Singaporean mamas are doing amazing things all over the world! Today we speak with community leader and mama of two Shereen Aziz-Williams, who gives us the lowdown on what to do in Wales!
When Singaporean mama and accountancy graduate Shereen Aziz-Williams moved to Newport, Wales 13 years ago for love, little did she know her life would veer away from accounting and towards tackling race, religious and women’s issues in her adopted home. Last year, she was made honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her community work in Wales (one of a just handful of Singaporeans to have been appointed).
This week we speak to the accidental community leader and foodie at heart on achieving work-life balance and the best spots to head to with kids for a dose of Welsh history.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Shereen. I’m 35 and live in Newport, Wales, UK with my husband Owain. I have two boys, 8-year-old Iesu and 3-year-old Selyf, and I am also step-mum to Hafsa, aged 16. I work for the local government and I enjoy reading, eating and travelling — especially if I can do all three at the same time! I am also a Welsh language learner.
What brought you to Newport? How long have you been living overseas?
It was a Welshman (a.k.a. Mr Williams) that brought me to Newport. I was travelling after my exchange programme in Denmark, met him, got married 11 months later and moved to Wales in August 2005. I’ve been here ever since.
Prior to that, I’d spent a few years in Brunei as a child as my parents were working there, and then six months in Copenhagen whilst on an exchange programme in university.
Favourite aspect about living in Newport?
It has the perfect mix of city and rural living and it is easy to get around. It is a city that is on the rise, and I’ve seen so many improvements since moving here in 2005. The population is also diverse and I feel very much at home here in “The Port”.
And the worst part?
People are always putting Newport down. We’re constantly seen as the poorer relations of Cardiff, the capital of Wales, but it isn’t true! We’re just different.
Your most recent purchase
… for your children?
Clothes for 2018 at the Christmas sales! One big shop a year is about all I can cope with. Too many people in one place!
… for yourself?
Just bought myself a new book entitled The Good Immigrant.
How do you think parenting in Newport differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
I think, for me, the approach to education differs the most. I’ve had to get my parenting style to go from “tiger mum”, to enjoying the experience of seeing the kids learn through play. It is a very different learning environment especially as my children are in a Welsh-medium school where everything is taught in Welsh and they learn English formally as a language when they’re in Year 3 (Primary 1).
Employers here, particularly those in the public sector, are keen on staff having a positive work-life balance, and it is not considered slacking, nor does it count against you, when you take a couple of hours off work to attend your child’s sports day, concert or Christmas play.
Did you give birth to your children in Newport? If yes, what was memorable about the experience?
Both my sons were born in the Royal Gwent Hospital in Newport. I discovered that once I was in full-blown labour, contractions would make me vomit so that wasn’t fun. My husband had to stand next to me with disposable cardboard containers that I would throw up into.
It also wasn’t a rushed birth. The boys took their own sweet time in making their appearance after the contractions started. With my eldest, I went through about four shifts of midwives and with the youngest, I was induced over 2.5 days.
The hospital staff were very supportive of my decision to breastfeed and helped make sure the babies latched on properly. When I got home, the community midwife continued to visit us for six weeks before discharging us to the health visitor.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
Pre-baby, I was working for a non-governmental organization (NGO) that specialised in capacity building for small and newly-established charities. It involved lots of late nights churning out funding applications and attending partner events.
Both my husband and were working in Swansea, which is approximately 50 miles away from Newport, and we would regularly stay at my in-laws’ whenever we had late nights. It was quite stressful as my role was also dependent on grants so whenever one funding cycle ended, we’d have to put in new funding applications and it was never guaranteed that they would be successful.
I suppose when you have no children and a lot less responsibilities, you do have the flexibility to pick and choose what you do and take your time in searching for new roles. It also gave me time to volunteer with different organisations to improve my knowledge base of the NGO sector.
When I was on maternity leave, a maternity cover post became available in the local authority in Newport. By that time, my husband also had switched to working in the civil service and was based in Cardiff down the road from Newport so I wouldn’t have a commuting buddy once my maternity leave was over.
I didn’t fancy travelling on a train for two hours each day so I applied for the post and was appointed. The role has since evolved and I’m now a permanent employee working across a region. I have gone from being in an operational role to a more strategic one and I feel that I am able to influence service delivery more than before.
It also helps that my main office is a 10-minute drive from my home and less than five minutes from the kids’ school so there’s always one parent nearby in case of emergencies.
