Chinese student discovers a love of reading in Tauranga

"I love to play. I play tag outside; I like to play doctor surgery indoors; I role play."
Cherry Li & Jonathan

Chinese student discovers a love of reading in Tauranga

When Cherry Li and her son Jonathan Wang left China for a summer holiday in New Zealand, they only planned on staying for two weeks. But five-year-old Jonathan, who spent his days at Mount Maunganui Primary School, enjoyed Tauranga so much that, after only two days, Cherry looked into extending their stay.

Not only was Jonathan content with spending his summer vacation studying, he also discovered a newfound love of reading and a passion for performing. This was a completely new side to Jonathan and Cherry was thrilled to see her son flourishing so far away from home. It seemed that the hands-on learning environment for which Tauranga is known was a great fit for Jonathan – and as a bonus, Cherry enjoyed getting to know the local Kiwi culture alongside her son.

The mother-son duo stayed for nine weeks before returning to China where they immediately started planning another longer trip back to Tauranga.

Here is their story about what makes Tauranga so special.

Life in China

Originally from Shangdong province, Cherry moved to China’s biggest city, Shanghai, after university. While it was a wonderful place to begin her career, the pace became more challenging once her son was born.

“There are 26 million people in Shanghai – it is crowded, busy, stressful. Especially for education, every parent is very anxious about giving their child the best.” – Cherry

Cherry’s husband manages a packaging company supplying coffee cups and lids to big name customers like Starbucks. With around 100 employees, he is a busy man. Before coming to Tauranga, Cherry was busy too, working as a buyer for Italian coffee machine company Delonghi.

Coming to Tauranga

Cherry decided to take her son on a summer vacation somewhere completely different from Shanghai – somewhere with more nature and fewer people – and New Zealand seemed like the perfect place. When she arrived in Tauranga, it was the city’s very different lifestyle and relaxed atmosphere that instantly appealed.

Cherry had enrolled her son as a short-term international student at Mount Maunganui Primary School, giving him the opportunity to develop his English skills and experience a new culture while on holiday. From the start, Jonathan was confident speaking to his classmates and teachers and seemed to love learning in this very different style of education.

The nine-week holiday went so well – and so quickly – that when Cherry returned to China she quit her job and prepared herself and her son for three terms in Tauranga..

A newfound love of reading

In China, Jonathan wasn’t interested in reading, yet in this new country he wouldn’t put his books down. When asked about his new interest, Jonathan simply says, “I love stories. English books are so interesting.”

After their first stint in Tauranga, Jonathan returned to China with English skills that had improved dramatically. Cherry loves that teachers are patient and classrooms welcoming, and she is happy to see that nature is an integral part of learning.

Along with reading, Jonathan has found another entirely new areas that he is passionate about – performance. He has two roles in the school production of Ugly Duckling, one as a frog and the other, a speaking role, as a teacher.

Research is showing the hands-on, play-based education for which New Zealand is famous is paramount to a child’s learning and development – but you don’t have to tell Cherry this. She can see first-hand the effects of play on her son.

“I love to play. I play tag outside; I like to play doctor surgery indoors; I role play.” – Jonathan

Excuse me, what is Matariki?

As if on cue, Jonathan interrupts our interview to give us a perfect example of what we’ve been talking about. Mount Maunganui Primary School’s international director Liz Vialoux explains the Maori New Year to Jonathan, his Mum taking it all in at the same time.

Mum learning alongside her son

Jonathan is hungry for knowledge and is thriving as he soaks up new experiences in his temporary home. And while coming to a new country for your child’s education can often be a challenging and lonely journey for a mum, Cherry is embracing her experience in Tauranga with open arms.

“Through Jonathan I learn new things about New Zealand culture every day. My friends think it must be boring for me here with no friends, but every day is exciting.” – Cherry

Cherry took a ten-week English course at Mount Maunganui Language Centre and is working towards her IELTS qualification with the hopes of studying tourism management at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology in Tauranga. If all goes to plan, she and Jonathan will be back a third time, both as students.

Finding a community in Tauranga

There isn’t a huge Chinese community within Mount Maunganui Primary School, but Cherry has been warmly welcomed by many Korean and Kiwi mums she has met at school.

She has gone to the Korean church for English classes and learnt to make Korean sushi. She has made some Chinese friends at the Chinese grocery store on Grey Street and goes to church every Sunday morning which she follows up by getting to know locals over morning tea.

Challenges in living abroad

While everything is going well for both Cherry and Jonathan, there’s one obvious challenge to life in New Zealand: Dad isn’t here. Even though he loves reading in English, taking part in the school production and getting to play at school, nothing can change that fact.

“We both miss him. He’s the boss – he can’t come with us. It’d be better if the whole family could be here.” – Cherry

A word from Mt Maunganui Primary School’s international director

Keen to diversify their international department and attract a wider variety of cultures to Mount Maunganui Primary School, Liz headed over to the Shangdong province to meet with Cherry’s agent, Dongmei Peng.

“Our trip was awesome. It was great to witness a very old culture that is steeped in tradition. Plus, this experience has given me a better idea of how our families feel when they arrive at our school.” – Liz

Liz was accompanied by Mount Maunganui Intermediate School’s director of international students Jane Howard and met up with Mount Maunganui College’s international director Maz Roberts. The three schools are excited about working collaboratively to attract and support Chinese students interested in studying in Mount Maunganui and are proud to offer a clear educational pathway from primary through to high school.