A true taste of the multi-cultural expat life in the heart of Asia
Our expat parenting interview series is back and we are delighted to welcome along Mariam Ottimofiore. Raised as an expat child, Mariam takes us on her own adventure as an expat parenting across borders and cultures. Currently living in Dubai, she takes us back to where it all began, and particularly her time as a first time mum living in Singapore.
BG: So you’ve been an expat pretty much your entire life! Tell us your background and how you’ve come to end up in Dubai
MO: I was born in Karachi, Pakistan and I grew up as an expat child in the 80’s. My family’s first posting was to the Middle East, to Bahrain. Shortly after we moved to New York City, where I went to kindergarten and spent my early childhood. Thus I grew up in Karachi, Bahrain and NYC. We moved back to Pakistan after that and I continued to live in Karachi through my teenage and high school years. But when I turned 19, I decided to go back to the United States to attend college there.
I met my husband in the United Kingdom. We met at the university campus in Brighton, where we had both arrived for a study abroad year at the University of Sussex. I was an exchange student from Boston, he was an exchange student from Berlin. My husband is half Italian, half German – he was born and grew up in Germany. His job working in international shopping and logistics is what see’s us now moving around the globe.
We have 2 children. I have been pregnant and given birth in 3 countries – each time I would start a pregnancy in 1 country but give birth in another. I was pregnant with our 1st child in Denmark, but we relocated mid-pregnancy to Singapore, so my daughter was born in Singapore. 2 years later, I became pregnant in Singapore, only to find out we were being posted to Dubai mid-pregnancy! As a result, our son was born in Dubai, in the UAE.
BG: Moving from Denmark to Singapore – what were the first impressions of the new home where you’d be raising your family?
MO: So hot and incredibly humid! We had left Copenhagen in the dead of winter and arrived at this lush, tropical island right on the equator and struggled with the heat initially. I was also 5 months pregnant when we arrived, so it took a bit longer for my body to adjust. I loved Singapore. The people were amazing, there were many other expats, the locals were friendly, and although I was really homesick for Copenhagen, it felt amazing to be able to live on this beautiful island with so much to discover.
Our first few months were spent sorting out housing and looking for a gynaecologist/OBGYN and hospital where I could deliver our first baby. I had planned to give birth in Denmark so of course, now we had to do our research and start again in Singapore.
BG: And how did moving to Dubai feel in contrast to your arrival in Singapore?
MO: My first impression of Dubai was that we had landed in a city that didn’t seem finished since there were construction sites and cranes everywhere. I soon realized that this is how Dubai is – its growing at such a fast pace, there are constantly new projects and new buildings coming up overnight. Dubai was geographically the closest I had been to, since leaving Pakistan 15 years ago. It felt both familiar (in terms of the heat, the fact that I could talk to cab drivers in Urdu) and unfamiliar, because this was my first time living in the desert and in an Arab country.
We joke we always have sand in our shoes! I was incredibly homesick for Singapore when we arrived initially (in the middle of the August heat), again 5 months pregnant and struggling to keep a toddler entertained indoors, since she was so used to playing outdoors.
(See our previous interview with Laura for more on expat life with kids in Dubai)
BG: So tell us then about day-day expat life in Singapore. How much interaction did you have with local community and other expats, and how did you feel you fitted in culturally?
MO: In Singapore, we had lots of interaction with the local community and with other expats. In Singapore, the majority of the locals are of Chinese origin, so there were definitely differences between attitudes to children.
One thing I wasn’t used to in the beginning, was having random strangers come and take pictures of our daughter (often without asking us!). It’s a classic case of cultural differences – for many Singaporean Chinese they weren’t trying to be obtrusive or invade our personal space, they were simply expressing their love and curiosity for children! My daughter has curly hair, with ringlets at the bottom, and often Chinese aunties would stop us at the metro station and touch her hair in fascination and ask me if her curls were real. Straight hair is the norm for them, curls a novelty!
