Teach English in China - Matthew Jones

Walking on Ancient History, by Matthew Jones

For two weeks every year, inter-city transportation in China is buzzing with tourists. Famous attractions and sights have queues around the block. Chinese flags sprout up everywhere, and in the most unlikely of places.

But these are not foreign tourists. It’s time for a ‘Golden Week’, when residents of China travel, relax, and spend time with family and friends. These are two seven-day national holidays around Chinese New Year, in January or February, and National Day, at the beginning of October.

So, three of us lovely teachers at Aihua – residents of China – were faced with a problem: how could we visit a national treasure, during a national holiday, and avoid the crowds? Our solution: a two hour bus journey, followed by three hours of hiking on challenging terrain, to a remote section of the Great Wall.

The scenery during the hike up the mountain was spectacular, but nothing could surpass the views along the Wall at the top. Did you know that parts of it are over 2,300 years old? Whilst much of where we hiked had been restored we were still, literally, walking on ancient history.

Having spent some time exploring and taking photos, we set up our tents and our guides cooked us dinner. We looked at the stars, sat round the fire and – rolling back the years – roasted some marshmallows. Eventually, we went to sleep. How many people can say they have slept on a ‘wonder of the world’?

The next morning we climbed down the mountain and began the journey back to Beijing, safe in the knowledge that our memories (and photos) of the trip would always be with us. If you decide to work in China, which you should, camping on the Great Wall is a priority. That is, if you like once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.


Riding the buses in Beijing, by Patrick Watters

Back home I was not someone who would typically use public transportation. That option is usually a last resort. In America we are so accustomed to driving our own cars everywhere that we forget about the benefits and possibilities of such a service. Since the traffic in Beijing is scary and daunting at all times of the day, I told myself I would not purchase a scooter or motor bike for the fear of ending up at the hospital. Therefore, public transportation is the way to go for me and after my first month it has really grown on me now. I am both a fan of the busses and the subway system, however I tend to use the busses on a more regular basis to get to and from work. I never learned the schedule because they arrive five to ten minutes in between each other so I can catch one at any time essentially. Most of the time I stand because they are crowded, but this too has grown on me. I don’t expect a seat anymore. It is very cheap to ride the bus so when another coworker mentions grabbing a taxi instead I find myself declining the offer because what’s the point? Sure it may take a little longer and you make be squished in with what feels like 100 other people, but you get to your destination in the end. As a foreigner you do get stared at a good amount, and this is no different on public transportation. Many people stare at me and if they are close enough, try to look at my phone and see what I am doing or what music I am listening to which I find pretty funny. You most likely will hear people practically yelling into their phones, but odds are they aren’t mad they are just having a regular conversation. A tip to remember about riding the bus though is to make sure you scan your card before getting off, otherwise you pay more in the end. Trust me its happened once or twice and I wonder where all my bus money went after only a handful of rides. All in all it’s an interesting experience each day I go to work.


Arriving in China, by Peter Campion

As I am writing this, I am marking the end of my sixth week with Aihua in Beijing. Every day presents new challenges, however these challenges have made this experience more enjoyable and I am definitely looking forward to the months ahead. My impression of Aihua from the outset was positive. Throughout the interview and visa application process, communication was clear, comprehensive and prompt. Since my arrival, this professionalism has continued and helps to make life in Beijing somewhat easier.

During our first two weeks, we complete a training course with the school’s Training Managers. For somebody coming from a non-teaching background, we were provided with practical advice on managing your class. Beyond this, our Foreign Centre Supervisors are on-site to provide us with help and support when issues arise.

Following the training period, we were allocated to one of Aihua’s six centres in West Beijing. I was assigned to Wanshang. I work alongside four foreign teachers, our Foreign Centre Supervisor, five Chinese teachers and the Chinese sales staff. From the outset, we were made very welcome with offers of food on a daily basis, as well as a welcome gift following our first month. Besides working with a fantastic bunch of Chinese and Foreign Staff, I was pleased to discover a coveted “Western loo” on the third floor of our building! It’s the small things…

Aihua provides all Foreign Teachers with accommodation in Shijingshan. West Beijing is traditionally not frequented by many westerners and consequently, we are a novelty for many of our neighbours who frantically force their grandchildren to speak English with us. Nevertheless, people are very welcoming and friendly.

The accommodation is of a Western standard. I share a two-bedroom apartment with one other Foreign Teacher. We have been unfortunate enough to experience a number of maintenance issues over the last few weeks, however Summer (foreign affairs officer) has come to our rescue on each and every occasion.

Administrative Support
Aihua provides Foreign Teachers with a Z visa, which is necessary to work legally in China. Luke (foreign affairs officer) completed this timely and complicated process on our behalf. We had to make one visit for a medical check and one visit to the visa-processing centre. Both visits were uncomplicated and fast. During the first few days, Summer and Luke also helped us to open a bank account and buy a SIM card. Again, without Summer or Luke, both processes would be timely and almost impossible.

