Welcome back to TEFL Tip Tuesday! This week I’ve been experimenting in my classroom and it has completely changed the way I think about teaching. These posts usually come from something I learned last semester and now use in class but if there is one thing I know about life, it’s that you never stop learning new things. So this TEFL tip is almost as new for me as it is for you!
I have this habit of getting stuck in a rut, scared to try new things in case it doesn’t work out and disrupts my safe little bubble that I have created for myself. Now I know what you’re thinking, I moved to a completely new country by myself into a job I had no practical experience in, doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of person who is scared to try new things does it?! Well that’s just it, with me I’m either in my safe little bubble or I’m making a drastic change to my life or the way I do things. Recently I’ve been a bit bored when teaching my classes; besides my one grade two class I’ve used the same format in my lessons for almost a year and, well, it was time for a change! It’s not that the classes themselves are boring, in fact depending on the topic I can get some very entertaining answers, but I wanted to find a way for my students to practice their English that wasn’t just a question and answer session with the person next to them. This is what led me to this week’s lesson plan.
All my classrooms have exactly the same layout; about fifty students at square desks, split into seven rows, squeezed into a medium sized square room. This was the box I needed to think outside of. I was taught the PPP structure of lesson planning in both of my TEFL courses and I really do believe in it but it can be difficult to get such a large class to participate in a communicative production activity that isn’t centred around them sitting at their desks. Add to that the fact that my school has strong focus of textbook led lessons, the thought of doing any kind of activity that involves rearranging the classroom has always slightly worried me. So, naturally, I decided to dive right into the deep end and do a lesson on directions that had the students practically turn their classroom upside down. I first split the class into two teams. Three people from each team created a maze and five people from each team were blindfolded and directed through the maze by the rest of the class using the new target language. The first team to navigate all five people through the maze were the winners.
Now, I’m not recommending that you start with something as drastic as turning your classroom into a maze but I am suggesting that you think about how you can use the classroom differently. How can you engage your students in a new and exciting way? I made the game a bit mysterious by sending the five students from each team out of the classroom before I explained what was happening, this made the students who remained in the classroom feel like they were in on a secret and therefore more engaged when I explained to them that they were going to create a maze out of desks and chairs. The students outside of the classroom found the mystery exciting and were eager to impress their classmates and win the race through the maze. This got the whole class working together (with a few exceptions that tried to sabotage their own teammates, but there will always be at least one troublemaker when you teach over one thousand kids) and made them excited to use the English they already knew as well as the new language they learned at the start of the lesson.
The most important thing that I learned this week is that although thinking outside the box can be scary and the results can be uncertain, it is so worth the risk! I’ve always found that using games and fun activities works best in my classrooms but now I know that I can take it to the next level and I encourage you to do the same!
For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?
Welcome back to TEFL Tip Tuesdays, this week I want to focus on speaking the same language as your students. I know this sounds counterproductive, but stick with me…
When introducing a new topic in English it is important to keep students interested and the easiest way to do this is to make it relatable to their own lives. When I say speak their language, what I mean is use their interests to communicate the topic to them. Find out what movies they like, the music they listen to, what they do on the weekend and translate that information into a fun and engaging lesson plan. My eighth graders are really into Marvel films so it is easy to get them engaged in a conversation if it has something to do with Captain America or Spiderman. I recently did a lesson where I asked my students to write me a scary story and you would be surprised how many of them involved Marvel characters saving the day!
These themes are so simple to work into all stages of your lesson from warmer, to practice and production, all the way to your cooler. It is even better if you share the interest and are able to show off a bit of your knowledge on the subject. For example; a lesson on the future can be easily focused around Marvel movies because of the very nature of the movies themselves, use the ideas from the movies to inspire a conversation about how we might live in the future. Will people have superpowers in the future? Will we travel to other planets in the future? These are some great questions that get students thinking in future tense without them even realising they are learning something new, because the theme is so familiar to them.
If you take an interest in your students you will soon notice a change in attitude towards you. It can be quite common for students to see the foreign teacher’s class as a time where they can switch off and stop learning for one hour of the day. While I think it is important for students to be relaxed in my classroom I obviously still want them to learn something from me. A classroom full of teenagers can be a challenge to control, they believe they have much better things to be talking about than the rules of the English language. Gaining their respect by getting to know them, even a little bit, is one of the best ways to control your classroom. If even one student starts to actively participate in your lesson then they will want the rest of the class to play along too, this will cause a ripple effect and soon you will find that it is the students asking for people to be quiet and listen instead of you!
For more TEFL tips why not read one of these posts:
For the first TEFL Tip Tuesday let’s start at the beginning; confidence! Confidence is key, even if you don’t think you have any. Being outnumbered is never a fun experience, the first time you walk into a classroom it might just feel like that dream you had as a teenager, the one where you realised you forgot to put your trousers on before you went to school! Everyone is looking at you… well get used to it, you’re the teacher now. No hiding behind a text book and dozing off in class, you are the one in charge here. But you are never going to be able to command a classroom if you walk in with you head down and a can’t do attitude.
