‘Small kampung’ far from wanton mee: Family of RSAF engineer describes ups and downs of life on US base
BOISE, Idaho: When Ms Angelia Giam, 36, wakes up in Singapore craving for wanton noodles, she knows it is a short walk away at her usual hawker centre.
But it is a different story at the Mountain Home Air Force Base 14,000km away in Idaho, where nearby food options are Popeyes, Burger King and Taco Bell. “If you want something here, you have to make it yourself,” she told reporters at the base on Thursday (Oct 10).
This is where Ms Giam lives with her husband Military Expert 2 (ME2) Lee Ban Chin, who is based there as a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) engineer. The 37-year-old maintains the F-15SG fighter jet as part of the Peace Carvin Five detachment, which celebrated its 10th anniversary on Thursday.
While ME2 Lee ensures the fighter jets are fit to fly, Ms Giam takes care of their four children: Clemens, 14; Damir, 12; Eytan, 5; and Fayth, 3. Their initials complete the first six letters of the alphabet. “He (ME2 Lee) is my employer,” Ms Giam joked, saying: “I cannot say that I don’t have a job.”
Indeed her job starts at 6.30am, when she makes breakfast for the kids. Then she sees her two eldest sons off before they take a bus to school in the town of Mountain Home. Next up is feeding her toddlers, after which she sends Eytan to school on base and Fayth in Mountain Home.
“Everything ends at about 8.30am before I drive back to do some groceries and then start prepping for lunch and dinner,” she said.
ME2 Lee and his family have lived in the US for two-and-a-half years now, with his stint ending at the end of next year. He had also completed a tour at the same detachment from 2014 to 2016. Then, the family was together too.
So when duty came calling again, it was an easy decision for Ms Giam to quit her job as an administrative executive at a local bank. “I have always been with him wherever he goes,” she said. “It was a no-brainer to follow.”
But the determination to stick together as a family doesn’t come without challenges. Beyond the issue of convenience, Ms Giam said she misses the help she gets from relatives, while days at home eating alone with the kids can get boring.
There are also some obstacles in education, with only a kindergarten and primary school on base and a “limited” choice of schools in Mountain Home. Furthermore, the US school curriculum is different from the one in Singapore.
“When my eldest son was preparing for his Secondary 2 SPERS, I saw him struggle a lot,” Ms Giam said, noting that Clemens did not go through Primary 6. “His foundation is not that strong.”
SPERS refers to the School Placement Exercise for Returning Singaporeans, a posting exercise for students who want to join secondary schools at the Secondary 1, 2 or 3 level from the next academic year. Students will have to sit for an English and mathematics test.
So after the kids return from school, they finish their homework then go through an online tuition programme which follows the Singapore curriculum. Ms Giam also prints out test papers from Singapore.
“There’s no choice; he just has to do it,” she said. “We try to replicate the Singaporean exam system when he was preparing for his (SPERS) exams.”
Ms Giam also tries to cook familiar dishes like chicken rice and the wanton noodles she misses, and when it gets lonely while her husband is at work, she invites the other Singaporean wives over for a meal, pot luck style.
The Singaporean community there celebrates holidays like Chinese New Year with small gatherings and the giving of hongbaos, and gets in touch with families to support them even before they uproot to the US.
It is a tight-knit community of about 375 RSAF personnel including spouses and children living on base and in Mountain Home.
However, that’s not to say that the Lee family lives in a bubble. Their children have made friends at school and enjoy going to proms and have sleepovers. Their neighbours are personnel from the US Air Force, so the kids play with each other.
“Their kids are running all around the neighbourhood; every evening they’ll ask my kids to come out and play,” ME2 Lee said. “To them it’s like a very small kampung, because the military kids also move around a lot. So typically, their friends are whoever that’s in the community.”
But Ms Giam said she still plays the role of an "Asian mum", adding that she expects her kids to abide by a curfew even though they ask why their American peers do not have to.
On weekends, the family goes to the city of Boise, about an hour’s drive away, to do their groceries and take the kids outdoors. Activities are seasonal: Since it’s approaching Halloween, they have visited a pumpkin farm to check out the annual harvest.
"I'd like my kids to enjoy the experience here," ME2 Lee said, adding that he's grown fond of working with his counterparts from the US Air Force.
The Americans have been sporting too. Some have tried spicy dishes with chilli and curry, and had Chinese New Year reunion dinners with RSAF personnel who do not have family with them.
Having his family around is something ME2 Lee does not take for granted. He met Ms Giam as a 16-year-old and they got together just before he started Basic Military Training. They married at 23 and have stuck together ever since.
“I’m grateful that she’s here,” ME2 Lee told CNA. “She gave up so many things – it’s not easy to give up her career and support from her family. She’s here only by herself.”
At the carnival games during the anniversary celebration, the two eldest kids ran around winning goodie bags. Ms Giam crouched beside Fayth – adorably dressed as Elsa from “Frozen” – as the girl jumped on a lever to flip a toy fish into a hole. ME2 Lee carried Eytan as the boy cupped his ears, disturbed by the roar of a fighter jet flying low overhead.
Earlier in the day when the family lined up for a photo next to an F-15SG, someone rattled off their initials: “A, B, C, D, E, F.” One of the older brothers looked straight at Ms Giam and kept repeating the letter “G”. She laughed and smiled.