When I told my family and friends that I would definitely be going to a small city in China for a year, their reactions were a mixture of worry and bewilderment. Although I’m not quite rubbing sticks together to boil my water in the evening or emptying my shit bucket in the morning, it is the first country I’ve lived in that I can’t find everything I want when I want it. This is part of travel and not a big deal; something we should all prepare for and even embrace. If you’re going to live in a Tier-1 city like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, you won’t be hurting for Western comforts. We actually have a Walmart here, which I love and hate. But even with corporate American world-domination, I’m occasionally left without. Here are 10 things you should bring.
1. Coffee - If you’re going to be living in a Tier-3 city like me, prepare for a coffee desert. I was naive and thought that it wouldn’t be that bad, that there’s a Walmart in Daqing, all will be fine. I was wrong and spent two months without a good cup of coffee that didn’t cost an arm and a leg until my mom sent me some from my favorite coffee place back home for my birthday (thanks mom). Bring at least a bag or two of your favorite blend that will last you until you can order online or make a trip to a bigger city.
2. Deodorant - I haven’t seen it yet. Chinese people also smell fine, so I’m not sure what they do differently. There’s this shitty roll-on thing from Adidas at Walmart. It doesn’t smell very good. Bring your own deodorant and, really, any other toiletries you particularly like. Of course you will be able to find toothpaste here, but you might end up with some weird citrus flavor that’s similar to the aftertaste of a handful of Skittles. It’s good to start out with what you know.
3. Spices - I’m not the greatest cook in the world. The great thing about China is that cooking and eating out will usually even out to be about the same cost. However, my girlfriend and I get bored of Chinese food and she doesn’t suck at cooking (in fact she’s pretty damn good). It’s been difficult to get the spices for a proper Western dinner. Some specifics that have been hard/impossible to track down are oregano, basil, thyme and cinnamon. Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
4. Vitamins and Meds - Especially if you’re going to be teaching English to snotty little kids who will be picking their noses for half your lesson. It’s not difficult to get sick in this line of work and the vitamins here are either really expensive, fake or both. Bring your medications as well (with your prescription for customs). You don’t know what you’re going to get from the pharmacy unless you have someone that can read and speak Chinese with you.
5. Art Stuff - Kate is an amazing artist and is quite happy that she packed her paints, because there are just no craft stores here. If you do any artsy fartsy stuff in your free time, bring your materials with you. This is going to sound so goddamn pretentious, but I really hate that I can’t get Moleskine journals here either. I’ve been using them since before I studied in Sweden and my time in China has almost filled the current one up. First world problems.
6. Clothes that Fit - Daqing may be a little-know Tier-3 outpost of Heilongjiang, but that doesn’t exclude it from China’s increasing interest in high fashion. H&M, Zara and several other European brands are to be had here…but not in sizes large enough for my monstrously tall, foreigner body. I bought a new pair of jeans (raw denim, of course) online because nothing fits me here. I suggest bringing enough solid outfits from home to last you a good while, until you can go on spree in Beijing or Shanghai.
7. Your Last Good Beer - If you love a good IPA like me, then prepare for piss. You know something is wrong when you get excited about a sale on Budweiser or Carlsburg. Most beer in China weighs in at a whopping 3% ABV and tastes like it, too. On the other end of the spectrum, China’s famous spirit, baijiu, will inexplicably range from 40-60%. You’ve gotta taste it to believe it and subsequently repress the memories of the night that follows. Maybe bring a sixer of your favorite brew or a handle of nice bourbon for the road.
8. Adaptor(s) - There are three different electrical outlets in China, four if you decide to visit Hong Kong while you’re here. Bring an adapter for each one. Each plug has holes for all of these outlets, but for some inexplicable reason half of them have nothing but concrete behind them. You can never count on only one adaptor here. I bring all of them with me to the cafe just in case.
9. Smartphone - If you have a smartphone with a SIM card slot, ask your provider to unlock it before you come to China. My iPhone has really been a saint when I need to know something in Chinese immediately. Pleco and Google Translate have definitely made several situations go more smoothly than they would have without them. I’m no stranger to the $20 phone method, which I did in both Sweden and Iceland, but after four months with my iPhone in China, I won’t go back. Bring one if you can (definitely too expensive to buy here).
