Singaporean mamas are doing amazing things all over the world! Today Sara Yun Tzy Koh-Press talks navigating single motherhood in a foreign land…
Sara Yun Tzy Koh-Press had originally planned to further her studies in Istanbul, Turkey, a city that is 7.5 times bigger than Singapore and the only city in the world that straddles Asia and Europe, but her life took an unexpected turn. She did not go to grad school in the end but today, after more than 10 years, she is still in Istanbul, a place she now calls home. In her interview, she shares with us what it means to change careers through different stages of life, to be a single mother overseas and what it is like to carve out a new life in Turkey amidst the toughest challenges.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I have been living in Istanbul in Turkey for the past 13 years. In these 13 years, I got married, gave birth to my son who is now coming to 10 years old, and got divorced four years later, but stayed on in Istanbul because my son could not get used to life in Singapore. Recently, I remarried, to an Englishman who is also a single parent. So it has been an interesting 13 years of my life in Turkey.
What brought you to Istanbul? How long have you been living overseas?
After quitting my job as a psychologist and unable to find myself a permanent job for two years, in addition to coming out of a long-term toxic relationship, I desperately needed a change of environment and decided to further my studies in Europe. I applied to universities for my graduate studies and I was invited to attend the entrance examinations of a couple of universities in Turkey in April 2006. As the dates of the exams were about a month apart, I got the chance to spend that month in Istanbul and stayed with a local friend.
One day, my friend’s uncle decided to drive me around and show me the sights of Istanbul. I couldn’t turn down the opportunity and went out with him. In my broken Turkish, we were communicating quite well when he suddenly asked if I was willing to consider moving to Istanbul. I replied, “Why not? If I can find myself a job, I’ll move here.” So he made a phone call to his friend and drove me to her office within 15 minutes, where I suddenly found myself in a job interview, looking in my absolute worst and totally unprepared. To my surprise, I got the job. So I moved to Istanbul in June 2006 and never looked back.
Favourite aspect about living in Istanbul?
Definitely the weather. I love the four seasons in Istanbul – the winter is not too cold and the hottest month is usually condensed to about two weeks in August.
If I can pick another favourite, it would have to be the cats. There are cats everywhere. You will find food and water for cats outside stores and around neighbourhoods. Cats come and go as if they own the stores and cafes.
And the worst part?
Overcrowding. Official statistics state that the population of Istanbul in 2018 is 15.07 million but actual figures may be higher as people move constantly within Turkey. Common in many metropolitan cities, pickpockets and break-ins are not uncommon in Istanbul so one must definitely be more alert and more aware of one’s surroundings. You will notice a surge of gypsy children and gypsy mothers cradling babies, begging in the streets in the summer. Do not give them money or you will suddenly find yourself surrounded by these beggars.
I was once pick-pocketed by a young boy who was about the same age as my son. I was lucky that a woman nearby yelled and pointed to a boy standing behind me. Soon a crowd formed and some men held down the boy to find my wallet tucked in his trousers under his t-shirt. Many victims may not be so lucky. That is why I don’t flash my wallet out in public anymore. Another incident happened when I was eight months pregnant. A burglar had climbed into our flat through a window on the second floor and took my bag while we were sleeping.
Your most recent purchase
… for your child?
Clothes. My son is turning 10 years old this year and he is definitely growing out of all of his clothes.
A bag for daily use. My bags usually last only a couple of months. Good bags would only a couple of years as I travel a lot daily so I am always on the lookout for bags that are functional and yet stylish.
How do you think parenting in Istanbul differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
Parenting in Singapore is more challenging as the education system is much more stressful in Singapore than in Turkey. Tuition and extra-curricular classes seem like the norm in Singapore but these classes like violin, piano and ballet lessons are mostly reserved for middle-class families. Football is a big thing in Turkey but not so much in Singapore. Children in Istanbul still gather around the neighbourhood to play football in the streets.
I find that Turkish people are more child-centric. In Istanbul, you will find strangers coming up to you to play with your child; my son even got chocolates from strangers in the streets when he was younger! Some pubs are also more accepting of parents with children.
Did you give birth to your child in Istanbul? If yes, what was memorable about the experience?
I gave birth to my son via caesarean section in Istanbul. Two things surprised me. Firstly, it was inexpensive to deliver a baby in Istanbul, even in private hospitals. Secondly, they discharged me the day after my caesarean delivery, after making me walk down a corridor.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
Before having a baby, I could explore and change careers or even move abroad easily. I feel I lacked focus in my life and career back then. I regret not pursuing graduate studies to become a certified psychologist. Instead, I became a travel adviser and worked in travel agencies in between short stints in sales and as an English teacher.
I had my son as a result of an unplanned pregnancy and when he was growing up, I became more focused working as a travel adviser and agent. I became a single mother when my son turned two, and my bosses at the various travel agencies were sympathetic towards my situation, allowing my son to hang around in my office after office hours after I picked him up from childcare but had yet to finish my work.
