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Singaporeans Abroad: Overseas Mama Stephanie Chai Checks in from Hong Kong

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Singaporean mamas are doing amazing things all over the world! Today we speak with early childhood educator and mama of three, Stephanie Chai

This month, we shine the spotlight on a Singaporean mama who lives just a four-hour flight away in Hong Kong. After more than 10 years working in preschools, Stephanie Chai decided to become a stay-at-home mum to spend more time with her three children. Today Stephanie is extremely active in her adopted local community, where she runs a play-based learning programme to share her passion for learning through play. In the midst of it all, we are surprised she still finds time to be an English storytelling volunteer in her neighbourhood library!

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I came from a very conventional Singaporean family where my dad runs a publishing company, my mum is a homemaker and I have two younger brothers. Being the eldest child in the family, I was often tasked with looking after my brothers and I believe I was quite good at it.

I started my part-time job in childcare centres during my school holidays and found out that I really enjoyed being an early childhood teacher. The experience led me to sign up for an Early Childhood Education course at Wheelock College and I went on to become a childcare teacher and subsequently managed preschools.

Many people might think that I would find it easy to be a mother – to three boys aged 15 months, 4 years and 5 years – since I have over 10 years of professional experience working with young children. The fact is no – I have times where I can’t manage a meltdown moment and I still do crave alone time.

However, being an early childhood teacher does help me reduce my anxiety towards those little dirty faces during meals and to cope with the mess in the house with toys everywhere. Overall I am just an easygoing and wacky mum who is always on the ground playing with my children.

What brought you to Hong Kong? How long have you been living overseas?

Love brought me here to Hong Kong! My husband is from Hong Kong and I chose to live here right after our wedding. Before getting married, I also worked in Hanoi, Vietnam and Zhuhai, China. Looking back, I have been away from Singapore for a total of seven years!

Favourite aspect about living in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong feels like a living treasure map! There are endless “hideouts” to explore and the trick is to explore vertically! Due to physical space constraints and high commercial space rents, there are many concept shop owners who choose to operate their businesses a few levels up from the ground floor. Look up, especially when you are travelling in Mongkok!

And the worst part?

Living in one of the most densely-populated cities in the world. I have to say, as a mother of three kids, many areas in Hong Kong are not stroller-friendly. However, the city makes up for it with many convenient transportation options.

Your most recent purchase

… for your children?

…for yourself?
A skateboard.

How do you think parenting in Hong Kong differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?

Fundamentally, I believe we are pretty similar in the context of parenting – being responsible and creating the best for our kids.

What I experience most about parenting in Hong Kong is that they are much more goal-oriented from the beginning. For example, it is quite common here to start queuing for a desired school before the child is even born! Completing an application form for a school can also be as detailed as writing a PHD thesis!

I really appreciate the fact that parents love their kids so much and try to give them the best to kickstart their future!

Did you give birth to your children in Hong Kong? If yes, what was memorable about the experience?

My three boys were all born in Hong Kong, either at the private Union Hospital or the government-owned Prince of Wales Hospital. To be honest, I am very impressed with the level of professionalism in both hospitals.

What is perhaps the most memorable is that the Prince of Wales Hospital gave me an opportunity to have a skin-to-skin experience with my baby and they encourage mummies to breastfeed straight after giving birth!

Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?

Before having children, I was managing schools for a preschool anchor operator in Singapore. Later I had the opportunity to manage their overseas operations in Hanoi and Zhuhai. My main role was to make sure that our curriculum was being properly carried out in a foreign country, conducting curriculum meetings with local and foreign teachers and, most importantly, making sure the children benefited from the programme.

I chose to be a stay-at-home mummy to spend more time with my own children but on the other hand, I would like to continue teaching and sharing with other children. Because I believe in the importance of children learning through play, I founded Playgrow.

It has an English-language curriculum focusing on the exploration of the senses and games to scaffold developmental goals for children aged six months to 36 months. Playgrow also makes use of my estate surroundings to facilitate teaching. Word spread quickly and in three months, I had 40 families joining our programme. I am glad that play-based learning is well-received in the local community.

Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Hong Kong?