10. VPN - The Great Firewall is not a myth. You’ll get to know it well, quickly. Most of my posts since arriving in China have been later than I would like because of this obstacle. The only way to scale the digital barrier, other than moving to Hong Kong, is a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN is a subscription-based service that will provide you with several severs that make you appear to be online in another country. This isn’t something you can put in your bag, but you will need to buy a plan before coming to China because many of the providers’ websites are obviously blocked here.
Of course, the underlying caveat to all of these goodies is the great, the amazing Taobao - providing expats with anything their deprived little hearts desire since living in China became a thing. You can buy almost anything – punching bags and protein powder, maple syrup and Pop Tarts – and have it shipped to you in no time. It’s China’s Amazon, and sometimes the only way you can get the goods. In short, China is not a third-world country with live chickens in wicker baskets at the supermarket (at least where I live), there are Walmarts, you will not be left wanting.
To most people, including me before I got here, China is a pretty scary country to travel to, let alone live there for a year. You hear the craziest news stories all the time – rivers full of dead pigs, babies being flushed down the toilet and fake beef made from rat and cat – and think, “how can people live there?” Not to mention the iron, zombie fist of Mao, clutching the country with the firm grasp of unadulterated Commie tyranny. Oh, and there’s always that disappearing and having your organs harvested myth.
But, you know, it’s not actually that bad. Most of the things that people imagine as the “spectres of China” are neither so terrible or that common. They should definitely not hold someone back from visiting or even living here for a while. It’s an amazing country with its own special cultural gems and problems that should not be passed over as an option for world travel because of a few overplayed myths and stereotypes. Here are a few things in China that are not nearly as scary as they’re made out to be.
1. Squatting Instead of Sitting - I’d be lying if I said they don’t take some getting used to, but squat toilets aren’t that bad. Sure, you made need to adjust your aim over time. The biggest hassle is the toilet paper. You usually need to bring your own. As long as you keep that in mind, you’ll be fine. The novelty of having to squat rather than sit dissipated within a week. In fact, it’s actually healthier to squat. Here’s an informative Wikipedia article on the merits of both squatting and sitting. It’s various amounts of interesting and informative.
2. Gutter Oil - This foul stuff definitely exists, there’s no denying it. I have seen it and smelled it. But you shouldn’t let it stop you from experiencing the incredible, and I mean AMAZING food that China has to offer. Basically, if you’re too afraid to eat here, don’t bother coming. And it’s not difficult to spot a joint that uses gutter oil. They look exactly like you’d think they would – dirty and shady places that scream “intestinal worms!” Try not to let the grotesque, yet true statistic that 1 in 10 meals are cooked with gutter oil in China get to you. If you go somewhere that looks clean and has several customers, you will enjoy great food and will continue to have roughly normal shits afterward.
3. Fear of Eating Dog - It’s the favorite joke on any Asian country. All they eat are dogs over here. I just had a Labradoodle for lunch yesterday…joke. Although it’s definitely possible to eat man’s best friend over here, it’s illegal in some areas and, more importantly, incredibly expensive. No one is going to feed you dog unless you ask for it. Foreigners make for a good laugh, but not good enough to give them the most expensive dish on the menu for shits ‘n’ giggles. Rest easy knowing that as soon as you walk into a dog joint, you will know. Usually dog carcasses will be strung up from the ceiling, so you can’t miss ‘em.
4. Language Barriers - Don’t let the friendly “Hellooo!?”‘s fool you. Barely anyone can speak English in a Tier 3 city – only 0.83% in the entire country do – and it can be really nerve-wracking and frustrating at first. Trust me, you can get by quite quickly even with next to no Mandarin skills. Gesturing and context can go a very long way and you can always show an address in Chinese to a cab driver. If you have a smartphone, Google Translate and Pleco will be your good friends. Learn numbers and food words as well as a few other common expressions – “How much?” is a good one – and you will be fine in no time.
