Tag Archives: living abroad

Language Barriers in the Classroom

Language Barriers are Expected

One of the challenges of Teaching English as a Foreign Language in any country is the language barrier. And I’m not just talking about the language barrier I experience with the children, as that is to be expected. That is the reason that we have Chinese Teachers in the classroom, especially when dealing with the youngest children who are being exposed to English for the first time. It is very helpful when teaching a group of three-year-old’s what the rules of the classroom are. For some of the children it is their first time in a classroom, and it is primarily conducted in a language that they don’t yet speak. While we try to avoid direct translation when possible, it is sometimes necessary with the youngest/lowest level students. However, sometimes the language barrier also comes up with my Chinese teaching assistants, and finding ways around that is sometimes the most challenging part of working at my school in Beijing.

I really admire the Chinese teachers I work with, because I have never been challenged in quite the way that they have chosen to challenge themselves. They all live in their native country where the majority of people speak their native language and they choose to work in an environment where they are required to spend a good part of their day communicating in their second language, as the majority of Foreign Teachers don’t speak that much Mandarin. Some of them do it as a way to improve their own English levels so that they may eventually go to university or get jobs in the USA, UK, or Canada, while others have different motivations.

Chinese Teacher in Beijing

Relationships with Chinese Teachers

So far, I have had very positive experiences working with my Chinese Teachers in the classroom. They are delightful people who really care about their work and want to help you however they can. One of the biggest parts of their job is talking to the students’ parents, so it is very important for the Foreign Teachers to communicate well with the Chinese teachers about what material will be covered in a class and when. Depending on your relationship with them and how you both feel the class functions best, you can co-teach with them or they can function more as an assistant in the classroom.

English Levels Will Help Determine that Relationship

Sometimes this will depend on the Chinese teacher’s English level vs the English level of your students. CTs with a relatively high English level have an easier time helping teach higher level students, but when you get to the really high level classes, they tend to struggle to be active in the class and will take a more passive role. This isn’t really a bad thing considering that in these classes the students’ level of English is high enough that they can communicate easily with a Foreign Teacher. 

Chinese Teacher in Beijing

In one of my classes, the students’ English level is actually higher than our Chinese teacher’s so she and I have worked out other ways that she can help me in the classroom. She provides a lot of the materials I need and assists with making sure all students stay on task.

Good Communication

Good communication is key to doing this job well, and I have found a few ways that help communication between people who have a very high language barrier. One is to keep the language simple. Sometimes you may feel disrespectful by dumbing down your language, as you may feel like you’re treating them like children. But if the situation were reversed, they would have to do the same for you. Also, try to avoid using idioms, which can be hard because as native speakers we often don’t realize just how many we use in our everyday speech.

The People You Will Meet in a Thai School

Meeting people is a way of life. People will come and go continuously throughout your entire life and well, that’s just the way it is. The best part about meeting new people is that each person, regardless of the type of relationship you have with them, is a unique being and has something unique to teach you. It’s my belief that every person that comes into my life is there for a reason and I’m always keeping my eyes and hears open for what that person is there for. I’ve been especially doing this with everyone I meet here in my Thai High school.

The Students

Thai StudentsMy students are the cutest! Well, most of the time. I love my students with all of my heart; even the ones who don’t like me because I know they are teaching me about myself.  Meeting your students during the first week of teaching might be a nerve racking experience if, like me, you have never taught before. If you don’t already know how to make a good first impression, you might want to spend some time researching/thinking about it!

The best advice I can give you is to smile. You will want your students to like you but you will also want them to respect you. There is a nice teacher/friend balance you will want to keep if you want the right amount of respect. Even though I am the teacher, my students seem to be constantly teaching me about myself! The bad classes definitely test my patience and the very smart classes teach me ways to think on my feet when I have finished the lesson plan in 15 minutes. The good students will worship you, want to take photos of you or with you, and will always say “hello!” when walking around school. The bad students might not give you a second glance. I guess this is just life though; not everyone is going to love you!

Also, teenagers will be teenagers, regardless of the country you are in. To think that every student will be fully engaged all of the time, when I have at least 500 students, is unrealistic. In the end, my students are the reason I am here, and you spend a lot of time with them, so you better be excited about meeting them!

The Thai Teachers

In the school, there will also be the other Thai teachers. If you are lucky like me, you will have some very helpful and loving teachers. The Thai teachers at the school have saved me and helped me through this entire experience. They are whom you go to for any questions about the school or even the town you are living in. I have two very good Thai teacher friends who are always checking up on me. They ask me how I am doing in my classes, take me out to lunch, and just help me in any way they can. I even had a very cool cultural experience of having a Thai teacher take me to her parents rice farm where I learned how to harvest rice and then had a very authentic Thai lunch!Pad Thai

It will be beneficial to get to know your Thai teachers because, like your students, you will also be spending a lot of time with them. You will have a much different relationship with your Thai teachers than your students and, for me, is a chance to learn more about the Thai culture. I can have full (English) conversations with them so I use that ability to understand things about the culture that I may have questions about. The Thai teachers are your coworkers, your friends, and a wealth of information for your time you spend in this foreign country.

