Singaporean Sherlene Wong is a Barre instructor living in San Francisco, with her husband and two kids. She shares the reason she chose to become a stay-at-home mum, the emotional days in NICU when her son was born at 31.5 weeks and how parenting differs in the US compared to Singapore
In our latest Overseas Mama series, Sherlene Wong talks about life in San Francisco where she says a significant amount of career women become stay-at-home mums while their kids are young because help is so expensive. Sherlene shares that she may feel less accomplished compared to her peers in Singapore but it was a personal choice she does not regret. Read on for this family’s story – from how the youngest was born premature at 31.5 weeks and spent 63 days in NICU (Sherlene says the genuine concern that the nurses showed her are things she will always be grateful for) to their love of the outdoorsy life. Sherlene jokes about how her parents in Singapore are appalled at seeing their grandchildren splashing in muddy puddles and in turn she shares her shock at seeing small kids out at 10 p.m in Singapore which is so different to parenting in the US.
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Can you tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Sherlene. I was born and raised in Singapore and I have been living in the US for the past 13 years, first in New York City for three years and then in San Francisco where I currently reside.
I am a full-time mum to my two kids, seven-year-old Claire, and three-year-old Eli. Mondays through Fridays, my life runs on a tight schedule. When I am not shuttling my kids to and from school, driving them to after-school activities, organising playdates, I fill my “free time” teaching barre at The Bar Method.
My kids and barre aside, I love food and travel. Being away from Singapore has really made me appreciate the hawker culture that I somewhat looked down upon when I was a kid. As a kid, I relished every opportunity to dress up “nice” and eat out at restaurants. These days, my dream dine-out day would be going on a hawker or kopitiam food trail wearing T-shirt, shorts, and slippers. I have always said my last meal would be bak chor mee with extra chilli and black vinegar and a bowl of fishball soup. That’s still true today.
Growing up middle-class, we lived humbly in HDB flats until I was 16 when we moved into a condominium in the Hillview area where my parents still live today. My family was thrifty in many ways but the only thing my parents spoiled my brother and me with were constant travels. We vacationed overseas twice a year during the June and December holidays and I remember my first plane ride to Phuket, Thailand when I was five years old. I visited the US (Honolulu, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Diego) for the first time when I was 12.
The travel bug never left me. I love to travel, my husband hates it. He associates travel with work, having been a consultant for the better part of his career. Travelling with kids under seven will always be a trip, never a vacation. But that has not deterred us from our annual vacations to Hawaii and now, hopefully, annual summer trips back to Singapore.
What brought you to San Francisco, California, USA? How long have you been living overseas?
My now-husband. I met my husband while working at United Overseas Bank (UOB) in Singapore in 2007. He was a strategy consultant engaged by UOB and I was on UOB’s client service team. My husband is American-born Chinese. His parents migrated to the US from Burma in their 20s and he and his siblings are first-generation Americans.
We left Singapore together in 2009 and lived in NYC through 2012. We moved to San Francisco to be closer to his parents. We were also planning to start a family at that time and could not envision raising kids in a big city like NYC.
Favourite aspect about living in San Francisco?
Can I name two? First, the gorgeous weather. Summers and winters are extremely mild by New York standards. Being on the coast, we get to enjoy nature’s air-conditioning all year round.
Secondly, wide open space with lots of nature and blue skies. We live on half an acre of land with our own backyard pool, within walking distance to a small downtown with stores like Apple and Lululemon, and plenty of restaurants. It may be the quieter suburbs, but downtown San Francisco is just 20 minutes away. It’s a lifestyle we can never afford in Singapore.
And the worst part?
Stores close at 8 p.m. or even earlier on weekends! Both my kids were so amazed that they could go shopping after dinner in Singapore.
Also, the lack of food options, particularly Southeast Asian cuisines! I really miss how there are always so many types of food wherever you are in Singapore. From hawker centres and food courts to cafes and restaurants, I have never been so spoiled for choice than when I am in Singapore. Fine dining, cheap eats… usually within spitting distance of each other in the same mall. Americans have admittedly less adventurous taste buds, which explains the lack of variety of cuisines. There are ethnic enclaves in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, but that also means I have to drive 30 minutes to San Jose to get a bowl of authentic Vietnamese pho.
That being said, I recently found a (large and growing) group of like-minded foodie Singaporeans in the Bay Area who meet on a regular basis for group buys from fellow Singaporean and Malaysian home cooks. Bak chor mee, ban mian, lor mee, nasi lemak, cheng tng… etc. You name it, some home cook has made it and is selling it to fellow Singaporeans. It sounds illicit but it’s a wonderful testament to how enterprising Singaporeans can be when it comes to food!
How do you think parenting in San Francisco differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
Three things stand out. Firstly, because of how expensive help is here (where we live, nanny rates are anywhere between US$30 to US$35/hour), I definitely see a greater proportion of career mums taking significant time off work or just stepping back from their careers to care of their young children. I would say nine out of 10 of my current group of mum friends have left their jobs and become full-time mums to their young ones till about preschool age, so for three to four years. Infant daycare, common in Singapore, is extremely rare here. You head out to a park or a playground on any regular workday, chances are, you’ll see mums with their little ones as opposed to domestic helpers with kids like in Singapore.
