Foreign spouses get local buddies

Taxi driver Kan Siew Luen, his wife, Madam Lai (centre), a China national who works as a hotel room attendant, and Care Corner volunteer Ms Chua, who was Madam Lai's local buddy in a one-year programme.
Taxi driver Kan Siew Luen, his wife, Madam Lai (centre), a China national who works as a hotel room attendant, and Care Corner volunteer Ms Chua, who was Madam Lai's local buddy in a one-year programme.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

When Chinese national Lai Meiqian, 47, went on her first shopping trip in Singapore with a new friend, she excitedly tried to hold her friend's hand.

The friend, Ms Lisa Chua, 43, drew her hand back in surprise.

"In China, it was common for friends to hold hands but I guess it's not the culture here so that was embarrassing for me," Madam Lai said with a chuckle. She moved here last year after marrying a Singaporean.

To help foreign spouses like her assimilate, voluntary welfare organisation Care Corner Singapore runs a Friendship Programme that pairs them with local volunteers. The volunteers support them by teaching them English, organising outings and referring them to community resources.

Ms Chua was Madam Lai's buddy from July last year under the one-year programme.

She took Madam Lai with her on supermarket runs, lunches and shopping trips. Madam Lai, who often got lost when she first arrived, slowly became familiar with MRT stations and could later move around on her own.

Ms Chua, a financial adviser, also searched for activities that might interest Madam Lai, and took her to a musical starring Taiwanese compere Huang Guo Lun.

"When we went for a walk on Coney Island, she introduced me to her friend from the hospitality industry so that I could find out more about it," said Madam Lai, who has since found a job as a hotel room attendant. Her husband is a taxi driver.

"Initially, I didn't know how to ask her for help in finding a job. In China, we will use a roundabout way when we request for things," said Madam Lai.

"But I have learnt that Singaporeans are more direct and prefer getting straight to the point."

Ms Chua said Madam Lai has adapted to life here so well that she now volunteers at Care Corner.

The volunteers submit a monthly report on the activities organised and flag any issues that might need the help of social workers.

Seventy couples have attended the programme since it started in late 2014.

Funded by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, it is run by two charities: Care Corner and Fei Yue Community Services.

It complements other marriage preparation and support courses to help transnational couples integrate into Singapore society and adjust to life here.

They are first referred to Care Corner by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority.

The latest figures show that such unions accounted for about one in five marriages in 2014. Over the last decade, over 50,000 Singaporeans married women who were not citizens or permanent residents.

The head of Care Corner's Family Journey Programme, Ms Eileen Su, said most of the 70 couples include spouses in their 20s to 50s from China, India, Malaysia and Vietnam. Volunteers are usually working adults, retirees or housewives.

"Many foreign spouses are alone when their husbands are working. There are a lot of cultural adjustments, and they miss home, so there is a need to support them," Ms Su said.

Janice Tai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2016, with the headline 'Foreign spouses get local buddies'. Print Edition | Subscribe