A Week-In-The-Life of Dan and Jess, Teaching in Rural China

Dan McElroy has been a full-time traveler for almost two years. It all started with a three-month backpacking trip to Europe after he lost his career job in Houston, Texas. He became addicted to traveling and decided to look for more sustainable methods of traveling. He met a Canadian girl (Jess) in Spain while traveling and they both became TEFL teachers (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) in rural China. Please enjoy this week-in-the-life of Dan, living in rural China and teaching English!

(See also: Earning Income Abroad by Teaching English)

This post was originally published in 2015. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.

Day 1: Monday

7:30 am – Jess and I wake up in rural china. We get out of bed and stretch the kinks out of our backs from sleeping on a hard-board mattress (common in China). We get ready quickly in our large yet plain apartment and go down five flights of stairs to get outside.

8:30 am – 5 minutes later we arrive at the International School that we’ve worked at for a year and a half. I go into my classroom and begin setting up for my first class, while Jess does the same in her classroom.

9:05 am – The first 45-minute class begins. I go over vocabulary, play games, and sing songs with my 4th graders. I have three classes this morning, each with 45-50 students.

12:00 pm – After the morning classes a few of the teachers cram into a Tuc Tuc (a box on the back of a scooter) and we head to our favorite noodle restaurants that we have deemed “Peanut Noodles.” Inside, people laugh, point and stare unabashedly at us while we eat. It has become normal for us by now and we try to ignore it as best we can.

2:00 pm – I have three afternoon classes and during my 2nd one, a student throws up in the back row. The smell sends students in all directions creating a comical blend of shock, disgust, and hysterical laughter. My sick student is okay, but I am struggling to keep the students’ attention after such a display.

5:00 pm – It’s a fairly normal Monday evening. Jess and I are hanging out in the apartment after cooking Mac N Cheese from home and we are watching a movie as we recover from another Monday.

Day 2: Tuesday

6:55 am – We are woken up to fireworks going off outside of our apartment. The Chinese shoot fireworks off at all times of the day and for a million different reasons (holidays, business openings, weddings, etc.)

7:30 am – I get to school earlier today because I have an 8:10am class. I set up my classroom and wait for students to arrive…but no one shows up. I make a phone call and I’m told that my class is cancelled. I decide to sit in the office for 45 minutes and make classroom decorations until my next class arrives.

5:00 pm – I go to the gym that opened this year. We live in a small town and the concept of a gym is shocking to us, but the gym really is decent! At the gym I’m doing “planks” (an ab workout) when a random Chinese guy comes up, gets down, stares me in the eye and starts doing them with me. It becomes an unexpected competition, but certainly not unlikely.

5:03 pm – My gym competitor learns that I don’t know Chinese, but it doesn’t stop him from talking to me. He is asking me questions, I say I don’t understand and then he asks another question. I take photos with him and all of his friends, shake their hands and go back to working out.

Day 3: Wednesday

6:45 am – Today we are woken up to a strange symphony of roosters and scooter alarms going off. The couple who lives in the apartment complex next to us are having an early morning argument as well, adding some lively emotion to the symphony. It’s another morning in rural China.

7:25 am – We stop at a food stand outside of the school to get our favorite breakfast (Tofu, noodles, spices and vegetables all stuffed in a double tortilla). There’s one person ahead of us, but by the time we get our food six people have cut in front of us. Lines don’t exist here.

5:30 pm – We buy vegetables across the street. For $3 US dollars we almost can’t carry the vegetables back home! We will be cooking in for a while.

Day 4: Thursday

11:00 am – I’m 10 minutes into my 3rd morning class when a stranger comes in, says something in Chinese, and all my students just get up and leave. The stranger says “sorry” in broken english and walks out.

11:15 am – We take advantage of an early lunch and start walking to a popular restaurant in town. On the way, a guy we have never met before pulls up in a van and starts yelling Chinese in a friendly tone. He persistently offers to give us a ride to the restaurant so we accept.

11: 35 am – We are now sitting down at lunch….and the stranger who drove us is sitting across the table smiling back at us. He has been talking nonstop and chain smoking the entire time and we are trying to be attentive despite not knowing what he is saying. He orders our food as if we don’t know how to do it ourselves and proceeds to order an asinine amount of beer.

12:00 pm – Because we didn’t want to offend our new friend, we are all drunk now. Two of his friends showed up earlier to see the “foreigner show,” take pictures, and then left. The atmosphere is light, but I am beginning to become aggravated about never feeling in control of situations in China. Life is just unpredictable here.

1:00 pm – After lunch our new friend pays for the entire meal, drives us back to our apartments and enthusiastically waves good bye. We stumble up the five flights of stairs…fortunately, none of us have to teach this afternoon.

Day 5: Friday

8:10 am – Today we are going to Luoyang, a popular tourist city in rural China about three hours away (6.5 million people live in the area surrounding Luoyang). It’s home to many famous attractions and this weekend we are going to see some of them. We finish our morning classes and begin getting ready to leave.

12:30 am – One of our Chinese friends (John), calls us and asks if we want to eat lunch. We were planning on leaving for Luoyang soon, but decide to meet up with him at 1:00pm for a quick lunch. We arrive at a place called the “Water Bar” five minutes before 1pm.

1:45 pm – John shows up 45 mins late and doesn’t mention the fact that he is late at all. It’s not so uncommon to be late in China though; we ignore it as much as we can.