In Singapore, in local families it is common that extended family (grandparents, aunts and uncles) are involved in raising children, along with domestic help. In expat families, since extended families are living away, employing domestic help (a live-in helper) was the norm. (We were the exception to the norm!)
We picked up a lot of “Singlish” slang (a mixture of English with Mandarin/local touches). It took us a while to understand that Singaporeans operated on 2 basic principles: “Can lah!” meant yes, I can do that, or that can be done. “Can, can!” was also a positive affirmation. “Cannot lah!” meant absolutely not. After a while, we started speaking like this too – instead of asking “can you make it on Tuesday?” we’d ask simply “Tuesday, can?”. Our daughter as she grew up there, started learning Mandarin in nursery. She had 2 hours of Mandarin every day and could talk, sing and count in Chinese by the age of 2.
Singapore is an easy expat destination in Asia. So we didn’t have any formal cultural training, but like most expats in Singapore, we figured out customs and traditions and holidays on a trial & error basis and by exploring and learning from other expats.
BG: Having your first child in Singapore, what was your view on the health care system?
MO: I was pregnant in Singapore and gave birth to our daughter there. In general, I had a great birth experience. I developed some complications post-partum (I had post-partum pre-eclampsia) but the level of care I received was outstanding. Breastfeeding is not only supported but very encouraged in Singapore. I even attended specific breastfeeding classes at the hospital after giving birth.
Medical care in Singapore is excellent on all these fronts. The 2 things I struggled with during my pregnancy in Singapore were: 1) local Chinese culture is heavily influenced by superstition and timing. Many women opt for a planned c-section, in order to choose an auspicious date of birth for their baby. The medical culture thus in general, leans towards interventionism. I deliberately sought out a pro-natural gynaecologist/OBGYN in Singapore; someone who wouldn’t rush me into a C-section, especially if not medically necessary. There are many different but amazing doctors to choose from, so research is key. 2) It can be expensive to have a baby in Singapore, they tend to scan you and do numerous ultrasounds for instance. In Denmark, I was told to expect only 2 ultrasounds during the entire pregnancy.
The costs related to childbirth were included in our employment package, but we often had to pay for ultrasounds and medicines ourselves.
BG: What facilities and activities exist for young children in Singapore?
MO: Singapore is definitely one of the best places to raise a young family. There are tons of facilities for young children – playgrounds, Zoo, museums, parks (The Singapore Botanic Garden used to be our fav family spot), and a great mix of local kids and expat kids at clubs and birthday parties. Nursing rooms, diaper changing rooms are plenty abound so life on the go with a small baby was very convenient. My personal favourite Singapore invention: the splash pads and water parks for children to splash and play in no matter where you go! What could be better to beat the heat?
On the weekends you can enjoy the beaches (Sentosa), do picnics in the parks (Botanic Gardens, Gardens by the Bay, East Coast Park), scoot down Robertson Quay and there’s plenty of indoor entertainment and soft play areas too for when it rains!
BG: You left Singapore before school age, but what would your schooling options have been there as expats?
MO: In Singapore, children start school early. There is a lot of academic pressure on children, which is a constant source of conversation in parenting circles. It’s common for kids as young as 18 months to be enrolled in nursery, pre-school and kindergarten is from the ages of 2-6 and then 1st grade starts the year they turn 7.
Availability of school spots can be tough, since there is a lot of competition. Wait lists are quite usual. Curriculum-wise you will find absolutely everything in Singapore: both British and IB curriculum are the most popular.
The cost of schooling is expensive in Singapore. Expats on a fully fledged expat package get a schooling allowance, which helps to place their children in international schools (expat kids can also be admitted to local schools, but it’s tougher to get in). But many expats in Singapore are on local packages, which means they pay for schooling themselves.
MO: Singapore is an expensive city no doubt – the cost of living in general is high there (food is imported for instance which drives up the cost). Cars are prohibitively expensive, but if you eat local food, that’s considerably cheaper. A delicious hawker meal might only set you back 5SGD. So it really depends on your lifestyle. If you shop at the big grocery stores like Cold Storage you will pay more, but if you shop at wet markets or buy vegetables from Tekka Market in Little India, you would pay considerably less.
