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What We Use in China

Six Years in China: Teacher, Student, Entrepreneur


So when Dr. Greg invited me to share my experiences and thoughts for the blog, of course, I was honored but I thought how can I briefly summarize nearly six years of my experiences in China?

It sounds simple enough but when living and teaching in China becomes who you are, trying to sum it up means taking a trip back into time through the most eventful, revealing, and inspiring periods of a life, something akin perhaps to summarizing the first years of a marriage. It was crammed full of incredible life altering experiences which are all significant and can never be forgotten. I arrived in the Middle Kingdom at the impressionable age of 21 needing to find myself. From 2001 to present and comprising much of my adult life, the experience has now come to define who I am.

My desire to come to China in fact had little to do with teaching. I was fascinated with the culture from a young age. It’s distinct style, art, and food; Hong Kong movies and Kung-Fu, the history and language, the dynasties and heroes, the vastness, diversity, unrest, rapid development, and sheer mystery of this great nation drew me in. It is experiencing a minor Golden Age, and there is a stark contrast between traditional old and cutting-edge new. I knew now was the time to be there.

At 20, I became curious about Christianity and I chose to take up residence with my pastor and theology teacher and, shortly after, began ministry training. My journey began when I decided that I could help spread the Gospel in China. I had no real formal training in education to speak of. I did however spend a school year as a T.A. in a grade six classroom, and another year teaching after my graduation from a vocational computer college where I worked as a class facilitator. My mother is a career teacher and I had often been encouraged to pursue a profession in education. Searching for a means to get there, I completed a TESOL course and became NALATIE certified as an international ESL teacher. So I thought I was set.

First Teaching Job

I was accepted by a university in Hunan, Changsha, which was seeking a foreign computer teacher. It didn’t pay much as colleges usually don’t, but I felt they offered the greatest degree of support among the many offers I received, and that was the most important consideration for me at that time. I would recommend the same as a prime criterion for all first time teachers. Working hours are also low in colleges which frees up a lot of time to explore and become adjusted.

Upon arriving in China I underwent all the typical reactions. We can all remember—or imagine and understand—the awe, curiosity, stimulation, and, of course, trepidation we all go through when entering such an alien territory. I photographed and documented everything as I progressed through all the usual stages of culture shock. The best advice I could give is to allow all that is strange and new to be absorbed without filtering or passing judgment on it through your own looking glass. The adjustment process will be much less frustrating, less annoying to others, and more rewarding this way.

Within a week I found myself in the classroom, unsure of what to expect and still recovering from jet lag. I arrived at the end of the year and luckily was placed as an assistant for the remaining few weeks. I also had three great experienced Western educators who were more than willing to take me under their wings to show me the ropes of living and teaching in a Chinese university. I was so proud to be in my position! Garbed in suits and ties every day, and being the biggest “try hard” around, I was determined to act exceedingly professional and serious about my teaching and reputation as I was by far the youngest teacher in the university. That presented an interesting challenge, because most universities in China allow all the freedom in the world to the foreigners who are very rarely audited just as long as the students are not complaining that the teacher has infringed upon those issues deemed “taboo” in China. That mentioned challenge is placed upon oneself and one’s own integrity.

Being a university teacher in China launches one into an introspective journey of self-discovery: a test of what one can summon up from within that is quite unlike what we are accustomed to back home in regard to the usual occupations. We are faced with the option of either coming to class completely unprepared and—just as Dr. Greg mentions—merely using the language we were fortunate enough to be born into to talk about any nonsensical topic or, in the alternative, demonstrating a real commitment to our students’ education by caring about their progress and future.

I’ll tell you the effort does pay off. I can’t say that I’m an exceptional teacher, comparatively average at best, because frankly I lack formal training. Nevertheless, I’ve been told and believe that I possess the spirit of an educator, as well as enthusiasm, charm and high energy which, in my opinion, is the most important attribute for teaching ESL. Your students will judge you and they will respect and admire the teacher who demonstrates they care and who applies the effort to be a professional educator and a friend both in and out of the classroom.

During my time there I taught the English majors oral English, as well as the professional computer technology course. At 22-years of age, organizing a curriculum for (in one case) a class of 25 university professors was easily the most intimidating position I have ever encountered. I spent all of my time diligently preparing lessons as I knew my efforts would reflect on me as a teacher—and so I strove for acceptance and recognition. I planned all summer to teach for 36 weeks about the inner workings of the most recent computer hardware and operating systems as well as programming in English. With printouts, multi-media, group discussions, projects, individual presentations and two examinations all prepped and verified by the department, every week was meticulously planned. Surely it wouldn’t fail.

