8 Epiphanies I’ve Had While Teaching and Living in China by Austen Beck

I’ve slowly become a person who believes that ‘everything happens for a reason’, as cliché as it may sound. Truthfully, I never imagined myself living in the Far East. For someone who decided to move to the opposite side of the world, I didn’t consider a lot of the little things and daily routines that would eventually come with it. First, you have to understand that the honeymoon phase comes to an abrupt halt, and the adjusting phase quickly sets in, which is anything but easy. However, as hard as some days may be, I’ve grown to love China for everything it has taught me thus far.

China has taught me first and foremost that the world, in general, is gigantic and overwhelming. China’s geography and landscape alone is massive and incomprehensible once you are actually here. There is just so much to learn and way too much to see. This brings me to my first lesson.

Epiphany #1: CHINA IS LITERALLY HUGE WITH TONS OF PEOPLE

I know this is obvious and, yes, China looks big even on a map, but there’s nothing that can prepare you for the reality of living day-to-day in China. Before arriving, you hear about the crowded streets, subways, buses, and malls. I feel as though people didn’t exaggerate this enough because the reality of it all is overwhelming! The geography alone is massive, and I still have not gotten the hang of directions. I couldn’t tell you which way is north, south, west or east, and I don’t think it’ll happen anytime soon. Due to this gigantic country and living in a new developing city, there is no escape from the crowds, unfortunately. However, you get really good at pushing and shoving back and dodging cyclists and motorbikes on the sidewalk. China keeps you on high alert.

Although there will be days you wish you could just blend in, you kind of have to accept it which brings me to my second point.

Epiphany #2: You’re going to be stared at, pardon the bluntness

The culture shock is definitely one thing, but being the only foreigner to live in your community is another. There are days you don’t see another foreigner, and you barely have full conversations in English. Honestly, I have more conversations with myself than I’d like to admit. You will find yourself sitting on the metro minding your own business and look up to everyone staring at you like you’re an alien. Forget it if you are with a group of foreigners. You’ll be photographed and video recorded, but I’ve learned to just go with it and give them a smile and peace sign.

As for teaching and working in China, being the only foreigner at your school is highly common. My first week of classes was like the circus came to town – either half the kids were terrified of me and my “big eyes” or they were jumping all over me with excitement because of how different I looked. There is definitely days I wish I could blend in but then I realize how I must cherish it…and maybe even believe that isolation builds character.

Epiphany #3: Who needs a fork?

I have mastered the art of chopsticks, and I thought this was impressive but the Chinese may be more fascinated by my skills than I am. There are really no forks in China, other than at a few odd places, but chopsticks are just the way to go.

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Epiphany #4: 50-60 Chinese kids yelling, “Hello! How are you?” becomes ritual

Surprisingly, I can handle a classroom size of 50+ Chinese students about 4 times a day, Monday- Friday, without wanting to cry in the corner. Although there are days where I second guess my desire to become a teacher, I suddenly remember how fulfilling it is. I never in my life imagined myself in front of a room of 50 students teaching them how to talk to each other in a foreign language. It is possibly one of the best feelings in the world. After a while, you begin to see their personalities and understand students individually and that’s what has been most challenging for the classroom sizes.

Epiphany #5: Language barrier

My first harsh realization in China was the massive language barrier. From the moment I arrived in the airport, trying to communicate was difficult. After 23 hours of travel, I was relieved to finally land on solid ground, but it wore off rather quickly from feeling relieved to terrified. Suddenly panic flooded in as I couldn’t find the taxi pickup, and once I did, I wasn’t even able to tell the driver where I needed to go.

I had heard and researched prior to arriving in China about my future home, Shenzhen, and how it was a rising and developing city. Shenzhen was becoming very metropolitan with skyscrapers, franchises, and the high demand to learn and speak English. So my naive and ignorant self simply assumed that most people would speak English and that getting from the airport to my hotel would be easy. I was definitely wrong. This realization led me to believe that body language and creative sign language is vital when communicating, and listening is more beneficial than speaking.

Epiphany #6: Creative sign/body language & a smart phone + Chinese APPS = survival

I know I sound dramatic, but it is honestly how I am still alive. The massive language barrier forces you to get really creative with your hand gestures, face expressions, and body language. If you want to go out to eat, you better pick a restaurant that has pictures on the walls or on the menus. You really hit the jackpot when you find a restaurant that has a Chinese/English menu! I’ve gotten really good at pointing at what I want and getting it 60 percent of the time. Sometimes you’ll surrender to it all and just let them give you what they think is best…prepare yourself when this happens.

Also, always have your phone charged, data paid for, and a backup battery in case your phone dies. I only say this because WeChat is your lifeline. Your wallet is connected to it, your address, contacts, your way of communicating and translating….everything. Psh…you thought your phone mattered back home, think again.

Epiphany #7: China still remains a deeply rooted nation

Although China has its skyscrapers and franchises, the country remains rooted to its culture’s traditions. There are plenty of fancy malls jam packed with familiar places like Zara, H&M, and food chains like McDonald’s, Starbucks, Burger King, Pizza Hut and KFC. China may be fashion forward with their appetite for fried chicken and overpriced coffee, but they have nowhere made the switch from Eastern to Western ideals. Do not mistake these random franchises and China’s lead on technology as a new changing nation. These things may be nice and bring foreigners a sense of comfort when desired, but there’s no escaping the deeply developed Chinese culture, which in my opinion is fascinating and beautiful.

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Epiphany #8: Vulnerability is necessary

Loneliness, I’m afraid to say, is inevitable when moving and living in China. All of my understandings I’ve recently developed have taught me that connection is so important. In order for us to connect and feel a sense of belonging, we must be vulnerable. Talk with the fellow teachers in your office, learn the language, eat the food, and try as much as you can because it will make you feel less alone. Ask for help and advice from others because they want to help and get to know you just as much as you want to know and help them. Once I let myself be seen and I asked for more help, loneliness faded rapidly. I’ve learned to trust myself, and this journey I am on has given me new lifelong friendships, the desire to become a better teacher, and a compassionate understanding of the Eastern world.

A few last things that will forever be odd to me: the obsession with karaoke, drinking hot tea when it’s hot, slippers for indoors and outdoors, chicken feet, coffee shops opening after 9 :00am (does no one any good), afternoon naps (which I love deeply), and milk beverage.

This being said, China is unlike any other place in the world. You will fall in love with its quirky and strange customs, the peaceful demeanor of its people, and the majesty of its land much like I have. These were just eight of the epiphanies I’ve had so far on my still unfolding journey of living and working in China.

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