“I’m staring out into the night, trying to hide the pain I’m going to the place where love And feeling good don’t ever cost a thing And the pain you feel’s a different kind of painWell, I’m going home, back to the place where I belong And where your love has always been enough for me I’m not running from, no, I think you got me all wrong I don’t regret this life I chose for me But these places and these faces are getting old So I’m going home, well I’m going home….”
“Home” by Daughtry
Last Friday as I drove away from my last tennis match as a “Soaring Swede”, this song came on the radio (Singapore fact: the radio here almost always plays American soft pop and rock from the 1970-2000’s, I think it must be the karaoke culture as while cheesy, these songs are all very fun to sing). I was already emotional from saying goodbye to my teammate as i felt a foreboding that it might be the last time. There were a lot of rumors circulating that additional restrictions were coming from our increased community covid cases. You see, Singapore has a 0 community case policy, 5 is tolerable if they can trace them, we had been a few days in the teens and twenties with a few dreaded, unlinked cases. Everyone knew something was coming. That afternoon they put us in what the government calls “Phase 2 heightened alert”. All restaurants were to close and there was a new 2 person rule. Only 2 people per day can visit your home and you can only be in public with 1 other person (families are to travel in pairs, keeping 2-3 meters in between). Strangely, retail stores remained open but mall capacity was reduced to 25%. Work was to be remote. Happily, the kids were still in school. These restrictions were in place until June 13th.
We had planned to stay until July and then travel on our way home. But these new restrictions were a reality check for us. We would be staying in Singapore to be holed up in our condo when we could go home now and not live this way. But school was still open, so we thought, we’ll move up our return date to the first week of June so Liam can be here through his 5th grade graduation on June 1st.
Then Sunday night they closed the schools and went remote effective on Wednesday. That was our trigger to accelerate the move. Monday morning I confirmed with all the teachers that our kids would not be penalized by leaving 3 weeks early (they will not be) and then we set the wheels in motion to fly out Sunday, May 23rd at 1am Singapore time.
Needless to say this week has been a crazy, emotional rollercoaster that I think we’re all going to take time to recover from. Luckily the kids have been able to see all of their close friends to say goodbye (huge thank you to their families who made this possible). We have made good friends here and have lived through a time that will be seared into us forever. I won’t say goodbye, just see you soon…
A little over a week ago, my lovely friend, Minh asked me what we were excited to do in our last few weeks here. I couldn’t really think of anything. You see, we’ve covered almost every square inch of this little red dot. We did everything we wanted to here. It’s time to go home.
We will all leave a piece of our hearts here in Singapore. I’m sad for the bitter ending to what was an experience that was 💯 different than we planned, but rewarding in so many ways. We are all different and I think better people than we were 18 months ago when we arrived, so for that, I will always be grateful to my adopted home of Singapore…
No country is immune… as of Saturday, Singapore is taking a step back. Back to phase 2 until may 30th. While it’s really only a minor reset (group sizes reduced to 5, 2 social outings per day, some places closed, work from home back to 50%) it mentally feels bad. It feels like we did in March 2020. The uncertainty, the constant pressure to “behave” and follow all the covid restrictions, and most negatively, the xenophobic reactions. We are luckier than most as we are leaving soon and if Singapore goes into a full lockdown, we will pull forward our move and come home sooner.
The biggest change is the increased border restrictions. They are the strictest they’ve been since last April. Unless you enter from one of 6 countries (think Australia, New Zealand…) you will have to get government approval and then quarantine 21 days in a hotel room (up from 14 days). Yesterday they added the wrinkle that they will be canceling all approval entries for pass holders (this includes expats) through July 5th. So any expats looking to go home for the summer are in a VERY difficult position. I just feel bad. This isn’t what any expat signed up for. The sadness is palpable and it’s hard to know how this will ever end.
What precipitated this step back? Well we currently have 9 active “clusters” of covid. In a country where every case is traced and rooted out, this is not acceptable. The other 2 wrinkles are, some of the cases are the variant from India and a good amount of them are fully vaccinated (before you smugly think we are using a Chinese vaccine, we have only Pfizer and moderna available here). The good news is all the break through cases have been either Asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic. The bad news is it’s looking like they might still be transmitting the disease. Ultimately it’s frustrating and hard to know how covid will be contained when it’s testing what is arguably the best contact tracing system in the world and the best vaccines in the world. A few weeks ago it was looking possible that Asia would start loosening its border restrictions, but India is a setback for not only them, but definitely Asia, if not the world. It makes me happy to be heading back to my house with a yard, privacy and space. Singapore has definitely lulled us into a false sense of security and this has been a big wake up call that this is not going away soon.
