TEFL Tip Tuesday: A Year of Teaching English, What Has it Taught Me?

A year ago today I landed in China, I had no idea what to expect. My original plan was to spend six months teaching in China and then move onto Vietnam. There I would spend another six months teaching and move onto Australia for a year before finally heading home to the U.K. It’s safe to say that isn’t exactly what happened. I fell in love with teaching English, fell in love with China and fell in love with the school I had been placed at. Now I don’t know when I’ll finally be heading home; I have just finished a year teaching in China and I am at the beginning of a six month contract in Myanmar. Teaching English has surprised me in how much it has taught me about the world we live in, about how language evolves and how to deal with unfamiliar situations and why they are not always a bad thing.

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Orientation week in Beijing

I travelled to China alone, this was not by mistake. I didn’t even try to convince anyone to come with me. When I made the decision to travel the world I did so with the conviction that I would be doing it alone! The reason behind this was not because I had no friends or because I was “travelling to find myself”. No, I chose to travel alone because I wanted to go and I wanted to go as soon as possible. I wasn’t about to wait for anyone to join me, who knew how long it would take to find someone willing to move themselves halfway around the world. I have always travelled alone, it’s the only way I knew and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? This year has taught me that my belief in solo travel runs deep within me and that it gives me the freedom to go and do whatever I want to do while I’m travelling. On the reverse of that it has also taught me that sometimes it is nice to have a travel buddy or a friend to visit in a country. Making friends and travelling with them is part of the appeal of solo travel for many people, and without some of the friendships I have made this year I would not have done or seen some of the incredible things that I have.

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Travelling solo doesn’t mean you are always alone.

When it comes to the teaching side of things I could go on for days about how much it has taught me. If you have ever had the pleasure of being introduced to me in a bar after a drink or two you’ll know just how much I can talk about the advantages of TEFL, to the teacher and student alike! The most surprising thing I have learnt this year, and the thing that really should be the least surprising at all really, is how much I have learnt about the English language. I always enjoyed English at school and, despite my Dyslexia, it was always one of the subjects I performed best in, but since teaching English I have found myself more and more fascinated by how our complicated and at times completely irrational language came to be the way it is. English as a language honestly makes little to no sense unless you have grown up speaking it, this is something I have discovered this year and something I have discussed with my fellow teachers at length. I think to understand this allows you to become a better ESL teacher. It’s not just about having fun games and a lot of energy (although these things definitely help) if you understand how much English really doesn’t make sense sometimes then it will allow you to think about the language from a non-native speaker’s point of view. If you can do that then you are going to be a much better English teacher!

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Chaotic but we made it work.

I always say to my eighth grade students “Chinese is so difficult” and they always say to me “No, teacher English is so difficult” it’s become a bit of a pantomime call scenario at this point, we’ve come to the conclusion that both languages are difficult. As much as I teach them English they teach me new things about English daily by questioning the language. This forces me to really think about why we use a word the way we do or why some words are spelled the way they are when really they could be spelled completely differently (even while writing that sentence I had an inner-battle of spelled vs. spelt). Teaching English has made me better at English.

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Grade Eight Girls on my last day.

Teaching English as Foreign Language has put me into situations that are completely unfamiliar and unknown to me. I had never stepped into a classroom as anything but a student until I arrived in Sanxiang, China one year ago. I had no experience as a teacher and my experience of working with children amounted to weekend Pizza Parties at my part time job and a short stint as a Young Leader with my local Girl Guides unit. This year has pushed me out of my comfort zone completely and taught me how to handle situations that I would not have come into contact with had I not become an ESL Teacher. It has taught me how to think on the spot when my lesson plan finished ten minutes before the end of class, it has taught me how to be a role model to teenagers who I thought saw me as the very uncool foreign teacher when in fact they saw me as the cool foreign teacher with two cats (having my cats associated with my cool factor is always going to make me happy) and it showed me how taking an interest in the cultures and language of the countries you visit can completely change that experience for the friends you make there as well as yourself. Unfamiliar situations used to fill me with dread, the unknown was worse to me than knowing something bad was about to happen (mainly because if I didn’t know I would think of about twenty bad things that could happen and these would spiral until it was better just to not do anything) but now I find myself excited at the prospect of an unfamiliar situation or an unknown challenge. I have definitely learnt this year to trust myself and my judgement in these situations because more often than not they turn out to be the best kind of adventures.

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Outside your comfort zone is sometimes exactly where you need to be!

