By Monica Devi Lim | 19 Nov 2020
In the first of this 2-part story to end off 2020, Lim Monica Devi speaks to Singaporeans living all around the world and their children to find out how they keep the Singaporean spirit even when far away from home.
“My daughter speaks Dutch quite well. She is even happy to speak English. But when it comes to Indonesian, she is very slow,” moaned a friend recently. It didn’t matter that my friend is from Indonesia and not Singapore – where we live, there are so few of us from Southeast Asia, that we are happy to be able to connect with someone who relishes multi-flavoured, spicy food served with hot, steaming rice.
I knew that her daughter was following Indonesian lessons online so it could not be a lack of practice. I was curious and asked my friend, “Maybe your daughter doesn’t see the need for Indonesian where we live?” While probably true, this was something that Dian found hard to reconcile with. She loved Indonesian literature and was concerned that as Intan could not speak Indonesian fluently, the cultural heritage would be lost to her daughter.
I was curious if fellow Singaporeans living away from the island faced the same challenge. As a society of immigrants, how were we dealing with passing on our cultural heritage to our children? Did we pass on something uniquely rojak or did we pass on the culture from our forefathers?
Keeping Heritage Close to Heart
When one moves away from the society that one was born into, there are many things that one must be prepared to give up. As well as distance from friends and family, both the lack of familiarity with local languages and the absence of an innate knowledge of how a society works are factors that will inevitably influence one’s level of happiness.
Karen Lees-Tang, who has lived in Haarlem (the Netherlands) for the last 7 years, made the move when her husband was offered a position as a professor at the University of Amsterdam. “It was hard moving 6,000 miles away to a country with a 4-month-old baby, not knowing a single soul and not being able to understand Dutch. We had to figure everything out from scratch! Google Translate was our best friend.”
Closer to home, Ng Wee Sim who moved to Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) earlier this year, has three children attending international schools where English is used, making the integration somewhat easier. “They have Vietnamese culture classes to learn the language and festivals, etc. The culture here is similar to what we have in Singapore as the local Chinese community is quite big and the way of life is similar to Singapore.”
Maggie Chung Sook Kueng has lived in the Netherlands for 26 years with her Dutch husband and confesses that “language, cultural and demographic differences were and still are barriers. I don’t think full integration is possible unless one discards one’s roots. One has to think “out of the box” very often. I learnt the language, reschooled, reacclimatised. Entering the labour market was my game changer. Singaporean remains Singaporean – we need to be productive to feel productive.”
According to Chin Su-Ann who now lives in Alsace (France) after a stint in Basel (Switzerland), the younger the children are, the easier it is for them to integrate. “We moved away from Singapore in 2010. We arrived in Switzerland in May and when June came around, my daughter Mary-Ann celebrated her 7th birthday with a picnic and games in a park with 20 other children.”
Siti Wilden who moved to London with her 2 younger children when her husband found a job there, agrees. “The children seem to be having a wonderful time. I stopped being the Asian ‘tiger mom’ and became the cool relaxed mom. I no longer enforce my hourly revision with them.”
On the other hand, Shermane Tan who has called Soest (the Netherlands) home since 2018 wishes that exams were taken more seriously. “The benefits of raising children out of Singapore – they play a lot at school and they are raised very happy. They go on trips to learn things rather than from the textbooks – but I do wish that the academics here can be a little more structured like in Singapore.”
The Integration into Somewhere New
Apart from adjusting to a slower pace of life, how else are the children (and parents) integrating into the new society?
“Sharing ideas and speaking up,” contributes Junieta Magdalena M Reduan who has lived in Odense (Denmark) for over 2 decades. “Here you are encouraged to ask everything outside of learning books from a very young age. You learn to question everything and make decisions based on your opinion and not wait for an authoritative figure to set something out for you. When my son started in kindergarten, his opinion as a 4-year-old mattered.”
Furthermore, as there are few countries in the world that enjoy the convenience and connectivity that Singapore affords to its residents, public transport, or the lack thereof, was an element that kept appearing in the answers of many of the respondents.
Now a mother of two, Karen advises that, “The first step to getting integrated into Dutch society is to ride a bike everywhere!”
Nimmi Agnes Jayathurai who lives in Houston (USA) recalls one of her first challenges when she first arrived in the country was to re-learn driving. “I had not driven for many years in Singapore. I came to the realization that I had to master driving when I needed to send my son to day care and drive myself to work.”
Food is the way to every Singaporean’s Heart
But once more settled in the new country, it is inevitable that aspects of our island home creep into our exchanges with the locals. Often, the first thing that we share is our fusion cuisine, sometimes unintentionally making our dishes a little too spicy for the natives of the lands where we now reside. Even more important to many Singaporeans who live away from the island, is that we share this heritage of a multi-ethnic society with our offspring.
Su-Ann recalls packing Asian lunches for her children to bring to school. “Often during school trips when the children had to bring their own lunches, the other kids would have packed sandwiches but our kids would bring fried bee hoonor fried rice. My daughter Mary-Ann’s best friend now is French and comes over for meals very often – she has even learnt to cook nasi lemak and how to use chopsticks.”
Nimmi, whose 12-year-old son Vijay, was born in the United States, agrees. “New friends are always open to trying a tasty dish of chicken curry with roti prata! Furthermore, Vijay is my trusty sous chef in the preparation of the humble bubur cha cha.”
As she runs a small catering company, Junieta’s son is often exposed to Singaporean dishes. “My son Johannes was born in Denmark 14 years ago. The only thing Singaporean about him is that he eats anything and everything that’s Singaporean, sometimes even using his fingers to eat and drinking soup from the bowl. And yes, he likes Maggi instant noodles!”
Siti recounts her pride when her daughter’s friend praised her cooking. “Once my daughter, Sofia who is 10, requested that I cook honey chicken as it is her friends’ favourite. I did my version of honey chicken and her friend thought it was nicer than the ones she’d had at the local Chinese restaurants.”
Cultural fusion comes easy for Maggie’s son, 10-year-old Dylan. “I speak Dutch fluently and take part in a lot of Dutch activities so it’s not obvious that my son is of mixed parentage. When it comes to food, pandan cake is one of all the children’s favourite despite its colour. So are Dutch pancakes with icing sugar. They are often requested for parties – so I put both on the table. At dinner, there’s often Dutch-marinated chicken wings, hot dogs with French fries and Hainanese chicken rice with garlic broccoli.”
To be Continued.
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About Monica Devi Lim
Monica has lived away from the island for just over 15 years. Due to COVID19 and a new job, Monica will have a non-tropical Christmas in Belgium with her Danish husband in 2020. She’s looking forward to expanding her love of cooking and experimental flavours over the holidays. Upon advice, she has stocked up on layers of clothes but will try not to look like the Michelin Man. She’s always up for a good laugh – reach her at email@example.com with your story.