When I first found out I was going to be going to teach English in China, the questions my family kept asking me were, “why would you go there? It’s dirty…” “Aren’t you worried about living in a communist country?” Other, more important, questions were swirling around in my head like, “how am I supposed get a phone plan, a bank account, and transportation in a foreign country where I speak a limited amount of the language?” When my plane finally arrived on the coast of Shanghai after a grueling flight with my seat refusing to lean back (avoid seats at the back of the plane if you are able to reserve seats), All the worry vanished. Before you arrive in a place you have never been before, you create a picture of what you think it will be like in your head (or at least I do). Through the mist I could see boats and finally the outskirts of Shanghai. On the bus ride to the city, I was in awe of just how different this place was compared to what I thought it would be. I had never seen a city so big.
Exploring the city was like a dream, it’s one of the most unique places I have ever seen. Me, in my infinite wisdom, decided to explore around on my own for a bit without phone service. Make sure you take into account that you may not have service until you arrive in your town and they help you set it up. Don’t be like me and get lost in Shanghai with no phone service. After walking in circles forever, I looked up and realized I just needed to walk in the direction of the familiar giant buildings. Shanghai is actually the perfect place to explore and start to get to know China before you are cast into the fray. Training week was enlightening and fun. Shanghai had lots of places to visit and I enjoyed every minute. After training week, I was stuffed into a car with bags and several people and shipped out to my town. The drive was beautiful and as we got further away from Shanghai mountains started to pop up.
My town, which is not a town at all, is very small compared to many of the other locations people were placed in. It is a county and the school is part of the biggest village in the county. I don’t have big malls or a night life, but I do have beautiful views and very fresh and clean mountain air. For the first month or so the people from the school took me around and we ate and did fun things, like going to a hot spring. This is what I like to call “the welcoming period” so be aware that it does, in fact, end. Despite my shyness, I was able to meet one or two teachers and they helped me get more connected in the town. One of the teachers introduced me to a hiking group that included many of the nicest people I have ever met. I definitely recommend getting connected to a group of locals so you can practice Chinese or just have something fun to do. Chinese people are generally very friendly and welcoming people so there is no reason to feel awkward if you are new to a group.
After getting settled in, I had to start planning for my classes. I firmly believe that over-planning will get you nowhere. Sure, it’s nice to be prepared, but nothing can truly prepare you for middle school children. At my school I taught all of 7th and 8th grade and all twenty-four of my classes were different. Maybe that sounds a bit scary, but if you like having a little excitement in your life, nothing beats being a teacher. My biggest fear is public speaking, so I had to get the jitters out before I taught however, when I taught my first class, I realized that my jitters were pointless. I couldn’t stop smiling. The kids just have this innocent wonder at seeing you for the first time and it is adorable. After my first week, I had a much better idea of the level and personalities of each class. The level of the students can vary greatly, so what I did was alternate between more advanced lessons and lessons that everyone could easily follow. It is best to make a format that you are comfortable with and then stick with it so that the students can get used to it.
You can adjust the format however you need, but always pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. My students, for example, do not do well when I try to make them read a passage with me. By about the fourth or fifth sentence, they are in Lalaland. With middle school students, the best way to get and keep their attention is with humor, movement, and candy. I realized about halfway through the year, my students didn’t listen to me because they had no reason to. I don’t give them grades, so I needed to give them another reason. My solution was candy. If you don’t give them candy or grades, make sure you find another incentive to keep them focused on you. The first day I introduced candy, even students in the back who usually ignored me, were actively participating. You just have to stay strong when they are begging you for candy after class has ended. The kids are a constant source of happiness and fun, just make sure you quickly find a system for punishing bad behavior so you don’t have to deal with loud classes. The thing that worked best for me was having the class monitor write names of loud or unruly kids; I would then give the list to their homeroom teacher and that eventually struck a bit of fear into my kids and they became a bit quieter. Teaching is really the easy part, kids are just fun to be around.
