If Gwyneth Paltrow's bodyguard and I ever got stuck in a lift I reckon we'd have plenty to talk about. It's not that I think I'd remind him in any way of his beautiful client (if only...) But I'm pretty sure he and I could find quite a few parallels between our day jobs. Sure, he looks after a towering goddess in designer threads whilst my charges are knee high wearers of Baby Gap. No doubt he is able to engage in mature conversation throughout the course of his day whilst I sing 'Twinkle Twinkle' on autopilot. But I can't help thinking that taking small children out and about in KL can sometimes feel like escorting (ever so slightly less glamorous) celebrities through their adoring public.
This is largely because, as far as I can tell, most Malaysians just love children. I can't think of an occasion here in Malaysia when I've felt my children haven't been welcome. Wherever we end up, be it a smart restaurant or a kampung fruit stall, there'll be a smiley uncle ready to share a high five or a friendly aunty wanting to stop for a chat. And it's lovely. But I'm still not sure the constant attention my children receive here is something I'll ever grow accustomed to, even if it is nearly always well-meant or down to good old curiosity.
My children often unwittingly find themselves in front of total unknowns' camera lenses (and to my horror I discovered that accompanying mothers often end up being snapped too, even when sporting humidity-induced frizzy hair). Then there are the cheek pinchers...
As with every other country around the world, there are also those who like to share their opinions. What is unique here is the incredible ability to generate compliments. I've now had two different strangers congratulate me on how clever my four month old is because, wait for it, she can open her eyes. I've also had people tell me how good my son's English is. I'm happy to hear anyone praise my child, though English language proficiency is sort of something you'd expect given that it's his mother tongue...
The compliments are lovely but the curiosity can be difficult at times. I once had to tame a ferocious three year old tantrum in the middle of KLCC while a crowd formed a circle around me and watched me flounder with open mouthed interest. By the end of the ordeal my toddler was calm and perhaps even basking a little in all the attention but I was close to tears and a tantrum of my own.
So what to do? How do you graciously accept the abundant interest but still allow your children their personal space? How not to offend but at the same time teach a child about 'stranger danger'? It's a tricky one and I'd love to hear what other parents do. My strategy with Mister Four is to explain that he should only speak to strangers if Mummy or Daddy is there too. And I never force him to engage in a way he doesn't want to. If a snap-happy aunty's camera-wielding is making him (or me) uncomfortable a firm shake of the head usually works. And people are generally understanding if I tell them my son is 'shy' when he doesn't feel like responding to the umpteenth 'handsome boy' comment of the day. Obviously it's never ever okay for anyone to frighten or intimidate a child (or parent) or make you feel unsafe.
Of course though, it's inevitable that there are times when we have well-meant but bizarre encounters that we just have to roll with. Take for instance the day I took my then two-year-old son to China Town here in KL. It was a particularly hot and sticky day. My poor little guy was long overdue a haircut and sporting a sweaty mop of unruly curls. As he and I waited on the street for my husband to collect us, a very dignified older gentleman walked down the footpath towards us. He took one look at my son and without a word dug a comb out of his pocket. He then proceeded to neatly arrange my little guy's hair into a comb over. He looked up satisfied, said 'That's better' and walked on his way. I was too stunned to comment and frankly I'm still not sure what to make of it. Over the top interest in my child? Or community service?
What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. And if Gwyneth Paltrow's bodyguard and I ever do end up in that lift I'll let you know what he has to say too.