The interesting thing is that my post-baby job has involved more international travel, which I enjoy and, if I’m lucky, also doubles up as a short break as I have learnt how to appreciate travelling solo.
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Newport?
It’s a chain restaurant called The Harvester. They have lots of things on the menu that the kids enjoy and they have a pretty good activity book for the kids to amuse themselves with. There’s a nice family vibe and the staff are always friendly.
They even have a “dessert pizza” where kids are given a baked cookie base and toppings such as chocolate chips, marshmallows and sprinkles to create their own pizza. It is a mess but the kids have lots of fun doing it. My oldest in particular loves cooking so this definitely enables him to channel his inner chef.
Top five places in Newport you would recommend to parents traveling with kids?
Newport Wetlands: The visitor centre is ideal for children and families. They have guided walks and children’s activities are also available at the outdoor children’s play area. A few hours at the centre will definitely set the kids up for a good night’s sleep!
Newport Transporter Bridge: The Newport Transporter Bridge is one of only six operational transporter bridges left worldwide from a total of 20 constructed. The bridge opened in 1906 and has dominated the Newport skyline ever since. You can go on the crossing across the bridge or, if you’re up for a challenge, you can also climb the 270 steps that will take you up the bridge.
Newport Ship: The Newport Medieval Ship was discovered in the banks of the River Usk in June 2002 during the construction of the Riverfront Theatre. The ship was excavated by a team of archaeologists and lifted from the ground timber by timber. Today, a team of specialists are still recording and conserving all 2000 ship timbers and artefacts discovered during the excavation.
Big Pit National Coal Museum: This is outside of Newport in the Gwent region of Wales but it’s just a short drive away. Big Pit is a real coalmine and one of Britain’s leading mining museums. You can go on an underground mine tour (think Zoolander) with a former miner who will talk you through the history of mining in Wales as well as explain how life was like for the thousands of men who worked at the coalface. I take every single person who visits me to Big Pit and everyone raves about the experience.
St Fagans National Museum of History: This is also outside Newport and it in the Cardiff and Vale of Glamorgan area. Easily accessible via the M4, St Fagans is one of Europe’s leading open-air museums. To do the place justice, you definitely have to spend a whole day there. The museum allows you to take a walk through time in Wales, from Celtic times to the present day. Plenty of shops and food options for you to enjoy your day out with the family. Oh, and remember museums in Wales all have free entry!
Any advice for surviving a flight with young children?
Time it to match their sleep times… you’ll get a bit of relief on the flight that way. We usually travel at night so they have a good snooze on the flight. We also tend to break a long flight up in Dubai, spend a day there… and continue to travel at night for the next flight.
Is there something that you do to keep your children in touch with their Singaporean roots?
Summer holidays are always spent in Singapore. We FaceTime with my family every weekend and, when possible, cook Singaporean food. And, of course, I continue to pepper my speech with Malay words.
Best souvenir one could bring back from Newport
…For a child?
For a mama friend?
They taste sooooooooooooooo good!
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
Just not having that wider family network around me. I come from a big family and I miss having my family around for support and just that feeling of home whenever we all get together.
On raising multilingual children…
My kids speak English and Welsh… and they used to be a lot more fluent in Malay. It’s my fault for not being strict in ensuring that I use it with them so now they understand what I’m saying but they don’t reply to me in Malay. I definitely need to get back to being stricter with them so Malay becomes embedded into their vocabulary.
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your children?
Food! My aunt always makes me a few bottles of ikan bilis, kacang and tempeh goreng mix. Another aunt will bake cranberry kuih lapis and Cadbury chocolate kuih lapis for me. For the kids, it has to be pineapple tarts! I also stock up on Ayam brand tuna – perfect with jacket potatoes for a simple lunch in the office.
Your top makeup tip for a busy mama?
Splurge on good quality and matching foundation!
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family:
Roast chicken and rice. It’s a simple roast chicken recipe where I season a whole chicken with olive oil, salt, pepper, smoked paprika and stuff it with lemon and garlic. I roast it and pour all the roasting juices into the rice cooker with some jasmine rice and peas then add a chicken stock cube as well and let the rice cooker do its magic. It’s simple, fuss-free and so far, it hasn’t gone wrong. I can run around and do a quick tidy-up or spend some time with the family whilst all that is cooking in the kitchen.
What’s the one thing you would miss about Newport if you moved away?
Everything! I love the place and it has definitely become my home.