Ups and downs for an American teacher in China

I’ll never forget the day I decided to move to China. I had been debating the pros and cons of moving to China for weeks. Finally, even though there were quite a few cons (giving up my posh condo, quitting my well paid job, saying goodbye to my beloved friends and family) I had a nagging feeling that if I didn’t go, I would regret it for the rest of my life. I called the company I got TEFL certified through and booked my spot on an internship. “No going back now.” I thought to myself.

Soon afterwards I told my friends and family about my decision. I was met with some blank stares, shocked faces, a few tears and a lot of hugs. Once the initial shock wore off, everyone was extremely supportive. My loved ones knew I had wanderlust since I was a teenager and told me that if anyone they knew would be willing to leave their life behind and hop on a plane to China, it would be me.

Fast forward four months later. It was the beginning of January 2016. I couldn’t think of a better way to start the year than to head to a new and exciting country. I tied up my lose ends at home, had a big going away party, packed my bags, and two weeks later I was at the airport heading to Beijing. I remember sitting in the airport waiting for the plane and looking around me and realizing I was the only Westerner. I was starting to feel a bit isolated and started to second guess my decision, when a teenager named Owen began to speak to me. He asked me why I was going to China, and I told him to be an English teacher and to learn about a new culture. We hit it off and became fast friends. When the plane was ready, we were happy to discover that our seats were next to each other! The 17-hour plane ride (which I was dreading) flew by, as we chatted the whole time and watched movies. When we landed, Owen told me he would guide me through the airport and show me where to get a taxi. Bless his soul! I believe in guardian angels, and feel that Owen was definitely mine that day. He made me feel much more at ease about living in China.

Once Owen helped me pick up my luggage and pointed me in the direction to get a taxi, I was on my own. Here I was at 1 am in a foreign country, freezing (I’ve never felt so cold in all my life) in a mile long line outside the airport, waiting for a taxi. A few taxi drivers approached me, but everyone else was ignoring them and I had a sense they weren’t legit, so I waved them off. Finally, an hour later I got a taxi. I had directions in Chinese how to get to the hostel I was staying at. We arrived a half hour later, and the taxi driver dropped me off half a mile from the hostel. He couldn’t speak any English, and I couldn’t speak any Chinese. I tried to gesture to him to drop me off closer to the hostel, but no luck. I lugged my three 50 pound suitcases down a dark alley in the middle of the night to the hostel. “What am I doing?!” I frantically thought to myself. At the same time, I was thinking, “Please God keep me safe and don’t let me get mugged.” I finally got to the hostel and yanked on the door, only to find it was locked. Panic immediately set in. I had no phone, no one with me, didn’t know the area … What was I going to do? Thankfully after banging on the doors for a few minutes someone opened them for me. They pointed me in the direction of my room, which was up two flights of stairs and there were no elevators. I went to my room first without all my luggage to check it out. All of my five roommates were sleeping except one. She offered to help me with my lugage, and the two of us struggled up the steps together with a total of 150 pounds of luggage. I now know why everyone told me to pack light. I wish I would have listened!

I stayed at the hostel for a week and then stayed 2 weeks at a university and got training on how to become a teacher with other interns from all over the world. I celebrated the Chinese New Year in Beijing which was incredible. I have never seen so many fireworks in my whole life! The entire sky was lit up, and it sounded like a war was going on. The fireworks were literally nonstop for hours at a time. One day we were out and stopped to have lunch. Not only were the menus in Chinese (thank goodness for picture menus!) but the items on the menu were not what I was used to. Chicken feet, eel, scorpions and starfish on a stick, fish with all of the bones and guts still inside, and pig intestines, to name a few. Once my initial shock faded I decided on a bowl of noodles with vegetables. I was in the middle of eating and noticed a few people had gathered around to take pictures of us. Not only were we Westerners, but our chopstick skills were not too great at that point (but they improved fast!) I saw various sites in China, but by far the best site was the Great Wall. It truly took my breath away, and was an experience I’ll never forget. I remember looking all around me and thinking, “A few months ago this was only a dream … now it’s my reality.”

Quite a few things have shocked me since I arrived in China. One of the top shocking things for me is people using the bathroom in public. I’ve seen many children whose pants have slits in the middle for potty training purposes. I was shocked when I was at the zoo and saw three children using the bathroom in public. Literally, wherever they were walking they would stop and do their business. I even saw one mother holding her son over a trash can in a grocery store so he could defecate. I was walking to work a few days ago and saw a man urinating against a wall right next to the street. Spitting is also extremely popular here. Outside, in a restaurant, on the bus, you name it. Another shocking thing for me was the bathrooms. They do not have toilets, but squats, which are basically holes in the ground you stand over. The smell is horrific and they are extremely dirty. There is no toilet paper or soap in the bathrooms, so you must get used to bringing tissue with you and hand sanitizer.

One of the best experiences my life hands down is becoming a teacher. When I arrived here I had zero teaching experience. To be honest, I wasn’t even that fond of kids. I’m not sure what I was thinking when I signed up for this experience, but something told me to give it a shot. I’m so glad I did! Working with children is extremely rewarding. To see their faces light up at the smallest occurrences makes it all worthwhile. It’s fun to view life through a child’s eyes again. When they do well and I reward them with a sticker, you would think that they just won the lottery. Even if my morning is starting off crummy, it can’t help but get better when I walk into the classroom and am greeted with 30 kids screaming at the top of their tiny lungs, “GOOD MORNING, TEACHER!” Or if I’m headed to the cafeteria for lunch and get noticed by my students and end up being completely immobile because they’re clinging to my legs and hugging me, suddenly lunch doesn’t seem so important.

China has its ups and downs, but overall it is an amazing country. I came here not only to be a teacher, but to experience a culture completely different from the one I’m used to. China definitely delivered on that! Living here has changed me for the better and I will never view life the same way. It has opened my eyes and changed my perspective on many things. If you have the opportunity to visit China, please take it! You’ll never forget your time here and you won’t regret it.  

Source: Andrea Bishop from EnglishTeacher

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