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Teaching English in China

Q & A with Chris Walker-Bush

Chris started his travel career when he moved to South Korea to teach English. He spent two and a half years teaching in South Korea, and another two and a half years teaching in China.

What encouraged you to start teaching English abroad?

I was in a bit of a rut in life. After graduating from university, I'd somehow found myself back in my hometown working at a supermarket, living with the younger brother of a friend, and basically just drifting through life. The previous year had been a dull blur of video games, sleeping in, and buying DVDs in the hope that they'd make me feel less apathetic about my life.

When a friend asked if I would like to go to South Korea and teach, I originally baulked at the idea. I'd never traveled before and was a perilously shy kid, but my friends and my family were insistent that I take up the challenge and do something more rewarding with my life. I'm so glad they did. I dread to think who I would be today if I'd stayed in that situation.

What age level were you teaching? Were students taking the class mandatorily or as an elective?

In South Korea, I taught kids ranging in age from as young as four to around sixteen years of age. The start of my day would be all colouring in and singing and kids clambering all over me, and I'd end my days having more civilised discussions (or talking about StarCraft) with my teens. In all cases, these kids were doing additional English study after school. I wouldn't call it "elective," since their parents were forcing them to do it, but some took to it more willingly than others.

In China, however, I had a very different teaching experience. My students had all graduated from high school, but had failed to get into Chinese universities. This isn't necessarily a reflection on their intelligence, as the Chinese entrance examination is notoriously difficult and spaces are quite limited. My students were lucky enough to have parents who could afford to send them abroad to study, and they needed our help to achieve the necessary IELTS score (a test of English proficiency) to qualify for Australian, American, or Canadian universities.

While many of my students weren't terribly excited to have to learn more English after studying it their entire lives, most were willing enough knowing that at the end they'd be able to move somewhere exciting and study something more to their liking.

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What were the best and worst parts of your job?

The best part of my job would definitely be the bonds I formed with my classes. Regardless of their ages, I always managed to form a friendly working relationship with my classes. With the youngest kids it was mostly as an amusing purveyor of noise and new words, but I preferred the kind of companionable rapport I built with my older students. They'd often come to me for advice on matters outside of their schooling, and many of them still keep in touch with me via Facebook or WeChat (a Chinese messaging app).

The worst part was undoubtedly the lesson planning and preparation. I'm a "by the seat of your pants" kind of teacher. That didn't mean I'd go into classes without a plan, but I hated having to submit lesson plans before classes or write up which teaching objectives I felt I'd hit. I knew whether or not I was doing my job based on the way my students' eyes would light up when they finally understood a difficult point, and I didn't much care which teaching objective that correlated with.

How “foreigner friendly” was Nanjing?

Nanjing isn't quite as far along the path to Westernisation as cosmopolitan Shanghai, but it's a relatively developed and foreigner friendly environment. In the two years I called Nanjing home, a number of restaurants and big foreign chains made their mark in the city. When I started it was all Italian restaurants, pizzerias, and too-sweet bakeries if you wanted foreign food, but by the time I left, there were Arabic, German, Thai, Mexican, Spanish, and American cuisine options.

Nanjingers are a little bit backwards in some regards when it comes to foreigners, especially the older generation. You'd still get scowls or shoves or rude stares from a lot of them, but the younger generation were generally enthusiastic about the chance to interact with you.

A lot of signage in Nanjing is still solely in Chinese, and not a lot of locals speak English, but that did improve towards the end of my time there due to the city hosting the 2014 Youth Olympics.

It's not the most foreigner friendly place I've been to by a long shot, but it doesn't really have the tourism market to warrant that kind of blanket Westernisation. It was certainly not an unpleasant place to call home.

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Cotton candy vendor in Nanjing

After growing up in rural Australia, what was it like moving to a city with a population of 8 million?

Growing up as a country kid, it was a huge sea change being amid the hustle and bustle of cities even 500,000 people strong - so 8 million is a pretty huge leap. That said, after quite a few years on the road, I didn't find Nanjing quite as daunting as I did cities like Shanghai.

I guess a big part of that is that Nanjing is more sprawl than skyscraper. There are tall buildings there (the ninth tallest building in the world is in Nanjing, in fact), but it's more like a great mess of mid-range buildings than a truly daunting metropolis like New York or Seoul.

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You were in Nanjing, China for two and a half years, which means you speak Mandarin fluently. Was it as challenging to learn as everyone thinks?

I don't, actually! I really struggled to come to grips with Mandarin as a language, and the fact that I lived and worked in the foreign student district meant that I often didn't need to use Mandarin at all. I picked up the basics and some survival phrases, but I'm actually quite ashamed of how little Mandarin I learned. I actually speak more Spanish after a six week class than I do Mandarin after almost three years in China.

How did the locals of Nanjing treat you? Did they just see you as a tourist or as a resident?

Nanjing doesn't get a whole lot of tourists, so foreigners there are basically divided into three groups: students, teachers, and foreign professionals who work for big companies like Calvin Klein or Ford.

The students, I think, get a really organic introduction to China. As they're studying with Chinese students and Chinese teachers, they're getting exposed to the language and the culture from the moment they hit the ground. Teachers, on the other hand, are typically teaching classrooms full of English speakers and surrounded by fellow teachers. We really do miss out if we don't go out of our way to get involved.

