The following are excerpts that were taken from my handwritten journals from 2003.
It’s a scary thing to pick up and move your life to the other side of the world. I got my first taste of that when I was 27 and on my way to Changchun City in northeast China on March 23rd 2003.
I was going to spend a year abroad teaching English in China. This was the start of an incredible journey for me. I’ve been in Asia since then and have lived in Taiwan since early 2006.
People ask me all the time why I moved to Asia. Back then it was simply because of a desire to see the world. I was single, I didn’t have anything to tie me down, and I was working at a job that wasn’t going to take me anywhere special in life. I had everything to gain and nothing to lose, so why not?
Finding teaching positions in 2003 turned out to be pretty easy. Although I didn’t need one at the time, I took a 120-hour classroom-based TESOL course to add to my resume. I added some volunteer teaching experience to my resume by doing some volunteer teaching at some local public schools in my hometown.
How I Chose to Teach in China
Back then, I was most interested in teaching in Japan, but expanding my search to include China and Korea was also part of my plan. I researched the countries I was interested in teaching in thoroughly and approached interviews the same way.
The interviews were an opportunity for me to grill the school as much as they were grilling me. I settled on Bai Da Wei English School in northeast China. I decided on that location because I figured if I was moving abroad, there was no point in going to a large city like Beijing or Shanghai where I could get involved with the expat scene and have all the same creature comforts of home.
I had goals for my year abroad as well. I wanted my year abroad to be a challenge, so I chose to learn Chinese and immerse myself as much as possible in Chinese culture with every opportunity that came my way.
I was on my way to China within two weeks of finding my job online. In retrospect, I wouldn’t suggest leaving yourself two weeks to pack up your life and leave home. It depends on the time it takes to get your visa, but most teachers ask for at least a month. I was busy right up until the day I left, but that turned out to be a good thing. It kept me busy and it took my mind off of leaving.
In terms of long-haul flights, I’d been on plenty of them before I left for China, but this one was special because I wasn’t coming home for a year. I remember feeling scared and nervous after leaving my parents at the airport.
I can still remember the look on my Mom’s face. I’m pretty sure she was alternating between wanting to grab me and give me another hug and hauling me out of line to take me back home. She was probably thinking I was an awful child for leaving her to worry for a year. But that’s what moms do, so don’t let that deter you if you’re thinking you’d like to teach abroad.
Once boarding, I cried for a few minutes. I admit it. I’m a tear-monster. I’ve always been a sucker with good-byes. I cry every time.
I’m also a task-monster, so I dried my eyes pretty fast and got down to business: writing in my journal and reading my beloved copy of My Several Worlds by Pearl S. Buck.
A few hours into my flight, I moved to the back of the plane to stretch my legs and a kind middle-aged woman came over to ask where I was headed. When I told her I was going to teach English in China, she was sincerely shocked that I was heading so far away on my own.
“Why would you want to do that, dear?” she asked, “Does your mother know where you are?“
We chatted for a few minutes and just I was ready to go back to my seat, she stopped me with a hand on my shoulder.
Then she gave me a hug and told me that it was from my mother, who would always be thinking of me.
I wasn’t sure what to think. Was I making a mistake? Was the leap that I was taking too big for me to handle on my own? Would people like me? Would I be able to teach? Would I be able to go for a whole year by myself without family or friends?
I wrote in my journal non-stop on the flight, jagged entry after jagged entry. I barely slept because I didn’t want to miss a thing. On each connecting flight, I met people who asked where I was heading.
They were flabbergasted that I was moving so far away for so long. Many of them told me I was much too young to be doing something like moving to China. “Wasn’t I scared?“
I was terrified and had to keep pinching myself to keep it real.
And I kept repeating my story to everyone who asked to bolster myself for the coming year.
My final flight to Beijing was just wild. People were still smoking on Asian flights in 2003. Isn’t that crazy?
I thought that stopped in the 80s! I was the only Caucasian aboard, and I left that plane stinking of cigarette smoke and badly in need of a shower.
At Beijing Airport I wandered around a bit before Frank and Yun Ming found me. I thought my American school director would be at the airport to meet me, but they sent Frank and Yun Ming instead. They barely spoke any English, but they were sweet and kind.
