It’s crazy to think that this time last year, I had already applied to teach in China. Since then, I’ve learnt a lot that I wished I knew before, so I thought it might be helpful to people who’ve applied (or are considering to apply) to be foreign teachers in China to write this blog. This blog entry will probably be edited a lot, with new things added in, and other points being expanded on.
Here’s what you should expect:
1) Expect a complete lack of organisation. Imagine no organisation, and the chaos, the confusion (and if you’re anything like me, the irritation) you’d feel. And then multiply it by, say, 58. Maybe then you’ll get an idea of how bad it is sometimes. Don’t even expect things to make sense a lot of the time. There’s a reason why the words “Oh, China” are such a big thing for foreigners visiting the country. Just roll with it.
2) If you’re obviously a foreigner, expect stares. And lots of them. Being a White foreigner in China is the closest I’ll ever be to living in a Lynx advert. I’m surprised I haven’t caused a road accident yet, from all the stares I get from people supposedly meant to concentrate on driving, which leads me onto…
3) Chinese roads. They be crazy! A student told me a few days ago that Chinese drivers ignore traffic lights and pedestrian crossings so much is because they’re in a rush. Oh please. You’re just making excuses there. The truth is, China hasn’t had motor vehicles for a long time. They get away with crazy driving, and so crazy driving is just a regular thing. Yesterday, a woman was riding her motorbike on the pavement and was pomping at me to move, and I didn’t even flinch. I didn’t move out of her way either – after all, I was the pedestrian on the pavement. She was the naughty one. Tut tut. That, and I’m following the golden rule to survive and get around in China – be what Westerners might consider to be selfish (but in China, it’s not viewed as that – just a cultural difference here). Push your way in. Stand your ground. Unless it looks like they’re going to run you over, regardless of what the traffic light says… maybe you should move then.
4) Expect ‘No Smoking’ signs to be ignored. It sucks to be a non-smoker in China. ‘Nuf said.
5) Expect people to tell you exactly what they think. And so if by Chinese beauty standards, you’re considered ‘fat,’ they’ll tell you that you’re fat. If your hair isn’t super straight and fine like typical Chinese hair, prepare to be told that it’s messy. And they get even more bizarre – if they think you have a small head, or that your tongue is too long (SERIOUSLY, WHAT DO YOU EXPECT ME TO DO ABOUT THOSE TWO?!), they’ll tell you so. And yes, all of those have been said to me.
6) Fireworks. All the time. Everywhere.
Here’s what not to expect:
1) Don’t expect foreigners to always be treated with respect. Yes, you get respect to some extent, but prepare for people to stare at you eat for 10 solid minutes, be referred to only as ‘foreigner,*’ be laughed at if you try to speak Chinese, and be laughed at if you don’t understand them when they’re speaking at a hundred miles an hour, which leads me to my next point…
2) Don’t expect the locals of wherever you’re staying to speak slow and clear Standard Mandarin to you. I have a Lancashire accent, but it’s not like I’d say something like ‘Ey up, mi cocker. Y’alreet? Ye fancy a chippy tea?’ to anyone who’s not a native speaker of English… but my experience with a lot of Chinese people is that they’ll just talk at you super fast in their local dialect.
3) Don’t expect people to queue. Don’t even expect to be served first when you put your items on the till first. People still push in. It only took me moving to China for a year to realise just how British I am… and how wonderful queues are.
4) China Post. Just don’t expect anything sent to or from you to arrive quickly (if it arrives at all…), and here’s examples why not – Spite received a Christmas card over 2 months since it had been sent, and the same goes for a postcard I sent to my Grandma. A Christmas package sent before the guaranteed delivery date only arrived on 30th December. A letter sent after a batch of other letters has arrived, and the addressees of the former letters still haven’t received those. And finally, 3 things haven’t arrived at all so far this year.
5) Don’t expect your school to actually stick to their side of the contract. If there’s something wrong with, say, your apartment (and you were promised in your contract that you’d have suitable accommodation), you’ve got to really fight for it. Be stubborn. Chances are, they won’t sort it out the first time you tell them about it, and just say something like ‘We’ll do it later’ but do nothing. Be persistent until it’s sorted, no matter how much pestering you need to do from their lack of action. Don’t let them make you feel as if you’re the bad guy.
And here’s a few tips I wish I’d been told before applying:
1) Ask to be placed in a large city. That way, you’ll be less of a freak to the locals, and they’ll be more used to seeing foreigners and (from when I’ve visisted bigger cities), they’ll probably treat you with more respect. There might be a bit of a foreigner community there, too.
2) If you’re considering asking to be placed alone (or not giving any preference whether or not you’ll be teaching with any other foreigners), give this a lot of thought. Teaching in China won’t be easy as it is, never mind if you’re on your own. I’d have gone crazy if it weren’t for Spite and Lee.
3) This was kind of brought up, but I wish I’d paid more attention, instead of just brushing it aside and hoping it wouldn’t happen – if you have a sick family member/friend, and there’s a strong likelihood of them passing away during the year, honestly consider how this might affect your time in China. Teaching in China is a huge sacrifice as it is, and there’ll be times that you’ll struggle whatever the case. Bereavement, too, is also a process that isn’t easy, isn’t pleasant, no matter where you are. It’s a horrible thought, but imagine it happening. Imagine you hearing the news during that Skype call, you not being able to go to the funeral, you not being able to visit their grave, you not being able to properly say goodbye and you not being able to receive comfort you would otherwise be able to receive from other people who knew and loved them. It’s tough. Could you do it?
4) Have some sort of back-up plan, in case it turns out teaching in China just isn’t for you, or something happens that you need to go home, or even that your school kicks you out (this has happened to at least 2 people who applied through the same programme as me, because – shock, horror! – the school wasn’t happy with their expectation for them to stick to their side of the contract). If possible, get an open return so you can change the date of your flight back home.
5) If you’re in a smaller city, bring as much Western comfort food from back home as possible, because you might not be able to find it! In the bigger cities, you’ll probably have places like McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, etc., and supermarkets will stock foods like pasta and cheese. Also (girl talk here, discussing feminine hygiene, so anyone of a weak disposition should just skip to point 6 NOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!), I’ve looked in the bigger cities, and I haven’t been able to find any feminine hygiene products other than sanitary towels anywhere. Plan ahead!
6) Try to be patient. Many Chinese people won’t ever even leave their town, never mind the country, and so their awareness of other cultures is pretty low. Prepare to be told that anything other than noodles or rice for every meal is ‘wrong,’ and that any food that isn’t Chinese is ‘junk food.’ In fact, prepare to be told that your culture is flat out wrong, because it’s not the Chinese way. Prepare to hear just downright misinformed ‘facts’ about your own country, and for people to not accept that YOU know more about your country than they do. Be prepared for even the Chinese English teachers to interrupt your lesson, and challenge what you said, and insist that when asked, “Why?,” anglophones do say “No why,” and that ‘bus’ is pronounced ‘bass,’ ‘brother’ is pronounced ‘brather’ and ‘funny’ is pronounced… work it out yourselves. Just… try not to kill anybody, OK?
If you have any questions, or if you want to share your own experience, feel free to do so in the comments.
*To be fair, some words for ‘foreigner’ aren’t rude. However, a lot of the locals and even my students use words to mean ‘foreigner’ that do have a negative and insulting connotation.