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“I gave birth to my son in a tub in a tent in the yard”: Singaporean Pearly Tan in Berkeley

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Singaporean Pearly Tan is one impressive mama of two living in Berkeley. She was once an investigative journalist and now works at Facebook Reality Labs. Pearly chats about parenting in the US, raising a multi-racial family, and more

Pearly Tan shares about racism and diversity in Berkeley and her ‘horrific’ first birth experience at a hospital in the States which led to her decision to give birth to her second child in a tub in a tent in her yard with only a midwife, her husband and her daughter present. Read on for Pearly’s insights into life in California, the ups and downs of parenting abroad and how she feels Singaporeans are privileged compared to how things are abroad where ‘the wealth gap is huge, racial inequity allows certain communities to kill without consequence…’ and how she is so grateful for her chosen community that supports her multiracial family. 

Click here to read about other Overseas Singaporean mamas!

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was born in Singapore and grew up in Toa Payoh in a four-room flat. My parents worked full-time and we had a domestic helper to help take care of my brother and me when we were growing up. I started my professional life as a journalist with Singapore Press Holdings about a decade ago before working in the Philippines, Japan and China. I moved to the United States to work on my master’s degree in multimedia journalism at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) and eventually also won a scholarship to study storytelling at Yale University. I am now a content designer at Facebook Reality Labs working on their augmented reality and virtual reality products, and I have two kids, Katherine, who is four years old and Nicholas, who is two.

What brought you to Berkeley, USA? How long have you been living overseas?

After noticing that my resume included work done across the globe but none in the Americas, I chose the college town of Berkeley as my next home base and moved there in 2012 to attend UC Berkeley. I met my husband in Richmond, California the first week I arrived in the USA and we became good friends, supporting each other through life and relationships. We started dating a few years later and got married in 2015. We now live in Berkeley where he runs a bicycle shop focused on getting families and children on bicycles.

Favourite aspect about living in Berkeley?

Berkeley is a strange place. When school is in session, the place teems with energy from international students from all over the world. Pre-pandemic, this meant that the small business environment was filled with all kinds of international brands and cuisines. As a Singaporean, diversity is one of my favourite aspects of living in Berkeley but the reality is it is a college town and when students leave, what remains is a pretty mono-cultural community, albeit one that is probably more accepting of differences and diversity than many other places in the States.

And the worst part?

Pseudo-diversity. It’s the situation where people think Berkeley is a wonderful place with no racism. This is not true. Racism exists here just like everywhere else in the world. It’s just that racists hide it better here and only show their true colors when they are alone with someone who is not like them.

What are the current restrictions in Berkeley due to Covid-19?

On 16 March 2020, shelter-in-place orders were issued in Berkeley. Non-essential businesses were ordered to close and so small business, restaurants and salons shuttered in compliance. This went on for months, until around September last year when small businesses were slowly allowed to reopen. However, on 16 November 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that most of California would move back into shut down due to an increase in Covid-19 cases. Today everyone is supposed to stay at home for all but essential tasks.

I say with great sadness that I envy Singapore for having managed Covid-19 well. The mental stress of sheltering in place for over half a year is immense and is taking a toll on many parents. Children have had their education sacrificed and it is impossible for men and women to be great parents and great workers or business owners at the same time.

How have you and your family been coping in the midst of Covid-19?

In September, we made the hard decision to send our children back to preschool, where strict measures have been set in place to reduce Covid-19 risks among families. The move coincided with my move into a new role at Facebook Reality Labs and could not have come at a better time.

Our new normal feels like survival and we have not hung out with friends, family or socialised in the community since March last year. It’s stressful and tiring and our only option is to continue social distancing in order to best protect our family. Our daughter now takes violin lessons with a teacher in Singapore that a friend recommended since it doesn’t matter where the teacher is if all lessons are conducted online. I had considered sending my daughter to outdoor sports classes but could not justify increasing her risk of exposure to Covid-19.

How do you think parenting in Berkeley differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?

The best thing in Berkeley is how strong our chosen community is. As a small business owner and through the groups we engage in, we have a small but strong support community that cares about our children and family. There are a thousand ways in which parenting here is different from parenting in Singapore.