A year of teaching English has taught me that you can’t run away from problems, you have to face up to them and moving halfway across the world doesn’t make them go away. China has given me the confidence to stand up for myself, it has shown me what I am capable of and it has shown me that people value my time and opinion. Being asked by students and teachers alike if I will be returning to teach in Sanxiang made me happy and sad at the same time, to tell them I was leaving made me sad but to know they wanted me to stay made me happy. I made myself completely at home in China and although I had to leave I know it is not forever. Teaching in China taught me so much and I know it still has much more to teach me. Here’s to another year of TEFL and many more to come, whether that be in China, Myanmar or countries as of yet undecided!

For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?

Harbin Ice Festival: The Three Main Parks and What They Have to Offer.

We arrived in Harbin on new Year’s Eve after a long and interesting journey by sleeper train. Once we had checked into our hotel and freshened up a bit, we decided to go for a walk down the main street to see if we could find a bar or a restaurant to spend the evening in and celebrate the changing of the year. The main street was beautifully decorated with fairy lights and lined with ice sculptures, some still a work in progress. Along this street you can also find high street stores, shopping malls, restaurants (yes there is a McDonald’s) and some of Harbin’s famous ice cream parlours. Apparently no trip Heilongjiang province is complete without ice cream and so, this is how we found ourselves in a bar at quarter to midnight ice cream in one hand and a drink in the other. I think the main appeal of Harbin ice cream is the novelty of eating it in sub-zero temperatures, but it is still really good ice cream so I do recommend giving it a try.

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Harbin Ice Cream
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The strongest Jack and Coke I’ve had in my life!

The ice festival in Harbin doesn’t actually start until the 5th of January so we travelled Yabuli for three days of snowboarding. Yabuli is located about three hours south of Harbin by train and is probably the most well-known Ski Town in China, boasting three major ski resorts. More about this in a later post though…

There are three main parks in the Harbin Ice Festival, two I would say are a must do and one that I would recommend you squeeze in if you have time but is not essential for the overall experience.

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The snow sculptures were indescribably impressive!

The first park I suggest you go to is Sun Island Snow Sculpture Competition and Scenic Area. My research told us that it was best to see this park during the day and I do agree with this but make sure that you stick around for sunset as seeing the large snow sculptures bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun was definitely one of my favourite things about this park. We arrived just before midday and left as the sun was setting around half past three, spending roughly four hours there in total. I don’t think you need four hours to see the whole park, you could probably see everything in around two and a half hours, but we spent a good amount of time warming up in the coffee shops that are scattered around the park. Another reason we were at this park for so long was because of the amount ice related entertainment on offer, they had everything from giant ice slides to ice bikes and sledging. I pretty much had to drag Justin away from the attractions before I froze to death!

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Sunset over the ice rink.
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One of my favourite features were the sculptures you could climb inside and become part of!
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He told me not to dab but I did it anyway…
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No such thing as too much fun!

Also on offer at this park, and included in your ticket, is a shuttle bus from the main entrance to various stops around the park and back again. We chose to walk around the park first and then got the shuttle bus back to the entrance  because when the sun goes down in Harbin the temperature starts to drop really quickly!

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Looking like a marshmallow is mandatory in subzero temperatures

The second must see park and main attraction of the Harbin Ice Festival is Ice and Snow world, also located on Sun Island. A popular option for visitors to Harbin is to do the Sun Island Scenic park and the Ice and Snow World park in the same day. This is definitely a good way to do it but is not necessary if you are in Harbin for more than two nights. We chose to do the parks on separate days as we had more than enough time in Harbin and didn’t want to feel too rushed.

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Ice and Snow World begins to impress before you’ve even made it through the gate!

Ice and Snow World has been on my China bucket list since I made the decision to come to China way back in 2017 and it did not disappoint. I have never seen anything quite as impressive as the ice sculptures in this park. Before we travelled to Harbin I watched a few videos online and read a couple of blog posts as research for our trip, but even that did not prepare me for the scale of this place! The park has everything from to-scale replicas of famous landmarks to rides and slides made from ice. There were towers of ice blocks as tall as a block of flats and actual castles made from ice! Words honestly cannot do this place enough justice and even in photos it is hard to appreciate the wonder that is Ice and Snow World. I would say two hours is probably enough time to walk around the park and, as with the Sun Island Snow Sculptures, there are plenty of place to nip inside and warm up when the cold starts to get too much. We arrived around seven in the evening and stayed until the park closed at half past eight, we would have arrived earlier but I could not figure out how to get there. My advice would be to flag down a taxi and just show them a picture of Ice and Snow World, this is what we ended up doing and it was far easier than trying to figure it out on google maps!!

