All posts by Victoria Leith

How to Enjoy Life Abroad after the ‘HoneyMoon’

We came to live in China as a family, full of hopes, a few expectations and a real sense of adventure! For the first three months, everything was new and exciting and we had our explorers’ hats on. Fast forward four months and I would start to wake up in the mornings, missing home, missing family and craving all the foods that are hard to get here.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter how wonderful your time away is, how great the experience, it is totally natural to feel that deep sense of wanting the old familiar and to be back at home.

When I started to feel homesick, I started to make sure I did the following and perhaps, if you ever have those feelings, you could try some too!

1. I LOVE it when I receive post or an email but of course I need to make sure I keep in touch too. I wrote to lots of friends and family telling them how I felt and also my news… and then throughout the week, I kept receiving different messages from each one, all assuring me that life was the same back in the UK and to try and enjoy my time here with my little family – it helped enormously!

2. Ask for post and parcels! I asked my mother to send me some bits and pieces (and was very specific) – and a few weeks later, an enormous parcel arrived for us all filled with joy and treats! I read her letter over and over and we all are continuing to enjoy the benefits of that parcel. Sending post overseas is pricey (her package cost about £70!) but you can always offer to pay the postage price and/or for what you have asked for. I love seeing an email in my school inbox from our wonderful receptionist telling me to pop on over to collect a parcel! It makes my day, enables me to feel connected and sustains a feeling of happiness that transcends getting the material goods… it is the thought that really does count! My brother once sent me a tiny package with a few grains of rice in as a joke… it sure made my day still and I was smiling all week because of his thoughtfulness.

3. Hang out with your new family. We are all in the same boat. Most of the staff in the school have travelled overseas, some with children others not, but being together, eating meals, planning events, traveling in the holidays and going for a coffee after school are all helpful ways to keep the feeling that you are not alone out there – you have friends and they might not be blood relatives, but most of them if not all would do anything for you if you needed it! One of our friends is travelling abroad for the winter break and she has kindly offered to let us use her apartment whilst she is gone so we can cook in her oven (most people don’t have an oven here!) It’s these small acts of kindness that can warm the cockles of the heart.

4. Allow yourself time to feel sad… then get moving! I feel quite lucky that I have my daughter and husband here – they are both amazing! I also try to see our time here through their eyes – my daughter is having the best time and my husband is making the most of not working to serve the school community and our family by washing, cleaning and cooking -priceless service! So I take time every day to look around and to count my blessings and to be grateful for all we have – a really lovely and spacious apartment, friends, good food (albeit not the pie and mash and gravy I am craving but still!) the chance to learn more about this wonderful culture and more time than we ever had in the UK to spend time together as a family.

5. Become involved. Whatever the school is doing, whether it’s Secret Santa, a staff do or an outing… go for it! Loneliness can bring about more loneliness and sometimes you just need to say YES! I WILL go on that trip… I WILL make a dish for the potluck and go to that concert. Reach out to others… let them know how you feel and don’t suffer alone. You are one of a few people who get up from their couch and venture to another part of our small yet vast world – it’s amazing what you have already done and just the act of you travelling to this country has enabled others in your home community to feel inspired. I only know this because every now and then, someone from home reminds me of this!! And that makes it even more worthwhile – some think it’s selfish to travel but I feel it can affect everyone in a really positive way. You create ripples, you bring opportunities and if other people allow themselves, they can be motivated to make changes too.

My Dad wrote me a very special message the other day in an email which made me feel SO happy and glad that we took this step to come here. He said that our daughter would one day have an amazing scrap book of memories to look back upon… so if you’re feeling homesick, focus on the positives, try not to dwell too much on your favourite shop at home (that is what I have been doing the past few weeks!) and keep reminding yourself why you travelled in the first place!

My daughter and I taking part in school Halloween celebrations!

