A nomad mother in Singapore

Thursday, 3 April 2014


I used to dread the school holidays. With three kids around the house all day, every day, it was such a relief when the eldest started going to school increasing amounts I would flinch whenever there was a prolonged period I’d have them all back at home.

Now, with the eldest two in full time primary, the youngest in morning pre-school and me happy in a three day –unpaid but therefore flexible- job, and on top of that the after school activities, swimming lessons and private mandarin tutoring, I sometimes hardly see them. The prospect of two weeks with the kids without us even leaving Singapore did not daunt me. At all.

It was not that I necessarily planned it that way, I did plan a weekend away at Bali for Easter. It was just that I had not realised that the Easter holidays ended a week before Easter. Or, that Easter Monday was not even a national holiday in Singapore. 

The kids were a bit confused at first. It’s a holiday! Where are we going? I could stop them just in time from packing their bags to explain we were not going anywhere. We were going to stay in Singapore for two weeks. At home.

After some initial grumbling they got the hang of it. With no school bus to run for, and daddy starting later every day as well, we would sleep in. We would breakfast together, lounge around the house, and see what we’d do. Now it’s Friday already and we haven’t even managed the Zoo yet. We were too busy doing nothing.

We played with the neighbour’s kids, hosted sleepovers, went to the playground by the Bay with friends, cycled our new bike, played some more, visited friends with a pool, and build uncountable towers of kapla. One day I rushed home early from a day at work I had not been able to avoid, to pick up the kids for a promised session at the beach I had cancelled a meeting for, only to find the house deserted. Less then an hour later the quiet was over, and I found myself hosting an impromptu art session for nine young kids in the garden. 

Today the gardener build us a vegetable pad, which we sowed with five kids and several packets of seeds, in a way we will never be able to identify what’s what when they sprout. I tidied up, and now the house is empty again, as the flock of kids has moved to another place, another house, so I can sit down for a minute and write this down. This story of the amazing vacation where we stayed at home and did nothing. We never did so much.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Be nice, lah!

Talk of the town: An Ang Moh (foreigner, literally redhead) has been negative about Singapore in the press. Again. Singaporeans would be uncompassionate and uncourteous. The attack is not coming from an arrogant British banker this time, but from a British lady. A pregnant lady. 

In a column on the BBC website, freelance writer Charlotte Ashton writes about her experiences in Singapore. She loves it, initially. Until one day, a couple of months pregnant, she feels unwell in the MRT. Nauseous and weak. Does someone offer her a seat? No. 

Charlotte describes how, for the fifteen minutes of her journey, she crouches on the floor, head in hands. It makes her very unhappy. Singapore, she writes, has let me down.

My thoughts immediately go back to myself, pregnant and sick, in the London underground. Did people offer me a seat in this country that is supposedly so polite? Often not. I too, have spent an uncomfortable journey on the wobbly floor of the tube, my piercing eyes trying to force someone of their seat.

Did I blame Great Britain? Did I feel the country had let me down? Or was I just mad at that car full of commuters too busy with their phones and e-readers to notice me?

A friend who commuted daily on the underground had a good trick, a button: Baby on Board. It did help, she said, most of the time. I was never pregnant in the Netherlands, nor in Singapore, but I think not giving up seats for fellow passengers, pregnant or not, is a universal problem. Like many expats, Charlotte Ashton sees her home country through homesick stained pink glasses.

Singaporeans fight back. Netizens throw generalist platitudes as bad as Charlottes. In online comments, they wish her back home, together with the rest of the complaining bunch. Prime minister Lee Tsien Loong comments the article is a good reminder for everyone to be more gracious and kind to others.

Yes, customs are different in every country. Everyone should value that, guests and hosts alike. I propose a button, in good Singlish: Everyone be nice, lah!

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Milestone splash

She jumps in, and splashes away. Sometimes a real stroke can be spotted in her movements; sometimes it’s a doggie paddle. The teacher encourages her, smiling, and she plods on, swimming the whole half lap she is supposed to. It is Jasmijn’s first swimming lesson in the ‘big kids lane’, where no parents have to go in to support their offspring. I stand on the edge of the pool, my guts clenched with mixed feelings.