Firstly, we don’t have family nearby. My husband and I have not gone on more than five dates in five years. We enjoy the company of our children but it’s very challenging not having regular time together. I am definitely envious of friends and family who can ask relatives to help out with their children.

Secondly, I am my child’s Mandarin teacher. My kids do not go to immersion school here as they are expensive (USD3,000 per month). Instead, I work with my daughter on her Mandarin for about half an hour each day and then on her violin. I am envious of my friends in Singapore, whose children are organically exposed to Mandarin at school and in everyday life. There are also plenty of classes they can send their children to that do not exist here. My daughter also works with a Mandarin teacher in Taiwan over video chats twice a week.

Thirdly, schools here are run very differently than schools in Singapore. Meals are not provided at school and my husband and I pack lunch boxes for our kids each morning, spend the day working before preparing dinner for the family. There are very few nutritious and affordable options around us that we can turn to as I prefer not to feed the kids pizza and sandwiches every day.

Did you give birth to your children in Berkeley? If yes, what was memorable about the experience?

I gave birth to my daughter at a hospital in Berkeley where we had a horrific experience that included coercion, threats of a C-section, an incorrectly administered epidural that numbed my face and doctors who lied about having seen us. It ended with me giving birth to our daughter into the hands of my husband with no medical professionals present.

As a result of our first birth experience, I chose to give birth to my son in a tub in a tent in the yard of my house with a midwife. I gave birth with classical music playing in the background, with no chemical interventions and it was a peaceful transition for everyone. We played music around the clock for a month after the birth and ordered a month-long postpartum Asian meal delivery service.

With my daughter, the most memorable part was keeping her safe through the turmoil and with our son, the best thing was how peaceful the entire process was for everyone, including our daughter who was present when her baby brother was born.

Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?

Before having kids, I was mostly involved in investigative journalism which took me to places and into situations where my life was at risk. I craved stimulating the hard discussions that society needed by placing evidence in front of people’s eyes, working with people on the ground and C-suite executives to create change in fragile communities. I’ve written stories on human trafficking, gangs and the drug war, paedophilia, natural disasters and recovery as well as infectious diseases. I produced a multimedia ebook titled Cholera in Haiti and the International Coverup in 2015.

It seems easy to stay alive using wit, strategy and observation but this has changed after having children. With my experience in writing about infectious diseases, I was invited to help with research on Covid-19 but I turned it down. Having two children under five years old does that to me. It makes me say no because I don’t want to unnecessarily place my family at risk. After all, my son had fallen ill last year and I never want to stay up at night, holding a child whose lips are blue and listening to him struggle to breathe.

Post-baby, my career has had to take a different trajectory. I can no longer weave through riots and travel to countries in unrest to document realities that much of the world has ignored. From working as a full-time multimedia lead for brands including Google, Intel and Airbnb, managing product launch campaigns and working closely with scientists, researchers, marketers and tech leaders, I took a step back to raise my children.

To make ends meet, I worked remotely as a business education journalist at Poets&Quants, taking the opportunity to build connections with business school deans, career directors and admissions directors throughout the United States. Asking these important people all the questions I wanted about how they groom and identify talent and potential pushed me to market myself better.

From there, I journeyed into using my skills for good at a higher level. In 2019, I began working as a web editor at Facebook for Business. There, I managed content relating to product launches, campaigns, leadership communications and feature developments for North America. As a web editor at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, my work also involved working with editors in over 77 locales covering Europe, Asia Pacific and Latin America. From front-end coding to ensure the best and most appropriate articles are highlighted every day to working with engineers, developers, marketers and leaders to make managerial decisions, my career was completely different from what I had started out with because having children means that my safety is now important to more than just myself.

Today, I am a content designer with Facebook Reality Labs, a role where I design experiences and content-guided interactions for products that we hope will make life better and easier in future. I spend my days engaging in speculative design and futuristic problem solving with talented developers, product managers, engineers and linguists. It is both exhilarating and frightening to be doing the work I am doing as we know that tech trends can blow up in the best and worst of ways.

Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Berkeley?