I soon discovered that my best efforts amounted to sheer overkill when, halfway through my lecture, one professor put up his hand and asked “Can you tell us about your country?” Another asked “Can you get used to Hunan spicy food?” I realized they were just as curious as the kids and that they even preferred that I be more informal with them. Without dropping the substance and organization, I altered the program and grading scheme. The class basically evolved into me adding more practical materials, promoting students to speak out, and sharing my knowledge, culture and ideas with them while engaging their questions in a casual and entertaining atmosphere. I credit them with teaching me how to teach.

Those days of friendship building, mutual learning and cultural exchange were among the most memorable in my life. Point being there isn’t much to be stressed about when teaching at universities in China because the students are generally helpful and want to make you feel comfortable up there. It will take some time but any ordinary person can do it. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it right away. My years were not without problems and there were many occasions where I found myself in the dean’s office discussing my teaching or course content. But as we say, mistakes are the mother of success.

On Relationships with Students

As a young foreigner, I quickly found myself quite popular with my students who were very close to me in age. As shallow as it may be, being popular is directly related to being successful as a foreign teacher in any setting. This is simply because, generally speaking, foreign ESL teachers are not viewed as professional educators in the same way Chinese teachers are, unless you are hired by a top level institution as a professional placed in some specialized position (like a visiting professor for example). As sincere as we may be in regard to education, we are featured as a kind of advantageous attraction and, at best, are seen as ”edutainers.” As I expected, the kids wanted to know about every aspect of my life and share and learn with me and join in my regular activities.

It is easy to become frustrated and depressed during the first few months but they kept me in high spirits. We shopped together, played sports, watched movies, hit the KTV’s (karaoke establishments) and had meals together. There should be nothing wrong with this in my opinion as long as the relationships are clearly defined and boundaries are not crossed: teacher first, friend second. Don’t allow yourself to be in a position where they may try to take advantage. Chinese have a system of manipulation which we may be unconsciously vulnerable to. Although there have been cases where foreign teachers have even married their students, becoming too close with students of the opposite sex will usually produce undesired results. Needless to say, one should never engage in any degree of flirting or extending the relationships to anything more than that of a friendly and concerned teacher.

It didn’t take long to have girls interested in me, and vice versa, as this always occurs more with most young males. I dated my fair share of girls but I made a point of staying clear of students from my university knowing that my virtual “star status” would undeniably rouse attention. We are unavoidably targets of gossip. I made that mistake when a relationship between the student leader of the English department (not my student) and I grew into an innocent and discrete romance which soon the entire school knew about. This led to a very delicate and understanding conversation with my close friend, the department dean, and ended with my agreement to drop the romance.

Outside Employment and Private Tutoring

The university setting also opens up doors for extra teaching. In my case, my Chinese coworkers arranged classes for me to teach their children. They also contributed greatly to my teaching and lesson planning. It was during this time when I really learned how to teach ESL to Chinese children, what made them happy and, most important, what pleased the parents. I was essentially running a self-owned private school for years comprising up to 20 extra hours a week. If I could offer some advice, it would be to do it yourself. Stay away from the private children’s schools. With your own program you can focus on being a “pure educator” instead of having to follow the school’s protocol or system as an institutionalized teacher. You can also earn more money, build more relationships, and take pride in your own system as you observe the results.

Take the time to prepare a detailed, resource rich, and all encompassing program. Use multimedia presentations, go on field trips, provide the texts and supplies, and spend a little money. The stuff costs next to nothing and will be repaid many times over in various forms. Have the parents come to class with their kids, get their feedback, and listen to their suggestions. After all, it’s all for the kids. You’ll know what you’re doing is right when your phone starts ringing off the hook. Teaching ESL to Chinese is a specific skill in itself and it involves so much more than just language. It’s a skill that even the most qualified and experienced educators must acquire, which demands a long learning curve to master and some even fail altogether.

