Who says Mandarin isn’t useful? In Diana Ser’s case, being effectively bilingual scored her a hunky husband – actor James Lye, who is now a banker.
“According to my husband, he was sitting with his back to the television when he heard the English-speaking host suddenly switch to Mandarin,” recounts Ser, 43.
“He swivelled his chair around and saw me on TV. He thought to himself, ‘Wow, who’s this babe?’ Those were his words. Later on when we met, he remembered me from when he saw me on TV.”
After a nine-year courtship, the couple tied the knot in 2004. They have three children: Jake, nine, Christy, seven, and Jaymee, four.
Ironically, her two older children are reluctant to speak Mandarin. This inspired her to set up an online portal, Crazy About Chinese.
Launched in December 2015, the site is filled with articles and videos to encourage parents to teach their children the Chinese language through daily activities.
Her youngest daughter Jaymee, is the star of the videos, while the others make cameo appearances.
Diana says: “My attitude towards Chinese learning is to not give up on any learning opportunities. For English-speaking families, the odds are against us.
“We must surround our children with the Chinese language. I try my best to speak Mandarin at home. I play Mandarin children songs in the car.”
In the 1990s, she hosted shows on Channel 8 and 5 shows. She also helmed Channel NewsAsia’s investigative current affairs show, Get Real, from 2004 to 2006.
These days, she splits her time between being a events emcee and a hands-on mother to her children. Here, she shares more about her life:
Singaporeans often find it hard to pick up the Chinese language. How did you become so fluent in Mandarin?
I think my fortune may be because I was born a heartlander. My childhood was not dominated by the English language. My parents couldn’t speak English very well.
I watched Chinese dramas on TV. I was very lucky to have good teachers. It helped that I was a good student, too. (Laughs)
What is it like to film the videos with Jaymee?
Trust me, whatever you see on camera is not even like 50 per cent of what she is. She has already toned it down. She’s lively, spunky, spontaneous and happy.
For the Christmas episode, we were decorating a Christmas tree at a department store. The decorations were so wonderful, she clung on to the bag of decorations.
I said: “Sweetheart, you need to return it.” She refused and I could not pry it out of her hands.
I was desperate. I went to the retail assistant and asked her to pretend to be a fierce security guard. The assistant talked to her nicely instead and Jaymee gave in.
Does your husband help out with the portal Crazy About Chinese?
He’s my cheerleader. I’m very glad that he is not objecting to it. He’s a very private person and he could have said that he would have preferred if our children were not exposed to the public.
He told me: “If you think that it is going to be meaningful for you, then you should go and do it.”
What kind of parents are you?
I’m solely in charge of the day-to-day operations. Invariably, I’m the disciplinarian. James and I are quite fun parents.
Once, when we were waiting for a flight at Changi Airport, the kids wanted to drink Milo. James came back with only one cup of Milo and suggested playing a game to decide who will get a sip each round. The kids had so much fun.
Do your children take after you or your husband?
When it comes to looks, I have no chance. A friend used to tease me that the children came from only James. She called them “James-lets”.
When it comes to personality, of course I will say that their good traits come from me. (Laughs)
How do you keep the romance alive in your marriage?
We try to set aside couple time. I’ve been trying to plan a movie night for just the two of us, but it hasn’t materialised for the longest time.
We must accept that our notion of romance has evolved. There should be an acceptance that things have changed from the time we were dating.
Now we connect on a different level. When we play together with the kids, it’s deeply satisfying because you’ve built this family together.
How do you juggle work commitments and mummy duties?
I have domestic help. That allows me to go to work with peace of mind. However, it still requires a lot of planning on my part – scheduling their tuition and deciding what they eat for meals.
Another thing that is important is the mummy network. When you start having children, you will find that friends who have children in the similar age group can be very helpful.
When I’m really desperate, I will call one of my mummy friends to get them to help pick up my kid.
How would you like to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered as a survivor. I do believe that resilience and the ability to adapt is what has gotten me through all these years. Case in point: I nearly lost my No. 2 when my waterbag ruptured when I was five months pregnant. If she had been born at that time, she could have died or survived with handicaps.
That night when I was lying in hospital, I remember crying all night. The next morning I told myself that you’ve cried and now your job is to make sure she survives in your tummy. We are very blessed that she did.
A version of this article first appeared in The Straits Times.