Raelene Tan's words of wisdom on parenting, marriage and more
The relationship cherished by Raelene Tan and Soo Ren is a shining example of a strong and happy marriage. Read this inspiring interview with Raelene as she shares her wisdom on marriage, parenting, inter-cultural relationships and more...
Raelene Tan and Tan Soo Ren’s beautiful love story became known to us earlier this year through their contribution to the Singapore Memory Project. Their marriage is quite special not just because it spans almost 50 years, but also because it was one of the first interracial marriages in Singapore at the time. Raelene is Australian-born; Soo Ren is Singaporean.
This wonderful couple is still going strong. They are now grandparents to four beautiful children.
It’s also quite fitting that we bring this interview to you as Singapore’s 50th year anniversary celebrations approach us, as it was the day after National Day in 1970 that Raelene first arrived in Singapore.
Here, she talks about her cross-cultural love story and her parenting philosophy. Take a walk down memory lane with Raelene, won’t you?
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: When did you first come to Singapore? What do you do for work? And we’d love to know what your favourite local food is!
A: I first arrived in Singapore on 10th August, 1970, which was a public holiday for National Day. I currently work as an etiquette consultant and a food and travel writer. As for my favourite local food… I do enjoy Nyonya cuisine, as well as chicken rice, vegetable curries, mee swa and tropical fruit.
Q: How and where did you first meet your husband? What was it about him that drew you to him?
A: My husband, Tan Soo Ren—who is Singaporean—and I first met in London. He was studying architecture there and I was working at the Australian High Commission.
My husband and I met at a boarding house run by an English couple in West Hampstead, London, where we were boarders, together with several others. Soo Ren and I were simply friends in the beginning, seeing each other every day when all five boarders gathered at the dining table for dinner.
We had a three-year courtship before marrying on the 31st of August, 1968. I was drawn to him due to his sincerity, his gentlemanly ways, and willingness to help others, even if he had a busy study schedule.
On the next page, find out how Soo Ren and Raelene got to know each other’s families.
Q: What was your family’s reaction when you first introduced Soo Ren to them, given that back in the days, cross-cultural marriages wouldn’t have been that common? What was Soo Ren’s family’s reaction?
A: In the 1960s, the usual mode of communication was by posted letter, which was how my parents in Australia came to know about their future son-in-law. They urged caution due to our different backgrounds. Soo Ren’s parents in Singapore also knew about their daughter-in-law through the written word, which was posted to them on our wedding day.
We were married at Westminster, London, in the presence of a few friends. My parents first met Soo Ren about a year later, in Australia, while I first met my parents-in-law in Singapore in 1970. Once everyone met, we instantly formed a bond which remained strong, including both sets of parents, despite language and cultural differences.
Q: How did you and your husband learn about each others’ cultures? How did you handle any differences of opinion that might have stemmed from your different cultural backgrounds?
A: My husband and I both endeavoured to learn about each other’s countries, customs, and cultures through books during the time we were in London and, in fact, we are still discovering tidbits along the way.
Together, we accepted Western social mores through day-to-day activities, and through visits to Malaysia House in London, where students socialised, we embraced various Asian ways. Any differences that arose, such as in humour, food, language, and religion, we handled together as team-partners.
Q: Tell us about your early days in Singapore. What was it like for you settling into a new marriage, culture, and country?
A: In 1970, when I first arrived in Singapore, it was a far cry from the thriving cosmopolitan city it is today. There were not many Caucasians, the public transport system was less than reliable, there were plenty of open drains. It was almost like living in a village.
We lived within the large family home in Cuscaden Road, off Orchard Road, as an extended family of more than 30 people, all Chinese-educated, under the guidance of my traditional parents-in-law. It was a challenge for me to eat rice every day, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!
However, I enjoyed the opportunity to discover more about traditional Chinese habits, as well as the country’s ethnic fabric, and Soo Ren was a willing and patient teacher. Once I began working, in October 1970 at the Australian High Commission, I was able to feel more at home.
Raelene describes how her kids got the best of both cultures on the next page.
Q: What do you enjoy the most about being in a cross-cultural marriage? Is there any aspect of it that was or still is challenging?
A: Being in a cross-cultural marriage is, I feel, the same as being in any marriage, where both partners work to make their marriage a success. Granted, we probably need to work harder to overcome obvious differences, but the foundation is the same.
