There’s No Place Like Home
It was December 21, 2008, and they were preparing to have 150 guests visit their home for a holiday open house on December 23—a hostess’ worst nightmare and a lot to think about.
The news wasn’t a complete surprise. Currently Executive Vice President of Change Delivery for HSBC, Greg had been discussing the possibility of a temporary relocation with his firm, and he and Martha had indicated they were willing to go somewhere. They didn’t imagine that somewhere would be Singapore—and so soon. Greg would assume the position as Deputy CEO for HSBC’s Singapore operations shortly after the New Year.
After a whirlwind six weeks, Martha and the children (John, 9, Caroline, 6, and Brian, 4) left Lake Forest to join Greg on February 15, 2009.
The Michigan Avenue of Singapore
“We lived in a four-bedroom apartment on the 27th floor of a high-rise on Orchard Road,” says Martha. “It’s sort of like Michigan Avenue, but with a view of Singapore.”
Living in an apartment was just one of the many adjustments the Zeemans would have to make. At first, Martha was adamantly opposed to hiring live-in help. Most expats have a foreign domestic employee (or helper) who lives with the family.
“In most cases, your children’s bedrooms are bigger than your helper’s,” says Martha. “And it just didn’t sit right with me.”
Sharing one car, navigating foreign streets, and trying to decipher products at the grocery store all required a lot more time and effort than Martha imagined. In April, Martha accepted that having help was a necessity and the right thing to do.
While most live-ins work six days a week—cleaning, cooking, and babysitting round the clock with only Sunday off—the Zeemans encouraged their helper, Annabelle, to eat dinner with their family and to take as many evenings off as she wanted, especially for her Friday night church group. Friends also pointed out to Martha that she and her family were providing Annabelle with a good income to take care of her family.
Having Annabelle also allowed Martha to discover and embrace volunteer work for Caring for Cambodia (caringforcambodia.org), a cause that Martha remains dedicated to.
“Everyone else is there with no family or friends, too, and they are willing to put themselves out there,” Martha explains. The Zeemans’ apartment complex had three buildings, each with four units per floor and 29 floors. There was a pool in the center that everyone had to walk by to get anywhere—the street, school, work. “So we got to know people quickly, and they would include us in their activities. It also meant our kids had playdate opportunities 24/7.”
Happily, adjusting to the Singapore American School (SAS) went very smoothly for John, Caroline, and Brian. “The schools [for expats] are so well-equipped to deal with it,” says Martha. “They made the transition so easy.” And, since all of the other students have experienced being new, they are very friendly and the Zeeman kids made friends right away.
“Never let the issue of school be the reason you don’t do something like this,” advises Martha. “When we left Singapore, each of our kids got a business card with their picture and new email address so that friends can keep in touch with them. They are savvy and comfortable Skyping with friends all over the world.”
Living abroad also enabled the Zeemans to travel extensively, including Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, China, India, Cambodia, and Australia.
“Bar none, the highlight was when we went to South Africa and did a safari in Zambia and Victoria Falls. We even went looking for scorpions,” Martha says.
Life Lessons … and Barbequed Stingray
Martha and Greg are very grateful for the cultural exposure and life lessons living in Singapore afforded their family and recommend it to other families.
“There are so many ethnicities in Singapore,” says Martha. “And yet they coexist. My kids saw multicultural situations every day that hopefully taught them not to judge people just by appearances.”
“I think that John grew and changed the most,” Martha reflects. “The experience made him a flexible, spontaneous person.”
“I loved SAS,” says John. “I made lots of friends from all over the world, and the school had a great cafeteria that had Indian food, Japanese food, Chinese food, and Western food. I loved the food in Singapore, especially barbequed stingray.”
“Singapore was my first time being new to a place,” says Caroline. “I came back [to Lake Forest] and I’m new again. Singapore helped me with that. My friends are what I’ll miss the most.”
“Before Singapore, my favorite food was hot dogs with ketchup,” says Brian. “Now my favorite food is dumplings!” And, Brian is now enrolled in (and loves) the Mandarin immersion program at Cherokee School.
First Stop: The Left Bank (in Lake Forest)
“We’re so happy to be back in Lake Forest,” says Martha. “Greg grew up here, and while we’ve moved away a couple of times, we always come home.”
Greg says, “My hope is that this experience will make the children more open to new opportunities, more aware of the importance of family, and more tolerant of cultural differences.”
“The first thing we did was go to The Left Bank for chili cheese dogs,” laughs Martha. “This is home, and we picked up where we left off. But we sometimes ask ourselves, ‘Did it really happen?’”
Visit Martha’s blog at zeemanssingaporeadventure.blogspot.com to see that it really did happen.