updated 17 Feb 2010, 12:18
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Wed, Feb 17, 2010
Urban, The Straits Times
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Love beyond culture differences
by Karen Tee

Mark Teo, 32 and Ellen Philpott, 28

Theirs is an old-fashioned courtship - but carried out in the most modern of ways.

Mark Teo and his Australian wife of five years, Ellen Philpott, fell in love as university students over daily love letters, except that they were sent via e-mail.

Back in 2000, Teo had just transferred to the University of Melbourne after studying architecture for a year at the University of Tasmania, where he and Philpott were classmates.

After moving, Teo began bonding with Philpott over e-mail messages. Says Philpott, a lecturer in interior design at Singapore Polytechnic: 'A casual e-mail exchange became a daily affair and we realised we'd fallen in love.'

Teo, an architectural associate with Annex A Architects, adds: 'Going home and checking our inboxes became the most exciting highlight of the day.'

After about five months of swopping e-mail messages, Teo decided to return to the University of Tasmania in February 2001 to attend a summer workshop.

'My parents thought I was being hardworking but the real reason was to see if our relationship would work out in person,' recalls the outgoing Teo with a laugh.

Their virtual romance translated effortlessly into the real world and by the end of Teo's summer course, the two decided that they were ready for a committed relationship.

They spent the next year nurturing a long-distance relationship before Philpott moved to Melbourne to complete her degree in architecture.

It was when they moved in together that their cultural differences started to show, especially in their diets. 'I didn't realise how Asian my tastes were until I had to get used to eating cold cereal for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch,' says Teo, half in jest.

While it is common to see Chinese Singaporean women with Caucasian partners, the reverse is less so.

Asked about the perception that Singaporean men tend to be dull company, Teo replies: 'It is not about culture or race, but about the individual. Ellen and I have common values that helped bond us.'

Philpott chimes in: 'I've met a lot of boring Australian guys too.' She adds: 'We were raised similarly in families that prize hard work, family values and education. Mark is very polite and respectful to my parents, which I appreciate a lot.'

Still, there were some bumps along the way.

While her parents were fine with Teo, she knew her grandparents, both survivors of World War II, had some concerns because of his Asian background. 'But they came around quickly once they got to know Mark.'

They make yearly trips to Tasmania, where her family lives.

His parents, too, had reservations initially. 'When I rang my mum up to tell her, there was silence for a few seconds before she quickly said that she and my dad are open minded,' recalls Teo, who has an older sister.

In 2005, the pair decided to tie the knot after their graduation and move to Singapore. One reason was to allow Teo's family to get to know Philpott, the older of two girls.

It was this decision that won his family over.

Although she has grown to love the order and cleanliness of Singapore, she admits she is not exactly a fan of 'shopping, hot weather or local food'.

She is happy, though, to immerse herself in Singapore's unique cultures and spent her first year here helping out at her in-laws' shop, which sells joss sticks and joss paper.

'I think I became the neighbourhood attraction at one point,' she jokes. There, she brushed up on her basic Mandarin, Cantonese and Teochew.

Her language skills will come in useful when they eventually have kids, as they want their children to learn both English and Mandarin. She quips: 'I don't want them to be cheeky to me in Mandarin without me knowing it.'

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