Meet Michael: English Teacher and YouTuber in Wuhu, China

Rachel Weiss
Career China Digital Marketing Manager
May 8, 2020

"The best thing about living in China has to be the ability to experience a different culture and lifestyle in a fuller way. If you do this long enough, you might find you’re becoming a more confident and well-rounded person - this has definitely what I’ve been feeling."

Why did you decide to come to China?

I’m James “Michael” Smith from the UK. I'm an English teacher for First Leap in Wuhu, where I’ve been living for 8 months.

I’ve been traveling on and off for the last 6 years or so, especially enjoying the adventure and culture of South East Asia. After my last trip I wanted to try something new, and teaching English as a foreign language seemed like a top idea. Living in one country for a longer period of time to really ingratiate myself into the lifestyle was something I’d never done before.

China was pretty high on my list. I was always captivated by it - a massive country with a long, rich history - a culture shock and a big world to learn about and explore. It sounded like a challenge and a unique opportunity.

Where did you hear about Career China?


Career China contacted me after I uploaded my CV to a website that advertised English teaching jobs abroad. They invited me to apply for a role in Wuhu for First Leap, an innovative teaching company specializing in primary school aged children. They informed me of what documents I needed, and set up the Skype interview.


Tell us about your journey to China.


Moving to China is quite a bit more complicated than going on holiday! Having said that, I definitely felt looked after by Career China, who go to great lengths to help smooth over that process.

After I accepted the offer from First Leap, Career China handled the process of getting me to China. The visa process can be complicated - you have to give a criminal background check and a basic medical form - but Career China provides you with a support representative to guide you through and answer any questions you might have.


Thankfully a lot of the difficulties were taken care of for me. The outbound flight was paid for, and as I was working in a franchise city, I didn’t need to search for a place to live because I was already provided with an apartment! Apart from that, it’s just the usual hurdles like the culture shock, which I had psychologically prepared myself for.

I first had to go to Beijing for two weeks paid training by First Leap. There was a representative from Career China to meet me at the airport and take me to the hotel, and another to help me with getting a Chinese sim card, get full medical checks in China, and help get me to my center city.

I’m sure this all seems very daunting, especially if you’ve never traveled before, but Career China’s job is to help bridge that gap from that scary unknown to starting your exciting life in a new country.

What do you enjoy about living in Wuhu?


Wuhu is a beautiful franchise city on the Yangtze River in Anhui Province, 35 minutes train ride from Nanjing, and about 4 hours bullet train ride from Shanghai. It’s a smaller, peaceful city compared to many main teaching hub cities in China.

I enjoy the out-of-the-way-ness of it whilst still feeling like you can get whatever you need. It has great local food, especially, and western food. There aren’t many foreigners in Wuhu, so you’ll be considered somewhat of a curiosity. Expect lots of questions!

It also has access to many exciting sights and attractions, including the Yellow Mountain, the Marin Qifeng glass bridge, an ancient city, and four Fantawild theme parks!

The usual weekend activity for the other foreign teachers and I is to visit some area of the city or province we’ve never been before and go on a small adventure. We keep finding unique things to do. Otherwise, there’s plenty of shopping opportunities, and some might be surprised to hear that there's a few excellent places for craft beer!


Why did you start a YouTube channel?

I’ve always been passionate about anything to do with moving image - having been to film school and always making videos of some kind. Starting a YouTube channel about traveling, my other great passion, seemed like the natural choice.

I started Shy Guy Travel a few years ago as a means to show people the more meaningful benefits to one’s life that accrue when you go traveling, interviewing fascinating people from all around the world about their experiences and advice for anyone who’s hesitant about going abroad.

Recently I began posting more regularly to document my life in China and open a window into the lifestyle and the various hi-jinks my friends and I get up to. It’s a travel vlog looking to get a little bit deeper. Some of it is about daily life, and other videos are drawing unique insights into Chinese culture.

Learn more about how teaching abroad can help you grow your social media platforms.

How has the transition been from teaching in a classroom to teaching online?


Hearing that the teaching content was going to be moved online, I was intrigued to see how it could be pulled off. The lessons at First Leap are very interactive and involve a lot of movement and games, so I was wondering how well that would translate.

The company managed to convert almost all of the content that we would have been teaching in the classroom in an amazingly short time, and considering the less than ideal circumstances it works really well. I still get a good interaction with the students via the webcam and I feel they come away with the target language outcomes just fine.

The biggest challenge is definitely classroom management. It's a lot more difficult to keep the students attention via webcam. Some students definitely find it easy to get distracted! Obviously the dynamism of the real life classroom means you can always find a way to inject some energy into the class. That’s not as easy to do online.

But there are ways you can regain their attention and maintain energy…

Read More: How I Transitioned To Online Teaching in China

What are 5 fun ideas you use to engage your students?


1.Have a cuddly toy next to you who can set the right example by sitting nicely and answering the questions.

2. Get a white board to draw pictures, show examples, play games, etc.

3. Use the in-built features of the software like the games, dice and pen to switch the activities up a bit and make them a bit more of a competition.

4. Use a variety of silly voices when a character in the class is talking.

5. Encourage the students to use their environment to help with their learning, like finding examples of “long” and “short” things.

Read more: 10 Ways To Engage Your Online ESL Students

Any especially memorable moments with your students?

When we’re doing roll class at the beginning of class we’re encourage to do a little bit of review and build rapport with the students. For example, as we’re calling out the students’ names, we ask “how are you?” Normally they will respond with something they’ve learned like “I’m happy, how are you?”

But one time one of my students thought it would be funny, because this particular class had just learned about food, to say “I’m chicken!” or “I’m noodles!” Now every roll call, the students of this class compete with each other to say the funniest thing, for example “Michael is a fish,” which results in howls of laughter from the kids.

Another memorable moment: In a recent online class, the target language was, “What are you doing?” followed by “I’m…” naming some activity such as dancing or painting. One exercise was for the class to ask one student “what are you doing?” and then the student answering whilst doing the action. One student went all out, putting on a pair of sunglasses and doing a dab, saying, “I’m dancing!” Cue more howls of laughter, except this time they were from me.

What’s your favorite thing about living and teaching in China?


The best thing has to be the ability to experience a different culture and lifestyle in a fuller way. If you do this long enough you might find you’re becoming a more confident and well-rounded person - this has definitely what I’ve been feeling.


How can people follow your adventures in China?


Subscribe to “Shy Guy Travel” for regular insights into life in China. You can follow me on Instagram and DM me any questions about life in China here: @jamessmithfree

Ready to start your own adventure teaching in China? Apply today!

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