By: Denise Gilmartin, parent of Lexi (grade 4) and Tess (grade 2), moved to Phuket from Hong Kong in 2016
When I first told my friends and family that we were moving from Hong Kong to Phuket, they thought I was joking. “So you’re just going to sip mai tais on the beach now?”, they scoffed. “What about your jobs? What will your kids do?” My husband and I had high-pressure finance jobs; we worked long hours and traveled frequently. It worried us that the stress in our lives would impact both our mental and physical health in the long term. With primary school applications looming for our eldest, we could see that we were starting our children down that high-pressure road too, and that was even scarier. We longed to give our girls a calmer, less stressful and more playful childhood. There came a point when we thought to ourselves: we could be living a very different life if we weren’t in Hong Kong.
Clean Air, Room to Breathe
I had always wanted to give my kids a big backyard to grow up in. Somewhere with clean air, space to run and do cartwheels, a place with scope for imagination. This was impossible for us in Hong Kong, but entirely affordable in Phuket. Here, for a quarter of the price of our 950 sq ft apartment in the Mid Levels, we have a 6 bedroom house on an acre of land and a swimming pool. Everything is dramatically less expensive here, from organic vegetables to piano lessons to vacations. We can afford the healthier, more balanced life we had craved – doing work that we enjoy and find meaningful, having enough time outside of work for beach days, mountain biking, board games, rock climbing and sailing with our kids, eating cheap and deliciously fresh fruit, vegetables and seafood – while still earning enough to maintain the comforts of a modern life.
In Hong Kong, we were struggling to find a school that offered the type of transformative education we wanted for our kids. We weren’t sure what Phuket would have to offer, and we were intrigued when we found UWC Thailand. Here was a school that integrated mindfulness and social emotional learning from nursery through grade 12, that would help our children find balance in their lives. Where kids learned resilience not just in the classroom, but also on a sailboat or a mountain bike – to try again, and again, and again when they fail, until they succeed at last and prove to themselves the challenges they can overcome when they are tenacious. These were the skills my kids would need to succeed and be happy in life, not the interview and test prep we felt compelled to do in Hong Kong to secure a primary school slot.
We did a school tour and were struck by how happy all the students around us looked. We’d been to schools in other places where kids looked miserable to be there. The teachers we met spoke passionately about their teaching philosophies. It seemed like the right place to start our kids on a more balanced course. Now 6 years on, our kids are 8 and 10 years old, and they are thriving. They are excited to go to school every day, and they come home bursting to tell us what they learned. They ask interesting questions and we have incredible conversations with them about sustainability, poverty, and conflict. What a contrast to what I was doing at their age – I recall reading Encyclopedia Britannica and writing a report on seahorses!
My mom was perhaps the most difficult to win over. She’s Hong Kong Chinese and believes in strict academic rigor for her grandchildren. She was very skeptical that this different style of education would “work”. But when she’s with them now, she can see them thinking so much more deeply and creatively than I did at their age. My 10 year old can solve a math problem in 22 different ways, where I would have known only one way at her age, and she can do it while holding a yoga pose on an open skiff sailboat. When I showed my mom the superb universities that UWC Thailand students matriculate to, that finally put her mind at ease that we’ve made the right choice. That these amazing skills of resilience, life balance, and independent thought that our kids are learning do not come at the expense of reduced academic achievement.
Once we had made the decision to move, the transition was easier than I thought. We were able to get guardian visas through the school, and the parent community gave us really helpful advice on getting settled. Soon we had bank accounts set up, bought a car, got our Thai drivers licenses, and knew where to buy Cheetos and gruyere cheese. I even learned how to get my Taobao packages sent here!
I was able to work part-time for my company in Hong Kong for the first few years, flying back for meetings when needed. We live 10 minutes from the airport, and I was amazed to find that I could fly direct to more Tier 2 & 3 cities in China than I could from Hong Kong (my company had projects in a number of smaller cities in China). We now have a small business in Phuket and both my husband and I were able to leave our high-pressure finance careers behind, freeing up lots of time to spend with our kids and pursue other interests. We have found a wonderful group of friends among the parent community at UWC Thailand. We come from diverse backgrounds, but we share a common belief in raising kind, amazing human beings who will be tomorrow’s changemakers.
Looking back now, I think moving to Phuket could be one of the best decisions we’ve made as a family. Phuket has given us the space – literally and figuratively – to live healthier lives, and to give our children the world-class education and the stress-free childhood they deserve.
Built on the foundation of the International Baccalaureate programme, the school aims to help students ages 2-18 years develop a “Good Heart, Balanced Mind, and Healthy Body”. As part of the United World College family, an international network of 18 schools, it shares the mission of making education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. Over 60 diploma level scholarship students from around the world call the school home for two years, studying, sharing and training to become the next generation of global leaders.
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