5. Communism - I live in a communist country. This thought rarely crosses my mind though. Everything feels…quite normal. No one is getting thrown against the walls, I haven’t seen anyone disappear into a black Audi and the most I’ve seen the police do so far is direct traffic. In fact, being in China has made me realize just how much of a police state the US is by comparison. I haven’t seen any riot gear here while helicopters are used to raid small stakes poker matches back home. Which is surprising, considering all of the spooky stories about China’s regime that come from the mainstream media these days. They problem here is that the police don’t do enough unless the price is right from a local. If you’re a foreigner then you’ll be okay. No one wants a dead foreigner on their hands.
6. Bird/Swine/Cat/Dinosaur Flu’s - Just as common as the food scares are the disease scares. Bird flu is probably the most common even though only 359 people worldwide have actually died from it. It’s quite difficult to catch, usually only on farms and manufacturing plants. Just wash your hands after handling eggs and meat, as you would back home. You will want to take the basic precautions before coming here – hepatitis and typhoid – and beyond that, wash your hands like you would at home. You may need a mask for pollution depending on where you’re going, but you can forgo the hazmat suit for various types of influenza.
7. Getting Scammed - If you are a naive, everyone-is-a-walking-rainbow person devoid of a drop of cynicism, then you will be scammed no matter where you go in the world. Start off by buying groceries at the supermarket while you’re learning your numbers. Don’t worry about restaurants; the prices are in plain view. If you step into the main market district of any city right off the plane, then you may well lose some money, but like I said, numbers are your friend. Suggest lower prices confidently. If they don’t budge, walk away. You will hear the price drop quicker than a lead piano. It’s also nice to know that, actually, not everyone here is hellbent on scamming you because your skin is a different color. If you buy often from the same vendor, you will even get a lower price once you’re a regular.
China’s culture shock is nothing to scoff at and will likely leave you with your back against the apartment door thinking, “What the hell just happened?” But you won’t die. You won’t get an exotic disease. You won’t get stabbed or mugged. You probably won’t be disappeared. Maybe you’ll get a funny tummy and maybe people will point and stare at you. One thing is certain: you will enjoy China. You will enjoy China IF you break through the barriers of Chinese weird-mongering and scare-mongering and embrace the country for what it is: an interesting blend of chaos and beauty.
One day in the far away future, the cosmic wheel that is the universe and everything will cease to spin. As it continues to expand, everything will decay until the entire damn thing is a heterogenous mixture of particles so small that we non-PhD astrophysicists could never comprehend it. This is the most probable death of the universe, otherwise known as the Final Energy State.
I’m somewhat of a science buff – real dork here – but not in the sense that I actually know that much. I just find the vastness of space super-interesting and all too frequently fall into a Wikipedia black hole (pun intended) reading up on it. I discovered this article on reddit, and subsequently my very existence felt petty and insignificant.
Of course this has nothing to do with travel…until I use it as a somewhat relatable and roundabout metaphor! I think everyone has their own final energy state. Well, physically speaking, that would be death. But I’m not talking about that. The energy and excitement in our lives often fluctuates with highs and lows that we may or may not be able to control. Sometimes we will fall deep into a routine – going to work, eating at the same places, pissing away our free time the same way we always do…
The more routine and boring we let life get, the closer we get to our own final energy state, and it’s…very bland.
Everyone back home thinks I live a pretty adventurous life and, while that may be true to a certain extent, I am not immune to the ruts of life just because I can see loads of Chinese writing outside of my window. I’m sure there are not many people here and elsewhere abroad that would want to admit this to themselves. As interesting we expats like to think ourselves, we worked back home, we partied and drank back home, and we walked hungover to McDonald’s the next day.
