturally monotonous and staid society just for the sunshine and security? Its not like sunny England is overrun with criminals.

I thought Singapore had cheap govt run preschools.

Just because Singlish has pidgin status doesn't make it inferior or wrong. Its just a product of evolution.

8:58 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi again, AA.

I took your comment at face value because many people (who haven't been there) do think of the Far East as "exciting". Those who live there come to see it somewhat differently, in time (or parts of it, at least).

Yes. There are cheap government pre-schools - but I don't think it is healthy to allow a government to influence children too much, too young, if you know what I mean. Children's minds should be free to grow whichever way they please.

Singlish is a pidgin language, yes...but most Singaporeans don't acknowledge that: they think of it as a standard. No-one from outside Singapore thinks of it as admirable, linguistically. Singlish limits Singaporeans and should be phased out.

I stay in Singapore because my wife is Singaporean. That is the primary reason. There are other places in the world that would have more opportunity for me, in certain ways. However, she has strong family ties here...

Thanks for your comment and best wishes to you.

9:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you learnt to speak Malay or Mandarin? How much do you converse with ordinary Sporeans apart from your occupational duties and wife's family?

I don't know if anyone outside pidgin communities can accurately judge just how linguistic perfect or aesthetically pleasing it is. Theres always the tendency to think of of it as intrinsically broken, primitive or 'limiting'. The English language itself has a pidgin origin.

Doesn't the Spore govt actively discourage Singlish. I doubt ordinary Sporeans think Singlish and standard English is the same, it more the case of local keeping their own cultural identify. Why should it be phased out? Why can't it remain as Spores own colloquial vernacular?

12:07 AM  
Blogger Eaststopper said...

Well wages are lower in Singapore but the taxes are way much lower as well as compared in the UK. There isnt much left at the end of the month after paying a third of your gross salary to the government, council taxes, national insurance, etc. I do save a lot more when I was working in Singapore though.
You are right about the television programmes, wife and I are absolutely delighted with the quality as much as the content, especially from the BBC.
I miss the swimming pools in Singapore though, 40pence per entry into an olympic-sized outdoor pool - it's unimaginable in London.

10:57 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Eaststopper, taxes are lower in Singapore than in the UK. However, Singapore has recently become very expensive in many different ways simultaneously. I don't think you would be saving any money here, these days.

Some Singaporeans earn wages below the legal minimum in the European countries...way below. It isn't funny.

Yes, the quality of discourse of all kinds is very much higher in the UK: just look at the richness of language and writing in the better newspapers and the range of their thoughts. I really miss that. The Sunday Times was a great read.

I hope you enjoy your cultural experience.

Best wishes to you and your wife.

11:22 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi AA,

I did not mean that Singaporeans thought Singlish and Standard English to be the same...I meant that they say Singlish as some kind of standard. I have occasionally been corrected TO SINGLISH, by locals, when I addressed them in Received Pronounciation, Standard English. It is quite funny - but they think my English is the one that is unusual and somehow wrong.

I haven't learnt to speak Malay or Mandarin, barring a few words.

I think Singlish is a much poorer variant of English than Standard English and is less effective at conveying thoughts and distinctions accurately. I have seen a lot of its limitations and failings in essays I have read over the years. Standard English is richer.

Best wishes

12:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When you say locals correct your RP to Singlish, they might just be repeating to confirm what you are saying. But if Singaporeans are actually insisting that RP is wrong then they have taken 3 steps backwards since govt policy is to converse in standard English.

8:50 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

AA, in the instances I am thinking of, Singaporeans actually insisted on the Singlish way of saying what I had said - and repeated it several times. It was funny in a way. In one instance, the woman actually seemed to think I was some kind of idiot for getting it "wrong"!

The problem with asking Singaporeans to speak in Standard English is that many of them don't know what it is.

Another problem is that many government employees don't speak Standard English themselves...

9:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Asians have a habit of repeating aloud with native English speakers. They do not do that when conversing in Singlish. While it might seem like they are correcting your RP, I think its either to understand you or it just an annoying habit.

It wasn't a long time ago that the only Sporeans conversant in English were confined to the elites and minority Eurasians. I think the speak Mandarin campaign in the 80s had the unfortunate effect of depressing standard English use.

To get back to pidgin English, I disagree that its limiting. It lives within a framework of Malay, Tamil and Chinese languages. Its a contact language like bazaar Malay. I doubt there is a European derived
pidgin language that gets any respect from westerners, Afrikaans may be an exception because Europeans themselves speak it.

Your wistful state seems to signal a turn in phase of your Sporean adventure. When you first arrived you may have been happy just to hear some version of English in use. Now all the small annoyances below the surface including the ones you weren't previously aware of are starting to chaff.

10:58 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi, thank you for telling me of the Asian habit of repetition of what is said. However, the incidences I am thinking of involved more than repetition - they involved transformation into Singlish, including the alteration of the words used. It looks a lot more like correction therefore.

I think wistfulness derives from a better appreciation of the past - and a better understanding of the present. It is a good emotion in that it teaches one the value of things.

Have you ever been wistful for something?

Best wishes

11:52 AM  

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