My First Year in China…

admin | | Monday, October 6th, 2008

As a guy who likes to plan things out in advance, I was not comfortable with concept of flow. I’d stress out about the lack of planning and couldn’t understand why they don’t plan better. I was having a tough time with things, but fortunately I got some great advice early in my adventure in China that helped me put things into perspective.

Go with the flow of things. Change happens.

Don’t worry too much and you’ll probably end up in a better place.

I think this is very true about China and probably with most things in our lives. Here is a summary of my adventures of flowing through my first year in China. Looking back at the summary it was anything but an ordinary year. I guess that’s why I came to China.

My first year in China was an adventure.

First year Summary

Schools taught in = 4

Number of times moved = 5

Number of times left stranded at the airport = 1

Largest class taught = 35 (Beijing summer program)

Smallest class taught = 1 (Johnny)

Cities visited = too many to count

In China, things change and they change often and usually they change at the last minute. This is a place where the air tickets are cheaper the longer you wait and the later you decide to buy tickets. You cannot buy your train tickets until 4 days before you want to go on holiday. Planning does not seem to be very popular here. People seem a lot more comfortable and relaxed with simply going with the flow of things.

August Intro to China

Arrived a month early. Travelled around. Visited about 15 Chinese cities in 30 days. Great intro to China and realization that my Mandarin sucks.

September Left at the boarding gate with nothing but a business card…

Went to the airport ready to catch my flight to Yantai (small city on Eastern coast) to find out from recruiter, “Sorry Matt, I’m not kidding, but you aren’t getting on this plane. Here is the phone number of the president of the school. Call him. (Though it was 9pm and the number was to the office!). He’ll explain.”

Spent night figuring out options:

  1. Get on a plane return to Canada
  2. Keep travelling and teach wherever I end up
  3. Send biting email to the president of the school about how unprofessional the last minute change was, have a few beers and wait to talk to him in the morning. Then decide. (Chose this option)

The president gave me some BS, but it was enough. I started teaching English at a university in China.

First day of work. Was nervous. Spoke so fast during first class the admin girl after asked me quietly later if I could speak slower during the next class as the students didn’t understand a word I said.

October Travel/ Chance meeting on a train/ “kept teacher”

Went on holiday finally to Yantai and Qingdao during the national holiday. Met girlfriend on the train back from Qingdao to Beijing.

After the holiday, the “Snake” president called to tell me I needed to move again to the other campus a 2 hour commute across town due to scheduling problems at the school (not enough students). I wasn’t looking forward to the move.

Then an opportunity knocked. One of my rich students wasn’t happy about losing a teacher, so he made me an offer, an offer I couldn’t refuse. Same teaching, but one-on-one for double the money. Everything else was the same (annual flight bonus, holidays, work schedule). I went with the flow and decided to quit my job and teach Johnny full-time.

Moved to Fragrant Hills, in the western hills part of town. Was put up in a hotel which was also my classroom. Johhny had his own room next door. I was being paid 8,000 RMB per month plus a free hotel. Fortunately, I had negotiated for a salary per month and not an hourly rate, which turned out better in the end, especially when Johnny started playing hookey. Now I was my own school and was a “kept teacher” for Johnny.

Started studying Chinese through a tutor. Realized I was a lazy student and didn’t do homework.

November School of Matt

Was flowing with the girlfriend and with Johnny. Was developing my classes with Johnny, a beginner-beginner. Thinking how unprepared and unexperienced I was to be creating my own program for Johnny, but we went with it. Picture Dictionary Class (aka vocabulary building) was interesting. ‘Friends’ Class not so interesting for Johnny. Mostly used New Interchange book for 2 hrs per day. Added to this with grammar, reading, vocabulary as we could. We’d have 4 hours of class a day M-F. 9-11am, 2-4pm. Then we’d climb Fragrant Hills together and with the hope of having some deep conversation or at least any conversation in English. Instead, he’d usually bring out a new girl to walk and talk with or his driver would climb with us.

One day his driver brought out a taser gun during our walk. I asked why. Johnny said his brother was kidnapped, so he needed protection. I tried to adjust our programs because of this. How do you go on teaching something so insignificant like English grammar, when something horrible like that happens? I tried to be compassionate, and then moved on to learning English. I figured he was here having class as a distraction and wanted to learn English. So working hard would be our solution.

December – Culture shock depression/ went postal

First Christmas in China. All the pretty lights, no religion or meaning to the holiday. Dreadfully homesick. Fought with the post office as they didn’t want to allow me to send a fake calligraphy writing through the mail as they thought it was a Chinese valuable masterpiece. I just stayed persistent and they sent it. Hit the depths of my culture shock depression. Almost burst into tears when I couldn’t call home from my hotel. Eventually, relaxed, opened my eyes and found a Net Bar in Fragrant Hills that I could use to email home.

Jan & Feb Travelling during Chinese New Year

Travelling again. Got a month off for the Chinese New year. Visited my aunty down in Bali for 2 weeks. Met up with friends in Thailand for 3 weeks. Much needed holiday.