Happily though, life keeps moving forward. Avery’s swim and taekwondo were unaffected by the restrictions. Sadly, Ella’s art class is canceled for now and Liam’s soccer matches are on hold. Oddly, Liam is heading to Universal Studios today with a friend and that seems a go. The pool remains open and most importantly, school looks to be ok to remain open through the end of the year on June 10th. So while we will try to live a little smaller for now, we will keep on living our lives.
Yesterday we said goodbye to Janeth. I haven’t really written about Janeth here, because it’s difficult to explain “helper culture”. Now that I’m coming out the other side of my yearlong experiment, let me see if I can try to capture the experience.
Janeth has been our family’s foreign domestic worker for the past year. I hired her at the end of February 2020 and she started with us the first week of our lockdown, last April. Janeth is 38 years old and originally from the Isabela province in the Philippines. She has one grown daughter who works in South Korea. Her salary here in Singapore helps to support her family farm. They grow bananas and pineapples. She’s very proud of the support she has been able to provide by working abroad. Janeth has worked in Singapore for about 8 years. We were her 3rd expat family. Prior to working in Singapore, janeth worked as a aid in a school in the Middle East. Janeth lived with us for the past year (most homes in Singapore have a small space for the helper to live, though some share a room with a child or even sleep in a storage closet). We paid Janeth S$800 a month salary, provided for all her food/toiletries and gave her an extra S$50 a month to use on her day off. We pay the Singapore government a S$300 levy each month for her employment (expats pay significantly more than locals for the levy). FDW’s work everyday except Sunday and public holidays. For our family, Janeth cleaned, did laundry, cooked dinner, and did some of the grocery shopping.
How does employing a helper work? Having household help is VERY common in Asia. In some countries they are live in (like Singapore) and some they can live out. Singapore has very strict immigration laws. If you are not a citizen (or permanent resident), your immigration status is depend at on your employment. For example, our family is “sponsored” by Ryan’s company. All 5 of us are tied to his employment pass. If he were to lose his job, we would have 30 days for him to either find a new job, or to leave Singapore. In Janeth’s case, I am her Employer. Her ability to remain in Singapore is my responsibility until the end of her 2 year contract, at which time she can extend the contract, finish with our family and find a new employer or go home. Under her contract we are responsible for all her care (including medical). We have insurance, but it is catastrophic in nature. She is required to have medical checkups 2 times a year where they check for pregnancy, STD’s and tuberculosis. If any of these are found, she would be immediately deported. Either of us can end the contract before 2 years (as we did) but they must give 4 weeks notice (this can be as short as 2 weeks in some contracts). In that time if janeth cannot find new employment, it is our responsibility to deport her or sign her over to an employment agency. In Singapore your helper is required to live with you to prevent them from living in improper circumstances. They are also forbidden from being employed in any other way (no side jobs). If caught, they can be deported. While Singapore has been trying to make the terms of employment more equal between the FDW and the employer, inevitably the employer has more control of the situation. Because their employment is “invisible” they are often exploited (working too many hours, poor living conditions, not provided enough food). While it is good for stability to work for a local family, they like to work for expats as we typically pay more for less work and more freedoms. Singaporeans often accuse expats of “spoiling” the market. This accusation is not completely false…
Why does Singapore have helpers? There has always been domestic help in some capacity in Singapore. When the Chinese came, they brought their “amah’s” with them. Also, Malaysian women were also frequently employed as domestic help. But after WWII and Singapore’s independence, most domestic tasks had fallen back on wives, mothers and grandmothers and remained that way until 1978. In 1978, Singapore, in an effort to have more women enter the work force, created the existing “maid scheme”. They began importing workers from the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma (Myanmar), India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Cambodia. As of 2017, 59% of eligible Singaporean women participated in the workforce (the US is about 57%). In December 2020, there were approximately 240,000 foreign domestic workers employed in Singapore.