The Lunch Employees

Thai TeachersLastly, but definitely not least, are the lunch employees! Well, every school is different and at your school you may have a sit down lunch every day, but at my school we have a canteen that we go to. My meals are around 20 TBH (less than 1$) and I find them very tasty!

My relationship with the lunch employees is somewhat shallow but nevertheless a good relationship. They cannot speak much English so every day when I see them; it’s usually a very short relationship consisting of a lot of smiling. These people can teach me a lot about the Thai culture as well, without having to say anything. They are always smiling, and always happy. This, in itself says a lot.

Being a “lunch lady” back in the States, is not socially defined as a very good job, and I remember them being so unhappy. This is not so here. They are so happy! Remember, everyone has something to teach you! The other reason you will want to get to know the lunch employees? FOOD, obviously, they will hook it up!!

The school in your new town will become your second home and the people you will meet will become your new best friends. The relationships you have with these people will have a defining factor on your experience as a whole, so you better create some good ones!

Yes, you are here teaching English, but don’t forget that you are also a student to life, where everyone you meet is a teacher.

Apartment Hunting in Beijing

Bring More Money

I moved to Beijing to teach English since Jan, 2017 and one of the most challenging parts of moving to a new country is finding a place to live, especially if you don’t speak the language. Beyond that, some cities and countries have different customs when it comes to paying rent than what is common in the USA. In the United States, it is customary to pay a deposit equal to one month’s rent as well as the first month’s rent. Often, you will be expected to pay last month’s rent as well, so the equivalent of about 3 months up front.

Paying Rent in China

In Beijing, China (and I imagine it’s similar for the rest of the country) it is customary to pay three month’s rent at a time, which means that when you rent an apartment, you are expected to pay a deposit, and three month’s rent at once. If you go through an agency, you will have to pay an agency fee as well which is usually equal to one month’s rent, so that’s up to five month’s rent up front when you first move.

My ApartmentOf course, I wasn’t aware of that when I first moved which caused a lot of anxiety when I first got to China.  I wasn’t sure I had enough money since it would be a little over a month before I received my first pay check. As it turned out, there are landlords that are willing to be flexible, but you have to hunt for them.

Agents can be helpful with that if you are willing to pay the agency fee, which my new roommate and I opted to do as we found more agents able to speak some English than landlords. We got very lucky that some agents were willing to postpone payment for the agency fee and found us landlords who were willing to be paid on a monthly basis. This may have been because it was close to Chinese New Year, and agents were desperate to get their commissions before rental prices rose again, but either way, it was helpful to us.

Helpful Agents Are a Blessing

The agents that we ended up getting a lease with were wonderful. They found us a few places within our price range and spent the day taking us around the neighborhood to see them. This was made a lot more exciting by the fact that they took us around the city on their motorbikes, which allowed us a chance to see the neighborhoods in a way we wouldn’t have just riding the subway. I wish I had had a Go-Pro camera to record the motorbike trip as it was the highlight of apartment hunting, but I do have some good pictures of the neighborhood we settled in.

Finding Our Place

Living roomThey showed us two apartments and one traditional style Chinese hutong, all within the same price range. We ended up deciding on the hutong as it was the best commuting distance to both of our centers (about an hour each with public transportation, which in Beijing is about as good as you can expect), and the landlord dropped the price from 8,000 RMB a month to 7,500 RMB. It’s a cute and comfortable little place that we’re happy with, even with the lack of a proper couch. The previous tenant also left behind several useful things, like our shoe rack, food shelves, cubbies, and a full set of Harry Potter books for our enjoyment!

It took a few days to get completely settled in, and after a few months I can say I probably won’t want to live in this apartment forever, but it will be comfortable enough for one year. If I decide to stay in China longer, I now know I will have to save up enough money to pay up to five month’s rent in advance, and then I will have more options open to me. However, I do really like the area that I live in, as there are lots of places to eat and there are not as many skyscrapers so it does not feel so metropolitan all the time. As much as I enjoy big city living, I like that my apartment and neighborhood allows me to feel like I am actually living abroad, rather than in just any other large city.

6 Life Lessons I learned From Living Abroad


1) How to deal with anything

I’ve thought of myself as a well-adjusted person, but moving abroad definitely pushed that to its limits. Is this a positive thing? You bet it is! Learning to “be okay with anything” while preserving your core set of values is a fine line to walk, but perfecting that balance is a great life skill to improve upon.

