July 2003. The beginning of it all. 15 years old, first passport, first suitcase, first flight, and there I was in New Zealand, nine thousand kilometers from home. It was one freezing cold morning in Auckland. We're in the middle of the winter in the Southern Hemisphere.
Raised in Saigon, Vietnam, I often followed my father to places far away from the city where he oversaw his construction projects. I remember he asked me once why I liked going to those remote places so much, I told him I just liked looking at things along the road from the car's window, and that I did not like it when we got to the destination, because that would be the end of the trip.
I had always wanted to go on an overseas trip and signed up for any scholarship competitions that I heard of hosted by foreign schools. Early 2003 I got a 1-year exchange scholarship to the U.S, and a 3-year scholarship to New Zealand. 3 years of adventures? Of course it's New Zealand I decided. This was before the Lord of the Rings movies came out so I had absolutely no ideas how New Zealand looked like or where it was on the map. Oh I knew people spoke English there, I had been learning English for a few years so I would be just fine!
Well I was fine until I boarded the flight, and started to realize it was impossible to understand the in-flight annoucements in English. Too late. Luckily there were other kids (the awesome friends in the first picture below!) in the program and we all traveled together, so there's always at least one of us that understood what's going on. Not sure how we made it through the transit in Singapore, and got to Auckland. The whole thing was a blur and all I remember was feeling lost the whole time.
And so I lived in New Zealand for the next three years. It was where I grew up, mentally and emotionally. Trust me, you grow up when you live in a boarding house with friends from 20 different nationalities, especially when all are in their teenage years.
For me it was first figuring out why I failed most of my classes even though I had thought English was the subject I was best at, then finally accepting that it did not matter if I could answer 10 out of 10 questions right in an English test, the fact was I sucked at English in daily practical conversations.
And then it was cultural shock. First, the exhaustion from trying to understand and "fit in" to the host country's culture and way of life. Second, the state of confusion and self-doubt (this was also exhausting) from not understanding why what I had thought was right might not be right to my friends from other countries.
But we grew up, and learned, sometimes the hard way, that people have differences. And it is okay to be different. I have learned now after living in several countries, people are different, but we share more similarities than we might have thought. We're all human, after all. We all want to be happy, healthy, to love, and to be loved.
Wherever life takes me, New Zealand always has a special place in my heart. I call it home. I always have this comforting thought of one day having a vacation home there, in my beautiful Middle-Earth.
First picture in Auckland at Aotea Square on Queen St. We made it to New Zealand!
Upper Queen St and Scotia Pl where our boarding house, AIC Tower, was located.
Pre-IB Year 11 Class.
Pre-IB weekend field trip
16th birthday at the Tower. Hye Rim (on the left) was my sweet roomate, she was the first roomate I ever had!
Pre-IB Christmas Dinner with the best teachers the world!
Camping at Huntly
Volunteering at a local elementary school. Can't remember what we were teaching them. :)
Mr. Lewis! The reason I loved Economics, and still do!
Prime Minister Helen Clark speaking at our graduation ceremony!
With Mr. Stoffer, our awesome North American college counselor who helped me with college applications. He's from Ohio. Guess where I ended up for college!