One year on

Twelve months ago I embarked on a journey full of uncertainty. After 23 years in the workforce I decided to stop working and take time out.

There were plenty of naysayers; “You’ll be bored in six months”, “ You’ll miss work too much”. There was also lots of encouragement; “What a fantastic opportunity”, “I’ve always wanted to do what you’re doing”.

Early on I wrote down the goals for my sabbatical and developed a clear plan of what I wanted to achieve. This was partly because this is how I have always operated in the  work environment and I wanted to ensure my time was well used. But, truth be told, it was partly because I felt guilty for taking the time off and I needed to be able to prove to myself and others that I was achieving what I set out to do and not just taking an extended holiday.

As I prepare myself for a return to the workforce (albeit part time) I have spent some time reviewing those goals and reflecting on the past year.

So, did I achieve my goals? Mostly yes. And some no’s.

Did I learn anything about myself? Absolutely.


After many years of working I discovered I had developed some unhelpful habits; emotional eating, intermittent exercise, dwelling on decisions made, spending Sunday evenings obsessively worrying about what might happen at work the coming week.

During the past 12 months I have consciously spent time on breaking these bad habits and creating new ones.

I now exercise four to five times a week (a mix of yoga, running and swimming and I have recently added kickboxing to try something new). I focus on making healthy eating choices four or five days a week and give myself permission to enjoy a few treats over the weekend while trying not to overindulge. (One or two pieces of chocolate NOT the whole block!) When I am eating socially I try to eat mindfully, stop part way through the meal, wait a few minutes and then ask myself am I eating out of hunger or because of my uncontrolled desire to just to eat everything in sight.

Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits and Marc & Angel’s Hack Life both gave me inspiration and easy to follow tips as I slowly tried to kick habits of a lifetime.

However, I know it could be very easy to go back to these habits once I return to work. For me regular exercise and making healthy choices when eating requires discipline. Which leads me to the next discovery…..

Mental strength

So many of my bad habits were due to not having the mental strength to make the right decision. After spending so much of my time obsessively worrying about past decisions and future scenarios I was too tired to focus on what I needed to do in the present.

Mindfulness is such a buzz word for today. However with the help of tips and meditation practices from Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace, I have come to recognise negative thoughts for exactly what they are “thoughts”.  They are not reality unless I allow them to be. I don’t ignore these thoughts but I acknowledge them for what they are and move on to a more productive route.

Please don’t think I no longer have negative thoughts or concern myself about the past or future. They are still there. At this moment I am worried about how I am going to balance my new found life with work commitments. How am I going to fit in the yoga and running, preparing healthy but delicious meals for my family, writing and pursuing my creative side?


This is where Mark Manson’s book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck has really helped. Mark’s message is not about not caring about anything, his message is to care about those things you value. Saying yes to what matters to you and not wasting time with the rest.

Prioritising what I value most; my physical and emotional health, my family and community. And also finding something that challenges me and stops me becoming too comfortable or complacent in the world.


I have set myself new goals and developed a new plan for the next 12 months, focusing on what I am passionate about, what is meaningful to me. Will I achieve everything I set out to do? Definitely not. But I will ensure I continue to direct my time, energy and passion to what matters the most to me.


(Photo by Delano Balten on Unsplash)

Why I am learning Chinese (Part 2)

For one of my very first blog posts I wrote was about why I am learning Chinese. Last week I had my final lesson for the semester and I thought I would reflect on what I have achieved in the past year.

First up, my goal was to be able to go out for dinner with my Chinese friends and speak with them in their language rather than forcing them to converse in mine. A very ambitious goal! The old adage that the more I learn, the more I realise I know so little, is very true.

However, I am pleased with what I have achieved. I have significantly increased my vocabulary and can even construct simple sentences. It has been frustrating at times but I can see real progression. In fact, I have to say, I have even enjoyed it!

