Oli, a Hongkong-born Englishman, who will be hosting the Asian Academy Creative Award here on 6 and 7 December, is best known for hosting Cash Cab Asia, while his wife, US-born ex-model Linda, was a resident presenter on HBO Signature and Discovery Channel Asia. The couple are parents to Ewan and Tia (whom they adopted), both 10.
Faced with the rising cost of living in Singapore, the seasoned artistes moved to Texas, USA, in 2014, as Oli got a permanent gig presenting Right This Minute, a show that shares the best viral videos from around the world. The Pettigrews moved to Arizona in 2016.
Oli notes, “Work is awesome. The show has really grown up over the years and it’s extremely fun. It’s easy because its suits my personality and it’s improvised, which I love. It’s exactly what I’ve been hoping for.”
It’s not just Oli who has found something he’s passionate about. Linda, who does the lion’s share of caring for their kids, is also pursuing her first love ― writing. She has written the sequel to her first urban fantasy novel, Deathwish, which was published in 2006. Linda is already working on her third book and another four more are in the pipeline. “Now all I need is a literary agent to represent me, which is in progress,” she enthuses.
So, what else have these genetically-gifted duo been up to ever since they left the Lion City? SmartParents catches up with them on Skype as they get candid about life in the desert. The pair also touch on their continued advocacy to create more awareness about adoption…
Hi Oli and Linda, greetings from Singapore! How is life in Arizona?
Linda: I didn’t know much about the place before we moved there last August. Honestly, it’s a desert and it’s very hot. It was 47 deg C the first week we got her ― it was awful ― I hated it. So, the first couple of months we just stayed in and tried to settle in. After living in Texas for two years, my son loved being back in the city with buildings and trains. My daughter, who got used to country life in Texas, missed the country life and the cousins and friends she made there.
Oli: I moved to Arizona first and I’ve been here for a couple of years. I was flying back and forth to Texas almost every weekend. Then my show got picked up by ABC and we signed a multi-deal, which is when I committed to flying the family in. We bought a house right down the road from the studio. So instead of flying thousands of miles every weekend now I only have to travel three miles down the road and I’m back with my family. It’s good.
Was it hard getting used to your new environment?
Linda: When we first got to Texas in 2014, Oli and I still had contracts in Singapore, so we were flying back and forth from January until October, every month. When we finally finished our contracts, it was really difficult for me to calm down to a slower pace of life. It took me a long time to get used to it. But on the upside, when we lived in Texas for the first two years, we were living just down the road from my mother so, I saw her every day. She got to see my children and they formed a great relationship. Eventually, I calmed down to a nice little role that I had carved out for myself, which I never thought I would.
I have such fond memories of Singapore. I miss it quite a bit, not just the lifestyle, but the closeness of our friends, the culture and the food!
How about the kids? How did you help them settle in?
Linda: We started Adventure Saturdays! All week, Oli has go to work and the kids have to go to school, so on Saturdays, we do something significant or something we know our kids would like, such as visiting museums or exploring the desert. It helped all of us settle into a routine and look forward to the weekends.
Why the decision to move to the US?
Linda: We were doing fairly well in Singapore, but my son is on the autism spectrum and we realised that some of the services he needs may be a little be more difficult to get in Singapore. Plus, Oli was ready to move at this stage in his career as well, and having been in Singapore since 2004, I hadn’t seen my family that much.
Do you miss life in Singapore?
Linda: I have such fond memories of Singapore. I miss it quite a bit, not just the lifestyle, but the closeness of our friends, the culture and the food! We’d been there for 13 years. School was quite expensive especially since Ewan is on the spectrum and he had to go to a special school. We did it for a few months and I realised it was just unsustainable. Also, I didn’t want my son and daughter to go to different schools. Here, they go to the same school, although I know they will come home with different experiences.
You are one of the few celebrities who have been open about adopting your daughter, Tia. How did you get involved with fostering and adoption?
