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My first week teaching English in China was very interesting, to say the least. I arrived on Friday, January 13th, and to my surprise, would start teaching by the next Tuesday. Oh China, how I love thee! But let's backtrack a little.
[PART 1] Just How Did I End Up Teaching English Abroad?
[PART 2] How My First ESL Job in Seoul, South Korea Changed My Life
[PART 3] On the Road to China & Why Choosing the Right ESL Employer Was Important
The first day of arriving in a foreign country to live and work in is always a nerve racking experience. Sure I felt excited about the adventure, but the thought of meeting my new colleagues, being a great teacher, and being on my own in a wildly different environment and culture left me feeling very anxious.
Fortunately though, my new life as an ESL teacher in China started off with great impressions. I arrived in Shanghai and was met by the same HR recruiter, or vice principal, that I interviewed with and she welcomed me with the biggest smile I had ever seen. I'd also learn during the bus ride to Kunshan that she was very talkative and full of energy. Lots of cool points there!
Later in the night I'd also meet our school's principle, a mid-aged woman that I could tell was very ambitious and spewing out great leadership skills. I discovered that our training center was the first and only she had opened in Kunshan, and she had plans to open 8 more across the city by 2020. Surely, I was in good hands!
Over the next few days I'd spend lots of time setting up my apartment, meeting my coworkers, teaching classes, making friends, traveling, soaking up information and racking up new life experiences. That's right, I took full advantage of my new life abroad in China!
In the Chinese Workplace
Ah, life in the Chinese workplace. I discovered that I was the only full-time foreign ESL instructor at the company—something I didn't think to inquire about during the interview process—in addition to a part-time teacher from Canada and about 7 other Chinese English teachers and staff.
They did a pretty good job inviting me out to dinner, taking me to explore cultural activities and landmarks across the city, and generally making me feel welcomed and at ease.
Furthermore, it didn't take long for me to realize that ESL companies in China were just raking in the dough. With such a high demand for their children to learn English, parents were more than willing to shell out big bucks to place their kids in international schools, English training centers, and even private tutoring sessions. So you can imagine how much a training center charging, let's say, $1500 a year per head is making when there's an average of 15 students in a class, and around 20 classes at the school.
I also took notice of the vast cultural differences that took place in the workplace. In China, for instance, 'the Boss is King', or Queen. It's custom to follow orders and just accept things the way they are no matter how difficult and sometimes nonsensical a task or situation may be. Most of my colleagues rarely directly challenged or questioned anything coming from the top administration, which was completely different from my experience in the States.
I also noticed that lots of information that should be discussed privately was often talked about openly in front of everyone, and loudly at that. Items such as financial concerns, staff disputes, and administrative mismanagement were all subject to being shouted out across the office.
I'd be wrong to say that these things happen everywhere in the China, but I've certainly seen them occur throughout many office environments in different cities even until this day.
Nevertheless, one thing we always did was make sure to laugh and have fun, and that was something I always appreciated.
In the Classroom
My first classroom experiences as an ESL teacher in China started off rocky but turned out great. The foreign teacher that initially sat in on my interview had left prior to my arrival and because the company was short on staff I was thrown into his classes barely 3 days after I landed. Oh boy.
I taught children ages 3-12 English phonetic sounds, vocabulary, and grammar using a whiteboard, flashcards, and props in average class sizes of 15 students. This training center’s system required less reading and writing and focused more on using creative games to teach content. Each class had 2 lessons a week for a total of about 4 hours. I'd teach half of that time while a Chinese teacher taught the other.
And just how did I specifically teach English without speaking the local language? Well, for phonics we identified letters of the alphabet, their individual sounds, and common sounds formed when letters are grouped together, like er, sh, and oo. Likewise, I'd use flashcards, props, roleplaying, and physical action to introduce vocabulary, and chants and songs to keep students engaged while familiarizing themselves with new words.
To teach grammar, I'd also use those tools, plus I'd review and practice answers first, such as "My name is ...," and then combine them with questions, i.e. "What's your name?" Those were just some of the basic steps we'd use to introduce English to our students. Again, it was way easier than I imagined.
By the way, as for my Chinese ESL students, they were a blast. Each day they arrived fairly well behaved and eager to learn. There were no cell phones used in the class, no bullying or talking down on one another, no talking back to the teacher--it was just a bunch of kids being kids.
One thing I did notice, however, was that their English skills varied from the Korean students of the same age that I taught before.
What do I mean? When answering basic English questions many of the students could only provide the same structured responses they learned from their books. Ask "How are you?", for instance, and you'd receive a very static, "I'm fine, thank you. And you?," each and every time. But ask "What did you do this weekend?," a question that requires a bit of expansion, and they'd come up empty.
Of course, I quickly learned that it all boiled down to the type of language training environment. By the time students graduated from our center they were able to speak English pretty fluently, so I realized that the school's curriculum just required more time on fundamentals and structure before allowing for improvisation.
Living in China
Yeah, work was fun but I definitely had way more of a blast traveling around and getting to know China. After all, this was the best benefit that came with being an ESL teacher and it's something I still take advantage of until this day.
I made epic trips to nearby cities such as Shanghai, Suzhou, Wuxi, and Hangzhou. I explored temples, Buddhist statues, scenic spots, and popular tourist destinations.
I ate Chinese cuisine like hotpot and street barbecue, partied at KTVs, engaged the locals in cultural exchange, and made friends with people from every corner of the globe.
What's more, those articles covering China's astonishing growth were spot on. I discovered that China was equipped with the world's largest high-speed train network, towering skyscrapers, Miami-beach type high-rise apartments, and massive shopping centers. As a matter of fact, it felt like they were building something new on just about every street corner.
Outside of trains, cars and buses, popular methods of getting around were by way of electric scooter and public bike sharing systems.
As for the people, everyone had a smart phone, everyone was on the move, and everyone was contributing to one of the most robust economies I had ever been in.
I was experiencing China up close and personally. Not through some blog, magazine or movie; I was actually there, and it was my journey as an ESL teacher that allowed me to gain a new perspective on the country I knew so little about. I’d come along way from dreaming about all this during my college days, don't you think?
All That Glitters Isn't Gold ...
On the flip side, sure I was having the time of my life, but I won't sit here and tell you that everything was peachy. At the end of the day I was still adjusting to a country that sat on the opposite end of the world, which meant there were plenty of times where I had problems communicating with locals, making new friends, adapting to the climate, and the whole woodworks.
I found out that in some areas China was more different from the West than I thought. There were, and still are, only about 2 English channels on basic TV and one of them played the news 24/7. Popular social networking apps and media sites such as Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter were blocked by China's Great Firewall and I'd have to pay for a VPN in order to access them.
Drivers in China were completely reckless and there was just as much of a lack of enforcement of the rules to keep things in check. And lastly, I encountered many people that were, well, lacking in manners and etiquette. I got stared at, called "wai gouren", or "foreigner", and had my photo taken without my permission plenty of times. There was a lot of cutting in lines, loud talking in public places, and invasions of personal space.
Yes, adapting had been very challenging at times, but the new experience of living and teaching abroad in China definitely kept me curious, entertained, and optimistic enough to cope with any obstacles or annoyances.
Over the next few months I'd continue traveling, learning about and experiencing Chinese culture and traditions, making new friends, and developing more at work.
The longer I stayed, the more I became comfortable, and my time living and working as an English teacher in China would only get better.