Ten Things I Have Learned During My First Year Teaching in China
I have always wanted to travel and go abroad. I talked about it with family and friends on many occasions. When the opportunity came for me to teach in China, I immediately said, “NO!” I was thinking of traveling to places like South America, France, Italy, Greece, etc. because I had romanticized these places in my mind from what I had seen on television and read about in magazines. China was not even a thought in my mind! The opportunity kept coming to teach in China. I would see advertisements, run into people who had just came back from China. I even met someone studying Chinese to be an interpreter! I kept running into people who had some kind of connection with China.
Take the Leap of Faith!
After doing some research about China, I shared some of what I learned with my family and friends. This fueled the flames of family and friends against the decision to go to China. I understood that my family and friends loved me, and their knowledge about China was more limited than mine. I thought, “if not now, when?” At some point, I needed to stop making excuses or allowing my fear to keep me from taking a step toward overseas teaching. There will always be reasons NOT to go, but if the desire to travel is really in your heart, you must put all the worry and fear aside, and take the first step to what may be one of the best decisions of your life! I finally decided to take a step of faith and leave the states and go teach in China.
Research, Research, Research!
I can’t say it enough! Research! Do your research! I took a job in a small city in China called Suqian. It is considered small compared to other cities in China. I went online to find out anything and everything that I could about this city. There were very little, if any articles or information about Suqian, China. If I did find something about Suqian on the internet, it was written in Chinese, which I did not speak or read. This alone should give you a clue as to what you will encounter when going to China to teach. If you can find information on your particular city, but there is no translation button on the page the people in the city probably won’t know or speak English.
Fortunately for me, I was able to speak with a group of teachers who lived in the same city as I did, who had just returned from spending the summer in Suqian, China. I don’t think this was an accident! The teachers I spoke with had nothing but good things to say about their experience teaching in China. This gave me some comfort, and relieved some of my worries and fears. This will not be the case for everyone, but I would advise anyone thinking of traveling to China to teach, to do thorough research about the city you will be teaching in. Many teachers who come to China don’t always teach in the major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou, China. Make sure the company you agree to work for is reputable, licensed, and legal. If at all possible try to speak with teachers who already work there to get some idea of the working conditions.
Learn Some Basic Mandarin
Although many jobs that are advertised to teach English in China, say that you don’t need to speak Chinese, I disagree with this UNLESS you are going to have a Chinese assistant. Even then, you still need to know some basic/survival Mandarin. Your Chinese assistant will only be there to help you with classes for the most part. He/She won’t be living with you or traveling with you as you go about daily life interacting with the people. I have some wonderful and great people here in China, who has helped me a great deal with learning some basic Chinese, and finding my way around via the bus or train. This may not be the case for everyone. If you don’t know Chinese, I suggest you become friends with some of your Chinese peers/colleagues to teach you some basic Mandarin. Get a Mandarin audio program to learn some basic Mandarin or you can go to one of the local colleges or universities and find a student who is interested in improving their English, who will teach you Mandarin in exchange. In the end, it will be well worth it and make life much smoother in China!
Be Ready for Culture Shock!
I don’t think there is any way around this! I don’t care how much you try to prepare for living in a new country there will be culture shock! When I first arrived in China, I was unaware that Chinese people could smoke anywhere, everywhere! Being from the U.S.A., we are used to smoking being relegated to certain areas or places. Usually away from others. In China that is not the case. Chinese can smoke in restaurants, shops, schools, anywhere! You will see constant spitting and hear loud talking firecrackers explode during all times of the day and night. I have been awakened many times at 2:00 am or 3:00 am from the sound of firecrackers. Don’t these people know you are trying to sleep?
People staring at you and taking your photo without your consent. Asking you a succession of questions in Chinese even after you tell them you don’t speak Chinese! Squat toilets, pollution, no gloves when handling food, middle aged women dancing in the park, at the mall, and any other place there is a large empty space, people asking you to friend them on WeChat even though they don’t know you, bad English translations, T-shirts with sayings that are absolutely bad English translations! No personal space, no standing in line, just walk up and get in front of you or others, and order what they want.
Many of these behaviors may seem rude, impolite or just plain ignorant to you as a foreigner, but you must realize this is normal in China. Also, they rarely see foreigners up close and personal, so they will be very interested in you. Afterall, what they know about America comes from movies, television and the internet. They don’t know that you shouldn’t ask foreigners their age, especially women, or ask how much is your salary? Just smile and try to keep a good attitude. Use these moments as teaching moments to educate people about you/your country.
Patience will become a valuable skill living in China. In the city of Suqian where I live, life moves at a slower pace. Being from a big city, I move at a big city pace. When I am walking at my normal pace, my friends would ask, “why are you walking so fast?” To me, I am walking at a normal pace, but I had to learn to slow down and go with the flow. By the way, if you have to deal with any governmental office in China, this advice will come in handy! You may have to sit there a half day just to get some paperwork signed or stamped. Be patient!!!!!
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Expect Communication Miscues!
