Tales of an ESL Teacher

September 12, 2009

China Bound

by Judy Smith

ChildrenThe advice from our employer as we prepare to pack for China is to bring a poncho, light clothing and comfortable walking shoes-preferably sandals. Well, duh.

By this time next month, we’ll be teaching ESL at a university and living in Nanning, which is in the southwestern region of China. I have done some research about the area, but not much. I have learned that the climate is listed as “tropical”; I’ve watched the temperatures this summer hover around 35 to 40 degrees with thunderstorms and heavy rain. You don’t need to be a genius to conclude that bringing sandals and rain gear might be a good idea.

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Still, I appreciate the advice from the employer. My husband and I first started teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) overseas in 1999 when we were in our early 50s. For various reasons we were unable to find productive employment in Canada and bankruptcy was looming rapidly. An ad for teaching English in Korea came to our attention and two months later we were on a plane bound for Seoul, not knowing that we had embarked on a journey that would take us to many places over the next ten years. Our only regret has been not beginning the journey earlier in our lives.

Teaching English overseas in not for everyone. The major shift that some people find difficult is to give up material possessions. In order to avoid paying Canadian taxes on income earned overseas, one must not have any assets, primarily in real estate. Fortunately for us, we had already decided to sell our house. I closed my eyes and sold everything else-except photographs and other cherished items. Our two vehicles were sold at a loss. With the proceeds from our sales we were able to buy good luggage, some “teaching” clothes, and have enough to live on until we received our first paycheques.

In retrospect, we were ill-prepared for teaching or living in Korea. We had enough qualifications: my husband is a teacher and I have a Bachelor’s degree, but we knew nothing about the country or the job itself. For one thing, we accepted the job without first checking out the employer or the agent, and discovered later that we had been very lucky in our choice: there were and are many unscrupulous employers in Korea (we discovered one of them last year). We also had no idea what Korea would be like; if anything I thought we were heading into the dark ages of a third world country. During our telephone interview, the employer asked if we had ever been to Asia, and laughed when we said we hadn’t. “I think you will be very surprised,” he said.

That was the only information we were given. I could expect to be surprised.

Going to a foreign land to live and work is very different from going as a tourist. In Korea, I found that I preferred learning about a culture by living within it. I liked shopping at the market and running into my students and their parents. I liked learning Korean and about Korea from our landlady who spoke no English; I liked learning how to make Korean food from her and teaching her about western food. I liked walking by the same old man sitting on the same doorstep every morning. I liked laughing with the other women at the public baths and communicating by body language and the few bits of Korean I had learned. I liked working with Korean teachers, socializing with them, going to their weddings, and going on day trips with them. I liked having the same students, day after day, watching them grow, becoming affectionate with them, and delighting at their progression in English. Of course, I was and always would be a foreigner, but as a tourist, you don’t see a culture anywhere near the inside.

After living and working in Korea for two years, we went to Thailand and then Oman. In neither case did we prepare for the journey beforehand. In fact, the evening before we left for Oman, our friend booted up his computer and we looked at photographs of Oman. “It’s quite beautiful,” I said, surprised. I had no idea what I was getting in to. While we were waiting for the plane that would take us from the capital city of Muscat to our destination in Salalah, there was a group of women dressed in black from head to toe sitting in a corner of the waiting room. I thought they were nuns; when we arrived in Salalah, we discovered that all the women dressed like that.

We have had a few months to prepare for going to China; I have been reading Lonely Planet’s China’s Southwest, but without much enthusiasm. I will be teaching new drama courses to college students, and most of my time preparing to go there has been spent writing curriculum. We purchased our visas and airline tickets months ago. The challenge has been to not lose them: for the first time in this ESL career we have had to pay for transportation and visas ourselves.

New sandals were purchased yesterday. One piece of luggage has been replaced with a smaller and lighter one; I also bought a super-light umbrella. The clothes I wore in the desert will transfer to the tropics. We have hauled more than our share of heavy suitcases around and have finally learned that what is most important is travelling light. What we don’t bring we can buy there, and for a better price. Have you noticed how many clothes say, “Made in China”? Anyway, many people live in China, so I’m told; as for living there myself, I expect to be surprised.

Continue to the second part of the story First Impressions

About the Author Judy Smith is the author of Native Blood: Nursing on the Reservation (Oberon Press). She will be teaching English at the Sino-Canadian University in Nanning, China. The program is affiliated with the University of Waterloo and was initiated by Prime Minister Chr├ętien during the trade talks with China. Staff and curriculum are provided by Canada; facilities are provided by China. The university is always looking for qualified teachers, especially retirees.

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