Teaching in China: Joan’s Story

Teaching in China has been a joy! You never know what will happen from day to day. For instance, my husband and I were recently invited to go to a rural area nestled in the mountainous area of Boshan near our city. We would do some volunteer teaching at a small school and donate much-needed English language books on behalf of True English, a small private school in Zhangdian, Zibo. Boshan is one of the districts in the greater Zibo area. It was the municipal centre of Zibo until Zhangdian, the newer area took on that mantle about twenty years ago. It is famous for its hospitality and its amazing food, and I never pass up on a chance to visit.

On arrival, we were met by the local dignitaries, the principal of the school, and the school’s English teacher Li Zhong. The school is nestled in the mountains about two hours’ drive from my part of Zibo city. During this lovely warm springtime, Shi Ma is scenic and welcoming, but I can’t even begin to imagine how cold it gets in winter and how tough it must be for teachers and pupils alike to get to school when the snows come. Teacher Li Zhong explained to us that most of the people there are farmers who till the soil by hand, a hard life by any standards.

Shi Ma middle school is bright, friendly, and happy and boasts five hundred pupils. Numbers have dropped in recent years because of the great movement of people from rural to urban areas. There is a great little sports ground where soccer, basketball, athletics, and ping pong are the order of the day. In the assembly hall, we were greeted by 138 pupils who clapped and cheered us into the room. Teacher Li Zhong earlier apologised to us about the students’ English level. George and I like to put our students at ease and always use humour to relax them. It worked a charm on the kids, and hands were flying up all over the room in an attempt to ask and answer questions. After the class, we were inundated by students asking us to autograph their English textbooks.

As is the way when invited anywhere in China, food is of the utmost importance, and the people of Shi Ma are no different in this respect. After class, we were whisked off up a narrow mountain road to a small family run restaurant in the middle of nowhere but surrounded by fields of blooming pink cherry blossoms. To the Western eye, it looked no more than a shack and the loo left a lot to be desired, but the food was to die for! Boshan cuisine is unlike any cuisine Westerners experience in Chinese restaurants. The chef kept sending out dishes that would put the likes of Gordon Ramsay or Jamie Oliver to shame – fish from the local river, salad made from the leaves of the pepper plant, fried pork, feng wei qiezi (deep fried aubergine), a particular favourite of mine, and the dishes just kept coming and coming. Two hours of laughter, the clinking of glasses and amazing food later, we headed back to Zhangdian.

This is typical of what happens on a regular basis to expats in our city. I originally came to China for one year. I took a year’s leave of absence from my job in Dublin. Soon after arriving here, I realised I would be extending my leave of absence, and after my third year here, I decided to cut all ties with my previous job. My time here has been a fabulous rollercoaster. The university in which I work does not pay a lot of money in comparison to the many private schools, but what it gave me in other ways has more than made up for that. I was appointed Head of Foreign Teachers four years ago. The year after that, I was appointed Assistant to the Deputy Director of the International Office in SDUT. On top of that, I was also lucky enough to become the recipient of many awards, the most recent and prestigious being the Ambassador of Friendship Award (awarded by the Shandong Provincial Government).

Teaching in China is extremely rewarding. The students are polite, respectful, and very easy to like, and are teachers highly respected. Making friends is easy in China. Chinese people are very friendly and are really enthusiastic about meeting foreigners. Anybody who wants to build up business relationships needs to be patient. While they make friends easily, business is a serious matter and those relationships take time to build. I have been lucky enough to build a very strong business relationship with a friend of mine, and now that it’s time for me to leave China and start a new chapter in life, we have decided to start an online business together where we will offer a variety of services including academic editing, IELTS training, one-to-one general English classes, university preparation classes for Chinese students wishing to study in the West, and recruitment of teachers for schools in Zibo.

Living in China has been the most amazing and challenging experiences of my life. China is bewitching; it catches hold and doesn’t let go, (in a good way). So, if you are adventurous and have a good sense of humour, China is the place for you!

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