I thought I was immune to culture shock. I studied abroad in China, and I’m almost fluent in Chinese. I’ve been jostled in China’s largest cities, and stranded in some of China’s smallest towns. I’ve traveled to Tibet and Xinjiang and I’ve eaten fried scorpions in Beijing.
When I signed up to teach abroad in China for a year through Ameson Education and Cultural Exchange Foundation, I thought there was nothing left that could possibly “shock” me. I’d seen it all. That was, until the school driver dropped me off at a complex on a highway in the middle of nowhere and said “We’re here!”
Deciding to stick it out for a full year was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made, but it has definitely changed me for the better.
I thought I was prepared for anything, but I was not ready for the loneliness that accompanies living by yourself on a highway surrounded by factories. There was nowhere to go to make friends; I couldn’t even use Chinese to communicate with the locals who only speak the Ningbo dialect.
I immediately called the company asking to change schools, but I felt guilty at the idea of leaving the students behind. Most of my students had never had a foreign teacher before and they were so excited. So I stayed. Deciding to stick it out for a full year was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made, but it has definitely changed me for the better. So here it is: how teaching abroad has made me a better person.
1. I’m More Self Reliant
Living in the-middle-of-nowhere, “Factoryville” China, I had to find a way to get around on my own. Most of the teachers at my school own cars and have no knowledge of the bus routes. It was up to me to find restaurants to eat at and a way into the city. The other teachers at my school didn’t have time to baby me, because they all had babies of their own!
I eventually purchased an electric motorbike that I used to get around town and make grocery store runs. I cooked my own meals, found bus routes to the city and integrated myself into the community. I learned that if I wanted something done, I’d have to take initiative and do it myself.
I was also forced to use my Chinese every day since I could no longer rely on friends to speak for me. I realized that there’s no point in being self-conscious, and ultimately felt happier being immersed in this language. In the past I used self-deprecating humor as a shield and an excuse. Now I rely on myself to get things done, and if I’m not the best at something, there’s always room to learn and grow.
2. I’m More Patient and Understanding
Working at a Chinese school can be frustrating. I wouldn’t learn the dates of school holidays until a few days before, making it impossible to buy plane tickets that maximized my holiday breaks. Sometimes, I would walk into a class of students taking midterm exams and learn that I had the whole week off. There were days I’d get a phone call at 7 am telling me to be at the office for a meeting in ten minutes.
Not every country views time the same way we do, and there's no point getting angry at someone for acting within their culture.
This can be extremely frustrating for someone from the western hemisphere who’s used to detailed schedules and exact dates and times in advance. So over the course of the year, I adapted. I learned to be more patient and understanding. Not every country views time the same way we do, and there’s no point getting angry at someone for acting within their culture.
3. It Put My Ego in Check
I studied abroad in Beijing and Xi’an for seven months and returned to China two months before my teaching program to visit friends and travel. While most of the people on my teach abroad program had never been to China before, I had just finished up a trip to Tibet and Nepal.
After spending time with the other teachers, seeing them express anxiety about cultural differences and language barriers I had already dealt with as a study abroad student, I thought I was ready for anything. In reality, I wasn't prepared to live in a rural factory town.
The night I arrived I had a giant meltdown and begged my program to move me to another school. I realized I was not a confident world traveler, but a scared and lonely little girl who used English-speaking friends as a security blanket. My “culture-shock” induced meltdown made me realize that I’m really not as cool as I thought I was.
In the end, I didn’t transfer and stuck it out. Over the year, I pushed myself to be a person I could be proud of. I didn’t want to be a quitter, so I made myself adapt.
At the same time, it proved every abroad experience is unique and different, and no matter how well traveled a person is, there's always room to learn new things and be challenged by your surroundings!
4. It Taught Me How Strong I Am
There were many times I thought about leaving. I went back and forth about whether or not I wanted to go home after a semester. It wasn’t until I made the conscious decision to stay, that my year turned around.
If I can live in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country for a year on my own, I can do pretty much anything.
The weight of the decision was suddenly lifted off my shoulders and I was free to make the most of my experience. I no longer felt guilty that my students would miss me or that I would be putting my school in a difficult position. This year taught me life is what you make it and I no longer waste all my time and energy on minor setbacks. If I can live in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country for a year on my own, I can do pretty much anything.
5. I’ve Stopped Stereotyping
I had a lot of stereotypes about what Chinese students were like before I came to teach in China. I thought that they’d be quiet and shy, extremely studious and very good at memorization tasks. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
As the months progressed I realized my students aren’t any different than American teenagers. They have big dreams and hate doing homework, they love playing basketball and listening to Justin Bieber. I have smart students, shy students, class clowns and slackers. I have students that go out of their way to practice English with me after class, and students that cower in fear when asked to read a sentence aloud.
Chinese teenagers are just like I was a few years ago, with the same fears and worries that I had when I was sixteen; something I may not have noticed if I didn’t live on campus and interact with them every day.
6. I’m No Longer Afraid to Travel Solo
Before I embarked on my year teaching in China, I was afraid to travel solo. While I made some small trips -- a few days in Guangzhou and a week in Hong Kong to get my visa -- the idea of traveling for extended periods of time to multiple locations frightened me. I didn’t have the confidence in myself to believe I was capable of traveling on my own as a single woman.
After spending a year in China, I planned a trip to Japan with a friend. When that trip fell through, I realized I didn’t want to let a minor setback ruin my summer, and decided to travel on my own for three weeks.
Without the experience of teaching in China for a year, I never would have had the confidence to travel on my own.
So, I decided Taiwan would be the perfect place to attempt my first solo trip. I planned an epic cross-country tour where I visited four cities and an aboriginal island. I took long-distance train rides, learned to surf, rented a motorcycle, snorkeled on a volcanic reef and made a lot of friends on the way.
Without the experience of teaching in China for a year, I never would have had the confidence to travel on my own. Now I’m in the process of planning a month in Thailand and Cambodia -- all thanks to teaching abroad!
Suggested Teach Abroad Programs
- ImmerQi: Teach & Travel China Program
- English Teaching Jobs in Taiwan
- Work + Study French in Paris
- Teach Young Learners in Italy
- Teach English in Thailand
- Teach English in China with Beijing Teach
Overall, this last year has completely transformed me for the better. I went from a scared girl to a strong and independent woman. I even decided to attend graduate school in China next year so that I can keep on learning and having adventures!
I’m confident traveling the world on my own and I now know I can do almost anything I set my mind to. Teaching abroad in China has made me a better person, and I can’t wait to keep growing and adapting as I travel the world.
Photo Credits: Richelle Gamlam.