Apart and anxious
Singapore parents coach their kids in cooking, pack comforts of home and travel with them to start university life abroad
Published on Jun 29, 2014 1:08 PM
When 17-year-old Jamie Lim flies to Canada to enter university in September, her mother and elder sister will be with her each step of the way.
They will help the teenager to unpack and settle into her dorm room at McGill University, get her familiarised with the new surroundings and chat with professors and other parents.
This is a process her mother, Ms Jill Tan, dubs her "ritual", having done the same thing for her elder daughter Juliette, 21, who is in her final year at Northwestern University in the United States.
Ms Tan, head of communications at a telecommunications company, says: "It is for my peace of mind: to know what kind of school my child is in, how safe the area is and what type of support is available."
It is the season for separation anxiety as parents of teenagers heading overseas prepare to send them off for the academic season starting in September.
This takes the form of coaching their teens on the basics of cooking and cleaning, packing comforts of home and accompanying their child to the foreign country.
Ms Tan plans to spend a week with her daughter before the school term starts - a stark contrast to other parents, she notes, recalling the experience settling Juliette into varsity life.
"Asian parents are more kancheong," she says, using the Chinese dialect term meaning nervous. "We arrive, move furniture around, decorate the room, shift boxes.
"Meanwhile, the American parents arrive with one box, dump it - that's it."
But her elder daughter, Juliette, says the help came in handy, particularly as she was juggling settling in, orientation events and jetlag.
She says: "When you're 18 and going to college for the first time, doing things like setting up a bank account is probably one of the last things on your mind. So I was glad my parents came along to help me take care of everything."
And far from being embarrassed to have her family in tow, her sister Jamie says she will be glad to have company in a foreign country.
However, the teenager hopes her family does not "solely focus" on her transition, but also enjoy the sights in Montreal, where her university is located.
For teacher Lim Kangyu, who returned last year from his studies in Britain, his strongest memory of flying the coop was of his mother sobbing in his arms while sending him off at the airport.
The 26-year-old spent three years at Imperial College London doing his undergraduate degree, then a fourth year at Cambridge University completing his master's.
Separation anxiety took a toll, he says. A few days before he was due to leave, Mr Lim shed tears late at night to "get it out of the system" and hopefully avoid weeping at the airport.
But his mother, kindergarten teacher Yau Hwee Leng, turned on the waterworks only at the departure gates, catching him by surprise.
He says: "We are a traditional Chinese family and usually maintain a brave front and keep our emotions under control."
Explaining her tears, Ms Yau, 53, says in Mandarin: "It was different from when he went to national service because he was still in Singapore. Britain is so far away. At that moment, although I was proud of him, I felt sad and was reluctant to see him go."
Family experts, however, caution parents against showing too much emotion.
Ms Iris Lin, 33, who heads the youth division at Fei Yue Community Services, says: "When a child sees his parent reacting in a stronger way as compared with him, he knows that the situation is serious."
This could teach the child to fear the separation or feel guilty about going overseas, says psychologist Daniel Koh of Insights Mind Centre.
However, human emotions are difficult to dictate - so parents might want to discuss their anxiety with their child beforehand to "normalise" it.
Ms Lin suggests that parents chat with their teen about the anxiety both parties might be feeling - linking it to previous experiences when the child was away from home, such as during national service - instead of suppressing their feelings and having them erupt on departure day.
As parents are usually most concerned about their children's safety, they could prepare a folder with embassy and emergency contacts, including those of friends living in that country.
A "parcel of love" could also help ease anxiety, says Dr Carol Balhetchet, senior director of youth services at the Singapore Children's Society. It could be filled with comfort food such as instant noodles that the child likes.
Indeed, Mr Lim's mother packed a rice cooker and condiments such as sweet-and-sour and black-bean sauces in his luggage.
She also sent a parcel to him before Chinese New Year, filled with bak kwa, festive cookies and a hongbao.
Keep phone calls regular - but not too much. "Constant checking" on your child transfers the parents' own fears, which indirectly prevents the child from being independent in the new land, says Mr Koh of Insights Mind Centre.
During calls, parents should avoid talk of unhappy events, such as a relative's illness, as this would make the teen worry unnecessarily, says Dr Balhetchet.
End calls on a lighthearted note to indicate that life is resuming normally at home - say that you are off to catch a movie, for example.
Visits are dicier, says Dr Balhetchet. "You need to respect the private space they have created all by themselves," she says.
Ask permission if you would like to tidy up or cook, she suggests.
More importantly, keep channels open, says Fei Yue's Ms Lin.
She says: "In case there are any difficulties, let your child know that he comes first, not his grades or anything else. These words are important for your child to hear."
Experience clearly helps parents relax. After sending two daughters to school in Australia, housewife Emily Kok, 55, was quite blase about her youngest child Eugene Chan's departure last year.
Apart from making sure the 23-year-old undergraduate at the University of New South Wales had necessary documents such as transcripts and enrolment papers, Ms Kok simply waved him off at the airport and has been keeping in touch via WhatsApp and phone calls.
Besides basic preparations, the rest is up to the child, she says.
"The best I can do is give them emotional and financial support as I want my kids to have the experience of studying overseas and, in the process, become a stronger and more mature person."