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Replicas in ice form can be seen of famous landmarks such as the Roman Colosseum.
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The ice blocks are carved from nearby Songhua River.
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Fireworks over the Ice Sculptures of Ice and Snow World.
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The view from the highest point in the park is like nothing I have ever seen!

The third park I recommend taking a look at is Zhaolin Park. This park is free to enter and has more than 1,000 ice sculptures. These sculpture are more like what you would traditionally think of when someone mentions ice sculptures. Intricately carved designs lit up brilliantly with coloured lights line the pathways through the park; figures of animals, people and even an axe made up the art works alongside some smaller ice-block buildings. Don’t feel like you have to squeeze this one in if you are a bit short on time, it is worth checking out but there are ice sculptures dotted around all around the city so if you don’t make it to Zhaolin then you are still pretty much guaranteed to see one somewhere!

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Zhaolin Park has some smaller ice buildings and has no entry fee.
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There were some incredibly intricate designs on display!
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Harbin’s main walking street is lined with ice sculptures during the festival.

Harbin was the perfect way to end off my year in China (I was originally meant to begin my year there but with the Chinese New Year festival they changed our orientation week to Beijing instead).  The festival for me really summed up my experience in China, it is the perfect combination of Chinese culture and the “how is this real?” moments that were a running theme throughout my time there. If you find yourself in need of sub-zero temperatures and pretty lights then Harbin is the place to go. Given the opportunity I would return to the Ice and Snow Festival in a heartbeat and I wouldn’t mind another one of those ice creams either!

Why not check out some more of my adventures around China?

 

China by Sleeper Train: If Sleep is for the Weak then call me a Body-Builder…

December 29th, the day after my 25th birthday, I boarded my first ever sleeper train. It is a backpacker rite of passage when travelling through Asia to take at least one journey on a sleeper train and, having been in China for a whole year, I figured it was about time I gave it a go! Besides, I had only ever heard good things about China’s sleeper train network.

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Snow on the tracks delayed our train by about six hours!

Let me tell you first of all that the thirty-six-hour journey between Guangzhou and Harbin is not for the faint hearted! One hard sleeper ticket buys you a bunk in a six-bed compartment that is roughly the size of a large cupboard. Justin had taken a sleeper train before so reserved us each a top bunk as, in his opinion, it was the best option. It does offer the most leg room of the three and you do have easy access to the luggage rack, but that would probably be where the benefits end for me.

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This is me for two nights…

As I settled down in my bunk I suddenly remembered how much I disliked small spaces… The space between the bed and the roof of the train is not even enough to sit up in which does lead to a feeling that the you are the last sardine being pressed into the tin before it is vacuum sealed and ready for the shelves. Getting up and down from the bunk was a whole other struggle for me and my non-existent upper arm strength, the top bunk is about twice my height! The sight of me trying to pull myself up onto the bed must have given a few passengers a good laugh. Take care on the steps, they are about the size of cd covers and they can be folded away so double check they are still there before you get out of bed. There are designated smoking areas on the train but either people were just ignoring them or maybe the doors weren’t closing properly because all I could smell was cigarette smoke which is not what I would call a pleasant smell and definitely did not help me sleep. Our train also ended up delayed by about six hours which put our journey time up to forty-two hours, almost a full two days!! On the plus side I did read about ninety percent of “Eat, Pray, Love”, a book I have wanted to read for about a year so it’s not like I wasted my time in sleepless solitary confinement.

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My Kindle saved me on this trip!

At the end of the day it got us where we needed to go for next to no money, so I can’t complain too much. You get what you pay for, and the heavy duvets were definitely appreciated as we were travelling in winter! All I can say is that the sleeper train is an experience that everyone should try at least once. I have been told since that I was unlucky and that the cigarette smell is not usually a feature of the sleeper train experience. If you have been to the gym more than five times in your life, then pulling yourself onto that top bunk also shouldn’t be an issue for you like it was for me (maybe start the push-ups now though, just in case).

Final verdict: do it for the backpacker points, but I highly recommend choosing a shorter journey than Guangzhou to Harbin… much, much shorter…

 

Sleeper train from Guangzhou to Harbin: 600 yuan (about £68), 42 hours

Flight from Harbin to Guangzhou: £186.98, 4 hour and 40 minutes

 

Chengdu: More than just the Panda capital of the world

Think of Chengdu and the first thing that comes to mind is, of course, the Giant Panda Research centre but as I found out recently there is a lot more to this ancient town than the fluffy face of the world wildlife foundation.

