Overseas Singaporean Elsa Cairns living in Melbourne, talks about cooking Peranakan food to reconnect with her cultural identity, how she tries to not be a helicopter parent and why she will probably never move back to Singapore
Singaporean photographer Elsa Cairns lives in Melbourne with her husband Joel, three-year-old son Jameson and two dogs. Here she talks about what she misses from Singapore (family and of course good food features heavily), how she’s teaching her son Mandarin and Singlish and how she tries not to be a helicopter parent. Elsa found her people in Melbourne and has no plans to come back to Singapore – read on to find out why!
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Elsa and I’m a wedding photographer and a commercial photographer for Melbourne shoe label Walnut Melbourne. We are currently stuck in Australia with international borders closed since March 2020. My husband, Joel, who is a live music production manager and sound engineer, hasn’t worked since March 2020 but things are opening up again so hopefully things can slowly go back to normal. We have a little boy, Jameson, who had just turned three in November and two Papillon dogs.
We are fortunate to live in Port Melbourne where we have numerous parks, markets, the beach just 100 metres from our doorstep and even a huge chunk of the Central Business District (CBD) so we can’t really complain.
During the lockdown, I have been cooking a lot more and spending a lot of time exploring Peranakan recipes. My dad is Peranakan and I’m trying to cook dishes that my grandmother would cook just to reconnect with my cultural identity and with my memories of home. I call my family on WhatsApp a lot and this has been really helpful in letting my son bond with family who lives so far away. Even my husband’s family, save his sister, lives in Tasmania and Queensland.
I have also been spending a lot of time weight lifting at home but my actual bodyweight isn’t dropping with all the cooking haha! I miss gyms badly, I miss being useful at work again and I miss face-to-face human interaction!
I also help a small team of four moderators run a successful and growing Facebook group for Singaporeans in Melbourne. It’s been a huge success and we’ve made an effort to put more than 1000 Singaporeans who are permanently living in Melbourne in touch, share funny Singaporean anecdotes and just revel in our Singaporeanness!
I volunteer every Friday, driving and delivering meals to out-of-work hospitality workers, most of whom are foreign students and temporary migrants stuck here in Australia due to our closed borders, lack of flights, lack of work and lack of welfare support.
I am also a MASSIVE Star Trek fan. I love Star Trek so much my three-year-old son can recite the monologue in the opening sequence.
What brought you to Melbourne, Australia? How long have you been living overseas?
I moved here in 2007 to complete a bachelor in commercial photography at RMIT University. I was only 18 at the time. I’ve been here for 13.5 years, came and never really left. I found my people.
Favourite aspect about living in Melbourne?
Melbourne has all the seasons sans snow. It has arguably the best coffee in the world, a wonderful arts and music scene and a great reputation for entertainment and nightlife. My favourite aspects about living in Melbourne are how I can unashamedly be myself in this city and how help is always offered when you ask for it.
And the worst part?
There is a lot of Malaysian food but a real lack of good authentic Singaporean food. And McDonald’s McSpicy here can’t even compare to McSpicy in Singapore!
What are the current restrictions in Melbourne due to Covid-19?
Restrictions in Melbourne have majorly lifted in the last months. Compared to a lot of other countries experiencing major surges with infections and deaths, we’ve only had a small resurgence and have successfully eliminated the onset of subsequent waves. The only major restrictions apply to events with huge crowds, so no festivals and there are caps on the number of attendees for live music events and weddings but life has somewhat returned to normal.
How have you and your family been coping in the midst of Covid-19?
Well it hasn’t been easy. We had a series of issues that cascaded mid-lockdown with lost work, lost friendships and a melanoma diagnosis but we’ve gotten through it all. My husband’s cancer-free! We tried our best to see the lockdown as a gift to spend more time with our little boy and it’s been magical having the opportunity to bond with him. Financially, we’ve been lucky and pulled through even though we lost all our work for months.
How do you think parenting in Melbourne differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
I really appreciate the play-based learning that is so ingrained here in early education. I hear stories from friends from Singapore that their five-year-olds come home from kindergarten crying because kids have to learn numbers and do Chinese dictation whereas my kid demands to go to school.
I feel there is too much emphasis on education in Singapore but not on the quality of childhood. I love that there is an emphasis on the importance of creating meaningful relationships with family members, friends, having meaningful experiences and creating memories over stringent structured learning here. I think the emphasis on introducing the concept of the love of learning is very prevalent here. At the end of the day, your experiences growing up are what makes up your life.
I love how I don’t fret over the little things like Jameson suddenly crawling on the ground to play with a toy car or jumping in puddles and getting all wet when we are out. Or that he eats free-style with his hands and makes a big mess. Sometimes I do catch myself being too much of a helicopter parent but I try to be aware when I can.
Did you give birth to your child in Melbourne? If yes, what was memorable about the experience?
Yes, I did. We went through the public system so we paid at most AUD 400 out of pocket for the ultrasound scans throughout the whole nine months. That’s insane! It was such a great experience. We went to a parent’s midwifery get-together once a month during the last five months of the pregnancy at the Royal Women’s Hospital. They taught us how to breastfeed, how to change nappies and bundle a baby up as well as provided us with very valuable information regarding breastfeeding and the support available. I’m still breastfeeding my boy today. I had a natural birth, stayed a night at the hospital and went home. It was really efficient and I was happy to be able to recuperate almost immediately in my own home.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
My husband and I had been married for six years before I fell pregnant. Pre-baby, I was a well-sought after nightclub photographer along Chapel Street so it was a lot of late nights, booze and parties. When I knew I was pregnant, I immediately cancelled all that as I knew that would not be great for the baby.