It’s entirely too easy to depend on the shear novelty of being in China to deliver adventure and excitement to your front door. Doesn’t work that way. No matter where you came from and where you live, you have to venture outside to find that stuff. I think this is the hardest pill to swallow for new long-term travelers, which is why I’m writing this. I’d like you to nip it in the bud early so you don’t get too content too early and have to discover this for yourself. It’s an unconventional lifestyle, but you still have to work at it to get the most out of it. Here’s a few things you can do (that I need to do more):
1. Eat at New Places - There are a few places in my area that I know I like – Red Seat Barbecue, Spicy Beef Place, Good Bread Place – and then there are probably hundreds of other restaurants in Daqing, big and small, that I haven’t set foot in yet. All of these places have that one impeccable dish that I can’t get enough of until I do. Then I can’t be bothered of going through the process of a new restaurant staff’s shocked expressions over my foreigness or the nuances of ordering with my limited Chinese. Looks like it will be a pizza night. That makes me sad. I should never feel that way. I’ve only hit the tip of the culinary iceberg in China (only the dongbei cuisine iceberg, really) and I need to taste the rest rather than consider myself contented with my small handful of discoveries.
2. Explore More - This is pretty obvious albeit still easy to neglect. We get trapped by our routes – to work, to the gym, to the super market – so much so that any deviation is immediately perceived as an inconvenience. This is exactly the type of thinking that a traveler should avoid. Busy is busy no matter where we are, but if we have the time we should actively seek out new things when we go about the day-to-day. If you see a crowd of people, go check it out. Smell something interesting? Go have a bite. If you’re bored, get offline and take an aimless walk.
3. Don’t Get Complacent - Having been somewhere for a few months is no excuse to stop exploring. There’s nothing wrong with resigning yourself to a lazy day, but never forget that you’re on the other side of the world. When your time there is finished, you may never come back. There should never be a point where you can consider yourself the all-knowing expat king of a city when there are endless layers of a culture to peel back and understand. China is like that for me. I feel like I could live here for years and never truly grasp some things. I learn something every time I go out.
4. Access the Language - Improving your language skills will only amplify your experience. If you can hold a conversation with the locals and even befriend some of them, you’ve got the key to one of the most enriching cultural experiences you can possibly have. It was easy for me to get caught up in simply pointing at pictures of food and saying “this” in Chinese, but now I try my best to speak in full sentences. I’m far from even a toddler’s proficiency, but anytime I understand a local and they understand me, it’s a great feeling.
We’ve all left a conventional lifestyle for different reasons, but the universal one that we share is change. We wanted something different. How well are we succeeding at that if we follow the same routine that we did back home? Don’t let the excitement in your expat life dwindle into it’s lethargic final energy state of work, gym, Netflix, bed, repeat. A perpetual state of world travel is an adventurous and glamorous lifestyle to lead, but it requires a catalyst. You. Only you can keep that energy going.
I shakily walk my tray down the aisle to a secluded table devoid of kids, or really anyone that remotely looks like they might try to talk to me. I remove my shades, my ear warmers, the hat that was underneath the ear warmers and my headphones. I step out of my laowai-approved, “Hellooo!?”-proof isolation chamber and sit down to one of my most guilty pleasures…the Big Mac.
The first bite is heaven. Say what you want about McD’s, but they’ve got their cook formula sorted out. You’ve got the thing that kind of resembles a burger with nondescript sauces and “cheese” that work together to create something divine. The fries…you can go to hell if you don’t think McD’s has the best fries. Wash that down with a coke and you’re flying high. Someone says “Hello?” but I choose to ignore him and continue to shove three fries at a time into my face like a neanderthal.
I wipe my mouth with a napkin, stare down at my leavings. I stand up, quickly don my winter gear and look around to make sure no one saw. I feel like I’m walking out of a brothel or an opium den. A Chinese teenager is staring at me from outside, mouth agape. He knows. I nod, and walk out of the human feeding trough of shame and disgrace, destined to be hungry again in an hour or less.
It’s not the first time and it won’t even remotely be the last time. I don’t even eat fast food in America. But whenever I’m abroad it’s a taste of home, a drunken treat and my personal ICU for hangovers. Someone drops a subtle “KFC anyone?” after 10 drinks? I’m in. If I’m in need of a quick, disposable sponge to soak up the toxins the next day, McDonald’s is there, waiting. Smirking at the obligatory trip it knows I will make once I pry my tongue from the roof of my mouth and stand in the shower for 15 minutes.