How do I feel about helpers now? I’d say I’m just as confused about it as I was a year ago when we started this journey. Some days I think employing Janeth was my biggest regret of our time here. But I don’t like feeling that way. I like to look at it as a lesson learned.
Don’t get me wrong, having someone to take care of all your household tasks is amazing. As another woman I met here said: when people ask her what it’s like having a helper, she responds, “it’s like being my husband”. What does she mean? Having a helper is a bit like having your very own wife. Can’t make the bus pickup? Send your helper! Want to go out with the girls? No need to double check if the husband can cover, you have a helper! No time to stop at the store? Helper!
So what’s the downside, that all sounds pretty great, right?!? Well, it all depends on your helper. These are woman that have left their home, families and children not 💯 by choice. Many of them have had traumatic childhoods. Their home countries don’t have suitable employment for their populations, so their solution is to export their people. Many helpers take great pride in what their money is able to do at home. They buy land, build homes and educate their children. But many also end up divorced, lonely and feeling used by those they love. This is a career choice of last resort. Their mental state generally reflects this. Add COVID-19 to the equation and you get the idea.
On a day to day level, my biggest frustration was the lack of initiative Janeth showed. She had to be told VERY directly what to do. Helpers are trained to be this way. This is not an employment method I am comfortable with. I had thought when she told me she “loves to cook and is a very good cook” (also backed up by a reference) That she would take ownership of this, introduce us to a wider variety of Asian/Filipino food. Instead, we devolved into eating simple, basic meals day after day. Also, I mistakenly took an American attitude with her. “You get your work done, your time is your own” was my mantra. Well, there’s a reason that is not the norm here. More and more time was taken and less and lass work was completed. Most days she completed her tasks in about 2-3 hours, then had the rest of the day to herself. Naively, we thought she would want to take care of us and grow attached to us. While I know she did like us, I can’t help but feel she liked the easy life we provided more than us as people.
Finally, I think I have a fundamental issue with this being the solution to allow women to participate in the work force. While it does free you up to work (or be a “tai tai” in my case (a “tai tai” is a woman of means with no job and little responsibility)). My issue is it perpetuates the patriarchal society that is pervasive over the world, but very much here in Asia. Instead of trying to more equitably divide care giving tasks, it continues to ride on the backs of women. It just pushes the tasks down to a “lower class” of women, further exacerbating class divisions. Mentally, as a woman who gave up my career 13 years ago to care for my family, is that my only worth, a menial employee that caps out at $800 a month? That’s a tough one for me.
Maybe if we had hired a different helper, I would have a different assessment. And in Singapore, a VERY first world nation surrounded by emerging nations, of course this is the solution to getting women in the work force. But I naively hope that in the future there is a solution that doesn’t rely on the poverty of their third world neighbors.
I wish Janeth nothing but well with her new family. I hope they are lovely to her and give her the freedom to pursue her interests. I hope she gets home to visit her family soon… I hope they stay healthy. For good or bad, she has imprinted on our lives and will now always be a part of our Singapore chapter.
It seems that Singapore’s mission, while closed off to the world is to continue to rebuild and improve itself. This past week, a new giant section of the orchid garden opened. Singapore is famous for their orchids. When a head of state visits or a VIP, the botanists will create a new orchid hybrid and name it for that person as a gift. They are serious here about their orchids. The new orchid section in the botanic gardens opened last week. There was a queue of over 2 hours last weekend to get in. Being the “tai tai” that I am, I went on Monday morning at 9 am and basically had the place to myself.
One of the scariest parts of moving here was worrying how Ella would respond to the move. She had been struggling for a long while with debilitating anxiety. I had always thought of her as my orchid child.
But then, just like an orchid, when we planted her here in Singapore, she thrived! while she still has struggles, overall she’s a much happier and well balanced person here. As we look to move her home, we are very aware that we need to keep her “planted” in the right place for school. We’re hopeful a new school at home will be the soft landing she needs to keep her orchid growing in a weed like way. Meanwhile her more dandelion-ish siblings will be back to public school and hopefully they will remain the hearty dandelions they have been throughout.
