Friday, June 26, 2015

marking a milestone

I once read something that I liked a lot. 
It was something along the lines of learning to expect the unexpected. 
Sometimes really bad things happen in a completely unexpected way or at a completely unexpected time.
But sometimes really good things happen too.
Things that are unexpected and unlikely and a weird twist of fate.
Over the last few years, I have grappled with really painful unexpected twists of fate like my father's passing.
But this week we were granted one of those beautiful unexpected moments.
And that was my husband being offered a job to teach elementary school.
I don't really want to get into all of the details, but we had resigned ourselves over to one more year of being a single income household.
But then voila!
Fate smiled on us and now we are marking a pretty huge milestone. 
Sean's degree arrived in the mail.
Not only is he a certified elementary school teacher, he also graduated with honors.
We had no idea!
Then suddenly, as if by magic, the most perfect job opened for him at my school for next year.
He will be teaching 4th grade to the kids he spent all this year student teaching.
This week is proof positive that we should all expect the unexpected, both good and bad. 
I am still basking in the glow of doing what we set out to do three years ago: become a married teaching couple globetrotting the world. 
Over the last three years, we have settled into our expat lifestyle as Sean started and finished his degree in education.
We have had ups and downs along the way.
But I have to tell you that it has been worth it and I am so excited for all of the possibilities that are in store for us as we mark this milestone on our long and winding journey! 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

walking up a volcano

To be frank, the North Island just wasn't my thing. I think I know why. First, we road tripped all over the epic South Island and then did the North Island. Perhaps if we did the North Island first, then I could have appreciated it more. That said, there were a few notable things about the North Island: rugby, Hobbiton and penguins, of course. Rangitoto Island was pretty cool too.

Rangitoto is a volcanic island a ferry's ride away from downtown Auckland. It is a popular day trip for visitors as the top of the volcano has spectacular views of the city and surrounding areas. There are multiple trail choices up the volcano and around the volcano.

Of course, we just decided to go up up up.

It was hot and humid and sooooooo dirty. A lot of the trail is a never ending incline, and I was kinda miserable. I was the idiot who wore jeans because my running pants were dirty. Trust me, wearing jeans while hiking to the heavens in the heat and humidity is a really stupid life choice.

After reaching the summit, we hiked onward towards some caves. Everyone squeezed themselves inside the dark, narrow caves except for me. If someone could find a way to get wedged in between the rocks and then need the New Zealand equivalent of the coast guard or search and rescue to jimmy them out, it would be me, so I opted to just watch. I thought it was a good choice after some unexpected creepy crawly forced a young boy to run from a cave shrieking. 

Overall, would I recommend going to Auckland just to hike Rangitoto? Not really, but if you ever find yourself in Auckland with half a day to kill, there are certainly worse ways to pass the time.

Friday, June 19, 2015

expat gratitude: writing my own narrative

For my third installment of Expat Gratitude, I am going to take you on a bit of a journey. This is the rocky journey I went on to find contentment by not allowing other people's narratives to revise my own.

My expat community is very small and made up of wonderful individuals, and I genuinely enjoy my friendship with each person I spend my time with. I go on weekly gelato dates with one friend. Another brings her cats downstairs to my apartment so we can visit. Another is a great lunch buddy and fellow online shopping friend. Another is a great sit-on-the-couch-and-lose-a-few-hours-talking kind of friend.

One surprising thing I discovered about myself since moving abroad is that I am a sponge. I soak up things left and right, and not always the things I want to soak up. I never knew this about myself. And I certainly did not have the tools to combat it.

Let me take a moment and explain something to you: there are tier one, tier two and tier three international schools. Who decided this? I don't know. Frankly, I think the labels are quite silly. I mean, let's just say it like it is. The tiers reflect social status.