Employment at the university level includes many extracurricular responsibilities. The most infamous of which is the campus “English corner”: an informal gathering where all students can take part in chatting up the foreign teacher. These can be annoying but I enjoyed getting involved. You can meet many new people and they often present interesting opportunities and learning experiences. I became a regular co-lecturer at various schools and colleges as a result of contacts I made at an English corner (EC). I was offered a position as a host on the university English radio show Never Stop English. EC’s do sometimes attract the wrong crowd and some have the reputation of doubling as a singles’ club typically where foreign men can meet easy girls, but you may even meet someone special.

Just like any educational institution, there are many campus-wide events, competitions, performances and the like which we may be invited to or even provoked into taking part in. I could even join in on school athletic teams and even organized a performance of The Grinch as my class project during the Christmas season. Most notable for the foreign teacher is the speech competition where we are invited to serve as expert judges. During one competition I was approached by a television show production manager. I was asked to be a guest on a brand new English talk show produced by a private school established by Yale University. I soon became a regular, then the foreign host, and then began arranging and writing the script for specials. I shared this role with a few other foreign friends over the course of three years, and we quickly became quite famous in Changsha.

A Star is Born

We can see many new English shows on Chinese TV, and many of them involve the employ of foreign guests or hosts. The Chinese are both honored to find, and fascinated with watching us on their national stages. During my time in the made famous by its media Hunan province I had the opportunity to act in numerous TV advertisements, and model for many businesses, magazines and catalogues. If you do meet the chance to take part in these exciting and often lucrative opportunities for a small taste of semi-stardom in China, take it. My involvement introduced me to some big name friends in Changsha such as He Jiong, Li Wei Jia, Li Xiang, You you, Wang Han, The Super girls, and Crazy English’s Li Yang. During the 2003 provincial English Speaking Competition I was honored to be chosen to judge and co-host the week-long event with oral English guru Li Yang. This opportunity led me to a personal invitation as a lead teacher at his winter holiday Crazy English Camp. My most memorable experience placed me as the foreign guest host representing Hunan Normal university students on a Spring Festival day-long Hunan TV Special with professor He Jiong, including many Chinese stars.

It wasn’t long before I became familiar with the local Christian circles, which are present in every city. I attended and contributed to the groups and often held and prepared service in my home. Religions are complicated and hold a long history. Most Chinese now just believe in the nation and themselves. The official religion is Dao and many people practice Buddhism, maintain values based on the teachings of Confucius, along with communist and modern democratic and capitalist philosophies to comprise the common ideology. Although the state is officially atheist, I have found many Chinese to be inherently spiritual and interested in religions. I assembled a steady weekly study group where I would teach the basics of Christianity, prepare pertinent topics, and we would read, sing and pray together. Many are just interested in observing or come to learn English. I did not encounter any resistance although I was not openly preaching. Religions are tolerated especially in big cities, and there are even organizations such as ELIC that cooperate with schools and recommend quality educators with Christian values. Take some time to become aware of the situation before you make any bold advances. I would recommend keeping any religious type activity very lowkey and even recess for a period to allow for any suspicion to subside.

Anyone who’s visited a developing nation knows you will experience a degree of celebrity and privilege and it sure can be fun! This kind of recognition, what I’ll call surreal pseudo stardom, may cause one to glory in their position, exploiting every moment. It captured me at first, seeing myself on TV, full-sized advertisements in shop windows and being approached in the street by admiring strangers, but I soon realized that it was all just a facade. If you’re where I was then, please don’t deceive yourself: save yourself the embarrassment as everyone knows you were simply just the only decent selection for the position available at the time. Chinese are a collectivist culture which honors modesty and we’d do good to follow suit. While I may have done a satisfactory job in these positions, I knew that if there were a larger pool of choices including professional models, judges, actors and such, I would certainly have not been chosen. So I found the effect to be interestingly humbling. Unless you’re on your way to becoming the next Da Shan1 don’t let it all get to your head.

One of the best aspects about teaching in the universities is that we—although bound to a contract which states we are not to pursue outside employment—are generally given the freedom to do so as long as it is not too excessive. It’s best to clear it with the foreign affairs office. There are several reasons for this clause which are generally designed to impose limits. You should have no trouble with working outside and the FAO will regularly offer extra work, often to its own benefit. You may find yourself pressured to be contracted out to other institutions, within reason and at your resolution. These assignments may be infuriating or could turn out to be the highlight of your year.

