Confessions of an Expatriate Singaporean Mom (turned Accidental Entrepreneur)

Foodies from SingaporeMalaysiaStore.com
A tasty care package courtesy of Audrey’s online grocery store.

Audrey Lim Sipping on a nostalgic white milk tea Audrey Lim had kindly sent me, I ask this extraordinary expatriate mother of two what made her move to the States and how she got started with her online Asian grocery store, SingaporeMalaysiaStore.com

As a working mother of two school-age children, Audrey Lim was constantly on-the-move. Being in the States, she craved for food from Singapore and Malaysia, yet wanted a easy way to fix up an authentic-tasting local meal without the required hassle. Seeing a need, the SingaporeMalaysiaStore.com was created to help overseas Singaporeans and Malaysians re-connect with their heritage through simple-to-prepare delicious food.

1) As a Singaporean, what made you move to the States?

We moved from Singapore to Seattle back in early 2003 due to my husband’s job. His company, an engineering firm based in the US, decided to move the bulk of their APAC operations from Singapore to China and offered my husband to relocate to the States. My husband loved working at this company and so he said ‘yes’. At that time, I had just started to be very successful as a sales person with Starwood Hotels APAC and was being groomed by my manager to help grow the China market, as such, I wasn’t really willing to make the move. I also didn’t wish to leave my mother alone in Singapore, was concerned for my son who was only barely 2 years old, and finally, whether I would be able to adapt to the new country. My husband decided to go ahead with the move while we worked out a plan for us to meet up around twice or thrice a year.

My son and I visited my husband in Seattle after he had already settled into his new home for two months. My husband arranged everything perfectly for us, making sure that we do all the usual touristy stuff and that his apartment was super-comfortable for our visit. He brought us to Asian grocery stores and restaurants to show that it is really not that bad to live in the States after all. I have to admit that the visit was amazing as we had really missed each other while we were apart and Seattle is simply beautiful!! On June 2003, my son and I finally made that international move from Singapore to Seattle. I remember thinking to myself at that time I must have been absolutely crazy for giving up my career, close friends, yummy foods, but most importantly to leave my mom to come halfway across the globe!!

We lived in Seattle (specifically in Kirkland – which is on the east of Seattle) for close to almost three years before my husband’s company moved us to Atlanta, GA where we have been calling home for now. Frankly speaking, I’ve no idea where 2010 will bring us :0)

2) What do you like best about living in the States?

There are so many things about the U.S. that I like and so, it is quite difficult for me to choose the best. One of the things that I like most about this country is the unlimited amount of opportunities out there for everyone in the country regardless of your ethnic, educational, economic, and social background. Coming from a fairly stern, materialistic and somewhat superficial small country, it was a real eye-opening experience for me to see that you do not really need to have the right connections or have First Class Honours in your degree to be successful in the States. Even the definition of the word ‘successful‘ can mean so many things here in this country, unlike in Singapore where I feel that one’s success is measured only by the type of house or car you own, the schools you attend, your job title, your salary & even the brand of the clothes you wear!!

The States has taught me a very valuable lesson in that you have to dare to dream and dare to grab any opportunity that presents itself to you. I’ve also learned that there is nothing wrong to be a Stay-At-Home-Mom (SAHM) and just spend time with my children (though it may mean that we are not as financially well-off as our peers back in Singapore who enjoy dual-income). I recalled my friends back in Singapore being so shocked when I told them about my decision to be a SAHM. Reactions from them range from “Are you crazy?” to “What will you live on then?” to “How are you going to have your own money – independently from your husband’s?” to “What about your career?” and so on….

3) What do you miss most about Singapore?

Having said all the above, the one thing I miss most about Singapore is my mom. She is a single mom and despite my constant nagging and urging, she refuses to move to the States with me. I miss her terribly and with us being a single-income household, it is tough for us to visit her in Singapore. She does visit us once a year for about 2 weeks (she is still working and so, cannot stay long) but it is just not the same… sometimes, you don’t realize how important someone is to you until they are far apart from you. My mom and I definitely have our ups and downs but when all things are said and done, I miss her terribly and wish I were there in Singapore to look after her, to bring her for vacations around the world. [Kevin: Ya, I feel the same way for my parents too].

4) I understand that you wanted to help bring local food to Singaporeans and Malaysians in the States… what tipped you over to actually do it?

Time and Frustrations!! Hahahaha! Seriously, I was not a very good cook when I first arrived in the States (since I never had to cook in Singapore) [Kevin: I know, as Singaporeans, we’re spoilt for choice with amazing food at every turn!]. So, I had to hunt for easy and instant cooking spices/ sauces/ mixes in order to prepare meals for my family. In a nutshell, I had to become a competent cook overnight or my family would have starve; we would have become broke from eating out. Although there are always Asian grocery stores around us (Seattle & Atlanta), it is very time-consuming and frustrating to have to go to different stores to hunt down some ingredients/ sauces. Furthermore, you may not even find the things that you need in the stores after driving all those miles. Based on my experience, Asian grocery stores do not keep a very generous supply of cooking spices/ sauces and mixes from Singapore and Malaysia. They do offer plenty of products from Thailand, Vietnam and China but as you know, Singapore/Malaysia cuisine can be very different from these Asian countries [Kevin: Totally agree, Thai and Vietnamese food are way more accessible in Buffalo too].

