By: Jessica Stanton
So Jess, what’s next? That’s the question everyone seems to ask as soon as I’ve gotten completely comfortable with what’s now. I’ve gotten so used to saying “I don’t know” it spills out of my mouth even when I do know sometimes.
Once I decided to change careers from medical assistant turned hairstylist & bartender to teach English abroad, I knew I’d end up teaching English in China. During my online TEFL course at ITA, my cultural sensitivity essay focused on just that. What I didn’t know was that my road to the Far East would begin in South America.
My first job abroad after earning my TEFL certificate, was through a government fellowship in the amazing city of Medellín, Colombia. This was uncharted territory for me; moving to a country where I didn’t know a soul or the language? Whoa. My plan was to just test the waters of the teaching abroad sea, so in June 2016 I signed up for the shortest contract I could find: 5 months.
Surprise, surprise... I fell in love with the City of Eternal Spring soon after arriving. The landscape, the weather, the people, the music, it was all so beautiful. My students, co-teachers, and school staff were warm and inviting. Despite having to scale a mountain to get there every day, I enjoyed it so much I signed a contract for another semester.
I was literally living my best life in Medellín. I partied, made friends, loved my job, learned Spanish, and traveled throughout Colombia and Panamá. Everything was perfect, except my bank account. The salary for teachers in Colombia is break-even status. I made the most of my pesos having all of the aforementioned fun, but the inability to save was what led me to leave. I did not depart my spirit country without a fight though; I didn’t want to go! I spent months applying for online English teaching jobs to supplement my income and I finally got one...in May 2017.
When I started teaching English online with 51Talk, I was elated to be able to work from home, but I didn’t realize how long it would take to build a student base large enough to earn a decent income. I think I made $50 for the month of May, and even less in June. My last ditch effort to stay in arguably the happiest country on earth, failed. I had a farewell picnic with my Colombian students, said goodbye to friends, and reluctantly moved back to the US in July 2017.
Prior to leaving Colombia, I also began applying for teaching jobs in China. Once I made my welcome back rounds in my hometowns of Pittsburgh & Charlotte, my online teaching gig became my top priority. By August I had a lot of regular students and made about $2,000! I also accepted my current job in China that month.
The Visa Process
I was set on moving to China before I left Colombia, so I began the steps to obtain a work visa as soon as I landed on US soil; even before I accepted a position. I knew it was a lengthy process and I wanted to minimize my time in the States. Despite my diligence, my visa process was full of problems including temporarily lost paperwork during Hurricane Harvey, and the State Department incorrectly sealing my documents with North Dakota instead of North Carolina. I guess drop down menus are tricky sometimes.
Welcome to China, Finally
My contract in China was supposed to start in October 2017, but due to all of the delays with my paperwork, followed by the holidays in both countries, I didn’t arrive until March 2018. I’m so grateful I had my online teaching job to keep me afloat during that time. I was able to make my own schedule and work as often as I wanted. I even taught some classes on Christmas day while vacationing with my family at Carolina Beach.
Hello Culture Shock
Transitioning from Latin America then back to the US, then to China was not easy! I never experienced homesickness before, and the funny part was that I missed Colombia, not the USA. I would even reply in Spanish when people spoke to me in Mandarin. I was literally saying “No entiendo.” instead of “I don’t understand.” It took about a month for that to stop. Now nearly six months in, I’m appropriately saying “Ting bu dong.” Aside from the language issues, the cultural differences have been intense. Even though I read about all of these things like the spitting and staring, living it is totally different. I’m sure I will never forget the first time seeing a mom allow her child to pee freely on a subway car because diapers are not a thing here.
Some things are really awesome though, like being able to pay for everything with just a code on your phone, the low cost of living, and ease of transportation. My first electricity bill was only $7 USD. Just a few clicks on Wechat and it’s paid. That bill was for two months by the way. Rent and most utilities are billed in 2-3 month increments.
I live in Chongqing (Chong-cheeng) which is probably the biggest city you’ve never heard of. I surely hadn’t before my job offer. It’s a sprawling municipality of over 30 million people in Southwest China with a gorgeous 3D skyline, beautiful parks, atop mountains and along rivers. This place is full of photo ops and as a hobbyist photographer, I love it! ‘CQ’ is located in the Sichuan Province so the food here is spicy. It’s so spicy that the word ‘spicy’ isn’t even strong enough to describe the numbing effects of eating local dishes here. One of my proudest moments was being complimented by a noodle shop owner for being one of few Americans he’s seen finish a meal. Thankfully, there are quite a few Western style restaurants here as well. Balance.
Teenagers vs Babies
My work-life in China is drastically different. I taught mainly grade 11 English in Colombia. Here in Chongqing, I work for a training school where Chinese teachers provide the language classes and we foreign teachers conduct lessons in English through art, science, math, and world culture classes. My students range in age from 3-11. I had to adjust my teaching style by speaking slower and being a little more silly. The additional Young Learners Unit in my ITA course has definitely come in handy.
My work schedule is pretty good. I’m off on Mondays & Tuesdays and don’t go in until 2pm Wed-Fri. Saturdays & Sundays are the busiest days; I’m usually in the center from 8:30am-7pm. Unfortunately my company isn’t very giving when it comes to time off, so I’ve only been able to take one trip so far. During the Dragon Boat Festival, I went to the Chinese island of Hainan and had a great time in a city called Sanya. My salary is great here compared to the cost of living, so I was able to splurge on a stay at a resort that I’d never be able to afford in the States. It was awesome!
So, What’s Next?
I haven’t decided how long I will stay in China yet. I’m enjoying getting to know Chongqing, and learning Mandarin. Things haven’t been perfect here; I got off to a rocky start with communication issues, but focusing on my “why” allowed me to persevere. I had such a great experience with my first country, I don’t think any other place will compare to that feeling. There’s a quote by Theodore Roosevelt that I love though: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I wanted to coalesce with different cultures; have a life of rich experiences instead of expensive things. Moving to China has provided a continuation of that, without being broke in the process. Taking my TEFL course at ITA is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My advisor and the Student Affairs team have been trusted allies through all of my twists and turns for three years now. Everyday I wake up excited about what new moments of joy I will find. Another question I get often is “How’s life?” That answer is easy. Life is great!
Jessica Stanton is a 30-something Clevelander-Pittsburgher-Charlottean-Honorary Colombiana. She claims even more previous job-titles than hometowns, and has no plans to stop this trend anytime soon. You can find her sharing her adventures on Instagram, @TheJesstination & you can read more about her adventures in Colombia in: Teaching English in Medellin, Colombia: Alumni Q&A with Jessica Stanton