Most universities are affiliated with a few Western schools that arrange exchange programs and I was given a position as an IELTS trainer and examiner for the University of Wolverhampton. You will likely also find your FAO or department head enticing you to edit textbooks or provide audio dubbing which includes a nice little kickback in their favor and yours as well. I always find it humorous that with my “credentials” limited to the comprehension of grade school grammar and bearing a native English tongue , I have become the credited editor of roughly a dozen published texts with my Canadian accent as the standard by which thousands of students will have the fate of mimicking.

Colleges will also usually allow for full summer and winter festival vacations with an option to teach extra hours in organized programs. They will typically arrange trips to various places for the foreign staff during holiday periods. For the newcomer the trip is usually attractive. They are generally tight budgeted and tiresome but can be enjoyed by the enthusiastic. I would say try it at least once as there are many open chances for travel throughout the year. During these periods, pay for holiday work is usually much higher and because of the ever-growing travel congestion and high prices, choosing to work the season might be a better option for those wishing to earn a little more cash.

In contrast to these advantages found in the college, many private schools, particularly developing ones will guard you, fine you and even fire you if they find you are violating contract terms while often violating it themselves. If you find yourself at a private school that is simply all about the business, i.e., doesn’t place sufficient importance on education, and if you consider yourself a professional and caring educator, simply secure yourself somewhere else, then make your way out; sternly but peacefully. You may chose to salvage the relationship, but don’t look back. Don’t allow yourself to be compromised for someone else’s discreditable gains. Most important, do not allow yourself to be bullied. If you’re sure of yourself, don’t be afraid to speak out either. Many of them will never change until their reputations are marred. It’s difficult to recommend a certain type of private school, but I would stick to branded top tier schools like New Oriental or Metro where the situation will likely be more demanding but professional and stable. Developing schools will typically be more frustrating and inconsistent yet may allow for more liberty, while some allow very little at all. In my experience both mainstream and developing types have allowed for autonomy in the classroom and may offer higher pay per requisite services. Generally, on the surface, most will respect and treat you as special however phony it may be. Too often though we are exploited at every opportunity and even regarded as chattel. They’re not all gloom and doom though, and I have worked at many fantastic private schools where you can enjoy a beautiful experience with your leaders and coworkers. Some may even offer perks like better housing, promotions, bonuses or extra pay, and exceptional trips not found in the more standardized college setting. It’s just a matter of investigating the situation before you commit, which is absolutely imperative. Fortunately for me Changsha was a big, fast moving and corrupt city where just about anything goes. I could pick and choose as I liked and no one could care what I did just so long as I was doing my best job for them.

Caution With Recruiters

China is saturated with English learning. You will get to know the recruiters roaming the busy areas looking to snatch up naïve foreigners. There are home-based schools everywhere, and you will never run short of private tutoring. Among the many private schools I worked for were English First, New Oriental, and Crazy English, but I invested most of my efforts in learning about and teaching IELTS and TOFEL, and was employed at Globe IELTS for much of my time. Some of these schools are great for picking up some extra pocket money and could care less what you do in class as long as you can entertain. One school, always in need of teachers offered 1500RMB per 8 hour day; an average monthly salary for Hunanese. Take care when getting involved with recruiters offering you part-time work or who want you to take part in affairs out of town. It could develop into a problem as Chinese are infamous for changing the terms on the fly and without your consent. Be tough and explain yourself clearly. In my experience the Chinese are generally very understanding and willing to see things your way. I’ve been in a few memorable struggles though. Don’t lose your cool, Chinese don’t play that game. Finally I will say that salary should not be a rationale for determining your choice of host school. It’s not worth getting trapped in a nightmare school. The pay is nothing compared to our standards and if you are going there for the experience then look for those qualities in the school that will allow you to reflect back on the year and say “The experience was rich, I made great friends, had the time of my life, left a lasting impression, and I have no regrets.”

Besides private schools there are many other teaching opportunities. There are professional businesses looking for trainers, and I had designed specialized programs that catered to banks, insurance agencies, law firms, and medical facilities. Along with a friend I contributed to a successful English corner in Changsha during the after hour’s period at a hotel dining room. I particularly enjoyed employment at luxury hotels. The need for staff training in languages is rapidly increasing in China. I had created several hotel English programs which were put into practice along with a Chinese coworker to more or less corner that market in Changsha city. Contrary to what one might believe they don’t usually offer high pay, but they are fun, easy and those complimentary regular 5-star meals, occasional free room, and spa passes made up for that. And then there are the girls! If you’re like me and always looking for business opportunities, China is your candy store, but you’ll need to build connections. I have explored some promising fields, and worth investigating are software development, outsourcing, dining, real-estate, and the trade business.

