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Reflections On 4 Years of Teaching In China In My Late 50's
Written by: Anne Cheatham
Last Updated: March 19, 2021
I recently finished my 4th and final year teaching ESL in China. Originally, my plan was to try it out for a year and see how it goes. So I’d say it went pretty well , since I stayed for four years!
Teaching in China was one of the best decisions of my life. I don’t come from a teaching background and I didn’t get into it until later in life, but it’s been the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. I wish I had started on this path long ago, but better late than never, right? I was 56 years old when I completed my International TEFL Academy Online Certification and soon thereafter left for China to teach at a top rated international school. I stayed until I was 61 and would have stayed longer if I could.
At the time I started my China teaching career, the age limit was 60 (that has now changed to 55 for women, 60 for men). I was under the age limit at the time I started, but when I ‘aged out’ at 60 my school was granted a waiver to allow me to continue teaching another year but I had to leave at 61. Sadly, with the new age limits, many wonderful teachers will not be given the chance that I had. So if you are in your 50’s, but under 55, please don’t wait! The best years of your life could still be ahead of you!
China can sometimes be a challenging place to live, but gets easier with time and a positive attitude. I had already been living and working abroad for many years in the communications and hospitality industries, so the transition might have been a little easier for me. Not to say it wasn’t a challenge. The first year was the toughest and I went through all the stages of culture shock that you read about. But I’m proud that I stuck with it, pushed myself way out of my comfort zone and came out the other side a better, more confident and independent person. And definitely a better teacher.
If you’re thinking of making the leap to teach in China, good for you! Living in any country other than your own is something I wish everyone could experience. It changes you for the better and makes you realize that people are people no matter where they are from. We all live in the same world, feel the same emotions and basically want the same things.
But different countries have different ways. My best advice is to be prepared to accept that you are living in another culture with its own way of doing things. You may not understand it, but it’s important to accept it. Some of their traditions and beliefs may seem bizarre to us Westerners, but many of these traditions have been around for thousands of years, so they are not going to change.
Remember the ‘Three A’s’, words to live by in China:
Accept that you are a visitor to another culture.
Adapt to local ways and don’t compare to how things are at home.
Appreciate the traditions and customs, because most of them are quite beautiful and meaningful.
Now that it’s been almost a year since I left China, I think about all the things I miss (and a few things I don’t miss). No place is perfect, but you learn to deal with it. Accept, Adapt and Appreciate!
Here are a few things that I don’t miss (hang with me here and don’t be discouraged, there are so many more things that I do miss).
I don’t miss...
Insane driving. Expect to be terrified on your first taxi ride. There appear to be no rules, highway lanes mean nothing, horns are blaring non-stop and red lights are just a suggestion. After a while it becomes normal and you’ll be surprised how you don’t even notice the insanity after a while.
I don’t miss...
Stares and pointing. This is something I never got used to. I have blonde hair and freckles so I stand out like a sore thumb. I was constantly stared at. People walking by would do a double take. Many wanted their pictures taken with me and would hand me their babies to hold, while smiling and nodding. The children would want to touch me to see if I was real. Taxi drivers often took my picture to add to their photo collection of foreigners. And while all this attention usually didn’t bother me all that much, it’s nice to be able to walk down the street without being stared and pointed at. It actually felt a little weird when I came home and ‘blended in’. It gave me a just a little taste of what celebrities deal with and now I get it!
I don’t miss...
Spitting. I would say all (or most) Chinese men and many of the women spit. And not just a little ‘phffft’ spit. I’m talking loud, guttural, sucked up from the lungs, big ol’ lugies! Then you’re not sure where they will spit it out, so watch out and look down!
I don’t miss...
Smog. I was located in Tianjin, which is not far from Beijing and smog was definitely present. It wasn’t every day, we did have clear blue skies sometimes and only a handful of days that looked like the horrible photos you see on the news showing China’s smog. Most days were just a little ‘hazy’ which I got used to and it really didn’t bother me health-wise. Some cities in China have better air quality, but still some amount of pollution, if not as noticeable. It’s something to keep in mind if you have any sort of respiratory issues. Air purifiers are readily available at most department stores. Lots of people put them in their apartments and my school had them in every classroom.