Considering last year we spent spring break during the circuit breaker, this year was a dream! Since we did the cruise just 2 weeks ago, we decided no staycations. We did find lots to do around town and had a lot of rest time. However, we’re starting to get restless to get off the little red dot…. Summers coming!
When this cruise was launched in November, I SWORE we wouldn’t do it. Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas and Genting’s Dream cruise are currently the only active cruises in the world. After all the cruise horror shows of last spring, who in their right mind would do this, I thought… And sure enough, in December, one of the cruises has to turn around (if you Google the cruise, this is basically all that will come up) as they had a suspected covid case. But what the news didn’t report was the case was a false alarm and Royal Caribbean boldly sent out the very next cruise, confident their safeguards had worked. Since then roughly 82,000 people have safely cruised. We now know many people who have gone, some multiple times. The resounding response was, in covid times, not being able to leave Singapore, this cruise is the best thing we have. So we “panic bought” ourselves a cruise 2 weeks ago, and on the 25th of March, away we went for our own 4 night cruise.
What’s the Nutmeggers review? We all agreed, this was a great covid vacation. Better for us as a family than a “staycation”. We enjoyed being away from Singapore, all the entertainment and the food. That being said, we are not cruisers. Ryan and I had previously been on one other cruise (celebrity cruise in Alaska). I think we both still feel the same. It’s a fun vacation, but not an all the time option for us. We don’t need or even really like being “entertained” all the time. Now in our 40’s, I think we can see the value in a cruise as a multigenerational vacation. As parents mobility declines and grandkids get older and more independent, a cruise would be an excellent way to get everyone together with the least resistance. It is also a good way to see remote areas (like Alaska). There is also the uncomfortable issue of cruises environmental impact. Being on this moving city (quantum if the seas is the 15th largest cruise ship in the world) really strikes home how catastrophic these beasts are for the environment. As the kids climbed on the rock wall and were blasted by smoke exhaust, it was hard not to consider this. So while I never say never to anything, I think if we did cruise again, it would be on something smaller.
A small review on the particulars of the cruise in case anyone in Singapore is reading this. For our family, have 2 connecting balcony rooms was perfect. The rooms and the balcony’s connected. With the connecting balcony’s, if your rooms don’t actually connect, that would be ok too. For our kids, eating in the main dining room was perfect and we didn’t feel we really needed any food “upgrades”. If we had eaten in a specialty restaurant, I would have probably picked Chops, the steakhouse. But our kids are still so inconsistent with their eating, that it probably would have been a waste. Here’s my quick review on the drinks package (we only bought the soda for Ryan and the kids and a coffee card for me). Ryan and I ended up saving $13 USD overall on drinks (and some friends bought us a drink one night). So if I could go back, I would have bought the two of us the package when we booked the cruise (it was significantly cheaper then). I would not buy the kids the soda package again as we lost money on that for sure. There are plenty of other drinks (juice, etc) and it’s so hot that they mostly drank water. I would pay out of pocket for those. 4 night vs 3 night? The timing of the 4 night was better for Ryan with work (he only had to take 1 day off). Our family would have been happy with the 3 night. We had seen and done everything in the 2 full days. It was nice to rest on the 3rd day, but not necessary.
Onto the pictures! I’ll try to review each aspect of the trip with the pictures. Enjoy the beautiful blue of the South China Sea!
That’s it! It’s fun to write a blog, a travel blog as I intended this to be. Hopefully a sign of things to come…💕
Life rolls on. I realized I haven’t written a generic post in a while. Our weeks are mundane (school and activities) punctuated by things of interest. Our grown up social life is definitely driven by food and restaurants. Last weekend we had a big week, 2 nights out in a row. Took me 3 days to recover! 9:30 has become my bedtime of choice. This weekend, the kids are busier but the grownups are more low key which is good. Here’s a little snapshot of the past week.
Friday we went over to a friends house to have dinner with the Fairfield county crew! We now have 2 families from Fairfield, 1 from Westport and 1 from Darien we are friends with. It was fun to get them all together and talk about home and Singapore. 2 of the families are new to Singapore since January and our friends Jim & Sally have been home twice now to see their kids. We realized Ryan and I were the only ones who haven’t been out of Singapore since before Covid and were the only ones who had never been swabbed for covid. We are really are sheltered…
This most recent weekend was low key. Friday night Liam and Avery had friends over and we had a proper American cook out (cheese burgers, corn, watermelon). Saturday Liam went for an epic sleepover birthday party (11am Saturday-5:30pm Sunday!). Saturday we had dinner by the pool with condo friends. Also on Saturday, Avery was awarded her yellow belt in taekwondo. We thought she was just going to get her yellow tape, so she was so excited to have earned her full belt ahead of time. She’s really taken to taekwondo. It’s wonderful to see a child love an activity so much. It was a fun weekend.