For the most part, people are quite respectful (aside from the aforementioned old person racism). Taxis could be a problem, as they'd often slow down only to speed off when they saw you were white and therefore likely to be a more difficult fare than a local. It was all very small kinds of discrimination on the odd occasion where it did come up.

China is known for its huge cities and it’s vast countryside. Did you see a big difference between locals in the cities versus the countryside?

I was lucky enough to both travel to and work in smaller cities and villages. I spent six weeks in Lianyungang in northern Jiangsu as a substitute, and also spent time out in Sichuan and Xinjiang visiting less built up areas.

I definitely found that the Chinese people in these smaller towns and more rural regions were much warmer, friendlier, and more welcoming. It was rare I'd have to pay for a meal while working in Lianyungang because people were so eager to show their hospitality and spend some time with the 'only foreigner in the village.' It was really humbling.

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Away from the big business and the oppressive eye of the Communist Party, people seemed a bit happier too. What they lacked in material wealth, they made up for in a more relaxed lifestyle. My students in rural areas certainly seemed less run down and exhausted than some of my students back in the city.

What were some of your favorite trips throughout China?

I visited Xinjiang in far western China when I first arrived in the country and found it utterly fascinating. It is a largely Muslim state that is an unwilling part of China, so there were simmering tensions between the Uighur people who call it home and our Han Chinese driver when we visited. In recent years, the tensions have ramped up quite a bit, and I've heard rumours that soon Xinjiang will be subject to closed borders much like Tibet.

It's a real shame, as it is a truly beautiful region. There are towering, snow capped mountains and glaciers as well as these stunning grasslands dotted with yurts and nomadic people herding their cattle. It really is like another country, and it was considerably less developed and Westernised than the cities on the east coast that tend to all look the same.

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A nomad's yurt in Xingjiang

I also really enjoyed visiting Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan. It's a pristine mountain national park full of brightly coloured pools and unspoiled forest. It's so serene and clean that it's hard to believe you're in one of the most populated, rapidly developing nations on earth.

You started a sitcom about expats in China. How did that play out? Where do we find the first episode?

Myself and two friends were commissioned to write first a pilot and then six episodes for a sitcom about expat life in China. Along the way, we spoke with a number of production companies and even had a meeting with Coca Cola about sponsoring the show at one point. When it came time to film the pilot we had a lot of issues. I was going to be out of the country, our lead female lost her job and went home, and our insane producer kept demanding more and more changes to make the show more like Friends or How I Met Your Mother.

I don't know that the pilot ever saw the light of day, because the producer got into such a spat with the director that they came to blows and the whole thing just fell apart. It was a real shame, as my friends and I had put a lot of work into creating these characters and telling their stories.

It seems you didn’t always like China. What won’t you miss about living there?

I definitely don't miss the crowds or the pollution. Coming from a sleepy mountain village of fifty or so people, it was really hard to go for two years without really ever seeing starry skies or a clear, blue sky. I don't mind crowds so much, but I hate having my personal space invaded. The Chinese really don't understand that as a concept, and so it wasn't unusual to be jostled, bumped, or even stroked by a stranger who wasn't aware of my discomfort.

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You also lived in South Korea for two years. What are some of the biggest differences you’ve seen between China and South Korea?

I like to say that South Korea is maybe ten to fifteen years ahead of China when it comes to adopting the facets of the western world that appeal to it. There are more foreign brands there, more people speak English, and there's more of an embracing of Western culture.

It's a bit of a double edged sword in that regard, as obviously Westernisation can mean a dilution of traditional values and cultural heritage. That said, I definitely preferred Korea. It was a much more friendly and open place to live.

China obviously has a lot of world renowned cultural sites that put it ahead in the eyes of tourists, but I found South Korea to be a much more pleasant place to call home.

What advice do you have for other travelers considering teaching English in China?

Go in with an open mind and you're going to have a fantastic time. It's sometimes hard to shrug off your own beliefs about what is appropriate or acceptable behaviour, but you have to understand that China (or indeed any country) has developed its own rules and social expectations. They aren't wrong; just different. If you can learn to accept the things that make you a little uncomfortable, you'll find that there is a hell of a lot to see and do China.

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Rice terraces in Guilin

Not done with Asia? Want to go to Thailand?

Aussie on the Road is Chris, a 30 something traveler who has given up the trappings of the real world in favour of a life of adventure, romance, and as little soul-destroying desk work as humanly possible. On the road since 2007, he's visited fifteen countries, taught English in both China & South Korea, co-written a Chinese sitcom, run a pub crawl company, and a bunch of other insane stuff. He currently calls Australia home as he studies tourism management and prepares to launch his next assault on the great big world. He lives by the words Be Brave. Be Reckless. Be Happy.

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4 years ago
China is more of an urban society from what we saw -well fed, chltoed and housed with jobs. Just returned yesterday from Beijing, Xian, Chonguing, Shibaozhai, Qutang, Three Gorges Dam, Shanghai. High end stores in major cities, very clean cities; wonderful roads, bridges, tons of urban development.
3 years ago
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2 years, 7 months ago
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2 years, 7 months ago
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1 year, 6 months ago
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