If my life was a pole with a bunch of arrows pointing in a million different directions, China had never been on that signpost. It ended up being more like an emergency ejection seat; I didn’t know where I was going to land until I pulled the lever.
After taking an online TEFL course, I found myself signing a yearlong contract to teach English to kids in China without having ever stepped into a classroom as anything more than a student. “Why?” asked a lot of people. Well, it was simple. I wanted to see if teaching was for me, I wasn’t in any hurry to get back to the States, and as ever, my mantra was – “why not?”
Even though I wasn’t the least bit knowledgeable of the local customs, or even what my life would consist of beyond my job description, I packed up my backpack and said goodbye to the sand and sun of Australia. It wasn’t until my red-eye flight to Hong Kong, when the flight attendant tried speaking to me in Chinese, that I realized I had no clue how I was even going to eat.
There were many factors that contributed to why I didn’t run for the proverbial hills, and they all have names and mischievous grins. I never thought that, at 25 years old, I’d have 140 children, but for fifteen months, I did. And they have been my biggest adventure yet.
They were named Moon, Star, and Happy. Ocean, Yoyo, and Tiger. They were three-year-old monsters and twelve-year-old little sisters. They made six out of seven days of the week an unpredictable circus, where my stick figures were considered artwork and getting stars was the ultimate reward. They sucked me in until I realized my inhibitions were replaced by animal sounds and my atrocious singing.
It wasn’t easy. And I don’t mean “it wasn’t easy at first,” I mean it wasn’t easy. Period. I’ve found disciplining someone who doesn’t know what you’re saying pretty useless. Explaining games without a common vocabulary results in horribly erratic hand motions and awkward body language. Really, a Chinese-English thesaurus would have been extremely useful on both ends. You don’t always need a shared language to bond and understand someone, but it definitely helps.
The language battle was made easier over time as the students and I began connecting with each other on a more basic level. I remember when I first started understanding what the word “bathroom” sounded like in Chinese. That was a huge breakthrough. It made the younger classes go by more smoothly and with less… spillage.
But really, it happened without me even realizing it. There was a shift in my classes that all occurred, seemingly, at once. Teaching had slowly become my routine and, with it, everything became significantly easier. I could walk into each class and know what role I had to take on. To the babies, I was a large cartoon character that had to roll around on the floor and make learning the letter “A” interesting for an hour. For the older classes, I played a stand-up comedian who had to empathize and support them, meanwhile creating an environment that didn’t put them to sleep. Each class was distinct, all students individual, and every lesson was unpredictable.
However successful I became, my first class could have been classified as a Kindergarten riot. There were toys being thrown, students falling down, children clinging to my legs, and parents watching on suspiciously. With the Asian stereotype of calm, obedient students thrown out the window, distinct personalities emerged. Straight away, I fell in love with a few of my students, and grew to love the rest as the months went by. Beyond becoming an irresistible source of happiness and a welcomed challenge, these children solidified my hunch that I wanted to make teaching my career. They made me think that this was something not just for the moment, but for the future, and that maybe someday I could get paid more than $835 a month doing so. Maybe.
It was a new experience, knowing that I was ingraining something in someone, possibly even something they might carry with them for the rest of their lives (even if it was even just the word “yam”). Having students run up to me, waving their English test scores from primary school literally shortened my breath. They had succeeded, and so had I. Some classes that I had from the beginning consisted of three-year-olds whose knowledge of Chinese was limited, never mind their English. Starting from scratch and seeing how their language morphed into something intelligible was rewarding and startling. I had the feeling of, “I did that!” I was able to speak to these children who, a few months prior, could not answer, “How are you?” Sure, we were limited to talking about frogs and kangaroos and what they ate that day, but that’s about as philosophical as any three-year-old would get.
I guess that’s why saying goodbye to my classes after fifteen months together was so hard. Looking around at my students during my last few days, I was able to see the difference I had made in them. And I could feel the difference they had made in me. I had become desperately creative, resourceful, patient, and emotionally devoted to these children. To hell with my breakups! My students far surpassed them on the desperate-one-more-hug-don’t-say-this-is-goodbye-forever meter. I don’t care if you think that’s weird. You try prying a crying, four-year-old miniature Buddha from around your neck and then get back to me. The parents, students and I were all in tears as “I love you’s” were exchanged and promises of returning to China were made.
My students colored my life in China to an extent that I will never be able to look back on my time there and not think of them. If I could, I would have adopted every single one, or succumbed to stealing, but you know, a backpack can only hold so much.
Also, I’ve heard that the Chinese government isn’t very forgiving when it comes to kidnapping.
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