Teacher Guest Post: Life After China – How Teaching in Hangzhou Formed my Future
Zeena Starbuck graduated from Exeter University in 2017 before departing on her China journey in the city of Hangzhou. Here she reflects on her time teaching in China, and how it has informed her interests and career path.
As I sat in Hangzhou’s airport in July 2018, leaving after teaching in a middle school for one academic year, I felt a mixture of emotions. Naturally, I was sad to leave behind the life I built: my friends, my students, my favourite local places, my apartment, even my commute. However, I also felt apprehensive about the future. Had my year in Hangzhou contributed to any personal or professional growth? I had no career lined up, no job awaiting me back home, and no idea where I would be in ten years.
Almost two years have passed since I completed the Teach China Graduate Program, and the perspective I have gained on how my year in Hangzhou served me through several jobs, life decisions, and an uncertain world is clear. Teaching in Hangzhou and living independently in China developed my passions in life and work, and shaped my attitudes about the world.
Life After Graduating
After graduating from The University of Exeter with a degree in History & International Relations I had known I was passionate about global diplomacy, politics, and foreign policy. Spending my third year studying abroad in South Korea, I became more interested in East Asian politics and society, which influenced my decision to move to China in the first place. I was nervous that I would not gain any transferable skills that would help me work in politics, journalism, or pursue further education after leaving China. However, both the passive and active experiences I gained proved my doubts wrong.
Using Transferable Skills within a Political Non-Profit Project Management Role
At the end of 2018, I moved to New York City hoping to find work in the political realm as the USA, the country I was born in, approached its next Presidential Election cycle. In January of 2019, I was hired by a political non-profit, The Common Good, as Assistant Project Manager. I had never worked in a non-profit before or held a managerial position, but the work I did in China as a teacher and outside of the classroom qualified me for this position. Managing 18 classes, organizing lessons and exams, and teaching independently helped me become more organized and surprisingly, made me a good manager. I did not realize that teaching would give me so many transferable skills: delegation of tasks, public speaking, non-verbal communication, regular constructive feedback and assessment, even event planning.
Many of these skills derived from delegating educational activities, speaking in front of classes and teachers, writing and grading exams, and helping organize occasional activities for students, but they are all still transferrable to other workplaces. At The Common Good, I found myself easily adapting to hiring, training, and managing interns, helping organize public events for audiences, ensuring I was professional and patient in the office and at events, and helping provide constructive feedback both about work within the non-profit and to interns at the end of their work experiences. Without the patience I developed from teaching in a high-stress environment, organizational skills I gained while autonomously planning and delivering both lessons and exams, and professionalism I gained from working with both fellow teachers and the students’ parents, I would not have been able to work as effectively in the non-profit sector as I did.
Building Personal & CV Skills
Teaching English on its own helped build my CV and my skills, but it was also the opportunities I pursued outside of the classroom that helped me become more well-rounded individual able to work in many different sectors. While in China I took up several secondary jobs, some unpaid, all to help me become more experienced. I blogged for Opportunity China and pursued journalistic opportunities whenever I could. I helped with fact-checking for several websites and wrote some freelance articles, and when I was stuck in an earthquake over the Spring Festival break I called the BBC to provide details about what was happening, eventually appearing on TV as an eyewitness. I took up a job working as a proofreader and editor for a local firm and participated in various language exchange programs. At the time, I sought out most of these experiences just to stay busy and keep myself entertained. However, they too were vital in helping me pursue later jobs.
Having multiple jobs on my CV and different things to show from my time in China made me an attractive candidate for all the jobs I have had since I left Hangzhou. My experience in writing and proofreading helped me at The Common Good, where I was responsible for writing event descriptions, e-mails, conceptualizing content for our website, and proofreading all material we sent out. It also helped me secure jobs as a QA Specialist for a translation company and various other freelance opportunities. However, the initiative and organization behind pursuing different lines of work in China impressed my peers and employers. That I was teaching, writing, travelling, learning Mandarin, and living in a new country by myself shows huge amounts of responsibility and proactiveness. Anytime someone said they were looking for a self-starter, I knew I was what they were looking for.
