What were your expectations for the year prior to leaving the UK? Did the experience match your expectations?
Having very little idea what I wanted to do with my life I decided to come to China to fulfil two of my desires after leaving University. The first was to learn a 3rd language (I am a French and Spanish graduate), and the second was to be able to do some travelling without having to earn money by temping in Britain for 6 months.
Before I left I must admit I was massively ignorant of Chinese culture, in fact, I knew almost nothing except that it was a big country, with lots and lots of people, and that now would be a fascinating time to live here. I was expecting a dramatically different culture in which it would be a real challenge to live.
The first thing I think I noticed (admittedly more so in Shanghai than elsewhere) is the incredibly rapid development that is going on in this country. I must say that this was actually a bit of a disappointment; apart from the food and the language it felt like I had been in Shanghai a week before really experiencing what I thought was Chinese culture. However, many of my preconceptions have come true. It is a massive country and it is striking that even on trains in rural China you rarely go half a minute without seeing someone working in the fields in the middle of nowhere. There are people around in cities at all times of the day. This led to something I did not expect about China – I feel safer here than anywhere else I have been. There really are very few people out to rip you off or steal from you compared to many other places.
What is your accommodation like?
My accommodation is good; 2 fair sized rooms with one shower, a double bed, a TV, internet and a communal kitchen. It is warm and I spend a lot of my time here. Also good for me (especially as I have an 8am start Monday-Friday and am bad in the mornings) is that it is in the school, in the teachers block. However my school is a long way from the town centre where most of my friends live which makes it hard to do things in the evening as I have to get a bus home at 10 30. And leads me to staying at my friends’ houses at the weekends. I can get everything I need around here though – there are lots of Uni’s, restaurants and small supermarkets and even a roller-skating rink (they didn’t have a clue what was happening when 15 slightly drunk foreigners turned up).
What kind or relationship do you have with your students, colleagues and mentor teacher?
I have a very friendly relationship with my students, they approach me outside of class and I play football, tennis and ping pong with them as well as teaching those who want Spanish. The Ping Pong table is me and my friend’s unofficial English Corner. They are very interested to talk outside of class, often more than in class, and are especially interested in whether I have a Chinese girlfriend yet. There are lots of teachers at my school and 7 foreign teachers so I spend most of my time with them. I know a few of the Chinese teachers better, like my mentor teacher but I wish I could speak more Chinese to talk to them more. The other thing that is different is that without the drinking culture it can be a little difficult to ask someone to do something to get to know them (you have to start liking milk tea). Plus they all work more hours than we do.
What materials would you recommend other assistants take with them to help with their lessons?
Taboo if you’ve got it, maps, pictures of your home as they will be fascinated. Magazines can be really useful if you can think of ways of using them more than once. Music, though they don’t like most of mine.
How have you got to know people socially (both Chinese and other ex-pats)?
I have been very lucky, my school has more than 7 foreign teachers and the city has a lot of other expats and most importantly for me, a rugby team. It has been a great way to meet some fantastic friends from all over and the standard means any new friends can come and try it too. I’ve met lots of people on nights out too and friends of friends.
As for Chinese friends, I often got attacked on the bus by various very keen English learners who will get your number from you (you have no choice) and I tried to do some language exchanges which worked for making friends, the problem is as an English teacher (and them as a student) it is difficult to spend equal time on your Chinese, most of the conversation ends up being in English.
What have you found to be the major cultural differences? Have you made any cultural faux- pas?
There are so many cultural differences, I guess the one that has made the biggest impact on me is the way the students are treated. There is so much pressure for them to do well, and they get absolutely no free time it seems, and it’s something which I feel stifles creativity so is something I try to get out of them in class. Whenever I ask about their weekend they never did anything exciting, only homework and this, in comparison to my half hour a night when I was their age, is a shock. Also, it is hard work sometimes to meet new people in China, without the rush to social venues like pubs and clubs and with their work ethic it can be hard to meet people.
As for faux-pas, probably, but while respecting Chinese culture I try to educate them about British culture as so many of them are completely naïve as to how we live.
What places did you visit during your placement and how did you travel around?
So far I’ve been to Beijing for the Paralympics, Hainan in October Festival, Suzhou, Tianjin and then in Spring Festival I went to Chengdu in Sichuan, Guilin and Yangshuo in Guangxi and then to Yunnan for Dali, Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge. I have loved everywhere but Tiger Leaping Gorge was probably the highlight along with climbing Emei Shan in Sichuan and the Pandas in Chengdu. Travelled by plane, train and bus. Hard sleeper on the train is the best way to travel, giving you time to do stuff and to see the country in comfort while in with the Chinese people who will try and talk to you.
What essential items could you not buy? (Particularly medical products/toiletries and food)?
So far nothing except Branston Pickle that I deem essential. Proper bread and Cheese are hard to get hold of, you have to go to a major supermarket but if you’re in the centre then no problem. I miss sausages but my school serves a 12 RMB steak which makes me happy.
How did you access the Internet?
Everywhere in my school, my room has it as do the classrooms and my office.
Have you taken Chinese lessons? How did you set this up?
I have 2 hours a week, the school set something up but all the students (foreign teachers) were of different levels so I wasn’t getting very far. I found someone in an ex-pat magazine for 50 RMB an hour that is good; you can get a cheaper rate than that if you try. It is worth it definitely, it makes things easier and your experience more enjoyable as you can joke and amaze the Chinese people, though sometimes ‘ni hao’ is enough for that.
What advantages may you have over other graduates when applying for future jobs?
Knowledge of another (massively used) language, albeit limited. Evidence you can get by where it is not easy to do so in a culture so different. Finally, China is already a huge economic power and I have experience living there and knowing how things work there.
What piece of advice would you offer to future applicants?
Don’t waste time when you get here. First, get out and about in town and you will find other ex-pats easily if you want to. Secondly, I took ages to sort myself out with Chinese lessons. Don’t waste time before organising that or any language exchanges. They are a great idea and will benefit you more the longer you are doing them. Finally, never think you are bigger than spicy food, especially in Sichuan, always order a bowl of non spicy soup or you may end up not eating very much and with a painful mouth!