Pride, off course, for my daughter who just turned three, and now swims her half lane independently, without flinching. Elation as well, as I have been looking forward to this moment for years. The moment that the last of my kids would be able to swim, and I no longer had to join them in the pool for their classes. This moment signals the end of an era. The era of parent and child classes, where we have to sing ‘wheels on the bus’ and ‘sleeping bunnies’, while our kids splatter and splosh, learning to be confident under water and to do simple strokes with pancake-, and crocodile arms. 

My thoughts go back to those first classes with Tijm, in a sweaty English public pool smelling of chlorine, where the baby pool was cold enough for Tijm to turn blue at the end of the lesson, before we bundled him off to the hot and sweaty changing cubicles which were always too pokey to move with our small crowd. 

From there to the sunny outside pools of Singapore with their icily air-conditioned changing rooms was a big improvement. I remember Linde’s first lesson, who, being too old for parent and child classes, was encouraged to ‘jump right in’ and swim to the teacher in the middle of the pool. Before I could shout ‘no, she cannot swim!’ Linde was in the water and had, I am still not sure how, reached the teacher.

From Jasmijn’s classes I mostly remember the cloudy afternoons, where the kids and I managed to feel chilly even in thirty degrees, and the sparkly blue pool just did not look inviting enough. Thirty odd years after my own frustrating experiences, I still don’t like swimming lessons.

So here I stand, my toes dipping in the cool water, together with my friend whose daughter trudges next to mine. We speak, jokingly, of afternoons of leisure, of poolside gin and tonics, of the books and magazines we could bring next week.
And I know I am happy, deeply happy, with this new milestone. But somehow I can not ignore this nagging feeling deep down, that makes me just the tiniest bit sad. The feeling that it all goes too fast, that it will never come back again. That I will miss my little monkey jumping off the edge to swim to me, her little arms grabbing my neck and hugging my wet body tight. That I might even, one day, miss 'the wheels on the bus.' 

Gin and tonic, anyone?

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Rainless rainforest

Singapore is in the tropics. It is hot and wet. Even in the dryer season it rains almost every day. In the wet season it just rains a bit longer, and a bit harder. With the kind of hammering showers that will soak you to your underwear whilst running the twenty meters it takes to reach your car. Luckily, it never lasts long, and the heat dries you almost as fast. That is Singapore. Hot. And wet. 

It is still hot, but now, Singapore is dry, it has been for months. Fifty-five days, to be precise. And I can be precise, because the last drop of rain in our garden fell on January 11th. We were annoyed, because it rained on Jasmijn’s birthday party. We had no idea how much we were going to miss the rain.

Our garden, that is normally a muddy mess, is dry and barren. The earth is red and cracked, making us feel like we live in Africa. The lawn is bald and arid.
Despite daily spraying, green leaves droop down withered and brown. The jungle has lost its lustre. The normally lush and impenetrable vegetation seems scant and dusty. The first bush fire in McRitchie Nature Reserve has been spotted, less than a mile from our house. A bushfire! In a tropical rainforest! 

Most Singaporeans seem unperturbed by this longest dry spell on record. Inside their high rise flats they turn up the air-conditioning a notch. The news is slowly, slowly picking up the story. Talking about the weather? It’s just not done, in this city where lives are lived inside, apart from those crazy expats in their forest bungalow, which makes taxi drivers wince when they turn into our road. 

Singapore has enough water, for now. The large central reservoirs are emptier, not empty yet. Desalination plants run overtime. Neighbour Malaysia has not yet closed the water taps, despite problems with their own, same drought. The other neighbour, Indonesia, is still struggling with the aftermath of the flooding of its capital, just a few islands away.

The first rain is predicted for the end of the month. We wait. We spray the plants, and our heated kids. Tomorrow twenty people will visit us for a barbecue. It must surely rain?

photo by my friend Andrea Galkova

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Pangolin down the drain

This morning I heard screaming, first Indah, our helper, and then my husband. I rushed over, thinking Indah had been bitten by a snake. Or attacked by a monkey. But no. When I arrived at the back of the house, I realised these were screams of excitement. 

