Taking my 15 year old to Singapore for a week was always going to be fraught. Her older brothers both had travel experiences through school so I was keen to share with her the familial love of travel and felt it was a perfect time to broaden her horizons. Of course being a teenager she wasn’t interested in planning or discussing the trip in any great detail: ‘Mum, I already know/I looked it up online/it’s not a big deal,’ she’d say, rolling her eyes into the top of her head. I got the feeling she thought Singapore would be like Sydney.
From the start it was a little wobbly. 6am at Departure security, the entire airport snapped to attention at the whine of the alarm; she had two pairs of scissors in her backpack, because she’d decided to bring along her school pencil case. Hadn’t we just had the discussion in the car about what might constitute a threat in carry-on luggage? Yes, but she’d forgotten they were in there. It’s alright, no biggie, they’re in the bin now. She coped well with the flight and arrived at Changi Airport a little pale and snappy, whilst my relief at getting off the plane swept me up and I was wired and chatty enough for both of us.
At breakfast the next morning my vegetarian princess bit into a chive dumpling, discovered half a prawn and declared I would have to taste her food from then on. Finally that same day, when I had asked her too many times what she might like to do for dinner, she burst into tears. She thought English was widely spoken in Singapore, but she couldn’t understand anyone. She didn’t like being told what to do, but she didn’t know what to do for herself. And then the what-ifs: What if I didn’t know something? What if her food wasn’t vego? What if we didn’t know where we were? What if we couldn’t find a cab? Everything that had happened in the last 24 hours, along with the push/pull nature of teenagers had combined to completely overwhelm her.
At this point, we had conversations that I realised should have taken place before we’d even booked our flights. She had to trust me; I wasn’t just ‘mum’, I had been around the block a few times, metaphorically and literally. I was comfortable figuring things out in a different country, not just at home when the septic tank overflowed. I didn’t always know what I was doing (boy, was that an understatement) but I wasn’t worried or scared. I wanted her to help me make decisions about what to do on this trip, but I acknowledged she didn’t really know which way was up yet. It was ok to try something without knowing what the outcome would be; in fact, Singapore was a wonderful place for figuring things out as you went along. And just for fun, she should try to listen to people talk to each other and see if she could hear the different cultures of Singapore find common grounds of communicating with Singlish.
Together we made a list of places she might enjoy: Gardens by the Bay, Little India, Haji Lane, a bike tour with Urban Adventures. We would do one every second day; in-between days would be less structured in the Katong district, which might mean going to the Mall (great for her), finding lunch and then returning to the hotel to swim in the pool. A couple of times it meant I’d meander around Katong by myself taking pictures, popping into a shop-house museum or getting a medium-pressure foot-rub while she recharged on her bed in the hotel and I got over it. At dinners we would check in with what had been the best thing that day. She particularly loved the henna tattoos and watermelon juice in Little India, our two-wheeled adventure along Beach Road, the free-ranging orangutan at the zoo made her day and she was crazy for the vegan rice-cream shop in Katong.
It was frustrating and wonderful watching her mind broaden beyond her own experiences, and interesting seeing her process the trip once it was over – one of the many confounding joys of family travel. The key, we learned together, was clearly communicating plans, our irritation levels, and our back-up plans, and giving each other space. I learned that, although she seemed intent on replicating her life at home, she was soaking Singapore up like a sponge. I asked her what she’d learned from travelling with me. She said I was disorganised (what the?) and also that she finally understood why I chatted with everyone I met, because people always had something interesting to say. No surprises – teenagers suck, but I look forward to travelling with mine again, first chance I get.
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Feature image c/o Ors Jakab, Flickr