Why Is The Sky Blue?

For some reason, and I think it is that I have seen too many television commercials, I assumed that all children ask that question. In preparation for the day that M comes to me with the same question, I researched why the sky is blue, and while I was at it, I included why the leaves turn yellow, and a whole lot of other whys. All this was done in Japan before the explosion of the Internet, and research meant going to the local library, or a nearby bookstore, to browse for the right book standing on your feet, and not while seated on a couch with a cup of latte in your hand.

And so, why is the sky blue? According to my research, it has something to do with the sun’s light being scattered by dust particles in the air. I was fully prepared for my encounter with the tiny inquisitor. Or so I hoped.

I do not know. Four short words.

I decided early on in my career as mom that if I did not have the answer to any of M’s questions, I would admit not knowing. I was not going to stop there though. I was going to find the answer for her, and when she got older, I was going to help her find the answer. I made two vows to myself. One, I was never going to leave any of her questions unanswered. Two, I was never going to tell her to ask me later because I was too busy.

I should have known better than to make promises like that. Even to myself.

Answering all of little M’s questions was easy. Before the Age of the Internet, I simply had to spend a lot of time reading in libraries and bookstores, and after the Internet became the greatest source of information, both accurate and inaccurate, I spent hours staring at the computer screen.

In Lagos, there were no libraries or bookstores. At least, not in the compound where I imprisoned myself for fear of being the latest carjack victim. All of M’s questions then began with the interrogative pronoun “what”, and I did not have to be a rocket scientist to answer them.

While climbing up the slide, M points at a Nigerian lizard that is half a meter long, has an orange head, gray body and blue tail. They were all over the compound, and we had no need for pets.

M: What’s that?

Mommy: A baby dinosaur.

On the way to the airport, M points at the bullet proof jackets that recently arrived from Tokyo. An Australian man had been shot dead in a carjack, and we were advised to wear the jackets when travelling to and from the airport at night. Someone must have forgotten to tell the head office that the man was shot in the head while he was down on the ground, in bright daylight, on his way to the beach

M: What’s that?

Mommy: The latest fashion.

Standing on a chair by the kitchen window, M points at a car swerving on its wheels. Someone had arrived from Tokyo to teach all the drivers defensive driving techniques.

M: What are they doing?

Mommy: Filming a movie.

The New York Public Library with its world-class collection of books was only four cross-town blocks away from our apartment, but I was more often to be found at the Barnes and Noble Bookstore on 53rd and Third, sitting on a very comfortable couch with a cup of hot latte on one side, and stacks of books on the other. Unlike the public libraries, Barnes and Noble bookstores did not require the books to be returned to their shelves. There were sales clerks who not only returned the books but also cleared the empty paper cups away. They even thanked you for coming. Being Japanese, I returned the books and threw away the cup myself, and thanked the sales clerks for letting me sit there. And I always bought a paperback for M. I was afraid that if no one bought anything, Barnes and Noble would go out of business, and I would have to go to the libraries!

I was not the only frequent visitor to Barnes and Nobles. If she was not treasure-hunting at the museums, M was sitting on a cushion in the children’s corner of this most child-friendly commercial establishment. Unlike “real” New Yorkers, we did not go to the Hamptons during the summer, and to escape the hot and humid afternoons, M and I spent hours and hours at the air-conditioned Barnes and Noble.

In return for their hospitality, I would have liked to make a greater contribution to their net profits, and create our very own library with ceiling-to-floor shelves full of books, but we eventually had to go back to our rabbit hutches in Japan, and everyone knows that rabbits did not have libraries in their hutches. Not even Peter Rabbit.

Our apartment in Tokyo hardly had space for bookshelves. Let alone a library. For a while, I entertained the thought of buying a set of encyclopedias. I had one as a child, and the leather-bound books looked very impressive all lined up in the bookshelf, but in Tokyo, the bookshelves were in our bedroom, and getting crushed to death by a set of encyclopedias during an earthquake was not how I wanted to be featured in the six o’clock news.

With the dawn of the Age of the Internet, all thoughts of buying encyclopedias vanished from my head. With a laptop half the size of one encyclopedia book, I had access to as much information as I wanted. I no longer had to spend time in libraries and bookstores. I did not even have to worry that English books were only available at the school library and at English bookstores one hour away by train. Information found on the Internet was available in both English and Japanese!

The world wide web made it easier for me to uphold my second vow, which was to always answer M’s questions no matter how busy I was. And I had a great assistant. His name was Jeeves. All I had to do was ask Jeeves. And he was available twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year.

For those of you who have never met Jeeves, let me introduce him. He lives in my laptop, and whenever I needed help answering M’s questions, I tapped the keys of my laptop.

Giving up a corporate career did not mean abandoning my planning and budgeting skills. I created four seven-day menus to avoid serving the same dish in a month, and to maintain a balanced budget, I made everything from scratch. All of which made me extremely busy in the kitchen, especially during the late afternoon hours when I would be preparing dinner.

The autumn air was getting chilly, and a hearty stew of pork and vegetables in tomato sauce was scheduled for that evening’s dinner. I was systematically peeling and slicing half a kilo of onions. The carrots were still in the bag, and the pork was still wrapped in plastic.

M: Why do you always cry when you peel and slice onions?

I should have guessed it was coming. I knew M was watching me from her desk. She had stopped working when I reached for the box of tissues. I was in tears, and M was right. Onions always made me cry, and I did not know why.

My eyes went from the raw meat and vegetables on the kitchen counter to the clock on the kitchen wall. A stew had to simmer for at least an hour and a half to be perfect, but I had a vow to uphold. Time to ask Jeeves.

Why do onions make you cry?