Whether it’s smiling through bites of that bizarre-looking sea creature that your Chinese friend’s family has served you for dinner, or learning to remain calm the first time a giant flying cockroach decides to move in to your room, or having to communicate your clogged toilet to your landlord via charades, the best route is always just to be okay with it. While many things you encounter may be scary, disgusting, or just plain bizarre, that’s something to celebrate! I am thankful for all my strange experiences in life because they equip me to better deal with future strange experiences, and they make really great stories along the way.

2) What’s really important

In learning to be okay with anything, you quickly learn what’s really important to you. Getting over my ‘type-A’ tendencies has been one of my favorite ways that I’ve changed since moving to Asia. Stores don’t sell my favorite brand of shampoo? This should surprise absolutely no one, and who on earth cares, because it’s not really important.

I’ve learned to be thankful that I HAVE shampoo, and also hot water coming from all my taps (in my new apartment at least). And although it almost goes without saying, I’ve also learned the value of relationships. Native-speaking friends that will go with me do mundane tasks, students who recognize when I need a hug, and a manager who understands that sometimes life as foreigner in China isn’t always easy. And even though they don’t sell my favorite kind of ice cream in China, there’s always that friend who laughs and says here, have a pineapple cake because they’re even better.

3) How much amazingly delicious food there is in the world

In my two and half years living in China, I have maybe eaten more delicious food that I have in the rest of my life COMBINED. If the stereotype is that Asian life revolves around food, then I’m totally on board with that stereotype, and for good reason: the food here is better than anywhere else on earth that I’ve lived and traveled. And I’m not just talking about the dumplings and fried rice.

Taipei has better western food than I’ve had IN THE WEST. The food here is in fact so good that there are literally only two things I miss from home: my parents’ cooking and pizookies. Yes, literally everything else is available in China and it’s probably the best version of that thing you’ve ever had. I’m not talking fancy food either. Some of the best food in the whole country comes from little food carts in night markets or random shops tucked into quiet allies. And he best part is that Taipei is one of the most walking friendly cities I’ve been to, so those delectable, very affordable eats never even make it to your waistline.

4) How to befriend anyone

Before I moved abroad, I had a very close-knit, small group of friends. I wouldn’t say we were cliquey, but it’s not like someone could just join the group…we were old friends, we’d known each other for ages, and I was the outlier in the group when I decided to move abroad. When you move abroad, you’re thrown head first into a place where you are instantly bonded with a group of people who have one thing in common with you…they’re all foreigners too. This group inevitably contains people from all over the world, from all walks of life, all with different stories to tell.

Many of the friends I’ve made in China are the kind of people I never would have met or even been interested in meeting back home, and this has made my life here incredibly rich and diverse in a way that I never could have imagined. In learning to find ways to relate to such a diverse group of people, I’ve realized how easy and wonderful it is to make new friends. It’s not a scary ‘letting someone into our group’ type of situation when you realize how interesting everyone can be, and how much they can teach you and make you a better person. Learning to befriend anyone has been the single best lesson living abroad as a foreigner has taught me!

5) Time management

I’ve never been busier in my life since moving to China, which is a choice I make simply because there’s so much to do and see here. Never has my life so embodied the idea of ‘work hard, play hard!’ I’ve learned that the days can be infinitely long if you use your time wisely. On any given day after working full time and tutoring extra, there’s still running to do, movies to catch, dinners to attend, parties to stop by, lessons to plan, and of course always time for a drink at my favorite local bar.

All of things I could have done in my home country, but the fact is that I didn’t. Living abroad gives me a certain energy that I never back at home. Perhaps that comes from the subtle realization of the passing of time when you’re time in a place is limited, or maybe it’s because it seems like my city never sleeps so neither should I! Either way, I’ve become great at managing time and living each day to fullest.

6) Learning to ask for help

I’ve always enjoyed my freedom, independence and I absolutely love helping others and being the go-to person when there’s a problem to be solved. However, asking FOR help was always something I avoided.
Moving to a country where I spoke two words of the language changed everything. (I knew how to say hello, nihao, and pudding. Useful eh?) To order food at a restaurant, I first had to ask someone how, memorize, and repeat. To find an apartment, I was totally reliant on others giving up their free time to help me. Hooking up internet or paying rent or calling the landlord for repairs, things I’d never thought twice about, where suddenly favors from my friends.

Independence is wonderful, but I’ve learned that strength can also come from the willingness to recognize where the boundaries of my ability lie. And these boundaries, of course, are not absolute. For every situation where help is required, I’ve learned something. I’ve learned what to say to the landlord the next time the toilet is clogged, learned how to order that particular dish in Chinese, and learned where to go next time my phone bill is late. Learning to ask for help has ultimately made me a more knowledgeable and independent person.  When the next generation of newbies arrive in my beloved adopted country, that will be my time to pay it forward!