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Young Panda Cubs at the Chengdu Panda Base

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province in Western China and has some outstanding places to visit that weren’t even on my radar before my visit in July. It took four hours to travel to Chengdu from Xi’an on the fast train, I accidently booked myself onto a first-class carriage but no complaints from me (that leg room was more than worth the extra £5)!

The metro system in Chengdu is easy to navigate for the most part, as long as you check the map before you get on the train it is almost impossible to get lost. There are however a few places that are not accessible by the metro lines such as the main market street, the panda base and the Leshan Buddha which is actually located outside of town (I will be writing a separate post all about how to get there soon because it is a bit more complicated than other attractions in Chengdu).

My accommodation was perfectly central and easy to get to from the main railway station when I arrived in Chengdu. I stayed in a quirky little backpacker’s called the Blacksmith Hostel and I have to say you definitely get what you pay for. If you are looking for luxury then I maybe wouldn’t stay here but it was perfect for me and my tight budget. My only complaint would be the lack of insect screen on the windows as the room was almost constantly filled with mosquitoes and I ended up covered in bites, literally from head to toe! The toilets and showers were both accessed from the balcony which made the thought of going to the toilet slightly unappealing in the middle of the rain storms that frequented my stay. I maybe wouldn’t stay there again, but it fulfilled it’s primary purpose of somewhere to pass out at the end of each day.

 

I spent 3 full days in Chengdu and hardly even scratched the surface on what the city has to offer but if you are heading there anytime soon then these are the places I recommend visiting;

 

  1. The Chengdu Research of Giant Panda Breeding

No trip to Chengdu is worth the journey if you don’t make it up to the research base on the outskirts of the city. This is usually the main reason people visit Chengdu and it was definitely my motivation for booking a trip to Sichuan province. The base is currently home to around 83 pandas varying from new born cubs to adults and is by far the best place to see these adorable creatures up close. The base has been working in Giant Panda conservation since 1987 and has played a huge role in taking the bears off the endangered species list. It rained the entire time we were at the base, but it was still one of the best experiences of my life. Being able to see pandas up close and watching them interact with each other was beyond anything I had ever imagined before. There are plenty of places to eat around the park as well as a panda museum and red panda enclosures; definitely enough to keep you occupied for a whole day.

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You’ve never seen a happier human than me next to a group of panda bears!
  1. The Leshan Buddha

The largest sitting stone Buddha in the world, Leshan Buddha has to be seen to be believed! This impressive stone structure took 90 years to build and was completed only after the death of the Monk who originally commissioned it. There are two options to view the Buddha; you can take a boat down the river to right in front of the towering monument or you can view it by climbing to the top of the cliff face it has been sculpted out of and descending the steep stone steps that are carved all the way down the side of the figure’s surrounding walls. We opted to do both, and I would highly recommend this if you have the time.

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The Buddha from the boat
  1. Chengdu Museum

Firstly, this is a completely free activity, so you have no excuse not visit the museum! Secondly, I spent so much time wondering from floor to floor and learning about Chengdu’s history that the place was closing by the time I strolled out of last exhibit… oops! Seriously though this should definitely be on your list of things to do if you are interested in the history of the places you visit. The museum covers everything from the first settlers in the area all the way up to the present day including a very detailed and fascinating showcase of traditional Chinese shadow puppets. Add to all this that it is right in the centre of town you really have no reason not to have go and check it out.

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I waited ten minutes for this guy to leave so I could take a photo of the shadow puppets and ended up liking the photo with him in more than the one without…
  1. Jinsha Site and Museum

While you can find most of the information about the Jinsha site in the Chengdu museum if you are interested at all in archaeology then it is worth-while going to the Jinsha site to see the excavation process. As well as the impressive archaeological site there is a whole museum dedicated to the important finds found on location including the beautiful “Golden Sun Bird” a ring shaped piece of foiled uncovered in 2001 and the “Golden Mask” an eerie gold mask believed to be over 3,000 years old. Also on the site is a beautiful bamboo garden and “ebony forest” surrounding the two museum buildings.