The thing about fast food places abroad is that - wait for it - they are usually five times better and cleaner than any I’ve been to in the States. Sweden’s McDonald’s looks like something out of a sci-fi film while I would sooner eat off the floor of McDonald’s in China than the tabletops in America. Iceland got smart and kicked out Ronald McDonald in 2009 - slow clap for Siggi - even if it was mainly due to the 2008 economic meltdown rather than health concerns.
In China, it’s a rallying point for our tiny foreigner community. Our Daqing Bowling League nights always begin at the golden arches. The guys that live way out in Longfeng and Ranghulu districts have to commute to get their fix here in Xincun. All of us laowai are in our element while the Chinese look on at the spectacle with curiosity and maybe some well-placed disgust. The next time I run into one of these 60 foreigners in this city of 3 million, I know it will be here. It’s always McDonald’s.
The reason why we’re drawn there is obvious. Familiarity. Even if I didn’t eat there back home, I saw the golden arches everywhere, almost daily. When I eat there in China, I know it will taste the same as back home. Food is an emotional thing, and even if it is shitty, disposable food, the taste can bring you home for a split second. Even the McDonald’s package - the service, the shameless branding, Ronald’s creepy smile - is enough to give you a rest from all things Chinese.
As someone who’s always preaching self-improvement, yoga, meditation and other hippie shit, eating fast food is probably one of the most hypocritical things I do. It’s a hard battle to win. No matter how delightful the dumplings are, I will tire of them. The home comforts of consumerist, American global domination are only a five minute walk away. What is a hungry expat to do?
We’ve been cooking a lot more. The (my girlfriend’s) power to cook Western food definitely balances out the onslaught of Chinese food. However, cooking a full meal with one burner and a rice cooker can be a mission, and sometimes, ain’t no one got time for that. My girlfriend is under a newly self-imposed fast food ban and I might try the same. But one thing I never do in life is make promises I can’t keep. For better or worse, I’m lovin’ it.
My first post on Spartan Wanderer was back in June, 2011 in preparation for my first long-term move to a foreign country. 124 posts later, I’ve seen a lot of cool things, experienced a lot of culture and drunken enough to kill a lot of people. Also, I’ve learned that I love writing about it all. I initially just wanted an outlet for that, but also began writing a few pieces about living a minimalist lifestyle and how it is an ideal change for anyone thinking about traveling for a while. Now, I want to inspire people to travel, to show them that it’s actually not as hard as it may seem, and generally be a part of the wonderful thing that is cultural exchange - a great medicine for the human condition.
The blog has remained largely unchanged since its debut (not that it was a big event) other than the facelift I gave it not too long ago. I haven’t tried to monetize it, nor ask for subscribers. In a way, I feel like there’s less pressure on my writing because of that. I’ve tried my best to post once a week, with a few breaks every now and then due mostly in part to self-induced extreme busyness. The words have flowed out over several cups of coffee (and beers) and sometimes they stayed stubbornly lodged deep in the abyss, and bringing them out was like pulling teeth. For the most part, it’s been awesome, and so have you guys. My readers.
My faithful few. I have no delusions about this blog and I don’t seek ‘tumblr fame’, much less internet fame, although only writing for a living would be pretty sweet (then again I would lack for material if I wasn’t working in every country I live in). I’m quite happy over the amount of followers I’ve picked up over the years, although the number pales in comparison to tumblogs dedicated to cat photos and porn. But then again, it’s just a number, and whenever it jumps up by a couple it gives me a warm feeling that’s really just a bonus to the enjoyment I get out of writing. When you guys message me or comment, I’m always thrilled to answer, so keep ‘em coming.
Why am I writing this and showing you some of my cheesy reflections? Because it’s time. I think it’s time to take it to the next level. I’ve been playing with the idea of writing something more long-form for a while (yes, a book) and I’ve already said a little something about it. I’m all about putting a bow on things, and I want to do that for this blog. I want to write something that defines the purpose for any of this; a compendium of sorts for anyone wanting to dip their toes into foreign waters for the first time.
People ask me all the time how I got started traveling like this as if I possess some set of special conditions that allow me to do so. Not so. I’m completely average and am not by any stretch of the imagination independently wealthy, hence my working everywhere I go. The secret to long-term travel is that it’s easy. The hardest thing about it are the psychological barriers. If you haven’t been abroad before, it’s really hard to picture yourself somewhere thousands of miles away. And you are, after all, picking up and relocating your entire life. But once you streamline your life, educate yourself and stay on top of things, it is easy.
There’s never more a frustrating answer to all of your questions when you’re trying something new than “it’s easy.” That’s why I’m writing this ebook. I want to outline the process of moving abroad from the reasons why anyone would ever choose to do so to planning your next move. I’m basing it all off of my and my close friends’ experiences, so it’s not some mere, naive conjecture that you can find in abundance all over the web. I’m making a blueprint that is author-tested because I want as many people to experience the liberating, amazing experience of travel as possible. And I’m already three chapters in.
In order to do this, I will unfortunately be taking a couple of breaks from writing here because I also have a job, and I have to be selective about how I spend my free time. October will be the first of these breaks. ‘National Day Golden Week’ starts at the end of September so I’ll have a week off from work in which my girlfriend and I will go to Harbin to explore, and the rest will be writing. I’ll have to see how much I finish in October to know when my next break will be, but I will definitely be posting again in November. I’ll still be tweeting, instagramming and maybe even uploading a few YouTube videos, so it won’t be completely dead air.
But anyway, I’ll be writing it. In addition, I probably will add some type of subscription feature in the future, completely free of course. The only thing I’m monetizing at the moment are the t-shirt designs I do over at Footloose Fabrics. But I will probably charge a nominal fee for this ebook when it’s finished (we’re talking $3 or less) in order to fund future projects for this blog. It’s all very exciting to me, anyway, taking it to the next level and all that. This is some low-budget shit though, so don’t expect me to be Colin Wright overnight. I just appreciate your reading, your comments and your enjoyment, so keep it up with all that.
I’ve just taken a couple shots of baijiu and am not very capable of ending this post very coherently, but to summarize: I’m having fun in China; I’m grateful for my audience; I’m writing an ebook; It might take a while; I love you guys. That’s it. I’ll post some updates on Twitter soon, but using my VPN to get over the Great Firewall really is a bitch.
I’m rather animalistic when it comes to baser needs, so it’s no surprise that one of my favorite things about China so far is the food. There’s fresh dumplings, filled with whatever you want from sweet corn to pork. Spicy hot pot in which to boil whatever bits of meat you fancy. Charred pieces of meat on a stick from the street. A vegan would starve here. I, however, am in heaven. I’m no foodie, but there are a few meals that may warrant some special attention on the blog from time to time. Our favorite (so far) barbecue spot deserves the first honor.
A Quick Note on Cleanliness
China is definitely one of those countries where you need to be careful…but not so careful that you’re giving every restaurant with a C-rating a miss (most don’t even have a grade). The bacteria is different here and more resilient than back home, so it’s not uncommon to have the shits within your first weeks of being here. I messaged my friend telling him that I didn’t think I’d make it to the bar one night because I had eaten something bad. His simple reply was “Welcome to China.”
Two good rules that us newbies have been using are:
1) Go somewhere busy because there is a high turnaround rate for the food, which increases the likelihood that it’s fresh, and
2) use common sense. We’ve only been to two questionable places so far and we knew we wouldn’t be eating what we ordered within a couple minutes of being there.
But I digress…
One Million Degrees Barbecue
We’ve been in Daqing for about three weeks now - not really a long time. But we do have two definite favorites in the running right now, and one is (literal translation) One Million Degrees Barbecue (my friend says the Chinese characters aren’t clear on whether that’s Fahrenheit or Celsius). It specializes in charred pieces of meat, something I’m a bit of an expert in and the reason I will never be able to rattle my conscience enough to become a vegetarian/vegan.
If you’ve ever had Korean barbecue before, you’ll be right at home here. It’s common practice that, after marking what you want to grill on the menu, you cook those things yourself. Unfortunately that’s only happened once so far because (I think) the Chinese there are worried that we don’t know how to do it and are eager to do it for us (we’ll talk about white privilege in China later). This time around we kept it simple with some spicy beef, pork, mushrooms and squid rice. Yep, there’s little bits of tentacle in there and it’s goddamn wonderful.
