Hui Shin Ngiam talks about the lack of social pressure for kids’ enrichment classes, her surprise at nurses expecting her 2-day old baby to have her ears pierced, and other quirks of life abroad!
Chile, occupying a narrow strip of land between the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west in western South America, is the longest country in the world measuring more than 4500 kilometres from north to south. This month’s overseas mama Hui Shin Ngiam gives us a glimpse into life in Chile’s capital city with her English husband and three children, sharing tips on the best vineyards to go to and what it means to be raising children so far away from both sides of their family.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am a 43-year-old Singaporean mama to three kids who are 11, seven and two years old respectively. Born and bred in Singapore, I have only spent time away from home for seven years, mainly for my tertiary and post-graduate studies, prior to moving away in 2010. I met my English husband in Singapore and after having our first child, I became a stay at home mother (SAHM) since June 2009. In my “previous” life, my interests were varied and I enjoyed activities such as reading, corresponding with friends via snail mail, volunteering and sports like long-distance cycling and running, rollerblading and playing badminton. These days, I find joy in trying to keep active via family activities such as cycling, hiking, swimming and, when the weather permits, skiing. My kids keep me on my toes most of the time and when they don’t, I’m mostly kept busy by household chores and errands.
What brought you to Santiago, Chile? How long have you been living overseas?
Our family moved to Santiago in 2010 because my husband had found work there as an academic and we have called this city home since. Having lived here for 10 years, my two younger children were both born in Chile and I think all three – at least the older two ones – pretty much consider themselves Chileans, with family ties to the UK and Singapore.
Favourite aspect about living in Santiago?
Definitely its proximity to nature. Surrounded by the foothills of the Andes, Santiago gives families the opportunity to head out for hikes within and outside of the city quite easily, without having to drive long distances. Of course, compared to developed countries, these trails and parks are not as well-established but I feel fortunate to be able to enjoy these trails.
And the worst part?
One of the worst parts about living in Santiago is the pollution that occurs mostly in the colder months. Being a major city surrounded by mountains, the city becomes a magnet of pollution in the colder months. With the sea being about 100 kilometres away, pollution in the city tends to hover above as there are no winds to blow it away and we rely heavily on rain to clean the air. Young children also tend to suffer a lot when they are exposed to air pollution and it is, sadly, not uncommon to see young children use inhalers during the winter months.
Your most recent purchase… for your children?
Shoes due to their fast-growing feet!!!
…and for yourself?
A pair of trail running shoes for hiking and also for running around in my daily life.
How do you think parenting in Santiago differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
Excluding the social pressure to send your kids to enrichment classes, I think parenting in Santiago does not differ too much from parenting in Singapore. My husband and I are quite lazy parents so our kids are not enrolled in many classes. I cannot imagine having to ferry my kids to various places to attend classes. I like it that we are not pressured to send our kids to enrichment classes. I don’t think I would have survived the social pressure in Singapore.
But while I appreciate this aspect of raising my children outside of Singapore, the downside is, being in Chile, we are far from both sides of the family and they don’t have many opportunities to cultivate relationships with their extended family such as grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins. Thanks to technology advancements these days, at least they can see their extended family members via video calls and are less awkward the times we meet with family back home.
Did you give birth to your children in Santiago? If yes, what was memorable about the experience?
I gave birth to my two younger children in Santiago and the experience was great as I was lucky to have uncomplicated births with little risks. Of course, my experience was also good because I had given birth in a private hospital where the facilities and medical staff are akin to those in Singapore.
Children are looked upon very favourably in Latin American societies and therefore, are treated very well when they are babies. One of the most interesting experiences I have had was when I gave birth to my daughter. As it is a Latino tradition to put earrings on baby girls when they are about two days old, I found myself having to explain why I hadn’t prepared earrings for my daughter when she was born. It was largely due to the fact that I have never wanted to know my babies’ gender before they were born and also partly because my husband and I did not fancy having our daughter pierce her ears when she was two days old. The nurses kept coming into the ward to ask me why I did not have earrings for my daughter and we kept having to get into a conversation about local traditions in the country we live in and my own cultural traditions. It was very entertaining indeed!
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-babies?
I had a varied career pre-baby across industries in Singapore. My first real job in Singapore was that of a relief teacher with the Ministry of Education when I first returned from my studies abroad. After this short three-month stint, I started working at the Ministry of Environment (now National Environment Agency) as a public health inspector where I spent a year in the office in the waste minimisation unit, and another year in the field where I carried out inspections on hawkers in various food establishments. It was two years of fun learning about life in the public service and also getting to know some very good colleagues who have become lifelong friends.
After two years there, I took three years off to pursue my post-graduate degree in Recreation in Canada. When I returned to Singapore, I worked as a sales executive and then as an events organiser before landing a job at Republic Polytechnic as a facilitator. This was my last full-time job before my oldest son was born in 2008. During my last 10 years in Santiago, I have worked as a private tutor to teach English and Mandarin to my neighbours’ and my friends’ children. I’ve stopped working after I gave birth to my youngest son in 2017.