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Getting Involved in the Culture of China

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When you move to a new country, it can feel new and wonderful but also a bit scary! So we made a decision that when we moved to China we’d try our hardest to get involved with as many activities as possible… and say YES! So when the time for the mid-autumn festival came around, I was very happy to become involved because it featured one of my favourite foods… moon cakes! We all know it’s moon cake time because two of my students’ parents brought me very luxurious, fancily-packaged boxes filled with them and they are delicious! And we all had a day off to celebrate. The school ensures that it celebrates all the local and cultural festivities and so the children and staff soon became engaged in making sticky rice moon cakes. In the evening,  my family and I were invited to perform in front of 1000 people to help the people in our district celebrate the mid-Autumn festival! The lady who organised for us to sing told us that at the end she had prepared a gift for us all – but not to worry, they were not moon cakes! I love these deliciously exquisitely-designed treats however so I would not have been disappointed!

When one of my colleagues at the school asked if we wanted to come and share some music at a local variety evening at a gym, I thought nothing of it. I figured this meant a few people, gathered in a gymnasium with a few chairs and all informal. Then earlier today, it dawned on me… my colleague meant the massive outdoor gym where people gather every evening for free exercise, dancing and playing!

When we arrived, we soon realised we were the only foreigners in the show and that they had put us on near the end as some sort of special guests… very touched at that even though we knew it wasn’t necessary. We are treated SO well here, with such respect and love from everyone we meet… and of course we are loving and sweet right back!

There was a big stage and a few people gathered which soon transformed into over a 1000 people. Our daughter started by singing ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’ which the audience seemed to love immensely! Then I sang ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ and one of my own songs, ‘Wonderful Woman’. When I said ‘Good evening’ in Chinese, I received a round of applause. My husband then sang two songs – one by The Cure and ‘Dock of the Bay’ which also was received well and he spoke a few words in Chinese which was greatly appreciated. Afterwards we had many people saying thank you, shaking our hands and looking truly happy that we had participated. We also each received that aforementioned bag of gifts… toothpaste, a mug, washing powder and hand-towels! Again… so touched by this. Who wants a bunch of flowers anyway?!

We were filmed the whole way through by very expensive-looking cameras so look out for us on the news!

When I got home, I opened a book at random and it fell open on a page with a beautiful quotation that I read with my family before we went to sleep. Amazingly, it was all about the unity of the east and the west, and these people coming together. As I read it, it dawned on me, like a warm sun peeking over the horizon… I often wonder, in the short time we have been here what our purpose is to be in this country. Well, I believe there are many reasons. But one of the very good reasons it seems is to bring that unity of east and west… so many of our friends and family and ourselves included had and still have pre-conceived ideas about China… and what shines out so much here is how we are all one. We are so accepted here. We’re the minority, if we’re going to look solely at ethnicity but we are treated with the most amazing love I have ever felt from so many people who I do not know. We get round the city on hand-gestures and limited vocabulary. But the constant love and welcome and hospitality we are receiving is endless and it’s beautiful.

I looked at what it said on our mugs…

‘Here for good.”

I don’t know how long we will stay in China – our plan was to return next year –  but I know I have tasted something now that I never want to give up… it’s hard to describe and it’s more a feeling at the moment than anything I can write about and convey properly. But I truly love it here. I miss ALL my friends and family SO much! But I want this feeling to continue somehow… whether we remain here next year or voyage home. Or is this home? It feels like home tonight.

“Somewhere over the rainbow

Way up high…

There’s a land that I heard of

Once in a lullaby…”

A Day in the Life of a Pre-K 3 Teacher

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One of our puppets (and me!)

Life is very different out here in China, as I knew it would be. When I consider that just a few months ago we had one plan for life then it suddenly changed overnight, it made me realise how much our time on this earth can be an adventure, if only we choose to say ‘yes’!

I am currently really enjoying my time here, nearly at the end of my second week of working with the three-year olds, in an international school in Tianjin. The school is quite small with approximately 320 students with ages ranging from the Early Childhood Academy (where I work) to the seniors in Grade 12. I feel the strong sense of community the school fosters and we’re all in houses (I am in the green dragon house!) and there are a plethora of activities, social, school and family events to become involved in – it’s like a big family!

