Singaporean mama of two May Tan reflects on life in the lake region of Germany where she lives with her two boys and German husband
May Tan talks about her journey from being an Infocomm Media Development Authority executive in Singapore to a stay home mum of two active boys in Germany. Here she shares how living in the lake region of southern Germany has a calming effect on her, how her boys like to build their own toys and how the schooling system differs from Singapore (kids can choose whether or not to complete any worksheets and they spend a lot of the early years just playing). It was during the pandemic that May decided to start a food business which has so far enriched her life and is giving her a sense of self-worth that she has missed.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m May and my husband, Tobias, is German. We’ve got two boys, Maximilian and Joshua, who are seven and five respectively. I left my job at the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and moved to Überlingen in southern Germany in May 2018. We live on the north shore of Bodensee (Lake Constance) in the state of Baden-Württemberg near the border with Switzerland.
When I told my family and friends that I’d be moving to Überlingen, their immediate response was: “Über- what???” They’ve only heard of the big German cities like Munich, Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Berlin. What I’d normally tell them is that we’re in a town of 20,000, although Überlingen is actually the second-largest city in Bodenseekreis (Bodensee District) after Friedrichshafen.
I’ve worked since the day I left university, mostly in the media industry. So the move from a full-time working mum to a full-time homemaker has definitely put me on countless emotional rollercoaster rides. But after three years, I must say, I am getting the hang of things as a homemaker who also runs a home business. The keyword for me is: Adapt.
I’m so very thankful to my two gal pals – Hidayah and Niki – who also moved to Europe from Singapore the same year as I did. Even though they are in France, they’ve been a great source of emotional support for me. In Hidayah’s words, “We’ve formed a sisterhood, exchanging horror and happy stories about how we adapt to our lives abroad”.
What brought you to Überlingen, Germany? How long have you been living overseas?
I met my landscape architect husband when he came to Singapore to work on the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. Our agreement before we even started dating was that we would move to Überlingen eventually. Yes, that was the dealbreaker! After 12 years in Singapore, my husband decided it was time to go home to be with his parents before our boys start schule (primary school). His brother also moved back to Überlingen with his family from Hamburg. So now, the Baur family is complete and reunited in Überlingen. Prior to my move to Germany, I had studied and lived in Newcastle, Australia for five years. During this time, I had the chance to work at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney and ABC Newcastle. These memories will stay with me for a long time! Okay, that’s another story for another day!
Favourite aspect about living in Überlingen?
I guess it’ll have to be the fact that we live in a lake region. There’s a holiday town feel and the waters have that natural calming effect on me. Living in the south definitely has its advantages too. Pre-pandemic, we could just hop into our campervan and drive to nearby countries like France, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. The best way to travel!
And the worst part?
I guess the worst part is being so far away from my parents in Singapore and my brother and sister-in-law who live in Australia. But thankfully, I have very supportive and lovely parents-in-law here as well as a few friends I’ve made over the past three years. This helps to lessen the pain of being so far away from my loved ones.
What are the current restrictions in Überlingen due to Covid-19?
Since the start of the year, I’ve been homeschooling my older kid who’s in 1. Klasse (equivalent to Primary 1). It was challenging as the education system here is not as equipped for online learning as compared to Singapore. Only in late April or early May were the kids allowed back in school on a rotational basis. Working adults are encouraged to work from home, where possible. There were also restrictions on the number of people who can meet. Also, when the incidence rate was high, we had to go to a test centre to get ourselves tested in order to enter shops and events. With the wide availability of antigen rapid test (ART) kits and a low incidence rate, school has resumed for school-going children. Children are given a box of ART kits weekly and are supposed to test themselves on Mondays and Thursdays at home before heading to school. Frankly, I think we have had it quite good here in Bodenseekreis. The incidence rates here are not as high as compared to other parts of Germany.
How have you and your family been coping in the midst of Covid-19?
It had been challenging like everyone everywhere else in the world, I guess. All four of us were cooped up at home 24/7. My husband had to get used to us being around while he worked. There were definitely some tense moments but we worked through it. We have also gone for lots of walks in nature during this period. Before the pandemic, we would hug our loved ones and close friends when we meet. Till today, even though we are all vaccinated, we continue to minimise body contact, even refraining from shaking hands. Definitely not easy, especially for my elderly in-laws.