Another reason why I finally took the leap to launch this online store is to help not just Singaporeans/ Malaysians, but also as many people as possible out there to identify the best tasting and most authentic foods/ sauces out there in the market place. I have always found it daunting to try something new I see in the stores or online since I am not sure if they are truly good or is it that these food products have good marketing team in place to promote their products/ brands. I want to be able to share an impartial view of the food products out there not only based on my personal experience with the products but also based on feedback from my team of food testers (a great bunch of Singaporeans/Malaysians).

SingaporeMalaysiaStore.com

5) How much time and money did you take to do something like this? Did you have to learn how to manage an e-commerce site?

Honestly, I don’t know the exact amount of money that I invested into this online store :) Not very wise of me for sure… but I have to admit that I am still spending countless hours (day and night) trying new food products out there, and simply learning and doing. I am neither an entrepreneur nor an IT/Web wizard, and I don’t have the money to hire someone to do things for me. In the beginning, I did not even know what HTML meant, how the web worked, how to design a website, etc. The only thing that I knew was that I wanted to share my recommendations with everyone out there and hopefully, carve out a new opportunity for me in the entrepreneur world. So, I spent hours scouring the web and constantly reading on how to launch a business, what an e-commerce site was, how to design a website, and even how to take good photographs!! There were lots of trial and error along the way and I’m sure that I will continue make mistakes along the way (be it technically or in business) but the way I look at it is I am learning a new thing every second and learning something new is never a bad thing right?

6) What kinds of food do you tend to carry on your site?

There is no specific limit to the kinds of food that I intend to carry on my site. My vision is to have an online store featuring only the best of the best food products that help bring people together and in my small way, share a little of our Southeast Asia’s culture with everyone. Being a Singaporean mother who had moved to this country with zero cooking experience, I know that there are others out there just like me who are always at our wits end on what to cook for our family and how to cook those dishes that we are familiar with back in Singapore and how to prepare those delicious foods with the limited resources (time, money, skills & ingredients) we have.

7) Ever thought of selling via Facebook or twitter? Perhaps locate Singaporean student clubs across universities to take group orders?

Yes, I am trying to figure out how to sell via Facebook and Twitter (the latter I am NOT familiar at all) without anymore additional costs. As you know, I am doing all these on my own and so, I have very very limited resources. I did manage to locate Singaporean/ Malaysian student clubs across some universities in the hopes of taking group orders and have in fact emailed to a couple of them to let them know about my online store but sadly, no responses from them so far…not quite sure what I did wrong but I am definitely not giving up since I know that not only does mothers need help in the kitchen, Singaporeans/ Malaysians students in the States will also appreciate any good and easy to prepare food products that allow them to enjoy their fav. dishes ….I just need to figure out how to contact these groups of people. Any suggestions? [Kevin: Call to action can be tough at the start, so perhaps you could start by spreading awareness via social networks and online communities. Let friends to spread word of mouth; I’ll try to help]

8) Have you met other Singaporean moms in the States? Is it true that bordom is their worse enemy?

I have met other Singaporean moms in the States. From my interactions with them, I have to say that there is absolutely NO TIME to be bored!! Since we do not have any support system in place over here (such as maids, parents, in-laws etc like what we have in Singapore), it is very very tough to be bored here in the States especially if you have children. Here, you really need to do everything yourself from teaching your children (tutors are so expensive and a luxury here just like having maids) to bringing them to their afterschool activities to volunteering in their schools to cleaning the house to cooking to doing laundry and the list goes on and on….

I always laugh with my husband saying that I never know marketing/ grocery shopping can be such a fun family activity that takes an entire day to complete – sometimes, we even spent our entire weekends in different grocery stores!! Our children now think that going to the grocery stores is their weekly field trip!!! Imagine what their classmates must be thinking when my children are always sharing with their classes that they have just spent yet another weekend going from one grocery store to the next : 0))

9) Have you met any inspirational expatriate moms living in the States?

One of the most inspirational expatriate moms whom I know is Veronica. We bump in to each other in a Malaysian restaurant here in Atlanta and we just ‘clicked’ :) Although she is married to an American, I feel that Veronica is very successful in bringing together some of the best parenting and values from both the America’s and Asian’s cultures in her family. Her family loves Asian dishes and although she is strict with them in terms of education, she is never overly-obsessive about her kids getting straight A’s unlike a lot of parents I know in Singapore. She makes sure that her children always know that she loves them very much no matter what and she is not shy about telling them that she loves them and giving them hugs/ kisses. Veronica will also take the time and efforts to talk to her children and also to hear their views of what is going on in their lives, no matter how busy she is. I do not know many parents in Singapore who will listen to their children without passing any sort of judgment or criticisms [Kevin: Aiyoh!].

