Aren’t you a tad bit curious of what it’s like to live in a country like China? My latest expat interview was with a good friend of mine, Jaime, who is living in Tianjin, China and working as a teacher. Before moving to China to teach, Jaime was a teacher in Australia and you never know where she will be jetting off to for her next job.
I met Jaime years ago through a friend of mine at the time who was attending the same university as her in Canada. From there, we ended up both working in Spain for multiple summer as English camp counselors, and spent the entire summer of 2011 living in close quarters at a summer camp in the North of Spain.
Find out what Jaime had to say about teaching and living in China in her interview below.
Tell us a bit about your job and the school you teach for.
I work at an International School in an economic area (suburb) of the city of Tianjin, China. It is the third most populated city in China with an urban population of 11 million. It is a Chinese school but the students are taught the Canadian curriculum (BC), in hopes to complete post-secondary school in Canada. This is my second year at this school, and this year I am the school’s Academic Advisor and I also teach grade 12 Geography. I mostly work with grade 12 students by advising them on their pathways and post-secondary options. The idea is, that they graduate from this school and study University or College in Canada.
How did you apply to become a teacher in China?
If you are a qualified teacher in Canada (specifically the province of the curriculum being taught) then it is very easy. Schools all over China are always in need of teachers (ESL too), so anyone, even if you don’t have a University degree can come teach ESL in China. For me, I went through an agent in Ontario who I had a Skype interview with and she relayed my interview performance and CV to the head office of the company, which is located in British Columbia, Canada. I had to apply to get my qualifications to teach in British Columbia, which required some paperwork and a fee. The head office communicates with the office in China and they handle getting your working Visa and all other necessary documents. The process is very easy because the company/school takes care of everything; you just hop on a plane (which they also pay for), find accommodation and start your working contract. I would highly recommend to anyone considering working abroad to consider China, even if just for half a year to a year, there is so much to know about China that I can’t even begin to describe, you just have to live it to understand.
What was your biggest fear before moving to China?
I suppose my biggest fear would be feeling isolated. This was the first time I would be embarking on a new adventure solo (to a country that doesn’t speak my language too). It would also be the first time finding an apartment and living on my own (having previously come from university and Australia living with friends). So loneliness had crossed my mind as being an adjustment to my previous lifestyle. However, once I got here all those fears quickly diminished, because in my first apartment I had many “roommates”…. cockroaches. After chasing them around with a shoe and losing several nights of sleep, I ended up moving in with a fellow Canadian teacher who had a spare second bedroom. It ended up working out perfectly because we both were able to save more money this way, and turned out we had several mutual friends because we worked for the same company as teachers in Spain (and apparently even met briefly at a rooftop pool party). After a year of working and living together I can call this gal one of my best friends.
What is your favourite thing about living in China?
Choosing one would be just too damn difficult! One of my favourite, though, is the language, or should I say language barrier. Many people find it annoying and frustrating, but I love it. Attempting to communicate with your cab driver, trying to order food at a restaurant, buying a ticket at the train station – daily activities that seemed so simple back home turn into a game of gestures, smiling, pointing and “pleco-ing” (a translation app). I find it highly amusing and the locals get a kick out of the game as well.
Another favourite is the food, specifically the cheap beer and street barbecues. Everyone pulls up a mini stool (practically sitting on the ground) around a little table outside and orders chuan (meat on a stick). You simply point to the random assortment of raw meat on sticks and hope you choose an animal that you are familiar with. It is a great atmosphere at night, especially when the weather is warm. During the winter though there are still heaps of amazing Chinese cuisine to choose from. Hot Pot is very much a winter time cuisine because of the warmth it brings to the table, as well as the spicy heat! I prefer going to a local hole-in-the-wall restaurant near my apartment, the owners really get to know us (my coworkers and I) and we have our favourite dishes (spicy green beans, spicy shredded potatoes, mutton and cumin, beef noodle, etc.), so much deliciousness to choose from. One downside though is the amount of oil the kitchen staff floods all the dishes with, that is what usually causes all the stomach pains (everyone gets their fair share of “Beijing Belly” or “Beijing Bum”).
Anyways, I could go on and on about all the amazingness China has to offer and what an eye-opening experience it is to live here (but perhaps for a limited time only).
What is your least favourite thing about living in China?
