Where Even Am I? // The Struggles of Working in an International School
While on holiday in Singapore in 2014, my internal homing beacon was activated and what followed was a 6 year journey that brought me back to living here, in my country of birth. I have been a teacher since 2008, and, despite working firstly in a government school (we call them state schools in the UK) and then crossing over to independent schools, I felt both were stereotypically English schools. The first was a standard state school - concrete playgrounds with hopscotch painted on the floor, classrooms with work displayed everywhere and giant rugs on the floor where students would sit at the beginning of class. The first independent school in which I worked had the Hogwarts about it - a grand Neo-Jacobean building, huge fireplace in the entrance hall, a majestic oak stair case and 100 acres of green fields and forest where children would play to their heart’s content every break time.
Coming home to Singapore was filled with anticipation, excitement and a little bit of heartbreak (for the latter, you’ll have to buy my new book, The Local Immigrant, available from the shop section of this website!) I gained a post at an international school, which I love and have spent nearly two years now throwing myself into what I can offer the students and what the school has been able to offer me.
A couple of weeks ago I was in the midst of one of those seasons where I was feeling pretty drained. We had quite a lot going on in family life (Grandparents were unwell, children were playing up more than normal!), and we had a real drama with an IKEA sofa bed, which left us out of pocket and without anything to sit on at home for a week. Work had been heavier, with some situations that required more support and attention (which I love, by the way!) But I suddenly felt like I was a little lost in the middle of it all. The international school in which I work is incredibly multi-cultural, kids and families from all over the globe and the school is particularly good at celebrating these differences. But with this sense of international mindedness, I had a moment of not really knowing where I was. Among my closest colleagues are an American Korean, a New Zealander, a Singaporean-Austrian, an American, a Puerto-Rican, a Malaysian and another Brit! Walking up the hallway, I pass classrooms which host teachers from India, Bolivia, Indonesia, Ireland, the Philippines, Hungary, China, Australia and Belgium - and the students we teach have this wide blend too. It is a beautiful blend of people. But strangely, I was missing home. In this school in Singapore, I was missing Singapore itself.
One afternoon about two weeks ago, one of my cousins sent me a message, inviting me to a family gathering the next night. I thought, “Perfect timing! What better an opportunity to feel at home than this!” And so, of course I gratefully accepted the invitation. My aunty, in who’s home we were gathering lives in the Marymount area, next door to the beautiful nature of Macritchie Reservoir Park and round the corner from the hustle and bustle of Upper Thomson Road and the wonderful cafes and eateries around there. My parents used to stay nearby and so I am familiar with that area. I decided to arrive a little early and wander around the HDB area and the hawker centre at Shunfu.
It was a rainy evening and it was so lovely to see many people without their masks on - many COVID-19 regulations have recently been relaxed. I wandered up the hill, under cover on the walkway. Opposite me was the building work where once stood a strong of old terraced houses with beautiful blue tiled roofs, now, they only remain in my memories. I wandered around to Shunfu food centre. As I approached I could already smell the for and hear the plastic plates being collected or emptied into a wash basin. Familiar sounds. I could feel my heart settling again. I took some deep breaths and tried to be in the moment, in the area, in Singapore. It was working. I turned into Shunfu food centre. It was busy and the fixed tables and chairs made it slightly tricky to navigate, weaving in and out of diners enjoying their dinner. I walked slowly, looking at the stalls as if I were choosing my meal, but just taking in the atmosphere, the sights and the smells. A hawker aunty caught my eye and asked if I was eating there. “Not tonight, Aunty - next time!” came my reply. “Next time” in Singapore just means “some time in the future”, not necessarily the next time - just as “last time” means some time in the past!
Just 5 minutes of walking around the hawker centre seemed to re-centre me. It changed my pace, I felt more aware of my surroundings and where I was. I was home.
The dinner and evening that followed was food for my soul. Also, my Aunty Lily’s Mee Siam and chicken wings are, in my opinion, unrivalled, and so I guess it was food for my body, too! I still didn’t understand the Teochew dialect that was intermingled with English but being with family made a huge difference.
Now, only 12 days later, I already feel like I have been in the international bubble too long, but we have a long weekend ahead and I am looking forward to getting out into Singapore, finding something new and meeting more people.
Are you wondering what to do this weekend? Check out www.theWONDERLUSTway.com to find a selection of things you can explore.