I got a job as a photographer at a childcare centre and worked there until four weeks before I was due. I didn’t work for about a year after Jameson was born. I trained every day for powerlifting instead and got really fit hahaha. Then when Jameson was a little over a year old, I started working as an administrative staff for a friend for about a year and a half and sometimes did some freelance wedding photography on weekends. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been offered my old childcare photographer position back so I’ll start once the Covid-19 restrictions ease. I’ve been extremely fortunate!
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Melbourne?
Most restaurants in Melbourne are kid-friendly but our favourite place to go eat pre-pandemic would actually be at the communal tables in the food hall at South Melbourne Market. I would bring my own containers and utensils to dig into the amazing homemade dim sims (Australia’s take on Chinese dumplings) from Mama Tran Dumplings. My son and I can’t stop eating them!
Top five places in or around Melbourne you would recommend to parents travelling with kids and why.
1. Pauline Gandel Children’s Gallery at the Melbourne Museum – there is a huge play-based art installation with dinosaur bones and a huge playground outside. It’s nothing short of amazing!
2. Albert Park Lake – The loop trail around the lake is great for a walk against the backdrop of Melbourne’s beautiful skyline. There are plenty of protected black swans and playgrounds along the trail but our favourite playground will always be the enormous Community Playground.
3. Melbourne Zoo – Pretty self-explanatory and it is pretty cool (even if the one we have in Singapore is better).
4. Plum Garland Memorial Playground – My son’s favourite playground about 400 metres from our home right next to the beach! There is waterplay there too on hotter days.
5. Collingwood Children’s Farm – You get to see farm animals and feed them. There is also an awesome cafe with free-roaming chickens and peacocks. Abbotsford Convent next door is equally interesting with a couple of bars and a not-for-profit restaurant called Lentil As Anything. Some weekends, there is a farmers’ market at the convent too.
Any advice for surviving a flight with young children?
If you breastfeed, pop them on the boob during take-off and prior to landing. Lollipops or candy would do the same thing for older kids to ease ear pain. Lots of books, toys and even a bit of screen time to distract them from disturbing other passengers. Breastfeeding has been a lifesaver for me whenever we travel overseas.
Is there something that you do to keep your child in touch with his Singaporean roots?
I say “haiya you!” a lot to him and he says “shiok!” if food is yummy. Although he struggles a lot with Singlish when he speaks with my family on WhatsApp, it doesn’t stop him from chattering away, I’m the resident interpreter haha! Food and family are what I always introduce to keep him rooted to Singapore.
Best souvenir one could bring back from Melbourne
– for a child:
The Mini Melbourne Tram or, if you have money to burn and space in your luggage, the iconic standard-sized Melbourne Tram. We had bought our son a secondhand one.
– for a mama friend:
Melbourne coffee pods! I’ll go for these ones with specialty coffee roaster Padre Coffee’s espresso blend. Which mother doesn’t do coffee?
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
The lack of support in introducing Mandarin in my son’s life because my family isn’t around. I miss my family, we are very close and I would love to be closer to them so that my son would have a deeper connection with them.
On raising multilingual children …
I had planned on taking my then two-year-old to a weekend Mandarin centre but Covid-19 hit with restrictions and that priority took a back seat. However, I’m beginning to restart that process. Admittedly, it has been hard to speak to my son exclusively in Mandarin when my own Mandarin proficiency is somewhat lacking too
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your child?
I always try and bring back educational charts and stuff from Popular. It’s so hard finding such things here! With the travel bans and border closures, I’m really sad that I can’t buy Chinese language books, which are hard to locate in Australia, to introduce the language to him.
For myself, I always bring back a lot of food such as Knorr’s Hao Chi Seasoning and Singapore Houten chilli tapioca chips. I still get my parents to send me Hao Chi Seasoning every few weeks. At the moment, it takes six weeks for any package from Singapore to arrive in Australia.
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.
Yikes, this is hard. I make an effort to cook a wide variety of cuisines for my family. Just recently, I made wonton kiam chye soup. I can make Indian curries, Peranakan dishes, traditional roast meat and BBQ steaks but if I cannot be bothered, it will be Spaghetti Bolognese hahaha.
What’s the one thing you would miss about Melbourne if you moved away?
Strong almond flat white with one cube of sugar, available at nearly every street corner in Melbourne. And the free healthcare too.
What is the first thing you do each time you come back to Singapore?
I visit my family, especially my ah ma and gong gong, or go to the hawker centre for a super affordable meal in a familiar environment.
What do you dread most if you are moving back to Singapore?
To be frank, I don’t see myself ever moving back to Singapore. I’ve been away for way too long that I have nothing other than family to pull me back. I’ve built my life here in Melbourne. If by some weird chance I have to move back to Singapore, I would have to go back to slogging my guts out and my son would have to join the rat race, starting with Singapore’s education system. I would literally mourn the loss of the good work-life balance that I’ve grown accustomed to in Australia.
How do you think Singaporeans can benefit from living overseas?
In the Singaporeans in Melbourne Facebook group I help manage, we actively encourage self-introductions so that we can put a story to each member. Too often we get lurkers and members who make zero genuine connections so we are trying to foster a more open and intimate community. So far, the introductions have encouraged many to share their stories and the one constant I’ve seen is that Singaporeans in Melbourne crave a better work-life balance. There is a large community of Singaporeans in Melbourne who live in Point Cook, about 40 minutes from the CBD with plenty of nature walks and houses – pretty much the complete opposite of Singapore.
Singaporeans can definitely benefit from other perspectives and lifestyles because sometimes I feel many Singaporeans who don’t have the opportunity to live overseas for an extended period of time tend to be very close-minded and are not open to different ideas – what I call the big-fish-in-a-small-pond syndrome.
Thank you for your time, Elsa!
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