3:30 pm – After lunch we take a taxi to a random street corner on the outskirts of town where the bus to Luoyang departs. It’s crowded and Chinese people start taking our picture in a fashion they believe to be very “casual.” Their obviousness is almost comical…

4:15 pm – We get on the rickety old bus and a loud and animated conversation about “us” starts up. People are saying “foreigner” in Chinese, pointing at us, and laughing. Some try to talk to us and unabashedly laugh in our face when we say we don’t understand. We smile politely and make inside jokes to each other about the lifestyle we have chosen to live in.

5:15 pm – The bus has been driving for an hour now and as we look out the window we are surprised to see the same street corner that we started at! The bus driver has now gone 30 minutes in the right direction, but then turned around to go back because the traffic seemed too bad. But don’t worry…he seems to know a shortcut…

6:00 pm – We are now bumbling down an old country road in the middle of nowhere. The bus driver has stopped three separate times to ask random people on the side of the road for directions.

6:25 pm – We are stuck in a narrow alley, in a tiny village, unable to go forward and unable to turn anymore. People have come out of their houses to see what’s going on, people on the bus are all screaming their advice to the driver, phones are out, people are pointing, and people in the village are meandering over to the “obviously lost bus” to see what’s going on.

7:45 pm – The bus driver has found the main highway now and we have an hour and a half to go. The lady sitting next to us on the bus has been intermittently talking to us for an hour now and points to random items around the bus, trying to say their english name. She holds up a pen and yells “PEN!” with a big grin on her face. As introverts, Jess and I are exhausted.

10:30 pm – The bus arrives in Luoyang and hour and a half late. We catch a taxi, and go to the hostel we reserved online. After discussing our plans for the following day, we drink a couple beers and just try to relax, and pass out before midnight in our separate 8-bed dorm rooms.

Day 6: Saturday

8:00 am – Jess and I meet up in the hostel lobby and head out for the world’s greatest breakfast in China…McDonalds Sausage McMuffins! It is a rare treat for us because our little city doesn’t have any fast food restaurants and Luoyang has the king of all fast food…McDonalds! Back home we rarely go there but it has become an inside joke for us about how much we love it…more than anything we just feel a little more like human beings at McDonalds in China.

10:00 am – We ride a bus to a popular tourist attraction called “Longmen Grottoes.” It depicts ancient stone carvings and statues from the Ming Dynasty and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s a bit of graffiti on the Buddhist stone carvings, but it is an impressive display of Chinese art and history.

3:00 pm – After Longmen Grottoes we take a break in the hostel and enjoy lounging around and drinking coffee. We want to go to The “Whitehorse Temple” (the first Buddhist Temple in China), but are reconsidering after so much walking at Longmen Grottoes.

5:00 pm – After a moment of inspiration we both agree to go to “The Whitehorse Temple.” It is expensive to get into, but we are glad that we can say we saw it. The temple is spread out over a huge area and it speaks highly of a history long forgotten in China. We find ourselves discussing whether “temples” in China are like “castles” in Europe…once you’ve seen a couple you’ve seen them all.

8:00 pm – We head back to the hostel and end up talking to some of my roommates for a while before going to bed.

Day 7: Sunday

9:00 am – We find our way back to McDonalds for the morning “Sausage McMuffin Ritual.” Ah to feel human if only for a moment. We checked out of the hostel earlier and now have our backpacks with us. After breakfast we head to the bus station and catch a bus with no issues.

2:00 pm – We make it back home and are in our apartment in record time. Jess and I are glad that there were no issues with the bus driver’s navigational skills on the return trip. We are slightly exhausted and still have to finish our lesson plans for the following week.

5:30 pm – After a few hours in the office I print out my lesson plan, put the final touches on my power point slide and set flashcards up in my classroom.

9:00 pm – We unpack and eat dinner late in the evening. Another week is over and we fall into that lackadaisical feeling that comes with Sunday evenings. We get through half a movie, eat popcorn shipped from home and fall asleep on our hard mattress…ready for another week.

Although Dan and Jess have enjoyed teaching in rural China as an opportunity to learn and assimilate into a new culture, they will be moving on after this teaching year. They will travel what is left of SE Asia, possibly spend a couple weeks in Greece and Italy, and then head to Canada to establish a home base where they can leave their stuff and begin seriously making plans to open a hostel, in either Canada, the United States, or Central America. Regardless, travel will continue to be a large part of their lives for a very long time. You can follow their adventures on Searching For Your Zen, and learn more about teaching English as a foreign language on their TEFL Corner page.

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8 thoughts on “A Week-In-The-Life of Dan and Jess, Teaching in Rural China”

  1. A comment on the last paragraph…If Tom and I get a vote, we think a hostel in Canada or the US (like Hawaii) would be great! Just sayin’ 🙂

  2. I don’t get the part of “feeling as a human being” at McDonald’s. So eating local food in rural China all the time is what?
    I’d choose it over McDonald’s any time.

    • To be honest Alex, eating food in rural China all the time is hard. That’s part of it… we travel to get outside of our comfort zone and challenge ourselves. 99% of our meals were in rural China for 2 years and we liked them a lot, but we also got incredibly sick at times, it’s completely different than what we were raised eating, the food health standards are almost nonexistent and there are certain ‘comfort foods’ that were nice to have from time to time. Are you such a pure traveler that you never want to experience the things you miss from home? I think a freebie is okay. Please don’t spin my words to imply that I’m racist and that I don’t think people in rural China “are human”. That’s very far from what I meant.

  3. Hello!

    I am wondering how you ended up in the rural education scene. I am current university student studying Chinese and foreign language education, and I’m hoping to teach in rural China after graduation. In the process of my research, I have not found many options for foreign teachers that are outside of urban centers, and I know there are some restrictions on workers in rural areas if they do not have proper documentation. I am wondering how you found you school and if there is any advice you can offer me on getting into rural ed.!

    Thank you!


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