Finding Your Way and People in a Foreign Land

The Adventure Starts Here

When I knew I would be moving abroad and teaching English in Beijing as a single 28 year old, it really seemed like the world was my oyster and anything was possible. I imagined that I would have a year full of adventures and many friends and it will all happen at light speed. This was all true but not at the pace I initially anticipated.

I did meet a lot of people but finding “my people” or social circle did take some time and although in hindsight that is OK.  When I first got to the foreign land with a huge language barrier (Beijing), it was certainly daunting but this was a catalyst for me to actively go out and socialize, say yes to invites and open myself up to people; local and from afar to shape my very enriching experience.

Most Foreign Teachers/Trainers will undergo some form of training before they start working and that will be where you may meet some fellow colleagues who will become your friends. In my case; I started my training with 2 other male teachers who were placed in different areas so whilst training was fun.  We were eventually separated. This was actually a very good thing because the center (school) that I was placed in was one of the largest and seemed to be the most exciting one located in the city center. 

Do Some Research

When teaching abroad, it is important to do some research about the area you will be situated in. Thanks to On the Mark Education, that I was placed at a very well known school to teaching English in Beijing. This will give you an idea on where you want to look for an apartment (if you have to find your own), work out transportation costs and give you a glimpse of what your lunch breaks look like. I was lucky because I was situated in a prime area in Beijing, found an apartment 20 minutes away on foot and 8-10 minutes away by taxi, a short cycling distance as well. There was a Starbucks downstairs, a gym upstairs and many restaurant options nearby.

Once settled in my center, I found that the people I worked with were really friendly and accommodating and very soon my colleagues became my friends. With time and many nights out later, the excitement of a new foreigner in their midst wears out and you soon find your niche and your circle of buddies. When hanging out with Chinese locals you will learn that they are very friendly and fascinated by your culture, home country and way of life and are quite eager to share theirs. They love to ask you if you like Chinese food and will be surprised if you don’t. Chinese local food can be very different for people who are used Western food but you will always find something you like; I loved Tofu, Kung Pao Chicken and Hotpot so I would focus on naming the foods that I did tickle my taste buds favorably.Teach English in Beijing

I was lucky that my center hired quite a few new Foreign Teachers since I started and everyone became a friend. I was also the only Foreign female surrounded by fun foreign males so I quite enjoyed that. Our center had monthly socials and dinners and was the popular location choice for new Teacher training so it was a great opportunity to meet new Foreigners. I am friendly by nature and would introduce myself to new Teachers and offer help and forged some new friendships.

Making New Friends

There were times that I was invited out by a group of people and I would have other plans; I noticed that declining once or twice was not taken well and many Chinese locals see it as “losing face”; saying No or declining something may be seen as an insult so its another cultural difference I learnt after experiencing it. Coming from a world where its Okay to say no to something if its not what I want or if I was busy; I needed to be aware of when and how and who it was okay to say it to.

Eventually, I had a group of friends (who were predominantly my colleagues) to hang out with almost daily and a few other friends that I met along the way to hang out with on days off and so on.

One of my closest friends in China was actually a student from another centre who visited ours occasionally and approached me when I was walking home. She was so interested in how I looked (Indian – you hardly see Indians in China and get many obvious stares or fingers pointed at you as they shout out “Hindu Hindu”)  and where I came from (South Africa) that she wanted to take me out to the Summer Palace and get to know me better. This happened in my first 2 weeks so I was very excited by the generous offer. I loved her personality and obliged with no hesitation.

After a great day out, we became friends who later went to clubs, spas and had many “girl adventures” together. Another good friend of mine was a woman I met when I was lost in a Hutong en route to meet a friend. She walked with me for nearly 45 minutes helping me find my way; I later invited her out to lunch to thank her and learnt that she was an Executive Producer at CCTV and invited me to tour the studios and have lunch together at the Beijing Film Studio. How lucky was I?Eating out in Beijing

All of these experiences did not happen overnight. It’s important for Teachers to know that when you go to a new place, there may be hiccups along the way and if it’s your first time traveling abroad then 2.5 – 3 months in is when the honeymoon phase wears off and homesickness may hit you like a ton of bricks. It’s important to surround yourself with people and go out, meet new people, see new places and find things that can comfort you. This happened to me and I made it my goal to go out and socialize and meet as many new people as possible until I found my circle which I did and had the greatest experiences.

Teaching adults definitely made it easier to make new friends and experience the Chinese culture because I was often invited to experience authentic Chinese culture, food and lifestyle. You will find that students and Chinese colleagues and friends love to take you out and show you around, introduce you to everything they find interesting and appealing about their land with hopes that you see that too and there is no doubt that you will.