Tier 1 schools cater to the upper class, which abroad is mostly composed of expatriate political families or extremely wealthy expatriate/local families from the business sector. Tuition to attend these schools is comparable to tuition to attend college. Students go on to the name brand, prestigious, private colleges in the United States or United Kingdom.
Tier 2 schools cater to the middle class and typically have a mixed population of expat kids and local kids, but nearly all speak English fluently.  Tuition is cheaper but these kids still typically go on to wonderful public schools and private schools abroad.
Tier 3 schools cater to the local population with limited English language skills. Many of these kids are just happy to be accepted into universities in the western world.

Obviously, depending on tier, salary and school facilities differ quite a lot.

My current school is a tier 2 school.
It's definitely not at the top and it's definitely not at the bottom.
When I first got to my school, still reeling from my experience being RIFed every year in America and then teaching in Seattle, I was so happy and content.

My kids work so hard. They are so nice and good. They know how to behave in a classroom. They are talented and intelligent. They have goals and they strive to realize them. Their parents care about education. I feel valued and respected. Everyday, I have a good time in the classroom.

But then, slowly, it started happening.
Dissatisfaction hit me from nearly every single friend and co-worker.
And my sponge just soaked it up.

My school is a public Taiwanese school, yet an international school at the same time.

According to my colleagues and friends, everything was wrong with it.
The building was ugly.
The technology didn't work.
The textbooks were outdated.
Some admin didn't speak English well enough.
The school was so Taiwanese.
To them, nothing about the school made sense.
It was all wrong because what they really wanted was a tier 1 school.

And then it happened.
Suddenly, their discontent became mine.
Suddenly, my words parroted theirs.
My individual identity was overpowered by my group identity.
And how ridiculous and weak is that?

The atmosphere at work and outside of work became so toxic I could hardly breathe.

And it took a long time for me to realize that I was being choked by a phantom.

Because here is the truth: I love my work.
I don't need, or even desire, to work at a tier 1 school.
Is everything hunky dory and perfect at my tier 2 school?
Absolutely not.
But then again, I do in fact realize that I did indeed move abroad so maybe, just maybe, I would need to be flexible and adapt.
But also: what is the only point of the entire institution?
The kids.
And they are the best students I could ask for.
End of story.

That is my story.
That is my narrative.
Once I realized it, everything did not suddenly become better.
Some days, I truly questioned if some of my friendships could remain intact.
Bashing my middle class school for being what it is, a middle class school incapable of offering the facilities/perks of an upper class school, was and still is a favorite hobby of my small expat community.
And sometimes, my sponge just did not know how to filter the bombardment of negativity and poison that was not actually my negativity or poison.

Many days this year, I wondered if in order to save my own sanity, I would need to take a step back from my expat community. I realized that every time I internalized their narratives about our workplace, I let them rewrite my own narrative.

But then I decided that no one should be granted that privilege except me.

I am the author of my narrative.
I was the one who survived the chaos of trying to stay employed in Washington State as a teacher.
I was the one who survived the toughest year of my life teaching in Seattle.
I was the one who fought to get a job overseas with a trailing spouse and succeeded.

They didn't do that.
I did.

They don't go to my classroom everyday and do what I do with my kids.
They have no idea.
But I do.

That time last week when we wrote odes to gummy bears?
That was pretty awesome.
Choking on coffee a few days ago when I discovered a student wrote an elegy about Voldemort's missing nose?
That was pretty epic too.
That time yesterday when I could not find it in me to stop reading their poetry portfolios because they were so interesting/funny/touching/beautiful?
Yeah, that didn't suck either.

This is enough for me.
This is what matters to me.

So my narrative is completely different from most of my expat community and friends.
And that is fine.
I can be the oddball.
They can have their opinions, and I can have mine too.

I have built a force field around myself.
I love my friends and still spend copious amounts of time with them, but I will no longer allow their perspectives to skew my own.
My force field knows who I am and what I value so it no longer gives their dissatisfaction a red pen to let it go crazy editing my narrative.

And that is where my expat gratitude comes from today.
Moving abroad helped me discover a weak spot and helped me find a way to fortify it.
Today I am the only one allowed to edit my narrative.
And that feels really good.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

home, a countdown

A Lover's Quarrel by Sam Hamill
There are some to whom a place means nothing,
for whom the lazy zeroes
a goshawk carves across the sky
are nothing
for whom a home is something one can buy.
I have long wanted to say,
just once before I die
I am home.