In the concrete drain that surrounds our house, under the metal roster, we saw something wriggle. Something scaly. My heart leapt. I had been looking out for this creature ever since we found a dead one in the bushes behind our garden, it’s fishy nauseating smell permeating the house. It was a pangolin. 

The pangolin was rolled in a ball, and lying quite comfortably in the narrow concrete channel. Was it asleep? Was it stuck? We looked closer, at the scaly body. There was its nose, there its tail. And another nose. There were two pangolins in our drain!

One the one hand, they seemed quite comfortable, on the other hand, they did look like they might be stuck, the exit of this drain being far away at the other side of the house. We did fancy a better look as well, so we decided to lift the metal roster of the drain. 

The two pangolins, mother and baby, were amazing. Beautiful. What a Monday morning surprise. The pangolins were as surprised as we were, disturbed from they morning nap, and sniffed at us curiously. 

Pangolins are friendly, toothless animals that eat ants and termites. A trail of ants must have led them down our drain. They are mainly nocturnal, and our drain would have seemed a comfortable burrow to snooze in. The back of the pangolin is covered in hard scales, which felt hard to the touch when we stroked it, each scale hard like a tortoise shell. 

Their bellies are soft, and when in danger they roll up into a ball. This defensive behaviour does not prove very successful, as it makes them easy to pick up, and pangolins are extensively poached, especially by the Chinese. The flesh, apparently, tastes great, and the scales are used in Chinese medicine to treat anything from cancer to rheumatism. Because of this, the Sunda pangolin is now critically endangered in Singapore. Yet there are two of them sleeping in our drain, right now. 

Pangolins can eat up to 200.000 ants in just one day. That makes them far better at pest control than the company we use. They are welcome guests. We hope they will stay for a while!

If you are lucky to see a pangolin or similar rare mammal somewhere in the wild in Singapore, you can report your sighting here, to help researchers learn more about their behaviour, so they can protect them better. More information on the status of Singapore's Sunda Pangolin you can find here

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Dreams in a hat

Some women know exactly what they want. Bernadette is one of those. From the determined look in her eyes you can see she is not to be trifled with. Others need a little help finding their way in life. 

During a ‘Dreams’ workshop, we are playing a game called ‘Dream in a Hat’. Everybody has to jot down three or four dreams for the future 
on a small piece of paper, their own or imagined, crazy or realistic, everything goes. All our dreams get folded into little squares, and thrown into my floppy pink hat. I give the hat a good joggle. We are going to take turns picking a piece of paper from the hat, to see what dream fate will deal us. 

The first girl in the circle, Rosie, opens her piece of paper and grins. ‘What did you get?’ I ask. ‘Show us.’
She holds up the paper in front of her: ‘My own house’ it says, in green felt pen capitals. 
‘And, do you like it? Do you want to keep it? Tell us why.’

The rule of the game is, that if you do not like the dream you pick, you can have another one. But you have to wait until everyone else has had her pick and the hat comes back to you. Dreams don’t come true overnight. You need to be patient. Luckily, there are enough good dreams in the hat for everyone.
I can guess what she is going to say. Building their own house is one of the favourite dreams of the domestic workers I teach this workshop for. 
And yes, Rosie nods, she likes this dream. She hugs the paper to her chest. Everybody else nods as well, and we don’t spend much time on the explanation. It is a good dream to have, and it is not unrealistic either for these women to build a house in their home country with their Singapore wages. 

The next girl, Ratna, picks her dream. ‘A good school for my son’ it says. She shrugs. ‘I don’t have a son,’ she says. ‘I don’t want this one.’ 
I take the dream from her, and hold it out to the group. ‘Anyone wants this one? Who has a son?’ Many hands go up, so I say, ‘ok, why don’t you share it.’ 
Ratna will have to wait until the hat comes back next round. We match up some nice dreams with happy girls. ‘Be with my family’, ‘Take my kids on a beach holiday’ and another ‘Build my own house.’ One girl passes on ‘Start a restaurant’ as she does not like cooking. She would prefer to start a cleaning business.

The hat has now reached Bernadette. She reads out her dream and sniggers. ‘I don’t like this one,’ she says, dangling the note from the tips of her fingers. I take it from her hand and read it out loud. 