So what are the things that I do miss about living in China?
I really, really miss...
My kids. I taught kindergarten through Grade 3 during my four years of teaching and the sadness I felt over leaving them was gut wrenching. At one point during the last assembly at the end of the school year, I left my seat and ran to a stairwell to bawl my eyes out! I’m not saying they weren’t exasperating at times, because some of them were. Kids are kids after all, no matter where they live. But they stole my heart and I miss their hugs, their acts of kindness, their smiles, their tears, their curiosity and their hilarious antics. Chinese kids easily say ‘I love you’ and they told me this every day. Who wouldn’t miss hearing that every day? I continue to stay in touch with some of them on WeChat but it’s not the same. I can’t see them grow up and have conversations with them as their English improves. I hope I made a difference in their lives because they sure made a difference in mine. I will never forget those little monsters!
I really miss...
My friends. I made life-long friends in China that I hope will be in my life forever. I think that it takes a certain kind of person to move to a place like China, so that was common ground for us, even though we were of different ages, backgrounds and nationalities. We became family and I still think of them as family. I don’t know if this happens for everyone, but I was lucky to have made real connections with the kindest, funniest and most interesting people I have ever known. We shared experiences together that bonded us for life and that only we understand. My friends and family back home can never relate to my life in China, but my China family can. I can’t imagine these people not being in my life now and I would never have met them if I hadn’t gone to China. You never know what wonderful things are in store for you unless you take a chance.
I really miss...
Travel. When you’re in China, all of Asia is at your doorstep. I was able to travel to places I never thought I’d see in a million years. Of course, there are all the iconic sites in China such as as the Great Wall, Forbidden City, the Terra Cotta Warriors and the amazing skyline of Shanghai. But I also got to float on a bamboo raft down the Li River, kayaked in Halong Bay, Vietnam, ate pho and banh mi in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and hiked up to the rice terraces. I lounged on the beach in Thailand, went swing dancing in Hong Kong and zip lined through a jungle in Cambodia. I marveled at the ruins of Angkor Wat and hopped on a speed boat down the Mekong River. I even was able to spend two entire summers traveling through Europe. So, if you want to see the world, China is a great base. My international school included about 10 weeks of paid holidays, so I was always planning my next trip!
Next, these are some of my own random musings about funny, curious, strange and wonderful things I learned to love about living and teaching in China. The Chinese actually have some wonderful customs and traditions and, for the most part, they are very friendly, generous and fun-loving people.
Birthdays and Gift Giving
As a teacher for younger kids aged 5-9, nearly every week someone had a birthday. But in China, the birthday child gives small gifts to their friends and teachers, not the other way around. The kids were so excited to hand me and their classmates gifts of candy, handmade crafts, pencils, notepads and other goodies on THEIR birthday. Such a lovely custom. Chinese love to give gifts and you should always accept graciously, even if you don’t feel like you deserve or need the gift. Parents of my students have given me countless gifts of things like blue tooth speakers, Swarovski crystal, beautiful artwork, etc. My natural instinct is to say, “No, that’s too much, I really can’t accept that.” But that would be considered rude and insulting to the gift giver. Not that I don’t love the gifts...I do!
Styles are different around the world and China seems to have its own distinct fashion sense that’s...well, let’s just say it’s creative! They especially show off their personality in shoes, which are usually bejeweled in some way with sparkles, rhinestones or fringe. Be warned that most stores do not have large sizes. And the girls can put together quite unique outfits. A typical outfit for a young (adult) woman might be a bright yellow ballerina tutu over purple leggings, with silver platform shoes and a jacket with a cartoon character on the back. And expect to see them wear the same outfit multiple days in a row, this is very normal. The Chinese teachers I worked with usually wore the same outfit all week. Another popular fashion trend is to wear clothes with some sort of English words or letters on them. The words usually don’t make sense and sometimes are highly inappropriate. I had a kindergarten boy who carried a backpack with the word ‘PERVERT’ across it in bold orange letters. I’m sure the parents had no idea what that meant, they just liked that it had English letters on it!