Getting used to living in China takes a lot of patience and a whole lot of chocolate. You will get stared at, commented on, and asked for pictures (though some do not ask). These things are just a fact of life for a foreigner in China and are just things you need to get used to. Just imagine you are a movie star and your fans can’t leave you alone, it’s a lot like that. I am super shy, so the stares really got to me for the first few months. I am one of two foreigners in the whole town so I was a walking freak show (all jokes aside, they are just curious). At some point the stares become normal to you, I’ve heard of some people sticking their tongue out when people stare too long or just staring intensely back at them. Just find a way to deal with it in your own way. Once you have adjusted to the stares, are able to get around on your own, and have started to adjust to life in China, you will start to see just how awesome China is (that is, if you aren’t already in awe).
China is a beautiful and interesting place to live. The people in small towns have the sincerest kindness and there are some breathtakingly beautiful places to visit. Transportation is very convenient in China so getting around to various cities you would like to visit is super simple. I always take the high-speed train because I don’t trust the planes, but you do you. If you do happen to take high-speed trains, I really recommend it. Just a few things you need to pay attention to. Always be around an hour early to the station so you have plenty of time to wait in the inevitably long lines. I once waited in line for around thirty minutes only for them to close right as I got to the window, then it was a mad scramble to get to the newly opened window so I wouldn’t be late for my train. Always travel with your passport, this is a no-brainer but you need it for hotels and any kind of transportation that requires you to buy a ticket (besides the metro). Lastly, if you are lost in the train station, just look up. In the bigger stations there are usually some signs in English or they have symbols that can help you understand what they say. The train stations are usually pretty straightforward and easy to navigate so I have actually never gotten myself lost in one despite my poor sense of direction.
When you travel to a different city, be prepared, each city has an atmosphere of its own. People in China are as different as the colors in a rainbow, there are different accents, tempers, and usually this collective attitude special to that area. In my small town, people are kind, peaceful, and enthusiastic. In the northwest in Xi’an, people are generally more upbeat, quite friendly and they have this incredible pride in their quickly growing city. I like to think that they all just have their own tune and I must discover it. Each city I visit, I get the most beautiful pictures and gather many interesting memories. I fell in love in front of an ancient tower, I climbed a mountain to eat at this small village at the top, and I took my first ferry ride to a gorgeous island in the middle of the river. The urge is strong to stay locked in your room away from the stares, but try your best to get out and explore, it is definitely worth it. Travel costs are generally pretty low, so go discover China.
The food in China is much like the people, very different depending on the area. In the south you generally have lots of rice, while the northerners seem to eat more noodles. When you go to a new place, try to research what food their area is famous for, there’s always something. There were a few times I was eating something in Xi’an and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Some food is just so exceptionally good, but you have to go out and experiment. Some food you will have no idea what is in it but just take comfort in the fact that besides shells and leaves, it’s usually all edible. There were a few jarring moments where I was kind of freaked out so just let me warn you. Yes, they cook the whole fish with fins and head and scales attached and it will stare at you while you eat it. The head is usually still attached to everything that you eat that would have a head. They do not remove bones in anything so be aware of that. I have gotten used to it and now I prefer it that way. With the bones it feels like I’m eating something real and not some processed food. The food alone is worth the twenty hour plane ride. American Chinese food cannot compare to the beauty and taste of traditional Chinese dishes. So much culture and history is wrapped up in every bite.
For me, coming here was a very wonderful and interesting experience. I really grew a lot mentally and emotionally and I feel like I have actually made a difference in people’s lives. I fell in love with China (and a Chinese guy) so I will be coming back next year to teach in the best city on the planet, Xi’an. I hope you will be able to enjoy yourself while in China, teaching is very rewarding and fun. Keep an open mind and try not to let any preconceptions cloud your view of China, just let yourself enjoy it and explore it. This was really a great opportunity and I’m immensely grateful AYC gave me the chance.