Overseas Singaporean mama of two Zarina Thomas weighs in with family travel tips for the foodie paradise of Penang
This month’s Singaporean mama, Zarina Thomas is a registered nurse who has been living for more than 15 years in Australia, first on her own and eventually meeting her husband and starting a family there. So when the opportunity came for them to move to Penang, Malaysia, they jumped on it. Read on to see how living in multicultural Penang has allowed her two children to be a bit more in touch with their Singaporean roots. For this family of foodies, it probably doesn’t hurt that Penang is a food paradise too!
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Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I left Singapore at 26 when I was offered a nursing position at Australia biggest healthcare company in Western Australia. I lived in Perth for seven years and enjoyed every minute of it. Coming from a bustling little island, Perth certainly taught me to appreciate peace and quiet and to learn to take things easy.
In 2008, I was transferred to a sister hospital in Brisbane and it was in Brisbane where I met my husband. We got married and have two beautiful children, Eliana who will be turning nine this year, and Joshua who will be turning seven this year.
After seven years in Brisbane, my husband who works for Australia’s Department of Defence, got posted to South Australia. We lived in South Australia for two years before moving to Penang in Malaysia.
What brought you to Penang? How long have you been living overseas?
My husband has always been interested in living in Penang. Growing up overseas himself, he would like our children to follow in his footsteps and have the opportunity to learn more about my culture.
With Penang being the only overseas position available to him, he applied for the job and we went through all the screenings. The good news was delivered to him the day I turned 40 and that was the best birthday present ever!
Favourite aspect of living in Penang?
The different festivals celebrated here! We are blessed to be living in this melting pot where everyone celebrates various traditional festivals together. My kids have known multiculturalism since the day they were born. Living in Penang just makes it better for them. They enjoy every celebration here in Penang. My son loves the Chinese New Year season for the lion dance and firecrackers. My daughter loves Deepavali purely for the bright-coloured clothes she gets to wear and the henna decorations on her hands. We never miss going to Little India every weekend during Deepavali. They get to experience Thaipusam and the Hungry Ghost Festival, too. I enjoy explaining to them the significance of each festival observed by the different ethnicities.
If I could add another favourite, it would be food! Although it has been many years since I have left Singapore, it’s true that you can take a Singaporean out of Singapore but you can never take the Singaporean out of him or her. We love the Penang International Food Festival (and boy do we travel just for the sake of good food!). We love our dim sum and sadly, we don’t get decent halal dim sum in Penang so we usually would travel to Ipoh every month for a good halal dim sum breakfast 😉
And the worst part of living in Penang?
The traffic and driving. My husband enjoys it, though, as he takes it as a challenge, calling it “organised chaos”.
Your most recent purchase
… for your children?
I used to get them traditional toys like congkak, which they mastered in no time. My most recent purchase for them was five stones, or batu selembat in Malay as we call them in Singapore.
I have been crazy with Tupperware shopping. They are so cheap here compared to Australia.
How do you think parenting in Penang differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
I was never a parent in Singapore as I had both my kids in Australia. I appreciate my time here as I can be here for my children at all times outside of school hours.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
Pre-baby, I was at the peak of my career. I was working full-time, managing a hospital and enjoying all the challenges the job offered me. I never thought I would get married and have children, but I did! I fell in love with my firstborn at first sight and I took a year off work to spend time with her. One year passed very quickly and when I was back at work, I found it hard because I missed my baby terribly at work. At the same time, I felt guilty when I got home because I was not giving 100% to the hospital like I used to.
I finally made the decision to step down from my position to concentrate on raising my child. I have no regrets at all. I was still a registered nurse but instead of being in management, I worked on the floor with more flexible working hours, which enabled me to have more work-life balance. I continued working on the floor even after I had my second child. I only stopped working when my husband got posted to Penang three years ago.
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Penang?
There are plenty of kid-friendly restaurants and cafes in Penang but Holy Guacamole is my kids’ favourite as they love the food and the deco there.
Top five places in Penang you would recommend to parents travelling with kids?
- Entopia – It is a butterfly farm where they breed their own butterflies and visitors can help to release butterflies at midday daily. Kids would love that.
- The TOP – An indoor theme park that caters to kids of all ages. It has a Tech Dome for budding young scientists and a Jurassic Research Center for aspiring paleontologists. There are also rides and an indoor play gym for the little ones.
- ESCAPE Adventureplay – Perfect place to go with outdoor-loving daredevils of all ages.
- ESCAPE Waterplay – They have the longest water slide in Asia and it’s also a good place to go cool down after spending the day at ESCAPE Adventureplay.
- Penang Hill – We have gone on the funicular train in Prague going up Petrin Hill but nothing can be compared to the one on Penang Hill. When you get to the top, you can enjoy a view of the island and mainland Malaysia. For those who are hungry, there is a food court serving Penang street food. The Habitat is the latest attraction on Penang Hill for nature lovers to enjoy Malaysian flora and fauna.
Any advice for surviving a flight with young children?
Find a flying time that works for your kids. Wear comfortable clothes, bring a soft toy and enough activity books. Ensure all gadgets are fully charged as some airlines will charge you for charging service. Avoid giving your kids excessive sugar towards departure time and always bring them to the toilet before boarding.
Is there something that you do to keep your children in touch with their Singaporean roots?
I make sure they are aware of all the different cultural celebrations and festivals celebrated in Singapore, especially Hari Raya and the importance of observing Ramadan. I teach my kids greetings for each celebration. Both my kids love it when I bake pineapple tarts because they know that means we are about to celebrate a festival. We also watch as many local movies as we can. My kids love Jack Neo’s movies. My son especially loves Ah Boys To Men and all the sequels.
Best souvenir one could bring back from Penang
– for a child:
Fridge magnets or keyrings with Penang icons.
– for a mama friend:
A batik dress.
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
Not having your family close by.
On raising multilingual children …
I spoke in Malay to my kids from day one but sadly I don’t follow through and switch back to English often. However, whenever we go back to Singapore for holidays, amazingly my kids pick up Malay from their cousins very quickly. I guess kids adapt and learn faster when they are younger. Now in Penang, both kids have learnt Malay in school as their foreign language and I can see they are speaking better Malay to me these days.
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your children?
Local snacks. My kids love Bengawan Solo’s pineapple tarts. They are very at home at Changi Airport as they know their way around – where the Bengawan Solo shop is and all their favourite hangouts are.
Your top makeup tip for a busy mama?
I don’t wear much make up but i strongly believe in good skincare.
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.
Lucky for me, my husband is into Asian food and so are my kids. Nasi goreng or fried kway teow can never go wrong in my household. On days when I feel lazy, I just do a simple Chinese stir-fry to whip up an all-in-one one-dish meal.
What’s the one thing you would miss about Penang if you moved away?
The FOOD and its friendly people.