My five semesters at the Science and Technology University was the most self-cultivating period of my life. I can remember having grand epiphanies every day. During that time I traveled all across the nation, making lifelong friends all the way. Those are stories for another article, but you should have the time, funding and freedom to do the same and it’s an absolute must as China is an abundance of traveling delight that offers a lifetime of appreciation.

To be an overseas educator is in my opinion something quite magical. The experience for us can be enjoyed at all ages and stages of life in different ways. It is true, as mentioned in the guide, that we are on various levels regarded as a national requirement, “window dressing,” and are in fact even resented, but those labels are mainly particular to the attitudes of the educational bureaucracy. Although some students may have the same unenthusiastic sentiments, for the most part we represent to them an opportunity to connect with an individual who is so far out and fascinating to them, in fact, for some the chance of a lifetime.

It’s also a fact though that as the foreign population in China increases, with its rapid development and especially if you’re employed in a major city, you will find your students are more Westernized and hardly fascinated by you as an outsider. Nearly all of our students there had never interacted with a foreigner before and anxiously treasured every moment with us. My given name by a class whom I taught until their graduation was “big precious” in Chinese. We are special friends to them. We are motivators, we inspire. We represent progress and contrast. We manufacture diversity. We are helpers who mean the world to those who we touch. We hold a unique and irreproducible function. We are the foreign teachers and so much more. [Editor’s note: I believe it is precisely this function that justifies our existence in China as foreign teachers. Our usefulness to the students of China is not in helping them improve their pronunciation of English words but in making a difference in their lives through professional use of self.] So we actually have a lot to offer to these people as trailblazers and ambassadors of our culture and language even if some may call it superficial. So I did a lot here, but what does it all mean? What we get out of it all is plainly subjective. Is it all superficial? Does it really mean anything? Must everything we do be quantified in dollars, or judged by our Western standards? You can decide that for yourself.

The Bar Scene

After a few years of familiarization and language acquisition, teaching became routine and I set my sights for what other activities I could learn from. The famous foreign night club “Glamour” in Changsha was a regular weekend hangout for me and friends. Like anywhere, the clubs are overflowing with young people dancing and drinking to excess. The club scene can offer a lot to foreigners who are inspired in such environments. Owners are often looking for foreigners to DJ, bar tend, and dance. We became close with the owner and quickly gained VIP status and were wined and dined as we were good for business. We know that the relationships can be and are often symbiotic in nature between foreigners and Chinese in the right setting. This is only a part of what is called guanxi which is a complex component of the Chinese social system. You will find many wealthy businessmen usually with their young consorts who are often looking for foreign friends to boost their image. I began informally working weekends there and was offered a full time position with a hefty salary. It was difficult for the owner to hear us decline as she continued to raise our salaries but we all realized that these jobs were fun in moderation but would provide no real future.

Clubs are highly monitored and while they may seem innocent at first, they are for the most part shady places, where one will find the darker side of Chinese society. I’ve seen many friends become lost in their addiction to the clubbing scene and all that accompanies it. As in any country China claims its share of the sex trade and either foreign men or women can make an easy score if so inclined. I wasn’t so constrained and regret many an escapade. Some Chinese are just looking to show off their new foreign piece, while too many foreign men tally “pick-ups” and I’ve met foreign women who exploit rich Chinese men. Mixed relationships are common, it’s an issue warranting its own article (check the guide), but basically over 90% end in break-up.

There’s a kind of sexual revolution on the rise. Consequently so is homosexuality, abortions along with prostitution (no, not, never) and STD’s. Drugs are present but very risky business. My advice, stay clean. Many foreigners will find themselves in trouble in such places. While their celebrity may be attractive to the owners, many locals abhor that group of foreigners who so arrogantly enter and try to “hijack” the club and abuse their status. Take care, and try to blend in. Be gracious, friendly, and remember who you are. Most of all don’t get aggressive as it’s rare to see that among the Chinese. Although most Westerners are twice the size of Chinese, one might find themselves outnumbered and lying unconscious after causing a ruckus with the wrong person.

