Christine, second from right, with her family.
Christine has been living overseas with her husband for more than 20 years and is currently based in Shanghai. Both her children have returned to Singapore over the last three years. Her daughter is currently a doctor in Singapore, while her son is a second-year law student at the National University of Singapore. Describing herself as an “empty nester”, she now busies herself with church and community work. Here’s our interview with her during her trip back, where she talked about her experience being away from home.
How was it like for your kids growing up abroad?
Summer is usually a fun time for most international school kids with summer camps and trips, but my kids had to come back to school in Singapore every summer. They woke up early, put on their school uniforms, and attended full-day school. We continued to register them for school in Singapore during their primary school years, because as expats, our postings were never set in stone and we had to hold a place for them here. It was tough and I had to give them incentives to do the Singapore assessments sometimes. Each time before we left, we would stock up with lots of Singapore school text and assessments books — so much so, that they really disliked names like Fabian Ng and Andrew Er, as they associated them with tough Math books!
My daughter has been to eight schools. Sometimes, I wonder if she finished learning all the chapters of her textbooks. Thankfully, she somehow managed to fill in those gaps between the different schools. As third-culture kids, it is hard for my kids to foster close friendships. Having to move around the world, they had to also keep changing schools and keep making new friends. But this has helped to build up their character and make them more resilient, adaptable and independent.
How was your son’s experience returning to serve his National Service (NS)?
It helped that he has many older cousins and he could hear from them firsthand.
Before he enlisted, I prepared him mentally, saying: “You will meet all kinds of people in camp, and some may not understand you.” During his Basic Military Training, his first feedback to me was that he felt like he was in a foreign country as many of his campmates spoke in unfamiliar languages (e.g. Singlish, Malay). It was indeed a bit of a culture shock initially for him to return to Singapore on his own to do NS, but I think he learned a lot in camp. He was motivated to learn the Malay language on his own so that he could interact more effectively with his peers. He also met people from very humble backgrounds and felt for them; through this, he realised how privileged he is compared to many. NS provided him with a reality-check.
Having grown up overseas, do your children identify with being Singaporean?
Sometimes, they don’t really identify with being Singaporean, and they don’t quite understand Singlish. I still speak with my Singaporean accent after so many years, but my son speaks with a slight American accent.
As for my daughter, since she has been back working in Singapore, she has been picking up Hokkien and even a bit of Malay to communicate with her patients.
We didn’t really celebrate many of the Singapore festivals, as there just wasn’t the same buzz in many of the countries we lived in. My children only know of National Day because they get to come back during the summer. When they were doing summer immersion in Singapore schools, their schools brought them to one of the National Day Parade previews and the memory of that day stayed with them.
But my children have told me that they are proud of how efficient and clean their country is, and are proud to be called Singaporeans.
Do they have any Singaporean-isms (Singaporean traits)?
It’s more of Asian values. My daughter now gives me a monthly allowance and told my husband, “Mummy gave grandma money, so now, I give mummy money.” They are also taught from young to greet the host or the oldest person when visiting someone’s house.
Oh, and they have learned to have a “Plan B” whenever they have to make plans. It is a very Singaporean thing to be prepared. I think they have the best of both worlds. Growing up overseas, they have learned to be very resilient and open minded. They also have a broad perspective given their early global exposure and international education.
So now your children are back…
Their memories of Singapore were just about “study, study, study”, and I never thought that they would like to come back.
When my son came back to serve his National Service, I encouraged him to apply to local universities. He had acceptance to read Law at two British universities and two local universities, but he decided to stay on in Singapore, much to my surprise.
My daughter married an Englishman and they both moved to Singapore last year. I often tell people, “It is a good deal. Singapore gained two professionals through this union.”
The irony is, now both my kids are back but my husband and I are still abroad. Now they are the ones asking us when we’re coming back.
What was the hardest part of being away for so long?
Sometimes, I feel very disconnected when I’m back in Singapore. In the earlier days, other parents kept talking about education and it frightened me. The Singapore education sounded so daunting and I was worried that my kids were missing out — other kids were doing so much while my kids were just having fun in the American school. Maybe it was just the Singaporean “kiasu” DNA in me.
Towards the last two years before my father passed on, it was also quite a dilemma. I tried to return home more often to do my part. But it was really painful and difficult to be living abroad when your loved ones are sick. There was always the feeling of guilt that I didn’t do enough.
As an expat, you have to make friends for a support system. We have friends from many countries, from diverse backgrounds and all age groups – unlike our typical peers in Singapore.
What became clearer while you were living overseas?
Even though I lived in so many countries, I still like Singapore best. You cannot find a country that is so compact and efficient. Size is our biggest challenge, but also our biggest advantage. We can make decisions fast, and we execute fast.
Yes, Singapore is very expensive, but you cannot always cherry-pick. Most of the countries we were posted to are also expensive. We tell our kids that these countries are clean, but the cost of living is also very high. When they were young, we used the price of a burger as a cost-of-living comparison between countries that we lived in, just to give them a feel.
How do you think you can contribute back to Singapore?
Having lived and raised my children overseas for over 20 years in multiple countries, I can advise families who are relocating. My husband, who is tri-lingual like me, also has a wealth of experience in doing businesses abroad. I think there’s a lot to be tapped on, particularly for Singapore businesses looking to step into the international market. We are constantly acting as “unofficial ambassadors” of Singapore in promoting a positive image for our country.
Have you thought of returning home?
My husband loves his current job. We are in our mid-fifties and it is a privilege to be able to continue working. As expats, we know that we will have to leave for another country or return to Singapore at some point. If there is something exciting and challenging back home, I’m sure he would return.
I wish we could come home, but for the moment, he is just doing his job and China is where the market is.