Qianhui Lim, mama to a two-year-old, tells us about the highs and lows of living abroad in Iceland (where she can see the northern lights from her bed) – from worrying about not doing enough for her child to losing her identity as a SAHM.
In our latest Overseas Mama series, Singaporean mum of one Qianhui Lim talks about her love for Iceland’s cool climate and breathtaking scenery including the famous northern lights (which she has even seen while doing the dishes!) Qianhui realises that Singapore has one of the best education systems in the world and sometimes wonders if she’s providing enough educational resources for her son but she is hesitant to put too much stress on academics saying “I do not believe that academic excellence equals happiness”. Qianhui shares what she appreciates more since living abroad and what she finds the hardest to deal with –including losing her identity as a SAHM and the lack of help. Read on for Qianhui’s interesting interview.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Qianhui and I’m a mother to a very active two-year-old. I was born and raised in Singapore, and I am the eldest of three kids. I’ve studied and lived in Australia for three years before moving back to Singapore and working for a couple of years before the big move to Iceland.
My mother wanted to see the northern lights back in 2016 so my brother and I went with her to Iceland for a holiday. I met my husband who was then working in a hotel we stayed in and we ended up hitting it off. We even managed a dinner date before I flew back to Singapore. We were in a long-distance relationship for about two years before I moved to Iceland in mid-2018 and got married.
Favourite aspect about living in Reykjavik?
The cool weather (it averages about 18 degree celsius during summer!), fresh air, and nature. I’ve travelled quite a bit before settling down and I personally think that Iceland has the most gorgeous and breathtaking scenery. I remember being in awe the first time I visited Iceland and honestly, it’s not every day that we get to see a volcano and a glacier co-existing side by side.
Oh yes, and the northern lights of course. I’ve actually seen them while doing the dishes and more recently, from the comfort of my own bed. I was about to go to sleep when I saw the lights dancing away. It was so pretty and wonderful!
And the worst part?
Being so far away from my family… and from the wide variety of food in Singapore. Back in Singapore, I can easily get everything I need from our local grocery store. If not, I would just need to search online and still have plenty of options to choose from. In Iceland, we get taxed 24 percent on everything we buy online from overseas and that’s not including the high delivery fees. In Singapore, there are so many online platforms to shop on and they come with low delivery charges or free delivery. This convenience is something I used to take for granted. We could get everything from food, groceries, and daily necessities to clothes delivered to our doorstep easily.
How did you and your family cope with the pandemic?
I was three months pregnant when Covid-19 first hit and it wasn’t easy having to go to doctor’s visits alone especially when I was not familiar with the healthcare system here or the local language so there was definitely a lag in accessing and understanding information at times.
The hardest part was not being able to fly home and see my family as often as I would have liked to. There are no direct flights from Iceland to Singapore and the fastest flight route still takes 24 hours, transit time included. All the Covid-19 restrictions only served to make travelling even harder.
Ólíver was only eight weeks old when we flew back to Iceland and he was already 18 months old when my parents saw him earlier this year. This was what I struggled with the most during the whole Covid-19 period because I knew how dearly my parents missed him and I so badly wanted them to be around while he was still a baby. I also felt a lot of guilt towards my son because we couldn’t bring him out as often as we would like to due to all the Covid-19 restrictions.
How do you think parenting in Reykjavik differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
The parenting style in Iceland is definitely more laid-back as compared to Singapore. Here in Iceland, parents get 12 months of maternity or paternity leave in total, i.e. five months per parent and two months to share so my husband got to be around during Ólíver’s newborn days. This is something we both really appreciate. There’s no such thing as tuition or enrichment classes here in Iceland. Kids go for sports after school. Most parents in Singapore bring their children for enrichment classes sometimes as early as when they are just a year old. Almost all Singaporean kids I know attend several tuition classes a week and I find that very stressful—both for parents and children.
No doubt Singapore has one of the best education systems and I can’t deny that there are times when I wonder if I’m providing enough educational resources for my son but it gets way too competitive, again for both parents and children, and I do not wish to put too much stress when it comes to his studies in future. I do not believe that academic excellence equals happiness. A lot of my friends and people I know actually ended up having careers that are unrelated to their university degrees.
My husband’s family home is in the countryside and a few of his nieces and nephews live there. They are off on their quad bikes, bicycles, trampolines, etc. when they come back from school. It’s nice to see kids climbing trees and having endless space to play and run about.
Did you give birth to your child in Reykjavik? If yes, what was memorable about the experience?
I flew back to Singapore when I was 35 weeks pregnant. It is actually free to give birth (check-ups and scans included) in Iceland but this was my first pregnancy and I really wanted to be around my family, especially when my pregnancy was not easy. I had puked every single day until the day I gave birth.
I was in labour for more than 48 hours, endured 20 hours of contractions with no epidural, and ended up having an emergency c-section so I’m glad I made the decision to be close to my family. I felt such a wave of relief when I finally got to see my mum after taking such a long time to pop the baby out. Just seeing her gave me a lot of strength and made me feel like everything will be okay.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
I was a senior financial analyst prior to moving to Iceland and I am currently a stay-at-home mum (SAHM). It hasn’t been easy being a SAHM because I find myself feeling lost and am losing my sense of identity more often than I would like to admit. However, I feel very thankful and lucky to be able to spend so much time with my son, being around to witness all of his milestones. I don’t think I would have this luxury if I were living in Singapore. I plan to take lessons to learn Icelandic when my son goes to school in order to have better job opportunities in the future.
