This Chinese Life: An Expat Teaching English in Shanghai
By ALO7 Guest Author: Erin Bernstein
When I planned to go to China, my reasons were clear. One, to spend time with my boyfriend whose company was located in Shanghai. They flew him from China to America to manage the documents for his nuclear plant necessary for import/export of parts (read: brainy). He was only allowed to come to America on a basic permit, and the last time he had flown to America the permit was unacceptable. All sorts of red flags popped up in their minds, e.g. working all over the country a few months or days at a time was weird, coming to the U.S. to work having an American girlfriend but not planning on using this trip to marry her was weird, and the fact that his company didn’t provide him with a permit that made it impossible to deny he was here on business was weird. So, he was given a choice to be deported with a record or return to Shanghai voluntarily. The next time we talked, he said he was unable to see me again for a very long time. Even if he got a better permit, he was terrified of facing the agents again. As if asking which Netflix show to watch next, he asked: “Why don’t you come to China? We can get married, and I can take care of you.” He has all the charisma and sensuality of an accountant, so this came as a total surprise, but I knew working in China teaching English would pay more and be 10x more exciting than the four part-time jobs I had at the time. I’ve always loved world travel, my faith encourages it, and I’d taught a few years prior in a small village in Taiwan
The adventure to China begins, or does it?
Though a fire had been lit in my heart, my parents and fellow members of my faith had their doubts and worries. I had not had the best experience teaching in Taiwan, but that was over ten years ago, and I didn’t have anyone to take care of me then. I had had an agent, but he couldn’t really keep an eye on me. Plus, it was comparing a small village to a big city. A friend who’d said she’d love to sponsor someone going to China suddenly backed out of it. She and her friend had been to China, her friend teaching year after year there, long past her age restrictions. Both of them gave me stern warnings and pamphlets about respecting Chinese culture and understanding the Chinese mind. My fiance had scoffed and said that no, Shanghai wasn’t strict with Big Brother watching you 24/7. You just needed to be as respectful and thoughtful as you would be in any other foreign country.
Meanwhile, my other same-faith friend also from Raleigh had a completely different view. He has lived in Shanghai for over two decades with a Taiwanese wife and two kids. He said to my parents that he’d take care of me too. He manages an exchange program for young adults and has seen all sorts of foreigners come and go with his own list of positive and negative experiences. After my insisting and his encouragement, my parents finally relented and said I was free to go to China.
Adjusting to teaching English in a foreign land, again
My same-faith same-city friend knew another same-faith Chinese woman who managed the foreigners at an office that sent teachers to one school or another. She met us for tea and said she thought I would do well at a kindergarten. I’d teach English there and create my own PowerPoints in lieu of using a textbook. I really was not prepared for this job. I had lots of lessons and ideas, most of which were lost on little ones. The Chinese teacher was often away for meetings or busy at her desk, so we really didn’t teach in tandem. Aside from teaching, I was escorting students to and from the bathroom, encouraging them to eat their morning/afternoon snack or lunch, making sure they didn’t seriously harm one another or themselves, and changing their clothes after their naps or straightening their clothes before they went home. We also had a weekly meeting a 20-30 min walk away at another campus to hear from the principal what she wanted us to do, announcements, etc. It was really the only time I got to socialize with the other foreign teachers. She asked us to create and administer a reading test for the students, so I used a book series that my students seemed to really enjoy (Pete the Cat).
I was still getting used to the lack of options for lunch (take a tray and keep moving) and what was actually on the plate. Staring back at me could be the beady eyes of prawns or half a fish. Or, it could be an attempt at pizza. I practiced my chopstick skills even when I felt like a toddler when rice went flying everywhere. I was grateful for the 90 minutes I had to wander to a cafe and have a European-style lunch with coffee, a small salad, a chicken filet, and/or a bit of ice-cream.
