Singaporean Jasmine Lee has just moved back home from London with her three boisterous boys (four if you count her husband). Here she shares all the best of London, tips on travel and how parenting in the UK differs to parenting in Singapore
Overseas Singaporean mama of three boys, Ray, Ian and Kai, Jasmine Lee returns to Singapore from London and talks about planning family getaways around Europe, running a parenting group on Facebook, plus hear all her top tips on London’s kid-friendly attractions.
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Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am a mum to three boys, starting with my almost-seven-year-old, a four-year-old and a 1.5-year-old. As you can probably surmise, this household is high on testosterone, noise and energy. I used to work full time but stopped when we moved to London in May 2017. I also stepped down from my role almost one year ago as a board member at a preschool in Singapore which pioneered the Reggio Emilia approach as the geographical distance made it hard for me to contribute effectively to the preschool’s cause. In my free time, besides trying to keep the brood alive, I keep my parenting Facebook account active with stories of my parenting journey as well as tales of the boys and places we travel to.
What brought you to London, UK? How long have you been living overseas?
We moved to London for my husband’s job and lived there for three years before moving back to Singapore in June 2020.
Favourite aspect about living in London?
The weather!!! I know everyone always moans about the dreary and grey London skies but seriously, it’s not as bad as people make it out to be. Not perspiring constantly is such an underrated joy! London’s excellent location within Europe is also wonderful. In a way, London is a little like Singapore, a gateway to many other countries. In our short time there, we managed to travel rather extensively within and outside the UK. We had visited France including Disneyland Paris, Lapland in Finland (-16deg!), Switzerland, Sweden, Slovakia and the Netherlands – and yes, always with the kids in tow!
And the worst part?
The food I guess. As Singaporeans, we have been so spoilt by countless delicious options back home from local food at the hawker centres to international cuisines in restaurants from all over the world. How can any other place compare?
Your most recent purchase… for your children?
Tickets to various attractions at Sentosa over the school holidays.
…and for yourself?
Electric toothbrush as mine just broke.
How do you think parenting in London differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
In Singapore, I find that kids spend a lot more time indoors in activities like attending tuition classes or going to the malls to watch shows or attend other extra-curricular classes. In London, sunny skies mean a chance to embrace nature and organise impromptu play dates at the park or the playground. There were so many times during summer when we decided to have a picnic at the park just because the weather was nice. I definitely appreciate this as spending time in nature can help to reduce the risk of myopia (see Singapore’s alarming myopia rate). I personally believe this is what all children need!
Another aspect where parents in London differ from Singaporean parents is the ‘kiasu’ factor. It’s not to say that parents in London do not send their kids to different classes or activities but generally, the extra-curricular activities are selected more based on their children’s interests. Often, these activities are well-balanced with a healthy dose of time spent playing or learning through play e.g. via museum visits rather than solely chasing grades from a young age.
In Singapore, there is crazy focus on rote learning and grades although this is slowly changing for the better. A lot of parents in Singapore also engage in helicopter parenting, where they are afraid to let their children fail or get hurt. As a result, Singaporean kids can be sheltered and are afraid to try new things.
Did you give birth to your children in London? If yes, what was memorable about the experience?
My first two were born in Singapore at National University Hospital (NUH) and my youngest was born in London – apparently at the same hospital where Victoria Beckham gave birth to her children haha! The care I received was great but I still think that the medical facilities at NUH was better in terms of equipment and rooms. Even though Singaporeans complain so much, our medical facilities and care are truly world-class.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
As someone with insatiable wanderlust, I started my career with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), which allowed me to travel to different countries and led to many invaluable experiences and friendships. However, the ‘nomadic’ nature of the job was not conducive to starting the kind of family that I wanted. The job also required me to put in long and hard hours.
I left for the National University Health System (NUHS) which enabled me to juggle family and career well. I had an amazing boss, Gerry, who cared more about work outcomes instead of hours clocked so that worked out well for me as I hate sitting around at work just to ‘show my face’. It also shows the importance of having good bosses – Gerry made it possible for me to give 100% both at work and at home. It was fantastic to be able to read to my kids after work and tuck them into bed (and they sleep pretty early by Singaporean standards).
In London, I was the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at home. I got to indulge in the joy of refereeing my kids’ fights, managing their schedules, leapfrogging ahead to sniff out potential meltdowns (and avoiding them)… essentially keeping them and myself alive. It’s undoubtedly tougher than working in a corporate environment, which I find is a walk in the park compared to raising well-adjusted kids!