March – Johnny skipped class/ No progress/ Might as well travel

Start studying Chinese in a school. Great progress. Great school.

Still teaching Johnny, but his schedule was very busy. He studied English with me all day, then went off to work all night. He usually had business meetings over dinner. Often he went out for drinks and karoeke at night. Also missed a lot of classes due to business trips. Then once a month he’d have take a 4 day weekend to study his Executive MBA at a leading Chinese university. So my 5 days of work often was much less, but the pay was the same. His progress also had it’s ups and downs: 3 steps forward, 2 steps back. It was quite frustrating teaching one (busy) student. We flowed and did our best.

Went on mini holiday to visit the Shaolin temple on one week when Johnny went last minute to Europe or to America.

AprilMore travel, if you can afford it.

Work, teach and travel again. Planned trip to Yunnan and Sichuan for May holiday. Negotiated with Johnny to have an extra week on in April. Johnny was travelling again, got it. Spent loads of money and time travelling during my first year. All my extra salary, and some of my Canadian savings, went out for travelling.

MayUnemployed in the Middle Kingdom

Travel during May holiday with my girlfriend. Johnny’s assistant called to talk about Johnny’s future studies. Our contract was to run until the end of June, but Johnny had a lot of travelling to do in June. He wanted to end the teaching contract early as he was going to be busy the next two months. I decided to go with the flow and agreed (foolishly). Was now unemployed in China. I was moved into another hotel for a month and looked for work.

Ran into “the Snake” again and he needed someone to teach for him in Qingdao for a summer program. I decided to go with the flow. I knew Qingdao was a beautiful city. Thought it’d be a nice place to work for a month.

June – A (one) teacher in Qingdao

Teaching for a month in Qingdao. When “the Snake” mentioned that I’d have to do a demo class with 3 other teachers.  The month started and I thought this would be the crew I would be teaching with. I was wrong. The other teachers came up only to do the demo class and were returning to a neighbouring city (Yantai) that afternoon. I was to be alone for the first month of operation of this school.

I was quite upset. Called “the Snake”. We talked about it. He gave me some BS. I had to decide my options: would I stay or would I go? How would I like being the only teacher in a small new school for their first month of operation?

I stayed and it worked out great. I had freedom. My students were great people. Being the only teacher I was able to bond more with the students and staff. Drank lots of Qingdao beer. Unfortunately, had split shifts (9-11am and 7-9pm) which made it tough to travel and enjoy my time off. Had to be forceful and tell the school that I would NOT stay at the school during my off time, even though they really wanted a foreign face to help sell the program. Had a friend from Canada come and visit. Visited the Qingdao brewery. Great times. But, one day I got food poisoning and thought I was going to die. I survived with a lot of help from the school staff who went with me to the hospital. At the school, I was forceful in what I would do and not do, but I really enjoyed being the only teacher in this school. It worked out well.

July – Back in Beijing

Back to Beijing for another one month summer program with “the Snake”. This month was pretty good. I knew what to expect and there were 3 other teachers this time. It was M-F about 4 hours a day of teaching, but lesson prep time was extra. We taught a total of 20 hours teaching per week. This was a heavy teaching work load for China as the Fall program was 16 hours per week. The American teachers who came just for the summer program with the plan to teach and travel around China were a bit disappointed. They didn’t expect to work so hard and I don’t blame them. Also, the location of the school, way out in the East end, didn’t make it any easier.

The American teachers figured out ways to make it worthwhile. We covered off classes for one another, so they could take long weekend trips. They did a lot of travelling when they could. The seemed to go with the flow and it worked out well for them.

The hot and sweaty month ended up well. I survived my first year teaching in China. But I was ready to go home to Canada for a rest.

My first year in China was an unforgettable one. I’m glad that I decided to stay in China and teach instead of getting back on the plane and returning to Canada when I was first stranded at the airport. This year was a crazy one, but I had some truly amazing experiences and met some unbelievable students. In China, things change and they often do it at the last minute. As a Canadian, initially, I wasn’t used to all these last minute changes. Now, it’s no problem. I’ve learned that in China if you go with the flow of things you’ll usually end up in a better place.


  1. Great ! I enjoyed reading your story very much.

    Comment by Barbara — April 17, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

  2. Great blog. I am on my way to China myself to teach English

    Comment by Parrish — July 12, 2009 @ 1:11 am

  3. Well written! Ever think of writing a book?

    Comment by Tyler — June 20, 2011 @ 7:35 am

  4. Very well said, this is my second month in China and I am kind of going through the same situation, so I identify with your story. Thank you for the advise, I will go with the flow.

    Comment by Javier — August 16, 2011 @ 2:32 am

  5. amazing story. i’m teaching in china after august ;) this blog is an awesome source of information.

    Comment by Paloma — April 23, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

  6. I can identify with just about all you said there, but by camparison I had a much easier time of it than in during my first year. I intend going back soon and now the UK seems too pale and quiet compared to the MIddle Kingdom.

    Comment by Pat Barnham — September 14, 2013 @ 8:35 am

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