Linda: Ewan was about 1½ years old when I had friend who was fostering. She was an American who lived in Singapore and was involved with a charity that was placing children who had an immediate need for a safe place to live while paperwork was being drawn up for adoption. Basically, these were babies who had been abandoned in hospital. The charity would call up and ask if we could take the baby. It could be for a few days to a few weeks or months. The more she talked to me about it, the more I was in love with the idea. Also, Oli and I had said from the very beginning, even while we were dating, that we were open to the idea of adoption. So I checked out the charity, it was called Sanctuary House then, but they have since changed their names [Boys' Town, another charity, has since taken over its foster care service.]. I brought home the paperwork and we became foster parents. We signed up for it in September and in December we got our first baby!
That was fast! Tell us about your first experience with fostering.
Oli: We got a call on Christmas Eve. There we were hanging stuff on the tree and Linda goes to answer the phone. She comes back and tells me the Sanctuary House called and they’ve got a little baby girl who’s been abandoned and needs someone to watch her. I said to Linda, ‘It’s Christmas Eve, are you literally asking me if there’s room at the inn?’ [laughs]. So, we got this little girl whom we named Sana. She was an Indian girl, maybe 3 or 4 days old. We watched her for five days ― she spent her first Christmas with a family who loved her and we gave her a little gift. I still remember sitting up with her on Christmas Eve because she wouldn’t sleep.
Linda: After that initial one, our work schedule got very crazy and we couldn’t take in another one until a long time later. We decided from the beginning that we weren’t going to complicate things. If a baby comes great, but we won’t be upset if they don’t either. We’re just happy the baby gets looked after.
So, how did you meet Tia?
Linda: A year goes by and by this time, we had already started talking about having another child. Ewan was already 2½ years old by then and we knew he was on the spectrum. He wasn’t talking and wasn’t interested in playing with other children. He was a lot like me as a child. I didn’t like to play with anyone except my brothers and sisters. So, that’s when we decided he needed a sibling. We started talking about conceiving again, but Oli was working on six television shows and I had five. On top of that, we were also doing ad hoc hosting. I knew if I fell pregnant, we would have to take a lot of time off and I would lose my clients. Also, we did have one miscarriage before Ewan was born and that was painful to get through. We weren’t exactly sure we wanted to go through that again.
Oli: There was so many reasons not to have a baby. On the other hand there was adoption, which we knew we both wanted. Once we decided we were going to adopt, there were other things to consider as well.
Linda: I wasn’t sold on the idea of getting a baby and then getting Oli to do night-time feedings and stuff. Also, we noticed Ewan did not do well with babies. He was terrified of them because they are so unpredictable. He likes predictable things. So we called Sanctuary House and alerted them that we were looking for a child to adopt and our unique situation. A child that’s not too much older than Ewan, but not a baby. Immediately, they wrote back to me and said we have the perfect child. She just came up for adoption yesterday and needs a place to go. Would we like to see this child? I said yes, definitely. I didn’t need a trial period, I knew I was going to keep her.
Ewan and Tia are a hundred times better because they have each other.
Tell us about the first time you met Tia?
Oli: The first time Tia came over, she was about 3 years old. Before that Ewan had never wanted to interact with other children. He didn’t even like them to touch him. So, Tia comes over and she’s just being herself, getting in front of everybody’s face. She goes right over to Ewan who turns over to look at her and he pushes his iPad over to share. Something he has never done before with another person until then. We just stood there shocked. We couldn’t believe it, so we took that as a sign. She came back again a few days later for a play date, which went really well. Eventually she came and stayed with us for a weekend. That’s the nice thing about fostering. When a child comes to you, you give them the security that they need. That’s also the easy part. Saying goodbye is the hard part.
So, how do you say goodbye?
Linda: It’s one of the things that people will always ask us about fostering. Isn’t it difficult? Is it hard? Don’t you want to not do this, because then you’ve got to say goodbye? So I tell them, well it’s not about me. It’s not about us, it’s about this child who needs a place to stay. How can you sit there and say I’m going make this about me. I cried after Sana left and I wonder every day how she is. I wonder if she’s happy. She was mine for those days and I don’t regret a moment of it. So, that’s why I took the day before she left to grieve and say bye. By the time it was time to hand her over to her proper parents, I was smiling and happy knowing she was going to a wonderful place.