I typed the question on my laptop, and in a matter of seconds, Jeeves told me where I could find the answers. M and I sat around the screen of the laptop, and learned all about onions, and ways to prevent them from making Mommy cry. Jeeves was always glad to help, and at the end of every answer, he never fails to invite us to view the questions that other people ask. It was often very difficult to turn Jeeves down, and that evening, we had dinner much later than usual.

Why do onions make you cry?

Well, when onions are sliced, they release an upwardly mobile gas. When that gas encounters the water that keeps the eyes moist, sulfuric acid is produced, and as the acid irritates the eyes, the tear ducts release more water to wash away the irritant.

Just ask Jeeves.


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Reeni
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 06:28:44

    I came across your blog from your reply to “… Tiger Mother.” Like you, and her, I grew up in the Philippines. My mother is still my idol because she worked when all the other moms didn’t, and at a tough job at the World Bank (I was born when my family lived briefly in Silver Springs MD) and at the Asian Development Bank in Manila. I didn’t realize then how I made her suffer — volunteering her to buy a pigeon for Peace Day that necessitated taking the morning off and going to the wet market in her office wear when she had a conference to organize — because all the other girls’ moms would have had all day to get it done and probably would have just sent the help to get it. While part of me was determined to stay home with my kids, I also had an excellent role model for being a working mom whose kids adore her, so when finances called for it I was ready to go back to doing a job that I love.
    I’m not sure where I got it either, but just like you I determined that I would always answer my children’s questions to the best of my abilities. (It carries over to my working life too; I teach cooking at two schools in the New York area and my students know that they cannot stump me.)
    Thank you for writing your blog, your voice is at once familiar and refreshing… my kids are just 6 and 2 1/2 but I hope that eventually I will have as many wonderful things to write about how my mothering helped them become their own thinkers because I refused to say that I didn’t have time to answer, or that they didn’t deserve to know.


    • haha
      Jan 20, 2011 @ 10:31:56

      Hi, Reeni.

      Thank you reading my blog. You had a great role model. You will do nicely. Just do not forget to enjoy the ride. It is such a magical one.



  2. z-chan
    Jan 16, 2011 @ 09:07:51

    Dear Good Chinese Mother,
    I also found your blog from a response on the Guardian website to the interview with Amy Chua.
    Your writing style is charming, funny and thought provoking. I have now read all of your essays to M, and despite your stories not being in chronological order, I almost feel that I was with you throughout M’s childhood. Thank you for the privilege.
    I am intrigued by your family heritage and ideas on motherhood. I am currently the head teacher of the Early Learning Center in a International Academy in Kansai, and find ideas such as being a “Chinese mother” very interesting. I read Amy Chua’s interview and do plan on reading the book. I was quite shocked by some of the stories she told, not the limitations she placed on her daughters in pursuit of excellence (the latter, I agree with), but the demeaning manner in which she spoke and acted. From my experience in Japan, I know that children can and should be challenged. Private education here in Asia is viewed very differently to that of Britain (my native country). I want to applaud your husband and yourself for choosing an International education for M, and she must be very thankful to you.
    I’m not as good an author as yourself, so my ramblings will end here! Please do continue to add to these stories, and good luck to M at university.


  3. Florida resident
    Jan 19, 2011 @ 19:25:45

    Dear “Good Chinese Mother” !
    You wrote:
    …why is the sky blue? According to my research, it has something to do with the sun’s light being scattered by dust particles in the air.
    Quetion is a very important one, but your “research” gave you wrong answer.
    The sky is blue due to, “the sun’s light being scattered”, correct,
    but _not_ “by dust particles in the air”.

    Istead it is due to the sun’s light being scattered by individual molecules of air.
    Intensity of that scattering, as British physisist Lord Rayleigh established around 1900, is color-dependent, much stronger for blue part of sun-light spectrum, than for red one. To be more precise, intensity of that scattering is proportional to

    1/(lambda)^4 , i.e. to inverse 4-th power of wavelength
    (famous Rayleigh scattering law.)

    Wavelength for blue light is about 0.45 micron, wavelenght for red light is about 0.65 micron, so that the intensity of scattering is about 4.3 times stronger for this “blue” than for this “red”.

    This was very imporatnt observation. It was one of the first technical proofs that air is not a “coninuous goo”, but consists of discrete molecules. In slightly different tems, Rayleigh was able to calculate “Avogadro number A”: how many descrete molecules of Nitrogen constitutes 28 grams of Nitrogen gas (main component of atmospheric air): A =about= 6*10^23 .

    I wish the best to you and your loved ones.
    Your Florida resident.


  4. Bricia Bartlett
    Jan 31, 2011 @ 19:31:57

    I am done reading all your entries and I feel like I just read a tease of a soon-to-be-book! I love EVERY single one of your stories and I strongly encourage you to not limit your self by stopping here!!
    You have actually inspired me with a wonderful idea for a High School gift for my son, whom I raised as a working single mother.
    Your experiences as a mom to your M is not only insightful, but inspiring to many of us women who would love to hear (read) more of your memories with M.


    • haha
      Jan 31, 2011 @ 21:16:51

      Dear Bricia,

      So lovely of you to say such nice things. Let us be realistic though. No publisher will take a chance on a stay-at-home mom. And I am really not willing to create controversy to sell a book. I never really thought I would be sharing these essays with anyone but my daughter and a few friends, but I guess I needed to demonstrate that not all Chinese mothers are tiger mothers, and that there is more than one way to parent if the ultimate goal is only academic excellence.

      I congratulate you, and respect you very much for being a working single mother. I could never have done it. I was the right mother for M because I was a stay-at-home mom. I doubt I could have done as well if I had been working.

      And I strongly encourage you to write to your son. It is something of you that I am sure he will cherish forever.



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