My least favourite part of “Northern” China is, hands down, the pollution! It hasn’t been too bad this year, luckily, but there are some days when you cannot even see 10 meters in front of you. Apparently, they are cutting back on the burning of coal, but even on a “good” day, the air quality index is still 10 times worse than a “polluted” day in North America. They definitely have some progress to be made yet, but I think in the next 5 years it will get better. I have caught 2 respiratory infections just this past year, Northern China, especially my province, is really bad for the burning of coal, and I am feeling the side effects already. However, Southern China is much more livable, and if you choose to live in a small community, you might even be the only “laowai” (foreigner), so you will really get to know the language.
How has teaching abroad in China (and before that Australia) taught you?
Teaching abroad has made me appreciate having a career that allows you to live abroad and travel, and I couldn’t be more thankful for the opportunities I have experienced. Even though I haven’t lived in Canada for 3 years and have become rather disconnected from the happenings back home, I am extremely happy with my decision to live elsewhere. Your 20’s are your prime years for exploring what makes you happy as a person and to live day-by-day without a real plan, your 30’s are for when you have to plan more ahead (if you want marriage and kids, etc). But for now, I am enjoying new culture, language, friends, my career and countries. As cliché as it sounds, I have discovered a lot about myself as a person, a traveler and a teacher.
What has been your favourite discovery in your city?
Favourite discovery… well seeming how I love food, probably any new food joint I stumble upon. That, and the nail salon, where I can go to relax and get my feet scrubbed and shellacked for about 1/3 of the price in Canada. I consider finding good food and a good nail salon to be a discovery because I can’t read any of the signs here since they are Mandarin characters, so if you are lucky enough to find something beneficial to you, it is quite the discovery! I recently discovered a hole-in-the-wall soup shop that sells a big bowl of spicy homemade noodle soup for the equivalent of $1 Canadian – quite exciting! My city is quite developed for China, it is very much a business city, and so many shops accommodate for the foreigners (e.g. McDonalds, KFC, Subway), but that also drives the prices up at most places. If I were to stay for a third year here in China, I would definitely move to the South where it is warmer, there is cheaper food, longer growing season of fruits and a smaller town to put more pressure on myself to learn the language.
Where have you had the chance to travel to while living in China?
You will never have as much vacation time ever in your life, than what you have by teaching in China. Not only do you still get your summer holidays (July and August), but you also get the Chinese New Year, which depending on the lunar calendar falls somewhere around mid-January to mid-March, providing teachers with an extra month off.
I have travelled to the North of China, to the city of Harbin, to see the renowned Snow and Ice Festival, the South of China, to Hainan and Guangxi province for the beach and mountains. I’ve also been to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, South Korea, Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia, each with quite the story to tell.
What has been the biggest adjustment for you since moving from Canada?
The biggest adjustment of course is leaving family and friends. It is never easy to say, “see ya next year” to the ones you love. But times have changed, and it now easier than ever to connect (if China internet cooperates and VPN is working) with people from back home.
Also I will never take the sun, clouds, rain and fresh blue skies for granted ever again! I will be thankful everyday I see them as soon as I step foot on Canadian soil. That is definitely another major adjustment, to go days without seeing the sun because the pollution is so dense.
If I was to pack up and leave to come visit you tomorrow, where would you take me?
Visiting China and living in China, is completely different. Same goes for any place. It is impossible to have the same experience for someone visiting vs. someone living.
But seeing how I live near Beijing, it is inevitable I would take you to see the “wonder”ful Great Wall of China. It really is quite amazing (on a clear day), you really are able to understand the history of it and the size. I would take you to all the local restaurants and have you taste all the different spices and delicious food my city has to offer.
If you came during Chinese New Year, I would recommend going to see the snow and ice festival in Harbin (very much worth checking out), and joining in on all the crazy antics of the New Year, they take it very seriously, non-stop fireworks to celebrate. Be prepared for jam-packed subways, airports and streets though. You cannot truly experience the number of people living in Beijing, until you take the subway during rush hour, it will bring a whole new meaning to the phrase “packed like sardines.” I would also recommend that you go visit the South of China to see the beautiful landscapes, just know that if you go visit a smaller town or village that you may be the first “laowai” they have ever seen, so be prepared to feel like either a celebrity or an alien (lots of photos and lots of stares).
Jaime will be returning back to home soil in Canada in July 2015 and then after some time visiting family and friends in Canada will potentially be jetting off on her next teaching adventure in Europe.