The biggest change was adjusting to the bathroom situation. My campus had one familiar bathroom only accessible from five flights of stairs or an elevator that only worked when school was not in session. I had to plan such trips as best I could so that I wasn’t sprinting up 5 flights of stairs in an emergency. The campus where the meetings were had no accessible bathrooms or possible options at nearby restaurants or public restrooms. I often thought how much foreigners would appreciate an app that worked like this: it detected your satellite coordinates and like Google maps would indicate where the nearest “expat friendly” place was, able to be updated/deleted and commented on by users.
After a few months of this nanny-teacher position, I was asked to move on. It just wasn’t the right fit. The leader was obviously unhappy having to tell a person she’d met through the faith this news but said it happened for a reason. I had to move out of the apartment she’d found for me but rest assured my work permit would be fine as long as I got another job (it wasn’t).
Facing challenges head-on in China
Since I had left Taiwan with my tail between my legs and wanted to stay with my fiance, I sat down at the computer the day I lost my job and began looking for a new one. Unlike the U.S., where an employer may take weeks just to return a call, I was able to go on three job interviews in three weeks and snag a nice apartment. It was shocking to me how an agent never prepared the current tenant for a visit. I had to sheepishly look around dirty apartments while the tenant watched or poke my head in an occupied dorm room-like place while the smell of cigarette smoke choked the hallway and I knew in five seconds I didn’t want it. “But why?” The agent asked. “Many foreigners live here and love it! For many years!” Luckily, I met another agent who knew a really nice landlord who knew an ex-landlord with a bare brand-new apartment, and I could shop on a website for furniture with the agent and the landlord covered it. It was strange and hilarious to sit next to my agent like a couple at Bed, Bath & Beyond making a wedding registry.
Also, luckily, I had a good interview with Alo7. I appreciated having a boss from my part of the country and was impressed by the sea of employees rather than a few employees at a hole-in-the-wall place. The pay was high and enough to cover rent and utilities, which are much cheaper in China.
Success! Teaching English with ALO7
In my first few days of teaching, I noticed the pros and cons of my typical workday. For all of the cons, there was a workaround. One campus was a 30 min. walk from my apartment and at that campus they mounted the screens a few inches over my head, but a pen or dowel rod helps me reach the screens, and I get some morning exercise in. Sometimes the students leave the classroom early or don’t come because of other commitments. Sometimes students are sick or get into fights. Sometimes the school food is a pile of prawns or half a fish (are you listening, PETA?). But, in all these cases, one must remember what is out of one’s hands. American school staff can often micromanage and have too many rules and regulations along with hourly announcements. I’m used to this, but I’m not at an American school. Parents in America even complain about Amber Alert robocalls in the wee hours of the morning instead of empathizing with the missing child. That’s something I don’t miss. English is not the primary language spoken at my school, so one cannot expect staff to communicate with you or even know your name. That’s something I do miss. I’m used to wearing comfortable, casual clothes with sneakers and used to seeing teachers of all shapes, sizes, and colors, but that is not the case at my school. I do miss that element. But, American students are notorious trouble-makers, and on the whole, Chinese students are very focused on learning and getting that sticker.
Through it all, I am proud that I have “kept calm and carried on” through one job in Taiwan and two jobs in China. I know that after a long day of teaching and grading homework, I can walk home in fifteen minutes, open the door of my apartment, and relax. Before China, I had only managed to share an apartment with a woman who had no drive or ambition whilst I had 2-3 different jobs a week simultaneously and still couldn’t make ends meet. And a fiance who traveled too much to see me often and then was forced back to China. Now I can say I’m finally “adulting” and have faced many challenges with grit and determination.
Final advice on living and working in Shanghai
That’s my advice to someone coming here for the first time. Have grit. Have determination. Know you’re not in Kansas anymore. Take time to relax and be in your own space. Laugh at yourself if you can. When I had trouble finding a package at the post office at my old apartment, the postman encouraged me to hop on the back of his scooter so we could ride down the hill together. My brows furrowed. “But that’s…where…packages….go….” The man smiled and put a piece of cardboard down. While I’m sure hitching a ride in a USPS jeep is a federal offense, I laughed at myself with the wind in my hair, imagining all the while I was Ralph Wiggum squealing: “Whee! I’m a package!” These are the moods that are the tools in your belt.