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16 Months – My Life as an English Teacher in China (Part I)

Name: Chad Heater

Current City: Xi’an

Country of Origin: USA

Years of EFL Experience: 2

Native Language: English

Chinese Level: Beginner

This story isn’t meant to discourage future teachers considering positions in China. Nor is it meant to inspire prospective teachers to jump in head first into one of the most foreign cultures for a Westerner (which was my case). This is nothing more than the story of my experience working and living in China for 16 months.

The Beginning

Tired of the monotony of the traditional nine to five American workweek, I felt like I needed a change in my life. The account I had been working on at my company was closing and I was in a state of limbo; in the following weeks I needed to interview with different departments and find a new account to work on.


One of my best friends for over 20 years had been living in China teaching English. We exchanged emails, IMs and even Skyped about it. He told me how awesome and rewarding the entire experience was. I had worked with kids in the past and received a degree in English, so I decided this was the next step in my journey of life. My friend was flying home for the summer and I was to return with him to Xi’an at the end of August. I was incredibly excited! He emailed me the paperwork and I interviewed for the position. Within days I was sending my passport in and filing out the proper paperwork to get my Chinese visa.


My friend helped me with some pointers on how to run a classroom, what was expected of me, and what I could expect from teaching. Once I got my passport back with my new visa and booked my plane ticket, the thought of moving to a new country on the other side of the world began to sink in. The week before, all I could think about was one thing: China. I had taken Chinese history courses in college and learned about the many different dynasties and some of the current obstacles China is facing as a whole. I loved watching kung fu movies and the BBC production Wild China, so naturally I thought this would give me some pretty good perspective on what I was getting into. Upon typing these words, I am actually laughing out loud, realizing with a bit of hindsight that I knew nothing, absolutely NOTHING, about China.

Day One


The first thing I noticed upon arrival was the dust. It felt like we were in the middle of the desert with the thick clouds of dust choking my lungs. But the air was also so humid; it didn’t feel like the desert. Luckily I traveled to China with my friend, because if it weren’t for him I would have been incredibly lost. We hailed a cab and he spouted our destination to the cab driver in Chinese. En route, I gazed out the window, taking in every detail of the Xi’an countryside: the rolling hills, the large rivers with exposed river beds on the edges, and the people.


Once we got closer to the city and finally on the streets, I could see people everywhere (which is expected of Xi’an since it is one of the largest cities in a country with the greatest population on Earth). As we encountered more and more traffic, our driver began whizzing between lanes and passing other cars like Mario Andretti. He chuckled and pointed an accident out to us as we flew by. Excitement and anxiety began to grow as we pulled up to the apartment complex that would be my new home for the next few weeks.

On the tiled sidewalk stood one of my new coworkers (a foreigner) and one of the teacher assistants (a Chinese woman), waiting patiently for us. I used what little Mandarin I knew to greet them politely, and they escorted us to the teaching center where we would be living temporarily.


Once we entered the building, you could immediately hear the students running around making lots of noise. The training center was a penthouse on the second floor of a 30 story building and there were numerous classrooms and desks all set up in an office setting. It was loud, it was humid, it was hot, it had a strange odor and it was filthy... It was my new home. The TA showed me to my room, which was surprisingly a decent size and modestly decorated with a full size bed and some scrolls hanging from the walls. I set my luggage down and asked where the bathroom was, which was across the hall. (This is where that strange odor was coming from!) I soon discovered that this was the communal bathroom for the entire training center – nothing like sharing a toilet with over 100 students!


But my attitude remained positive, I kept telling myself that this was all part of the great adventure of living in China, and truly, it was. To really learn about a country and a culture, you not only need complete emersion, but also possess an open mind. You’ve got to take the good with the bad and just roll with it. It was better than sitting in a cubicle for eight hours a day, that’s for sure, and I was experiencing something that I had never experienced before; that was enough to make happy.