We cooked…er, our waitress cooked the beef first as we awkwardly conversated across her, which isn’t really that awkward because no one spoke English there apart from us. In the meantime, we sip on our Harbin Beer, but cautiously, as to avoid losing our inhibitions to its whopping 3.1% ABV mid-meal. Once that’s done, we dipped the meat in the three sauces that we’d arranged on our plate: one chili, one crushed peanut, one I’m not sure. Good stuff.
The mushrooms are placed in tiny pans that are slid underneath the main hotplate to sizzle, freeing up much needed real estate for something much more important - the pork. As you can see by the photos, it looks almost exactly like bacon and it basically is. Some people might be turned off by the amount of fat on some cuts of meat here, but many schools of Chinese cuisine work it in to be quite nice. You can even order fat on skewers in most places. After biting into that crispy goodness I didn’t mind at all, and anyone who does can give me their share.
We dish out the rice to each other until the last spoonful. I glanced up for a brief second to confirm that, yes, two-thirds of the place is still staring at us, observing our exotic ways. You get used to it.
“Fúwùyuán!” I shouted. I wanted another beer. It’s basically the English equivalent to yelling “Waitress!” which I’m not sure is acceptable anywhere in the US anymore, but totally the norm here. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to get service in most places without that interjection. I drink up as we drink in the atmosphere. Shirtless bros smoking in the corner and laughing, two independent ladies breaking the mold by having multiple beers in public and unintentional eye-contact with more starers.
The meal comes to 65 yuan; about $10 USD. That’s actually splurging in China, on a meal that would be about $25+ in the US, possibly more for the added value of a “unique dining experience.” It’s just the tip of the culinary iceberg. This isn’t your Kung pao chicken from back home, and I’m not quite sure how I’m going to go back to that. Stick around for more reasons American Chinese food will be ruined for me in a year’s time.
My (busiest) Day as an ESL Teacher in China
6:30 AM: Uggghhh…
I wake up after stupidly getting only 5-6 hours of sleep (I never learn). I try my best to do 30 minutes of yoga, but it usually doesn’t happen on my early days. I stand in the shower. I make coffee. Usually only have a banana but if I get up early or am more ambitious, I make porridge. Or if I’m lucky my girlfriend decides to make eggy bread. I browse the news or reddit, then review the lesson plan for my first class. I definitely don’t feel like Teacher Seth/Monkey Teacher/Poo Poo Seth/laoshi quite yet.
9:00 AM: Yayyyyy!
I’m in the middle of my first 2-hour class with 8-9 year olds and am truly enjoying myself. I’m playing a shitload of games and just generally having fun with the kids. I even let them come to my desk and talk to me/touch my iPad during the break. They’re always trying to find the games on it, but they’re well hidden under ‘entertainment’. I have a smile on my face and am glad to be in the classroom.
10:05 AM: All Smiles
I’m walking back to my apartment for my 3-hour lunch break (got 30 min if I was lucky back home). I’m smiling and waving at every little kid that stops and stares at me, still in full-blown teacher mode.
10:15 - 12:45: Downtime
Usually we eat lunch back at the apartment to try and save some yuan, but occasionally several of us teachers will go out to lunch together. I may have to plan a couple of lessons for the last part of the day. Then I write a little bit, and inevitably end up browsing reddit some more. If I didn’t do yoga earlier, I try to do it now.
1:00 - 1:30 PM: Baby Speak
I have my youngest class now (3-4) and I’m finding it incredibly challenging to be quite honest. This is the first time that they’re being exposed to English, so even teaching their names is quite difficult. Mostly I play as many games as possible in this class because the kids are so young and have small attention spans. I expel a lot of energy in this short class.
1:40 - 3:30 PM: All Over Again
I have the same class as my first class in the morning, and it’s actually the third time I’m teaching it any given week, so I’m confident about what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, this class has either been trained by some annoying Chinese teacher to never speak or they are just not as clever as the other two classes. It can be a struggle to inject energy into this class but I try my best, and I’m tired afterwards.
