By Amy Penny, Teacher in Suzhou, 2019-Present
I have just begun my fourth week living in China (my third week of teaching Grade 2 in Wujiang Experimental Primary School) and everything appears to be falling into place. Almost everything has presented itself as a barrier to overcome: the culture, the language, the teaching. But these challenges have also been the most exciting aspects of my journey so far. In this post I will be talking about my first few weeks and how I am still finding my feet in this unfamiliar and incredible country.
Culture and Language
I was warned about the culture shock from the get go- and had prepared myself accordingly. Expecting to step off of the plane into a completely different world, I was surprised to find that while everything is a little different, it all works more or less the same. Wherever you are, people still want and need similar things. Of course the contrast between living in England and living in China is certainly still a big one (as was to be expected), but I have found that certain Western luxuries and comforts (cheese, cereal, milk) can still be found if you look hard enough. The shock that I did not prepare myself for, however, was the language barrier.
It seems silly to me that I expected anything but, however with the majority of people not speaking any English at all, you find yourself in all sorts of peculiar and confusing situations with little to no idea of how to get yourself out of them. With most European countries, you can almost guess your way through some the language, however with Chinese (both reading and listening) this is not something you can generally do. This makes almost every purchase an incredibly risky game, especially when trying to buy or order food. It honestly feels like it could be anything. Although despite all of this, it motivated me to fast track my attempts at learning Chinese. I now have a million and one apps downloaded on my phone (Duolingo, Hello Chinese, Pleco) to try to speed up the process and am looking for a Chinese tutor (with no luck as of yet). However, I do feel like I am picking up some of the language fairly quickly and with every day I spend here, the language barrier gets a tiny bit easier.
The teaching was the bit I was most scared about. I’ve moved to a foreign country before (don’t get me wrong, I was terrified to move to China) but teaching in a school is so far out of my comfort zone. As I mentioned in my last blog, at home I work as an outdoor adventure instructor. While teaching and instructing can sometimes overlap and fall under the same umbrella- teaching 45+ non-English speaking children in a classroom where I have only myself and the resources I provide to keep the children focused and interested is a completely different ball game. I felt physically sick with nerves the night before my first lesson- frantically messaging my mum for help and reassurance. I had little to no idea how much English they already knew, how they would behave, how the class was set up, etc. There were so many variables that I was unable to plan for, I haven’t been that nervous in a long time. However it all went well and relatively to plan.
My first lesson was a success- the kids were so excited to hear me speak they were almost silent and the small things that did not work quite as I had planned, I was able to adjust easily in time for the next lessons. Three weeks in and I am starting to find my feet in the classroom. I have found which teaching styles work best for me and the children and also which resources work well with which classes. As well as this, the people I work with are extremely friendly and inclusive- helping me both with teaching and also with certain aspects of everyday life in China that I can’t quite work out on my own.
I have only been here for three weeks but I have fallen in love with Suzhou. Hard. The place I am staying is a little out of town (20 minutes on the tube) but within walking distance is such a weirdly wonderful variety of scenes. There is a mall, a Walmart (containing all those Western comforts I mentioned), a beautiful lake and park, an authentic Chinese market place and a bright city strip- and that is only what I have found in the first few weeks of being here! Suzhou itself has and even more incredible range of things to explore. From the hustle and bustle of Times Square and the enormous Suzhou Centre Mall to the relaxing and breath-taking Buddhist Monasteries, the ancient city of Tongli and many, many spectacular lakes and parks. No matter how I am feeling, Suzhou has so much to offer that I find myself spoiled for choice- and it is all on my doorstep!
It has certainly been a strong and positive start to my year teaching in Suzhou, China- complete with stress, fear and at times a sense of complete bafflement. I am very much looking forward to whatever the next year has to throw at me and I am under no illusion that any of it is going to be easy!