They wouldn’t let me carry any of my luggage and before I knew it I was on a bus and headed to the youth hostel. We stopped for a bite to eat at a local restaurant before heading to our rooms. I don’t even remember the meal.
The only thing we talked about that night was Yao Ming (the basketball player). That was the only thing I understood, to be honest. I have vague recollections of agreeing to play basketball with them later in the week. (I did.)
Once our meal was finished, the guys dragged my luggage up to my hostel room. Then they stood there looking at me and smiling.
Was I supposed to tip them? Oh my god! Were they going to sleep in here with me? What have I gotten myself into?
I spent the entire night huddled under the sheets. I barely got any sleep. All I could think about was the 15-hour train ride that I had to make from Beijing to Changchun the very next day.
The next morning we made our way to the Beijing Train Station. It was a riot of sights and sounds. People were bundled up against the cold pushing carts of newspapers back and forth.
Toothless old ladies were selling packs of gum and warm baozi. It was completely overwhelming to me. I was very thankful to have Yun Ming and Frank with me. Despite our language barrier, they turned out to be the nicest guys in the world.
We boarded our overnight train at 10am and I followed Frank to our bunks. He gestured to the top bunk, but I chose the bottom one because I wanted to see the scenery.
Top bunks are for folks who want to sleep, while the bottom bunks are generally used for people that want to play cards and chat. As soon as the train started moving, people started stripping down to their long underwear. (This is a winter train tradition in China.)
Bottles of beer, bags of sunflower seeds, and sets of playing cards quickly emerged as people settled in for the long journey.
I lasted an hour before sleep overtook me, but just before I dozed off I remember thinking that I was completely at the mercy of these two men. I was on a train heading into the Chinese countryside. I had no idea what was waiting for me at the other end, and I had no choice but to trust them. I’d passed the point of no return.
I slept like the dead for the entire trip and barely saw anything worth noting. So much for my plan on seeing the countryside. That was the only reason I’d decided to take the train rather than fly into Changchun’s tiny airport!
I arrived in Changchun at 2am and stepped out of my bunk to a floor that was littered with cracked sunflower seed shells and garbage. Some cheeky bugger had snatched my favorite pair of sunglasses right off my head! It was a memorable way to end the journey.
Stepping out into the cold night air, I was greeted by our school supervisor Nell.
The only thing I remember that night was that I had never met anyone from Tasmania before and that she was wearing a thick padded blue ski jacket and purple ski hat slung low over her beautiful blue eyes.
How long does winter last in Changchun? Had I packed enough warm clothes? It turns out I hadn’t, but that’s another story.
I ended up staying with Nell that night and for the rest of the week until my apartment was ready for me to move into. The next day Nell, Yun Ming, and David (the American owner of the school) took me to a traditional northern Chinese dumpling house.
The dumplings were yummy, but the tripe they served me, not so much. They took me on a tour of the city and showed me around the school. Nell also organized a number of events to help me fit in teachers from our school and from other language schools around the city. When I moved to Changchun, there were barely 300 Westerners living in a city of 7 million. There weren’t a whole lot of people to talk to.
I spent a lot of time at the park those first six weeks in China. I liked to sit on the grass and watch people flying their kites. I couldn’t talk to anybody. I couldn’t do simple things like shop for food or answer the phone.
I was locked out of my apartment on more than one occasion because I couldn’t work the crazy Chinese lock on my door. I even managed to lock myself inside my apartment.
I waited for hours for someone to come and get me out, and I missed my classes that afternoon. I couldn’t take the bus or take a taxi anywhere because I didn’t know how to get back to my apartment. I was terrified to cross the road because the traffic was so crazy.
Everything was a huge challenge. By the end of my first two weeks in Changchun, I figured the only way to get over my fear of the city was to get going, so I hopped on a city bus and road it to the end of the line and back again to see some of the city. I never had any problems getting around after that.
So that is the story of how I ended up in China in March 2003. Read on to find out what happened when SARS hit and my school closed down for six weeks. It was a pretty scary time for teachers in China. Find out how I handled it in Part Two of Teaching English in China: The SARS Epidemic (2003).Don
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