I have always hated karaoke and avoided being any place where that was happening. However, in China they have taken it to a whole other level. It’s probably the #1 social activity for people of all ages. In every city in China you will see huge buildings, usually near a shopping center, with the big neon letters ‘KTV’. These buildings are the size of a hotel, several levels with individual karaoke rooms that can be rented by the hour. These rooms are outfitted with big screens for videos and lyrics, black lights, disco ball, huge leather sofas, a small stage and lots of microphones. You can purchase snacks, sodas, beer and ice on the premises and bring your own booze. I’m a terrible singer but when I was in one of these fabulous rooms with only my close personal friends, I admit that my inner rock star could not be contained! It’s a blast...don’t knock it until you try it.
The cost of eating in China is incredibly low and you can get a lot of food for very little money. My favorites are the little family- run dumpling and noodle places that make everything fresh to order for ridiculously low prices. You can watch them stretching the dough out into noodles, it’s amazing to see. Dumplings are hands down my favorite Chinese dish and I have probably eaten my weight in them over the years. Another favorite is what we call ‘Chinese BBQ’, which are tiny little restaurants usually with plastic stools outside and big glass topped refrigerators out on the street full of fresh veggies, tofu and meats. Grab a metal pan and tongs to load up whatever you want and then hand it off to the cook who seasons everything and puts it on the grill. Note that I use the word ‘meats’ loosely, most of the meat is actually some kind of animal innards or bug, but the veggies are great!
One of the first things you will notice upon arrival in China is how many children are there. You’d think after many years of a ‘one child’ policy there wouldn’t be so many kids, but there seems to be an explosion since that rule was changed to two kids per family. Everyday life seems to revolve around the children and it’s a beautiful thing to see. Grandparents dote on them, the parks are full of giggling little ones playing with their toys or just running around and being kids. Families are very close knit and most grandparents live in the home with their grandchildren and also help raise them. As the children get to school age, they are kept super busy with constant extra-curricular activities , homework and tutoring, so getting outside to play is a special and joyful treat for them.
Apartments and More Apartments
I have to laugh when I remember my very first arrival by bus many years ago from Beijing to Tianjin. It was about a 2 hour bus ride and I was anxious to see the city that would be my home. As we got closer to Tianjin, I saw a massive skyline with towering buildings and thought “That’s it, that must be downtown Tianjin!” But it was only a single apartment complex! Everyone lives in high rise apartments and you will too if you move there. These complexes are massive and they are everywhere as far as you can see. The good thing is that they usually have a nice park or green space either on the property or next to it, where the kids can play and ride their bikes and the parents and grandparents chat, play mah jong and get together for line dancing in the evenings. Each complex is sort of a community of its own.
Not speaking Chinese
Learning Mandarin is hard! Fortunately, my classes were total immersion English so I didn’t need to speak Chinese at school. But out in the world, it certainly helps if you know a little bit of Chinese. I only learned a few words, mainly how to give directions to a taxi driver to get me home. Otherwise, I used a translation app on my phone or good old fashioned sign language. A little patience and a big smile go a long way! I did learn a few specific Chinese words that would sometimes throw out at my class. Their eyes would bug out when they heard me speak Chinese. I think they were scared that maybe I understood more than I let on... and I let them think that!
Now that I’m back from China, the question that most people ask me is: “What was that like?” I have no idea how to answer that question! List every adjective you can think of and at least half of them might apply to what China is like. I think it’s a different experience for everyone, we all have our own expectations and abilities to adapt to a new lifestyle.
Teaching in China (or anywhere else in the world) is one of the best opportunities I can think of to learn another culture, travel to exotic destinations, make lifelong friends and have a positive impact on children that they will never forget. It’s not easy but if I did it, you can too.
If you can keep an open mind, don’t judge people because they think differently than you, accept that every culture has its own way of doing things and appreciate those differences, then living and teaching in China is an experience that just might change your life. For the better.
It changed mine.
Anne Cheatham is 62 and taught ESL at an international school in Tianjin, China for 4 years. Originally from Texas, Anne lived in Cozumel, Mexico for for many years, working in the tourism industry. She now travels the world house sitting and visiting friends she met around the world.
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