If you will be teaching in China, you will quickly find out that changes are constant! Sometimes these changes are not communicated to you, or if they are communicated to you, it will be at the last minute! Chinese people will expect you to go with the flow and not be upset. If you have made some plans or perhaps made an appointment to do something, it will become an irritation. This has happened to me on several occasions. I missed teaching a morning class and/or I did not have a class but was not told. I would show up and wait for my students, but no one would show up. I was left wondering ‘where are the students’ only to be told, you don’t have any classes today. Or I would get a phone call asking, “where are you?”. I would ask why, only to be told that I have classes and students are waiting for me. I hope this never happens to you, but I have talked with many foreign teachers, who say that the same has happened with them.
Chinese people do literal translation. You must be very careful when speaking or teaching. They do not understand American jokes, body language, nuances or innuendos. If you say something, you must explain what you mean. Go even further by showing a picture or several examples. Chinese are also a save face culture. They never say what they mean directly! They do a lot of small talk and go around the subject but will never directly say ‘yes or no’ to a direct question. I found this out when I asked my peers, “Where can I go to put money on my bus card?” I kid you not, after asking eight people, I still did not know the answer. Frustrating!!!!
People from America are direct, no nonsense. If you expect to be that way in China, it will leave you frustrated and without results. I have since learned where to go to put money on my bus card. Another time, I wanted to know the price of an item I wanted to purchase. I quickly learned that before I could get the price, I needed to do some get acquainted-small talk before the clerk would tell me the price. To say the least, I just walked out of the shop! I was thinking, I can’t do this every time I want to buy something! I learned to live without some things (which saved me money) or try to purchase things online. Communication is everything!!
Always Be Ready!
You can prepare for upcoming events in advance, if you know about them and plan for them. In China, many things are done at the last minute, so you need to be ready and prepared for anything as an English teacher. Several times, I was asked to sing, say a speech, or give an interview in a moment’s notice. No one ever asked me if I knew how to sing, they just said we want you to sing.
One morning I arrived at school, and there was a tv crew waiting to film me teaching my class. All of the other teachers were in uniform, had their best face and hair done, which let me know they had some notice or knowledge about this. I was the only one who didn’t know. On this particular day, I decided to come to school with a hat on (bad hair day) and a simple pair of slacks and a jacket. I couldn’t go back home and get all dolled up, so I just did what I normally would do. I taught my class. It would have been great to know the tv crew would be there, but what can you do?
Stay Focused on the Children!
Around my 6th month in China, I realized I was not myself, not happy! I was beginning to get depressed. I was homesick, lonely and felt alienated at times. I was beginning to become a recluse, which is not a good thing to do in a foreign country. You don’t go all the way around the world to stay locked up in your apartment! The honeymoon stage was over! I started to let all the craziness and differences get to me. On a day I was feeling like this, I told myself, “after class today that’s it, I am going home!” But when I stepped into the 6th grade classroom, I was not prepared for what happened next. It was a week before Christmas. I had been teaching the students about Christmas in America.
When I walked into the classroom, I was greeted by 50 beautiful, and excited students who had made or bought me gifts for Christmas. They told me that I was a part of their family now. I was to some their sister from another mother, and to others, their auntie! They told me how much they had learned from me and very much wanted to go to America someday.
One by one they brought me their gift, hugged me, kissed me, said things that made me weep like a baby! This wasn’t what I expected! It was such a moving and overwhelming experience. It was very difficult to teach that day. I was a mess! I cried like a baby all the way home on the bus with all my beautiful gifts. When I arrived home, I opened them one by one, and with each one I cried, and cried, and cried. I have never felt so much love coming from someone so different, and far across the globe. They did not know what I had said or thought to myself moments before! I was set on leaving. Little did I know God would use the children to help me through one of the roughest times of being abroad. That moment gave me the strength, joy and peace to continue my journey in China. I never doubted or wanted to leave since that moment! The lesson I learned was to keep your focus on teaching the children! Don’t allow what is happening around you to cause you to lose focus. Keep it about your purpose for being in China, and that is to teach!!!
Chinese People Are Loving, Helpful and Generous!
This lesson ties in with lesson number 8. In general, the Chinese are some of the most helpful, giving, generous and loving people I have met. Once you get past your fears, lack of knowledge, and communication issues, life can be very good! Many times, if I needed help or assistance while I was out, a Chinese person would go out of their way to help me. One time I was looking for a tourist spot. I showed a picture to one of the Chinese people at the bus stop. Not only did they know where I was going but rode the bus with me to make sure I got there!
On another occasion, I asked the bus driver was I on the right bus to get to the mall, he told me I was, and made sure I did not miss my stop. After having dinner with some of my Chinese peers, they would put me in a taxi, and make sure the taxi driver took me directly to my apartment. Since none of the taxi drivers in Suqian speak English, I appreciate this! They also put my apartment address in my phone in Chinese and English, so I could always get home without worrying! Sometimes when making purchases they would tell me it was cheaper online to purchase. They would buy it online for me and give it to me. Chinese people will go above and beyond to help you.
If You Can Live in China for One Year You Can Live Anywhere!!
There will be things that happen in your daily life as a teacher in China that will make you want to never leave your apartment or return to your native home. There will be times when the differences get to you, and you just want something familiar! There will be times when the traffic, staring, and the motorbikes that almost run you over daily, will make you want to throw in the towel. Don’t do it! Stick it out for the full term of the year. Before you know it, your year will be over, and you will be contemplating whether to stay another year or go somewhere else in this big beautiful world! If you can live in China for a year and teach, you can do it ANYWHERE!
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