After settling down for far too long, Becky Ances and her husband Ryan decided to abandon their comfortable life for the unexpected in China. They initially signed up to be English teachers for 6 months but enjoyed it so much they extended it for a year. Please enjoy a week-in-the-life of Becky & Ryan Teaching in China, as written by Becky.
(See also: Earn Income Abroad by Teaching English)
This post was originally published in 2010, and has since been updated for accuracy of links.
It’s the first day of classes after the winter break but I’m sitting here at home. Why? Because classes were cancelled. Why did that happen? I’ve learned not to ask.
No matter how organized and prepared you think you are you always have to be ready for the element of surprise when you teach in China. For instance I only found out that class was cancelled yesterday afternoon. And honestly, I consider myself lucky that I found out at all! (English teachers are the last to be told anything.)
I also am unsure about my schedule for this week. I am teaching 8 two-hour classes this semester and two of them are not scheduled yet (despite me having to teach them in two days’ time). I just hope someone will give me a time and a room number before class starts. You laugh, but last semester there were a bunch of classes in which the teacher never showed up simply because they had no idea they had a class at that time. Advanced warning is not a big priority here.
Luckily the extra day off gives me time to meet with some of my students who have brought me back gifts from their hometown. The gifts are not at all what I was expecting. One girl gave me a bunch of eggs laid by her grandmother’s chicken, and another gave me a plastic bag filled with fried shrimp cooked by her dad! This is just one of the many reasons why teaching in China is so awesome.
First day of class! I was pretty nervous but I shouldn’t have been. It was just as fun as I remembered. My first class was my favorite subject, (writing!) with one of my favorite classes from last semester. They were all smiles, even at 8am.
We discussed setting some goals for this semester and I got my first real glimpse into what they are thinking about. Most had to do with doing well at school and getting good grades in general, but some were heartbreaking including “figure out a way to stop my parents from fighting so much,” and “make some friends.”
I also had a real eye opening class in the evening. It is a speaking class for English minors. These students have about a third of the amount of English classes as the majors do and they are not nearly as fluent. I like to take time to get to know my students and so for the first class I had them stand up and talk about themselves for about 10 minutes. To encourage them I asked a lot of questions.
On girl said she was an ‘animal science’ major and I thought that sounded interesting so I asked her more about. Turns out, she doesn’t like her major at all and only chose it because it fit her grades. (In China you don’t apply to colleges. Instead you take the ‘College Entrance Exam’ at the end of high school and based on your scores you get a list of five universities you are allowed to go to and the majors which you are allowed to take. You don’t get much choice sadly.)
I asked around and it turns out that only 3 of the 12 students like their major. One student didn’t even want to go to this university but his other 4 choices filled up before he responded so it was his only option. I find this really disappointing because going to college to do something you love is such an important step in growing up.
More schedule confusion. I’m supposed to be teaching a book discussion class tonight but I don’t have a class list or a room number. I get a call around lunch time and I’m told that the students can’t do it in the evening (then why was I told it was to be in the evening?) and that it would be Tuesday morning instead. So I’ve already missed my first class. The bad news is I was looking forward to the class and bummed I missed the first one. The good news is it means I have an entire day off in the middle of the week. Yay!
Rain. Rain. Rain. It’s another rainy day, the worst one yet, and it makes the morning class even harder because everyone is wet and cold. There are dripping umbrellas strewn all over the classroom in a vain attempt to get them dry. Unfortunately this makes the slick tile floor totally treacherous. (Later I heard that a girl did slip on the wet tile and had to go to the doctor!) It’s writing class again and we talk about goals.
Ryan tutors the young son of one of the deans and tonight is the kid’s birthday so we are invited to a party. It’s not a regular birthday party but a banquet thrown at a very fancy traditional Chinese restaurant with dark wood tables, shiny tile floors and traditional scroll artwork hung around the room.
We had our own private VIP room with a huge, beautiful mahogany banquet table decorated with a glass blowing of a fish and flowers. The party included Ryan and I, the birthday boy and his parents, his grandparents and another foreign couple, Mike and Mandy, with their two young children. I was pretty nervous since Chinese banquets have a lot of etiquette rules that I know nothing about. Luckily they know we are foreigners and won’t hold any mistakes against us, but still I didn’t want to act offensively.
Ryan got caught up in a small drinking game. In China, the traditional cheer is “gan bei!” which means ‘dry the cup.’ So instead of saying “cheers” and taking a little sip, you have to chug your entire glass. The grandfather caught Ryan’s eye and they toasted each other a few times. If you don’t do it, you are seen as a wimp.
