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Movie lover. Growing Capoeirista. Space enthusiast. Dedicated craftsman. And best of all, homegrown Los Angeles native. Wait, how in the hell did I end up in China!?
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I’ve been nearly 4 months removed from my awesome 7½ year experience teaching English abroad in China, but even now, I still find myself reminiscing on the incredible journey I’ve had living and working overseas.
Not only had I got the chance to fully immerse myself into another culture, meet and make friends with people from every corner of the globe, and work with kids, but it’s also allotted me the opportunity to travel and see parts of the world I never even imagined I’d step foot in.
Yeah, it was that good. Nevertheless, at the same time, you should know that I’ve also spent plenty of hours reflecting on things I could’ve done differently—those ideas I should’ve implemented, opportunities I should’ve taken, and trips I should’ve made. Ah, if only I could go back in time and change a few things!
And while I draw up some schematics for a time machine, how about you go ahead and check out my list of the top 10 things I regret not doing while teaching English abroad in China.
I Should’ve Traveled More
Look, I traveled plenty when I taught English abroad. Actually, I’d say it was one of the most important benefits that I took full advantage of while living in China.
Not only did I go on adventures far and wide across the country, but I also took trips to neighboring regions like Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and Singapore, and to distant countries that included Dubai and Australia.
But at the end of the day, there’s part of me that still wishes I traveled more. That in 7 years teaching English in China I should’ve visited all the countries in South Asia, like the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia to name a few.
Often times I got lazy about planning trips or just so caught up in thinking too much about where to go during the holidays that I wound up going nowhere at all.
That’s where you have to say, “Fuck it.” Tell those thoughts to shut the hell up and just go. Whether solo or with a group, planned or spontaneous, just ... fucking ... go. And actually, that’s exactly what I did during the summer of 2018—5 major trips over 3 months—but looking back, every month should of been like that.
So, don’t miss out on the opportunities. Take full advantage of traveling across the world while teaching English abroad!
I Stayed Too Long at Stupid Jobs
I actually only worked 4 ESL jobs during my 7.5 year stint teaching in China. My first ESL job? I loved it so much that I stayed for 4 years.
The next? By the 4th month I realized I hated it. The management sucked, teachers quit left and right, and there really wasn’t that much team bonding, something I guess I was spoiled with from my first job.
I should have just quit and broke my contract, but I stayed just to be … nice and a professional. At the end of the day, though? It’s not worth staying at an ESL school if you’re not happy or it doesn’t meet most of your expectations to have a great experience teaching overseas.
There was another ESL job I had issues with, and I wound up staying for that one too. Big mistake.
Get out while you can, if you can. I know it’ll probably be difficult to terminate your contract considering how much power the school has over your visa, but if you can get away with it, do it!
I Didn’t Send More Money Home
I was prepping to leave China for good, and one of the main things I couldn’t help but think about was that I should’ve saved more money, and, sent more money home. For an unexpected situation to arise (I'll save that post for another day) I was stable enough, but I wish I’d taken better care of my finances.
All that money spent on Sherpa’s and Wai Mai (fast food delivery), for instance, could’ve stayed in my pocket. I could’ve spent less on booze and clothes purchases off Taobao.
Rather, from Day 1 of my arrival into China I should’ve been putting more of my salary into a bank account back in the States and letting it build up over the years.
That money I could use for emergencies, or a fallback plan, and as a cushion for whenever I planned to finally say goodbye to the ESL world and head back home.
Find time, make the effort, and send chunks of your money back home!
I Didn’t Learn More of the Language
I studied Mandarin like crazy during my first year in China. By my 2nd year, I still used some apps and CD software to up my game, but that’s the time I also began to focus on expanding my blog, Don’s ESL Adventure.
Instead of studying, I’d spend my free time writing, taking photos, and editing videos.
Until now, I always say that I can speak ‘travelers Chinese,’ meaning that you can drop me anywhere in China and I feel comfortable enough using what intermediate-Mandarin-I-know to get me home.
But that’s not enough. I wish I could’ve learned more, practiced more, and built my skills to speak fluently, especially having lived in China for as long as I did.
Even though I’m back in the States now, it’d be nice to speak Mandarin to Chinese that I encounter, or just show off to my friends, and even hold fluent conversations upon my eventual return to the Mainland.
But hey, maybe I’ll still have the chance to make that happen! Why not?
I Didn’t Get to Teach Adults
I love working with kids. Over the years I taught 2-15 year ESL students in China, but I never taught adults. And actually, I never cared to, but I wish I did.
Not only would it have been an interesting challenge, but teaching English to adults would have been great for socializing and networking.
My friends that taught ESL to adults often gloated about dating their students, being gifted everything from gift cards to cool tech, earning extra money teaching outside of class, being invited to lavish dinners and nights out on their student’s tab, and have even been recruited to well paying jobs.
To think—I had turned down plenty of offers to do private tutoring with some of my student’s parents. Smh.
I Never Worked at an International School
I did part time jobs at an international school, but never did any full-time work.
Teaching as a career was never my intention when making my decision to teach English abroad. I wanted to work as little as possible, with just as little responsibilities on the job, while earning a decent paycheck and spending the majority of my time hanging out, immersing myself into the culture, exploring China, and traveling across the world. That was all possible by teaching at English training centers.
At international schools, I could earn a fatter salary with longer vacations that included summer and winter breaks, but at a cost. I’d have to teach classes of 40+ students, create the syllabus, grade homework, tests, and quizzes, constantly meet with parents, and engage students in much more of a tedious format than I wanted.
