Have you ever made a crazy bet with a friend for a laugh and found yourself whisked away down a new path in life? That is exactly where I found myself back in 2009. As the economic crisis crippled the UK, an old friend and I met in a pub to commiserate over a beer. Both in our final years of university, we were looking ahead at the decidedly grim job market in despair. How on earth we would find work to pay off our student debts? I dimly remember moaning that I was done with it all: done with the weather, fed up with the prospect of living at home and determined to put my degree to some use after 3 years of blood, sweat and tears - mostly tears, it was a literature degree, so aside from paper cuts there thankfully wasn’t much blood or sweat involved.
“I’m just going to move to China!” I threw my hands up dramatically and joked.
My friend, as good friends are won't to do, smirked and snorted in derision. The cherry on the cake was his assertion that I wouldn’t last a hot minute in China. A few friendly-ish insults later and we had a bet. The princely sum of 10 English pounds was at stake. All I had to do was find a job, move to China and survive a full year. How hard could that be?
As silly as it sounds, this wager planted a seed that took root. Suddenly I found myself enrolling on a Mandarin course in my final few months of school. Armed with a map and faced with an overwhelming decision, I plonked myself in fate’s faithful hands and with great ceremony and seriousness I eeny, meeny miny moe-d between the major Chinese cities landing finally and firmly on Beijing. I signed up with a recruitment agency and four short months later stood at the departures gate waving goodbye to my somewhat confused and worried parents. Easy peasy.
However, as soon as I boarded the plane the enormity of the decision finally hit me. From the privacy of my cramped economy seat I proceeded to have a slight meltdown, which lasted for the entirety of my 16hr stopover in the Burger King at Dubai airport and all the way to the taxi line at Beijing International.
It was at this point I realized that despite my earnest attempts, I was woefully inept at Chinese and my butchered Mandarin was utterly unintelligible. With slightly shaking hands I passed my hostel confirmation sheet to the driver who - bless his glorious heart - didn’t yell too much at me and managed to figure out where this lost, little foreigner was supposed to be going. As we sped through the night, the skyscrapers loomed out through the Beijing gloom.
View from my first Beijing Apartment in China
My mind was blown by the sheer size, scale and number of the immense buildings that swept by us. I remember my anxiety spiking as the roads narrowed to tiny one-way lanes and the monstrously huge structures dropped away gradually to be replaced by little courtyard houses with the kind of architecture I’d been expecting from watching Kung Fu movies. My driver maneuvered his cab heroically through the tiny hutong streets right by Tiananmen Square and deposited me at my destination. I took in a lungful of slightly smoky Beijing air and then collapsed into bed. Feeling physically and emotionally exhausted I fell fast-asleep in my hostel bed for a full day and a half.
Once the jet lag had subsided, I packed myself off to TEFL bootcamp and met a bunch of other slightly bewildered looking foreigners walking the same strange road in life that I had wandered onto. This group of people became my life-line. There’s something extremely solid about the friendships you make after moving to a new place or while traveling. We clung together at first, relieved to have found a sense of familiarity, a port in a storm. Soon we became braver: huddling together to cross the traffic laden streets full of honking cars, trying bizarre dishes in local restaurants, wandering in amazement around exquisitely manicured gardens and colorful temples.
My first solo trip in China to the Lama Temple
My first few weeks passed in a blur and I was quickly hired by First Leap Future Leader’s Institute, which at that time was just one small after-school English language training center in a Beijing shopping mall. They had just a handful of students, a curriculum as a work in progress and high hopes for the future of their business. Little did I know back then what a powerhouse this company would eventually become and how 7 years down the line it would still be supporting my dreams and adventures.
I will never forget my first day of class, standing with knocking knees in front of a small group of 8 year olds waiting expectantly for their new teacher. I was terrified! Somehow I choked my way through The Rainbow Fish and managed to swallow my nerves enough by the end of class to relax with the children and play a few follow up games before handing them back to their parents with a mixture of relief and a sense of accomplishment.
Making a mess is the best with little ones
And so began my unexpected career in education! The company’s ambitions grew alongside my own career goals and it opened its doors wide allowing me to develop my skills. I moved up through the company from teaching, to curriculum development, to activities coordinator, to voice acting work, to design, to teacher training and marketing. After three years and uncountable great experiences, I left the company to gain my credential in early years Montessori teacher training at the International Montessori Teaching Institute of Beijing. This qualification, coupled with the experience I’d gained through my time of employment at First Leap, allowed me to acquire a top management position at a local, prestigious international school where I worked and flourished professionally for more than three years.
Now I’m living in California, working once more with First Leap and Career China, and assisting others with their move overseas. I cannot express to you the debt I owe to this company for first giving a young teacher a chance at their school and then reaching out to me years later for a position which is supporting me in my new US location. I now have my dream job talking to new people from around the world about a place so dear to my heart. If I hadn’t met my American soul mate, I’d be a China girl for life. I call Beijing home because its where I grew up, its what made me the adult I am now and some of the people I’ve made along the way are more like brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers to me than simply friends. My time at First Leap has been pivotal to my professional and personal growth and I am so thankful to have stumbled into a position with a company that sincerely cares and supports my plans for the future.
So take the risk, make the great leap in to the unknown and with open arms you’ll see how the world in turn embraces you.
Go on, I bet that you can do it!
Hannah Webb is a former teacher at First Leap China and is happy to share her experience with others looking to move to China to work as a teacher.