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Reykjavik?
We don’t eat out a lot but when we do, it’s mostly at IKEA or Krua Thai. IKEA even provides diapers at their changing tables. Most restaurants here are kid-friendly and come with small play areas for kids because Iceland is quite a family-oriented country.
Top five places around Reykjavik you would recommend to parents travelling with kids and why.
þingvellir National Park – This is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Iceland and Iceland’s largest natural lake is right next to it. It is also surrounded by a bowl of ancient mountain peaks. The view is absolutely spectacular and I’ll most definitely recommend spending some time to walk around and descending into the valley.
Geysir Geothermal Area – Here you will see a geyser, an interesting geological phenomenon, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of watching Strokkur erupt.
Gullfoss – Translated to ‘Golden Falls’, this is one of the most iconic waterfalls in Iceland. The first time I visited this waterfall was during wintertime. It was so majestic and beautiful that I couldn’t stop looking and being in awe. The first three places make up the popular Golden Circle route.
Jökulsárlón – This is a glacier lagoon that was formed naturally by melted glacier water. You’ll see plenty of broken icebergs and even seals chilling on the icebergs if you’re lucky. The sight is so breathtakingly beautiful a lot of films are actually filmed there.
Black Beach at Vík – The sand at the beach is black hence the name Black Beach. The stunning basalt columns are quite a sight too. Game of Thrones fans will most definitely recognise this beach.
I’d recommend parents travelling with kids to come during summer time because the weather wouldn’t be as cold and harsh like in winter. You’ll need to do quite a bit of driving in between the nice spots and it can get very tricky and dangerous to drive in winter, especially when it’s dark, super windy, coupled with snow and black ice.
Besides, we get 24 hours of daylight during summer, as compared to the three to four hours of daylight during winter so you’ll actually get to do and see more in a day. You’ll also get to see plenty of horses, cows, sheep, and gorgeous waterfalls along the way when you drive.
Is there something that you do to keep your child in touch with his Singaporean roots?
We FaceTime my parents and my son’s godmother every weekday. We also try our best to fly back for Chinese New Year every year. It is important to me that my son learns the culture of both countries especially when I find Singapore and Iceland to be polar opposites in all aspects.
Best souvenir one could bring back from Reykjavik
– for a child: An Icelandic wool blanket. They are very durable, soft, and warm since they are made from the wool of Icelandic sheep.
– for a mama friend: A lopapeysa. It is a hand-knitted sweater made from Icelandic wool. Almost all Icelanders have one and it’s extremely popular with tourists as well.
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
Having no help at all. There are definitely a lot of trying days when I could use some help or take a few hours off to do something for myself but I just have to do everything to survive that day and tell myself it will be a brand new day tomorrow. Just like all mothers out there, we don’t get a day off even when we fall sick but I do feel lonely and isolated on top of that.
The saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is so true. The lack of family support does make everything a little harder—mentally and physically. There are also times when I question myself if I’m making the right decisions or doing enough for my child. I do call and text my mum and my sister-in-law a lot for advice but it’s not quite the same as having them around.
On raising multilingual children …
I speak Mandarin and English to my son while my husband speaks Icelandic and English to him. I’m trying to get my husband to teach him some German as well since he will have to learn another language – either Danish, German or French – when he goes to school. I’ll bring plenty of Chinese books back from Singapore as well. I also make sure my family speaks to him in Mandarin.
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your child?
Lots of Asian cooking condiments, my beloved Aik Cheong Teh Halia that I never seem to bring back enough of, Yu Yee Oil, fever patches, and some traditional Chinese medicines. I actually bring a lot more things back so let’s just say my luggage allowance is never enough and I wish I can bring the whole FairPrice back with me.
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.
I don’t have a go-to recipe because I cook a variety of food e.g. Western, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai, etc. since we eat at home a lot. My style of cooking is very much like my grandma’s since I had grown up eating her food. I used to cook more elaborate and time-consuming meals before Ólíver came along. My favourite meals to cook these days are those that I can pop into the oven or prepare in one pot so I can spend more time with my son.
What’s the one thing you would miss about Reykjavik if you moved away?
Cold water straight from the tap! Tap water in Iceland is one of the purest in the world. And the cold weather. These are the two things we miss the most whenever we are back in Singapore.
What is the first thing you do each time you come back to Singapore?
Take a cold shower! And of course eat prata and chicken rice. My husband and I have plenty of eating to catch up on whenever we are back in Singapore. There’s also something my family and friends find hard to believe – that we don’t have McDonald’s or Starbucks in Iceland.
What do you dread most if you are moving back to Singapore?
The heat, the humidity, and people everywhere.
How do you think Singaporeans can benefit from living overseas?
A different way of life, experiencing a slower pace and learning to take a breather. Another thing that I personally appreciate more is our country and government. The efficiency and convenience we get in Singapore shouldn’t be taken for granted.