Oli: It was hard. We would have kept her if we could.
What are some reactions you’ve had to deal with when you tell people you adopted Tia?
Oli: It caught me off guard how many of our friends and people in the TV industry have questions when they hear about the adoption. They ask us what’s it like. We say it’s just like having a child in every single way. They also ask how will they know if they’re ready. To that we say, well how do you know you were ready to be a parent? It’s the same thing. Parenthood is all about figuring it out and making a bunch of mistakes you’re not telling anybody.
How has family life changed since Tia arrived?
Linda: When Ewan was still little, he didn’t speak, make eye contact or even want to be around us really. The house was so quiet then and I’m not used to that. I raised a bunch of nieces and nephews and I know a house with children is supposed to have laughter. It’s supposed to be fun. Oli would come home from work, say hi to Ewan and go off. Ewan would go off and do his thing and I would just sit there and think that this is not right. This isn’t the way. Since Tia came into our home, all I hear is giggling and laughing. Oli has also become a more engaged father as well.
Oli: Tia coming into this family was the best thing that ever happened to this family. Ewan and Tia are a hundred times better because they have each other ― with Tia having gone through what she has because of the fostering and Ewan just needing someone to get him.
Do Ewan and Tia get along well?
Oli: The children have always been like twins. They are thick as thieves. They will more often than not sleep next to each other.
Linda: I know my son and he’s a little unusual and a lot of people don’t understand him. He’s my little heart running around outside my body and it hurts when people look at him and they don’t get him. Tia’s got so much strength and is so socially capable. She’s so loving that in that moment when they met, they started holding hands, running around, giggling and conspiring against us even. I say that Ewan is my heart and Tia is the ribs that protect him.
Parenthood is all about figuring it out and making a bunch of mistakes you’re not telling anybody.
What were some challenges you faced after adopting Tia?
Linda: When Tia first came to stay with us, she only spoke Bahasa, Mandarin and a Malay dialect which was beautiful but we don’t speak that. But she picked up English quickly. Also, there was this thing with food. She kept eating and eating, and even took food from our plate, which was fine with us. But then the social workers told us that children in the foster system ate as a source of comfort, when they can. So, we just started monitoring her food intake. Instead of three bowls of bee hoon ― yeah she could really put it away ― we did two and then we’d go play.
The biggest challenge though was helping her process her memories of the life she had before us. Some of them were not pleasant and there have been times when she will wake up with bad dreams and want to come and cuddle in bed. When she’s ready to talk about it, we are always ready to hear about it. And we tell her to be as honest as possible. So we would have to answer questions like, where do I come from, who am I, what if my real parents are looking for me. We give her information we know she can handle for her age. For us, that’s going to be a challenge as she starts to process her memories and they take on a different meaning as she starts to mature. So, we are always constantly on the lookout for that.
What would you tell families considering adoption?
Oli: It’s totally worth it. If we had millions of dollars, we would adopt them all. We definitely feel like we want to adopt more kids, but just right now would be a crazy time to do. Tia has blossomed so much. She first came to us as a meek little girl. She was loud, but she was meek. Back then we had to work to get the laughs out of her, but now she’s always laughing. She’s hilarious, and bright and she’s caring. She’s very understanding of the fact that she’s adopted. Sometimes, she randomly comes over and gives us hugs and thanks us for being her parents. In reply, I would say thanks for being my daughter.
Linda: It should feel easy and it did feel easy for us. But before you go into it, make sure you and your partner are on the same page and support each other in this decision. Because there are going to be some tough times. Yes, you’re going to feel vulnerable, yes it’s going to be scary at time. But regular parenthood or biological parenthood is the same. You have to do the best that you can and you can only do it if you’re 100 per cent sure, but it’s so worth it. This year for Mother’s Day, Tia’s teacher asked her what makes your mum special and she said, because she adopted me.
*This interview has been edited for clarity.
Photos: Linda Black and Oli Pettigrew
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