Last week I panic bought us a trip on the royal Caribbean “cruise to nowhere”. We leave Thursday the 25th and return the 29th. So excited to leave the island. Everyone we know who has done it, loved it, so hopefully we feel the same. The kids are so excited and it feels nice to have something to look forward to. Stay tuned for that post!
As an add-on to my last post, fancy food is is good here too! In contrast to hawker food, restaurant food is $$$$. But as with living in any large city, chefs take pride in their work and some of their creations are deliciously beautiful. Enjoy a few of my recent foodie adventures:
In December 2020, Singapore’s hawker culture was added to UNESCO representative list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Singapore had been lobbying for this since 2018. What does this mean? UNESCO is the United Nations Education, Scientific and cultural organization. A nation can nominate a a physical attraction (Singapore also has the Botanic Gardens as a world heritage site) or something of cultural significance. For reference, the USA has 24.
Recognition by UNESCO is a boon for tourism, but beyond that, it means the country is committing to the preservation of the world or cultural heritage. For Singapore, where the average age of a hawker stall owner is 59, they need to focus on how to encourage new generations to continue the tradition. This is a HUGE task in Singapore where it is a decidedly “high end culture”. Being a hawker stall owner and driving a Mercedes are a difficult mix… traditionally, tasks that are considered “menial” are outsourced to foreign workers. The trick for Singapore is to keep this tradition from being considered “menial” by the general population. Right now, with no tourists, they’re busy updating older hawker centers and making a big fuss in the press over chefs running stalls, people switching careers to being a hawker and families keeping the tradition alive. I have no doubt they will succeed.
But let’s take a step back…. what’s a hawker anyway? According to the Cambridge dictionary, it’s a noun meaning, “someone who sells goods informally in public places”. It’s important to know, Singapore is a nation of immigrants. In the early 1800’s, the British colonized Singapore and it became a bustling port city. This created a huge need for laborers. These workers came from Malaysia (the indigenous population), China, India and Indonesia primarily. These laborers lived in extremely cramped quarters and frequently had no access to a space to make food. This created the opportunity for some of the immigrants to cook and sell food, in the style of their home country. This was done primarily via carts or a “mobile kitchen” which was basically 2-4 buckets attached to a bamboo pole draped over the hawkers shoulders. These hawkers became integral to the city. Not only did they provide food, but they provided a link to home for many homesick laborers. People hawking their food in this way continued, essentially unchanged until Singapore’s independence in the 1960’s
Initially, young Singapore wanted to do away with the Hawkers. They were seen as a dirty nuisance. Singapore was on a mission to modernize its city to become a business hub for the world, not just Asia. They were moving their people out of the kampong and into modern public housing (HDBs). These HDB blocks needed something to “center” the community on. What better than a gathering place for the community than to eat together? The hawkers were slowly moved over the decades from the streets into “centers” and regulations were passed to ensure cleanliness (today you can see their rating displayed). Many physically in HDB blocks (these are the truly “local” experiences that most tourists never see) and some in “centers” (where you, tourist, will go). To this day, if you ate every meal at a local hawker center, it would be cheaper than buying the groceries and preparing the same meal yourself. It’s no wonder many Singaporeans (and expats) never use their kitchens!
In the US, we don’t do cheap food well. At home, I would only eat at the food court of a mall out of desperation. Eating “cheap food” in the US is equated with lower class and unhealthy. In Singapore, everyone eats “cheap” food. It can be healthy or unhealthy, but it’s almost always made with fresh ingredients, cooked to order. It crosses classes and cultures. Hawker food is everyday food. Restaurant food is for special occasion. Some western culture has creeped in. They have McDonald’s, but this is seen as separate from hawker food and has a different menu than what we are familiar with in the US.