I left my job at Gap when my daughter was born. Do I feel less accomplished compared to my peers in Singapore or from business school? For sure I do. But it was a personal choice I made for our family back then and I would not have decided any differently if presented with the same options again. I enjoy the flexibility I have as a stay-at-home mum (SAHM) but most importantly, I am present for my kids whenever they need me. Because so many mums stay at home and parenting can be the world’s loneliest gig, mum support groups and co-op preschools (where parents help out in the school) are huge here. I have found my closest mum friends through these support groups.
Secondly, we love the outdoors here and our kids spend a ridiculous amount of time outside, whether just playing, for sports or in school. There are even outdoor or nature-based schools for younger kids here. Thanks to the weather, it’s hard to find indoor playgrounds here unlike in Singapore. Given a choice, most parents prefer to take their kids on hikes, to the parks, outdoor playgrounds or the beach. Because of this, American parents are definitely more relaxed about kids getting dirty or messy. My parents in Singapore are always appalled when I send them videos of their grandchildren splashing in muddy puddles, playing in the rain or in sandboxes. We vacation in Hawaii at least once a year and the recurring question I get from other Singaporean parents is: How can my kids stay at the beach the entire day? They just do and are perfectly happy with the sand and the sea.
Lastly, kids here sleep early! My kids are considered late sleepers by American standards. They are in bed by 8pm but on our recent trip to Singapore (where all bedtime rules go out of the window), we saw small kids and even babies out and about at 10pm!
Did you give birth to your children in San Francisco? If yes, what was memorable about the experiences?
Yes, both my kids were born in San Francisco. Both experiences were “memorable” for all the wrong reasons. With my first, there was a lack of post-partum support. If it were available, it was insanely expensive. That was a huge shock. Mums in Singapore benefit from their live-in help, a confinement lady or even having grandparents nearby. I had none and learnt to do everything by myself.
With my second, he was born premature at 31.5 weeks and spent 63 days in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU). Those were the worst yet most heartfelt 63 days in my entire life. The amount of emotional and mental support I received from the medical team, the love and genuine concern that the NICU nurses showed, not only to my son but also to me, are things I will always be grateful for. My son is now 2.5 years old and I still keep in touch with a few of his NICU nurses. They ask about his well-being all the time. I don’t know if the experience would have been the same in Singapore.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
I was from Raffles Girls’ School (class of 1994) and Raffles Junior College (RJC) (class of 1996), then went on to National Technological University (NTU) where I graduated with first class honours in Accountancy in 2000. I was a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) scholar and spent about four years there in corporate tax with a stint in their marketing communications department. After PwC, I spent two years at the Ministry of Defense (Mindef) working in the National Education department, leading a team that organised their annual Total Defense campaign. After Mindef, I joined United Overseas Bank (UOB) as part of their Future Leaders Rotational Program.
After we left Singapore for NYC, I enrolled in the French Culinary Institute, now known as the International Culinary Center, in Manhattan and studied pastry arts for about a year, interning at Oceana, a seafood restaurant in midtown NYC, at the same time. I call that period of time my “mid-life” crisis as I wasn’t sure what I was going to do career-wise, having to start all over again in the US.
Midway through culinary school, I decided being a pastry chef was not my calling and applied for business school. I started at New York University (NYU) Stern School of Business in 2010 and graduated in 2012 with my Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a finance specialisation. Post-MBA, I worked at San Francisco-headquartered Gap, where I was part of their real estate finance and strategy team for their portfolio of brands.
When my daughter was born in 2016, I made the conscious choice of leaving full-time work to focus on raising my newborn. I’ve been doing barre-based workouts since 2012 and decided to train to become an instructor when my daughter was about six months old. I needed an outlet, a place where I can find myself again, and The Bar Method was and still is that for me. I have been teaching since and enjoy every day that I am in the studio and with my students.
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in San Francisco?
It’s not in San Francisco, but in Palo Alto, about a 30-minute drive away. The food at Dinah’s Poolside Restaurant is standard fare but there is a huge koi pond with plenty of fish and ducks to feed, and the restaurant provides kids with little containers of fish food.
We also enjoy Rise Woodfire in downtown San Mateo, about 20 minutes from San Francisco, as it is located in a train station. If you have kids who enjoy trains, this is the train-watching spot to go.
I would say there is really a lack of kid-friendly restaurants in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area in general. To be fair, restaurants do make a conscious effort to provide kids’ menus, kids’ utensils, etc. but it is not like in Singapore where you can easily find restaurants or cafes with play areas for kids or playgrounds with cafes nearby.
I took my kids to both Marine Cove and West Coast Park on our recent trip back to Singapore and we could not be more thankful to see a McDonald’s right next to the play structures! Here, we have to schlep our own snacks to playgrounds and I have packed my kids’ their dinners to restaurants when I know there is no kids’ menu or if the food’s “too grown” up for their tastes.