I am thrilled that I am setting a good example for my son. There were times when we were learning the same theme and could quiz each other. He often corrects my pronunciation! And I’d like to think that I even inspired my husband to start learning. Annoyingly he seems to be mastering it quicker than I. (I am trying hard not to be jealous of this.)

Importantly it has improved the connection I have with my Chinese friends. I sense that maybe they feel more respected and valued as a friend. They seem to enjoy explaining the nuances of certain words and phrases and teaching me new ones. What is particularly interesting is when I show off my latest vocabulary and they laugh and tell me that what have just said is not how real people talk, it is the formal way of saying something and then proceed to teach me the vernacular.

Of course I can’t have any real in-depth conversation with them. Our conversation is limited to basic sentences and as soon as they get more complex the language switches to English as I try to explain.

Learning Chinese has led me to understand and appreciate China better. I can appreciate how a language reflects the culture (or is it culture reflected in the language?). For example the Chinese language has many more words to describe a persons family connections e.g. where English only has sister and brother, Chinese describes whether your sister or brother is older or younger than you (jie jie, mei mei, ge ge and di di respectively), whether your grandparents are your father’s parents (ye ye, nai nai) or mother’s parents (wai gong, wai po). And don’t get me started on the variations for aunt, uncle, cousins and in-laws.


Learning Chinese has helped me to understand English better too. Or at least reflect on my complete lack of understanding of English grammar rules. If someone asked me to explain the use of nouns, determiners, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions in a sentence I would be perplexed. I can’t explain it, I just know it.

Someone once told me that while Chinese is hard to learn, once you know the rules it is  easy as you just follow the rules. This is in comparison with learning English which is full of exceptions to the rule. Not true! Chinese also has many exceptions to the rule. This makes it more frustrating to learn because just when you think you understand the teacher tells you about the exceptions. Arrgh!

Despite this, I intend to continue learning Chinese. Next semester I plan to resume attending class. I also want to arrange a more one on one conversational chat with someone once a week. Now I have the basics I need to work on my confidence and actually start speaking the language.

Finishing the Great Wall marathon

I did it! I ran 21km and completed The Great Wall (half) Marathon! With seven kilometres of stairs there was a lot of walking as well. Particularly one steep section that was more rocks cemented together than actual stairs.


I feel so gratified by this achievement, the result of more than just one days hard work. I have been training for months. Building up from struggling to run more than 10 minutes to being able to finish a half marathon.

How did I do this? I had help from a couple of apps, Zen Labs Fitness C25K and 13.1 and Headspace,  the support of family and friends, and finding my mental strength (see my previous post on finding my strength).

I have to admit that this strength left me for a big part of the race. All that was going through my mind was “#*@! what the #*@! was I thinking? I’m a #*@! idiot for thinking this was a #*@! good idea.” (#*@! – insert expletives here.) However, I remembered the advice from Headspace’s meditation and pushed these thoughts out and instead focused on a time when I had been training and enjoyed running. It worked! Suddenly I felt free, it became easier to run. Similarly not feeling I had to run the whole time really helped. Drawing from my training with the 13.1 app I knew it would be more achievable if I allowed myself one minute walking then running for as long as I could.

So, what was it like? I compare it to childbirth. People tell you how hard it is but until you experience it for yourself, you don’t really understand what it is like.

  • The worst bit – the stairs, of course. Climbing a million stairs to reach the top and see you have a billion more to go really messes with your mind.



  • The best bit – the amazing views from the top of the stairs. When you have to stop to catch your breath it really helps to be able to look at the stunning scenery. And running through the villages with the locals cheering you on.



  • The funniest bit – having to stop running to allow a farmer to herd his flock of sheep across your path.


When I finished the race I was relieved it was over. As I crossed the finish line I vowed never to do it again. However by the morning I was texting my family telling them that we were ALL going to do it next year, my 9 year old son included.

