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Jennifer’s journey: An expat teen’s local school experience in Singapore

By: Verne Maree

Dutch expat Jennifer Zoontjens looks like the typical school-leaver – fresh-faced, glossy-haired, confident and well-spoken. But there’s one big difference. Instead of an international school, the school she’s graduating from is Victoria College, one of the junior colleges where local students are prepared for university. In fact, local schools are all Jennifer has ever known. Her friends are Singaporean, her sport is soccer and the East Coast is home.


Not every expat child is cut out for the local school system – though many parents out there might wish they were, considering the prohibitively high cost of international schooling. That’s why I found Jennifer’s story so interesting.


Astonishingly, there’s no trace of Singapore in your accent. You do speak Singlish to your friends, don’t you?

Of course! Singlish came to me easily, probably because I was so young when I came here; but I can switch it on and off very easily – I do that without even thinking about it.

All my classmates know how to speak English properly. When it’s time to do a presentation, everyone can turn on a proper, Singlish-free English accent and remember not to drop their final consonants.


When you first moved here, was it difficult to learn English?

I was almost seven years old when my mother [Annette] brought me to Singapore in 2002. We were joining my stepfather, Hans, who is in the textile and garment business.

It was essential for me to learn to speak English quickly, because all the teaching here is done in English. People always talk about what I did, but I don’t remember much about it, except that I had to work hard.

Luckily, I had a great teacher – a Mrs Bachelor – and she and my parents immersed me in English: no Dutch was allowed. In a couple of months it was done: I was talking English. At one point, I even forgot how to say “toilet” in Dutch.


Where did you start school?

I started at Tanjong Katong Primary and stayed there till the end of Primary Three. Then a slot opened at Temasek Primary School, which was much closer to our home in Kew Crescent. But after four months there, in 2005 a business opportunity opened up and we moved to Suzhou, China, where I attended an international school.

It was good that we moved back to Singapore in 2008, when I was thirteen. Although China was a good experience and I had fun, I wasn’t learning as much as I should have been learning at that stage. We returned to the East Coast, and I immediately joined Temasek Secondary School.


But you’ve kept up your Dutch?

Oh yes, I speak, read and write it, and speak only Dutch to my granny. But English comes to me more naturally now than Dutch does, I must admit.


Did you make friends easily at school?

I wasn’t the only foreigner, luckily – there were already quite a few international students at Tanjong Katong. I remember being friends with two Brazilian girls, so I wasn’t the odd one out.

It was a bit trickier when I came back from China, halfway through the first year of high school when friends had been made and cliques has been formed, but I survived.

My best friend, Sharmane, is a Singaporean Chinese girl from my secondary school. My other best friend is the daughter of a friend of my mother’s, who went to the Overseas Family School; it’s been nice to have a Dutch friend, too. When I met her friends at birthday parties and so on, I liked them and I always fitted in. I was never desperate to get into a circle of expat friends, though. 


What about boyfriends?

None, though I do have guy friends, including ones I find attractive. Not moving in expat circles, I don’t meet a lot of expat boys. Who has time for a committed relationship at this age, anyway? I don’t want that yet. For now, I’m happy and I don’t feel I have to prove anything.


How would you describe your high school experience? Was it as tough and pressurised as outsiders perceive it to be?

I feel very lucky that I’ve had a succession of caring teachers who have taken time to help me identify my strengths and address my weaknesses. And yes, it’s not an easy syllabus – but it’s definitely doable. You’re not alone, after all; you have the company of your classmates and the support of the teaching staff, who very much want you to succeed. And though there is a degree of competition, I think that’s positive and healthy.


Do your parents expect straight As from you?

History and literature are my favourite subjects, and I’m not too bad at maths. I find economics a bit harder to catch onto, and my parents are OK with the idea that it may it may not be realistic to predict an A for that subject – it might be a B. The system is not just about straight As, though: it’s also about other skills, like my soccer.


What advantages do you think you got from going to local schools?

At international schools, your friends come and go. You make friends and they move on; how many do you really stay in contact with? But I have a stable bunch of friends that I’ve been close to for many years. My school is my second home and I feel I have roots here.


Tell us more about your soccer. Do you follow the international football leagues?

I started playing in China when I was nine, and I tend to play on defence: defensive mid-fielder or right back. And no, I can’t afford to watch international soccer, because I get too passionate about it – I could end up smashing the TV! Of course, we have to sometimes watch English Premier League matches, for example, to learn from their tactics and strategy.


Where do you shop for clothes?

I love Zara, like everyone else. Occasionally, I’ll tag along to Bugis Junction with my friend Sharmane and maybe buy the odd thing there.


Where do you go out to with your friends?

My friends and I love eating, so we like to go out and find new places: small cafés with interesting food, different kinds of beer and so on.

For clubbing, we tend to go to Zouk, which has been around forever and is more of a local scene. Avalon is fun, but a bit touristy. Generally, though, I see clubbing as a special treat to do once in a while – I don’t do it every weekend. I’ve got tons of other things to do. My parents actually took me to my first club: Attica.


What’s your favourite food?

Local food? I could eat chicken rice every day, but I also love things like char kway teow and ayam penyet. But I think my body is still Dutch; though I love rice, it seems to have a heavier effect on me than on my friends.

My mother’s a good cook and she prepares a variety of interesting dishes, often shopping at the local wet market for exotic ingredients such as pomegranates and tempeh.


What comes next for you?

I’m still exploring my options for after my A-levels exams. I like the syllabus of the business degree at Singapore Management University, and also what’s offered by the liberal arts degree at the new Yale NUS campus.


Do you feel more like a local or like an expat? Will you “go back” to Holland?

Here’s where things become interesting. Though my stepfather’s a Singapore citizen, when my mother and I applied for PR together, her application was accepted and mine was politely rejected.

That still hurts a bit, but they all tell me not to take it personally. At the end of the day, I love it here, Singapore is my home and I hope to make my future here. But I’m young and I love going to different places, so who knows where I’ll end up.


Soccer and CCAs

“Our school is known for its soccer team,” says Jennifer. “School is not just about studying. We’re all encouraged to do a co-curricular activity (CCA) and to develop holistically. Everyone has to do physical education, of course, but if we’re strong in one particular sport, or we have another talent like singing, we’re encouraged to represent our school in that area and bring it glory if we can.

“Soccer is demanding, so one CCA is all I can manage. With four training sessions a week, it has taken up a lot of my time. With smaller CCAs you might be able to cope with two, but I committed myself totally to soccer because I love it so much.”