– My day starts at 6:00 am which is when I wake up, listen to the music drifting up from the park below us from the group that meet every morning to practice the ancient art of Tai Chi (TaiQi) and then my family and I get ready, have breakfast and make the short five-minute walk to school. So far, stress levels are non-existent and at this point I am totally looking forward to my day!

– We all have to get to school by 7:45am and the day officially starts at 8:00am. The children start to move in one-by-one – I have 9 children at the moment, all who are three and incredibly sweet and clever!

– I have two Chinese teaching assistants who are fast becoming good friends of mine too – we work so well together as a team and they are always there, one step ahead, and know the routine. I never need to ask them to do anything as they will come to me and ask what they can do. I am so impressed by their attitude and by the way they interact so lovingly with all the children. We put out a few activities, or ‘morning centres’ for the children and for 30 minutes, they engage in these whilst we observe and play with them too.

– At 8:30, it’s specialist time. This involves 2 singing sessions, 2 dancing and one P.E session with other teachers –  this is my first planning period. I am so surprised at how quickly my class have settled into the routine. And for two days running now, no crying in the morning when they come in! They sing transition songs whilst they walk to their subject and love each class they go to!

– At 9:00am it’s circle and calendar time and we all gather together on the carpet. I teach them songs, we count, we talk about the weather, days of the week and read a story. Then it’s time for a snack. The children are very independent when it comes to snack time and have already learned how to organise themselves round our circular table, open their packets and boxes and eat quietly. We always listen to music (they are going to have such an eclectic taste at the end of the year!) and I am encouraging them at all times to learn new words – so this is a good time to learn the names of the different foods. I also sometime pretend my banana is a phone, but that’s just an aside!

– The rest of the morning includes a 30-minute recess where they play in an adventure playground outside, art activities and free-play within the classroom. Lunch -time comes and goes quickly then it’s time for their nap! All my children, except one, naps for 90 minutes and this is where I take my lunch and have more planning time. If anyone is reading this from a UK state school,  you will now have added up 60 minutes planning so far (add another 30 if I am not on duty for recess) plus a 45 minute lunch.

– Having these breaks enables me to be really on the ball with the children and when I give them my time I make sure it’s 100 per cent effort from me. Compared to working in the UK system where breaks were frequently skipped because we needed that time to prepare, I feel that working here is a very good environment for the mental health of the professional!

– 2:00 we gently wake the children – they are so happy to have had their nap (most of them will go to bed late so this nap is essential!) and then each day we the children experience something different. One day, we have computer time,  the next, sand and water, more outside play, a visit to the library and the parents get to come and play with their children once a week for 30 minutes too.  At the end of the day, we sing a goodbye song that I wrote (they are still learning it!) and then it’s time for dismissal. We need to stay in school until four and then we are free to go.

– The teachers pool their talents and offer various clubs to the other staff. I have joined the yoga, zumba and TaiQi and my daughter has chosen for her after-school clubs Chinese Art, the Choir and Creative Moment. Life is well-paced here and I feel like I have somehow managed to achieve a balance of home and work. I still spend quality time with my family, get to see friends and love my job!

 

 

 

 

Noticing China

I love the experience of living in a different country and seeking out the similarities and noticing the differences. China is a vast land and we’re in a droplet of its ocean but even so, there is so much that is new and exciting. I have written about my teaching day but that is only half of my time here – other half is shopping, parks and hopefully travel. And noticing China!

Seeing Tesco for the first time was a shock – I never much cared for Tesco in the UK but now I suddenly felt like it could become my favourite shop (although ‘Jusco’ and Ren Ren Le are also firm favourites!).  The first thing I notice when we walk through the entrance or any supermarket is the overwhelming smell of the durian fruit. Some poeple swear by its delicious-ness and others detest it. Me? I like it freeze-dried but can never bring myself to eat it fully because the smell really does get in the way for me! Why is it so stinky? Does it only smell like rotten custard to some and like flowers of the earth to others? I know that in time I will try some durian flesh and they are in abundance here… so let’s move onto something else I didn’t expect (although, why not?!) – IKEA.

