Written by Katie Mousdell
Before setting off to China, I had no idea what to expect. I had never been there or anywhere like it before. I did not speak the language, but I did have some experience of teaching a class full of children, and when opportunity came knocking, I answered. China was never a place that was at the top of my travel list, I don’t think it is for many people, but if I had known then what I know now, it would have been.
I set off in July 2012 to teach in a city called Shaoxing for two months. On the plane, I met my first new friend Qin Ling, who taught me some Chinese phrases throughout the journey.
Qin Ling was helpful, and I would use that word to describe everyone I met in China. They really did go out of their way to make sure I was okay. Even if they could not speak English they were so friendly and always pointing me in the right direction. On one occasion I was returning to Shaoxing from Shanghai and got on the wrong bus, ending up in the wrong bus station. Nothing looked familiar and there wasn’t anyone around to ask for help. A woman had been watching me struggle and came over, and although she spoke little English, she tried her best to communicate with me to make sure I got home safely. She rang my hotel and they told her which bus I needed, missing her own bus in the process.
The language barrier wasn’t an issue in the school I worked. I was teaching an age range of 13 – 20-year-olds so everyone spoke English to some degree, but if there was any miscommunication, there was always someone to translate. At first the pupils were very shy, and it seemed scary because I wasn’t sure how good their English was, what they were like, or what they would think was fun.
I thought I would struggle teaching them, but I found the best way to handle it was to go into the classroom with as much enthusiasm as I could muster and just have fun. They picked up new words quickly and were eager to learn. Most of the students have English names (as well as Chinese), but if they didn’t, they would sometimes ask me to choose a name for them.
I got the pleasure of being given my own name, ‘Xiao Hong’, which means ‘little red’. They named me after the colour of my hair.
The students were really fantastic, and during school break they would invite me to dinner with them or take me to watch a movie at the cinema. Their favourite thing to do was something called KTV, where a room is hired out to do karaoke all night. I found that having general conversations outside of school really helped them with their English. It’s very rewarding knowing how much you are helping to improve their language.
English Language was not the only thing I was teaching them. I was also teaching them about English culture and lifestyle. Most of the students had never seen an English person before, let alone speak to them, so to be taught by a native was a great thing in the eyes of these students. They wanted to know everything about my life. They were so interested in the cities, food, buildings and especially my personal life, and it was a pleasure to teach them about everything. One of my favourite lessons was teaching them how to make a sandwich, as they’d never had one before. They loved it, and they would also bring in new foods for me to try.
Though it was one of the hardest things I’ve done, teaching in China was worth the rewards. I think I learnt more from my students than I ever could have taught them. The whole experience was a learning curve for me too. I was always interested in other cultures, and to be able to live in a culture like that truly was an incredible experience. On my first night, I couldn’t use chopsticks and made a complete fool of myself trying to use them, but now I am a pro chopstick user!
I also learnt quite a bit of the language whilst I was out there. I learnt basic phrases to help me get around. When I went to the zoo to see the Pandas I got lost and couldn’t understand the signs. I had the awkward task of having to imitate the animals to a cleaner so she could point me in the direction of the exit. It wasn’t my best moment, but while there I learnt that there are many other forms of communication rather than just verbal.
Shaoxing, the city I resided, was a lovely place. It was full of beautiful scenery and there were many rivers and bridges to explore. It has many traditional buildings and the hotel that we stayed in was one of them. It was bursting with life and adventure. During the evening there was a night market where you could buy practically anything from clothes, jewellery, and toiletries.
One of my favourite things to do on an evening was visit a group of locals that I had befriended. Every night they would gather under a pagoda and play violin, tell stories, or even just drink together. They were the older generation, and I found them fascinating because they seemed untouched by the western world. I tried to learn Mandarin so I could have conversations with them. They gestured for me to sit with them and offered me drink; they were just as curious about me as I was about them. I am really looking forward to returning to Shaoxing so I can see these amazing people again, and teach in the same environment.
When I had time off, I went travelling and visited Beijing, Hanzhou and Shanghai.
Beijing is a fantastic place to visit. There is a lot of history and culture behind it and there is so much to see. Unlike Shaoxing, Beijing is a popular tourist city and so it is much easier to find western food and clothes.
In Beijing I saw iconic places such as The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and many Buddhist temples. I would like to spend more time in Beijing because there is so much more to do there and I hope to see it on my next trip back.
Shanghai is also somewhere I would definitely recommend because although it is a relatively new city and doesn’t have much history, it has so much life in it. There are so many wonderful things to look at and it has a fabulous part of the city known as the Bund. If you like shopping and city life then Shanghai is definitely worth visiting.
Travel in China is cheap, and it’s fairly easy to get around. The country is so big that I didn’t do half the things I wanted to. One thing I did not count on was the huge sadness I felt leaving my China life behind. All of my students and friends would be on the other side of the world and it was hard to think that I would probably never see them again. China really does become a part of you, even looking around my room now there are small reminders everywhere; gifts I was showered with by my students, or the fact that I now refuse to eat my super noodles with a fork (it has to be with chopsticks). To be able to visit China was the most incredible experience, and I would recommend anybody to look into going there.
Katie Mousdell studies Philosophy at Manchester Metropolitan University and is hoping to return to China as soon as she can.