(The following advise has been offered by many who have gone to China before us…with the goal of preparing us for the work ahead. I thought many who are following our efforts would enjoy seeing some of it).
- Teaching English is a JOB. Prepare for it and treat it as such. This work can be very stressful, but it gets easier after the first semester.
- Respect the school and the Chinese teachers. Try to get to know the other teachers in your department. Send gifts, make meals, or plan activities so you can socialize with them.
- Be willing to go above and beyond for your students because your love for them will impress them more than anything else. Go on class picnics, be willing to judge speech competitions, and invite them to be a part of your life.
- Encourage your students. It is amazing what a few kind words can do. Most of them seldom hear “I am proud of you” or “You are smart” from parents or other teachers. In my opinion, students also perform better when encouraged.
- If your suitcases are heavier than the airline allows, pay the extra money and take what you have packed anyway. When you are thousands of miles away from home, you will be glad you brought those extra things, and $50 isn’t much in the long run. And if you’re already overweight, you might as well go as overweight as they will let you if you already have to pay the $150 anyway. (We can check two bags each free on Cathay Pacific Airways…$150 for each one after that).
- Two words: warm clothes. Especially socks.
- You’re not in college anymore. Staying up too late at night and sleeping until noon on the weekends will not help you. You’re no good to anyone, especially your students, if you are always tired.
- If you decide to get your haircut (girls), take a student with you! Take your bossiest student with the best English. If you try to tell the stylist what you want by yourself, they will think you are just a strange foreigner who doesn’t know what she really wants. Be assertive, unless you want a haircut from the 80s.
- I would have mailed more stuff to us like winter clothes and treats instead of carrying it all.
- We were told to bring snacks and comfort food like cheese and crackers and instant oatmeal for the first few days. That was a very good thing.
- We also would buy a few extra sandwiches at KFC and freeze them. This was before we learned how to eat out by ourselves. Learn the names of dishes as soon as you can so you can eat out without help.
- One thing that we did was save one pair of socks and one pair of underwear that had been washed and dried with fabric softener. We saved them all year and did not wear them until the day we left.
- Be prepared that the beds are very hard. We put several comforters under our sheet, but we got used to the bed.
- In Western countries we have a much different idea of personal space than in Eastern countries. We stand apart when we talk, we give each other plenty of room on the couch, we only enter the personal space of people we know. Yet, in Asian countries, the sheer numbers of people make that impossible. I can remember being so uncomfortable at first when walking with other female teachers or students and they would take my arm so that we could walk close together and talk or getting on a crowded bus where you don’t even need to hold onto the rails because the press of bodies will keep you from falling over. There are so many people and it is so common to bump into people that no one even apologizes or says “Excuse me” and it is not considered rude to physically push someone out of your way on the bus or in the grocery store without so much as a glance in their direction. It was difficult to learn not to be offended when someone shoved me or banged my knee with their shopping bags and didn’t apologize.
- Your first few weeks in China keep you trapped in confusion; you try to understand people’s body language and who you can trust to help you. You try to find out where you can get the basic necessities; you figure out which restaurants cook food the way you like it. Because of the administrative system here, you’re not complete on the details of your teaching. You’re trying to guess patterns of life and custom.
- At first there is a “high” because everything is so exciting and different. Then there is a time of almost depression and tears–“Are you sure You want me here” “Am I nuts to come here?” “Just want to go home….,” etc. Then, all becomes OK. You learn to live in the culture, you can find your way around, you get used to the food, and the CROWDS and the lack of private space.
Display of Emotion
- Chinese show their emotions in completely different environments. If they gash a finger or turn an ankle, they won’t show much pain. They will accept the blood or pain with a detached resignation and go on with life as if they’re too much aware of the rest of the world to [notice] their own problem. They show their emotion to friends, usually in loud conversation; there is no such thing as an “inside voice.” A dispute is settled by who can talk the fastest and who looks most angered. The customer is not always right here.