I’m a believer in the fake it ‘til you make it method, the more you act like a confident person the more confident you will become. I know this works because my go to coping method for a situation where I feel nervous is to be loud and proud. Outwardly I look like I live and breathe self-assurance and eventually I convince myself that the reason I look confident to those around me is because I am!
The classroom might look like a scary place but who is going to know that you are nervous beyond all belief if you walk in there like you’ve been walking into rooms your whole life (which you have by the way, so what’s the big deal?) You’re the “fun English teacher”, the kids are going to love you no matter what, so don’t be afraid of them. Put a smile on your face and just have fun; if you are having fun then they will follow suit and soon you will forget all about the nerves. You won’t need to raise your voice to get them to pay attention to you if you look like someone who should be the focus of their attention.
My first day of teaching I felt so nervous (which was ridiculous because what is the worst that a bunch of six year olds can really do?) But I was prepared, I had lesson that I believed in and that was full of fun activities at the ready. I was confident in my lesson even if I wasn’t so confident in myself. That was all I needed to get me through the lesson, that little bit of confidence.
For more TEFL Tips check out one of my previous posts:
I had a thought recently that maybe I could share what I’ve learnt over the past year on my blog for people who are looking into teaching English as a foreign language. Coming into a classroom as a new teacher can be daunting and sometimes it is nice to feel like there is someone right there with you when you are faced with forty (or more) new students all staring at you expectantly. That thought turned itself into an idea and that idea is TEFL Tip Tuesday!
Essentially every Tuesday I will post a tid-bit of knowledge, a helpful hint or a fun way to get your students involved in the classroom and really loving English. The novelty of having a foreign teacher will always mean that your classes will be more looked forward to than their usual school English teacher but it can be hard to get students to focus in class, especially when you don’t speak their language! Hopefully through these posts I can share with you what I find useful and maybe, just maybe, you will find these things useful too.
If you have any questions about teaching English abroad then please feel free to leave a comment below, message me on Instagram or pop me an email. I’ll be posting a blog with my most commonly asked questions soon as well, so watch this space…
For now why not check out some of my previous posts about teaching abroad:
I have recently been receiving a lot of messages about how I became TEFL qualified, how I got my placement and what company I used to get here. I do always try to reply to these as soon as possible but with the time difference between China and the UK, the not so reliable internet access here in China and working a five-day week; I thought it might be a good idea to put as much information as I can in one place. This is not to say I don’t want to be asked questions, I am more than happy to chat about my TEFL experience, it is more about making it easier for anyone looking for information on becoming an ESL teacher to find what they are looking for in one post.
How did I become TEFL qualified?
I completed I-to-I’s 120 hour online course. This course requires you to work through a series of modules on I-to-I’s website, at the end of each module you sit a mini test in order to be able to move onto the next part of the course. The tests do not count towards your final mark but you do need to pass them with a certain percentage to be able to move through the course. Once you have completed all the modules you then have to submit a lesson plan and an essay explaining why exactly you have chosen to carry out a lesson in this particular way. You are then given three hours to complete the final test which, combined with your lesson plan, determines whether or not you pass the course and become TEFL qualified.
If you pass the course you are awarded a certificate, make sure your name on this is exactly the same as it is on your passport, including your middle name. This is important if you are planning, which I assume you are, to get a job teaching English as a foreign language because most embassies require all of you documents to be exactly the same when they are handing out visas.
They will email you the certificate and you will also have the option to get a hard copy sent to you. Get the hard copy, you will need it when you start applying for jobs. I did not get the hard copy when I was based in the U.K. and now I may have to pay around £60 to get it shipped out here to China! Not ideal…
How did I find my placement?
I-to-I is partnered with a company here in China called ImmerQi. ImmerQi are who placed me in my current school here in Sanxiang, Guangdong. So really I didn’t have to do anything to find my placement.
I have since had to look for my next job which was easier than I thought it would be. My current school offered me a job here in the middle school. There are also a lot of companies that specialise in finding foreign teachers for Chinese schools and education centres, I had interviews with EF – Education First and TIC – Teach In China.
I-to-I’s website has job listings and placement options from all over the world, if this is your first time teaching abroad then I would highly recommend applying through I-to-I’s website as most ESL jobs require you to have at least one year experience in teaching before they accept a foreign teacher. This can also be the case when it comes to getting a visa, some countries give working permits or visas to people who do not have experience in the field.
Another thing to look out for is that a lot of countries, like Vietnam, require you to have a BA degree or higher in order to work as an English teacher in their country. Some countries will accept foreign teachers without a degree but the salary they offer you will be considerably less than those with a degree.
What company did I use?
As you can see from the two questions above I used more than one company to wind up in China. In fact I went through three companies in total:
The first company I used was STA Travel; STA, if you haven’t heard of them, is a student and young person travel company specialising in budget travel, working holidays and round the world trips. When I walked in to the Aberdeen branch of STA Travel, back in October 2017, I only had the smallest idea of what I wanted to do. I had looked into TEFL but thought I might have to go back to college in order to become qualified and after six years in higher education that was about the last thing I wanted. Essentially I wondered in, said “I want to travel the world, how do I do that?” and my travel agent Jordan helped me pick out a two year plan. Obviously that plan has changed slightly since arriving here in China but I never would have taken this first step if I hadn’t walked into the STA shop on a whim. If you are planning to travel on your own then I definitely recommend booking at least the initial stage of your trip with a company like STA, they have years of experience and a team of people ready to help you out if and when things don’t go to plan.
