“Live a life you will remember” has been Achraf Bakirou’s personal motto for years, and through his experience, he is following it to the letter.
Achraf Bakirou is a 24-year-old Moroccan originally from Casablanca, who currently lives and works as an English language teacher in Zhengzhou, a city in China’s Henan province. Coincidence, opportunity, then perseverance led to what he describes as “a real-life adventure and an authentic experience.”
Achraf’s journey began right after he obtained his bachelor’s degree in English Studies from the University of Moulay Ismail in Meknes. While many students opted for postgraduate studies, he had a different vision in mind. He decided that his life as a student had come to its conclusion, and that a new phase beckoned him.
“I simply wanted to take a break from studies and just focus on something that is challenging. Well continuing my studies would have been also a challenging task to me, but not the kind of challenging task that I would go for.” In short, he says, “I wanted to get out of my comfort zone.”
Here was the turning point in Achraf’s journey. He decided to move back to Casablanca in search of work, much like so many young Moroccans. What was different, in his case, was that his ambitions went beyond the average job with the average salary in the economic capital of Morocco. Seeds of a daring idea had already taken root in his mind way earlier.
A thought, a plan, and a path to China
“The idea started to ferment in my head four years ago when I came across some random videos on YouTube about teaching English abroad,” Achraf says. “At first I was aiming at seeking a teaching job position in South Korea, but it was a bit difficult to get hired, since most schools require native English speakers.”
From casually browsing the internet, a plan began to gradually take shape. Achraf set his sights towards China as the site for his next adventure.
It would be a bold move, as all such moves appear far fetched at first. While there are people who would confine themselves to the realm of hopes and dreams, Achraf was determined to pull his idea out into the real world, but not without a measure of healthy skepticism.
“2017 was the year when I decided to pave my own path to China. However at the time, I hadn’t fully embraced the idea of teaching abroad. I did not want to raise my hopes up, since at first it was only a dream and I didn’t have a clear plan with prior studies and expectations yet.”
Achraf took the first steps in a long process of trial and error. He searched arduously for opportunities, gathering information about living conditions in different locations in China and the prerequisites he needed to fulfill in order to land a job there. Then he proceeded to contact agencies and schools, and went through a series of tests and interviews.
It was not easy, but it paid off in the end. Achraf managed to secure his place as a Moroccan teacher of English in China through patience and persistence. “After all, we all need that implanted spark of ambition and will that gives us a reason to accomplish things,” he affirms.
The young Moroccan teacher arrives in China at last
There are moments in life that remain engraved in our memories, moments we carry with us forever. For Achraf, that was the first time he set foot in Beijing. “April 29th, 2019 was my first night in China, as soon as I arrived I lit up a cigarette, and God it was a good one. I smoked it to its last puff, and I usually smoke to enjoy such remarkable moments and memorialize them,” Achraf reminisces.
This was another juncture in the journey, characterized by what Achraf describes as a “pretty authentic” sense of pride. He realized that what he worked hard for was no longer a mere fantasy. His reception made the experience even more special. Achraf remembers that as soon as security officers checked his credentials and made sure they were genuine, they used the few English words they knew to show their appreciation and thank him for his service to their country.
Moroccan teacher Achraf Bakirou takes a souvenir photo with police officers in China.
“Moroccans here have built for themselves a reputation for being honest, hardworking, and respectable,” Achraf says. “Despite not being native speakers of English, we tend to have a good accent, which is highly desired when teaching English in China,” he continues. Achraf felt warmly welcomed as a new member of a community of instructors in Zhengzhou, the capital city of Henan province.
As a teacher, Achraf never misses a chance to introduce the Moroccan culture into the activities of his classes in China. He does so through music, dance, and even the use of some Moroccan Arabic, or Darija, with his pupils. However, he feels his distance from Morocco.
Culture shock is a normal side effect of leaving one’s home. “There are times when I miss simple stuff that I took for granted, olive oil, Moroccan tea, my mother’s cooking… and it’s especially hard on holidays, Eid al-Fitr and al-Adha,” Achraf admits. “Otherwise I manage through various activities, and remembering that every moment is worth living the experience.”
On the plus side, he gets to enjoy night walks in peace, which he did not expect. “I was a bit paranoid at first, thinking that if I go out for a walk at night I might get mugged, but it has never happened to me here in China, actually it is totally the opposite.”
Quarantine in a foreign land
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the world by surprise. Nobody would have predicted the situation we live in today, no matter how prepared they thought they were.
For someone living abroad, circumstances can be even more difficult. Being away from one’s family, worrying about friends and loved ones back home, and the constant feeling of uncertainty urged many Moroccans residing in China to race to book flights towards Morocco. Achraf was not one of them.
“It was a hell of an experience. I stayed for two months in my apartment all by myself. I had to buy and stock loads of food and goods to survive. My apartment was located within a residential community, and we were not allowed to go out under any circumstances,” Achraf explains.
It was during these trying times that language barriers proved to be a real issue. “If we needed to get groceries we had to call a number and ask to get our weekly needs, but most people we had to call speak only Mandarin, and so I had to practice the language.
“The number of cases was increasing at an alarming pace every day. Honestly, I was not petrified, since… you know, I’ve always wanted to experience this kind of situation, like in post-apocalyptic movies,” he says jokingly. “But seriously, at one point, I almost lost it though.”
Now that the situation is less severe in China and with fewer movement restrictions, Achraf is back to the old habits of his new life in Zhengzhou, Henan. The young Moroccan teacher is making the best out of his spare time to further explore the marvels of China’s culture and discover new places, food, customs, and more.