Our family doesn’t really dine out, but one of our favourites is House of Curries on Solano Ave in nearby Albany. Their Indian food is always hot, flavorful and delicious. The first time we had their cheese naan, my husband and I wondered how they could turn a profit by giving us that much cheese. Someone once wrote on Yelp that if you were a poor student, you should order that and turn it into a pizza.

tilden regional park
Image: Tilden Regional Park

Top five places in or around Berkeley you would recommend to parents travelling with kids and why.

Tilden Regional Park – I would highly recommend a visit to Tilden Regional Park where you can hop on a steam train, feed farm animals (vegetables can be bought on-site) or go ride on a carousel. The park is nestled deep in the woods. I find it calming and peaceful to smell the eucalyptus trees and listen to rustling leaves. Bring some snacks and go for a picnic in the woods or a hike on the trails. Just remember that the weather in Berkeley can go quickly from sunny during the day to chilly by early evening so definitely be prepared with extra layers of clothes.

mr mopps toy shop berkeley

Mr. Mopps‘ – As one of the oldest traditional toy stores in Berkeley, Mr Mopps’ is the kind of place where you can buy a small toy for USD 0.25 or a toy kitchen for hundreds of dollars. Mr Mopps’ is family-owned and has served many Berkeley families for generations. Right next door is our family’s bike shop that specializes in helping kids get on bicycles and across the street, you’ll find Fatapple’s Restaurant & Bakery, also a well-known, age-old Berkeley business. No one should leave without trying their Olallieberry pie a la mode (with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream), milkshakes, eclairs and cheese puffs!

UC Berkeley  – First, the campus is beautiful then you can take a walk down Telegraph Avenue, known for its quirky businesses that sell banned books, vintage clothes and old records. This is also where you can find a large variety of affordable international restaurants and hole-in-the-wall shops that cater to students.

berkeley marina doubletree hilton hotel
Image: DoubleTree by Hilton Berkeley Marina

Berkeley Marina – If you like the water, you would enjoy taking a walk along the Berkeley Marina. You can bring a kite to fly and some food for a picnic too. While you are there, don’t forget to check out Adventure Playground, a playground built by children. Children can collect “dangerous” items like nails on the ground in exchange for a tool, some nails or a small container of paint and a brush. They can then paint anything in the playground or add or take away anything in the playground using their tools. Children can also build small items out of wood they find there and bring them home afterwards.

Fourth Street – If you like shopping, don’t miss this shopping district in Berkeley with shops that have something for everyone from clothes and Japanese stationery to Apple products. If you don’t mind standing in line for good food, go for brunch at Bette’s Oceanview Diner, I’ve heard great reviews but still haven’t found time to go queue.

Any advice for surviving a flight with young children?

We first flew with our daughter to Singapore when she was just two months old. That was easy. Every time she fussed, I just offered her a boob. If your child needs formula, some moms prefer to bring their own bottled water. Both my husband and I are minimalist travelers so we just carried her in a baby carrier and had little trouble managing things. When we traveled with her again when she was 14 months old, we did the same, except I made sure to bring some snacks so we wouldn’t have to constantly ask for food for her. We also brought a “What’s in it?” box where we stuffed all kinds of small, new or forgotten toys for her to play with during the flight. This age was tricky because she occasionally needed to stretch her legs and she loved touching everything. This was pre-Covid-19 and when she took a walk down the aisle during the 16-hour leg from San Francisco to Hong Kong, she touched almost every person, some on their legs, others on their hands or even feet. I was very apologetic on behalf of my child who knew no boundaries but everyone was very understanding. I think this would be absolutely unacceptable now and we have not traveled since the pandemic began. We traveled again with her when she was 24 months old, and because we don’t have a tv at home, she never developed the habit of looking at screens. She wasn’t interested in the shows on the inflight entertainment system, but again, we had come prepared with all kinds of small toys and my husband is a great playmate when he needs to be.

Is there something that you do to keep your children in touch with their Singaporean roots?

Our children often eat food that is easily found in Singapore from curry and roti prata to Chinese noodles with pork trotters. I miss the food I grew up with and often prepare them at home. Our kids enjoy the diversity of foods at home. When National Day is near, I also tend to play National Day songs. I have fun singing and the kids and my husband would laugh at me singing the cheesy lyrics about a country with so much to love.