The second company I used was I-to-I TEFL. When I booked my Paid China TEFL Internship with STA Travel my I-to-I TEFL course was emailed to me directly. One thing to look out for with the course, that almost tripped me up, is to pay attention to your course deadline ( how many days you have to complete the course after you start) and when you actually need to have completed the course for your placement (these will probably be different dates). My dates only varied by a few days so I ended up getting very confused when I was asked almost a week before I thought I was meant to be finished, why I wasn’t finished…
Then third and finally I was passed on to ImmerQi. It was ImmerQi that I dealt with when it came to visa applications, arriving in China and of course they are who placed me after the orientation week in Beijing. To work or study in China you need a letter of invitation before you can apply for your visa. ImmerQi organise all of this for their interns before they leave their home country. The only downside to this process was that ImmerQi could not tell us where we were going to be placed until we arrived in China, for a number of different reasons. This meant that, because China has provinces stretching from way up North bordering with Russia to way down South in the Sub-tropics, I had to pack for any and all possible climates… no easy task when you over pack as badly as I do! Luckily I got placed in the nice warm Sub-tropics and the woolly jumpers have been in the back of my wardrobe since I arrived.
If you are considering teaching English abroad then I hope this blog post has been helpful to you. I 100% recommend becoming TEFL qualified, it is one of the best decisions I have ever made! My advice would be to go straight through I-to-I to become qualified and find your first placement if your plan is only to teach English abroad. If you are planning a Gap Year or are travelling for the first time then I would definitely recommend STA Travel, it’s always nice to know there is someone in the know available to you if you find yourself needing to change travel plans and they have a huge selection of trips to choose from.
If you have any questions about TEFL or life in China please leave a comment below or send me and email, I am more than happy to help in any way I can.
I am about a month away from completing my internship here in Sanxiang and the original plan was to move on from here to Vietnam at the beginning of August… but I just can’t quite do that, turns out China isn’t finished with me yet. I have been offered a job at the middle school here. It might not be teaching my adorable little first graders, but it meant a chance to stay in China for another six months, an opportunity I just couldn’t turn down!
There are so many amazing things about living and working in China, but I managed to somehow slim them down into my top ten reasons why I’m staying in China:
1.Life is Simple: I’m not going to lie, I found life in the U.K. stressful, the pressure once you come out of university to go straight into a job and start your career is a lot to handle! This is especially true when, like me, you aren’t even one hundred percent sure a career in your chosen field of study is what you really want. I was stuck working in the same part time job I had taken to get me through university. I was working to make money and as much as I enjoyed parts of waitressing, it was obviously not where I wanted to be. I tried to find a grad job (admittedly I didn’t try very hard) but found the process anxiety inducing. Some may say the same about uprooting your life and moving it half way around the world but for me it just made sense. Life in China is a simple as working at a job I love, it might not pay much but that has never been a motivation for me in terms of finding work. The hardest part of my job is planning a lesson that will keep forty six-year-olds entertained for forty minutes, then I get to go home and relax for the rest of the day! The most stressed out I have felt since arriving in China was the weekend where my USB stick went walk about and I thought I had lost all my lessons, then Monday morning it turned up in class, simple as that. This is possibly the least stressed out I have been in my adult life, that alone is reason enough for me to stay.
2. The people are friendly: It is impossible to walk anywhere without someone saying “hello” to you or waving at you from across the street. You smile at someone walking past and they smile right back at you. Westerners in China are somewhat of a rarity which means that quite often you will be stared at but not once has it made me feel uncomfortable or weird. They aren’t staring to be rude, but because they have most likely never seen a westerner before, that and the fact that pale skin is considered beautiful here and I have never been able to catch a tan in my 24 years living on this Earth! Almost anywhere you go in China you will be asked for your photograph, if you want to feel like a celebrity then this is the place for you! Maybe this is just because I live in a relatively small town, but I don’t think I have been anywhere in China where the people aren’t genuinely friendly. It is such a contrast to back home where, my tiny little village aside, smiles are most often met with a blank face at best and a suspicious look at worst. It’s just the British way, but I much prefer to walk through life smiling outwardly and receiving smiles in return.
3. Everyone wants to help you: Not only are Chinese people incredibly friendly but they also have the most generous spirits. They are so helpful it is almost unbelievable, and they don’t want anything for it. No matter if you are friends or complete strangers they will help you and expect nothing in return, except maybe a WeChat add. I actually had a shop assistant insist on helping me pick a deodorant only last week. I know it is their job, but where in the U.K. could you go and have someone actively try and help you pick out a deodorant without it being considered ‘a little bit weird”? Obviously, I needed no help in this task and yet I received it anyway, I already knew what deodorant I wanted before I went in there to buy it, but how do you explain that when your Mandarin level is below beginner? I also walked out with a VIP card so no complaints here!
