Smells like teen spirit

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

My 17-year-old niece is visiting for three weeks. I get to relive my own teen years through her

Because I am childless, I regard children as rather exotic creatures - interesting to observe from afar and maybe even pat should they come near me, but not something I'd want to live with day in and day out.

Once in a while, though, I find myself sharing my life with a child.

I use these opportunities to pretend for a while that I'm a parent - and it's fun to make-believe.

I get to do this at least once a year with A, who is H's daughter and turns 10 this year.

During our last holiday, the three of us took a plane from Bristol to Geneva.

I've always wondered what it's like to be one of those women travelling with husband and children at the airport.

Will I be Paranoid Mum who fusses over the child, casting a worried eye over his every move in case he gets run over by a trolley, and insisting at every step that he uses antiseptic wipes?

Or Cool Mum who lets the child do whatever he pleases while she strolls about in her high heels looking unconcerned and unflappable?

Or Irritable Mum juggling everyone's travelling bags and snapping at the kids?

A is a well-behaved and undemanding child and, aided by her, I found myself slipping into the role of Cool Mum.

So there we were - me, her dad pushing the luggage trolley and the girl perched on top of one of the bags, laughing away.

What a picture-perfect family we must look, I told myself happily. Never mind that it was a temporary situation.

There aren't many little people in my life. Besides A, there're my sister's two children, Michiko and Josh, who live in America. I last saw them in 2012.

A few months ago, my sister surprised us by announcing that Michiko would be visiting Singapore alone for three weeks.

The rest of the family can't come this time because my sister's husband had a stroke last year. While he's a lot better, his doctors felt he should not be travelling long distances for now.

My niece is 17, and while that's not exactly young, she would be travelling solo for about 30 hours including layovers in airports in Atlanta and London, which she'd never been to before.

Would she be safe? Would she know how to transfer from one plane to another?

That was one of my big worries.

Another was how she's allergic to a host of food - peanuts, tree nuts, chickpeas, soya, shellfish and chickpeas.

In the weeks leading up to her visit, my mother and I fretted about what she could and couldn't eat, and whether we should clear the house of all traces of nuts before she arrived. Heaven forbid she goes into anaphylactic shock while under our watch.

I've always been close to my niece.

I saw quite a bit of her when she was younger and there was a period when we talked on the phone every day.

I introduced her to her first piece of chocolate when she was three (my sister wasn't happy about that), we had midnight feasts when I visited her and we spent endless hours talking about her preoccupations.

One year, all she wanted to discuss was the book Watership Down. Another year, it was Star Wars.

Even though we haven't been communicating much in the last few years, it's always been easy to get close again when we meet.

This time, though, she was coming over to visit as a full-fledged teenager.

Of all the stages of growing up, the late teenage years must be the toughest period because they straddle adolescence and adulthood.

Was she a difficult teen? Easily irritated? Should I be bracing for eye-rolling behaviour? How should I behave so I remain her favourite aunt (which I am sure I am).

In my mind, she's still the little girl wearing pink party dresses with her hair styled like Princess Leia in Star Wars. But at 17, she's no longer a child and I couldn't treat her as one.

I asked a friend who has two well- adjusted teenage kids for advice.

What she said made sense: Treat her like a young adult; while you should definitely make suggestions on what she'd like to do, let her decide what she likes and then make it happen.

And so it's been one week already.

She arrived last Saturday morning, chirpy, bouncy, happy and bright-eyed. My fears of a grumpy, rebellious teen were unfounded.

I'd not seen her since 2012 and what a difference three years make.

She looks very grown up and is into a 1980s phase, sporting big hair a la Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. Her eyes are rimmed with eye shadow and black kohl liner. Her preoccupations this time are her friends, make-up, rock music, playing the guitar, sports cars and Facebook.

She had slept 10 hours on the plane and was raring to go, so instead of heading home as I had planned, we went from the airport to have lunch and go shopping.

I took a few days' leave to spend them with her and we did things I imagined a Cool Aunt - or a Cool Mum - would do with a teenage girl.

We went shopping at H&M and Uniqlo. We had lunch at Gardens by the Bay where I made her pose against the tulips. We had brunch. We spent one morning getting our nails done - she chose black nail polish with a strip of metallic blue. I bought her lots of make-up (better make-up than tattoos, I say).

She loves the MRT and her must-do list includes visiting as many malls along the various rail lines as she could.

When I went back to work, she set off each morning to explore Singapore by herself, returning in the late afternoon with stories of her adventures.

Which mall did you go to today, I asked her one evening. Sun Plaza, she said. Never heard of that, I said. I Googled it - it's all the way in Sembawang.

Another day, she explored nex, Junction 8, Ion and Marina Bay Sands. The energy of youth.

Living with a teenager, I feel like I'm re-living a bit of my own teenage years.

The best time of my life was probably the age my niece is at right now, 17 going on 18. I was in junior college and life was pretty exhilarating. Every new experience was raw and keenly felt, be it friendships, boys, the way I looked, planning for university and what lay ahead.

I hope my niece has good memories of this Singapore holiday. In the two more weeks she has here, I'll do my best to help make them happen.

sumiko@sph.com.sg

Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan