China Diaries: “Where is my Chinese teacher?!”

1st of December – 7th December

Posting this a day late from my phone as my VPN refuses to work on my computer! 

In China, more often than not, events that must take weeks of organising are something that foreign teachers find out about as they are happening. This means that it is very likely that at least once a month you will arrive at your scheduled class only to find it empty with no idea what is going on. This has happened to me so many times and I am completely used to it by now, so it was a great surprise to receive a message on Sunday night informing me that my Monday classes would be cancelled because the students had other places to be.

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Me and some of the Chinese English teachers at the testing event
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Students running from booth to booth. The teachers decorated the hall on Sunday evening.

The place they had to be was the gymnasium and when I arrived for a nosy it was all action. Around the hall were small booths set up with activities to test the students on their skills in each subject; Maths, Music, Art, Chinese, English, Sports and Life Skills. For each test the students could earn one, two or three stamps depending on their performance and once they had completed all the tests they could exchange their stamps for a prize. The night before the head of English had asked me if I would like to judge and I said I would just come and look this time but I ended up sitting at the English booth “Happy Singer” and was soon encouraged get involved. I went a bit stamp happy… I think just about every child got three stamps from me but they’re so cute! How could I not?
This wasn’t the official test of course, grade one have an exam in January that will give them their mid-year grade but it was such a fun way for the teachers to assess where the students are in their studies. Chinese schools can have a reputation of being quite strict and boring but Sanxin really proved itself to be ahead of the game this week. Only downside… the students completed the tests quicker than expected so it was back to class for everyone in the afternoon!

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Life Skill – Clothes Folding
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English – Sight Words
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English – Happy Songs
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Week Two’s lesson on fruit 

I think this week is the perfect summary of the highs and lows of teaching in China. After a good two days with my lesson plan going smoothly and the students warming up to me, getting excited about matching water bottles and how fuzzy my jumper was, I arrived at my final class on Tuesday to find the Chinese teacher missing. Now this is not always an issue, some classes are very well behaved without an extra pair of hands in the room but this class was not one of those classes. I got through my warmer with some minor distractions but it took about double the time, it was clear I was losing them and fast. I hastily sent a message to the head of English asking;

“Where is my Chinese teacher?!”

There was no reply, I was on my own and I still had 25 minutes of class left. It felt like an impossible amount of time. Children were climbing on top of desks, two boys had started kicking each other, some were running the length of the class room and even out the door! I tried my usual classroom management techniques; clapping, sending the worst to the back of the classroom, when that failed making them hold a piece of paper between their head and the wall. None of it was working!

Then I started taking names.

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Names I won’t be forgetting in a hurry!

The students have a point system controlled by their teachers on the computer, of course it’s all in Chinese so I don’t use it myself but they don’t know that. At first I just wrote their name on the board, but then I started putting numbers up and the mood changed instantly! I followed that by giving all the students who had actually behaved stickers and suddenly everyone was sitting down… By this point class was pretty much over so I asked them to recite one of their speeches, the bell rang and I was out of there faster than you could say “baby shark”.
I felt completely and utterly defeated after that class. Everything had been going so well then BAM a total disaster. It was one of those moments where you just want to go and hide under your duvet with some chocolate and finally I had a reply;

“Sorry the teacher forgot about your class.”

Fair. I’ve definitely forgotten about a class before, or gone to the wrong one or turned up at the wrong time. I asked her to let the Chinese teachers know that without them in the class the students just don’t feel like they need to listen to me, I mean they don’t understand half of what I’m saying so I don’t blame them. She promised me it won’t happen again but also said that I need to control the class on my own too. I’ll keep trying, I’ve got a few more tricks up my sleeve.
As much as that class was a complete disaster I have to remember that these kids are only 6 or 7 years old, in a boarding school, sitting in front of a teacher who doesn’t speak their language. So of course there are going to be a few settling in issues and now they know I have stickers maybe they’ll be a bit more willing to cooperate. All I’m saying is thank god for stickers!
Now I know how troublesome that class can be I can go in prepared on Tuesday; there will be stickers and point systems and Peppa Pig and the Chinese teacher and everything will be fine…

Won’t it?