4. The food: Unpopular opinion but I am not a fan of traditional British food. I find it bland, boring and mostly fully of meat, the only British tradition I am partial to is maybe “Chip Shop Chips” and even then, I would never say I crave them. In China finding vegetarian food is so easy and it’s not just a boring old salad like everywhere in the U.K. seems to want to feed us vegetarians. My first choice in just about every restaurant is, of course, egg fried rice but I have also found a love for Hot Pot (just don’t pick the spicy option), Chinese BBQ (grilled garlic aubergine and spicy tofu is incredible) and my new favourite meal Egg and Tomato. This is served everywhere from the canteen to higher end restaurants and I have even learnt to cook it for myself, I love it that much! The food in China is just some of the best food I have ever eaten. I eat so much healthier here and I actually want to cook for myself. For once in my life I’m not living off of pasta, grated cheese and tomato ketchup (although I’m not going to lie, there is always a bottle of ketchup in the fridge for emergencies).
5. Cost of living: Honestly, I am not lying when I say I earn next to no money, I am an intern after all, but my small monthly allowance is more than enough to live on and that is taking into account my ridiculous shopping addiction! I can do a weekly shop for around ten pounds if I am smart about it. If you know where to look for it, fruit and veg are so cheap it feels like stealing. I take away plain rice from the canteen for no cost every day to use when I cook my evening meal and even eating out never costs more than a tenner at a time (I’ve even seen us have a meal for two for under a fiver)! Everything is cheaper here, even alcohol; a cocktail can cost as little as three pound and there are no entry fees for clubs or bars. I get my nails done every few weeks, something I would never be able to afford back in the U.K. but here it only costs about six pounds! The cost of living in China made the decision to stay here all that easier.
6. Public Transport: This is something else that is amazingly cheap here in China, but not at the sacrifice of quality or cleanliness. I have used the subway, busses and DiDi (China’s answer to Uber) to get around in China and all three have been pleasant experiences. My most used form of transportation is probably the bus, it is cheaper than DiDi and there is no subway in Sanxiang as it is not a big enough town for such a luxury. The bus costs about 50 – 80p to travel between towns, some of which are about an hour away from us here in Sanxiang (imagine getting the bus from Aberdeen to Dundee for 80p). The busses are always on time, clean and they are, possibly most importantly, air conditioned! Take note First Bus and Stagecoach, China knows how to run a bus service.
7. Speaking Mandarin: I think learning another language is probably a plus side no matter where you choose to live abroad but honestly nothing makes me happier than when I say a full sentence (well an almost full sentence) to one of my students in Mandarin and I watch it blow their little minds! “Teacher you spoke Chinese!” and then they start talking to me one hundred miles an hour in Mandarin and I have to try and tell them that actually “Teacher only knows that one sentence in Chinese and now I have no idea what you are saying to me.” In all seriousness though I have never been the best when it comes to learning languages, despite really wanting to be able to, so when I pick up on random words or phrases that Chinese people around me are saying I feel like I have really achieved something. I am still nowhere near even being able to have a conversation in Mandarin and don’t even ask me to read the characters, but the longer I stay here the more I will pick up and it is definitely one of the best things about living and working in China.
8. There is so much to explore: I have been in China three and a half months and I have visited three of its provinces, I have barely scratched the surface of what this incredible country has to offer. Of the three provinces I have travelled to each one has me with a completely new and different experience. Firstly, there was my week in Beijing for orientation, this was a big city experience like I have never had before. from the bright lights to the crowded markets, the incredible great wall of china to the peaceful gardens of the Forbidden City; Beijing was a month of experiences packed into one week. Then there is the unreal natural beauty of Zhangjiajie Natural Forest Park in the province of Hunan. Sandstone Quartz pillars as far as the eye can see and more rain forest than anyone person could hope to explore in one life time all make Zhangjiajie feel like another planet and don’t forget the imminent threat of a monkey ambush to keep you on your toes. Finally, we have my current home province of Guangdong, I am discovering more and more about this area of China every day. I am still finding stumbling upon new places in my own town of Sanxiang let alone the bigger cities of Zhuhai, Zhongshan and Guangzhou. How can I leave now when China still has so much more to offer?!
9. I feel inspired here: I have always been a creative person, I didn’t choose to study a creative subject to pay the bills, but I had fallen out of love with my creative side back home. Maybe this is what happens when you work so hard at one thing for a long period of time (try six years of studying art and design in the same city you grew up in), but I think I just desperately needed a change of scenery. China definitely has no shortage of inspiration, whether that be for photography, blog post or any other creative projects I manage to sink my teeth into while I’m here! Living in China has definitely allowed me to revisit my creative side from a different angle and I find myself actively searching for places to go in my spare time that allow me to practice my photography, write an interesting blog post or even create exciting content for a video.