Luckily they didn’t take past a few drinks, but every year there is news of officials dying of alcohol poisoning after a banquet. (Death by gan bei’d!) The grandparents didn’t speak any English but on our way out Ryan got a hearty handshake from the grandfather and a look that said “you’re all right, kid.”
Friday was a long day. I started at 8 am with a speaking class and didn’t finish until 3:30. I had 3 back-to-back 2-hour speaking classes with an hour and a half for lunch. It’s not too bad, but the weather got worse. It was pouring, and the temperature dropped making it colder in the classroom as the day continued. As I am located in Southern China there is no heat in any of the room per government policy. (Despite the fact it gets below freezing regularly.) I don’t like teaching while wearing my bulky jacket but by my last class I was just too cold so I put it on.
The classes themselves were great. Speaking classes have a more relaxed atmosphere than others due to the fact that everyone must speak so we get to know each other well. Again, we talked about their holiday. While most of them said they were “bored”, some of them had some entertaining situations. One girl talked about her 20th birthday and how she got drunk for the first time. She said being drunk was “funny” because she could understand what everyone was saying, yet when she tried to speak the wrong words came out of her mouth. (Alcohol is available to them, it’s even sold at the school store, but they never drink normally.) Another girl helped a little crying boy who had lost his dad in the crowd. She stayed with him, holding his hand, until the father was found hours later. As thanks the little boy gave her a kiss on the cheek and she blushed and giggled as she told us.
I also got some bad news after class. Turns out that one of my book club classes will be on Wednesday afternoon and one of my speaking classes has been moved to Wednesday morning. There goes my day off!
We went out to dinner with one of the new foreign teachers and we laughed about the English names these students have picked. While many are normal, there are a few wild ones in every class. Between the three of us we figured out we have Cookies, Posture, Coffee, Bobo, and Hottie. There are no rules to their English names so they often just pick words they like, or celebrities they admire. (I have a few male students called Kobe, after Kobe Bryant who is huge here.)
Being among the handful of foreigners in the area makes us a constant target for tutoring requests, especially at the beginning of the semester. Last term Ryan ended up tutoring two boys, a 5-year-old and a freshman, so this term I agreed to take on a student.
My new student was a 17-year-old-girl who was very shy but seemed to understand a lot of what we said. She was especially interested in writing, reading and traveling so I could tell that we’re going to get along really well! I charge 150 rmb an hour ($22) which is good money as I make about 80 rmb/hour teaching.
I also got 2 emails from students saying how much fun they had in class over the week and how happy they were to have me as their teacher again. Maybe they’re kissing my ass, but hey, it’s still nice to hear!
Today I went over to Mike and Mandy’s house with two of my students. Their young daughter has started second grade in a Chinese school and they need a Chinese person to help with her homework. They asked me for suggestions and I asked 2 of my students who have done tutoring in the past. Everyone got along well and I think it will work out, but the funniest part was when we were talking about getting paid. Mandy had said she would pay 50 rmb an hour, and I had told the girls that over the phone, yet I knew they didn’t understand. (50 rmb is a lot. At a store they would make about 7-9 rmb an hour.) They thought I said 15.
“Okay, so you will get paid 50 an hour,” I said when we all met. They nodded, but I could tell they didn’t understand.
“50,” I said. “Wu shi.” (50) In Chinese 50 is pronounced 5-ten, while 15 is pronounced ten-5.
“No, no” they said. “Shi wu.” (15)
“Nope, 50. 5-0. Wu shi” I said.
“Oh yes, 50 is pronounced wu shi. 15 is pronounced shi wu.”
“I know,” I said getting exasperated. It was turning into a bad comedy routine.
“You will be making wu shi.” I then wrote it down on a piece of paper and as it finally dawned on them their eyes went wide. They stammered for a moment.
“I think it is too much maybe,” one of them said.
But Mandy insisted, “It’s only fair.” And while they acted cool I could tell they were freaking out on the inside.
Later I finished my work and got everything ready for Monday. For the first time in my life I really look forward to the week’s work and don’t dread the end of the weekend. I had never taught before coming to China but it turns out it is one of the best jobs I’ve had and I’m really glad we decided to get out of our comfort zone and make this life change.
Becky & Ryan love China so much that they’ll likely stay for another year once this one is up. Becky is blogging about all things China at www.beckyances.net. Becky is also the creator of the Moo-Cow Fan Club: a website and book series for kids that is “both funny and smart.” She and her husband are working on their second book which will be published in August.