When I was very little, my Grandmother returned home from a trip to China. She brought me back a pearl necklace and bracelet, a tiny panda tea set in a red silk box, and stories of her big adventures. At the time, China seemed like another world, so impossibly far away and foreign. I didn’t ever imagine then that one day I would be exploring it for myself, living among the people and calling it home.
I was in my final year of University when the option of teaching English in China first presented itself. The long-awaited freedom from my formal education was fast approaching, and there were endless paths of potential in front of me. I knew I wanted to travel, but the list of places to explore was so long I didn’t know where to begin.
While holed up in the library, procrastinating from finals by scrolling through Facebook, I saw some photos that caught my eye. It was of a friend of mine, grinning ear to ear, squished in on all sides by a dozen laughing Asian school children. I sent him a message to ask him what he was up to, and where all the happy faces were coming from, and he told me about his experience teaching English. He had been teaching in South Korea, but he told me that similar opportunities existed in China.
It was a dream prospect, the chance to fully immerse myself in this mysterious culture that once seemed so inaccessible, while having a job that looked like far more fun than work. Moreover, as a university student with dreams far bigger than my bank account, being able to travel to a new place while saving more money than you’re spending sounded almost too good to be true. My partner shared my excitement and together we began making plans.
There is a mountain of information online about teaching English in China, some of it false, and a lot of it terrifying. Wading through the scams and warnings was almost enough to put us off the whole experience. Surely backpacking through Europe is easier? But we persisted, and eventually found some people to help us navigate the intimidating application process.
Going through a recruiting company can itself be a risky option as not all of them are honest, but we were lucky to find one run by expats who had been English teachers in China themselves and knew exactly how we were feeling. They set us up with some interviews, and eventually we were introduced to the recruiting team at First Leap.
Extensive research online told us mainly good things about the company and the interview process went smoothly. They had room for us in Nanjing, one of the top cities on my long list. We got our Z visas, booked our flights, and soon we were stepping onto a plane to Beijing.
I remember feeling overwhelmed with excitement and fear. The mystery of the adventure ahead of us of was daunting; we didn’t know a word of Chinese, didn’t know a soul in all of Asia, and despite months of planning, endless correspondence and extensive research, we really had no idea what to expect. But even if we did have hopes and expectations for the journey we were about to begin, our real experience would have wildly surpassed them.
I consider myself to be so lucky. We have ended up in a clean and safe community, in what I am convinced is the most beautiful city in China, working for an awesome company, doing a job we absolutely love.
When I heard of teaching English in China, I thought it was an easy way to make money while travelling. I didn’t realized what a rewarding experience the job would be in itself. I didn’t know it was possible to connect so closely with children from an entirely different culture who are only just beginning to learn your language. When we can’t communicate with words, we communicate through laughs and smiles, and with that we are able to have so much fun together.
I care so deeply about my students, and look forward to seeing them every day.
Part of what makes the work environment so great is the company we work for. First Leap invests in their teachers, showing real commitment to developing polished educators that do their jobs well. When I started, I didn’t really consider myself a teacher, so much as an entertainer, trying desperately to hold everyone’s attention for forty minutes. But after a year and a half of on-going trainings, meetings, and mentorship, I feel like a professional in front of a classroom, will a toolbox full of strategies of how to meet the learning needs of each individual student.
Now I am a mentor myself, and am able to help new teachers in making the same transition.
When I was younger, clutching my new pearls and listening to my Grandmother’s stories, China felt a world away, alien and impenetrable. Some days it still feels that way, when the language barrier gets too much, plans get derailed, and simple tasks take all day. But for the most part, I have found China to be warm and welcoming.
I have encountered so many patient and helpful people eager to help me learn how to live here. My Chinese is improving little by little and it’s allowed me to absorb so much more of the culture, which continues to surprise and fascinate me every day.
Taking on this job has brought so many amazing opportunities: my co-workers, both Chinese and Foreign, have become dear friends, I’ve had the chance to explore a bit of Asia, snorkelling in Bali, caving in Vietnam, and trekking through Nepal, and most special to me, I’ve been able to influence the lives of some truly special kids with bright futures.
Sarah is a Canadian expat currently living in Nanjing with her partner Josh. She is an avid adventurer, tree lover and tea drinker and enjoys a good Chinese BBQ. You can read more of her travel articles at inourfootsteps.wordpress.com
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