When I was offered a position teaching English in China, I was immediately interested. I had traveled outside of the US before, but living in a different country had always been something I had wanted to do. When I was nonchalantly offered a plane ticket to one of the biggest cities in the world by my US boss, I felt that something life-changing had just fallen into my lap and it would become the biggest mistake of my life if I rejected the offer. I remember sitting at my dinner table, signing the contract, and my dad saying, “So, you’re really going?” In my blind and spontaneous haste I said, “YES!” and scribbled my name.
I knew nothing about the Chinese language (I thought every character represented a letter in the Latin alphabet), visa requirements to live and work in a foreign country, or remotely anything about daily life in China. I had spoken to a couple new colleagues for several months prior to my departure from the US, but none of their pretentious wisdom could have prepared me. All I knew was that I was a fan of Chinese food, different cultures, and was ready for an adventure after being stuck in the stale and stagnant economy of the US.
So, my advice to you after being in the system for a year…Before you even sign your contract, research updated visa requirements to live and work abroad in China. While the Chinese system can be pretty fishy and easy to maneuver if you have enough guanxi, or a solid network of influence, it will save you a lot of trouble and worry if you are clear with your new employers about what you expect in regards to a visa. I was very unfamiliar with visa requirements to work abroad, so when I first learned that I would not be receiving the proper visa after I arrived in China, I felt duped. When I received an email from someone within the company warning me that I was no longer allowed to go outside for recess with my students in fear of the police seeing me, I felt angry. I was a person very far from home, and I felt lied to, betrayed, and frankly, in danger.
After I arrived in China, I was allowed three days to overcome jet lag, organize my new apartment, and explore my new digs. I felt like I was in a dream and it was all very exciting, as I’m sure it will be for you! I have to remind myself that while I do often feel like I’m on a grand vacation from life, I have a responsibility here, and that responsibility can be taken away from me if I don’t perform the way I promised, similar to any job anywhere in the world. I am a local tourist and it is great! However, I’m allowed to be a local tourist because I spend eight hours a day working to afford it. In other words, it’s important to remember this could be the best thing for your career, so take advantage of it.
Finally, anyone who tells you that teaching non-English speakers is easy is not giving you the whole story. Trying to communicate with 20 five-year-olds who don’t speak the same language as you can be torture if you let it get to you. It’s necessary to remember that you are important in the classroom and you serve a vital role. You are helping people from a different culture learn a language – a language that connects humans all across the world!
So, on the days (which are frequent) that I feel that I am getting nowhere with my children, I take a step back and take it easy with them. I find that doing something as simple as reviewing words or phrases that we already know boosts their confidence in their own abilities, which is the first step in introducing new material and helping them learn more. On days when I want to run screaming to the airport, I remember how lucky I am to be having this opportunity and how fondly I’ll remember it when my time in China has come and gone.
The most important thing I’ve learned in China is to not take my failures so hard or to criticize myself too much. It takes a lot of courage and an adventurous disposition to do what we do. You’ll find that kind of fearlessness in nearly everyone you meet in China, and I can guarantee it will make up for any of your bad days!