I’ll let you know…

 

For more of my adventures in China click on one of these:

Back teaching in China after eight months away

The week bad luck followed me around like a bad smell

What I learned from teaching in China for one year

 

China Diaries: This Was Almost a Disaster

I am writing this post from my bed where I am snuggled up with the cats and a lot of blankets! Winter is setting in here in Sanxiang, right on schedule as I remember the weather turning colder around this time last year too.

 

Wow this week has knocked me out! It has been absolutely incredible but I forgot how much energy it takes to get up at seven in the morning and give the same high energy class three to five times a day for a whole week!

I was a little worried about coming back into this style of teaching. After eight months of small classes that I saw multiple times a week, going to twenty classes of about forty students that I only see once a week was going to need a whole different plan of action. Of course I had done it before when I taught grade one at the beginning of last year but that was my first ever teaching job and I was still getting the hang of things. Myanmar was where I really developed my teaching style and grew confident in myself as a teacher so switching back to China felt like February 2018 all over again.

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Last February, when I was giving my introduction lesson, one class didn’t have a working computer!

I decided to look at my first lesson from last year for inspiration and found that it was almost exactly what I needed. So with a few minor tweaks, the addition of a bumble bee prop and my favourite “hello song” (those from the NELC Xplore office will know what I’m talking about) I was ready to go.

Except I wasn’t… Sunday night saw me locked out of my apartment after realising my key was not in my bag when I returned from the supermarket. When I finally got into my apartment I was up until the small hours going over and over my lesson creating props and worrying that I was going to sleep through my alarm. When I finally fell asleep I woke up every hour convinced it was somehow 10am and I had missed my morning classes (this has happened to me before after a particularly bad case of jetlag).

 

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Bumble Bee prop to help me get to know the students.

I wish I had just trusted myself and my lesson because really I started this week on the highest of highs despite the sleep deprivation. The first class on Monday morning was “class two” and they were enthusiastic, excited and had a really high proficiency level for their age. (They should do too, with their parents paying extra for them to have more English classes both with their Chinese teacher and western teacher). I managed to get through my whole lesson plan which reinstated my confidence and set me up for a fantastic week. Not every class managed the whole lesson and I can definitely see a variety of proficiency from class to class but that is to be expected from such a large number of students.

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Class 2, Grade 1
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Class 20, Grade 1

This week has shown me just how much I have learnt over the past year and nine months of teaching. For someone who never thought they’d find a job they were passionate about teaching English abroad has really changed how I see my future. I’m learning new things every day (right now that seems to be 800 student’s names) and it is the biggest adventure.

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Nessie by a student from class 13

Bonus blog – well not really because I missed last week due to a VPN failure… but an extra little story on the end of this week’s oh so wise and thoughtful piece.

Last week was the primary school sports week and to begin the proceedings the school held an opening ceremony. If you follow me on my personal Instagram you will have seen my story and if you can remember as far back as last year you might even have seen some photographs of last year’s ceremony. As my visa kept getting pushed back I was worried I wasn’t going to make it back to China in time to catch this incredible show but things worked out in the end and I arrived a month before the event.

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Some of my students from last year dressed as chinese lions, 2018

The opening ceremony includes a procession of all the primary school classes from all the grades on the main sports field on campus. One by one the classes march towards the front of the running track and put a performance of some kind. It is usually a dance or mixed martial arts to music vibe and are about two minutes long each.

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Grade 2 entire grade performance, 2019

As I already mentioned above every grade has twenty classes, so the ceremony lasts all afternoon! After every class has performed the entire grade puts on a show together, that’s a lot of students in one routine and it makes for a fantastic spectacle! As the sun starts to set the flag is raised and the Chinese national anthem is sung, followed by the school song before everyone heads back to the canteen for dinner. Sports begin the next day and include everything from basketball to the father/student piggyback relay race!

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Grade 1 in the middle of their whole grade performance, 2019

I have asked my Chinese friends and they tell me that Sanxin having an opening ceremony for sports day is not the norm in China. I guess it has something to do with the fact the school is a private boarding school so they want to put on an impressive show. I would love to know if anyone else who teaches in China has seen opening ceremonies for their school’s sports day so please leave a comment if this is something you have seen!