Food is cheap and plentiful in Beijing. You can enjoy a Chinese meal for 10-30RMB. Nevertheless, after a few days of fried food, a trip to a Western restaurant is welcomed. Many Western dining options are available in Shijingshan, however they do tend to be somewhat more expensive than a Chinese meal. Grocery stores are also common and offer a variety of Western products.

Beijing is an awe-inspiring city. As the capital of the PRC, it has a long a long and varied past and this is seen in it’s people and it’s architecture. Over the past six weeks, I’ve visited many of the tourist sites in the city, as well as making a visit to a village outside of Beijing. The highlight of my experience thus far has been visiting the Great Wall. This mammoth structure is something to reckon with and I will most definitely return.

As week seven approaches, I’m looking forward to our October holiday and the coming months. I’ve yet to experience a “bad China” day and I am confident with the support shown so far, these days will be very few and far between.


Misadventures in Chinese, by Sinead Hegarty

While my love for China and the Chinese people grows most days, the language barrier is still one issue that refuses to let go. Every day brings new challenges and tests in communication. One such test occurred when ordering my favourite breakfast food – baozi or 包子 – a small steamed bun filled with meat or vegetables and typically dipped in a concoction of chili and vinegar. Delicious. Now, when you first start learning Chinese you soon realise the importance of choosing the correct quantifier for each word, for example it’s not one water it’s one bottle of water. In my excitement for baozi all this went out the window and instead of ordering a plate of baozi I ordered one tiny little bun with a side dish of one bemused waitress. Being too embarrassed to admit my mistake I explained how I had already eaten today, ate my tiny baozi and left. Never will I neglect my Chinese grammar again.

While I would love to say this is my only mistake in Chinese, unfortunately it is merely the beginning of a very long list. This list includes ordering pig intestine rather than mushroom, realising I was saying diarrhea instead of thank you, ordering 50 dumplings rather than 15 and buying a train ticket to the completely wrong city. The final mistake was only rectified when I started speaking to people in the queue and realised I was about to travel 700 miles north of where I wanted to go. However, despite my frustration with Mandarin the language has allowed me to make Chinese friends, experience the amazing variety of food that this country has to offer and see the most breathtaking landscape.


My first month in China, by Lucille Van Niekerk

If you had asked me a year ago where I would find myself living and working I would most assuredly have said somewhere in South America. Yet, here I am in China. The question that begs answering is, why? I instinctively knew that it would be the antithesis of my own culture and upbringing. In this contrast and difference I have experienced a plethora of emotions. I have vacillated between extreme joy and frustration. Now, now before you go and diagnose me with a personality disorder let me explain further.

The things that have made me so happy are the following;

On arrival to Beijing I was met by the Recruitment Manager, Rob. He was the epitome of friendliness and truly made me feel welcome. It was later that I found out that he and a new teacher fondly known as KB, our Georgia peach had waited for me for 6 hours. Despite this extreme punishment for them and imposition both were lovely and had to be subjected to my verbal diarrhea for an hour. How they never landed in therapy after that is beyond my comprehension. These two individuals allayed any anxiety I might have had and made me feel that coming to Beijing was a good choice.

Meeting the other new foreign teachers just solidified my belief that my China experience would be good. They are truly a bunch of gifted, talented and intelligent people. I have read most of their dissertations which is a newly discovered passion of mine and they are truly a clever bunch. The older foreign teachers have gone above and beyond to facilitate an easy transition and to assist us with anything.

The school’s foreign affairs officers, Luke and Summer are the reason we function so easily in China. They have patiently and kindly assisted us with everything. I mean everything. You struggle to communicate with the plumber, telephone guy we call poor Luke or Summer. Despite this these two individuals still smile and are not yet on antidepressants.

The Chinese staff and teachers known as CT’s were very welcoming and kind. They truly made an extreme effort to make us feel welcome. My first centre meeting they arranged food for us and eagerly laid out the table. There was an abundance of fruit and health drinks and for a brief moment I thought they were hinting I need to diet. Fruit however, is a big deal in China and this was their way of making a big deal to welcome us.

All of the above bears mentioning as without it my story would have read differently. If I was surrounded by people I did not have an affinity for and not felt welcome no matter how many treasures China had I would have missed it because my vision would have been distorted. So, to the lot of you thank you.

I have discovered that Chinese people love salsa dancing. A common passion we share. Beijing has Salsa clubs and I attended a class at the International Art Plaza. I was the only foreigner in the class and it was so much fun.

Music is a great love of mine and Beijing has a treasure chest full of gems I am still discovering. KTV is a karaoke club and normally it would not be something I enjoy. Karaoke in China is just so much fun and different. I enjoyed it so much I lost my voice.

