Mary Ratermann, who was placed in Hangzhou, has found an elegant solution to the lack of nearby expats – she has befriended her students. “Actually, I think they initiated it,” she says, but the outcome is the same: Mary spends meals and weekends chatting with her high schoolers, who follow her wherever she goes. “I’ve definitely had students who’re waiting for me at like 6 o’clock like, ‘Oh, you’re here, let’s have breakfast together,’ like, how long have you been waiting for me?”

Perhaps Mary’s students are particularly drawn to oral English because they attend a tourism vocational school, which means that all of them one day plan to become flight attendants, tour guides, or hospitality workers – fields in which spoken English is a necessity. The whole school is set up to train them in these specialties, with two floors dedicated to simulations. One floor, the hotel floor, includes Mary’s room.

It can be difficult to connect with dozens of Chinese high school students, but for Mary, the key was remembering her own high school days: “I was too shy to raise my hand and ask the teacher if I had questions,” she says. She didn’t want her students to fall into the same trap, so she devised a plan. “I gave them all of my contact info – my phone number, my QQ, my WeChat, everything,” she says. “At first the messages trickled in slowly, but then one girl – I don’t know how she got the gumption to do this – one girl invited me out for the day. She took me all around Hangzhou, showed me the city, then she took me to her home and I met her family and they gave me longjiang tea – her mother is a tea farmer and her house is surrounded by tea fields, and we went and picked some tea. After that, every weekend, students would come into class and ask, ‘Are you free this weekend? I want to take you here.’” This relationship with her students has been not just a way to spend time, but the essence of her time in China. “Exploring the city with my students has definitely given me the experience that I’ve had,” Mary says. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”