10. No two days are the same: When I tell people I teach the same lesson plan twenty times a week to roughly eight hundred students I guess I can understand why they might think my life can become a bit repetitive at times but every day is a completely different experience. What works in one class might be a complete disaster in another, what keeps one class entertained for forty minutes might only hold another classes attention for ten minutes and it is through these challenges that I find myself constantly motivated. At home I think I had fallen into a rut, working four or five days a week and spending at least the other two or three (if not more) in one bar or another, occasionally a club if we were feeling particularly adventurous. I’m not saying I hated my life at home or that I wasn’t having fun but I knew the world had more to offer me than this and I also knew that I had more to offer the world. “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” Maybe one page is enough for some people but for me, I need to fill the book and then start a new one.
So there we have it, I’m staying in China! Not forever, there are too many countries out there for me to pick just one and stick to it, but for now if you need me this is where I’ll be…
Moving to a completely new country can be a terrifying idea. Leaving everything and everyone you know behind, packing up and moving your whole life to another part of the world might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for some it might be exactly the right move (pun not intended). I’ve been living in China for three months now and while I might not be an expert on all things relocating related, I like to think I have learnt a thing or two in the past couple of months. If you are trying to decide if moving abroad is for you and want some words of worldly wisdom then, well, I guess that’s why you clicked on this post (unless you are just my number one fan and read everything I post on here… Hi mum!) so keep on reading to find out how to do it and why you should!
How to do it:
The first thing you need to decide is what you want to do in your destination country. You can do almost anything you do in the you home country abroad; from waiting on tables to working in a hotel to teaching to volunteer work. Really if you have the skill then you can take it and apply it anywhere. One of the easiest and most common ways to relocate yourself is to become TEFL qualified. This is exactly what I did, and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I got my TEFL qualification through I-to-I TEFL, completing their 120-hour online course all from the comfort of my own home, various coffee shops around Aberdeen and my good friend Hannah’s front room (cheers again Hannah for letting me sofa surf). Pretty much, adding TEFL to your skill set isn’t going to do anything apart from open up your options in terms of what countries you can choose to work in.
Speaking of, the next thing you need to decide is where you want to move to. When I was trying to decide on a place to travel to my plan was originally to go to Thailand, this didn’t work out due to timing issues but luckily second on my list was China and this worked out perfectly for me. Depending on what you choose to do abroad, the options of where you can move to will vary (there isn’t really much need for TEFL qualified individuals in America now is there?) but that is all part of the fun of researching your destination country. My original plan was one year of TEFL in China and Vietnam and then waitressing/bar working my way around Australia. That plan has changed slightly but my point is think about what your skills are and where you can apply them and choose the destination that best suits you. Another important factor is also, obviously, where in the world has always fascinated you, what culture interests you the most and what do you want to get out of your time living and working abroad? All of these things should affect your decision, I started with the idea of moving to South East Asia because visiting this part of the world has been at the top of my to do list since I was in secondary school (literally I made a binder on it and everything) and let it grow arms and legs from there until I ended up teaching English in the South of China!
I recommend finding yourself a company to apply for jobs through if you are planning to teach English. I-to-I are partnered with a company called ImmerQi who specialise in teaching internships and other work placements in China. From providing a week orientation in Beijing to the help and support throughout my placement (Ben I hope you are still reading these because this is the genuine and sincere shout out that you have been so desperately waiting for) they have been excellent! If it is your first time working abroad then going through a company like ImmerQi gives you that little bit of extra reassurance in case something goes wrong. It also means you have someone to fight in your corner if things aren’t up to scratch at your placement or like me you need a meal allowance because you are allergic to everything in the canteen .
Visas, they are a pain in the back side but an important and mandatory part of moving abroad, so what are you going to do? Apply for them, that’s what!! And don’t make my mistake and leave planning your visa application to the last minute. Honestly it was one of the most stressful months of my life! Even if you can’t apply for your visa until a month before you leave, make sure you get all of your documents organised and ready to go for when you need them. Your company should tell you what you need to do in order to apply for your visa, whether it is a placement company like ImmerQi or your new employer, it is in their best interest as well as yours that your visa is present and correct. Also, this probably won’t be their first time employing someone from overseas, so they are really the best people to ask all the technical questions to. Another invaluable source of information is the embassy you are applying for your visa through, I phoned the Chinese embassy in Britain multiple times and even ended up emailing back and forth with them to make sure everything was perfect in my application before I sent it off, Visa applications are expensive and non-refundable you do not want to mess them up!
It is sad but true, we can’t get anywhere without a little bit of money to help us along. As well as a bit of help from family members, I worked as a waitress from October to January to save up enough money to make my dream of travelling the world a reality. Everything adds up so keep track of what you have paid off and what still needs to be paid. Flights, visas, vaccinations and insurance are the most expensive costs that you will have to deal with when moving abroad, they are also the most important and should be at the top of your list. After these are dealt with you need to think about spending money, you probably won’t receive your first pay check until a month after you arrive at your destination country, so you will need a little bit of money to live on until you do eventually get paid. Then you need to buy a rucksack, first aid kit and a travel organiser (trust me this is an essential if, like me, you have a tendency to misplace important things…) Once all of this is out of the way then you can go and buy that perfect bikini or sundress to take with you to your new tropical destination.