Being in China through my prime dating age it would be unnatural if romantic relationships didn’t occupy a large portion of my time. All bragging aside, my familiarity with the Chinese dating experience is pretty extensive. It wouldn’t be helpful advice to simply say we’re different so I will share my observations. Major points of relevance in my opinion are that; although the relationships are exciting and refreshing, Chinese do best with Chinese. Look forward to alternative because traditional or “normal” Chinese rarely mix seriously with foreigners. Gender roles are more defined than ours but are breaking down. Love and marriage don’t hold the same meaning as they do in our culture. From what I’ve seen, honor and commitment blow, and beauty or money rules. The concept of beauty and attraction is socially contrived and very different from our views. They have a rather unnatural complex system of courtship. It’s all relative but generally they are easier to please though. Most “after 80’s” children are spoiled and practically hopeless. There is a large pool of fish to choose from, the trouble is they’re pretty much all the same. Although many may believe we, as foreign men, will be more considerate, better providers, and ultimately faithful after marriage, they still distrust. The majority are afraid of outside judgment and many are just afraid all together. They’re generally more closed and it is quite difficult for us to connect and see eye to eye. They really only understand and sooo love their China, are highly influenced by the collective consciousness, and finally, good luck obtaining family approval. But, there are always exceptions. There is one thing that I believe in so dearly though which was explained by an older friend who’s been through a few interracial marriages. She told me that yes these marriages are difficult but when for life as they should be, they will require every moment to learn and grow together, always be curious, never become dull, are special and magical, and by her estimation are more beautiful than any single culture marriage could ever be.

Closing Remarks

I knew that after nearly three years of living in China I would want to continue to live here periodically throughout my life. I keenly studied Mandarin on my own but began to realize my language limitations and looked for the best option to study. This led me to Hunan Normal University which offers the best Chinese Language and culture programs in the province. I approached the FAO and quickly became close with the directors. I managed to work out an agreement to teach part time in both the university tourism department as well as the attached provincial premier middle school Hunan Fu Zhong while maintaining a position as a registered full time student. This gave me the opportunity to study the language, art, calligraphy and Chinese martial arts. Good pay, housing, and a legitimate and exciting work and study program. It couldn’t have been any better. I would advise finding a student or friend who can speak both good English and standard Chinese for serious and intensive language exchange after getting settled. Then when you pick up the basics I would suggest recognized training for a year or at least one semester to build a solid foundation after which you can continue with self-study. After the basics, your ability develops exponentially and I have now for the most part become conversationally fluent. Engage yourself in activities like Tai Qi, dance or art. Tote your phrasebook and note new words as you go, and don’t be afraid of practicing the language; most Chinese will be thrilled to hear you make the effort.

By age 24, tired of China and believing I had done it all, the time had come for me to get back home to Canada and re-assimilate myself with Western civilization. I wouldn’t recommend staying for longer than two years without going home for at least four months. You won’t believe how you’ve been altered and how much reverse culture shock will affect you. I wanted to continue my education and began a program in political science in my home town university. My new dream was to work in Sino-Canadian relations. It wasn’t six months though before I was anxious to return to China. My girlfriend back at Hunan University and I were talking and wanted to take a serious try at being together. In Hunan, the premier university is the provincial Hunan University. It’s difficult to attain a position there but for years it was my fixation. Upon entering “university city” as it’s called, on the west side of the Xiang Jiang River, one is transported back in time within one of the world’s oldest facilities of higher learning surrounded by traditional Chinese structures of academia. Knowing that great scholars such as Emperor Zhenzong and Chairman Mao once studied there and walked among the massive ancient Zhang trees of Yuelu Mountain was enough for me to set my ambitions on making it there. Plus I could be with my girlfriend! I committed myself to convincing the administration that I had the experience and would be a capable teacher, and it required all of my acquired guanxi to secure a position there from Canada. These years were the dearest to me. I was a part-time student and was offered an attractive position teaching not just oral English but a new professional graduate level course Western culture. I was relatively successful and by maintaining a good relationship with the administration I have been invited to return every year. Everyone loves that university, and I would highly recommend it if Hunan is your destination.

