Interview with Mary Oxendale, English Teacher in China
Hi everyone, and welcome back to another inspiring interview. This week we are proud to feature Mary Oxendale, an English teacher currently living in Shanghai, China. Mary has been traveling non-stop since she was 19 and has so far lived and traveled in six of the seven continents (only Antarctica to go). As one would expect, she has a lot of fantastic knowledge to share with our community. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the interview!
GO: Lets start with a brief introduction. Who are you, where are you, and what are you doing?
Mary: I'm a Canadian teacher-writer-traveller who has been living abroad on and off (mostly on) since 1994. I'm currently based in Shanghai.
GO: Where have your travels taken you so far?
Mary: I started out when I was 19, visiting a friend in Germany for a month before making my way to Ireland where I stayed two months. That trip really got me started. After that, I ended up moving to Britain for 3 years and travelled all over Europe as well as Ghana. After I left Britain, I lived in South Africa for 6 months, working in a theatre, then after some time back in Canada to finish my degree, I moved to Turkey, where I lived and taught English for 6 years and travelled around the Middle East and Eastern Europe. When I left Turkey, my boyfriend and I spent a few months travelling around Central America, trying to decide where to go next. We ended up in Shanghai.
GO: How do you like living in Shanghai so far?
Mary: Shanghai is a surprisingly easy city to live in and I like it but don't love it. It lacks a sense of history or culture that I crave. It's very focused on money and the pollution makes me sneeze. However, it does have lots of great places to eat so that makes up for a lot.
GO: What is the cost of living like?
Mary: Shanghai is very expensive compared to other cities in China. Housing is particularly expensive. I'd say, if you get a job that pays less than 12,000rmb/month, make sure it either includes free housing or has an additional rent allowance. Food and transportation are quite reasonable, though the easy access to foreign foods can really bump up your costs if you give in to the temptation.
I taught in Central Turkey and in Istanbul before coming here. Rent was a lot cheaper in Turkey, overall, but transportation and food are cheaper here. There is also a much wider variety of food here. Socially, I miss Turkey a lot. Istanbul was marvelous for meeting people.
GO: Can you share three tips for adjusting to life in Shanghai?
Mary: 1) Try to learn Mandarin. It's really easy to get by here with no Chinese but a lot of the city is off limits to you if you can't speak the language. You'll be stuck in foreigner-friendly restaurants with bilingual menus and get charged a lot more in the markets. I'm still struggling to learn.
2) Make sure your work and home are not too far apart. When I first arrived, I took a job at a university that was an hour away from the edge of the city in a rural area. I hadn't realized when I was hired exactly how far away it was. They didn't provide housing so I rented a flat in the nearest district, where I still had to leave the flat at 6:45am to get to work by 8am. When my landlord decided to sell the flat a few months later, I moved in with my boyfriend in the city center and suddenly my commute was a brutal 2 hours each way, walking, taking the metro and then a long bus ride. This is a big city! Now my commute is a more sensible 30 minutes.
3) Be brave! It's really easy to get caught up in an expat bubble here, eating in foreign restaurants, shopping in import grocery stores, hanging out with other foreigners, speaking only English. It takes a bit of effort and some bravery to go out and eat in little cafes where there is no English anywhere (or even photos of the food!). It's worth it though. I've found some lovely things.
GO: Why did teaching abroad appeal to you?
Mary: I've always wanted to live abroad, even when I was very very young. I remember watching Mary Poppins when I was 8 and getting wanderlust for the cheesy yet still foreign interpretation of London it showed but having no idea how I might find it. Teaching was just a logical offshoot of my original travels. I had run out of working holiday visas that I could apply for and wasn't ready to settle down in Canada. I started teaching at 28 and I'm turning 36 this autumn.
GO: How did you find your current teaching job?
Mary: Actually, my boyfriend found it first, on a jobs website. He applied and was offered a position at a university in northern China, with an offer for me to join him as part of a teaching couple. However, we decided to move to Shanghai because there were some better positions available. My first job here turned out to have an insanely long commute so I contacted the company that had wanted to hire us up north and asked them if they had anything for me in Shanghai- and they did! I've been working for them for a year and have signed another contract with them.
GO: Did you need a TEFL certification?
Mary: Yes, and 2 years' experience. It's fairly intensive EAP (English for Academic Purposes) so you can't just walk in and hope for the best.
GO: What advice can you offer new teachers who would like to find a job in China?
Mary: The best advice, I think, would be to research as much as possible: email current teachers, Google the school, check out EFL Blacklists, read TEFL forums. There are many places out there to find the information and it will definitely help you to have a better time.
GO: Can you tell us a little about your blog, A Totally Impractical Guide to Living in Shanghai?
Mary: The Totally Impractical Guide to Living In Shanghai was an offshoot to a series of other blogs I'd maintained over the years. However, these were often unfocussed and often a bit too personal to be of much interest to anyone besides myself. I'd kept a blog about my time in Turkey since early 2004 and still update it regularly but I wanted to start something that was more focused, less personal, and a little more professional looking.
GO: What do you gain from sharing your experiences abroad?
Mary: I've had a lot of feedback from people who don't actually travel abroad, who have said that my very detailed focus on the little things around me (like mops or dogs or noodles) have really given them a lot of insight into places they'd only read about. Any travel magazine will show pictures of the Bund, but I'll talk about the candied fruit on a stick that you can buy there. I want to give a solid feeling of the place through snapshots. Knowing that people have read my posts and found them interesting helps me to keep seeing Shanghai (and my travels around here) with a fresh and interested eye.
GO: Who is your intended audience?
Mary: People who want to visit China but can't; people who plan to visit China and want to get a better idea of what they are getting themselves into; people who are already here who want to see it through another's eyes.. or just people who want to live vicariously though me.
GO: Do you see yourself ever returning home and settling down?
Mary: I have thought about it every year for the past 16 years and tried it once for 2 years in 2000-2002 but my mind always drifts back to all those possibilities out there..
GO: What do you think you would do?
Mary: I'd likely start up a funky little cafe somewhere on Vancouver Island (where I'm from), with lots of art and music and really strong coffee!
GO: Any last words?
Mary: Don't forget to keep scaring yourself silly!