I absolutely hate packing, I overpack like my life depends on it, I’m a “but what if I’m suddenly invited to the Oscars of China and I have nothing to wear” kind of packer. Basically, my years as a girl guide had a lasting impression on me and I like to “always be prepared”. The issue with this is that you end up with a rucksack that weighs more than you and won’t close without excessive force that you somehow have to get from one side of the world to the other. Not ideal, especially if you are travelling alone! It is in times like this I need to bring in outside help and as my Grampa wisely pointed out “you only need to pack for two weeks really, and then you can just wash everything and wear it again”. Words of wisdom duly noted and with my Nana supervising and questioning everything I tried to pack into my bag I managed to pack only the essentials. Anything you find yourself needing once you land can most likely be bought at your destination (I told you I needed to pack my blue denim shorts as well as my white denim shorts Nana…) or if they can’t be bought then they can always be posted over by a family member, if you really need it that desperately!
Why you should:
Living in a completely different country is such an incredible opportunity. China is actually the second country I have lived in, Scotland obviously not included, I spent three months living and volunteering in South Africa. When you visit a country for a short holiday you only get a snapshot of how that country works, maybe pick up how to say “Hello” and ask for the bill in that countries language and maybe have a cultural experience or two depending on the type of holiday you choose to take. Living in a country for an extended period of time allows you to truly immerse yourself in the culture. For me the thing that appeals most to me about travel is the opportunity to learn about another culture, this is why pool holidays or Ibiza has never really interested me. Before South Africa I had been on one holiday abroad and it was a pool holiday with a friend and her family when I was 16; I had a lot of fun on that holiday (I think because of the company and it was where I discovered my love of tofu) but I wasn’t involved in any of the planning, there was no sight-seeing and I didn’t feel like I learnt anything from my time there. At 18 years old and three months in South Africa later I knew what kind of “holiday” I preferred; solo, action packed and plenty of opportunity to learn about the country I am visiting.
Moving away from everything familiar is also an opportunity to learn about yourself. This is especially true if you travel on your own, being solely responsible for yourself in a foreign country makes you learn a lot about yourself very quickly. Travelling alone for a long period of time means you have to learn to rely on yourself, your own sense of judgement and puts you fully in control of your own life. In South Africa I learned a lot about how to budget my money while travelling, I became a lot more confident in myself as time went on (the first night I arrived I cried myself to sleep, I had never felt so alone, by the time I it came leave I wanted to cry because I didn’t want to go) and I discovered that I could do a lot more on my own than I had thought possible. Since then I have achieved so many things that I don’t believe I could have done if it wasn’t for those three months in South Africa. In China I have discovered that I have a keen interest in language and how different languages grow and develop over time, I have realised that I am actually quite brave (turns out I am the only one in my flat that isn’t scared of cockroaches, who’d have thought?!) and I have found a job that I absolutely love!
Working and volunteering abroad forms some of the strongest friendships you can find in this world. I have made some incredible friends and even more incredible memories from my time in South Africa. Thinking of those memories and friends will always make me happy no matter where I am in my life. When the opportunity comes to meet up with those you formed friendships with while living abroad it will be as if no time has passed, you know a friendship is solid when you only see each other every four years but it’s as if you only saw them yesterday (Hey Lynda, if you are reading this, two year until the next reunion)! When you live and work so closely with people who are just as far away from home as you are, are completely new to the whole experience just like you are and share the same passion for travel as you do, how can you not end with friends for life?!
I hope this has been helpful for somebody out there, I know I could have done with a post like this before I left the U.K. for South Africa back in 2012, but I don’t even think I knew what a blog post was back then… Feel free to email me with any questions you might have about moving abroad or teaching English as a foreign language!
After such a packed day the day before we didn’t think Zhangjiajie could possibly have anything left to blow our minds with, we were wrong…
We set off early taking a public bus from the centre of town to the Jinbian Stream gate of the National Forrest Park. The bus stops just outside of the entrance to the park, giving us a five-minute walk to slowly take in what we were approaching. From this side of the park the sandstone quartz pillars tower above the main gates and stand in stark contrast to the sky making them look like a painted set from a movie.
As you enter the park the first thing you come across is a beautiful garden that opens up to a fully uninterrupted view of the peaks. From here we had two choices, walk along the valley floor by the Golden Whip stream to where we had ended our day yesterday or climb one of the stone pillars. We decided to climb the pillar (despite not actually knowing how long it took or where it ended up). Before we started climbing I thought it would be a good idea to have a quick snack. My first mistake was not checking my surroundings; seconds after opening my snickers bar I saw it, a huge monkey started making its way towards me, slowly at first but then it picked up the pace. Being the stubborn human I am, I was determined not to waste my snickers bar, I took one big bite and threw the remainder as far from me as I possibly could! This satisfied the larger monkey who chased it off into the bushes but then I had to get passed his two friends sitting on the stone steps in front of me. Despite the fact I had visibly thrown my chocolate snack far from myself, these monkeys looked ready to search my backpack for anything else that might be edible within it. I took a deep breath and, hiding behind friend the whole way, ran past them as they were distracted by a group of Chinese tourists.
