Leading up to my decision to go to China I had signed up for a beginner Chinese course at a nearby community college. I thought picking up a new language would be cool, something I could do in my free time and something that could be useful in the future. I was also searching for a new job at the time and I was looking for a career change. I had heard about teaching abroad programs before and I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to travel, try something new, and improve my language skills. That's when I found Ameson Year in China's (AYC) website. I didn't have any teaching background – I had graduated with a major in computer science. So, when I saw that AYC provided free TEFL training and most of the overhead that goes with teaching abroad, I thought it was a great choice for someone like me to get my feet wet. I had got in contact with the Regional Director Aegean He, went through an initial interview and, after a period of time getting my visa straightened out, studying for the online portion of the TEFL certificate, and ongoing communication not only with AYC but also with my placement school, I finally said goodbye to my parents and my life in America and boarded my plane to China.
When I first arrived in Shanghai everything was so fresh and new – I felt like I could conquer the world. I come from a small town in California called Lake Forest and my first look at China was in a big metropolitan city and it had all the amenities a weary foreigner could ask for. Many people spoke English and signs, menus, just about most things were "foreigner friendly". It was a great place to have our in-person TEFL training. Our group was pretty tight, some of us had been to Shanghai before so we would go on little trips on our own and venture around the cool districts, malls, and bomb food places around the city. During our week in Shanghai I felt very well taken care of with the all-day training sessions, all the questions we had, all the mini tours, and many local meals. The staff at AYC was very attentive and had a genuine interest to get to know us and prepare us for our next 10 months in China. Needless to say, the training went very well, we all passed the TEFL exam and before we knew it we were saying our farewells, being picked up by our school coordinators and were off to our placement cities.
When I first arrived in Quzhou, my placement city, I was greeted by fellow staff from the school. They took me to the local mall, called Dong Fang, to shop for any things I would need to be comfortable in my new room and they also took me out to dinner. That very first night in my city was when I learned what bai jiu was, or "white wine" when directly translated. Let me tell you, it definitely isn't white wine. It is a popular hard drink in China and has a higher alcohol content than tequila. I wondered why they gave me so little, I drank it all in one gulp! They all freaked out and said, "No no no!" as we all laughed. It was a great first night and the beginning of many nights to come.
My school helped me settle in and even gave me a week's rest to prepare until I began my teaching. During this time, I met fellow AYCers Caleb Corr and Frank Ong. Throughout the year the three of us would spend time at the local Dong Fang mall, cruise around town on our bikes or boards, played games at internet cafes, had late night shao kao, or Chinese BBQ, and took part in other shenanigans. We would later dub ourselves the Three Musketeers and be known to the other AYCers as the "Shenjia Crew" in the "Dirty J". Caleb had told us about a famous foreigner spot in the city and that we had to check it out sometime. So, one night we went and met up with practically every other AYCer in the city. That night I also happened to meet a very special girl named Jessie Xie, who I found out was a local Quzhou girl and whose English also happened to be very good.
And so, after many dinner invitations, gifts, greetings, and nights at KTV I finally started my teaching. The kids at my school are very sweet and very curious. They would yell, "Hello! Good morning!" in the hallways. They would give me high fives. I would see them on the public buses and they would yell to each other, "Wai jiao! Wai jiao!" which means "it's the foreign teacher! it's the foreign teacher!” and would come up to me and talk with me and give me some of their treats. Sometimes they would chase me down the hallway or yell outside of their classroom windows wanting chocolate. I tried conducting my class with rewards, games, and interesting videos to keep the students fixated and wanting to learn English. I wanted to show them new and amazing things, hopefully things they had never seen before to expand their imagination and dreams. I will never forget how they always react to Thanksgiving food – the loudest chorus of "wows!" you've ever heard. But it was difficult at times to keep their focus and motivation.I had to learn a lot along the way: how to deal with difficult situations, how to deal with a noisy classroom or a misbehaving student. It took trying different things, listening to others' advice, seeing what other teachers were doing, etc.
Thankfully the teacher’s assistant also helped a lot to keep the class under control. I learned that classroom management was one of the more difficult challenges I had to deal with. But it was so rewarding when I heard the students use the English I taught them in my classroom, outside of class. To this day I consider, "Where are you going? I'm going to eat! I'm going to class! I'm going to play!" taught to the third graders to be one of my most successful lessons. The other teachers at my school were very kind as well, always offering me fruit and inviting me to weekend excursions. The office at school was often bustling with Chinese song, students running in and out, random banter (sometimes which sounded like harsh arguing but really wasn't), and just trying to communicate with the other teachers whether it be in Chinese or English. Many teachers' English was quite good as well, many of whom weren't even English teachers! Whenever we spoke they would always use English – either to make me comfortable or so they could have an opportunity to improve their own English I wasn't sure, but it was comforting nonetheless. It also gave me a sense of just how much English was valued here, not only in Quzhou, but also in China.
I've learned that the school system is very different here than in America. Classroom sizes for one are at least double in size. Each classroom on average has at least 50 students, and teachers have to do their best to make sure each student is getting the material. I also learned that Chinese schools have very high standards. In America we think A's and B's are good. But I've heard teachers mention at my school how even a low A was not good enough, a B is bad, and anything lower than those are just terrible. The teachers' schedule is also quite different. They come in earlier and leave later than American schools. And so, if their schedule is like that, that means the students' schedule must be similar. They work much harder here in China and don't complain about it much.
Not only teachers and students, but most every person living in Quzhou. I complain sometimes about the noise from all the development, the air quality, traffic, the non-existence of lining up, and all the smoking. But that's what the Quzhou people grow up with. They also have to study very hard and have high pressure to do well on their tests. They have after school programs to give them a better chance at success or give them an extra skill like playing the piano or drawing. They also have to learn a second language: English! And older kids practically live at their schools. Sometimes it seems like their lives are very difficult, but they withstand it all. And many do become very successful. It amazes me what the Chinese are capable of doing, seeing them go through so much continual development. And so, overtime, I myself had developed a relationship with the students, teachers, and the city itself.
And I eventually began a relationship with the special girl I met at the cafe bar, Jessie. Naturally I started thinking about next year and what I was going to do. I wanted to stay in China, but I wasn't sure what job I was going to apply for. I tried looking for a job related to my major and eventually was offered a job in Shanghai! After having struggled with the decision for a long time, weighing the pros and cons, considering what I would potentially lose and potentially gain, I finally decided to stay so I could be with Jessie. Our feelings for each other kept growing and I spent my Chinese New Year with her family! It was definitely new and awkward at first. But they were super casual, which made me feel more laid back. I also met her grandma and uncles in a neighboring city called Longyou, where we had a lot of laughs and shared in the goodness of bai jiu. I knew I wanted to be with Jessie and so I eventually popped the question on a candlelit rooftop balcony and asked her to marry me, to which she said yes!
All in all, the AYC program has completely changed my life. I gained a new perspective not only on Chinese culture itself, but also on how that culture compares and contrasts with the cultures I grew up with. I came to China thinking I could teach and expose Chinese children to cool and new and foreign things, but China has inadvertently ended up teaching me many new, cool, and better things as well. All the members at AYC have made sure to make my stay here in China as comfortable and accommodating as possible. And with the help and support of all my fellow AYC Educational Ambassador’s here in Quzhou, Lishui and Changsha, I have made fond memories and lasting friendships. My hope is that my work here in this school and in this city can give the children an enjoyable and practical learning experience and seeing where it can take them within China and beyond!