"Wish You Happy Every Day": An Expat's Life in China

First Week of My Life
September 6, 2010, 4:10 am
Filed under: teaching | Tags:

The night before my first day at work, I ate cow stomach. In the words of my four year old cousin, it was not my favorite meal. Luckily, I made up for it with other, much more delectable, dishes: pig feet, tofu and noodle soup, fish, sweet potatoes and a Dalian specialty called menzi, which is some kind of cube-shaped spongey fish doused in a peanut sauce. Some of this food didn’t agree with my stomach later on, but at the time I was in China food heaven. Dish after dish landed on the table, each celebrated with a round of toasts. That night, I drank some of the best beer the world has to offer.

It was pure luck that I was able to go to this feast. The manager of the main school had decided to treat the faculty of our branch as a reward for their hard work this past year. So, as a new faculty member–and as a guest–I was not only invited, but I was also given the leftovers to take home.

Sometimes all this Chinese hospitality puts me on guard. For example, two nights ago I had asked a Chinese teacher at my school if she would like to have dinner and go over the next lesson for a class. In America, it’s typical to work or collaborate with someone over a meal. But instead of going to some small dive and slurping soup over our textbooks, the teacher and her husband drove me all the way to the city–about forty minutes away–to treat me to an expensive and delicious Japanese buffet. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it–and I particularly like this teacher–but I’m wondering, how do I repay everyone? And is there a catch?

Oh yes, there most definitely is a catch. Chinese hospitality is great; Chinese disorganization, however, is not. On my first day, I found out that for one of my classes the textbook hadn’t yet come and that I had prepared the wrong book, so I had to re-write the entire lesson and essentially wing it. Needless to say, it bombed. As for my other classes, I had to apply other changes, both major and minor, to my lesson plans. Only two things got me through that day: my CELTA training, for giving me foundational methods and confidence in my abilities as a teacher; and Xanax.

Now, having just finished my first week of teaching, I am exhausted, overwhelmed and hoarse. Most of the kids are sweet and excited to learn English, but there are a few who can probably think of better things to do with their time (like chatting with their classmates). It’s hard enough for a new teacher to find a way to convey the material in a way that the kids understand…but dealing with classroom management too? Oi vey. I’m lucky that there is a Chinese teacher in the room with me to deal with translations, misunderstandings and particularly monstrous kids (there aren’t many of those).

I teach nine different classes of kids aged 4-14. By far, the easiest are my middle school kids. This is partly because their English level is fairly high, but also because I’m trained in teaching adults, so most of the methods that I learned work in this class. They understand enough to laugh at my jokes, and my rapport with them is much stronger. There are only three kids in this class, the youngest being eleven. Ironically, it’s the eleven year old who’s probably the most enthusiastic–a little shy, maybe, but you can tell he wants to participate and that he really likes learning English.

The four year olds are also a pretty tame class. Their comprehension is obviously low, but they’re here to learn very basic stuff, like colors and the names of fruits. There’s one kid who seems afraid of me. I found out that it’s because the last foreign teacher was black. “Don’t worry, the new foreign teacher is very pretty,” the Chinese teacher hold told his parents, but I guess that wasn’t very comforting to him. I think we can all agree that being black in America has never been easy–but I can’t even begin to imagine being black in China. This is a country where some people use a special cream to make their skin whiter; dark skin is too closely linked to poverty, to toiling on a farm under a hot sun.

My other favorite class is a large group of 6-8 year olds. Our lesson for the week was school supplies and dining ware; they like that I bring in “realia”, which is CELTA lingo for real life objects. My games are also very effective in this class; for example, they loved the memory game “Banana, Banana,” which I took from Dave’s ESL Cafe. Basically, as we review the vocabulary, I write each word on the board. A student has to leave the room, and I erase one word. When I hold up a picture of bananas, the students all yell “BANANA, BANANA!” The kid comes back into the classroom and has to guess the missing word. You can modify the game to include complete sentences, too.

Three of my classes, however, are a nightmare. In each class, there are one or two students who incessantly chat. I dealt with one of them by calling on him frequently and inviting him to share his conversation with the class–that seemed to work. But this doesn’t work with a few of the other kids who are actually really smart and even ahead of the class. Some teachers online have suggested making those kids an “assistant”; for example, I have to use a kid to model each activity, so I could try using those students.