- “Have I mentioned the habit of most Chinese to just throw their trash on the ground? Yep. If you are eating an ice cream as you walk down the street and finish, feel free to go ahead and just throw the wrapper on the sidewalk. Do you have a stuffy nose? Well, when you finish with that kleenex, just toss it to the ground. It’s the street sweeper’s job to clean it up anyway.”
Too Much Honesty
- I love China. Have I mentioned that our two cultures are really different? They are. It’s funny sometimes. The other day I was walking home from class. I saw a student. We chewed the fat. And the fat was mostly good…until she paused mid-sentence, stared at my face, leaned in for a closer look, and pointed at the mother of all pimples (which resided on my face)…then she ‘innocently’ asked, “What’s that?” I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry or run away. I chose to respond with “What are you talking about?” pretending like I wasn’t growing another head on the right side of my face. This only prolonged the misery and brought her finger within biting range. I broke down and called it “a zit”. She said, “Oh, okay” and kept talking. She just learned a new vocab word. And I learned something about the culture (and humility). Yeah, I live in China now. And I love it.
The Most Important Thing About Clothing
- People wear what to the Western eye are strange things—plaids with polka dots, pajamas in public and other things like that are a normal sight on the streets. But the most important thing about the outfit are the shoes. Are they clean?
Time Scheduling Frustrations
- First we are told one thing, and then, after we have made plans and commitments, we are told something different. I expressed my frustration to our foreign affairs liaison and explained that it sure would help if we could know a month or two ahead what is going on so we could make plans. She said in China people don’t make plans that far ahead! So we have discovered!
- Many Chinese people have never met a person from another country, so the only Westerners they see are on TV. If they do happen to see one on the street, there is no end to the staring and whispering! This sort of behavior has actually decreased over the past few years, so it’s not as bad as it used to be, but I can still tell stories of visiting a Kung Fu temple and having a line of 4 parents with babies and cameras… each of them wanted me to hold their baby and pose for a photo!
You Know You’re in Good Hands…
- People who had visited China told me to expect “a sea of bicycles.” How quaint! Bicycles, in my mind, summoned an image of tranquil, noise-free recreation, and city streets that were gentle and humane. Such was my innocence. Then I arrived among one-quarter of the world’s population and discovered, to my terror, that at any given moment, as I moved about the streets, this sea of bicycles seemed to be coming directly at me. Not only bicycles, but trucks, busses, taxis, push carts, bicycle carts, and the occasional BMW or 4×4 — a chaotic flood of fast-moving traffic that must make New York City seem languid by comparison.
- As I sat in the back seat of the taxi with Mr. Yang, the first thing I discovered about traffic in China is: there are no rules. It is every man for himself! The simple act of crossing a busy Chinese street is one of the first challenges to greet a traveler from overseas. It isn’t only the sheer numbers of people and machines, but the fact that no one seems to obey the traffic rules that we in the West take for granted. A red light, for example, indicates that SOME vehicles will come to a stop SOME of the time — but don’t bet your life on it. Nor does anyone stay in orderly lanes, or always drive on the right side of the street. Bicycles and motorcycles are often moving AGAINST the flow of traffic, and even cars will occasionally zip along quite merrily where you least expect to see them.
- Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of Chinese traffic is that cars do not slow down for mere human beings who happen to be in the way in the middle of a busy intersection. This is a country where drivers use their horns rather than their brakes, and you had better get out of the way. Not even the sidewalks are a safe refuge, since people park their cars here and often seem to think of sidewalks as a convenient extra lane. There is some comfort in the fact that there are heavy fines to pay if you actually mow down a foreigner — so if you are a blonde or a redhead, flaunt it. Wave you hair like a flag. It may save your life.
- English—an ability you developed simply because you were born in North America. Here (in China) you are an expert on the subject. People on the street want to say hello to you, usually because it’s the only English they know. Some people reply to “how are you?” with “how are you?”