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The excavation site at Jinsha Site Museum

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of history there is to find in Chengdu. I arrived knowing only that I was desperate to visit the Panda Base and left with a deeper understanding of the city and it’s culture. I could easily return to Chengdu and have a completely different list of things to do, there is just so much to this city it truly took my breath away. I know it is easy to book onto a tour that takes you to Beijing for the Great Wall of China, to Xi’an for the Warriors, Chengdu for the Pandas and back again, all in one week! But, if you can, I highly recommend spending at least a week in Chengdu in order to fully experience everything this city has to offer.

Xi’an: How to get to the Terracotta Army and what to expect when you get there.

My time teaching first grade at Sanxin School came to an end at the beginning of July when the summer holidays began. There were many tears, some of them mine, many hugs and more high fives than I could count, but it is not good bye! I might not be their English teacher next semester, but I will still be able to visit them in when I have time off teaching middle school. I had such an amazing group of kids over the past few months and the last week of school with them was so special but more about that in a later post! For now, I’ll get on with what you came here for; The Terracotta Army.

With school out for summer and contract completion bonus in hand I decided to explore some more of China. The Terracotta Army was one of the things I was most excited about when I made the decision to come and teach in China and let me tell you, it did not disappoint. It definitely has to be seen with your own eyes to appreciate the sheer size and scale of the place!

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The scale of this place blew my mind!

We flew into Xi’an airport from Zhuhai, a small town just South of the village I teach in. The airport in Xi’an has a bus route but, for ease with all of our bags, we opted to take a taxi to our hotel. The taxi ride from the airport to the centre of town takes around half an hour depending on traffic, we arrived around 8pm so there was very little traffic between the airport and our hostel inside the old city wall.

We stayed in “Bestay Hotel Express” and for the price we paid the rooms were great. The first night three of us stayed in a family room which is a bunk bed that has a double bed on the bottom and a single bed on the top with a reasonably sized private shower room and toilet. After the boys left for Beijing I moved into a one-person room, it was a bit on the small size but how much room does one person really need for one night anyway?

The night we arrived we took a wonder down the Beiyuanmen Muslim Market, jam packed with food stalls and souvenir shops. This sprawling market is a feast for the senses. The Muslim Quarter is the hub of the Muslim community in Xian and is located to the north of the West Street in the city centre. It covers several blocks of the old city and it is definitely the place to go if you are looking for fantastic street food and a keepsake or two.

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Beiyuanmen Muslim Market
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Mango ice-cream made from scratch!!

Saturday morning it was a reasonably early rise to make the most of our only full day in Xi’an. From our hotel we took the public bus straight to the main train station. To the right-hand side of here you will find a coach service to the Terracotta Army. Don’t worry about getting on the right bus, you will be waved down by multiple enthusiastic bus conductors all desperate for you to get on their bus. We literally jumped onto a moving bus as it drove out of the station! I am sure, however, that we would have easily found a stationary bus if we hadn’t been herded onto our coach by one very determined woman so don’t feel like you have to jump onto a moving vehicle.

The bus will drop you at the entrance to the main square, this is a good place to stop for something to eat if you arrive around lunch time. I found the food was priced around the same as the rest of China, but drinks can be almost three times the price, so look out for that when you order. Leave the square to the right and follow the stream of people towards the main entrance gate. Here you will find the ticket office, make sure you have cash on you before you arrive because they do not accept card or WeChat pay.

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Egg fried rice from the main square.

You come through the gate into a garden and there is about a fifteen-minute walk through this before you actually reach the hangers built to protect the historical site. Hanger one is by far the best in terms of showing the massive scale of the Terracotta Army site as it has had the most excavation work done to it out of the three hangers that are open. If you are interested in the archaeological process, hanger two has the best examples of warriors still half buried in the ground. Hanger three is the smallest but gives you the best views of the warriors close up and in situ (you can see them in glass casings in hanger two if the hanger three is too crowded for you). There is also a museum on the site with the bronze chariots that were found on the site as well an exhibition about Pompeii, which I was not expecting to find in the middle of China if I am being honest!

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Hanger 1: Front Entrance View.
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The warriors are reassembled and put back where they were originally found.
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One of the reconstructed warriors on display in hanger two.
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Hanger three.

The Terracotta Army took us the whole day to explore and was absolutely fascinating to see in real life! To think that something of that scale can remain hidden for thousands of years until one farmer needed to dig a well blows my mind. Another bucket list item ticked off the list!

Trip details and costs:

  • Flight from Zhuhai to Xi’an: £60
  • Taxi from airport: £15
  • Bestay Hotel: £15 per night, per person
  • Bus from Xi’an to the Terracotta Army: £1
  • Terracotta Army entrance fee: £15