For more of my adventures in China click on one of these:

China Diaries: Attack of the Giant Wasps

11th November – 16th November 2019

Monday marked a special holiday in China… Singles Day! This is a day where single people celebrate the fact they are single by buying themselves gifts in the many online sales that are put on for the holiday. It is similar to Black Friday in America except you are buying for yourself rather than rushing to buy Christmas presents at discounted prices. The day was chosen because the number one is in the date four times representing people standing by themselves (but also they are standing together so… I’m not going to argue with the logic, I’m just saying) and more recently it has begun to creep it’s way into Western culture. Now if you know me you’ll know I’m not going to turn down a good excuse to shop, single or not! I didn’t go completely crazy though (with the Taobao app it can be all too easy to spend a small fortune) giving myself a budget to 1000 yuan. I decided to take advantage of the discount and buy myself a few items of furniture to make my little studio feel more like a home. When I arrived in China my apartment only had the bare essentials that any person really needs in their room; a bed, wardrobe and a desk. I honestly expected the items I bought to take up to a month to arrive but they have been slowly turning up one by one over the course of the week.

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The whole app is in Chinese so sometimes I need a little help…

I have never put flat pack furniture together on my own and I really threw myself in at the deep end with the first piece of furniture to arrive. I wish I had taken a picture of just how many pieces this make-up table had come in because to look at it now you’d think it looks easy! As I unpacked everything I realised I had made a terrible mistake in ordering it, I had no instructions and not even the slightest clue of what I was doing! So I turned to WeChat (China’s answer to Facebook and WhatsApp in one convenient app that also lets you pay for just about anything from a snack at the corner shop to a flight!) and posted a plea for help. Thankfully my friend Luna messaged me and showed up with the tools to get the job done, along with about twenty tangerines and two mangosteens. The rest of the furniture has gone together without an issue, I’m still waiting on my bedside tables to arrive but my apartment is really starting to feel like home!

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Fawn approves of the new furniture.

For those who don’t already know me and my friend Jess rescued a kitten last year and named her Storm because there was a typhoon forecast to hit our province in China the weekend we found her. While I was in Myanmar she escaped her foster home and returned expecting a litter of kittens! So I am now in the process of finding loving homes for them. This week kitten number one was adopted into his new family and although he is a bit scared of his new big brothers seems to be doing well.

 

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One little kitten on his way to his new home.

Not to be out done by last week, this week decided to end with a scene that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Hitchcock thriller! I came out of the toilet last night and noticed the cats were all staring at something, I looked up expecting to find a moth or similar fluttering around the ceiling light but that is not what I saw… a GIANT wasp had invaded my apartment. In what I can only describe as the most dramatic hour of my life, I scrambled to get the cats into their cage before one of them tried to eat the wasp all while staying as low as possible as the wasp dive bombed my head! I was on the edge of a genuine panic attack but I couldn’t run out of my apartment and leave the cats behind and I was terrified to open a window in case more came in. I had no idea what to do and I could tell the wasp was getting agitated as it started flying into the walls more and more! Finally I remembered that the previous tenant had left a bottle of insect killer in the apartment and I rushed to find it. Usually I don’t kill bugs, I just feel that they don’t know how terrifying they are so it’s not fair to kill them for that, but this wasp was a real threat to the safety of myself and my cats. I don’t know if it would have done that much damage to myself but I wasn’t about to wait to find out and compared to the size of kittens I really think it could have seriously hurt one of them. So I sprayed it with the bug killer and hid in my toilet until I heard it hit the floor. This is when I discovered the second one! I swear this one was twice the size of the first one and I couldn’t figure out where they were coming from! (I think they came in under my balcony door as there were no windows open at the time they appeared). It flew into the kitchen area of my apartment and I sprayed it before hiding around the corner. I heard it drop but when I came round the corner I couldn’t find it anywhere. I think it went back out the way it came because a thorough search of the apartment has not uncovered it. My heart rate was well above what is healthy at this point and I had to sit on my bed and just breathe for a good ten minutes.

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Double A battery for scale!

By this time it was about 9 o’clock and I hadn’t eaten dinner yet so I headed to my friend Rose’s restaurant because I was not about to cook after that crazy hour! Of the few times I have been sad or stressed in China I have always found myself at Rose’s restaurant and she has never failed to cheer me up or calm me down, often without even knowing she is doing it. She is so warm and happy that it is impossible to be sad in her presence! Her daughter is also such a lovely little girl and even though she can’t speak as much English as her mum she is always eager to talk to me (I’ve been a distraction from homework more than once since I arrived back in China…) So I ended up staying there until after midnight and made some new friends who invited me to go shopping with them next weekend.

If you are interested in my previous adventures in China click on one of these:

China Diaries: I’m Cursed!

3rd November – 9th November 2019

It’s official. I’m cursed! Ok maybe that’s being a bit over dramatic… but let me break it down for you and you’ll understand why I have come to this melodramatic conclusion.

About a year and a half ago here in Guangdong, China my friends and I took a little trip to our closest big city Guangzhou. While there, one of my friends tried to win me a large Stitch stuffed toy, it was basically impossible and as a consolation prize we were given these cute little plastic bracelets. I put mine on immediately, because I’m a sentimental human, and basically didn’t take it off… ever. Another friend later told me that the bracelet was good luck because it was red and had two carp fish tied to it, both of these things are strong symbols of luck in the Chinese culture. She also told me to wear it on my left wrist which is exactly what I did until about a week before I left Myanmar when it broke.

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It lasted a good year and a half!

Now I was under the impression that if it broke then it’s time was up so my luck wouldn’t run out because it’s not like I lost it or took it off by choice, but what do I know about the inner workings of the universe mixed with ancient Chinese superstition? To misquote everyone’s favourite fantasy TV series “I know nothing”!

In true me fashion I didn’t throw the bracelet away, how could I when it had been part of me for the past year and a half?! I placed it carefully in my plastic folder of memories like I do with all the random things I’ve collected since I started travelling and I went about the rest of my week getting ready to move back to China.

This is where it gets crazy! I think that over the week my luck had stayed with me because the bracelet was in my room still sending out those positive vibes. Then we get to the airport and I have to repack my bag, removing the memory folder for later collection!! If you read my last post then you will know that my first week in China didn’t exactly go smoothly well this week continued that trend…

First my fridge broke and in this climate all of my food spoiled overnight as well as leaving me with a massive puddle of water in my bedroom that my six cats proceeded to wander through and play in! Then I dropped an entire mug of water on my laptop which honestly was the worst thing that could happen right before I start work again! I rely on my laptop more than anything else I own, more than my phone if you can believe it. It’s not only important for keeping in touch with people but it’s also the only way I can do my job, so this was the disaster to end all disasters! I acted fast, turning it off and upside down before I could even think about what was happening. Then I left it for two days and crossed everything!

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Two days upside down seems to have done the trick…

So as you can see I have been rather unlucky over the past couple of weeks (more so than my usual minor incidents) and this was exactly the conversation I was having with my friend Rose when we figured out that the missing bracelet was the problem. Rose is from China and while her English is fantastic there are occasions when the sentences get a little confused. This was such a time. I was sat in her restaurant unable to finish my enormous portion of noodles explaining that I would love to take it home but my fridge was not working. This is how the conversation turned to the subject of my unlucky couple of weeks and she said the following sentence, “Your life has turned black, you are so unlucky.” (now whose dramatic?) Everything just clicked together in my brain suddenly when she compared my unlucky life to a colour. Red is a lucky colour, my bracelet was red, I don’t have my bracelet, now my life is black. I said this all out loud and she immediately confirmed my suspicions, I had lost my “mascot” and as a result lost my luck. She told me it would not return until I was given a new mascot and she was very clear, I had to be given the mascot I could not go out and buy a new one!

So here I am at the end of my second week in China waiting for a new mascot to enter my life. I’ve never really been a superstitious person but I have made jokes in the past about that bracelet bringing me good luck. What do you think? Am I cursed? Or is it all just a big coincidence? I’m just going to have to wait and see (and drink all of my water from a sippy cup like a toddler). In the meantime, everyone keep your fingers crossed for me and my unlucky life!

 

If you are interested in my previous adventures in China click on one of these:

Myanmar to China: You Will Not Believe the Week I’ve Had!

25th October – 2nd November 2019

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One last dinner with my amazing team at NELC Xplore!

Leaving Myanmar was an emotional experience, I left some good friends and memories behind (as well as a box or two of things, thanks again Zoe)! I arrived at the airport confident that my bag was under the weight limit and I was ready to board the plane but when I got the check in counter, things went South. Turns out I had read the website wrong and instead of being 2kg under my weight limit I was actually 3kg over the limit!! Then they asked to weigh my hand luggage and I already knew that was too heavy. Airasia charges $20 per kilo for overweight luggage so I was looking at a $280 charge in total for my ridiculously over the limit bags!

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Saved my behind more times than I can count!

No one ever wants to be that person; the one repacking their bag at the airport. I have always been really lucky and on the few occasions that my bag has been overweight they’ve either let me get away with it or offered me a cheaper solution. So here I was, already emotional from leaving the country I’d called home for the past eight months, having to sort through my belongings and decide what I wanted to leave behind! Let’s just say there might have been a few tears shed… Luckily Arrle was there to be the logical side of my brain that had apparently taken a quick holiday! He sorted through my things, while I sat on the floor and tried to keep it together.

With the drama of check in behind me I headed to immigration and made it to my gate in plenty of time. Next stop Bangkok!

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Not a bad view!

I was asked to arrive in China at the start of the week so we wouldn’t lose any days when applying for my residence permit which meant I could spend the weekend in Bangkok and celebrate my friend’s birthday. I got into Bangkok late on Friday night and Eilidh had Pad Thai waiting for me when I arrived at her apartment (that’s the kind of friends you need in your life to be honest)! On Saturday we got glammed up and headed to the SO Pool Party at Sofitel, my first ever pool party if you can believe it. Sofitel hosts a pool party on the last Saturday of every month from 1pm to 9pm and costs 600 baht per person (one arrival drink is included but I would not recommend the mojito). Sunday I said goodbye to Eilidh and checked into the cheapest hotel I could find for the day. On her recommendation I headed out to the Chatuchak Weekend Market for a bit of shopping (but not too much after my disastrous experience at Yangon airport). I’ve been to a lot of markets since I started travelling so I wasn’t expecting to spend a lot of time there but I spent about three hours wandering around and bought a couple of nice little bits.

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A good day of shopping in Bangkok!

My flight to China left at 1am on Monday morning and arrived around 5am China time which meant I had to wait about an hour for the metro to open before I could catch a train to the coach station. I then had to wait another hour and a half for my bus to Sanxaing so I decided to put my rusty Chinese to the test and attempt to order a McDonald’s breakfast. The entire experience just reminded me of why I love this country so much; me with my broken Chinese and the server with no English managed to communicate with mimes and laughter and my McDonald’s “scrambled eggs” were delivered without an issue. I think I provided the morning’s entertainment!

Arriving in Sanxiang it was like I’d never left; I caught a tuk tuk to the school, picked up my keys and had a much needed shower before heading to the school office to see my friend Rani. The campus was exactly the same as when I’d left and it felt so good to be walking through it again. And then… I broke my phone!!

Rani had just ordered me a DiDi (like Uber for China) to go collect my cat from the kennel and I dropped my phone face down on the solid tile floor of my apartment. It was one of those moments where I just didn’t want to look, the sound it made as it hit the floor alone told me it was broken. But my car was waiting, and I had no way to contact Rani to tell her I was phoneless and therefore probably unable to contact the kennel owner on arrival. I also now had no way to get back but I got in the car anyway… When I got the kennel I asked my DiDi driver to call the kennel (luckily his phone number was on the gate). I then had to try ask the kennel owner to call Rani and explain that my phone was broken. Rani called me another DiDi but when he arrived he refused to take me because I had the cat so the kennel owner’s wife made him drive me back to the school. I still don’t really know if the kennel owner was mad at me or his wife but he seemed to smile at me as I left the car so I’m going to hope we’re ok. If this experience has taught me anything it is that I really need to learn more Chinese now I’m back!!