- Of those who do have some ability to communicate in your mother tongue, you’ll find all kinds of people bidding for your time—they want you to define obscure words, they want to know what is the word for this or that situation at the instant you draw a blank (or maybe there is no word that fits), they want you to converse with a group of students, they want you to give a lecture in front of 200 children. The most exhausting demands come when you’ve slipped back to your four walls of solitude (be it ever so humble) and find your phone ringing with more requests and strangers knocking at your door. It was easy for them to find you; they just wandered around campus asking where the laowai (respected foreigners) are. The locals stare.
- They watch you shop and want to know what you buy and how much you pay. You bargain most places you go, and sometimes the price doubles or triples as soon as they see your face. They want to know how you live, whether you put your pants on one leg at a time. In a country with few bathroom stalls, I wonder exactly how much I’m being watched sometimes.
- With the curiosity there often comes some respect. Businesses near the school consider you a part of the community, and will take care of you. I think it’s a mark of honor for them to receive your patronage. They go out of their way to make you comfortable. Even though you can’t understand them, there’s a look about them that shows they care.
- You may be tempted to feel powerful and influential until you remember the amount of pity you rely on each day—you need help shopping, you need help traveling, you need help ordering some foods, you need help finding the bathroom sometimes. All these people need you to help them improve their poor English, but you need their translating skills to survive. You remember that you’re in a culture that believes westerners say “thank you” too much, and you try to say thank you the best way you can. You visit with those who intrude on your privacy. You give that 1-hour lecture in the village 2 hours away. You learn humility.
- I am losing weight here. My guess would be the five mammoth flights of stairs I must ascend to get to my apartment and the five flights I must climb to get to my classroom a few million times have something to do with my misplaced pounds. I’ll let you know if I find them.
- I have one pair of pants that I used to be embarrassed to wear because the pant legs are too short. I look like I’m preparing for a flood when I wear them – or at least, that used to be the case. Those jeans hang so low on me these days that they drag the ground. I’m constantly having to pull them up. It’s annoying.
- I was at Metro (the Chinese Wal Mart) with a Chinese friend when I finally caved in and bought a belt. I wanted to put it on immediately because my pants were really getting on my nerves, so I pulled it out of my shopping bag and went to work. Elizabeth looked at me and asked if I would like to go to the toilet. I asked her why and she looked around before saying, “This is a public place.”
- Before I tell you my reply to that statement, I must tell you a little of what I see every day here in China. Modesty is not that common. I’ve seen a woman hike up her skirt to her waist while walking down the street so that she could adjust her pantyhose. I’ve seen people take off their clothes in the middle of a store so they can try an item on without the extra padding. I’ve seen skirt-wearing women throw caution to the wind and sit however they please, flashing anyone near enough to be that unlucky. I finished putting on my belt right where I was.
What I Learned…
- I hope that I am able to readily remember all of the things that He has taught me here. Here, He has seemed so much bigger than He ever has before. I never knew how wonderful it is to be so helpless. He is so faithful, caring, and loving. He provides all that I need and more. I think sometimes back home I would get so caught up in everything that I overlooked those things. I did not depend on Him for absolutely every need. I truly am desperate for more of Him every day. I am asking Him to keep me just as dependent on Him when I return as I am now. I am so in love with Him! I love this family! I love my entire life revolving around my Father’s business. I hope that never changes.
- I probably have never described a hole-in-the-wall restaurant for you, have I? Usually such an establishment has three or four squatty tables with pink plastic stools for seats. The air is usually full of cigarette smoke, and the other patrons are talking as loudly as they can in Chinese. I think the Chinese “inside voice” and the Chinese “outside voice” operate at the same decibel level. Ha.
- Outside, near the entrance, there may be a large wok and an open fire where the chef works under a heavy, striped, plastic awning. Beside the wok there is often a row of shelves where the vegetables are kept in multicolored plastic drainers. And, for the best part, there may be a long wooden table where the meat, in all its glorious rawness, is laid so guests can point to their animal flesh of choice. Often you can see huge open-eyed, open-mouthed fish heads, slimy pink squids, marbly sides of beef and pork, and various pink organs, such as livers. Yummy, huh? If you aren’t careful and look too close, you can really lose your appetite, believe me.