I miss my parents in Singapore and my brother and sister-in-law in Australia. Thankfully, with technology, we are in touch via WhatsApp messages and video calls. Now, we are just hoping for Singapore’s mandatory 14-day Stay-Home Notice (SHN) requirement to be lifted so that we can visit my parents in Singapore during Christmas. While it is undoubtedly costly, we are more concerned with having the kids confined within four walls for 14 days.
How do you think parenting in Überlingen differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
I don’t think the move from Singapore to Germany has changed the way we teach or raise our kids. Our focus has always been on free play, letting them learn through experience.
Max had spent almost two years in a local kindergarten in Singapore. During those two years, he learnt his ABCs and 123s and picked up Chinese. We did not send him to any enrichment classes. Some of our friends would tell me to enrol Max in enrichment classes to prepare for primary school. I would get quite stressed just listening to them because he was only four!
Max has recently completed 1. Klasse. In the past year, I’ve observed that the kids really enjoy learning and look forward to going to school. Not once have I heard him complain or whine about school work (because there’s hardly any!). And if there are worksheets, it is not compulsory to complete them. The children can decide if they want to do them or not. Isn’t that refreshing?
Kids here start learning how to read and write i.e. ABCs and 123s only when they start 1. Klasse. I’m amazed how fast the kids are brought up to speed with reading and writing in just one year. There are no grades given in 1. Klasse, just feedback on Verhalten (Behaviour), Arbeiten (Ability to complete tasks) and Lernen (Learning) – no tests or exams!
All I can say is, “Max hat gut geschaft! (Max has done well!)” I am glad that he’s enjoying school and his life here. It would be interesting when my second boy starts 1. Klasse next year, as he isn’t “equipped” with prior kindergarten learning in Singapore.
On social skills and independence…
Kindergarten kids here are not grouped according to their age. They are a mix of kids from ages three to six who learn to play and communicate with one another. I remember clearly on Josh’s first day of kindergarten, when he first walked into the classroom, the older girls rushed to me and offered to show him around and play with him. That was really nice. Over here, the emphasis is on play, both indoor and outdoor!
When we first moved here, my parents’ first question to the kids when they spoke on the phone would be “What did you learn today?” The kids actually found it amusing because all they did was play so they didn’t know exactly how to reply. After a while, my parents stopped asking this question. Nowadays they ask “Who did you play with today?” or “What did you do today in kindergarten?”
As for Max, after a month in 1. Klasse, he started walking to and from school alone. He’d make appointments to meet with his friends at the playground or at a friend’s place. Both boys, especially Max, love to help their father with handiwork. Their favourite “playroom” is daddy’s werkstatt (workshop) where they hammer, saw, and build their own toys.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
I worked full-time overseeing the funding of Public Service Broadcast content at IMDA. Although work was highly stressful and challenging with the ever-evolving mediascape, I totally enjoyed my portfolio as I got to meet lots of people from the industry, and see the fruits of my labour on screen. Since moving to Germany, I’ve been a stay at home mum (SAHM) and I started running a business from home in my second year here. In my first year, I felt completely lost and sad as I had just lost almost 20 years of financial independence, and I struggled a lot with the idea of me just being a mum. My daily routine comprises getting the boys ready for school, making sure that their daily needs are met, being their private chauffeur driving them to music classes, tennis and to their friends’ homes, cooking and doing household chores.
Only after the kids have gone to bed, that’s when I start my “real” work. Since June 2019, we have run an energy snack business called Trail Butter Europe. Trail Butter was developed by our friend and we’re the European distributor. Running a business is a new ball game for me, and what’s more, a food business! After much deliberation and support from the husband, we decided to take the plunge. Learn a new skill – run a business! While it is doubly stressful running a business in a pandemic, strangely enough, the business somehow enriched my life and my sense of self-worth has returned. Looking back, I often wonder what more I could have done as a mummy to Max if I had stopped work in his first four years. Would I have been more involved in his life? The answer is yes. With my second boy, I feel that I’m more involved and know much more about his everyday life.