Inspired by two of my friends who completed the marathon (one was the first female to finish, the other completing her first marathon just 20 minutes before the eight hour cut off time), I am seriously contemplating setting my sights on the full marathon.  All 42.1 km of it, including tackling the 7 km of stairs twice!




Book Review: Books I haven’t read

Most people would expect the usual practice is to review books I have read. This time I thought I’d write about a few books I haven’t read. Or to be more specific, books I’ve started reading and just haven’t been able to finish.

Being an avid reader I am quite proud of the range of books I have read. I really enjoy reading and have at times read some very unusual genres (for me); biographies of footballers (I am NOT a football fan of any code), farming manuals (thanks Dad), and Mills and Boon romances. I usually don’t give up on a book. I believe that every book has some merit and will do what I can to find it. I once decided to read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I really struggled at the start and almost gave up, then I realised that I found the War parts boring. I decided to simply skip the battles and ended up quite enjoying the book.

At the start of this sabbatical I was searching for inspiration for my own blog and started reading a few different book review blogs. In the introduction of one such blog, Life of Chaz, Chaz said that he rates the books he reviews highly because he only reviews books he finishes and he doesn’t finish books that he doesn’t like.

We all do not have the time left in our lives to finish our “To Read” pile.

This was a new concept for me but one that I have embraced during my sabbatical. There are so many options, things to do in the world. Why waste my time doing something I don’t enjoy?

So, what books haven’t I read?

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig. It was the title that piqued my interest. It reminded me of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka, a book I quite enjoyed. A quick read of the blurb on the back hooked me in.

… and unforgettable narration of a summer motorcycle trip across America’s Northwest, undertaken by a father and his young son. A story of love and fear – of growth, discovery and acceptance ….

I’ve read seven chapters (about one quarter of the book) and haven’t picked it up since. Five months ago! Some parts are quite good but then the author goes off on a tangent, I’m sure to illustrate a point he is making or to prepare us for the next part. Anyway he went off on a tangent and I put down Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Another book is The World’s Religions by Huston Smith. One of the goals of my sabbatical is to explore spirituality and gain a better understanding of what is out there. To this end I thought I’d learn about the different religions. This book was recommended by a few people online and the clincher was discovering that the author was born almost 100 years ago in the city where I now live!

I started reading with great enthusiasm. I quickly read the chapter on Hinduism. I worked my way through Buddhism. I then started reading about Confucianism, a religion I was quite interested to learn more about given I am living in China. I struggled. Honestly, it really felt like I was reading a text book and had to finish it because I was studying comparative religion at university. I reflected on this feeling and my new mantra, “Why waste my time doing something I don’t enjoy?” I haven’t read any more. To be fair, this book is used as a text book at university and maybe it is pitched at a level way beyond my ability.

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. OK, I honestly chose this book because the author and I have the same surname. I started reading, I got to the fourth chapter. I really wasn’t connecting with the characters. Life is too short and there are too many books to read to waste my time reading one I’m not connecting with. I started reading something else.

Today’s life lesson is to do what you enjoy doing, to value your time and make choices that reflect this goal, even when it comes to reading books!

Finally, I’d love to hear from anyone who has read, finished and enjoyed these books. What did you discover that I didn’t?

(Photo by mvp on Unsplash)

Seeking wholeness

There’s a sense of incompleteness in our lives…. it’s a feeling that something is wrong with us, that something is missing, or that we’re missing out on something in the world.

Since the start of my sabbatical I have been following Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog. A recent post of his, The Craving for Wholeness That Drives Our Actions, got me thinking about my purpose and what it was that I was seeking.

These past few months (nine, actually) I have been purposefully contemplating what matters most to me and how it dictates the direction of my time, energy and passion.

Reading Leo’s thoughts on our sense of incompleteness and our craving to find a feeling of connection and intimacy with others to fill that void, I reflected on how I had been going about this.