BG: And as the ‘trailing spouse’were you able to work?
I started working part-time in Singapore for a local lifestyle magazine. The best part was that I could work mostly from home, since writing and editing could be done from home. Work/life balance in Singapore would depend heavily on which industry you work in. If I had worked in the finance industry, I know my working hours would have been longer.
BG: And overall what were some of your favourite experiences from living in Singapore?
The food culture in Singapore is amazing. We used to love trying the local specialities (like Chilli Crab) and sampling the different Asian cuisines available (Thai, Malay, Indian, Pakistani, Balinese, Japanese etc).
The unique thing about Singapore is that not only are all major religious festivals known and respected, but they are fully endorsed public holidays for everyone, with the city fully decorated for each occasion, and the entire population partaking in every community’s special day. So while Chinese New Year was one of the biggest celebrations for us as a family living in Singapore, we also got days off for Eid, Diwali, Christmas and several Buddhist holidays.
It was our first taste of what living in a truly multicultural society was all about and we loved celebrating so many different festivals. Our favorite festivals were Vesak Day (to celebrate the birthday of Buddha) and the Dragon Boat Festival (a Chinese custom where teams pedal furiously in boats to the finish line to the beat of drums).
BG: Did you find there were many (if any!) challenges to your expat lifestyle in Singapore?
MO: To be honest, I think Singapore is one of the best places to become a parent, as we did. Our biggest challenge as parents there, was with cost of living. It can be expensive to raise a family in Singapore – it depends a lot upon what expat package you’re on, where you live and what your lifestyle is. We had to kerb our addiction to Italian and French cheese, to go easy on our wallets!
Our other biggest challenge was distance – Singapore is a long flight away from Europe, the US, and from Pakistan, so this meant there were fewer visits by family and friends.
BG: What recommendations would you give to potential expat parents looking to live in Singapore?
MO: Singapore has a great expat network, so we never felt isolated. There were so many of our friends who were going through exactly the changes we were – moving abroad, becoming parents abroad, trying to raise children in a different culture etc.
Some of the most child-friendly places to live in Singapore include Holland Road, Tanglin area and East Coast.
If you are looking for items to bring with you, some baby items like strollers, car seats are a lot cheaper in the United States. Everything is available in Singapore, but it’ll cost more.
Things that really helped me as a new mom in Singapore were all the amazing resources and groups that were available to join as parents. My favorite group was Storks Nest Singapore on Facebook, run by lactation consultant Jani Combrink. This group help to save my sanity on many a different occasion and is a must-join for any expat parent moving to Singapore. It’s a safe place and resource to ask questions regarding pregnancy, childbirth, hospitals, breastfeeding and raising children.
Another really helpful resource was the online and print publication Expat Living Singapore which had info on housing, healthcare, having a baby in Singapore, (a one stop shop for all expats living in Singapore.) I also can highly recommend joining The New Mothers’ Support Group if you arrive in Singapore pregnant such as I did and are looking to build friendships and a support network. They organise lots of different meetups, which are great to attend!
BG: Your whole experience sounds amazing! If you could some it up in a sentence, what was your favourite part?
MO: The ease of living there, great facilities, endless opportunities for travel to and around South East Asia, tropical weather all year round, and living in a truly model multicultural and multilingual society.
Thanks so much to Mariam for taking part in our expat parenting series. If you’d like to read more of Mariam’s adventures, she is also the blogger behind “And Then We Moved To”. 15 years, 7 countries and 3 continents later, she writes about life as an expat, raising multilingual and multicultural children in an East-meets-West marriage and about travelling the world. You can follow her work on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Want more great expat stories from around the globe? Check out the Global Parenting page
Just visiting Singapore with kids? Check out this comprehensive guide to Things to Do in Singapore by Mum on the Move and our family flying review of national carrier Singapore Airlines
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