The transferrable skills I gained through work, most of which I only became aware of after leaving China, have been vital in helping me find jobs. However, they were not the most important skills I gained in China and certainly were not the most formative in helping me find what my true passions and are whist work I want to pursue in the future.
Broadening Perspective through Learning Mandarin
In Hangzhou, I worked towards becoming a more internationally minded person who can work more thoughtfully when dealing with international affairs and foreign policy. I sought out adventures and experiences that would help me learn more about local cultures, customs, histories, and perceptions of the world. Living in Hangzhou I was, often without realizing, developing my passion for international histories, societies, and politics. One of the main drivers of this was learning Mandarin. I was determined to speak and read Mandarin well enough so I could have real conversations with my students, neighbours, and anyone who would talk to me. I did not want to limit my experiences to ‘translated China’, which closes you off from so much of the country.
Once I was confident in my language skills, my life in China changed. I could connect better with my students and learn more about their opinions of the world. I could read signs and posters and understand how the cities around me operated. I could confidently try new foods and drinks, finally certain I was not ordering chicken feet as I did on my first night in Hangzhou. Plus, by understanding the structures of Mandarin grammar, the way people speak to each other, and how things are communicated differently to my native language, I gained a more nuanced appreciation for the world around me. You cannot project English values upon a foreign country, and you cannot expect a foreign language to have the same tones and formalities as your own. If you do this, you close yourself off to learning the intricacies underlining social customs and relationships. I knew I would never fully assimilate into China as a white foreigner, I tried my best to listen, learn, and not pass value judgements on anything based on my own home country and cultural understandings.
Most teachers will Travel around China and visit museums, temples, castles, and other cultural sights to gain some excitement in their life. However, all these activities also engaged me with a nuanced understanding of not just Chinese history, culture, and society, but how China wishes its history, culture, and society to be viewed by foreigners. A country’s perception of itself will differ vastly from how others perceive it, which creates dual understandings of global evens and can create tension in international politics. I gained a better understanding not just of how China views itself, but how it views the rest of the world. Speaking to my students about their opinions on the USA and UK, reading new interpretations of historical events from the Opium Wars to the invention of umbrellas, and just engaging in discussions about the world with people from different walks of life helped my understanding broaden. Without realizing, this greatly influenced me in wanting to pursue work in politics, education, and journalism – I wanted to insert a variety of global perspectives into the conversation and encourage less monothetic views of the world.
My Future Career Path
Ultimately, this mindset has set me up for my future career path. Working in freelance journalism and the non-profit sector, I found myself constantly frustrated by the Anglo or American centrism in events, articles, and perceptions. However, I did not feel I had enough professional or educational experience to effectively tackle this, and ultimately, decided I wanted to pursue a masters in International Affairs. Of course, I knew I wanted to continue my Mandarin studies, which I never stopped even after leaving China, and I wanted to spend more time living abroad. When applying for masters programmes, I finally saw and understood how impactful my year in Hangzhou had been. It changed the way I viewed the world and the industries I wanted to work in, helping me see the work that needs to be done in improving international politics, diplomacy, and journalism. I was honoured to be accepted into all the schools I applied to and accepted a place on the London School of Economics -PKU Dual MSc in International Affairs. If global health improves, I will be moving back to China in September, living in Beijing and studying at PKU for a year. Upon graduating, I hope to work in journalism, think tanks or NGOs to encourage engagement in localized, truly international perspectives.
Leaving Hangzhou, I was unsure how my time there would set me up for the future, but I can now see how it has shaped me into a more thoughtful, independent, open-minded, and professional individual. I planted the seeds for my current career goals in China. The skills and experiences I gained have been invaluable in helping me get to where I am now, and I am thankful every day that I decided to spend a year teaching abroad. I would never have fully developed my passion for East Asian politics and society, Chinese language, and cross-cultural communications without it. I may not know what the next ten years will bring, but I know that I am ready to continue along my path and develop even further as an individual.
Inspired by Zeena’s Teach China Graduate Program experience?
Learn more about the 2020-21 Teach China Graduate Program.