10) What cultural survival tips would you share with Singaporeans & Malaysians families living in the States?

Survival Tips:-
1. Don’t bring your kiasu-isms to the States!! This includes not comparing your children’s achievements against each other kids’, seeing who drives bigger car or who has a bigger house. None of these matters! What truly matter is that we learn from each other in this country and be willing to help each other out.

2. Be active in your children’s schools so that they know you are interested in their lives in school and help them understand the values of contributing back to the community through actions and not just through monetary donations

3. Don’t be snobbish!! Not every Singaporean/ Malaysian mom here in the States are living on the high-life and they may not be as financially well-off as you or your peers back in Singapore. This tip also expands to making sure that you befriend not only fellow Singaporeans/ Malaysians but also the Americans!! Do not be afraid to approach them and just open yourself up. You will be amazed at how much you learn from each other and the lasting friendships!

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! You will find that Americans and fellow Singaporeans/ Malaysians are generally willing to help you or share localized tips with you (where is the nearest grocery store, where is a safe place to go at night and where are the good schools) once you asks for help.

5. Stay connected to Singapore/ Malaysia through any local Singaporeans/ Malaysians associations and it is now so easy for us to read up on news from back home online : )

6. Be sure to register yourself and your family with the Singapore Embassy nearest to you via their websites. You can even sign up for regular news blasts from the embassy/ consular office.

7. The following websites may also be useful to Singaporeans here in the States:
http://www.babybonus.gov.sg
http://www.mfa.gov.sg/washington/
http://www.moe.edu.sg/education/admissions/returning-singaporeans/
http://www.moe.edu.sg/education/admissions/returning-singaporeans/#going-overseas
Application for Singapore Citizenship, click on http://www.mfa.gov.sg/sanfrancisco/ and on the link that says “Visa and Immigration Matters”

Thanks for sharing your story. I’m sure lots of folks will benefit from this, and I hope they’ll check out your online grocery store, SingaporeMalaysiaStore.com.

  • http://blog.wificat.com/ straydog

    I've bought a couple of Prima Laksa packets for a Swiss friend who's crazy over Laksa when I was up there last year end. There is definitely a market out there.

    • http://theory.isthereason.com Kevin Lim

      Straydog, all the more we need to help Audrey spread word of mouth about her online store ;)

  • http://phototrails.wordpress.com/ CLim

    Kevin – A great interview! Thank you Audrey for sharing your experiences. I'm sure a number of Singaporeans abroad share the same sentiments (for e.g. missing parents, the kiasuism etc). I like your “Just Do It” mentality and wish you all the best in your online business.

    • http://theory.isthereason.com Kevin Lim

      Carolyn, I'll let Audrey know. To be fair, she shares one point of view. Singaporean friends who have read this argue that not all Singaporeans are stuck to the 5Cs mentality. You can still avoid the peer pressure without leaving Singapore… you just need to be confident and self-reliant in what you're doing. :)

  • http://en-gb.facebook.com/people/Walter-Lim/734910544 Walter Lim

    It is always interesting to read about the lives of Singaporeans overseas and how different/similar they are compared to the ones back home. Having lived abroad for about 10 months in Melbourne, I have come to appreciate that there are certain qualities in Singaporeans that will persist regardless of where we are based in – that frankness and self-disarming honesty, as well as the bottom-line orientation. What's good about any stints overseas though is that it gives you a greater balanced view of life and what truly matters.

  • http://www.uni-trier.de/ Fran

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks very much for your interesting blog. It's always nice to see how people on the other side of the globe live, how they share the same joys and sorrows, what they do in their free time, etc.

    I actually have a question about your blog. Would you mind helping us with a linguistic research project? We're compiling data from various Singaporean weblogs. All it requires is checking a few boxes. If you want to take part and/or have more questions, drop me a note ( hack2301@uni-trier.de RE: Question ) so that I can then send you the 'official' project eMail. We'd really appreciate your help.

    Thanks very much in advance!
    Best regards,
    – Fran

  • big mister

    Man. we should do something like that.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/YWFUNA3D2UUEMLXWZGPZEDZN5I MAVE

    I finally found time to “visit” DR Kevin! Yes I am still freezing my rear here in Ohio, it is snowing … again.
    Wonderful piece on Audrey Lim, 2 thumbs up. Way to go girl, good job on your store!
    As a Singaporean mother of 2 transplanted into the USA for 2 decades, I FEEL your pain of the differences in lifestyles and the food cravings.
    Yes, the days do not end here, especially for a working mother, perhaps worse for a working mother. I must add, I LOVE the dishwasher lifestyle.
    To any other Singaporeans in the US, drop me a “Okay lah” anytime, at the rate the real estate market is crashing, I'll be here for a while.