I love to bring my kids to So Thai So Good, a Thai fusion restaurant located in Tai Po Mega Mall. I am touched by the restaurant’s friendly and loving gestures towards all the kids in the restaurant. It is also equipped with children’s utensils and high chairs.

Top five places in Hong Kong you would recommend to parents traveling with kids and why:

1) Hong Kong Space Museum– Be prepared to be amazed by the 3D dome show!

2) Volcanic Discovery Centre – Far from the madding crowd, older children are guaranteed to be fascinated by the hexagonal columns, sea caves and arches.

3) Cheung Chau – Try to visit in May for the famous Cheung Chau Bun Festival where people climb bun towers to snatch buns.

4) Hong Kong Disneyland – Unlike the other Disneylands, Hong Kong Disneyland is compact enough for parents and kids to complete in one day.

5) Tai Po Waterfront Park – Similar to East Coast Park in Singapore, this is a favourite among locals where you can spend the whole day with kids in the playground, engage in interactive learning at the Insect House, watch a radio-controlled model boat race or simply lie on the grass and have a picnic with your family!

Any advice for surviving a flight with young children?

What works for me is to let my baby drink some milk or water from a bottle during takeoff and landing. Some babies are rather sensitive to differences in air pressure so it will cause them a great deal of discomfort which explains why we always hear babies cry during takeoff and landing. By offering a bottle, the sucking motion will help to alleviate any ear blockage and hopefully they will fall asleep right after.

Another tried and tested solution for me: Don’t be shy to stand up and walk up and down the airplane aisle with your child when it’s safe to do so. Toddlers love interacting with others and in no time you’ll reach your destination.

Is there something that you do to keep your children in touch with their Singaporean roots?

I have a Singapore map pinned on the walls in my house! They already know where my family house is in Singapore just by looking at the map. I also make sure I cook typical Singaporean dishes such as bak kut teh, curry chicken and chicken rice so they will grow up having the taste buds of a Singaporean. Hahahahaha!

Best souvenir one could bring back from Hong Kong

…for a child?
Toy KMB bus, Hong Kong tram, green or red taxi or mini bus.

…for a mama friend?
Reusable shopping bags.

What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?

My first two years were the hardest, mainly due to the fact that I needed to adapt and learn a new language and get to know the local culture. It also took me a longer time to read and understand traditional Chinese.

Looking back, as a new mum in a foreign country, I would have loved to have friends around me for support who could lend a listening ear while my husband was at work. I am glad I’ve braved through all the difficulties and am fortunate to have met many multinational mummy friends through the different meet-up groups here.

On raising multilingual children …

We choose to speak English with our children because we believe the environment plays an important factor in language learning, therefore they will be able to pick up Cantonese faster as compared to Mandarin and English. Today, both my older boys are able to speak English, Cantonese and Mandarin.

All children have the ability to code switch and understand language to speak to different persons. For example, my kids will speak to me in English, Cantonese to their paternal grandparents, and Mandarin to their maternal grandparents in Singapore.

What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your children?

For my kids, they love pandan cake from Bengawan Solo and what we always do is to order the cake in advance then collect it at their airport branch on our way back to Hong Kong.

For myself, I will not miss out the chance to stock up on my favourite Singaporean food such as chicken rice chilli sauce, sambal belachan, curry paste, durian, frozen otah and Irvins salted egg potato chips 😉

Your top makeup tip for a busy mama?

Lipstick. Even without full makeup, a nice lip colour will always brighten your day!

Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.

To satiate my cravings for Old Chang Kee curry puffs, I created sweet apple curry puffs, a perfect afternoon snack for my children.

I found a recipe for the pastry online which calls for 250g all-purpose flour, 50g rice flour, 50g tapioca or corn flour, 50g butter, 50g vegetable oil, 130ml ice-cold water and a pinch of salt.

For the filling, I cut apples into small cubes then mix them with Japanese sweet curry cubes and cook until the apple cubes are slightly soft. I then wrap the filling in the pastry and bake until the pastry turns golden brown.

What’s the one thing you would miss about Hong Kong if you moved away?

I would miss speaking Cantonese to everyone!

Read About More Singaporean Mamas Abroad!
Grace Chua in Boston, USA
Angelina Ho in Älmhult, Sweden
Phoebe Charn in Paris, France

All images courtesy of the author

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