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in London?
We don’t actually have one favourite kid-friendly restaurant as we keep visiting new ones. Just make sure to pack some books, colouring pencils and toys to keep them happy and, most importantly, quiet!
Top five places in or around London you would recommend to parents travelling with kids and why.
Farms – London is amazing for families but what many don’t realise is that there is so much more to London than just the city itself. I definitely recommend visiting a farm! The farms here are clean, green, spacious and have lots of play areas. Our favourite farms are Bocketts Farm, Odds Farm Park and Willows Activity Farm.
Parks – Parks in London are great for just lounging around, having a picnic or even for boating. Hyde Park, the Regent’s Park, St James’s Park are amazing with some pretty rad playgrounds. Heck, even watching the ducks at the parks is enjoyable!
Safaris – People usually associate safaris with Africa and not the UK. Yes, you can actually visit a safari in just over an hour’s drive away outside of London. The one we went to near London is called Woburn Safari Park. You can see rhinos and zebras and even feed giraffes from the comfort of your vehicle. There is another one near the Midlands called West Midland Safari Park.
Museums – Museums are great for expanding a child’s knowledge, mind and imagination. Some of the best museums in London are also free to enter such as the Natural History Museum, the V&A Museum and the Science Museum. Others like the London Transport Museum will require an entry fee but they are really great and are definitely worth a visit.
Theatres – You can’t visit London and not go to the theatre! There are many amazing plays and musicals you can bring children, even babies to! The Lion King admits kids as young as five or six years old and there are plenty of shows catering to toddlers and babies. I brought my kids to several shows including a Sleeping Beauty ballet performance and a Peppa Pig play – they enjoyed it all!
Any advice for surviving a flight with young children?
You must understand your kids’ schedules well and adjust them accordingly to accommodate disruptions to their normal routines that a flight brings. Kids are creatures of habits so bring their favourite snacks and books. Don’t forget to prep them on what would happen on the flight so they know what to expect. For me, breastfeeding is such a lifesaver when it comes to flights. Blocked ears? Hungry? Cranky? Breastfeeding solves 90% of my baby-related issues. I even had strangers come up to me to thank me for having brilliant kids on board the flight haha! They are definitely not always this good.
Is there something that you do to keep your children in touch with their Singaporean roots?
Food! They know the names of Singapore dishes like char kuay teow and bobo chacha. Technology has also made it easier for them to connect with their grandparents, godparents and friends. It is the network of people that makes a house into a home. Staying connected with their loved ones in Singapore keeps them pretty Singaporean, especially in their lingo and accents!
Best souvenir one could bring back from London for a child:
Organic children’s snacks from the supermarkets. They are cheap and good!
…and for a mama friend:
Organic foodstuff and wine? Hahah!
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?The lack of close family support makes it hard for me to pursue anything that does not involve kids. Just when I finally could after shipping the youngest kid off to nursery, I had to go pop out another baby. Can you imagine – three years in London and I did not manage to watch Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? It’s preposterous!
On raising multilingual children …
This is really tough. There’s nothing that can help kids become multilingual except sheer hard work on a daily basis. We moved here when my eldest was 3.5 years old and my middle kid was eight months old. I knew what we were up against and chose to speak exclusively to the middle kid in Mandarin, a language that I, myself, hardly used when I was growing up.
When he started talking, he would speak in Mandarin to us and refer to animals by their Mandarin names. That delighted me as I could see the fruits of our labour beginning to materialise. Alas, as we eased into life in London and slackened our efforts, his Mandarin proficiency level plummeted when he started going to nursery and talking with his older brother in English so we now find ourselves back at square one again. I guess I’ve got to crank the engine and start speaking more Mandarin again!
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your children?
Food! Coffee for me and foodstuff like kaya, ikan bilis and wolfberries for them!
Your top makeup tip for a busy mama?
Don’t do makeup. Lol.
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.
I’m very much a Google person so I try new recipes all the time but kids love their fried rice and pasta though. One thing I always make sure is that they have a decent amount of vegetables in their diet!
What’s the one thing you would miss about London if you moved away?
The affordable and extensive selection of organic food. I’ll also miss enjoying nature in great, comfortable weather. Man, I’m tearing up already!
Thank you for your time, Jasmine. Click here to read about other Overseas Mamas!