We went on a trip to IKEA, organised by the school. The ‘social committee’ like to make sure that people are bonding and are enabled to get to places to see new things and get various bits and pieces for their apartments – another perk of the job! Some of the ‘new hires’ and their families boarded the bus and made the 45-minute journey, chatting all the way, past trees, homes, broken roofs, shacks and pools of water, dragonflies and tall buildings… then suddenly, the familiar blue and yellow building that we once used to grace twice a year in Milton Keynes, England came into view. The lay out was exactly the same. The goods were the same. The prices were pretty much the same (although I am sure a few things were a bit cheaper). The one major difference was how people interacted with the IKEA furniture. For example, in the bed section, people were actually sleeping in the beds. In the UK, you see people glancing around cautiously to check no-one’s looking before they have a cheeky lie down and then get up as if nothing happened with a slightly reddened face! (just me?!) Here, EVERY bed was occupied!! In one large kingsize bed in the showroom a family of three had settled down and were looking very cozy indeed! I gestured towards the woman to try and communicate the idea that it was comfy in there, no? She eventually smiled and patted the bed and opened the duvet – do I want to get in too?!!! On another bed a man was asleep – properly asleep and out for the count!

We then reached the section where the show-room lounges are. The TVs were on and the families were chilling out, watching full-shows and films! EVERY single couch was occupied!  I wondered how many people would make a purchase at the end of the day. My friend told me that last time she visited, in the kitchen and tables showrooms, families were in there having a proper lunch! I think it’s so lovely – that same unreservedness that I saw in the stadium on our first night here where about a thousand people, all different ages were dancing together and walking around, playing and being happy together!

So more things I have noticed… The Chinese LOVE their fireworks! There are daily fireworks  here (even at half seven in the morn – the Chinese invented gunpowder and they make the most of every opportunity worth celebrating to let them off!) We have heard fireworks every single day since we arrived. We had our own window display this evening from our daughter’s bedroom – the perfect place to be for such an impressive show!

People nap everywhere and anywhere. In the mall on the soft seats…in IKEA… I love it! The world is our home, right?! And if we’re tired, we should nap, yes?! Well… I know that wouldn’t go down well in my home-town. If you were to start sleeping in the local shopping centre there, you’d soon be moved or someone would step on you on purpose – I am sure of it!

Cicadas are NOISY! There are ciacadas in the trees here and they make the most magnificent racket. It’s almost like they are electrical. And what I have noticed is that you can’t see them. I stood for AGES once peering upwards into some trees, adamant that I’d spot one, but no joy. The noise goes in waves too. They start making the noise then suddely the noise stops completely and then the next set starts in the neighbouring trees… do they die? Or are they taking a break? I have got used to them now – you hardly ever see them out of the tree and they are harmless beetle-like creatures, with a shiny body (I think!!) The cicada season is now over – one day, they just stopped making their noise and have been replaced by chirping crickets.

It gets dark very quickly here…

Since we got here, we have had many blue sky days! Yes, the pollution here is not great – but it’s better than it was ten years ago, our new friends say. And this area in particular (as well as the rest of China I think) are making great steps to improve air quality. I have had NO problems with my breathing since I got here – in fact, I have been better than ever with asthma – miracle!

People will leave rubbish out – lots of it… then someone WILL come and clear it away!

Where we are living in China is developing so fast and buildings and malls are springing up everywhere – it’s clean here in many places and dirty and broken down in others. The dust is not something you see much of, except on windows and buildings – I really thought I’d be gasping for breath, but it feels good here. We walk in the greenbelt strech of park outside our new home here and it’s lovely.

I have noticed that we are generally the only non-Chinese people when out and about. In the malls, we get a lot of stares and loads of smiles. People don’t usually greet us first, but I am greeting almost every person I meet here! I do that in the UK too and I don’t care what people say, nearly everyone loves a happy greeting! Well the Chinese are no exception! So I say very enthusiastically, ‘Ni hao!’ to all I cross paths with, and they look SO happy that I have said hello, and will usually reply with another ‘Ni hao.’ I love this language and cannot wait to learn more! I can’t figure out how to add the little hats and accents to the words but here are some more things I can now say!