Getting lost in any foreign country I find is an adventure. China is no different. I had such a great experience whilst wandering in the street trying to find a restaurant. A Chinese guy noticed that I was discombobulated and decided to help me. The next thing I know a woman on a scooter tells me to hop on the back and proceeds to take me to the restaurant.

Another joy filled moment for me was whilst I was travelling on the subway. I had a 20 minute discussion with a Chinese lady each speaking our own language and gesticulating profusely. Pure joy! I think we solved the world’s issues in those 20 minutes and I reckon on some strange level we really understood each other.

My frustrations are based around the following;

The toilet issue – It has to be said. I now value, love and respect western toilets on a level I never thought I could or would. When I find one it is one of the greatest joys of my life. I can truly say with utter conviction that I will never truly get comfortable with squat toilets.

My ineptitude at learning Chinese – I feel I have regressed and feel mentally challenged as I point and nod all the time when communicating with Chinese people. I order my food by pointing and a noodle restaurant I frequent has now become so accustomed to my pointing that when I walk in they point. It’s not hard for them as I order the same thing every time.

Chinese traffic rules – China has a unique interpretation or set of traffic rules. When crossing a road at the pedestrian crossing be careful green means a scooter will still ride and cars too even if you are walking across the street.

Rush hour traffic on a subway – I have never experienced been jammed like a sardine before. I still can’t conceptualise how so many people filled one train compartment. I spent an hour with my face in a guy’s armpit due to been vertically challenged and squashed from all sides.

Beijing is truly a vibrant, beautiful city. It has cast some spell on me this surprises me the most. I find the mountains, temples and sites magical, alluring and just beautiful. I feel at home here already. I feel at home in a country where I cannot communicate effectively, have toilet and pollution issues and am afraid of rush hour on the subway. I have found with my travels that anywhere you go you will be faced with frustrations and issues but I warn you Beijing will seduce you with its unique charm.


My First Three Months, by Sorcha Smith

When I arrived in Beijing, I was one of the last of the teachers to arrive. We quickly delved into everything that needed to be done; bank account set up, mobile and service provider set up, visa registration, etc. Honestly, the first few weeks were all a blur.

The training was intense, which suited me as I hated things being long and drawn out. As I was so busy with training and then settling into class I thought that I’d become homesick after a while. I’m still waiting on that homesick feeling, probably because with Skype, emails and annoying friends and family to download WeChat, communication is rather simple.

There are a few things that I’ve learned in these months which I think are crucial. And I’ll list them as follows:

1.     Get lost.

Yup. Get lost. Walk around your area, get to know it. I’d suggest having a picture of somewhere near your apartment to show a taxi driver. I got lost on my second night, turns out I was just around the corner from the apartment without realising! By wandering around and just letting your feet choose the direction you end up seeing so much more than you realise.

2.    Talk.

Talk to the other teachers, both older and new. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you think it’s a stupid question, I can guarantee 99% that it has been asked before. I learned not only different ways of teaching the kids and different games just from a chat over coffee.

Also talk to your Chinese teachers, get to know them! They’re human being like the rest of us. One of my CT brought me in cough drops when I was sick, another knew that I don’t eat breakfast in the mornings and brought in dumplings and practically forced me to eat. They’re also fun to hang out with, you can practice your Chinese and they always know the best areas to travel for any mini breaks.

3.    Eat out.

Always try at least one new dish. Myself and two other teachers did that nearly every night for the first few weeks. Some of the food will look dodgy, I’m not going to lie, but I’ve only found one dish in god knows how many that I don’t like. Be brave! Thanks to another two teachers I have found my weaknesses!! Lemon tea and biangbiang noodles!

4.    Be patient.

This goes for everything. Banks are a nightmare but if you go at the right time you can be in and out in twenty minutes. Otherwise you could be there for an hour or two… And postage… Don’t get me started on the postage… Some people are not going to understand you, some won’t even try to, so take a deep breath and move on.

The greatest amount of patience can be for some of your classes. Some will be fantastic and you’ll enjoy them and look forward to them. Others… Not so much. That’s how I felt for two of my classes especially, the kids misbehaved, I’d spoken to their previous teachers to find out what worked and what didn’t, to the point where I dreaded going to class.

But then I tried looking at it from the kids’ perspective; were they bored, was I going to fast, did they need a different reward system? So I changed a few things, I now have student job roles in all my classes and my dreaded classes are now my favourite. Unless it’s teaching new words and reading, I normally have the kids help each other. Not only does it give them a confidence boost and a sense of accomplishment, but they have great fun doing it too.

So they are my words of wisdom. If you have an issue, talk to someone about it whether it’s trying to get something done or just having a problem with a particular class. Put the work in, change things around, and I promise you it makes such a difference to both you and the students.

