Singaporean mamas are doing amazing things all over the world! Today, in our first ‘Overseas Mama’ interview, we speak with Boston-based former journalist Grace Chua
In our new series, we take a closer look at Singaporean mamas living overseas and how they take to life abroad with little ones in tow. First up, we have Grace Chua, an award-winning journalist formerly of the Straits Times now based in Boston, Massachusetts in the United States with her husband, James, and their 17-month-old son, Darren. It’s actually Grace’s second time living in Boston since she did her Masters degree at MIT nearly a decade ago, although as she is discovering now, living in Boston for a longer period with family is definitely not the same as when she was there for just a year as a single student. Read on for her top kid-friendly recommendations if you’re visiting Boston, how she encourages multi-lingualism and maintains her Singaporean roots, and much more in this super-interesting read!
If you think you or someone you know would make for an interesting Overseas Mama, please let us know!
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m 31, with one son who is 17 months old. I spent eight years at a newspaper, then freelancing. These days I work at a small consulting firm, read catholically, and participate in mildly challenging endurance sports.
What brought you to Boston? How long have you been living overseas?
We’re here with my husband who is doing his PhD in marine geophysics, and we’ve been here for a year and a half so far.
Favourite aspect about living in Boston?
It has lots of history, plenty of things to do (with or without children!), and its downtown is compact and immensely walkable. It’s not overwhelmingly busy, like New York City is for me, nor is it dull. A plus for academic families – there’s nearly always some sort of campus community network, formal or informal.
Your most recent purchase…
For your child:
He just moved up to the toddler classroom from the infant room at daycare, so we got him a proper toddler backpack. We have kind of a giraffe theme going on as he’s a tall child. Prior to that we had been dumping all his barang-barang in a reusable shopping bag and hauling it to school like the second coming of the karung-guni man.
A new night cream (Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Cream with Retinol) and sunscreen (Neutrogena Dry Touch Sunblock SPF 45). I’m not getting any younger and the summer sun can be pretty harsh here.
How do you think parenting in Boston differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
I don’t really have anything to compare it to, but I really appreciate the focus on the child as an actual person: a lot of U.S. parenting is about understanding the child cognitively and emotionally, and working out how to address those needs. It’s a stewardship model: you are helping to nurture and shape your child into an independent adult who will contribute to family and society in their own way.
Obviously, learning how to behave in restaurants and learning mathematics are a part of that, but it’s not the end goal, it’s part of the package. More and more, Darren is becoming a proper small person whose company I really enjoy. I don’t quite understand the children-as-trophies mindset, or people who have children because that’s something you do by default.
Did you give birth to your child in Boston? If yes, what was most memorable about the experience?
Yes, I gave birth at the wonderful Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. I had the option of having my baby delivered by a midwife team or by OB-GYNs, and since I had a relatively boring, uneventful pregnancy, I opted for the midwives.
The two most memorable things about the experience were: 1. the level of support for breastfeeding – there was an in-hospital session with a lactation consultant, and 2. we were able to stay an extra night because Darren was jaundiced at birth and had an extra 24 hours under the bilirubin lights.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
I started at The Straits Times as a baby intern right out of JC, and worked there for more than six years after graduating from university, covering environment and science. After we decided to come back to the United States, I transitioned into freelance journalism, freelanced for close to two years mostly for various magazines, and now work full-time once more.
I’m fortunate to be able to work legally in the States as my husband is a U.S. citizen; under most graduate student visas here, dependent spouses of non-citizen graduate students are not legally allowed to work, which I feel is a tremendous waste of human resources!
What was most challenging about freelancing was that my contacts and networks were nearly all in Singapore, but I was simultaneously trying to break into the U.S. market. After one too many Skype calls across time zones on a spotty connection while hiding in the bathroom so as not to wake the baby at 11pm, I threw in the towel and now am happy to have my work hours roughly sync up with daycare hours.
I just finished reading Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter, who wrote that great article in The Atlantic. She talks about the modern career having a second act and perhaps a third or fourth act – that people may step on and off the fast track, switching between a focus on career and a focus on family. Just because you’ve stepped off one fast track doesn’t mean you are off it for life, or that you will never get on another one.