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Soooooo happy to have this little gremlin back in my life…

I went to see my friend Rose and her daughter Ning Ning on Monday evening, luckily we had organised a time to meet at her restaurant before I broke my phone! It was so lovely to see them and enjoy her amazing fried noodles again, which she gave me for no charge because she said she had missed me! She also bought me a whole bag of fruit to take home because my fridge was empty. Just another reason why I love it here so much, everyone wants to help you all the time even if you don’t ask, it just fills your heart right up!

I spent the rest of the week washing all the clothes I had left here for the last eight months and organising my new apartment. It feels so nice to have my own space, this is the first time I’ve lived by myself. I had flatmates all the way through Uni, when I arrived in China I lived with three other people for the first six months, then one person for the second half of the year and in Myanmar I had a steady rotation of flatmates over the eight months so having a whole apartment to myself is a nice change.

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Needs a bit of work but I’m loving the space and the view!

On Friday I finally got my phone back from the repair shop, they didn’t have the right colour of screen so now I have a white screen while the rest of my phone is pink. It’s unique! I went for dinner with my friend Luna and mentioned that I had a bit of a headache and she suggested a head massage. It was exactly what I needed and they even gave me a haircut while they were at it (which I probably also needed to be honest…)

I was so sad when I left Myanmar and I still miss all of my friends and students from Yangon but it feels so good to be back in Sanxiang. It is getting colder now and I am looking forward to not sweating constantly and wearing cosy jumpers with a cup of tea in bed! I will hopefully start work before the end of November and I can’t wait to meet all my new grade one students. It’s going to be a whole new adventure!

 

If you are interested in my previous adventures in China click on one of these:

5 Reasons to Travel Solo

Every major trip I’ve taken until now, I’ve done it solo. Some could argue that it’s because I have no friends, but I promise you that is not the case and it isn’t because I don’t like other human beings either, although a little time alone never hurt anyone. I need human interaction just as much as the next person and honestly without someone to debrief to after a long day I think I’d go a little bit stir crazy but at the end of when it comes to travel I alway opt for a solo journey. Why? Well, I have my reasons and if you keep reading you’ll find out!

Freedom

There is a great sense of freedom that comes with travelling solo, I especially love the fact that you are free to do what you want when you want to do it. When you travel with other people you have to plan around everyones needs and what they want to do. Someone wants to go shopping and someone else wants to go to the beach but then someone else wants to explore the local area by bicycle. Without a leader in the group all you end up doing is going round in circles until you’ve wasted the whole day trying to plan the day! This isn’t always the case of course, sometimes there is a natural leader in the group and plans are made but this alway means a compromise was made somewhere along the way. Travel alone and there’s no wasted time, there’s no compromise and no one knows if you take a cheeky pool day when most people would be expecting you to be immersed in local culture! Some will call it selfish, I call it self-care! Don’t get me wrong group trips can be amazing too but personally I just love the freedom of solo travel a little bit more.

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Solo travel means self timers and tripods are essential kit! Hong Kong

No Stress

When I do travel with a group I find myself feeling responsible for everyone, I’m a people pleaser so the stress of trying to make everyone happy all of the time can be a bit overwhelming for me. I especially feel this kind of stressful responsibility in airports, for some reason I feel like it’s my job to get everyone to the gate and organised when really they are all adults and if they miss the flight it’s their own fault! I love airports when I’m by myself but in a group I can’t relax until we are all in the air.

It’s Easier to Make New Friends

If you travel with one or more friends the chances are you will stick together, nothing wrong with that but I find it much easier to make new friends if I’m by myself. Groups can be a bit of a safe space for me, but when I travel alone it forces me to talk to new people to find out information. Sometimes these conversations don’t go much further than getting directions or the information you were looking for but they can also lead to a longer conversation and as a result a new friend. This new friend might invite you on a day trip or a night out while you’re both in the country but it doesn’t have to be anything more than that and you aren’t tied to their itinerary for the rest of your travels.

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Go on tours make new friends! Thailand

It Will Build Your Confidence

When I travel with friends I tend to let them do the talking, mainly because I don’t want to be responsible for anything that goes wrong… Travelling by myself has taught me that things are bound to go wrong at some point and as a result my confidence in planning a trip, asking for directions and organising transportation has definitely increased. Having only yourself to rely on forces you out of your comfort zone and forces you to do things that you don’t usually do for yourself. If things go wrong, they go wrong. It’s part of the fun of travelling!