I stayed in the tourism sector for about eight years before calling it quits after a spate of terrorist attacks crippled the tourism industry in 2016. Now, as my son is older and has grown more independent, I’ve changed my career once again. These days, I work from home, designing toys and logos, crocheting toys, drawing and painting on cards to sell at fairs. My next step would be to bring all my creations online.
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Istanbul?
My son loves grilled chicken wings so we usually go to any kebab shop. In fact, Istanbul is quite kid-friendly. Just two weeks ago, my husband and I took our children to a pub in Taksim to see some friends in town and we saw a kid who was sleeping on his father’s shoulder as we were leaving the pub.
I would recommend the Bosphorus Brewing Company in Şişli. There are always families in the restaurant and we’ve even seen a couple who brought their baby along while they drink craft beer and enjoy a meal.
Top five places in Istanbul you would recommend to parents traveling with kids, and why?
- Isfanbul: Formerly known as Vialand, it is a theme park for children and adults. There are rides, a shopping center and a jungle park which houses reptiles and exotic birds.
- Istanbul Aquarium: My son loves sharks. Kids love fishes and there is even a play area for children to play in if they get bored of marine creatures. Oh, and I adore their mascot.
- Rahmi M. Koç Museum: Housed in an exquisite 19th-century factory, the Rahmi M. Koç Museum is a private museum dedicated to the history of transport, industry and communications. You will see vintage cars, boats, bicycles and all kinds of transport. You can also climb into a vintage car, sit in an actual plane cockpit and take a ride in a submarine or a vintage train.
- Princes’ Islands: There are no cars on the islands as people travel on horse-drawn carriages. Children can run freely and breathe in the fresh air. You can also take a walk in nature or rent a bicycle to tour the island.
- LEGOLAND Discovery Centre: If your kids love Lego, then this would be a good place to go. They have a factory tour, a Miniland featuring famous Istanbul tourist attractions, the Kingdom Quest ride and a 4D movie theatre.
Any advice for surviving a flight with young children?
Have sticker or colouring books on hand – and a favourite toy or lovey! When my son was younger, he would entertain himself during the flight with sticker books and colouring books. As he grew older, he found entertainment by dancing in the galley with the air stewardesses.
Read more: The Best Family Travel Accessories
Is there something that you do to keep your children in touch with their Singaporean roots?
Occasionally I will make fish porridge which is the only Singaporean food he is willing to eat.
Best souvenir one could bring back from Istanbul
…for a child:
A towel or a bathrobe. Turkey produces cotton bathrobes. They are soft and the quality is good.
…for a mama friend:
Hazelnuts or walnuts, as Turkey is one of the world’s biggest producers of hazelnuts and walnuts. In fact, the dried fig stuffed with walnut is a must try!
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
The discrimination and the lack of social support. No one will ask me out after work or hang out with me because I have a young son to take care of and Turkish people can be quite cliquey. Because I am a working mother, I don’t get the chance to make friends outside my work circle. But my life got much better after my son started primary school in Istanbul and I got to know the mothers of my son’s play buddies and classmates. That was when my social circle started expanding and I started to live a more balanced life.
My ex-husband struggled with substance abuse and when I finally reported him to the police for domestic abuse, he was put away for a night. I gathered all my things, took my son and ran away in the middle of the night that very night. All my friends discriminated against me for the fact that I had made a poor choice in my previous marriage partner. None of my “friends” who owned rental property would rent me their houses and no one was willing to put us up in their homes for more than one night so my son and I were left homeless for two weeks, staying in a hotel paid for by my company while I worked and searched for a home at the same time.
There are shelters for abused families like us, but as I was working and am a foreigner, I was left to fend for my son and myself as the police advised me that those shelters may not be suitable for us. Nevertheless, I learned a lot through that experience. I’ve since changed out all of those “friends” and made better choices in my life. In addition, my Turkish has improved tremendously as I’ve had to handle the legal bureaucracy of fighting to live in Turkey against the backdrop of ever-changing laws regarding foreigners. It is thanks to this initial lack of social support that made me fluent in Turkish and I now can get around and speak like a local.
On raising multilingual children …
I speak English with my son while he speaks Turkish outside of home. We are planning to introduce Chinese when his school closes for the summer.
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your children?
Instant noodles and spicy floss buns for myself and Four Leaves Bakery’s hotdog buns for my son.
Your top makeup tip for a busy mama?
Moisturiser and sunscreen. If I really must put some colour on my face, the bare minimum essentials would be eyebrow pencil and mascara.
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family?
My husband loves my beehoon soto so it’s a must-cook dish every week.
What’s the one thing you would miss about Istanbul if you moved away?
Fresh mulberries. I love them! Mulberry trees are everywhere and they only bear fruit in the month of June every year. I would also miss the Turkish people and my close friends here if we had to move away.
Want to hear more from Sara? Be sure to check out her blog!