The grandeur imagery of red and gold silky decoration lining the cobbled streets, and the traditional dizi flute music drifting as a soundtrack to exploring the ancient cities. The cutting-edge technology of the high-speed trains and the historical wonders of the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army.
This was my cliched perception of China, before the authentic and unfiltered reality of living and working in this populous country.
I had only been teaching for a short time when I made the spontaneous decision to pack my bags and leave for 3 months in China in 2012.
One whole year later, a more confident, open-minded and compassionate individual returned after facing some of the greatest obstacles and rare opportunities of my life.
Upon arriving at my school, I was welcomed with midday fireworks, a dynamic dragon dance and a welcoming tea ceremony with the school headmaster. I was then asked to give a welcome speech in front of the primary, middle school and high school students – with no preparation time!
As I nervously walked onto the stage in what felt like slow motion, I was greeted by a sea of excited faces in perfectly formed rows. The students presented me with their morning flag raising ceremony, and I proceeded to reel off any motivational quotes I could think of.
I learnt shortly afterwards that I had introduced myself to just over 8000 people!
The challenges begin…
As the days passed and I began to meet each class, I realised that one of the biggest challenges would be adapting the lessons to cater to the sheer number of students tightly packed into one classroom – 65-70 students.
Overall, I was teaching up to 1000 learners per week, and trying to think of ways to alter any teaching games or activities to ensure every student was involved and interacting.
Often, I would find students napping behind their stack of books piled high on their desks due to the long school days Chinese students have to endure – a 6 am start with a 10 pm finish.
To tackle this and to ensure every student at least attempted to participate, I used the technique of tapping twice on the board to encourage the students to stand up the fastest. The last person up would have to answer an English question – useful for revision but also a good activity to keep the students alert!
It soon became noticeable those who really wanted to learn English, so I began running weekly social events at the school and in the village to encourage people to come along and socialise with each other in English.
These activities ranged from playground barbecues to badminton or basketball tournaments. The local media even came and interviewed me once to find out my opinion of the new phenomenon – The ‘Gangnam Style’ dance.
Not only did this experience build my confidence and ability to communicate cross-culturally, but it also helped me discover that teaching is where my passion really lies.
Variations in education
Comparing my year in a Chinese school to a British school, I noticed the difference in the time dedicated to studying, and how competitive life can be for Chinese students.
There are only a limited number of university places and there are so many students fighting for those spaces that students can often feel burdened. When students aren’t in the classroom, they’re studying in the library, with a heavy focus on preparing for the all-important university entrance exam.
The English part of this exam is purely written, so often it became difficult to get students to see the importance of spoken English and to come around to a new method of learning they had never experienced before. I saw my presence in the classroom as a tool of encouragement for them to express themselves, share their thoughts and feelings, and to talk about their worries so as not to feel weighed down with their upcoming exam.
Initially this was a foreign concept, so it took some time for the students to become accustomed to this new dynamic, and the lessons being focused around them rather than the teacher.
Outside of school, challenges and culture shocks came in many forms.
As I lived in a rural area, I was the only Westerner and sometimes even the first Westerner people had ever seen face-to-face.
This was met by many different reactions. Babies were passed to me on the bus, my doorbell constantly rang with hordes of locals giving me homemade cakes, and every single place I went the ‘paparazzi’ pursued.
At first it was endearing, and a way to experience the ‘celebrity’ lifestyle. As time went on however, it became a constant struggle even going to the local shop without people giving lingering looks or taking photos.
Having visited many other Chinese cities during my time there, I realise that the situation would have been different had I been in a large city.
I took it as being all part of the unforgettable experience that aroused my curiosity to later travel and experience other country’s customs and cultures.
You don’t know unless you try
My decision to travel to China was made within 3 days.
I therefore didn’t have time to prepare myself for many elements of daily life that would be so far removed from what I was used to. From simple things like choosing a Chinese character on a menu at random in hopes of getting something I vaguely recognised the taste of, to queuing for a bus ticket for 3 hours during the great migration of the Spring festival holiday.
I threw myself into unfamiliar situations and immersed myself in local life; making homemade noodles and learning techniques for dumpling folding, trying unknown meat dishes without question and having regular karaoke sessions with the Chinese teachers.
Living in China not only inspired me to follow my passion further down the road of the English language, but also provided me a transformative experience, understanding new perspectives, backgrounds and fostering friendships that will last a lifetime.
Spontaneous decisions don’t always end up the way you expect them to, but if you don’t take a chance, you’ll never know how life-changing something could turn out to be. Teaching and living in China is an experience I would recommend to anyone.