It says: ‘plant a beautiful garden’
‘What is it you don’t like about it?’ I ask. ‘Don’t you like plants and flowers?’
Bernadette shrugs. ‘Sure. But I don’t want a garden. I want a farm. I want rice paddies and an orchard. What use is a garden?’

‘Well, a garden can be beautiful to walk in. It can make you happy. I would gladly take that dream from you, I love gardens. But I think you should keep it. Sometimes you need to start with a small dream, and take it from there. You can plant vegetables in your garden, sell them for a profit, and expand your farm later.’
Bernadette nods hesitantly. The hat goes further, handing out happy families, bright futures for children, a seamstress shop, foreign travel, nice new employers and many more dreams. Ratna gets ‘to become a business woman’ and keeps it, sharing with us she would like to start a clothes shop. 
At Bernadette’s second turn she gets ‘to raise my own chicken for eggs’. 
‘See,’ I say. ‘Your farm is already expanding into the egg business.’
Bernadette looks uncertain, but then everyone laughs, and Bernadette too. 

In the last round, someone generously share’s her dream ‘buying a piece of land’ with Bernadette. The three pieces of paper Bernadette now holds make a nice farming business. 

‘I have three now,’ she says. ‘Can I keep them all?’
‘Off course,’ I smile. ‘You can never have too many dreams.’ 

I love it how this game, with all its randomness, always teaches some important life lessons. It teaches better than I ever could. At the end of the workshop, when we share our vision boards of our dreamed future, Bernadette tells us her real dream is to help other people, like she did a few years back when she worked for a charity that assisted victims of one of the many typhoons that hit the Philippines. ‘Once I have the farm running and my kids are provided for, I will work for charity as well. That is my real dream.’

Everyone applauds Bernadette. I do too. The hat had given me 'to be a good mother for my kids', which I liked, and kept. In my mind I add Bernadette's real dream to mine. You can never have too many dreams. 

Sunday, 2 February 2014


They are not easy to avoid when you live in Asia with young children. For me, amazing as they can be, they stir up a lot of mixed feelings. It doesn’t matter were you go. All luxury resorts are very much alike. 

The first thing I notice when we alight the speedboat on the pristine beach, are the brightly sunburnt tourists strolling on the beach. By the pool, more of them lie on sun loungers, covered in tanning lotion, like lobsters on a grill. They make me want to climb on my soapbox and announce: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, there has been an amazing new invention: sunscreen. It is remarkable, revolutionary!’

If you look a bit further along the pool, under the trees, you can spot the Asian guests, covered by long sleeved swimsuits and wide brimmed hats, rubbing on the whitening lotion.

And us? We search for a spot in the middle, in the half shade. We are expats, off-white enough to distinguish ourselves from the people in our home countries. And, as expats do, we liberally apply factor 50, to avoid painful red shoulders and cancer. Or worse: being mistaken for a tourist.

Finding a spot close enough to the pool to keep an eye on our splashing kids does not prove easy. Not that there are that many people around the pool. No, only a few beds are occupied. Most are merely covered by a towel. A towel spread widely, sometimes to cover two beds in one go. A towel more pristine than the beach. Before breakfast is over, all the good spaces are taken, often by people who do not appear until lunchtime. Why is it that staying in places like this brings out the worst in people? When we stay in small, friendly places we always make many new friends. In large resorts, I make enemies.

We spot one empty bed, by the poolside. Quickly I spread my towel and pile our bags and toys on the floor. Before I can sit down, a lady returns to the bed next to me. She starts swearing in a language I don’t understand, then switches to rudimentary English. I stole her husband’s sunbed. Picking up my towel, I state the bed was clearly empty, and that her husband is nowhere to be seen. She then accuses me of stealing her towel, and rushes to get a new one to cover the reclaimed bed. Later, we spot her husband, playing cards on the terrace, his towel draped on the back of his chair. He does not return poolside that day.
We find some chairs behind the pool, and have a great time swimming and relaxing.

In short, we had a great break. We did what we came to do: absolutely nothing. We lay in the sun, swam, sailed, made a boat trip and ate tasty, albeit bland food, asking for extra chilli on the side. We recharged our batteries. Can I say we have been to Thailand? Hardly. No, we went to resort-land.