We wake up and immediately begin distracting ourselves, seeking something interesting, exciting, any kind of dopamine hit. We look for the convenient over the difficult, the quick and easy over struggle and meaning.

We don’t give ourselves a moment of space or quiet, filling every bit of space with videos, songs, podcasts, audio-books, short online reads, news, social media, quick tasks, messages.

I admit that I have structured my sabbatical with a carefully thought out action plan. I have goals. I have strategies. I even have a monthly timeline of tasks to achieve. But I have not considered that I need time to simply just be… To do as Leo suggests and stop for a while and allow myself to feel the discomfort and uncertainty of who I am.

The wholeness of being completely OK, no matter where we are, no matter what we’re doing. Of being absolutely in love with our experience, of not needing anything more.

Leo suggests some simple ideas on how we can find this sense of wholeness.

I highly recommend reading Leo’s post and while you’re there check out the rest of his site. It makes for some inspirational and thought-provoking reading.



Finding my strength

Last weekend I ran the furthest I have run in ten years. 14 kilometres! And in two months time, if all goes to plan, I will be participating in a half marathon on the Great Wall of China.

Ten years is a long time between runs. Especially for something that, surprisingly, I quite like doing. Why has it taken me so long to get back into it? I’d like to say it is the lack of time. Working full time. Being a mum. Who has the time to train?

However, if I am being honest with myself it is more about mental strength. Having the willpower to muster up then energy to go for a run. Working full time, raising a child, it’s mentally exhausting.

I have found the same with cooking. Pre-sabbatical we would usually eat the same six or seven meals for dinner, not because I couldn’t be bothered to cook but because I didn’t have the energy to think about what to cook. Now that my mental energy is not being drained by work, I have the strength to plan and I am enjoying cooking and trying out new recipes.

Routines, of course, help. Having your running gear ready so that when you wake in the morning you can quickly get dressed and get out helps. Or preparing meals for the week on a Sunday and freezing them. However, this still requires mental energy and after a long week of last thing I want to do is spend half of my day cooking.

So, what’s the solution? I’m not sure yet. I am trying to create new habits (see previous blog). I am meditating which, while it takes time, is really helping me to focus on one task at a time rather than multiple ones. I’m also prioritising what is important to me and learning to say no more.

It’s all a part of the journey I am on …. I’ll let you know how I go in May when I run 21 kilometres.

Kicking the habit

I have been consciously focusing on habits recently. Creating new habits and moving some on.

We all have them, some good, some bad, some we are very aware of and some we don’t even realise.

Recently I became aware of one habit I had never noticed before. The Sunday evening blues. Those of you who go to school or work Monday to Friday might know the feeling. You’ve had two days off. And sometime around 5 or 6 pm on Sunday evening the thought creeps into your head. Ergh! Work tomorrow. Bam! The Sunday evening blues have arrived. I don’t know when they started, probably some time during my school years. Ergh! School tomorrow.

But then I remembered. I don’t have work to go to tomorrow. I’m on sabbatical. In fact, Monday is a day to celebrate. The rest of the people in my household are at school or work. I have time to myself. To write. To read. This is good.

I took some time to reflect on this… How often have I got myself into the spiral of negative thoughts by succumbing to the Sunday evening blues? How does this impact my attitude at work? My approach to life? How bad is this habit, that I wasn’t even aware of? This makes biting my nails pale in comparison.

This is one habit that was easy to kick and I will intentionally not pick it up again when I return to work.

I have been following Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog. He has some thought provoking ideas on how to make changes in your life.

He suggests making one tiny change at a time. How often have we woken up on January 1 and said OK I’m going to get fit this year? I’m going to lose weight and eat healthy. We go for a run, throw out the chocolate and wine and buy a shopping trolley full of fruit and veg. This lasts a week, a month or so. Then life gets in the way. You have to stay late at work a few nights. You have a big weekend of partying. The weather gets cold. And suddenly you have stopped running, and the cupboard is full of chocolate and wine. And you give up for another year.

