Flashback to July 2016.
It’s 9:45pm on Wednesday night. I’m sat at a table in front of my laptop in my parent’s cold basement (they love to crank the a/c in the summer). I’ve logged into Skype and am eagerly waiting for SDE’s call to start my 10:00pm interview with what could possibly be the school I spend the next 10 months teaching at in China. As I glance over my interview notes, I take a deep breath and look at the clock: 9:59. Let’s do this.
I speak with the recruiter and she connects me with a school. I think back to the last interview I had: long, formal, but friendly. It went well, and an offer was made, but at this point I had been holding out for a primary school position.
After a few rings, the call goes through and the first thing I hear is several excited voices in unison giving me one of the warmest “hellos” I’ve ever received. The video becomes clear and I can see 10 female English teachers with smiles from ear-to-ear, waving happily at the camera. This was the moment I knew I wanted to work at this school, and that I was going to meet wonderful people in Shenzhen.
Teacher’s Day Photoshoot
We all know how special and significant friendships are, but I think most expats can agree that the bonds you make while living abroad and traveling are of the utmost extraordinary. It is especially wonderful when those bonds go beyond expat relationships and you become close with your Chinese colleagues and neighbours. To quote one of my dearest friends that I’ve met here in Shenzhen, “it’s like magic”.
Unfortunately, not everyone experiences this magical bond with their Chinese colleagues and it’s usually not anyone’s fault. Often it’s because of language barrier and cultural differences. I consider myself lucky that I ended up in a school with outgoing staff, however, I have still had to put myself out there to turn acquaintances into friends, and to learn who the people I smile at and eat lunch with everyday really are.
For example, the second week of school there was a “surprise” photo shoot because the women of the English department all wore a qipao (traditional dress) for Teacher’s Day. My contact teacher had an extra one and gave it to me to try on. I looked terrible that day – no make-up, frizzy hair, bags under my eyes from a 6:00am wakeup call—but I put on that dress and have memories that I look back on fondly.
Once on a field trip, a colleague asked me if I liked basketball. I told her I used to play in high school and she excitedly asked me if I would play on the teacher’s female team. At first I was hesitant because I hadn’t played in years, but I agreed and ended up having a blast. I got to meet some of the P.E. teachers and high school teachers (my school has primary, middle and high school), which I had never had the chance to talk with. I have been close with them ever since. Plus, word got around that I was playing on the team and it made me seem more approachable to others that were maybe too shy to come up and chat with me before.
In December, my school also put on a talent show called the “Fun-Fun Carnival”, and I was asked to help some middle school kids make up a dance to a pop song. I’m no choreographer, but I gave it my best shot, and ended up on stage with them dancing and singing for the school. I was asked to sing the song again at the teacher’s New Year’s party, and again had a blast getting up on stage with my colleagues and belting out Shakira’s “Try Everything” in front of the entire school staff.
Fun-Fun Carnival singing “Try Everything”
During orientation week at SDE, a presenter gave some advice has stuck with me since day one: Don’t say no all the time and smile when you walk through the hallway.
So I’ve become a “yes gal”. And by doing my best to smile at everyone in the hallways and ask questions other than “how are you?”, I have forged great friendships and have had more fun than I thought possible at work. It will surprise you how much people are willing to open up, and how much you can learn about Chinese culture by showing up, saying yes, and asking questions. If you’re having trouble connecting with your colleagues, ask more questions and see how you can get involved. An open mind and heart can never truly be rejected.