This was perhaps the hottest day of our trip and the shade of the trees seemed to do nothing to stifle the heat. The Chinese love hiking, but it is not hiking like we would think of it; every trail is marked by steep concrete steps that seem to go on forever as they disappear into the trees, this makes it almost impossible to know exactly how much further is left to go. After about an hour of walking we came across a fork in the path and luckily met some Chinese tourists on their way back down the mountain; they advised us to take the path leading to Huangshi Village as it would give us “the second-best view in the whole park” (the first being the Avatar Mountain view that we had seen the day before).
It took us another hour to climb to the top of Huangshizhai (there is a toilet near the fork in the road… I advise using it if you need to as there isn’t another one until the top. Don’t make the same mistake I did! I was too scared there were going to be large bugs inside to check it out). We had been warned the whole way up that there were monkeys waiting to pounce on anyone with a backpack and after my experience at the bottom and Karin being jumped on by a monkey the previous day we took that warning seriously! We found out that this warning was maybe a slight exaggeration when we reached the top; the monkeys were definitely interested in us, but they did not appear to be aggressive or after us in any way. Justin even managed to befriend one and it trusted us enough to eat right out of our hands. It was so gentle and just sat on the fence reaching into our palms for a nut when we offered it. In the end we drew quite a crowd of people all lining up to feed this monkey and eventually more monkeys showed up, we took this as our que to move on and check out more of the viewing points.
Huangshi Village is a loop of the top of Huangshizhai pillar that offers a view of the sandstone quarts pillars from just about every angle. Seeing the park from so many angles really gives you a scale of just how big it is! The loop takes around half an hour to complete if you don’t stop at every point and at one section you can even see across to the Natural bridge where we had been the day before.
There is the option to either take a cable car down or if you aren’t too tired from the way up there is a different path down the mountain that leads back to the same entrance we came in. We chose to take the path down as it is 72 yuan to take the cable car. This seems to be the unpopular option as we hardly saw another person on the way down and the path is definitely less travelled than the way up with moss growing between the stairs and even a bridge that had been almost completely reclaimed by the forest. It took us around an hour to reach the bottom and from there we decided to go for a short walk along the river. We spent about half an hour relaxing next to the river before catching the bus back to our hostel.
This was my favourite day in Zhangjiajie just because of how relaxed the day was, we didn’t feel the need to rush anywhere and there was plenty to do and see at Huangshi Village. Having the opportunity to feed a wild monkey on the top of a sandstone pillar in China alone puts this at the top of my list of favourite days full stop! It was just a once in a life time experience! “He who fails to climb Huangshizhai, need not have come to Zhangjiajie”.
Most people who know me will know how difficult I am to feed. I was diagnosed with Coeliac Disease at the age of eight; this means I cannot eat gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and (indirectly through cross contamination in mills) oats. When I told people I was moving to China for five months one of the most common responses I received was “China?! But you can’t eat noodles or soy sauce. What are you going to eat?!” I’m not going to lie this was a concern for me as well, I never eat Chinese food at home because the risk of contamination is usually too high. Add to that the obvious language barrier and well, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
Having said all of that, I have never let my Coeliac Disease stop me from travelling before and I wasn’t about to let it stop me this time either. After a conversation with the ImmerQi team here in China, via skype, I was reassured that food would not be an issue. On arrival in Beijing we were each handed a name card along with our room key, on the back of mine was a hand-written note explaining in both English and Chinese that I am allergic to gluten (still not entirely sure everyone in China knows what gluten is but it seems to have served me well so far). I used this every day in the canteen in Beijing and they knew exactly what I meant.
I was placed in a Southern Province of China, I assume this because in the South it is more common for people to eat rice than noodles. As part of my placement meals are provided by the school cafeteria, I found after the first week that this was a bit of a hit or a miss for me in terms of what I could actually eat so I decided to apply for a meal allowance from the school instead. This was initially turned down. I applied a second and the this was accepted, thanks to the efforts of my awesome ImmerQi contact Ben and my wonderful school contact Rani. I will now receive a food allowance along with my living allowance that is already provided as part of my internship on the fifteenth of every month.
Healthy cooking for myself
My egg fried rice
Eating at restaurants has been an interesting experience, I find myself spending more time asking “can I eat that?” than actually eating anything. It’s a long process but eventually you get a meal out of it, even if everyone else is finished by the time yours arrives. It helps to have someone with you who speaks Mandarin if you don’t speak it yourself, this way you don’t spend the whole meal trying to communicate through google translate (not to put down google translate because I have to say it can be an absolute life saver in some situations).
I think the key to being a Coeliac in China is to have patience; be prepared to explain yourself, sometimes multiple times, it’s just one of those things. Coeliac disease and gluten intolerances aren’t really a well-known thing in China like they are becoming in the Western World. Also, it helps if you like rice…
Some tips for a travelling Coeliac (whether you are travelling to China or France, Tanzania or Morocco):
Before you leave the country visit this website http://www.celiactravel.com/cards/they have an explanation of Coeliac disease translated in just about every language. Print a few out so you can hand them to your servers in restaurants. I have been using them since I went to Portugal in 2010!