Leo’s advice is to start with one small achievable action. Aim to walk twice a week, have wine free weekdays. Just one thing. It will be more achievable. And once you have successfully kicked one habit you are more likely to be successful the next time.

After all, habits such as the Sunday evening blues have likely been with you for a long time.

(Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash)

How to be inspirational

I have been lucky to have some inspirational people come into my life just at a time when I needed them most.

Their support and mentoring have helped me to become who I am today.

When I was 21 years old, I was fresh out of university, living in a big city for the first time, and had just landed my first real job. My boss, Susan, opened my eyes to a life beyond my conservative rural Australian upbringing. She was the first women I knew who had a career other than teaching. She was married but hadn’t taken her husband’s surname and they had deliberately chosen not to have children. But she was caring and passionate, she was sensible and practical. Not at all like the “career women” I previously knew through stereotypes on 80’s television shows. Susan took an interest in developing me, she taught me the fundamentals of marketing and where there were gaps found the best professional development courses for me. She even became my de-facto big sister, making sure I was safe in the big city much to my parents relief.

Later in my career I found myself in my first leadership position. Again I had a boss who was similar to my first – caring, passionate, practical – but now I needed to learn about leadership. Belinda had the amazing ability to listen to all sides with a open mind and see a pathway ahead. She showed me how to have courageous conversations with difficult people and encouraged me to solve issues myself. Her confidence in my knowledge and experience emboldened me to be confident in my own abilities, which in turn made me a better leader.

People who inspire you go beyond simply teaching or mentoring. They go beyond the day to day. They have a deep impact on your whole life, professionally and personally.

Recently I have been reflecting on how I can pass this gift on by inspiring others. How can I be inspirational for others? Following are some challenges I have set myself:

  1. Have courage and stand up for what I believe in.

  2. Be authentic and comfortable with who I am.

  3. Be passionate and share that enthusiasm with others.

  4. Care about seeing others grow and improve. Challenge them to be their best.

  5. Lead by example. Walk the talk!

Inspirational people come into your life when you most need them. (But perhaps not always when you are looking.) And sometimes it isn’t immediately obvious that they are there to inspire you. It is only afterwards, when you have had time to reflect, that you realize how much this person has had an impact on you.

Thank you to those who have inspired me.



Life lessons learned while living as an expat

It is my seventh year of living in China as an expat. I sometimes find it hard to believe that I am even living in China, let alone it being seven years.

It has been said that I am not living in the real world. And at times it can feel like it. However, in this time I have learned some important life lessons.

Value what you have today

Nature, fresh air and blue skies. Living in Australia I took these things for granted. They were ever present. I didn’t even really give them much thought. Until they were no longer a daily part of my life. Now they are something to be appreciated and thankful for.  Just looking up and seeing clearly defined clouds now brings me joy.

It is easy to fixate on the things I don’t have. Doing this day in, day out made my life miserable. (I have SO been there, especially in the first year living here.) I now try to take a moment every day to reflect on what I do have and be thankful for every experience.

Ensure you make time for your loved ones

Shortly after I arrived here my grandfather passed away. I wasn’t able to make it to his funeral. I have missed family birthdays, christenings and many Sunday roast dinners. For a while I focused on all the things I was missing out on.

I now ensure I make time to visit or speak with loved ones. My goal is to spend quality time rather than quantity. (Christmas is good time as many people are on holidays and are also in more relaxed frame of mind.) Even a chat on Skype can make the world of difference.

And not forgetting my new friends, who in an expat community become my de facto family. They too are added to the list of loved ones I make sure I have time for.

Question your assumptions

One huge thing that has really turned my life upside down while living in China is realising how many of my assumptions are based on my cultural expectations.

