Sue Ann Yang, Singaporean mama in Dubai: “International school kids have hardly any homework and focus on life skills like baking, presentations and sports. My 8-year-old was excited to meet his friends to discuss how to hypothetically launch a drink to the market!”
Last year, an unprecedented job posting for my husband uprooted my family – myself, my husband, Tim and my 8-year-old son, Seth – from Singapore to Dubai within the span of two months. The initial trepidation turned into blind optimism as we took the leap of faith. It saw us through a period of busyness when we packed our lives that we have known in the red dot into two container cargoes. The feeling of seeing the truck of boxes leaving for the docks is indescribable – somewhat between a tinge of relief that our packing is done but also a trail of sadness knowing that we will be apart from our family and friends in Singapore.
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Switching from local school to international school
We arrived in Dubai during the thick of summer where we were greeted by the sweltering oven heat and sand, sand, and more sand. Settling my kid’s school in an international setting required me to change my mindset from a tiger-driven one. International school kids hardly have any school homework and focus on life skills like baking, presentations, sports, talking about topography and even honing business ideas! My 8-year-old was excited to meet his friends for project work to discuss what they can do like hypothetically launch a new drink to the market.
Whilst we welcome the fact that there are no major primary school exams, we can’t help but wonder if he’s on par with the rest of his peers in Singapore.
Arabic is a compulsory subject here and he learns that daily – this proved to be a challenge which he has to embrace. My son’s other tongue is taught online with conversational pockets at home as we recognise the importance of Mandarin – a nod towards our roots.
Making friends abroad
Settling into our daily routine was crucial in normalising our lives. Before or after school drop-offs, I head for my morning exercise. The gyms here are aplenty with so many different forms of exercise. Back home in Singapore my only sporting activity was spin but here I try a variety of different exercises and I find myself drawn to boxing and hot yoga. I must say that the gym facilities here are extensive and the instructors are very welcoming. This has helped me make friends with fellow gym-goers – I even found a group of like-minded Singaporeans at my favourite spin studio Motion which is like my second home.
My best friend here is Korean and together, we have a social group that does monthly sporting activities.
Embracing cultural diversity
After my workout, I head to work. I was recruited by my ex-company back in Singapore. The team adheres to working hours quite strictly here and it’s a good balance. We don’t head out for lunch but instead we bond over packed food and strong coffee.
I must say that Dubai has more similarities with Singapore than I imagined. The diversity of culture is what is apparent in the workplace. There are so many different international snacks that I have tried in the pantry – homemade Egyptian koushary, Lebanese tabbouleh, Amsterdam stroopwafels, Indian masala tea and of course local shawarma. Being the only Chinese, I introduced them to lo hei during the lunar new year and they enjoyed it so much. Celebrating my first Ramadan here, I have to be mindful of my colleagues who are fasting. Dates in beautifully adorned boxes were given and I have been invited to iftar as a team bonding activity. I can feel the sense of camaraderie during the iftar drive in my neighbourhood where we packed food for the community.
Highlights of living in Dubai
Weekends are something we look forward to and the close proximity of other Emirates means we could do road trips quite easily. Abu Dhabi has the best quirky artsy scene and beautiful installations, we love experiencing the unique rain exhibition at Sharjah, taking in the stillness at Ajman’s quiet cafes overlooking the sea, the beachside wonders at Umm Al-Quwain, informative Fujairah farm tours served with fresh dairy produce and lastly the breathtaking mountains on Ras Al Khaimah. There’s always something to do in every season. Christmas winter markets when the weather is cool, the beach, epic outdoor spins… I wish we could have more of such activities back in Singapore.
Being a huge foodie, I do miss my own local hawker food and with the help of online recipes and things I brought from Singapore, I have been attempting chicken rice, roast pork laksa and bak kut teh. On days I feel like ordering, there’s a nice Singaporean cafe called Shiok which satisfies my cravings – their satay drizzled in peanut sauce is the bomb.
Apart from missing the food and the efficiency of our Singapore system back home, homesickness will hit in the middle of the night. I feel nostalgic when I scroll through my loved ones’ social media. Family and friends have been kind to us, sending us gift care packs and also coming to visit to explore Dubai.
In order to help us maintain our Singaporean identity while abroad, we hang out with our Singaporean overseas community from time to time and are always on the hunt for delectable Singaporean food. We also make it a point to read the Straits Times to keep us updated on news back home. I also maintain a network of fellow Singaporean expat mummies who reside all over the world – in Texas, Toronto, Tokyo – and we can relate to each other having stepped out of our comfort zones.
On the decision to move to Dubai
Part of me can’t help but worry that Seth may not fit back in with his Singaporean peers if we were to return though it’s not in our plans in the near future. Academic-wise, it’s definitely more rigorous in Singapore. However, I am reminded by my husband that the reason why we came is to embark on an adventure which we can look back on and have fond memories of. It is both our wishes for our son Seth to be more curious by learning more about his surroundings, to become more adaptable and agile in his thinking which will aid his future career and definitely become more independent by helping with the daily household chores as we do not wish to hire a live-in helper.
We lead by example by stepping out of our comfort zone and encouraging him to be courageous in everything he does. Friends here remarked that Seth is very sociable and is mature beyond his age. We do have check-ins with him from time to time and seeing him very settled and happy ultimately makes us know we made the right decision to move here.