Within minutes of departing the plane in Shanghai, I realized I was in trouble. English was no longer the predominant language, my connecting flight to Wuhan, central China, was sixty miles away, and I could not speak a word of Chinese.
Like many setting out to teach English overseas, I had abandoned my Canadian way of life, traveling thousands of miles away.
The magnitude of being in such a situation is incomprehensible until you are actually in it. Although I had traveled and lived in other countries around the world, I had idea of what to expect.
Taking my chances, I surrendered my trust and approached a complete stranger. The woman spoke little English, but managed to drag me across the terminal to a bank machine. As I gathered the dispensed Chinese cash I was suddenly left with the uncertainty of whether or not my decision to teach in China was a good choice.
Nonetheless, the woman arranged a taxi and guaranteed my timely arrival to my connecting flight, before I was whisked down the freeway.
Wuhan, off the beaten track, does not compare to typical Hong Kong or Beijing. And in this context, I would soon learn there are pros and cons for every decision.
Be Prepared For Culture Shock
Chinese culture is the most fascinating I’ve ever encountered, but to a foreigner, it will make your head spin. For the record, North America Chinese take-out isn’t even close to traditional Chinese food, so you may want to consider a fish and/or vegetarian diet if you stay for any length of time.
Earn The Respect Of Your Students
It took less then one week to realize my students had no interest in learning, and there was little hope of holding their attention. Being resourceful was a definite asset. Life can become so frustrating at times, you want to escape to the nearest airport, jump on a plane and head home. Although an easy way out, the challenge of engaging the students to learn was ultimately more rewarding.
Reconsider Your Perspective
Observing situations from a different perspective helps to clarify your view. As North Americans, we are fortunate to have the luxury of recreation time. In China, however, a typical day for children of any age begins very early and ends about ten in the evening, with virtually no weekends off.
After school and on weekends, many children attend some form of English school or school for the arts, while others work for their parents. It doesn’t take long show too feel empathy and bend the rules just a little. But be warned: when children know they can walk all over you, they will.
Make Learning Fun
My most difficult challenge was creating suitable games of interest for each age group; not only to enabling them to learn, but retain what they had learned. While all children pay attention when we make it fun, yet like in any school, there is always one class/group of students you will never reach, no matter what you do.
Find A Local Friend
In the small city of nine million, finding an Internet Café and McDonalds was simple – finding English-speaking people to hang out with was almost impossible. Lizzy, a university student working at the school, was assigned to live with me for the first month while my boss was out of country.
Although her English was lacking, she became my voice, my traveling companion, and my friend. A typical workweek was twenty-hours, one day off, allowing plenty of time for extraordinary outings. Lizzy’s curiosity for adventure was as fascinating as my obsession with Chinese culture. We made a great team, and became inseparable.
Travel When You Get The Chance
I had the rare opportunity of traveling with several students, their parents and staff on a weeklong Chinese style vacation to some of the most incredible parts of North Eastern China, including: The Temples of Chengde, Beijing and The Great Wall, Beidaihe, Qinhuangdao and Shanhaiguan. If you’re ever invited, accept.
Speak Your Mind
When it comes to foreign teachers, the Chinese are well aware of the cultural differences. For the most part, they can be your best friend and/or your worst nightmare. They understand and respect foreigners who are up front with them, so if you have something to say, say it, and get on with it. Any confrontation will usually be brief and life resumes to normal very quickly.
If You Decide To Go, Do Your Homework
A word of advice for those who want to teach overseas: there are more bad experiences than good ones, so search the message boards for only those teachers who Ã¢â‚¬Ëœenjoyed’ their teaching experience. Most will gladly help you, even look over your contracts because they have been through the hoops and know the scams.
All Good Things…
Saying good-bye was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Not only had I made an impact on so many students, my Chinese friends had become my family and I theirs, yet I knew that I would probably never see any of them again.
Would I do it again? Absolutely.
For those open to change, teaching and living in foreign countries can be the most rewarding time you will ever have.
The experience was so powerful, I wrote and published Beyond The China Sea, a book that depicts life and teaching in more rural areas of China.