Best souvenir one could bring back from Berkeley
– for a child:

If the child is very young, a trinket from Mr Mopps’ would probably be greatly loved. An older child might appreciate a trinket from Telegraph Avenue where there are many street vendors selling handmade wares. For a young adult, probably a book on Berkeley and all it stands for as the birthplace of free speech where thousands of students took part in a long-lasting protest in the 1960s.

– for a mama friend:

In all honesty, get her some chocolates and call it a day because Berkeley is to be experienced in person and can’t really be brought home in the luggage. Even though it lacks high-rise buildings and there is nature all around, you’d be amazed to see that it isn’t all that different from Singapore. There are shops selling bubble tea, sushi, Thai food and even Taiwanese desserts. Berkeley reminds me of Singapore except that here, I’m a minority and it rarely rains.

What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?

The hardest part is finding a community for yourself and your family that can support you in the way you’ve chosen to raise your children. I’ve leaned heavily on Facebook to find my community, meeting other Singaporeans and mothers who are teaching their children Mandarin.

Our family may live in Berkeley but we don’t believe that our children should never hear the word “no”. It can get hard when our children are surrounded by children who are rarely reminded to exercise social consideration, responsibility and act fairly. My husband and I just try our best to raise good human beings who have gratitude for things in life. We have the same beliefs, that we are here to support our children through things especially when they are challenged. For example, our daughter should not quit learning the violin because it is challenging. Instead, we are solution-driven and will try to find different ways for her to continue to grow.

On raising multilingual children …

It is hard to raise multilingual children in a monolingual environment. To teach my children Mandarin, I have reorganized our bookshelves so that 70 percent of the books are in Chinese. Most of our books used to be in English but as soon as my daughter started speaking, I knew she would learn English whether we taught her or not. So I now work with my daughter daily on her Mandarin using a language series and she has Mandarin lessons twice a week. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it is that children are like sponges. There is nothing our kids cannot learn. Accidentally say a vulgar word once and they will repeat it ceaselessly.

What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your children?

Books and food! When we travel back to Singapore, we always go with empty luggage and return with everything from canned pork trotters and sauce packs to all kinds of Chinese books.

Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.

My go-to recipe is tofu with furikake. My children love it so much they will eat a full portion of tofu in one seating, whether for a snack or for a meal.

What’s the one thing you would miss about Berkeley if you moved away?

The fact that so much of my memories in the States lies in Berkeley. My husband and I first moved in together in Berkeley. It is where I gave birth to my son in a tub in a tent in our yard and it is where my kids learned to walk, run and discover the world around them. Life is about making memories wherever we go. I would feel nostalgic about Berkeley if we have to move but I will be willing to start new adventures elsewhere with my family.

What is the first thing you do each time you come back to Singapore?

The first thing I do each time I come back to Singapore is make sure I spend time with my family and with my aunts, uncles and cousins. They are the biggest part of Singapore I hold close to my heart.

I also always make sure I order some yu pian ban mian (sliced fish handmade noodles) from the coffeeshop near my home in Toa Payoh Central. Multiple generations of the Chinese family running this business have watched me grow up and I’ve been ordering the same noodles from them since I was 16. I am always thankful to see their familiar faces when I visit.

What do you dread most if you are moving back to Singapore?

I do have a little anxiety when I think about finding a comfortable community for myself and my family. I am now a part of a multiracial family but I have no doubt that Singapore is ready for our family.

How do you think Singaporeans can benefit from living overseas?

Living overseas has opened my eyes to all that our government does for us. Live for a year or two in a country where the wealth gap is huge, racial inequity allows certain communities to kill without consequence, drug and alcohol addiction has become so widespread it is hard to acknowledge its impact and lobbies and brands have more voice and power than people and values, and you will see how privileged Singaporeans are. I moved into a homeless shelter in 2012 to try and understand how people become homeless and found widespread addiction to drugs, alcohol and consumerism.

I confronted the United Nations and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about their responsibility in the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti and learned about the suppression of scientific findings that would hurt the profit margins of large brands from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Living in a country where things just aren’t working and people aren’t protected has changed me. I have become a person who seeks out opportunities to use my skills and experience to change the world for the better. Do good, always.

Thank you for your time, Pearly! 

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Tilden Regional Park, Mr. Mopps and Berkeley Marina images sourced via Facebook; all other images courtesy of Pearly Tan

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