We're talking to Ben, who worked and travelled in China for over a year. With a culture so different to that in the UK, we wanted to find out what he really gained from the experience, and what it's added to his prospects for the future.
What attracted you first of all to work abroad, and second to work in China specifically?
Both my parents have travelled and worked abroad, this sparked an interest in me from a young age to travel. I really enjoy learning about new cultures and seeing different countries. Living and working abroad seemed like the best way to do this. I wanted to work abroad for a bit and didn’t know where to start – but within two weeks, I had a job in China!
Tell us a little bit about the placement.
I was teaching English in a City called Fuzhou, China. The school I worked at was called York English and I was employed as a full time English teacher. I worked Wednesday – Sunday, 4pm – 8.30pm on a Weds and Thursday, 2pm – 8.30 Friday and 9 – 5 Sat and Sunday. The school was private, so children came to learn after their normal school day and on the weekends.
I had to plan each lesson, make my own resources for the classes, write progress reports for each of the students and give my teaching assistant and the parent’s feedback on the children’s progress.
My salary was £700 a month, and my accommodation (a 2 bedroom apartment), flights, insurance and visas were paid for. I got quarterly wage increases, and was able to save enough to travel South East Asia for 3months after my contract ended.
What was your impression of China?
It’s such an interesting place to visit; culturally and politically, it’s different to anything we are used to in the UK. I found everyone I met was fascinated in me as foreigner.
Everyone was so welcoming and hospitable. When I would go my Chinese friend’s houses for dinner they would put on the most amazing spread of food. They’d serve dinner, and then themselves only eat boiled rice – until we insisted enough! This was such an endearing and wonderfully humbling thing to experience. The way you are treated as both a guest and a friend is really amazing.
The government heavily censors the citizens. So, people around the age of 25 do not even know what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989, or are too scared to talk about it. The government censorship went as far as blocking the whole of Google around the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
The censorship really is felt in everyday life – it restricts the conversations you can have with local people. I found even talking about the UK government would make people feel awkward – so to discuss the Chinese government was definitely a huge taboo. This was one of the hardest aspects of living in China, as the conversations was somewhat limited – being a Politics graduate, I was naturally interested in these topics, the government and social makeup of the country.
What about the language barrier?
Learning Chinese is incredibly challenging. Only a handful of people I came across could speak a tiny bit of English, but I picked up the basics. I found people quite unforgiving in this respect – they would laugh if I said something wrong, and not make an effort to soften their accent. But this made the learning process a lot quicker!
Did you feel supported in your work placement?
We would all go out for dinners and drinks together. All the foreigners were in the same situation, being a long way from home, so everyone would understand if you were having a difficult time and I found every one very easy to get along with.
The Chinese staff were incredible – I made some magnificent friends. Most could speak English to a decent standard – added to my limited Chinese, we could have some pretty decent conversations!
What touristy things did you get up to?
Whilst I was in China I managed to tick a lot of the touristy boxes. I saw; the Great Wall, The Terracotta Warrior’s, Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, Summer Palace, the limestone mountains of Guilin. We visited mountain such as the spectacular San Qing Shan, where the pathways over hung the mountain the whole way round, carrying you over a 1000 metre drop. I do not like heights at the best of times, so I found it challenging to say the least.
I went to Shanghai and Hong Kong and many smaller towns and cities around the country. Teaching gives you amazing chances to travel. Even so, the country is so vast that I didn’t get to see everything I would have liked to!
Tell us a little about the people you were working with…
I worked with teachers from a whole range of backgrounds; from New Zealand, Australia, America, the UK and Ireland.
It was a great opportunity to meet people from different English speaking countries. You can’t expect to get on with everyone you meet, but I made a lot of good friends there, and also met my current girlfriend.
What do you think the experience has given you in terms of experience for future jobs?
I think working abroad shows self-confidence, independence, and the ability to work with people from various different backgrounds. As a teacher, I had to critically evaluate and monitor 60 students. Reporting to my seniors and the parents greatly improved my confidence in presenting to large groups of people. Developing lesson plans required creativity, pragmatism (I worked with different age groups and abilities) and create my own resources.
The job demanded me to be flexible and adaptable, to react quickly to the need of a change of strategy, and be receptive of body language when the language barrier was prominent.
Not many people can say they have lived and worked in a country as culturally different as China. In my opinion, this gives a real advantage and USP in an extremely competitive jobs market, where candidates often have very similar qualifications and experience.
What would you say to someone who is considering going to China on their gap year?
I couldn’t recommend it enough, as an overall experience! It’s absolutely vital to keep an open mind – try all the food you can, take part in every activity. Don’t be judgemental – you will come across ideas and views that seem alien, but it doesn’t mean they are wrong.
Language and cultural exchanges are amazing ways to become more familiar with the country. Learning as much of the language as you can – it’s not only a matter of respect, but it will also help you to get more out of your experience. Don’t expect anything to be easy. Travel, and see as much of the country as you possibly can. The people are brilliant, and I promise, you will never be bored.