Wednesday, 29 March 2017


Marjon, Plymouth - Part 4


I used to stay in a school hostel for 5 years and I only went home every few months. So, living away from my family is not a totally new experience. But, studying in UK and living away from home and family for 6 years is another matter. That was the first time I left Malaysia for a foreign country and it would be months or years before I could see my family again. Flight tickets were not cheap. And it meant travelling non-stop on a plane for almost 14 hours!

I was happy that I wasn't alone on this epic journey. 29 other Teslians were also on board, new friends that soon would become good friends as we travelled along this path together. 15 of us would study in Bognor Regis, West Sussex while the rest, including myself, would be studying at the College of St Mark & St John in Plymouth, Devon. It is more commonly known as Marjon. Now, the formal name has changed, along with the status. It is now called the University of St Mark and St John and even comes with a new logo.

At first, I thought we would stay in a dorm or hostel rooms during our first year but it turned out that we would be staying with an English family for a year! Imagine the anxiety and curiosity that we felt as we met our new families for the first time. John Burke, the INTEC Director of our college, spoke to us personally to match each one of us to a family. I wasn't ready to live with a family which has a dog but I was willing to stay with two small children. I was also ready to be a temporary vegetarian (seafood is okay) in the house. Breakfast would be cereal and milk. My lunch would be at the college. Dinner would be prepared by my host mom. They had been briefed by INTEC regarding the Muslim Halal diet and other restrictions.

When we reached the college after a four-hour bus drive from London, our host families were already waiting for us. After a welcoming speech and matching a student with a family, we left for our new home. My new family consists of Calcidonia Smith, who came from Malta many years before, Nicholas Smith and their two beautiful children, Stephanie and Gregory.  Both of them are grown-ups now and Stephanie is married, with one kid. From what I know, Nicholas and Gregory are now working in Hong Kong while Donia and her daughter are still living in Plymouth.

My new house is in Woolwell, Plymouth, about 20-minute bus ride to the Plymouth city centre. It took me 5 minutes by bus to go to Marjon but around 40 minutes if I were to walk to college. Since the bus service was not very frequent, I preferred to walk and burn some calories (as if).  The 'exercise' was not that taxing because of the weather and temperature. Most of the time, it was windy, cold, dry and sometimes foggy or rainy. I didn't really sweat much. I usually wore my sweater and jacket and boots to college. I learnt to walk fast like the Brits and arrived on time (or earlier) for classes and events. I learnt to queue everywhere and say thank you to people at the - bank, college, market, supermarket, library, bus station, shop, etc..... and these habits seem to stick to me until today.

I had my own room in the house, not too big and not too small, just nice. The view from my window was pleasing since I got the room facing the front lawn. There was a single bed, a desk, a cupboard and the best thing there was a black and white mini 'telly' that lasted for the whole 6 years! Thank you, Donia for giving it to me as a leaving present at the end of that one year. Before I was a Korean drama addict, I was first a British telly addict! Like I said before, I can live without a radio but not a television...  :P

To be honest, I was scared at first. I remember the first night there, feeling cold and a little lost. What if they could not understand me? What if I could not understand them? I was wearing my blue baju kurung because I wasn't sure of  what was suitable and proper. It was early September of 1991 and it was Autumn season. Luckily, the house had central heating and my room was warm and cosy. My first winter was challenging but fun! I remember we asked permission form our lecturer to go out and play in the snow and build a snowman... just like those images from the telly. But the snow which fell over Plymouth was brief and by the second or third day, it would have melted away....

Donia and her family treated me nicely and even though there were moments of tension or confusion, we managed to retain a good relationship. We talked a lot about our backgrounds. I described Malaysia to her and she would share about how she came to UK from Malta. I found out from her that there are some similarities between Arabic and Maltese language and music, and it turned out that the island, Malta, was once colonized by an Islamic Empire...

I guess, both of us found some kind of understanding and empathy since we came from another country to live in Britain. I felt a sense of camaraderie with her. I appreciated all her efforts in trying to make me feel welcomed in the family. She even tried cooking rice and vegetable Malaysian style and buying Indian ready-made curries to go with the dishes. I love fish n chips ( Plymouth is famous for it) but not spaghetti in tomato sauce... I like cheese and onion Cornish pasties and the rectangular vegetable ones.  I used to buy shrimp sandwiches from Mark & Spencer and we found a lot of Malaysian products in an Asian foodstore, Maggi noodles, Lingham chilli sauce and belachan, to name a few.

                                                                    (image from Donia's FB photos)

I experienced my first Christmas with them. They also took me to visit many places in and around Plymouth. They took me to the GP when I fell sick and even taught me a few new things (like how to operate a lawn mower). I was really grateful for their help and kindness. In return, I used to babysit the two children when the parents were out. I discovered that children are universal in their behaviour and characteristics. These kids are similar to the kids back home. They have their sweet time and then their tantrum time...!  Stephanie and Greg are adults now. I wonder if they still remember my presence in their house at that time. Probably not so much. They were only toddlers then.

It was sad to say good bye when I left the family after the one year was over. We did keep in touch during the years I was there but we seemed to lost contact after I came home. But thank to FB for reconnecting me with Donia again after all these years. My only wish is for her to visit Malaysia some day so that I can return the favour and take her travelling around Kedah.... ;)

                                                                                        Thank you Donia. Love, Jess.... X X X X

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