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Travelling alone requires the confidence to ask strangers to take your photo. Hong Kong

The Destination is Your Choice

If you want to go somewhere, don’t wait for someone to go there with you! Nothing is stopping you from seeing the world but you, so pack your bag and just go. When you travel with other there will inevitably be a compromise somewhere along the way. While compromising is a part of life and being able to accept compromise is definitely a desirable trait, you should also be able to see the world on your own terms. Not having anyone to go with is not an excuse!

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Go where you want, when you want! China

I feel like it is important to note that travelling solo has its flaws too, it can be lonely at times and in some places it just isn’t safe to travel alone. I’m happy with a good balance between my solo travelling and meeting up with friends along the way but its not for everyone.

What do you think? Is travelling solo better than travelling with friends? Are there any other advantages to travelling alone?

To read about some of my adventures, solo or otherwise, click on one of the links below:

 

TEFL Tip Tuesday: Why Your First Day of Teaching Will Probably be a Disaster and Why That’s Ok!

It’s been a while but I’m back with another TEFL Tip Tuesday. This post was inspired by a recent Q&A we held at the language centre I work in. It was for new teachers arriving in Myanmar and teaching English for the first time, we were asked to give them one piece of advice about the job and well, without even hesitating I said “Your first day will most likely be a complete disaster, but that’s half the fun!” and speaking from personal experience it’s the most honest advice I could give!

Class hard at work drawing Nessie
My first week of teaching went less than smoothly but I loved every minute!

Whether you have previous teaching experience or not, chances are your first lesson as a ESL teacher is going to be a complete disaster. Yes, I said disaster and yes you’ll probably agree with me about ten minutes into your first day that absolutely nothing you planned is…well… going to plan!

Let’s rewind a little bit here. Back to before you’ve even walked into that classroom; because I imagine if you are reading this it is because you are looking for advice for your first day on the job and therefore, have not even stepped into a classroom unassisted yet. More likely than not you’ve just completed some kind of course in ESL/TEFL/TESOL (whatever acronym they slapped on your certificate) and although it may feel like a blur of irregular verbs and classroom management techniques, you’d be surprised how much of this TEFL stuff is now second nature to you.  This stuff is in your brain now. For better or for worse you are a qualified, certified English teacher. All that’s left to do is get that first, actual, real life lesson out of the way.

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Me and the girls after our Graduation from Xplore Asia’s TESOL program.

Let me be the first to tell you, that though it will probably go down in history as one of the most chaotic and or awkward hours of your life it will also be the first story you tell anyone back home when they ask you about your TEFL experience. It’s one of those funny in hindsight kind of experiences and as with any first, it is completely unavoidable.

 

So, let’s get it over with!

 

Your first day; you’re bright eyed and bushy tailed, eager to get into that classroom and show those tiny humans (or possibly fully grown adults depending on how you get placed) your plethora of knowledge of the English language. Only one problem though… this classroom does not have a computer, nor does it have a HDMI cable so that carefully put together introduction slide show you prepared is gone, out the window, useless!! OK, ok just stay calm and ignore the fact they’re all staring at you expecting greatness, like you’re Captain America and the fate of the universe rests solely in your trembling, sweaty hands. Improvise, the limit does not exist when it comes to the possibilities of a board and some chalk. Any lesson can be converted from powerpoint presentation to chalkboard masterpiece with enough energy and imagination.

A chalkboard masterpiece?