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Überlingen?
Probably the outdoor restaurants at Ostbad and Westbad. They are both at the lake so kids can play at the playgrounds, swim or just play in the waters.
Top five places in or around Überlingen you would recommend to parents travelling with kids and why.
- Schlossee – Situated in Salem, about nine kilometres east of Überlingen, this lake is our favourite place to hang out in the summer! You can go on a nature discovery trail around the lake, there is a 1000sqm water playground for younger kids and a Robinson Island with a pirate ship for older kids. Take a dip in the lake or just sunbathe! The lake is great for a day out for people of all ages.
- Konstanz – One of Germany’s most popular destinations on the shores of Bodensee with medieval sites, historical museums and a picture-perfect old town. There is also Sea Life Konstanz for the kids.
- Mainau – The 110-acre “Flower Island” of Mainau is about seven kilometres north of Konstanz, off the southern shore of Überlinger See (Lake Überlinger). Come see the beautiful parks and gardens with semitropical and tropical vegetation as well as Schloss Mainau, a castle built in 1746 for the Grand Duke of Baden. For kids, there is Mainau Kinderland, an island-based kids play area with a petting zoo and a fun water play area called Wasserwelt (Water World). There is also Schmetterlingshaus (Butterfly House), the largest such attraction in Germany.
- Pfahlbauten – An archaeological open-air museum that is one of Bodensee’s most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites with reconstructions of stilt dwellings from the Stone Age and Bronze Age, which let visitors experience the lives of farmers, fishermen and craftsmen from that era.
- Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen – A museum in nearby Friedrichshafen that houses the world’s largest aviation collection and is also the birthplace of the Zeppelin airship. It is the only museum in Germany that combines technology and art.
Is there something that you do to keep your children in touch with their Singaporean roots?
Besides cooking their favourite foods like fried carrot cake, chicken satay, chicken rice, pandan cake and soya beancurd, I also buy them books about Singapore written by Singaporean authors. My go-to bookstore is Epigram Books. I love their Understanding Singaporeans bundle and Heritage Picture Book bundle. From time to time, I’d chat with them about Singapore, what they remember seeing or doing back in Singapore, what they miss about Singapore, what they would like to do when we head back to Singapore for our holidays. And of course, we watch the National Day Parade together!
Best souvenir one could bring back from Überlingen
– for a child:
Wooden toys from Hape and Goki, organic snacks for children by dmBio, FruchtBar, HiPP and Freche Freunde or sustainable children’s clothing from Alana or the markets, which are sewn by locals.
– for a mama friend:
Homemade jam or jelly made with fruits from our garden and Bodensee Secco, a local sparkling wine.
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
I guess it would have to be the ability to communicate effectively my true thoughts and intentions using the German language, and being so far away from my parents. These are two things that bug me from time to time.
On raising multilingual children…
We are pretty much a bilingual family. I converse with the boys in English, and my husband with them in German. However, we’ve made it a rule to speak English when we’re all together and when my parents are with us. Last year, because of Covid-19, a Chinese school in Stuttgart started offering online classes. I asked if Max was interested. He tried it and enjoyed it. He has been at it for the past half a year or so. I’m hoping that interest will stay for a while.
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your child?
I love cooking and baking so I’d bring condiments I cannot find here in Germany and Chinese herbs. For the kids, English and Chinese storybooks.
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.
My kids have many favourites so it is hard to pick one. Maybe chicken stew, potato with egg, sushi, and chee cheong fun!
What’s the one thing you would miss about Überlingen if you moved away?
The serenity and a couple of close mummy friends that I have made since I moved here.
What is the first thing you do each time you come back to Singapore?
I’ve only been back to Singapore once since I moved here. I would meet up with my close pals and ex-colleagues and spend a lot of time with my parents. Most of the meet-ups also ended up becoming makan sessions.
What do you dread most if you are moving back to Singapore?
The hectic and competitive environment, be it at work or in school.
How do you think Singaporeans can benefit from living overseas?
Living overseas can help with stepping out of their comfort zones, broadening mindsets, learning a new language, making friends from around the world, and developing a stronger cultural awareness.
Thank you for your time, May!
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