Published on:
February 23, 2018

by: Tom

Reflecting on my first few months in China, Guest Post by Zeena in Hangzhou


We’re pleased to introduce our newest guest blogger, Zeena Starbuck! She’s from the UK, a graduate of the University of Exeter and is currently teaching at a Middle School in Hangzhou, as part of the Teach China Graduate Program. Over the coming weeks she’ll share her experiences of living, travelling and teaching in China…

We’re pleased to introduce our newest guest blogger, Zeena Starbuck! She’s from the US, a graduate of the University of Exeter and is currently teaching at a Middle School in Hangzhou, as part of the Teach China Graduate Program. Over the coming weeks she’ll share her experiences of living, travelling and teaching in China…

My parents were shocked when they visited their ever wandering child in her newfound home. It was not the stinky tofu or the duck carcasses outside my apartment complex, nor was it the anecdotes of my students who declared their desire to be assassins. Descriptions and actualities of life in China did little to phase them. However, when I picked them up from Shanghai HongQiao station and swiftly proceeded to order them coffees in Chinese with (relative) confidence, that was it. What was the most surprising to them, and even to me, was not anything about my life in China itself, but that I had settled so comfortably into it.

Yet two weeks after the ‘big move’, I was a far cry from the excited and interested teacher I had hoped to be. I remember going to the citizen center park in Hangzhou after my first week of classes and collapsing on a bench, feeling numb and defeated by how little joy and life I felt. How could I have been so stupid, to move to a country where I could not even say hello correctly, to think I could control and relate to over 540 students who could not understand me, to hope that I would find a place in a community that I could not even communicate with? The lights in Hangzhou did not glisten in the night like I remembered, but flashed and hurt my eyes. 14 days down, only 351 to go.

In hindsight, it is so clear what was wrong, yet perhaps the summer humidity made my self-reflection too hazy. I moved to China in an attempt to regain an old feeling of joy that I thought I lost, and to stall my ‘real life’ for a year. I did not put in the work in to pave my own way in my job or make a home for myself – I looked towards the expiry date and hoped for some external factor to somehow make me enjoy it all. I would repeat a mantra of ‘it’s only temporary’ whenever anything was hard: my classes speak over me? They’re numbered. My students don’t respect me? They won’t be my students forever. My peers don’t understand me? I won’t remember them in 5 years. My house feels like a prison? It’s not my home. I could not expect to enjoy my time in China, to find fulfillment and joy in my work and life, if I was walking directly towards to exit. I am entirely embarrassed remembering how easy I was to brush any possibilities of learning mandarin aside. Given, this is still something I am grappling with as I continue to be too shy and awkward to speak the language and step too far out of my comfort zone, but progressing with this is part of the experience I had hoped for.

Certainly, if they had come to visit earlier, a very different girl would have greeted them, if she could even have figured out how to get to the train station. Counting down the days until the end of her contract, using her 3-word mandarin vocabulary, and never discussing work in fear of expressing what a failure she felt as a teacher, I was more lost than ever during my first weeks in Hangzhou. Little things like getting the metro the wrong way, having to rely on translation apps to speak to my colleagues, and ordering chicken feet instead of, well, any other part of the chicken, made me feel like I had failed at living abroad. So what changed? It wasn’t a sudden taste for chicken feet, that’s for sure, but rather a change in how I saw my place in my newfound home. Naturally, every person who moves abroad to any country has their own story to tell. I want to specify that this post does not speak on behalf of anyone but myself, and is based solely on my experiences as an individual.

For me, moving to China was a natural and logical choice. I did an exchange year in Seoul, South Korea, as part of my degree, during which I travelled around East Asia and fell I love with every place I went to, including China. The lights in an evening Hangzhou street, the glistening snow in Nanjing, the hospitality of my friend and her family in the south, the history and the food and the sheer wonder of being in a new place, China took its place firmly in the rose-tinted corner of my memories. From the moment I stepped back onto land in England after my year abroad, I always felt a pull from the rest of the world. My family is dotted across continents, and while I certainly have a home and some (albeit confusing) identities, never have I felt truly rooted to one place as an adult. When I realized that I was in no way ready to do a masters or go one step down a career path, it seemed almost simple that the best thing to do was teach in the part of the world that I had loved so much. Just like that, I went from being a directionless History and International Relations graduate, to a Middle School Teacher in Hangzhou.

If you asked me for a turning point in my mindset, what made me go from temporary vision to just making the most of my present situation, I could not tell you. Sometimes you just need to be in a certain place and make it past a few hurdles to just figure it out. Maybe it was the first time I successfully ordered coffee without any use of English, or when one of my eighth grade students in a particularly naughty class came to the office to just chat about how much she loved my classes. I started doing extra activities like going to movie nights with other expats, helping my students in their English production of Beauty and the Beast after school, and going for hikes around the city during my free time. I still hated my house, so instead of compromising for ‘only a year’ I actively sought a change, moving to a new place where I immediately felt happier and more at home. I bought a bike, proceeded to get into an accident, and survived my first Chinese hospital experience. I started to teach myself mandarian and found interest in just drawing characters during my spare time. Things just turned around because I started living, through the good and the bad, and becoming involved in an ordinary day to day life. Furthermore, I saw my day to day as just that – not a temporary exercise in ‘expating’, but just living.

My time in China has been wonderful, but it is not extraordinary or special by any means – I’ve done for myself what anyone moving abroad would do. I’ve settled down, focused on my job, and made a home for myself. That I’ve done it as a foreigner does not make it any simple than that. I am painfully aware of certain privileges and placements in this society, and I would be naive to ignore how they have impacted my ease in settling down here, but that I can discuss in another post. For me as an individual, give my background and reasons for moving, it was finding interest and passion in the simple everyday things that made this life the most meaningful for me, and made me confident and comfortable in my own surroundings. I moved to China thinking it would somehow place me on my path, only to realize that the path isn’t there yet – I’m paving it as I go, every day, and that alone is joyful enough. Plus, nothing is more fun than knowing you have taught yourself enough to Chinese to make friends with a on a hike who screams ‘妈妈你看!为国人!’ by shouting back ‘你看!中国人!’


 Zeena is a middle school oral English teacher in Hangzhou and former Exeter University (UK) student of History and International Relations. When she’s not busy writing blog posts or editorial pieces for anyone who will have her, or accidentally reporting about earthquakes on national television, you will find her teaching herself Mandarin and reading books on social studies, American foreign policy, and the Gulf War in one of Hangzhou’s many cafes!


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