If you are in Beijing; here are some tips to meet new people and have a better social life:

  • Make “The Beijinger Website” your No.1 friend first – thebeijinger.com – This website will advertise many events, socials, mixers, classes (for e.g.: dance classes, calligraphy, Chinese lessons etc.) You can go to events and learn new skills and make new friends
  • out with a friend/friends to Sanlitun (this is the “Foreigner area”) with a very fun and active nightlife – there is always a fun place to hang out or do your nails and get a facial during the day. It is a great place to meet other Foreigners too.
  • The Bookworm – also in Sanlitun – this is a restaurant/drinks/coffee place and library. You can borrow and buy books, sit down and do your work or read while having a drink and something to eat; it also has free wifi and hosts many events. You can join their network and get invited to events. This is also a good place to meet people.
  • Be open minded and go out with people especially the locals – its the best way to experience the Chinese culture.

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The Single Best Word – Teacher

I don’t really consider myself an instructor even though I am teaching English in Thailand. I’d say I’m a “Classroom Facilitator” and I’m not completely confident in that, either. However, all day long I am called to assistance by other people’s children. I help all 675 of my students communicate, write their nickname in English, or retrieve a stolen pencil. They call me their Teacher. 

I don’t teach thought provoking lessons, or deep subjects about philosophy. Instead, I hold up a picture of a cupcake and have the students repeat it 100 times. Sometimes I get snazzy and teach a song, or have them race to the board as I call out a vocabulary word. It will inevitably end with someone bloody and me full of chalk, but hopefully, they will soon remember how to say “Alligator” (Hard g, guuu). Truthfully, it doesn’t matter, language is a small part of being a language teacher anyway; just look at my day.

Thai classroom

The Beginning

In the morning, I can see the students running to my office through my window, and I wait expectantly. They trip over themselves and fall into my open door frame, “Good morning Teacher Rose!” They shout with enthusiasm. “Good morning, students.” I reply quietly, hoping to keep the peace that was there before they arrived. My office is their safe place; no matter what their home life is like, in my presence they are safe, fed, and loved. 

At lunchtime, they rattle off without a breath, “Teacher! Good afternoon my name is Prim I am 9 years old.” This is there way of saying, “I want to make contact, I come in peace.” I am there to approve their hard work. My excitement shows that they have the ability to learn. I wave back and they copy my movements. Their smiles warm my heart and I am glad to give a boost to their self-worth in learning. 

In the class room I will do my best to explain the worksheet. I exaggerate my movements, to show that they will circle the correct answer. I over enunciate, to help them hear every letter so they associate what is on the board with what is on the sheet. I fail.

As I pass out the worksheets, they each begin to call me one-by-one to help them figure out what to do. “Teacher! Teacher!” I look around to all fifty sets of eyes on me, whining and demanding me by name, ”Teacheeeeeeeeer” I’m their leader, and the most important person, at that moment. Even though I just explained it to the whole class (that chose to ignore my lesson) It is my job to lead them through the learning process. In this moment I wish I had a teacher to whine to, “No, you do it for me! Make them get it. Teacheeeeeerrrrr.” 

Midday: Half Way Home

The next class starts, I run feverishly papers in hand. One of my students is waiting for me outside, she grabs my hand, “Hello, Teacher.” she says in a soft voice as she plays with my fingers. She is an only child that lives with her single-parent dad. Every night she goes home from school and works in their food stand until 10pm. Sometimes she falls asleep in class (and I let her sleep in peace.) To her I am a female maternal figure. I am squishy and loveable, a girl to hug her whenever she wants.

As we enter the class and a boy comes running up to me pointing to a boy crying in the corner. He begins to act out who hit him and why. The guilty boy sits scared at his desk, he begins to plead his case, “No Teacher, Pek…” He calls me teacher in his native language scrambling for words to prevent him from getting in trouble. I rub the boys back, who’s sitting in the corner and look at the naughty one sternly. I put them both in their seats and start the lesson. This time teacher means healer and referee. 

As the sun starts to slowly make its way down the horizon, I have heard the word teacher a million times for a million different reasons.  And when the classrooms have emptied and the kids are full of knowledge and noodles, they leave me in my office, in silence, after they come to say goodbye, “Goodbye Teacher Rose, see you again tomorrow.” They wave happily. I am their smile at the end of the day to remind them that they did actually do some work at school. esl jobs in Thailand

The End

At night, I have dinner in our town square. I am cat-called by seven-year-olds with their parents, “Teacher, Teacher, hello.” I look as they blush, smile and nod to their parents with pride. They communicated in English to their Teacher, everyone in that circle is incredibly impressed. I am their validation of their day.

I might only teach a few vocabulary words, I might barely teach at all; but there is one single word that I have earned. Whether I hear the word yelled to me from a bus on the street, or screeched at me from a whiny eight year-old in class, no matter who the child is, or what the reason, it stops my heart and takes my breath away every time I hear it. I am their Teacher.