- Something China has taught me: I have learned to be more tolerant of the bad things around me. I have learned that having patience really is a virtue. If I lose patience I lose a good mood and I lose the purpose for being here. I have learned that I can really do more than I ever imagined. I have had to learn to be my own plumber. I have learned to be my own repairwoman. I have learned to be TRULY independent. I feel I am dependent on certain things like some language barriers, but I have learned to do most things on my own. Doing things on my own, of course, does not mean totally on my own. I have had to depend totally on my Father still and His words. I know that things go better when I totally give things to Him and when I trust Him fully to help me through. China has taught me many, many good life lessons.
Chinese Dorm Life
- Students pay about $75 a YEAR for their dorm rooms, and they think that is too much! Right before I left I visited some of the girls’ dorm rooms. The juniors live in the oldest building on campus and have seven in one room. They occasionally have mice in their rooms. The sophomore girls live in a new dorm and have 11 girls in one room. In all cases, the bathrooms are down the hall and the showers are in a separate building, where they have to pay twenty cents for each shower. The girls in the old building don’t have electricity during the day, so on cloudy days it’s hard for them to see inside. All dorms have their power cut at 11 pm. My students aren’t allowed to have computers in their rooms, or almost any other kind of electrical device except for a radio or tape player. The fuses would blow if they used a hair dryer.
- The students live 6-8 people in a dorm room about the size of most regular bedrooms in the States. No heaters are allowed because of the fire hazard, so the only means of warmth at night is the blankets around them and the body heat of their roommates. Many of the students sleep with a hot water bottle beside them at night. They say it keeps you warm long enough to fall asleep but many of the students sleep very restless nights. A few of my students have even come to class with hands that are bright red, swollen and cracked. They look terrible. The first time I saw it, I thought the girl had been burnt in a cooking accident or something. Turns out it is mild frostbite. And of course, they don’t have hot water in their rooms to bathe or wash their hair in. We constantly see students carrying their two metal buckets of water up to their dorm rooms [from a central hot-water location] for all their basic needs. I would guess most students have no more than five sets of clothes. And if they did have more, where would they put them?
- Be flexible in all things. The Chinese always talk about “WE”. You are now somewhat part of that so called “WE”. Disorder, as we would define it as Americans is all around you. I have found myself saying “Why would you do this or that, that way.” We heard the advice but did not listen, do not bring a lot of clothes, bring food and books!
- Decide in advance how you will handle confrontation about the WORK, so you are not caught unprepared. In a moment where you may be asked to stand up for TRUTH, you want to be prepared culturally and spiritually. Spend time with your students. Beware the foreign bubble. Understand that it is okay to say no. Eventually, you will learn to distinguish between time spent with Chinese that advances the work, and time spent that does not serve the greater purpose, and ends up taking up valuable time and energy. I wasted a lot of time on activities and people that I should have been able to know were not for the WORK, and know I missed some great opportunities because of that busy schedule.
- For the women (especially those who like to cook and spend a lot of time in the kitchen), bring more kitchen appliances/utensils, such as a mixer, pastry cutter, food brush, waffle maker, etc. Or, you can just bring a bunch of extra money and buy some of them at Metro. Bring more board and card games. You’re gonna have bad China days. Hold on to the Father, hide yourself away for a day, and watch an American movie/TV show and eat some American food. You’ll get through it!
Chinese Bamboo Tree
- You take a little seed, plant it, water it, and fertilize it for a whole year, and nothing happens.
- The second year you water and fertilize it, and nothing happens.
The third year you water it and fertilize it, and nothing happens. How discouraging this becomes!
- The fourth year you water it and fertilize it, and nothing happens. This is very frustrating.
- The fifth year you continue to water and fertilize the seed and then sometime during the fifth year, the Chinese bamboo tree sprouts and grows ninety feet in six weeks!
- In the Kingdom, we prepare the soil, sow seeds, water, and fertilize. But only God gives the increase in His time. Patience is a very important virtue in Chinese ministry.