If you don’t have the card with you have “I am allergic to gluten” saved as one of your top phrases on google translate and LEARN IT! Before you go, while you’re there, up to you but if you can say it and show it then people are much more likely to take you seriously when you say you can’t eat something.
If it doesn’t look gluten free, it probably isn’t. Don’t risk it! There is absolutely nothing worse than being glutened abroad, especially if, like me, you tend to travel alone. Try explaining to 3 people you just met why you need full use of the bathroom for the next hour…
Be prepared. I always have snacks on me; not just because I like to snack but because if we go out to eat and it turns out there is nothing there for me, at least I have a back-up to keep me going until I can find a proper meal
This time last month was my first day in Sanxaing, I know I keep saying it, but I cannot believe how quickly time is going here. The last month has been an absolute blur of experiences but I am going to try my best to put them into words.
Our first week started with us finding a true hero, that hero is called Jack and he also works here in San Xin Bilingual school as an English teacher. We found Jack in a crowded cafeteria when I spotted the only other white person in the room and we descended upon his table like moths to a flame. He was then bombarded with the same set of questions twice as those of us at the end of the table struggled to hear the conversation. Luckily for us this was somehow not an off-putting experience for Jack and he has become our guide, translator, handy man, rice pudding chef and an invaluably useful friend to have around. He has helped us so much, we probably should have paid him some kind of fee to be honest! First stop on Jack’s guided tour of Sanxaing was a trip down the main road next to the school. Although affectionately known as “Death Alley” (due to the sheer volume of traffic, including busses, that somehow squeezes itself through the narrow street along-side pedestrians) by the foreign teachers we were quickly reassured that no one has actually died there… to the best of their knowledge. Here you can find everything you need; grocery stores, hairdressers, E-bike shops, coffee shops, the lot!
Next on to the main market street which runs on weekends, and then down to the shopping mall. This has everything from a two-story supermarket to a cinema, a KFC to more traditional restaurants and even a small arcade. Dinner was an experience that I’m sure no one will be forgetting in a hurry. Spicy Hero is a hot pot restaurant near the mall and really the clue is in the name, order spicy you will get spicy!! We ordered a mild spice soup for the vegetarians and plain soup for the meat eaters, but mild spice at Spicy Hero is anything but mild. I have never been reduced to actual tears by a meal before but here I was bright red, sweating and shivering at the same time and despite my best efforts eyes watering like someone was cutting onions under my nose. We took about two full cups of chillies and chilli oil out of that soup added litres of new water to it but in the end, we had to admit defeat and switch to plain soup. Mild spice in China is not the same as mild spice in Britain… lesson learnt!
That weekend we made the forty-five minute bus journey into Zhongshan, the neighbouring town, to visit some of the other interns and to see the Lantern Festival that marks the end of the Spring Festival celebrations. The festival took place in Sun Wen Memorial Park in Zhongshan which had been filled with lanterns of all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, we missed the fireworks, but it was still incredible to see the park lit up completely by lanterns and LED lights. There are many theories as to the origin of the lantern festival, but its roots can be traced back almost 2000 years and it is most commonly believed to be linked to the reign of Emperor Ming of Han and the rise of Buddhism in China. In the past it was most likely that the lanterns would have been of simple design and would have probably been red to symbolise good luck going into the new year. Now the lanterns are shaped into everything from animals to buildings as well as the more traditional simple designs.
A trip to one of Sanxaing’s hot spring resorts provided us with the most relaxing day. There was a pool for every flavour you can think of; vinegar, coffee, rose petal, lemon, wine, mint, the list goes on! For around £16 you have access to the hot spring, swimming pool, buffet and nap area for the whole day (provided you don’t leave the resort). They will even help you organise a car back into town, just be prepared to wait a little while for it to arrive…
Jack also introduced us to his friend Enrico who owns an Italian restaurant in the centre of Sanxaing. Between them they have shown us some of the best places to eat around town, but we always go back to Enrico’s, and why wouldn’t we with Nutella Pizza and Tiramisu on offer for desert!
One of my favourite days so far has to be when we climbed the hill at the back of our school for sunset. From the top you can see the whole of Sanxaing and it was one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. The hike up only took us about an hour and for the most part there was a very clear path through the trees, only towards the end did it get a bit overgrown, but we made it through with a bit of effort. Coming down we got a little bit lost as I suggested we avoid the overgrown path in favour of a path that looked a bit more manageable in the dwindling light. Despite this diversion we did eventually make it home and joined up with the rest of the group to go bowling at the bottom of “Death Alley”.
There is still so much more to see and do here in Sanxaing and I cannot wait to experience all of it. There are probably things that I have done here already that I have missed out from this post just because this month has passed by me in such a blur. I am slowly starting to figure my way around the area and to be honest as quickly as it has gone, it also feels like I have been here my whole life at the same time. I don’t usually find it hard to settle into a place, but I didn’t really think I would feel as at home here as I do. This is my home now, for now at least.