3:30 - 3:40 PM: Break
We have a 10-minute break between every class. I usually go to the next room, review that lesson plan and get the order of things in my head so I don’t have to look at it as much during the lesson. I look through that class’s book. I drink some water. Then, “Hello children!”
3:40 - 4:30 PM: Older Kids
Now I have a class of maybe 10-11 year olds. The content is more difficult, obviously, and I only have 50 minutes to teach it. I try my best to make these classes fun, but sometimes there simply isn’t enough time for many games. My goal is to usually have at least one really great game and maybe a shorter one that at least keeps their interest. I’m trying to build up more energy in this class for the next one…
4:40 - 5:30 PM: Games, Games and More Games
Now I go in the opposite direction, back down to very young kids. Let’s say kindergarten to first grade. I have teach six words and maybe two or three sentences in 50 minutes. In other words, there needs to be a fuckload of games to keep things interesting. This is probably my favorite younger class, but there’s no two ways about it - I’m going to be exhausted after this class. I start looking for the light at the end of the tunnel at this point in the day.
5:40 - 6:30 PM: Boring
This is my oldest class, the kids being 12 or 13. They are really quite clever and the material is very dense (read: boring). The kids are at that age where they don’t want to do anything that draws too much attention to themselves but also want to have fun, so the games are more challenging to come up with. The most kids I’ve had in this class was seven. There are several sentences we have to read through to teach structure and then a long passage that they read together and answer questions afterwards. I can speak in a more conversational tone, and the kids will ask me directly if they have questions, which is helpful. I try really, really hard to make it enjoyable but I’m not sure if I succeed, mainly because I’m very tired myself at this point.
6:40 - 7:10 PM: Almost…
My final class is another very young one (4-5) and I really like it. Unfortunately there’s only four kids in it and I found out today that the school broke it up and put them into other more full classes. Makes good business sense when they’re competing with two other major schools and several independent language centers, but I’ll miss that class.
7:30 PM: Amazing Food
By this time, my girlfriend and I are both finished with classes and we’re most likely eating some amazing food somewhere for dinner. I usually order a sizable beer (or beers). We talk about our day; about classes that went well, nightmare classes, naughty kids and general weird Chinese stuff that we’ve noticed throughout the day.
9:00 PM: More Lesson Planning
Just when I thought it was over, I need to do a few lesson plans for the next day. At least it’s less busy. I try to adapt the same games to my different classes in one form or another so it doesn’t take as much time to plan. As long as I know they’re good games and can stomach doing them over and over again, the kids are none the wiser.
11:00 PM: Should Be Sleeping
At this point we’re at least in bed, but watching Breaking Bad or, inexplicably and more recently, The Great British Bake Off. Once it’s over, I’m full of regret. But I get to sleep longer the next morning.
The Good Life
Saturday is my only day remotely like this. I probably have 2-3 less hours on Sunday. Weekends are the busiest because we are a language center, not a public school. So parents send their kids here as more of an extracurricular thing, as if they didn’t have enough already. Monday is off, Tuesday is technically a working day but I have no classes. I have one kid to tutor on Wednesday. No classes on Thursday, but we use it for lesson planning, and I only have one 2-hour class on Friday. Basically, I’m working close to 25 hours less than I did back home for the same pay and better benefits. It’s a surprisingly more laid-back environment than any American school, and much more enjoyable! I’m guilty for being motivated by travel and adventure in a big way, but so far, I really enjoy it. More to come!
I thought you guys might be interested in seeing our complimentary apartment in Daqing, China. The school pays for everything barring ~$50 in utilities every month, and it’s pretty amazing. Later on I’ll give a complete rundown of expenses, what the school covers and how to save more money than you’ve ever saved in your life. The contrast between the stairway and the apartment itself is pretty hilarious and it totally blew us away the first time we saw it.
I have cold, so I’m sorry if my voice sounds weird. If you like this video, please say so on YouTube and I’ll make an effort to have more of a presence there. If not…maybe I’ll make more just to spite you :)