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5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to China to Teach English
Written by: Amanda Barrows
Last Updated: January 13, 2021
After having lived in China for nearly a year, I wish I could have known what I know now. Yet, I realize that no amount of research or preparation could have possibly prepared me for the obstacles I would face during my year in China. I had to struggle to learn how to cope with said obstacles when abroad. Looking back, I am deeply thankful. All of these experiences, adventures and misadventures have culminated in an amazing time. The formula for an incredible year abroad is no secret: it’s all a matter of perspective and seeing struggle as a way to grow. Approach this journey with an open mind and the ability to stand resolute against obstacles and adversity. You will emerge all the more wise and will create memories to last a lifetime.
No matter where we are in the world or in life, there are bound to be struggles which come our way. Today, I’m going to expose 5 themes which represent my key struggles during the year. I hope that you all can learn from my anecdotes and can carry some of my advice into your lives abroad.
Moving around quite a bit makes being in a lasting relationship difficult. Yet, somehow the potential of me moving away never got in the way of my dating experience abroad in the past. I always approach(ed) dating abroad with an open mind and believe that love surpasses language and culture. However, in China, I have found the approach to be a bit different.
My initial experience was that Chinese men are looking for life partners and typically don’t ‘date around’ as we do in the West. Ergo, a first date might entail the questions, “Do you plan to live in China?” “Would you ever marry a Chinese?” “Do you want to have children” and on one occasion “Would you consider marrying me?” Mind you, this is all happening on the FIRST date! It was a bit overwhelming for me from the start. I respect cultural traditions, but was caught a bit off guard by such direct questions. Although these questions are typical in the Chinese dating scene, I didn’t feel ready for such a commitment and was quite honest about where I stood.
My Chinese language instructor actually gave me the best dating advice. She had lived her life in Germany for many years and had a well-rounded perspective on the matter. She told me, “You need to find someone with experience abroad who is not so traditional and can understand your struggle.”
On this count, she was absolutely right. Living abroad changes a person. No matter where I am in the world, I need to be with someone who has lived some of my struggles and can understand me culturally. I stopped trying to date people who had no experience abroad and widened my scope. I am now happily in a committed relationship with someone who has had experience abroad.
My advice for dating in China: Know what you are looking for in a partner and act accordingly.
2. Learning Hanzi: the Chinese characters
Upon arriving in China, I knew nothing regarding the Chinese language, so I immediately endeavored to study Mandarin and studied fervently for at least 20 minutes every day. Within my first week, I had signed up for a group class. After 3 months, I started a private class for more intensive study. After 6 months, I was speaking at an intermediate level. It was an intense level of language learning on a journey to fluency. I felt great about my progress; however, I realized that a key component of Mandarin was often missing from my oral classes: Hanzi.
I was told to study the characters on my own and only upon starting preparation for the HSK 3 test—standardized test of Mandarin proficiency—did I seriously start to memorize characters. In the long-run, learning characters is crucial in daily life. It was a disservice to myself not to learn hanzi earlier in my language experience and learning the characters has been akin to re-learning the language.
However, I am thankful for the jump start I received in my oral Mandarin skills. It gave me the confidence to get around in daily life and to have meaningful conversations. Learning characters is building the foundation for a sustainable life abroad where I am able to read, write, book transport in Mandarin and to communicate clearly and efficiently.
My advice for learning hanzi in China: It’s never too late to start. Sign up for a class or find a tutor and create language learning goals for yourself. It helps to have a language community for motivation. Learn to recognize the hanzi whilst learning oral language. It will make your language learning experience more well-rounded and will empower you as an ex-pat in China.
3. The Chinese Workplace
Working in China has been a rewarding experience, but it can also be a bit of a challenge to navigate at times. Living and working here has taught me to be more assertive about my needs, but willing to compromise.
When it comes to working in a training center, there are times when the policies of my company come into conflict with my health. I might be sick and asked to work regardless. However, I have learned to stand by my principles and to get a doctor’s note when necessary. I owe it to myself and to my students to be in good health. There will be times when employers may try to cut corners, but always remember you are well within your rights to simply say, “No.”
It may feel uncomfortable at times and there may be some repercussion to being ill. (ie: Make-up classes in the summer or docked pay). However, you are your best advocate and there is no need to put your life at risk for a policy which bends your limitations and health.
My advice for navigating the Chinese workplace: You are your best advocate. Know how to compromise and be assertive about your needs and health.
4. Find ways to connect with friends and family at home
Living on different sides of the world, it’s easy to get caught up in daily routines and lose touch. During my initial months in China, I was so caught up in adjustment and my routine that I seldom contacted friends and family at home. My VPN refused to work for a while and I fell into a bit of a slump. When I did message friends and family the possibility of video chats was clouded by time zones, schedule conflicts and the business of daily life.
I wanted to make a change, so I started arranging Skype appointments to chat with friends and family. I heard more from friends and felt more connected. I noted that it’s important to have a solid plan and commitment to keeping an appointment when trying to stay in touch with family and friends. By marking a Skype on my calendar, I always keep my appointments and make a habit of keeping in touch.
My advice for staying in touch: Make a plan. Have clear communication and strive for consistency!
5. Enjoy your time abroad
This concluding point seems like a no-brainer. However, in my personal experience, it’s easy to forget. In daily life, it can be typical to get weighed down by daily tasks, to dos and the logistical responsibilities of one’s work. There were some days when I lost sight of what I wanted from my China experience. To counteract this, I began to write out my goals on paper and learned to celebrate the smallest of victories.
The culmination of my first year in China was traveling China by myself without speaking a word of English. Language served as a window to local Chinese traditions and enabled me to bridge a gap of language and cultures. I was able to appreciate the landscape, the history and to understand the cultural traditions, which live on in modern day China.
Travel immensely helped my adjustment and always boosted my mood, motivation and instilled in me a greater appreciation for my city. Pursuing my passion of travel while living in China has given me more perspective on the world and a greater love of China and of its people.
For this reason, I encourage all ex-pats to find community and perspective. Pursue your passions! Your experience abroad will have its ups and downs, but don’t let the foreignness of your environment stump your curiosity or your hobbies. The more time you can put into self-development, friendship and hobbies, the better balance you will have in your experience abroad.
My advice for a fulfilling time abroad: Climb that mountain, raft that river, visit coffee shops and local establishments! Create a China Bucket List! Tour UNESCO heritage sites and lose yourself in the beauty that is China.
Upon graduating from College in 2014, Amanda received her TEFL certification from International TEFL Academy and began teaching English in France. A few years later, and a Fulbright grant under her belt, she went on to teach English in South Korea, and then Suzhou, China, where she became one of our 2018 Alumni Content & Writing Ambassadors.
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