So far I know… Hello and

Ni hao ma? (How are you?)

Hen hao – xie xie ni! (I’m fine thanks!)

Bu – no

Nin jiao shen me ming zi? (What’s your name?)

Wo jiao… Victoria (My name is… Victoria!)

I can also ask how much something is but I am not sure how to write it in Pinyin.

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How We Got to China

 

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My daughter and husband on a humid, hot day in Tianjin.

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I had been musing with my husband and daughter (currently aged 6) in the UK about venturing overseas to live and have some great adventures! I had taught as a volunteer teacher for a year when I was 19 in Swaziland in a primary school in Mbabane and this experience of teaching overseas changed me forever. I totally blame it for giving me itchy feet ever since!

We considered Japan a few years ago after experiencing a longing to live where Studio Ghibli films are created (think Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro…) and after a very successful three-week trip to Australia with our then 2 year old daughter, who proved to be quite the little traveler, found that we couldn’t stop thinking about ‘moving away’.

I had taught in schools since I graduated in 1998 in the UK, English, music and then body percussion, singing and song-writing and virtues through dance until we had our baby girl in 2007. I stayed at home to raise her full-time. Teaching lots of children transformed to focusing on bringing new life to the world, I loved it!

When she turned three, our daughter attended a Montessori school, which I volunteered at for two years to run twice weekly music sessions. I had never considered working with three-year olds before, older Primary was more my forte, but here I was, encountering a new experience and real love for working with such a fabulous age! So inquisitive – so clever and wondrous about the world and how it works! I worked one day a week for four months in the school and got more of a feel for it –

In the next years I did a mixture of teaching part time then ended up starting my own company, raw cake-making, but whilst I enjoyed whipping up exquisite new creations in my kitchen I always felt something was missing. And it took me quite a while to realise that that ‘something’  was working with children again.

Forward wind to April, 2013. I had literally just been speaking to mothers at my daughter’s school, saying how much I’d love to teach at an international school and how we’d love to travel. One of my friends had just secured a post at a school in Brunei and I went home and spoke to my husband yet again about our wistful daydreams – it just seemed that no opportunities would ever present themselves.

One week later, on the first day of a new job in a school which I had for one term, I received an email, out of the blue. It simply said, ‘Are you interested in this post?’ It was for a teaching job in an international school in Tianjin, China. I found myself emailing back, saying that yes, I was interested and could I have more information?  My hands were literally shaking with excitement! Was this really going to present itself as a real opportunity to move to a different land and have new adventures with my family?

It seemed I had to say ‘yes’ to teaching before the Universe decided to give me the thumbs up! And two days later, I was being interviewed via Skype for the position of Pre-K 3 teacher in an international school!

I had sent in my resume and they were keen for me to work there. I then got cold feet – how could we go overseas? Would the pollution in this city affect my asthma and my daughter’s health? All the doubts and worries of my friends clouded my judgement and I found myself reconsidering the offer.

Two days later, I sat in a house that we were about to move into, and nothing felt right! We were supposed to go to China – I could feel it in my bones. I wrote to my contact and accepted my first international teaching position!

After I announced to the head teacher of the Primary school I was in that I was moving to China at the end of the school year, things just started falling into place. At the end of term, I received the most fabulous farewell and goodbye booklet from my team and the children (my 6 and 7 year olds thought I was going to China for the day!) and my husband’s boss even said there was a chance for him to work remotely overseas. The house we were supposed to move into got new tenants easily… every single door opened for us to leave our town – with a few hurdles on the way – but all pushing us to get on a plane!

It wasn’t until we boarded that plane that it really sank in – we were moving to Tianjin. I was going to be working full-time in an international school. My daughter would attend the school including four lessons of Chinese a week! Life would be different forever and we would always have stories to talk about from this great experience. How could we say no to this?

So that is how only a few short weeks ago we got to move from the UK to China and I will be sharing my new life in Tianjin as it unfolds.