Before you know it the hour’s up and it’s onto lesson two and then just like that you’ve somehow stumbled your way through an entire day of teaching (your first day of teaching!!!) with only a few sticky fingers and a scattering of biscuit crumbs in your hair. Did 90% of what you had planned end up on the cutting-room floor? Probably. Did you have to use brain muscles you didn’t even know existed when one particularly mischievous teenager pointed to THAT word in the dictionary and asked you to explain it, even though he knows perfectly well what it means!? Well, yes but it’s nothing a trained professional like you can’t handle. And, did any student for one second suspect that you were kind of winging it for half, if not all, of the lesson? Nope! They had no idea. Believe me when I say they are much more interested in having a good time and learning something new than they are in whether or not your lesson plan has been followed to the exact second. As long as you open with something fun, use a bit of magician’s deception (read: big hand movements and distraction tactics) when things go slightly pear shaped, improvise your way around faulty technology or just plain non-existent technology and end your lesson on a memorable note then you did a pretty good job from where I’m standing. It may feel like a disaster in the moment but really the only person thinking that is you and when it’s all over that first lesson will be a cherished memory and one hell of a story.

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Note the tiny piece of paper he is drawing on, a particularly tight budget in my first semester meant I had to ration my paper handouts. This resulted in a few complaints from students but it’s nothing a few stickers can’t distract them from!

Your first day of teaching will probably be a disaster, that’s ok! Trust me, if it went 100% perfectly then you’d have a hard time keeping up with yourself for the rest of the semester. Some people will definitely take to the role more naturally than others, it’s just the luck of the draw, but no one in the history of the world has had a perfect first day on the job. I really do believe that the more disasters you encounter early on, the better teacher you become. It’s not just your students that should be learning in the classroom, your teaching technique and style will have to evolve and adapt with each new challenge that is thrown your way. No two days are ever the same and in my opinion it’s the best part of the job! Throw predictability out of the window, you’re a TEFL teacher now!

 

For more TEFL tips check out on of my previous posts:

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?

 

TEFL Tip Tuesday: Cultural Differences and How to Handle Them

If you are a TEFL teacher then you are probably about to move to a completely new country with completely new and sometimes confusing cultural differences. The first thing I want to say is; don’t see this a bad thing. It can be and is a wonderful learning experience and a way to open your mind to other cultures so embrace them!

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We weren’t told about the Sports Meeting Opening Ceremony until we showed up to empty classrooms!

Cultural differences can present themselves in some weird and wonderful ways, in and out of the classroom. They can range from kids falling asleep in class to fellow teachers giving you little to no information about what is happening at the school. It can be frustrating and it can seem like they are doing these things because you aren’t performing well as a teacher but let me assure you that unless someone has come up and told you that you aren’t doing a good job or that something needs to change then these occurrences are nothing personal!

I have had kids fall asleep in class before, this tends to happen mostly in my middle school classes, I do not take it personally and I often leave them to sleep unless the class is laughing at them. The reason I don’t let this affect my class is because I know how hard these kids work every day. They are often awake well before me, with their school day starting with a 6:30am run around the campus, and are still in school when I’m climbing into bed for a Netflix marathon, they finish classes at 10pm. I design my classes as a safe and fun environment for my students to learn and practice English in, so I never get mad at a kid if they happen to fall asleep in class.

In the U.K. we are used to having instant access to all the school’s timetable information at the beginning of the year. We know in August when the last day of school will be at the end of the year and we know exactly what days off we will receive for each holiday. This is not always the case in China and I have learnt to just go with the flow a bit. This cultural difference can definitely be the most frustrating of all the ones I have come across but the best advice I can give is just to stay calm and every now and then give your school a gentle reminder that you might need to know how many days off you will receive over the Spring Festival so you can start booking your travels. Most of the time if they aren’t giving you any information it is genuinely because they themselves don’t have it yet, my school has to wait for the government to tell them when the exams will be before they can tell me when my last day of term is and that is just the way it is. This semester it meant that I was told the Friday before my last week of term that I only had a week left and it meant changing my lesson plans completely to combine two weeks into one and abandoning the rest of them. A mild annoyance but in the long run it gave me a longer holiday and meant I didn’t have to work on Christmas or my Birthday so I wasn’t complaining!

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Cultural differences mean that my students had an exam on Christmas day, something that would no doubt cause riots back in the U.K.

At the end of the day every country is different and if you can relax and embrace those differences you will grow a better understanding of the world and how it works. How we handle these differences can vastly change our experience of a country and I have always found that calm and understanding gets me further than annoyance and anger. So, be aware that things aren’t going to be the same as home and incorporate them into your understanding of the country and even your daily routine and you will come out the other end will the best experience you can get!

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