There’s one girl in my class who has some kind of mental handicap. She’s very smart, but she has behavioral problems which distract the other students. Luckily, the Chinese teacher usually babysits her, but this teacher doesn’t seem to understand that yelling is going to make the problem worse, not better. Two days ago, when we played musical chairs, I seriously thought this girl was going to get hurt because she was standing right between two of the chairs. Two teachers were yelling at her to leave the classroom, but it only made her more upset. Finally, I just gave her a few paper flags that I had made for my lesson, and told her she could play with them if she went outside. And guess what? She made it out the door in one piece.

Other classes have just bombed. It’s a little discouraging… I know I should expect it, given that this is my first teaching job–my first “real” job ever, in fact–but it’s still very frustrating. After a particularly tough class, a Chinese teacher–the one who treated me to Japanese food–offered me gum and I actually started to cry. I don’t think she noticed, or maybe she pretended not to so that I could save face. (Luckily, my next class was more or less a hit.)

My worst class is probably the second highest level, a group of 9-11 year olds. OK, the lesson wasn’t very interesting; I was trying to teach the present perfect simple and the context was “experience”–rather vague and not very interesting, but I’m required to follow the textbook. I tried to modify the lesson slightly by having students think of a list of things to to do in Dalian; then, they were to write a letter, using the present perfect simple, to a friend, convincing him or her to visit. That didn’t go over big. The students just wanted to get out. Not that I can blame them–it was a two hour class on a Sunday afternoon. I’m sure they’d much rather play badminton outside than be stuck with an inexperienced, tired, chalk-covered foreign teacher.

Today is my day off; I am going to de-stress with a book, some food shopping, a little Chinese studying, and maybe even a movie. I need a little distance, a little alone time; this past week, I have been on the move nonstop, including a lot of much-needed socializing with other foreigners in the city. Then, tomorrow, it’s lesson-planning all day, and Wednesday, back to the grind.


6 Comments so far
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Allison, I adore you tremendously after reading this. You made me laugh out loud at my internship (where I am supposed to be researching things about W. Mass…)Glad to see that you are having a great time and experience! Can’t wait to read more. Love love love. ❤ Joanna


Comment by jrarcieri

Thanks for reading my blog, Joanna! I unfortunately can’t access yours…but hopefully that will change once I get some changes done to my internet (soon!). How are you? What kinds of things are you researching at your internship? Send me an email and let me know how you are 🙂


Comment by Allison

Hey Allison! Love the blog, truly. It’s very inspiring on many levels. hope lots of potential esl teachers–and world citizens–stop by. I for one really admire your chutzpa and wish you many happy every days!

Susie the grammar floozy


Comment by susiedec4

Thanks Ms. Grammar Floozy!! It was very nice to read this before teaching again…Wednesday, most of my classes went pretty well, I’d say! Oh and guess what?? 1) CCQs are a hit with the kids – the more ridiculous, the more the kids laugh 2) I find myself starting class by asking the students how they are today…thumbs up for good, thumbs down for bad, and a wavering “eeehhhh” for so-so…who does that sound like?? Next thing you know I’ll be saying “yeah” in every sentence.
How has your post-CELTA life been?


Comment by Allison

Wow! It sounds like you’re working incredibly hard. Trying to teach a group of kids on a beautiful Sunday afternoon sounds like it would be difficult even for a highly experience ESL teacher. I don’t know if this anecdote helps, but today I was in a room of 50 adults watching a highly engaging powerpoint presentation right before lunch time. Everyone agreed the presenter was amazing but they just couldn’t stay focused. It’s sad but true. I’m amazed by how many age levels you’re working with! I’m also loving reading this blog.

Love you,


Comment by Faye

Faye, you have no idea how hard it is to teach kids who are not particularly motivated…but like I said, I need to find out what will work for them. Also, I know what you mean, sometimes the presentation/class is great but it’s just bad timing. Hope your job is going super – you should download the gmail voice chat thing so that we can chat soon!


Comment by Allison

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