I feel it is necessary to study as much as possible about the other person’s country, customs, and culture and be adaptable to appreciate different aspects with an open and enquiring mind, and be willing to compromise when necessary. I do enjoy being able to appreciate different festivals, food, and celebrations in our marriage.
Q: You have two lovely children. How did you ensure your children got the best of both cultures while growing up?
A: During the growing-up years of our daughter, Lauren, and our son, Darren, they interacted regularly with their Chinese-speaking grandparents and other relatives here in Singapore, thereby feeling at ease with Chinese customs.
Our children also had the opportunity to visit their grandparents and relatives in Australia, and to receive visits from them here in Singapore, thereby providing a balance to their cross-cultural background. Soo Ren spoke to Lauren and Darren in Mandarin during their formative years, while I spoke in English, plus we ensured various mealtimes represented East and West favourites.
During other ethnic festivals (Vesak Day, Hari Raya Puasa, Deepavali, etc.) we involved ourselves as a family by discussing the festivals and either visiting friends who celebrated, or going to restaurants to savour traditional festive food.
Both children attended Nanyang School here, further grounding them in the Chinese language, and their higher education was in Australia, providing them with the best of both worlds.
Q: Between your husband and yourself, who was the stricter parent? How did you discipline your children?
A: We tried to be evenly balanced in our discipline role as parents, though I think I was stricter! Discipline was mostly meted out with a thorough “talking to” or being grounded for a suitable time. But, by and large, we are blessed to have children who did not, and do not, give cause for concern.
What are the secrets to a long and happy marriage? Raelene explains on the next page.
Q: How do your children identify themselves?
A: Mostly, Lauren and Darren describe themselves as Chinese (which is listed on their identity cards), although they are also comfortable referring to themselves as Eurasian.
Q: Did you come across any challenges raising your kids? Please tell us about how you handled them.
A: Mostly, any matters relating to children of cross-cultural marriages come, from my experience, through the words and actions of innocent schoolchildren. We did not face any major matters, just thoughtless children wondering about visible differences.
In this regard, the Cosmopolitan Women’s Club was a boon, as we organised family get-togethers and also children’s activities, where our children were able to grow up knowing there were others like them with parents from different ethnic backgrounds. Interestingly, many of those young children, now adults themselves and also parents, remain friends to this day.
Q: What is your message to parents raising children in a cross-cultural environment?
A: As with all parents and their children, regardless of background, children need to be raised in a loving, warm family environment, where communication provides a sense of belonging.
Children of cross-cultural backgrounds are fortunate in that they have a wealth of experience of different cultures.
Q: In your opinion, how has parenting in Singapore changed over the last 50 years?
A: It is a pity that parenting, these days, seems to be less hands-on that it was over, say, the last 50 years. No doubt this is due to changing worlds and economies, but it is a pity.
Children are only young once, and the guidance and love they receive from regular interaction with their parents shape them for their adult years. It also bodes well, for the future, to have loving grandparents, plus parents feeling secure in their golden years.
Q: Now that your children are grown up, how do you and Soo Ren enjoy spending your days?
A: Now that our children have flown the nest, Soo Ren and I enjoy quality time together.
We enjoy simple pleasures such as walking, driving, eating and, of course, family get-togethers with our grandchildren: Amanda, nine years, and twins Ayden and Ashley, four years (Lauren and Weiren’s children); and Emma, three years (Darren and Rachel’s child).
Our son-in-law and daughter-in-law are both Singaporean Chinese. Soo Ren’s health suffered from a stroke about 10 years ago, so every day is a blessing to be treasured.
Q: What do you think are the magic ingredients to a long and successful marriage such as your own?
A: When we marry someone we love, we treat that person with respect, care for him or her, and generally show true love through thick and thin.
Compromise and sincerity are probably the most important skills in a marriage, coupled with genuine love for one’s partner. I can honestly say that Soo Ren and I have a marriage founded on those basics, and we genuinely enjoy each other’s company, even after 47 years of marriage and 50 years of knowing each other!
Watch the original irememberSG video on Raelene and Soo Ren’s beautiful love story:
We hope you enjoyed reading this interview. Do share your own secrets to a happy marriage by posting a comment below.