“If I hadn’t got this job in Spain, I probably would have settled in Northern Ireland. But by now I’ve spent more of my life in Spain than in my home country, so moving back feels like the natural thing to do. If it doesn’t work out, I wouldn’t mind returning to China for another teaching contract. There are so many places on that side of the world that I’d still love to see. The fact I went out there with no teaching qualifications and finished a post-graduate certificate while working full-time, is what I’m most proud of. If there’s anything I’ve learned about myself these past couple of years, it’s that I have a lot of willpower. I don’t give up easily.”
“Once I graduated from secondary grammar school, I applied for a Bachelor of Arts Honours in London – a drama degree which included religious studies – to pursue my dream of becoming a drama teacher. It turned out that not enough students had signed up that particular year, so they had taken the program off the curriculum. They offered a few alternatives, but none of them covered drama. Instead of moving to London, I enrolled in a catering college. Two days later, when it became clear it was nothing like I had expected it to be, I dropped out.
I eventually took on a full-time job in a hotel close to home to buy myself time. I had a whole year ahead of me before a new school year started, but I had no clue what to do with it. One Sunday after dinner, I was flipping through this newspaper I never read, when an ad caught my eye. On the back page, in a massive square with ‘Budget travel’ written across it, I spotted the words, ‘Children’s animator wanted’. I asked my dad if he knew what it’d be about. “You dress up like a chicken and hand out leaflets in the sun”, he grinned. Long story short: I applied and got shortlisted. My sister ended up joining me in Dublin for a full week of job training – we had the best time. In March 2004, I was placed in Málaga for a seasonal contract.Building a life in Spain
One season ended up being 15 years. Not long after I landed in the south of Spain, I fell into a summer romance, which lasted longer than initially planned. We transitioned into a long distance relationship after I returned home to Northern Ireland for another degree. After graduation, I moved back to Málaga and got caught up in various jobs. I taught English in different scenarios – from training children in primary school settings, to teaching Nautical English to cruise ship and diver crews, to educating the local staff of Ikea. A few years later, I landed a job in the travel & tourism business and gradually worked my way up from travel representative to destination manager, responsible for the entire Costa del Sol area. My job was super hectic and demanding, but my social life made up for it.
However busy I was, I always made time for the theatre – that was my life. I was getting lead roles in theatre plays and my singing career had taken off; I was an artist in residence in Gibraltar, performed gigs in Marbella and regularly spotted my face on posters that hung around the city of Málaga. Open mic nights were a big thing for me too. Life in Spain did me well – I fell in love with the country and the outdoor, relaxed lifestyle. The food is tasty, the culture is rich and there’s always so much to do. While the way of living was different from what I was used to, it fit me like a glove.
Leaving on a whim
But while I was in a good place work- and spare time-wise, my relationship wasn’t working out. As things went from bad to worse, I realised I had to make a change, or I’d stay stuck on the hamster wheel that was my life. I knew I had to get out… My sister, who had worked in a school in Beijing since 2016, was asked if she knew anyone interested in a job teaching children from ages 1 to 5. I was nervous for the virtual interview, because I had limited experience in early years education. The principal on the other end reassured me that I’d get on-the-job training. When a positive answer reached my inbox in July 2017, I said ‘yes’ in a spur of the moment. In a mere two weeks, I packed up my whole life – I sold my car, collected 15 years worth of stuff in boxes and gave up my apartment.
The last familiar face I saw before I left was my best friend, who dropped me off at the airport. A knot settled in my stomach and tears filled my eyes as I loaded my belongings in the tray at the security check. In the tax-free shop, I spent as much time as possible picking out presents for my family to keep my mind from spinning. Once on the plane, my bags stacked in the overhead compartment and my seatbelt fastened, my shoulders started shaking as tears streamed down my face. While the aircraft accelerated along the runway prior to takeoff, all I could think of was, “What have I done?” Up until that point, I hadn’t had time to reflect on my decision – but right there on seat K32, it hit me hard: I was leaving behind a life I had worked so hard to build. It felt like someone had ripped my heart from my chest and thrown it out of the window. Looking back today, moving away from Spain was the hardest, yet best step I could have taken.
When I initially arrived in Beijing, I was confronted with a culture shock: the buildings were sky high, the traffic was overwhelming and the pollution insane. If someone had told me I’d end up in China, I would have never believed them; I would have probably giggled and asked why anyone would want to go there… How wrong was I. What impressed me immediately was the advancement of everything – including the technology and cleanliness. Transactions are completely cashless; everything was transferred via the WeChat app. Compared to Spain, I’d say China is twenty years ahead.