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Santiago?
Restaurants in Santiago all tend to be quite kid-friendly as Latino culture is very welcoming to kids in general. But I find the best restaurants for children are outside the city, with outdoor spaces for kids to run around while parents dine. Trattoria Calypso, located in Cajón del Maipo, is a nice spot for a bit of Italian food and also comes with a huge space for kids to run and explore nature. Other restaurants close to the city with similar settings would be those of the vineyards like House Casa del Vino in Casablanca Valley and Viu Manent in Colchagua Valley, both about 1.5 hours by car from Santiago.
Top five places in or around Santiago you would recommend to parents travelling with kids and why.
Parque Metropolitano de Santiago – a huge expanse of parkland in the central part of Santiago that is the biggest urban park in Chile. With its multiple outdoor pools, playgrounds, biking and walking trails, it is great to visit in the summer months.
Parque Quinta Normal – there are playgrounds and many museums including the Chilean National Museum of Natural History in this park located in the northwestern Santiago.
Avenida Pedro de Valdivia and Avenida Mariano Sánchez Fontecilla – among the many roads that are closed to traffic every Sunday, I would recommend walking, cycling or rollerblading on these two roads specifically Avenida Pedro de Valdivia to Plaza de Armas along Río Mapocho and Avenida Mariano Sánchez Fontecilla which takes you through a few communes from Providencia to La Reina and Peñalolén. It’s a great opportunity to see the various neighbourhoods in greater Santiago and also enjoy some free exercise like Zumba classes along the way.
Regional and national parks near Santiago. For those who enjoy the great outdoors, Yerba Loca is a private park in the Precordillera that is not far from Santiago. Parque Mahuida in the eastern part of Greater Santiago has great hiking trails connected to other parks and attractions like Granjaventura.
Viña Cousiño Macul – there are many vineyards in Greater Santiago but we like Viña Cousiño Macul in Peñalolén for its vineyard tours that also offer a bit of insight into the history of winemaking in Chile.
Any advice for surviving a flight with young children?
I have no particular tips for surviving flights with young children except to try to make sure that they are kept entertained! My last big solo trip with the kids was in January 2018, where I took our kids, then aged nine years old, five years old and five months old, from Santiago to Singapore via London. The flight time totalled about 27 hours and I was very glad to be able to get a day use room for about seven hours during our 10-hour transfer at London Heathrow airport. I have been lucky with the solo journeys I have done so far with my three children.
Is there something that you do to keep your children in touch with their Singaporean roots?
My children speak English with their father, Mandarin with me and Spanish in school with their friends. Given that we do not get to go back to Singapore very often, I’m still surprised to see that the two older kids have picked up Singlish quite quickly! That is their connection to Singapore on top of enjoying Singaporean foods such as chicken rice and bak kut teh. Whenever I can, I try to watch Singaporean shows with them, otherwise they get their dose of Singapore culture when I talk to them about my childhood in Singapore or when they catch me watching Mediacorp TV series on meWATCH.
Best souvenir one could bring back from Santiago
– for a child:
Locally-made wooden toys or puzzles otherwise something practical like a souvenir T-shirt printed with an image of a Chilean place of interest.
– for a mama friend:
I would buy jams flavoured with local spices and herbs or chocolates because who doesn’t like chocolates?!
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
One of the hardest parts of being a mother living in a foreign country would probably be making friends and having family friends that are around in the long run. Many of the friends I had made in Santiago in the beginning were mothers from international backgrounds. Because they were mostly expats, many of those friends eventually left Santiago while our family stayed on.
Not having a family support network is something that I miss too. Given that both my husband and I are foreigners in our adopted country of residence, making friends has not been the easiest and I sometimes mull over the lack of adult role models for my kids. But fortunately, this has changed. We have gotten to know the parents of my children’s classmates so this has provided some stability in terms of adult role models for my kids.
These days, I am enjoying my neighbourhood a little more because I now know the shopkeepers when I go grocery shopping. The inability to communicate fluently in the local language is quite an impediment to making friends. The first few years can be quite lonely but I have found that as long as one is open to friendships, you do find them in the most unlikely people and also circumstances.
On raising multilingual children…
Consistency is important and while I have spoken Mandarin exclusively to my kids since birth, they don’t seem to have any incentive to keep it up. They prefer English and Spanish these days. So I am quite prepared that they will probably grow up to be not very fluent in Mandarin but hopefully their exposure to Mandarin would have affected their brains positively!
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your children?
Mainly Singaporean pantry essentials like dark soy sauce, Hainanese chicken rice chilli, sambal belachan and laksa paste.
Your top makeup tip for a busy mama?
I don’t use makeup but as I get older, I have realised that moisturisers are quite important on a daily basis.
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.
Pasta and either a pesto or tomato sauce. Quick and easy and always a winner!
What’s the one thing you would miss about Santiago if you moved away?
The proximity to nature would be something I would miss, and obviously our friends here.