by ARIELLE BEAN (summer teacher in Shaoxing in the summer of 2012)
I’m the type of person who exhaustively researches a place before arrival, both out of curiosity and a need to at least create a sense of preparation. Unsurprisingly, not all of this information proves useful during the actual trip. That said, where employment and travel mix, it’s better to be over prepared.
Here are some thoughts from my summer teaching internship in Shaoxing, China.
Before Your Trip
Avoid Being Lost and Homeless
Well, this was sorted out neatly for me as I went through a program called Teach English In China. They helped with visas, airport transportation, and accommodation. I normally like to travel independently but having these technicalities taken care of was invaluable and meant that I could focus on teaching and enjoying China.
Having spoken to teachers who opted out of a program I think having accommodation sorted beforehand was key – it cut out problems with unreturned deposits, many repair miscommunications, and cockroach infestations.
Definitely ask if you have to wear a uniform before you go. All of my work appropriate summer dresses that gather dust in Scotland were less useful than expected after I found out I had to wear a company polo shirt to work everyday.
This depends slightly on when you’re paid (and if you’re not going through a program, I recommend getting your payment plan in writing). Our pay came at the end so we needed funds for the whole trip. On average I spent, £8 a day. Day trips usually cost me £20-30.
Completely Random Item I Wish I’d Brought
A small gym towel. While I don’t feel right complaining about the heat after Scotland, just stepping outside will make you start panting and sweating.
All of our washing was done by hand. It might be worthwhile to pack a few hangers before you go for drying out clothing. This is particularly helpful if you’re in a hotel – we didn’t have wardrobes so there weren’t any in the room.
The Shanghai Tea Scam was still in full swing last summer. The first group of people I encountered in Shanghai tried to coerce me into coming with them for an ‘authentic Chinese tea experience’. This was the only time in China I felt like I was in a scam situation but do watch out for it.
During Your Trip
Keep Age a Mystery
We were told not to give our age (or if asked say we were 25ish), which turned out to be helpful advice. Many of the advanced students were only 1-2 years younger than us and while the student-teacher dynamic was more relaxed than I expected, it was better to keep age a mystery to maintain some form of ‘teacher status’.
Eating out in large groups was often the cheapest way to go. It was also necessary at restaurants that had ‘Lazy Susans’ on their tables as portions were meant for sharing and all sides had to be ordered separately.
Although there are tons of picture menus (thanks Chinese food god!), ordering required a lot of ‘charading’. The Lonely Planet phrasebook came in handy and was a much better investment than the guidebook (my mom lovingly refers to these as the Loser Planet books after it led us to the red light district in Hong Kong).
Get a business card for your hotel (if applicable) and school. After we finally found our school amongst some nondescript skyscrapers, we acquired cards to show future taxi drivers.
Always bring your passport to the train station (including pre-booking tickets) and recruit someone to write down your desired destination in Chinese – the time to practice Chinese is not when fifty people are in line behind you trying to catch the same train.
Embrace Your Karaoke Goddess
Never have I ever sung Backstreet Boys in a karaoke bar sober AND in front of people – until China. KTV bars are dotted around cities and were very popular with our students. I had a blast considering I have no singing talent and thankfully I don’t think there is recorded evidence.
It’s also a chance to show your students that you’re willing to step outside of your comfort zone (and that’s essentially what we ask from them in every class).
The Stare and Snap
A fellow teacher and I both separately encountered ladies who carried photo albums stuffed with pictures of themselves with foreigners and asked if we would join their collection. Most people don’t ask before they snap photos of you but it’s definitely harmless.
Phones in Class
I’m not sure I could ask a student to stop using their phone without being a complete hypocrite but usually the students are using it for translating words they don’t understand rather than other popular alternatives.
Things I Still Can’t Quite Figure Out
1. I can’t even count the number of times I got in a taxi and they kicked me out after hearing my desired destination.
2. What is the purpose of having the ‘little green man’? At best, it provides a loose guideline for cars not to clobber pedestrians but it mostly acts as an unacknowledged street decoration.
This is the tiniest snapshot of one of my best summers. Even with a previous summer of teaching experience, an outgoing demeanour and ‘go with the flow’ attitude proved to be much more important during the trip. If you’re looking for a change after a year in the bubble, I highly recommend looking into teaching in China.
Also, if you have any questions about upcoming internships in China or are looking to apply for jobs feel free to send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org