I think the traditional career mode of a single, short sharp arc – you work really really hard and then you retire and enjoy the fruits of your labour – is out of date and has probably been out of date since the 1980s. At least, that’s how I approach my career. I don’t know if being a millennial has anything to do with it, but I think today’s 20- and 30-something parents are more likely to do it this way.
My mum did it, too – she was training to be a surgeon, had me, paused her training, lived in the UK for a year or two while my father did some postgraduate work, came back to Singapore, went into public health, spent the next 25 years there, looked after grandchildren for a while, and is now a GP.
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Boston?
Eating a full meal out with a toddler is a bit of an expedition so we don’t go out much, but we might go for breakfast at 7.30am (Neighbourhood Restaurant, a classic Portuguese greasy spoon diner in Somerville’s Union Square neighbourhood), fast food (Anna’s Taqueria, multiple locations, and Shake Shack, multiple locations), out for seafood (Summer Shack, Alewife) and once to a tapas bar (Barcelona Wine Bar, Brookline) for an early dinner. For an older child with less of an ants-in-the-pants problem, most restaurants are perfectly fine; I’d say Legal Seafoods in the Seaport is quite good for kids, too. (As a native Bostonian I can heartily endorse these choices, especially Anna’s and Summer Shack! –Ed.)
Favourite kid-friendly activity in Boston?
For a super active 15-month-old in the summer, any of Boston’s large parks, playgrounds and splash parks works well! For a more formal sort of kid fun, the Children’s Museum is great for kids of all ages.
Top five places in Boston you would recommend to parents traveling with kids?
Besides the Children’s Museum…
- The Public Garden – take the classic Make Way for Ducklings book, read it to the kids, and have a photo opportunity with the duck statues! Boston Common has a great playground and splash pool, as well as a carousel. In the winter there is an ice rink.
- Faneuil Hall Marketplace is a little touristy, but fun with lots of good food stalls.
- The Museum of Science always has something to keep kids interested.
- The New England Aquarium has a giant central column aquarium, as well as seals, penguins, and a touch pool.
- The Puppet Showplace Theater in Brookline puts on wonderful shows for the 3-and-up crowd.
Is there something that you do to keep your child in touch with his/her Singaporean roots?
We Skype with family, I try and re-create as many Singaporean dishes as possible (next up… chye tow kuay!), and I bought these books of first words in Hokkien and Teochew.
Best souvenir someone could bring back from Boston?
For a child:
Anything Make Way For Ducklings, from the…yes, there is a Make Way For Ducklings store!
For a mama friend:
What do you find is the most challenging aspect of being a mother living in a foreign country?
Having to do everything myself, and not having any of the family support that my sister enjoys back home, for example. We have daycare from 8-5, but definitely no overnight help, and on weekends you really have to be creative and entertain a toddler for 10 or 12 waking hours! What’s more, my husband occasionally has to travel for work.
On the other hand, I’m definitely much more self-reliant and now know that I can do everything myself if I have to. It’s allowed me to become more confident in my own parenting skills. And we have built our own ‘family’ – a support network of other mothers and families with small children. I feel like this sort of social capital is better for community-building in the long run than a purely commercial solution.
On raising a multilingual child…
Read, read, read! Model speaking your mother tongue (it helps if your spouse speaks it… unfortunately mine does not). Right now I’m considering sweet-talking one of the Chinese grandmas in our graduate student family housing community to chit-chat with Darren in Mandarin. As for Singlish… alamak, I am just going to have to accept that he won’t be fluent in Singlish until NS.
What’s your top makeup tip for a busy mama?
On weekdays I’m often rushing to get us all out the door. If I have just 5 minutes, I put on concealer, fill in my eyebrows, and use just a touch of eyeliner. That way no one can tell I only got 5 hours of sleep last night…
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your child?
New Chinese books (we are constantly buying books), Prima Taste laksa packets, and half the Bengawan Solo shop at Changi Airport.
What do you think you would miss the most the day you have to move out of Boston?
The history, the walkability, and the strong New England pride!
Image #3 sourced via Neighborhood Restaurant. All other images courtesy of the author.