Aoifes Blog Photo

Secret Meat, by Aoife O’Donnell

My first dining out experience which I had in China was with my new found co-workers at a restaurant called ‘Meizhou’. With most of us having not a word of Chinese, we relied on our more experienced colleagues to do the ordering. Aware that there was at least one vegetarian among us, they ordered accordingly. Excited to try some of these new cuisines I enthusiastically reached for a delicious looking eggplant dish. With my new arch nemesis in hand (chopsticks) I inelegantly co-ordinated a pile of food on my plate and began to tuck into the succulent slices. As I turned to my roommate Rebecca, she looked at me in horror quickly alerting me to the hidden little bastard chicken which had been seamlessly sown into the eggplant slices. Not to cause a scene with my new colleagues I discreetly spat the contents of my mouth into a serviette and downed several glasses of water trying to quench the tirade of expletives shouting inside my head. How the hell did the chef manage to disguise a dead chicken inside a slice of innocent eggplant? I didn’t know if I was annoyed or impressed. What else was lurking between the green beans and tofu? Was it even tofu? It was probably some cute Labrador puppy that had been ripped from the hands of a crying five-year-old Chinese girl. Someone was definitely conspiring against me. Clearly an over sensitive vegetarian, I was foreseeing the next year of my life starving to death and surviving on knock off Maltesers from the local newsagents. At least my travel insurance would foot the repatriation of my skeleton at the end of the trip and my poor mother wouldn’t have to re-mortgage the house.


Following my first gastronomic catastrophe I thrust myself into an eating lockdown. For the first few weeks of this bumpy integration into a normal Chinese diet, I survived mainly on cereal and ice creams. I suspect the owners of the local shop had me pegged for some idiot hamburger guzzling foreigner who probably had the palate sophistication of a knat. Wishing so much I could express in Chinese that I have actually eaten more nutritious things in my life than Cornetto’s and Magnums, I would take my change, run away and shamefully feast on my sugar pile until the deadly withdrawal would see me drag my hypo-glycaemic corpse through their doors again. Having cut out the food pyramid entirely from my diet I rapidly dropped a half stone in weight because I was so utterly paranoid that everything was tainted with meat products, meat juices or secret meats of some variety. Twenty-two years of abstaining from eating anything with a pulse was proving difficult to ignore, and having inherited from one of my generous parents the type of appetite that could cause famine in small villages, I knew this life style would be unsustainable. I was going to have to figure out a compromise with my personal values which were etched into my being.


Luckily this realisation coincided with Rebecca’s own enlightenment (she was equally perturbed by the eating situation and was surviving solely on Nutella and crackers) and we began to slowly suss out the plethora of local Chinese restaurants dotted around our neighbourhood. Thankfully what came out of it was the overdue wake up call to our temporary close mindedness. We both needed to realise we were not living on some other planet with a bunch of barbarian, dog-killing, murderers who would eat their granny on a stick if they could. Quite the contrary. ‘The Shan’ (our affectionate name for our home in the district of Shijingshan) has endless gastronomic experiences to be discovered. Food is so cheap we could order as much as we wanted. Our philosophy was to experiment with a random dish (often there are no English menus and a just a photo to decipher it), discover if it had meat in it, eat it or not, and try something else. It was a simple process of elimination and we quickly amassed our own personal menu of vegetarian dishes which were tasty and cheap. So cheap in fact that we could order a ton of food and still only pay the cost of a few pints of milk back home.


Being a vegetarian in China does not equate to a life sentence chained to the junk food aisle at the grocery store. In fact, China has a massive Buddhist culture, so coming across vegetarian and vegan restaurants is much more common than you would imagine (you just need to seek them out). A veggie restaurant just popped up near my work place which is located deep in the west of Beijing (a very non-westernised area) so things are moving forward in terms of variety and mind set. Favourite vegetarian Chinese dishes of mine are ‘enoki salads’, ‘spicy potatoes’, ‘egg fried sweet potato’, ‘scallion pancakes’ and ‘vegetarian chuan’ (vegetables on a stick), and if you are so inclined, the range of mock meats (soy based dishes) are abundant. As long as you can turn a blind eye to someone dipping their chopsticks from the ‘gōngbăo jīdīng’ into the ‘qié zi dòu jiǎo’ then you are full steam ahead for a culinary experience that will enrich your journey here.


Living in Beijing as a vegetarian has a different meaning to me now than when I was the over cautious, fresh off the boat ‘lǎo wài’. I appreciate the importance of the relationship Chinese people have with food as a tool to show appreciation for each other and form bonds with new friends, and having adopted a similar sensibility has helped me to create my own community of friends through a shared love of food. My core belief system is still intact and I uphold it pretty easily here.