Top five places in or around San Francisco you would recommend to parents travelling with kids.
California Academy of Sciences – Located within Golden Gate Park in the middle of San Francisco, it is exactly like what its tagline says: Explore your world from the heart of Golden Gate Park. There is a planetarium, an aquarium, an indoor rainforest, and a museum of natural history.
Golden Gate Bridge – Rent a bicycle and ride across the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito. It is probably more suited for older kids but this has remained one of my favourite activities even as a local. The view of the city across the Bay from Sausilito is breathtaking. When you are tired of biking, you can take a ferry back to the mainland.
Bay Area Discovery Museum – Located in Sausalito, this museum has a newly-revamped outdoor playground that my kids love.
Fruit picking – Depending on the time of year, you can go cherry picking (early June to late July) or apple picking (September to October).
Half Moon Bay beaches – Literally on the edge of the Pacific Ocean with plenty of tide pools for little ones to explore. There are three versions of beaches in my mind. The Singaporean beach where you can see oil tankers and the water is a murky green, the Hawaiian beach with miles of pristine white sand, clear blue waters i.e. heaven and then there is the Half Moon Bay beach with cliffs overlooking the beach, large waves, and the Pacific Ocean as far as the eye can see. I would not recommend swimming but it’s a great spot to watch people kitesurf and windsurf. Bring a jacket or two, and plenty of blankets to keep warm. It sounds strange, but trust me, you’ll need them.
Is there something that you do to keep your children in touch with their Singaporean roots?
We FaceTime my parents on a regular basis, obviously. Now that Covid-19 is being managed as an endemic, we will try and go back at least once a year. I expose my older kid to Singaporean food through our food buys from Singaporean home cooks. She loves mee pok and chicken rice. This might sound silly but we also watch Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and The Layover episodes on Singapore on repeat whenever we miss Singapore. My daughter recognises some of the food he eats!
Best souvenir one could bring back from San Francisco
– for a child:
A tie-dye sweatshirt. Old-school San Francisco is hippy and sweatshirt because it is Silicon Valley chic =) and foggy eight out of 10 days.
– for a mama friend:
A box of See’s Candies. Local chocolates.
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
The lack of parental support—like mine who are in Singapore. My cousins and I grew up with both sets of grandparents. I remember having dinners with them every other weekend. My kids only know my parents through FaceTime. Because of Covid-19, my parents did not even get to meet my son until he was 2.5 years old. They missed out entirely on their only grandson’s baby stage.
On raising multilingual children …
My daughter takes weekly Chinese lessons but it has been challenging for her to progress as none of her friends speak Chinese. She has many Asian friends in school but like how my American-born husband was raised, most are not exposed to the language. Even at home, English is still the default language. My husband does not speak the language and it’s hard for me as the sole Chinese-speaking grown-up to converse with my daughter in Chinese. I feel like I’m performing a monologue.
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your children?
L.E. Cafe pineapple tarts, Bengawan Solo pandan cake, Ya Kun kaya and homemade sambal anchovies from my aunt’s friend. Food reminds me of home. My son loves pineapple tarts and pandan cake!
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.
My husband and kids look forward to Taco Tuesday every week. We do it DIY style with all the fixings. My kids really enjoy assembling their own versions of a taco although for my less adventurous son, it’s usually lots of cheese with a side of Mexican rice. =)
You would probably realise by now that food connects us to our Singaporean roots. So I told my kids tacos are like popiahs in Singapore, the latter just filled with Asian ingredients. Again, you can assemble your own popiah like you do a taco here.
What’s the one thing you would miss about San Francisco if you moved away?
What is the first thing you do each time you come back to Singapore?
Have a cup of kopi c gao!! The local kopi cravings are real. Sometimes, upon arrival at Changi Airport, I will even tapau a cup to go.
What do you dread most if you are moving back to Singapore?
How “small” the island can seem. My husband worked in Singapore for four years before we met and he always said he felt “physically trapped” on the weekends when his days were not filled with work. Singapore is small and there are only so many new places to explore.
How do you think Singaporeans can benefit from living overseas?
I can only speak from personal experience. The US is a large, diverse country and being surrounded by so much diversity, you cannot help but learn to be more open-minded, adaptable and, to some extent, more accepting of what might not be the norm to you. I have been lucky enough to meet and work with people with more interesting backgrounds in my 13 years here than in my 30-plus years in Singapore. It drives you from within to step out of your comfort zone because you have seen others do it—and succeeded. So why not me?
I lived the typical Singaporean life till I left Singapore at the age of 31. If you told 20-something-year-old me then that I would one day go to culinary school in NYC, move to San Francisco, and realise that my calling is to be a barre instructor, I would have told you “not in a million years”. But I did all that and it ain’t too crazy if you ask me.
As a minority in the US, you also learn to stand up and stand out loud for yourself. I used to be so shy about my Singaporean accent when I first moved to the US but I have learnt to embrace it fully. It is what makes me unique. I have a background so rich and different from any of my American friends and this makes me proud to be a Singaporean living in the US.
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