Some things that at first appeared crazy began to make sense once I got to understand the Chinese culture and the reasons behind it. One of my first experiences in China was taking my two year old son to a playground which had a sand pit. He immediately sat down in the sand to play, as any child would. Well, a Western child that is. As the grandmothers and ayi’s were frowning, tutting and shaking their heads at me, I noticed all the Chinese children were squatting to play in the sand. I later learned that sitting in the sand was viewed as dirty and unclean. Of course, at the time all I could see was the countless bottoms and willies hanging out the split pants the young children were wearing, and being totally grossed out by that.

Be flexible, patient and open minded

For those who know me, I am a bit of an organiser.  I like things to go to plan. I can get more than a little stressed when things are out of my control. However, living in a foreign country, especially one with a culture that is so different to my own, has taught me that things will often not work out how I want them to.

It took me a while, but I have now realised that I can’t always make things work out the way I want. Losing my patience or being inflexible is not going to change the situation. And, more importantly, I am the one who is going to suffer if I don’t change my attitude.

Now I am a lot more relaxed about things. I ask myself “Can I change this situation?” and if I can’t I then ask “Can I change my attitude?”

When we decided to move to China I expected adventure, awesome experiences and the chance to get to know a new culture. What I did not expect was to learn some very valuable lessons that will stay with me for life.


Why I am learning Chinese

Why am I learning Chinese? I have asked this question myself a number of times, usually when I am sitting in class trying to understand the grammatical structure of a Chinese sentence.

I have been living in China for six years and surprisingly I have been able to survive with virtually no Chinese language skills. I have what I call Taxi Chinese. I can get in a taxi and get to where I need with the basic words left, right, turn around and stop. I can go to a shop, point and say one, two, or three of those, thank you.

However, I always have a sense that I am missing out. Missing out on having a richer and more meaningful experience of living in a foreign (and non-English speaking) country. Missing out on understanding the cultural nuances of a country that only comes with understanding their language. Missing out of opportunities and experiences because I can not communicate with the people around me.

I am also jealous. I live in a community with people from over 50 countries. Almost everyone I know is bilingual, many are multilingual. I watch and listen to my friends converse in one language and seamlessly move to another. I cannot describe the feeling of inadequacy when you realise your son’s 5 year old friend can speak four languages. (Japanese from his mother, French from his father, English, the language he speaks at school and Chinese the “second” language he learns at school.)

And I also feel guilty. My son has been formally learning Chinese since he was three and informally from the moment I left him in the hands of his Ayi (the wonderful woman who cared for him) while I went to work. How can I in good conscience ask my child to do his Chinese homework, explaining how important it is to learn the language of the country we live in, while not even making an effort to learn the language myself?

There is oodles of research out there about the benefits of learning a foreign language. And not just kids. Older people too.

You get smarter!!! Research from North Western University found speaking more than one language constantly exercises the brain and makes it more prepared to take on other brain-challenging tasks.

It could prevent Alzheimer’s and Dementia. A study of seniors with varying forms of dementia and literacy were evaluated and led researchers to conclude that those participants who spoke a second language were able to delay Alzheimer’s Disease, vascular dementia, and frontotemporal dementia by 4.5 years.

And your English will improve too! Focusing on the mechanics of language e.g. grammar, conjugations, and sentence structure makes you more aware of language, and the ways it can be structured and manipulated. These skills can make you a more effective communicator and a sharper editor and writer.

So, here I am two afternoons a week sitting in class learning how to where I am from. “Wo shi Aodaliya ren.” Learning how to buy 1.5 kg of apples. “Wo mai pingguo. Duoshao qian san jin. ?” And complaining that the price is too expensive and asking for a cheaper price. “Tai gui le! Pianyi yi dianr, xing ma?”

Surprisingly after six years I know more words than I thought I did. The challenge is understanding what order the words go in so I don’t sound like a complete idiot.

My goal by the end of this sabbatical is to be able to go out for dinner with my Chinese friends and speak with them in their language rather than forcing them to converse in mine.