When I remember the sound of my country,
I hear winds
high up in the evergreens, the soft snore
of surf, far off, on a winter day
the half-garbled song of finches
darting off through alder
on a summer day

Lust does not
fatigue the soul, I say. This wind,
these ever-
green trees, this little bird of spirit-
this is the shape, the place of my desire. I'm free
as a fish or a stone

Don't tell me
about the seasons in the East, don't talk to me
about eternal California summer.
It's enough to have
a few naked days
among three hundered kinds of rain

I love the sound of a storm
without thunder, the way wind
slows, trees darken, heavy clouds
rumbling so soft
you must close your eyes to listen:
then the blotch, blotch
of big drips,
plunkering through the leaves
We will be home in 10 days!!!!!!!!

(I first encountered this poem while hiking, oddly enough. On a bluff that overlooks the water, pillars stand with poetry carved on them about the Pacific Northwest. I read this once and never forgot it. It is so perfect and beautiful. I could not have found better words for my home.) 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

an impromptu adventure to cave rock

New Zealand was the first time I ever rented a car while traveling. A scooter? Sure. A car, though? Never. Normally we get around via train, bus, tuk tuk, or boat, but the whole point of New Zealand was to embark on an epic road trip.

I realized one cool thing about renting a car-- it helps you embrace the unexpected.

One day, while in Christchurch, the four of us hopped in our SUV and asked ourselves: what next? None of us really had an answer, but you know what did? Our GPS navigator.

We scrolled through nearby places of interest until we found one that sounded intriguing-- Cave Rock, so we selected that on our navigator, and Sean drove us there. 

We drove through Christchurch, all the while chanting left left left left and line line line line to help Sean remember to drive on the left hand side of the road and to stay in the lines. 

Eventually we go to the coast and this is what we found-- a giant cave rock. The GPS sure wasn't joking around. We had fun crawling all over it, and on the way back, our GPS helped us find mouthwatering Thai food. 

Sean and I are pretty adamant about certain things, one being not owning smartphones. 

The reason is really simple-- we get by perfectly fine without them, and we would prefer to not be those people who cannot spend two minutes without checking on something. We know ourselves well, and we would totally be those people, so no smartphones for us. 

The only time we question this decision is when we are traveling. Believe it or not, we've been traveling the world for more than a decade without smartphones, and we do more than just get by. That said, the GPS made my heart sing. It is the all knowing restaurant and short cut locator. 

I have had my head in the clouds day dreaming about my next few adventures. I think an Icelandic road trip is calling my name, and you had better believe that there will be some impromptu GPS inspired adventures!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

bright, colorful, playful christchurch

This may sound strange, but if Christchurch was a person, I would want to be her friend. I found myself totally smitten with her funky self expression and inner strength. And of course, what I really mean by that is the people of this small, broken place.

I already wrote about the quake that razed this beautiful city to the ground.

What impressed me so much about this quirky town was all the small things that create an atmosphere of happiness and hope in the midst of all the chaos and destruction. It's kind of like the city is giving a collective F-you to the quake that destroyed everything. 

These little acts of defiance are on practically every single street corner.

Those colorful, wind blown flags flying right beside the half collapsed cathedral. The rainbow pots and flowers in front of the cracked wall. The bright, fun container box restaurant and shopping plaza, temporary but way more than simply functional.

Yes, if this city was a person, she is someone I would definitely want to know.

She could teach me to be resilient in times that are trying. She could teach me that sometimes it's the small things that make a difference. She could teach me that things change, and sometimes not for the better, but that doesn't mean that life will not carry on and that it absolutely can still be beautiful, if you choose to let it be and search for and make that beauty.

While Christchurch was not my favorite place or city or experience in New Zealand, it certainly still left an impression on me.

Next time, when we go to New Zealand again (which we absolutely will), I will skip the North Island altogether and fly right into Christchurch to see what my dear friend is up to before heading out into the wild.