Overseas Singaporean mama Monisha Buddha tells us why Chicago is as kid-friendly as it gets when it comes to visiting the USA
Based in Chicago in the United States, portfolio manager, mama of one and aspiring author Monisha Buddha takes the spotlight as our overseas mama this week. She shares with us her fail-safe recipe for shrimp fried rice, explains to us how Chicago has stolen her heart even if she is not a big fan of winter, and why Chicagoans are the main reason why she would miss the city if she moves away one day.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am a proud mama of a two-year-old boy (read: energy ball). I have a bachelor’s degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and a Corporate Finance certificate from Harvard University. I am a portfolio manager in a large healthcare company here. I love writing and have recently self-published an eBook, The Mosaicist. I am also currently working on a children’s book, inspired by my own parenting journey.
What brought you to Chicago? How long have you been living overseas?
We have been living in Chicago for five years now. My husband, who is originally from India, convinced me that I needed to experience the four seasons. Every winter – and I’ve been through five so far – I always swear that I will go back home to Singapore yet when summer comes, I fall in love with Chicago all over again. It is a beautiful and vibrant city.
I really love the vibe in Chicago. It is a lot like Singapore – people here fight for parking and there are also just two seasons. In Singapore, it is either constantly raining or scorching hot. Chicago is either covered under a blanket of snow or a blanket of dust from all the construction that happens once it stops snowing. We live in downtown Chicago, so it has been interesting navigating through bustling city life trying to look for holistic nature activities.
Favourite aspect about living in Chicago?
You know how in Singapore, we have pasar malams (night markets) spring up in residential areas during the various festive seasons? Chicago has these all year round and they are different for every season and holiday so there is always something to do. I also love the amazing sales seasons in the States.
…And the worst part?
Not having the same amazing food! I have yet to find egg prata or laksa here. I still miss laksa from the canteen in NTU’s School of Biological Sciences.
Your most recent purchase…
… for your child?
A pair of winter boots with a monster design as he is a big fan of monsters and dinosaurs right now.
Hoop earrings from Kate Spade. I wore them out for dinner with my friends over the weekend and I loved how they loved them!
How do you think parenting in Chicago differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
I think it is a lot more relaxed here. Parents take their kids out even in the most insane of winters and they don’t get overtly stressed out when their children have a meltdown in a public place. I think this is a great learning experience for me because, as Asians, we really care too much about what everyone thinks of us. The focus here is on kids having fun and not really on teaching them things like in Singapore.
Did you give birth to your child in Chicago? If yes, what was memorable about the experience?
Yes, I gave birth in Chicago and we had to drive to the hospital during rush hour! The hospitals here are very well-equipped and everyone is very friendly and chatty. I like that about Chicago and how it is very easy to strike up a conversation with just about anyone. I wanted to use the restroom before the doctor came to check on me to confirm if I was in labor. The nurse did not want to let me because she thought I was about to push my baby out. I had to assure her many times that I was only trying to pee. It was hilarious.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
It couldn’t have been more different but my husband and family have been incredibly supportive and this helped me immensely. Post-baby, there were all these additional things to do like food preparation, an insane amount of laundry, cleaning, toy disinfection and growth milestone tracking. I felt like a swan which looks so graceful above the water but is actually frantically paddling underwater.
When I was on maternity leave, I relied 100% on my parents and then on my in-laws. I wouldn’t have survived without them. Having a nanny when I went back to work was vital, especially for me as a first-time mom. She helped me so much with tasks that I could afford to be more relaxed (note: relaxed, not rested as mothers don’t rest until their children are 18 years old).
This allowed me to continue striving for growth both professionally and personally. I was able to publish The Mosaicist and can devote time to work on my next book. At work, I think I became more productive because I couldn’t bring home the same amount of work. It made me better at prioritising tasks and since having my baby, I have also been promoted.
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Chicago?
Chicago is surprisingly very kid-friendly. We recently discovered SafeHouse Chicago and had a lot of fun with the secret passageways and the staff were great with kids. I was this close to asking one of them if she can babysit my son in her free time.
Top five places in or around Chicago you would recommend to parents travelling with kids, and why?
- Shedd Aquarium: My son loves it. There is so much to see and there is also a dolphin show that kids will really like.
- Chicago Botanic Garden: There are many interesting exhibitions and I find it nice to expose little ones to nature and the beauty of large tulips.
- Field Museum: I love the artefacts and exhibits at Field Museum. Spending a day at this museum is a great way to teach children about different cultures and time periods.
- Navy Pier: There are many events and activities here all year round, especially during the weekends. Just the other day we went for a beach pop-up event at Navy Pier’s indoor hall where, instead of sand and water, the entire hall was filled with balls. Over Christmas, it was transformed into a winter wonderland.
- Lincoln Park Zoo: There is plenty of space for children to run about and we always have a ton of fun here. We especially love the penguins and lions!
Any advice for surviving a flight with young children?
Apart from making friends with the air stewardesses and stewards, I swear by the following items –
- A children’s backpack with a strap you can put around your wrist for when you need to take out the passports and your child does not want to stand still
- An inflatable foot rest which transforms the seat into a makeshift bed for kids to sleep on during long-haul flights
- A special seatbelt for airline seats that straps children in like a car seat
- My child’s favourite toys and
- Some paper and crayons (note: not markers)
Is there something that you do to keep your child in touch with his Singaporean roots?
Yes, cooking! Every now and then, I show him the different spices and explain to him how they make our food yummy. Also, I get food like pandan cakes and Pocky biscuit sticks from the Asian grocery store so that my son can grow up with the kind of snacks I grew up with. I guess with Singaporeans, it is always about food.
Best souvenir one could bring back from Chicago
– For a mama friend:
It would have to be bags, for the same reason – Michael Kors, Guess, Anne Klein and Coach bags are heaps cheaper here!
On raising multilingual children …
Right now we are finding this very difficult because inevitably we always end up talking in English. I need to constantly remind myself to speak less in English and more in Telugu and Hindi so we are still working on it, fingers crossed.
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
Not having the same institutional knowledge. Things like schools, foods, places to shop for children’s clothes all have to be researched, then more time has to be spent to try and test shortlisted options. Back in Singapore, I would already know this information like the back of my hand. Thankfully I am part of a mothers’ group here and it has really been a blessing having these fellow moms around to share anything and everything with.
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your child?
For myself, curry powders and pastes (were you expecting something else?) and for my child, traditional outfits.
Your top makeup tip for a busy mama?
Don’t leave the house without eyeliner! It draws the attention away from the dark circles under your eyes.
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family:
Shrimp fried rice!
Cook 1 cup rice and set aside.
Saute some onions and tomatoes.
Add chilli powder, salt and coriander powder.
Add chopped vegetables such as carrots, beans, cauliflower and corn.
Add shrimps (go nuts and add as many as you want as there is no such thing as too many shrimps).
Add 1 bunch cilantro.
Make sure everything is well-cooked then add cooked rice and stir well.
Add salt to taste.
What’s the one thing you would miss about Chicago if you moved away?
Definitely the people. I love being able to talk to anyone. People here are so friendly and welcoming. I would really miss them