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The International Writers Magazine
Teaching In China

Teaching in China
Sharon Lockwood

Like many setting out to teach overseas, I abandon my Canadian way of life, traveling thousands of miles across the ocean to central China to teach English. The further from home I traveled, the more second thoughts I had, yet at the same time I knew it was the journey of a lifetime. Although I had traveled and lived in other countries around the world, I really had no expectations and no idea of what to expect.

Wuhan City

Within minutes of departing the plane in Shanghai, I realized I was in trouble. English was no longer the predominant language, my connecting flight to Wuhan was sixty miles away and I could not speak a word of Chinese. The magnitude of being in such a situation isn’t really comprehensible until you are actually in it. Taking my chances, I surrendered my trustworthy side to a complete stranger with little English. Being dragged across the terminal by the hand, running to a bank machine to dispense Y200 cash suddenly left me with the uncertainty of whether or not my decision to teach in China was a good choice. Nonetheless, she had lined up a taxi, guaranteed my timely arrival to my connecting flight, and I was whisked off at high rates of speed down the freeway.

Off the beaten track, Wuhan does not compare to large typical city settings like Hong Kong, Beijing or Shanghai filled with foreigners and tourists and I would soon learn there are pros and cons for every decision.
By far, the Chinese culture is the most fascinating I’ve encountered. Although, culture shock is so overwhelming it will make your head spin, it seems to be a huge part of its allure. For the record, traditional Chinese food is nothing North America Chinese take-out, so you may want to consider a fish and/or vegetarian diet if you plan to live in China for any length of time. It took less then one week to realize my students, who ranged in age from five to thirteen, had no interest in learning, no respect, and there was little hope of holding their attention. There will be times life becomes so frustrating, you just want to run as fast as you can to the nearest airport, jump on a plane and head home. Although an easy solution, the challenge of getting the students to learn was more appealing. Being resourceful and a quick thinker on your feet is a must.

Stepping back from the situation to observe it from another perspective helps to make the view more clear. As North Americans, we are fortunate to have the luxury of time off from a hectic day or workweek. In China, a typical day for children of any age begins very early and ends about ten in the evening with no days off. After school and on weekends, many children attend some form of English school or school for the arts, while others work for their parents. From that perspective, it doesn’t take long to change ones way of thinking, bending the rules just a little and show a little empathy. Conversely, if children know they can walk all over you, they will.

The most difficult challenge teaching in an English language school was coming up with suitable games of interest for each age group that would enable them to learn as well as retain what they learned. On the contrary, all children want to learn when we make it fun, yet in China, like in any school, there is always one class/group of students you will never reach, no matter what you do.

In the small city of nine million, finding an Internet Café and McDonalds was simple - finding English-speaking people to hang out with was almost impossible. Lizzy, a university student working at the school, was assigned to live with me for a month while my boss was out of the country. Although her English was poor, she became my voice, my traveling companion, and my friend. Having a twenty-hour workweek and one day off allowed for plenty of outings, and there were no shortage of extraordinary ones. Lizzy’s curiosity with my adventures was as fascinating as my obsession with the Chinese culture. We made a great team, and she rarely left my side once she got a taste for adventure. We were inseparable and I loved every minute of it.

I had the rare opportunity of traveling with Chinese several students, their parents and staff on a weeklong Chinese style vacation to some of the most incredible parts of North Eastern China. Places included: The Temples of Chengde, Beijing and The Great Wall, Beidaihe, Qinhuangdao and Shanhaiguan.

When it comes to foreigner teachers, the Chinese are well aware of the cultural differences. They can be your best friend and/or your worst nightmare, yet if you have something to say, say it – state your case and get on with it because for the most part, they understand and seem to respect foreigners who are straight forward and can assert themselves. Confrontation is usually brief and life resumes to normal very quickly.

Teaching and/or living in another country can be the most rewarding experience you will ever have if you are open to change. Overall, the experience was an eye opener that left me flabbergasted - a trip I will never forget. Saying good-bye was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Not only had I made an impact on so many students, my Chinese friends had become my family and I theirs, yet I knew that I would probably never see any of them again. Would I do it again? Absolutely.

A word of advice to those who want to teach overseas - do your homework. There are more bad experiences than good ones, so find teachers on the bulletin boards who ‘enjoyed’ their teaching experience. Many will gladly help you out because they have been there and know what to do.

The experience was so powerful, I wrote and published, Beyond the China Sea, a book based on my experience. It is a book that depicts life the way you will experience it if you teach in rural areas of China.

© Sharon Lockwood April 10th 2007
You can buy Sharon's book here

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