Yeah, I didn’t want to do any of that shit, but I could have. I should have. In fact, that was my next step had I stayed longer in China.
With my teaching experience, at that point, making the sacrifice to perform those tasks wasn’t that big of a deal if it came with a significant bump in pay and more time to take on adventures around the globe. You feel me?
I Should’ve Used More of My Foreign Privilege
If you don’t know, I’ll be the first to tell you that being a foreigner in China has its privileges. Heck, I’ve experienced and witnessed it myself.
From local corporations hiring foreigners just to show up at conferences and panels to make their company appear more international, to getting away with sneaking on trains just because you’re the clueless outsider that couldn’t understand what to do.
And that’s it: I should have taken more advantage of all those benefits.
During my 1st year in China, I was able to ‘star’ in scene for a TV series about IP man. Turns out they needed 3 foreigners cheering on an American boxer duking it out with a young IP man in a bar setup as a fight club. My friends and I answered the call, got some decent onscreen time, and even made a few hundred RMB in the process. Now that was fun.
I should’ve hopped on more opportunities just like that. I could have joined a casting agency and been that foreigner in tourism videos, commercials, and movies, even if I was just an extra laowai face needed in the background.
Fun chances like that are readily available throughout China, and though they’re not always the easiest to find unless you’re connected, an unforgettable 'laowai privilege' experience would have surely been worth the effort it’d take to land the opportunity.
I Didn’t Sit in on a Live Taping of a TV Show
Alright, so, before finding out I had to leave China, I’d already setup a bucket list of fun things I wanted to see and experience over the next few months.
I’d set out on a few adventures exploring the tallest and grandest statues across the country, for example.
I’d finally travel to popular regions in the West like Tibet, Xinjiang, and Urumqi.
Plus, I’d plan to attend a live taping of a local TV show in China. Nah, not a sitcom or anything, but rather a dance/singing/talent show such as ‘The Voice of China’ or ‘The Rap of China.’
Hell, even if I didn’t understand what they were saying, that was the kind of cultural immersion experience that I loved. Forgot the bars and partying all the time—something I noticed most expats in Shanghai are all about—I was more interested in going on unique adventures and experiencing China as much as I could, and a TV show taping would’ve been one of many cool ways to do so.
I Didn’t Start a Business
It was my 2nd year in China. I lived in Kunshan, a small 3rd tier city belonging to Jiangsu Province. Given its very minuscule expat population, the city didn’t have many activities, shops, or hangout areas catered to foreigners. And with that, I saw a void and made plans, in my head at least, to jump in on a golden opportunity.
I figured it’d be nice to setup a store that sold western food products, clothing, and necessities. It’d be full of items expats needed desperately and reminded them of home. Not bad, right? I even took a trip to Yiwu, the world’s largest wholesale market, to see what I could find.
Somewhere down the line, though, I just got ... turned off from it all. To be honest, I encountered a few rude and obnoxious nuggets along the way, and it completely shattered that dream.
But this was China—home of cheap goods and services. If the right item was found to sell back at home, it’d be the place that could turn you into an ‘overnight’ millionaire.
I could’ve spent more time searching for that precious gold and selling it back home to be sold on Amazon or Ebay.
Hell, I could’ve even done the opposite. How about gathering up some products in the States and selling it in China?
Damnit. Maybe I’d be much richer if I followed through!
I Fell Out with the Homies
Oh man, how I fell out badly with the homies while teaching English in China.
I remember it clearly: Steady contact during the first 2.5 years—mostly via calls, social media, and messaging apps—but then afterwards? Well, conversations went something like this:
Don: “How come you haven’t responded?”
Family / Homies: “Oh, I needed space on my phone so I deleted Wechat.”
Ouch. I also got this one, twice:
Family / Homies: “You’re the only person I talk to on this Wechat thing so I deleted it.”
Double ouch. Or how about:
Family / Homies: “I saw your photos and videos so I just figured you were good,”
... and the notorious ...
Family / Homies: “There’s a time difference so I didn’t respond (for 2 weeks!).”
Hey, it happens. I was a long ways from home, at least 12 hours ahead in the day from the US’ East Coast, and living in a completely different environment that my friends back at home knew zilch about.
Plus, the longer I stayed in China, the less communication I received, and the more I wound up having to interact with family and friends through their comments, pictures, and videos versus actual human-to-human contact.
And as they made gains in their careers, earned Master’s degrees, traveled, got married, had kids, or became homeowners, I just had to accept the fallouts and missing out on being there for those significant life changes.
So, what would I have done differently? Well, simple—I’d have made more of an active effort to keep in touch, and bugged them more about staying connected. That means using anything from FaceTime, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Wechat, SKYPE, Twitter, and Snapchat, to emails, phone calls, group chats, and calling cards to stay fully updated and engaged.
Honestly, this is one of the biggest mistakes I made teaching English abroad. I know plenty of other teachers and expats that could relate, too. So, if you are currently overseas and ‘living it up,’ just make sure to keep that line of communication open and consistent with your family and homies.
In the End ...
So I know what you’re thinking: “Don, from the looks of it, you lived it up teaching English abroad. You had a fantastic experience that others will never get the chance to have. Why all the regrets?”
And I couldn’t agree more. I had the time of my life living and working in China, but as I reflect on my crazy adventure overseas, there will always be some things I wish I could have done differently.
Most importantly, I hope that you, reader, whether a current ESL teacher, expat, or tourist in China, can learn from my ‘mistakes’ so that you can take full advantage of your own experience in the Middle Kingdom and leave without any regrets.
Safe & happy travels!
Travel Blogger. ESL Teacher. Optimistic Millennial Adventurer! -->