22 Nov

Teaching in China: metropole vs. countryside

First moving to China to teach, China Plus first tries to figure out in what kind of school you would like to teach. Another thing to think about well before you go is: where do I want to teach in China? A lot of you will know right away: Beijing or Shanghai, drawn to the excitement of an enormous, vibrant, international city. That makes sense, you’ve seen it on TV, you’ve seen your friends’ pictures on social media, you heard the stories, it’s easier to find thousands of references and video’s online of people who had a teaching experience there. But what’s it like to teach in a small (countryside small) town in China? Our Program Consultant taught on the countryside for almost a year, here’s a small impression.

When I first went to China I started teaching in Xiuyan, in the North-East of China, located 300 kilometers south from Shenyang and 400 kilometers north from Dalian. I had never heard about this city in my life, but it sounded good to start in China somewhere relatively quiet to not get overwhelmed by the massiveness of the quantity of everything.

First impressions
My Chinese agent picked me up with a transporter from the airport in Shenyang, picked up my only colleague and roommate and drove us to Xiuyan. The drive took approximately 4 hours and was paused for a dinner in a random restaurant along the road where I already mentioned that the locals where very aware of the foreigners in their midst.
When we were dropped off at the huge apartment (typical apartments for teachers in small Chinese towns) we tried to find a bar that was open. Since is was already 2am this we could only find one, life stops pretty much after 10pm on the countryside. That night and the next days I had to get used to the photo requests, WeChat requests, staring, people screaming “OK!”, “HALLO!” or “WELCOME”, etc.

The approach to a foreigner 
Most of the people in this town had never seen a white person before. People stared, like properly stared and refused to avert their eyes. When I once was entering a restaurant two old men approached me just to hold my hand and stare at it. Walking through the streets you could see shopkeepers, the police, actually when i think about it pretty much everyone, looking at us or me. This never happened in a bigger city like Beijing, Shenyang, or even slightly smaller cities.

The attention on the streets isn’t the only difference. Never have I experienced people so hospitable. Without even trying all of a sudden I found myself in a cycling team, a football time, an ice-skating team, a band with an 11-year old drummer, a pingpong team and a badminton team. This could have something to do with the fact that I promised myself never to turn down an invitation, but it says a lot about the mentality of the people there.
After one training with the football team I got invited to the wedding of our keeper the next day, I got to play the blues with retired men, visited several families on the country-country-country-side to eat the traditional pork and cabbage at new year, visited grandparents of students, drank with complete strangers. All with an incomparable positivity and energy, even if we couldn’t exchange a word. In big cities it will be a lot harder to find this.

Taking in the Chinese culture
A huge advantage of the life in a small town is having a lot more time left to absorb the Chinese culture. I didn’t speak a word of Chinese when I came to China but besides some Chinese lessons, the short conversations with friendly taxi drivers, small shop owners forced in a great way to learn some Chinese, always answered with a smile or a thumbs up, right or wrong. If you’re living in a bigger city with more English speaking friends you could as well not have time for this.
Families will take you in for the most important holidays and will take you to trips seeing mountains, temples, lakes, forests you would have never found by yourself and where no foreigner has ever been before.

Getting around
The town will feel like it’s becoming a part of you, or you are becoming a part of the town really. Taking a different walk to school every day, getting around by bike – soon you will know the whole town by heart. Every street, every alley, every corner. Taking a taxi is easy, once you know your a little bit you can just navigate by pointing left or right.
The biggest challenge is getting around by public transport. The local buses will be full and old, you will have no idea where they are going. Getting to a bigger town will most likely be by bus. If you’re lucky there’s a train station. There are several websites you can use to find out the schedule, easier is to ask one of your Chinese friends to help you out. That is also something you will learn to accept sooner or later. People will help you and there are some things that are impossible for you to find out. Accept it, take it easy.

Metropole or countryside?
Living in a smaller town is very, very different from living in a bigger city and at first some of the traditions and people might seem a little strange; but this is exactly what will make your experience unique and interesting. Please do choose for a countryside town if you’re willing to go a bit more out of your comfort zone and have a more unique experience!


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