In Singapore, I often frequent mall food courts (modified hawkers) and actual hawker centers. Some are overwhelming to me. But if you take your time, and know what you want to eat (this is so hard to choose!) it becomes easier. I try to eat lunch at hawkers as much as possible. My favorite is Tiong Bahru Market. It’s closest to my home, has a great wet market and food center. How does Singapore keep their food so delicious and cheap? Hawkers exist on volume. Each stall really only makes 1 dish (there might be variations, but the foundation is the same). This enables them to crank out many dishes quickly and keeps their food supply costs low. It’s very common to see someone getting their lunch and food for “take away” for dinner. If you ride the MRT or bus at evening rush hour, many riders will be carrying their dinner home.
When we return home, I think this is what I will miss the most. Food can be culture and I am so happy Singapore is committed to preserving theirs.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the fall of Singapore to the Japanese “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”
15-Feb 1942 was the day that the British formally surrendered Singapore to the Japanese after a week of intense fighting. The British had colonized Singapore since 1819 and felt themselves to be invincible. They thought the Japanese military to be inferior. But they also knew they were under supplied and had no backup. The British had sent communication to that effect prior to the battle of Singapore that had been intercepted by the Japanese. So the Japanese also knew that the British were vulnerable to attack.
Why did the Japanese want tiny Singapore? For the same reason it had been invaded and colonized for 100’s of years. It’s strategic position at the end of the Malaysian peninsula allows access control between India and the South China Sea. It also allowed access to oil rich Borneo and Java, which is something the Japanese desperately needed to feed their war machine.
The Japanese basically outwitted the British. They made them believe they would attack from the north east (up near Changi airport) but instead sent most of their troops into the jungles of the north west (near Taus). They were able to drive the British south and overtake the reservoir water supply. On Feb 15th, the British formally surrendered. Lieutenant-General Percival and his troops were made to March from Fort Canning to the Ford Factory in Bukit Timah where General Yamashita only would accept unconditional surrender. Percival and the remaining troops (British, Australian and Indian) were taken to a POW camp in Changi.
The Japanese used a process of “Japanisation” on Singapore. Singapore was renamed “Soyonan-to” which means “light of the South Island”. The language and currency were changed to Japanese. Food and provisions were strictly rationed. The Kempeitai (Japanese police) committed many atrocities to the people of Singapore. Most notably the policy of “Sook Ching” which means “purging through purification”. People of Chinese descent were deemed hostile to the empire of Japan. Male citizens, primarily of ages 18-55 of Chinese descent were routinely rounded up and massacred. It is estimated that between 25,000-55,000 people in Singapore and nearby in Malaya were killed in this way. This included Chinese and anyone seen as “sympathizers”. I have also recently learned of the practice the Japanese military had of taking “comfort women” from areas of their occupation. These were women that were forcibly taken and held captive (sometimes they were told that money was being sent to their families, it wasn’t) to attend to the Japanese military men’s “needs”. They were raped for years on end. For those that survived, when they were returned to their families, they were most commonly turned out as to not bring shame to them.
This was a very dark period in Singapore’s history and has visibly shaped many of the decisions that Singapore makes as a nation. February 15th was declared “Total Defense Day” in 1984 to commemorate the nations Total Defense Strategy. The day is meant to remind Singaporeans of what could happen if they cannot defend themselves, and to strengthen their resolve to keep Singapore safe, secure and independent. At 6:20 pm (the official time of the surrender) the island wide public warning system sounds as a reminder.
There are 6 pillars to Singapore’s Total Defense Strategy. Military, civil, economic, social, digital and psychological defenses. Each person living in Singapore has a role to play in the defense. There are posters and “themes”. The current theme is “together we keep Singapore strong”. Living here through COVID-19 were are seeing this strategy play out in real time, DORSCON Orange and #SGUnited are just a few examples.
Growing up in the US, we learn western centric history. A part of me feels cheated on this. Everyday I feel like I learn something new or from a different perspective here. This year, Avery is learning Singaporean history. She knows the “3 great leaders” of Singapore (Sang Nila Utama, Stamford Raffles and Lee Kwan Yew). I’m sure she missed something at home. But I know she will have a lifetime to learn her Connecticut’s and US history. Here’s to hoping a little Singaporean history imprints on us all.