My new life couldn’t have been further from my old one. The first year, I had to adapt to the culture, the language and the weather. I had expected everyone to speak English, which turned out to be far from the truth. And in Spain, I was used to fresh air and blue skies, but Beijing was the opposite. I suffered from allergies and skin and hair issues for a long time. The initial contract was for two years – after my first month, I thought, “No way I’ll make it to Christmas!” But over time, Beijing grew on me and I came to appreciate it. It’s one of those places you hate to love, and you love to hate. One year turned into two, two became three. It was definitely a mind blowing experience… I was lucky to work for an international school, which meant I was surrounded by expat teachers. We were all in the same boat and built our own little family in our apartment block. Because I worked where I lived and lived where I worked, it was definitely easier to make new friends.
The conditions of my contract were much better than any job I’d had before. Both the British and Chinese holidays were regarded as days off, so I had plentiful opportunities to travel around. Flights from Beijing were not overly expensive and with an attractive salary package, I didn’t mind spending money. When you’re that far out, you want to get the bug out of your system and explore as many places as possible. When I was living in Spain, I probably got a bit lazy – it’s so beautiful there, you don’t have to get out. But while in China, I was set on seeing more of the world. In my first year, I visited Australia, Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia – later on, I added Vietnam, South Korea, Bali and Mexico to the list. It was a wonderful experience to try our different cuisines, learn about traditions and meet new people.
After three years in Beijing, I relocated to Guangzhuo to work at a brand-new school. The intention was that my best friend would move too, but then the pandemic hit and we got separated. I had my sister with me in Guangzhou, but missed my friend so much, which made it tough and lonely at times. In addition, all classes were virtual, which put extra pressure on us teachers. After Christmas, Chinese New Year rolled around – I’d been looking forward to using those days off to spend time away from Guangzhuo and meet up with my friend. But right around that time, a lockdown was imposed, so I got stuck in my apartment for three weeks, without being able to go outside. I didn’t sleep well due to the fact I lived on a construction site where works started at 4 AM. The internet was rubbish, which made it hard to stay in touch with family and friends. Those frustrations caused a domino effect, which led me to rethink my life. I was so far from home, far from everyone I knew… Where did I want to be? Moving back & forward
I started applying for other jobs – in Dubai, Spain, China… anything I could get my hands on. When the phone call came I got accepted at an international school in Marbella, Spain, I was ecstatic. At the time I moved to China, the plan was to save money and eventually go back to Spain to buy a place there. The fact that I’m one step closer to realising that dream is super exciting. While I taught kindergarten in China, my new job is in a primary school, so I’ll be dealing with students aged 6 and up. The school also wants me to get involved with performing arts – drama, music and dance – which is my passion; I’m very excited to help wherever possible. It feels like the pieces of the puzzle have come together. I admit that I’m terrified to leave my comfort zone again, but I’m grabbing this new challenge by the horns.
The salary packages in Europe are very different from those in China, which means medical insurance and accommodation are excluded. I’ll have to spend quite some money, which initially was a shock to my system. But you can’t put a price on happiness, I always say. When I moved away, I left half of my heart in Spain. Now I’m going back to find it – as ‘me’, how I want to do things and who I want to be around. It’ll be a completely different experience than before, when I had a partner to hold onto. It makes me nervous, but I want to return with a blank canvas and a fresh start. My goal is to focus on finding my own way and building a new social circle through school and my community. I’m not looking for a relationship; if it happens, it happens – but my focus is on being happy. I’ll give myself time to settle into the job first, and then I hope to get back into singing as well. That’s something that will always be a part of me.
If I hadn’t got this job in Spain, I probably would have settled in Northern Ireland. My family is there and housing prices are affordable. But by now I’ve spent more of my life in Spain than my home country, so moving back feels like the natural thing to do. Besides, it’s only a 2-hour plane ride, so my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews can easily come over for a visit. Or if it doesn’t work out in Spain, I wouldn’t mind returning to China or try somewhere else for another teaching contract. There are so many places on that side of the world that I’d still love to see. The fact I went out there with no teaching qualifications and finished a post-graduate certificate in education while working full-time, is what I’m most proud of. If there’s anything I’ve learned about myself these past couple of years, it’s that I have a lot of willpower. I don’t give up easily. I can’t wait to see what happens next and look forward to meeting new people and sharing new experiences and adventures.”