While my experiences in Changsha were as exciting to me as I’ve boasted, I felt that I had completed that city, so to speak, after my time at Hunan University. I’d never done anything really substantial in my life to speak of. It was simply no longer stimulating. Everything I built became a memory in 2006 as I just let it all go sadly including my romance and went back home to finish my education. I missed China dearly but with my association I quickly became involved with the Chinese community at home working with the foreign students office of my university, tutoring new students, learning with international Tai Chi master Peng You, and hosting Chinese related events. Of course my purpose back home did not deter my ambitions in China as I explored future prospects there. I had always wanted to make it on the little developing island of Hainan which I fell in love with many years before. I took everything I had built in Hunan and wanted to relocate it somewhere I could settle down, buy a home and build an alternative life.

With the cooperation of a great friend and colleague from Hainan University we destined to build a multifaceted, niche market language services company. Anxious after 15 months at home I finally found my way there. It was a foolhardy decision. Passing up an offer at Hainan University I was accepted at a reputable private school which I had high aspirations to impress on and to cooperate with but which, without getting into detail, was really not the best fit for me as I struggled in many ways. From my past experience I thought I knew what I was doing, but could never have anticipated what ensued. It wasn’t a healthy situation and I blame myself as I became bitter and jaded and a worse educator. It was truly disheartening. The year was not all a loss because to my surprise, after only six months of a lot of work, a fair investment and the right relations, my partner and I were approved and became the registered co-owners of a legitimate language services business. Not fully understanding or accepting the situation there in Haikou I found myself violating contract terms with that host private school and had to recess all my operations. I always intended to present my full efforts and priorities to the host school right to the last moment, and above my alternate objectives, but I came to Hainan for a purpose. I quickly secured positions elsewhere, and although it may have been best for me to leave that school for my own well-being and that of the school’s as they would probably have been better without me, I remained to honor my contract, or I should say was permitted to stay, and I parted on pleasant and level terms.

After visiting Beijing and the Olympics I am now sitting here in the airport worn and bewildered reflecting on my history. I breathe easy as this chapter comes to an end and I will soon be setting off for home from the home I have known for six years. However naive and bold it may be, I still have lofty ambitions in Hainan. With vitality, principles, experience, and our own emerging business, my partner and I are still inspired to produce very positive achievements in the language trade on that island. There is more than enough business for the both of us to manage so we can aim at advocating value, and honor educational ethics. This was always the mission. I will no longer have to restrict my aspirations by working under another school and can now through my own means obtain a valid working permit. I am eagerly anticipating the day when we will give it our all and either make it or break it, but until then I have a new house and educational priorities to attend to.

What a fascinating country China is and being a part of the fervor and progress is what makes it all so special, and with the momentum they’ve built, there’s a lot more to come. The brotherly love, solidarity and patriotism we can feel and even share in are highly contagious. It’s not that menacing nation of yesteryear your parents cautioned you about, and for the most part it’s now a safe and hospitable place for foreigners. They have incorporated traditional values, and modernized socialist thought along with Western ideologies to produce an interesting hybrid system which in my opinion will influence the way of the future. They truly are a great people, 1.3 billion strong, each with their own role all striving to resolve centuries of turmoil and changing the way the rest of the world views them. Anyone living there will understand when I say we soon develop a love hate relationship for it all. If you chose to stay long enough it will undoubtedly change you as the differences become ordinary and the frustrations and pessimism fades away. Life is about inspiration and China inspires me. I truly love this country which has done so much for me, and I feel obligated to give back in any way I can. I’m not sure at this time when I will get the chance to return to my China but it exists in my heart and will forever be a core part of my life.

While I firmly believe teaching is an innate gift manifest in one’s character, to gain recognition in this world one really should follow the institutional process and progress through a teacher’s college. I just followed it from the opposite end. Although I have learned many teaching skills through practice, nearly all of my teaching experience remains solely applicable to ESL in China. What it’s all taught me was that I can teach. I’m not astonishing, but I have this ability, and more importantly I love practicing it. Now all I need to do is develop it. So I am finally completing my degree with another year for my B.Ed. planning on working in a Western educational facility to become a professional educator; a real teacher as some may call it. ;) My teacher’s college is filled with graduates aged 30+ who want to try their hands at teaching and are not sure where it will take them or even if they could be successful at it. Yet at age 28 with seven years trial and error under my belt, I have a confidence in my potential and can only look forward to see what my future in this field may hold.

Live and learn,

Joel S.



  1. Da Shan is a Canadian with impeccable Mandarin who has his own educational talk show and series of books []

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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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