Once I relieved myself from the long trip and got my luggage in my room, it was time to try the local food. The expat I had met out front of the building turned out to be one of the head teachers, a British guy named Dungy, and he led us to his favorite eatery. As we left the apartment and crossed a busy street, there seemed to be restaurants everywhere. The fancier ones had big store fronts and large vases lining the inside of the window. The smaller noodle shops were jammed with locals slurping long slimy noodles from their steaming bowls. There was also a plethora of street stalls selling everything from dumplings to meat kebabs. We went to a restaurant that was for some reason hotter inside than it was outside – all I could think of was getting an ice cold bottle of water, slamming it, then ordering another. Instead we were brought steaming noodle broth. That’s when I learned one of the first cultural differences: the Chinese prefer drinking hot water no matter the climate or season. Again, this was all part of the journey.


I was excited because this was going to be my first taste of authentic Chinese food (after living in that part of town for over a year I came to realize this restaurant was subpar compared to the other restaurants in the area). We ordered rice, tomatoes with fried egg, fish, and some sautéed vegetables. The tomato/egg dish was great and something I eventually learned was a staple of a lot of Chinese cuisine.


During lunch I was informed that we would be driving to the school that I was to teach at to meet the principal and head of the English department. They also informed me that I may have to teach a demo class to show off my skill (which at the time I really didn’t have much “skill”). I was already dripping in sweat from the blanket humidity, and after hearing this my pores opened like the flood gates at the Three Gorges Dam and released a tsunami of sweat from my skin. We headed back to the training center and I changed into a pair of slacks and a nice collared shirt, then went back to the busy street to hail a cab. The four of us piled in and began zooming towards my future work environment. As we pulled up to the school I could not believe the size of it. It was larger than my high school and it was only a primary school!


After making it past security we went to the administration department for a meeting with my future employers. It was here that I learned I’d be teaching the following morning. I wasn’t sure what my options were or if there were any options. I was jet lagged, exhausted, overwhelmed, hot, sticky and being told that I was going to be teaching several classes consisting of 50 students the next morning at 8:00. It was a Thursday and I was hoping that I would at least have the weekend to get acclimated to my new environment. Now, I’ve always viewed myself as a team player and was willing to help people out when they needed it. Plus I didn’t want to complain because I thought it’d be good to step up, be responsible and be as accommodating as possible (all of these attitudes and positive mentalities were greatly challenged during the rest of my time in Xi’an). So whether I had a choice in the matter or not, I told them that I was excited and could not wait to get started. We got our materials, said our goodbyes, and hopped back in the cab. My stomach was in knots and I couldn’t tell whether it was from the meeting, starting the job within 24 hours of landing, or the food I had just eaten (it was probably a combo of all three!). We returned to the training center, which was free of students and staff (luckily), and I was able to unpack and, more importantly, rinse off the crystallized salts fossilized on my skin from the sweat caused by the scorching, busy day.


A Chinese shower is different than any other shower I’ve taken. I didn’t notice at first that the communal bathroom was also where I was supposed to shower. It can be difficult cleaning oneself in something as filthy as that bathroom, but I managed to leave the disgusting room with a feeling of being refreshed. Finally I was able to sit down, compute everything I had experienced that day and talk to my friend about what was going on. I told him about how nervous I was about the classes the following morning, but he reassured me that everything would be cool.


Having been teaching at that school for a semester already, he gave me some pointers with my lesson planning and helped put my mind at ease. He told me that in order for us to arrive at school on time, we’d have to catch the bus at around 6:30 in the morning. As if my internal clock wasn’t already messed up, this new schedule was going to take quite a while to get used to. I soon retired to my room and fell onto the bed. I am used to sleeping on a rather soft mattress, but I quickly learned another cultural difference: Chinese mattresses are rather firm. It took a couple of minutes to get used to it, but I quickly drifted off thinking about the events that transpired that day, what events were going to unfold the next day, and the life I left behind on the other side of the world.


It was then that it truly hit me: I had successfully shed the traditional American workweek by crossing the International Date Line, and exchanged it for the modern Chinese workweek. Instead of working for five days a week, I was working for six. Instead of having two bosses, I had countless. Instead of being able to drive my car to work, I was now pushing and shoving to find one square foot of open room on a packed public bus. And it was these difficult but fascinating experiences that I would later find make China a one-of-a-kind experience.

To be continued.

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