Reflections – China TEFL Internship

So after over four months in China, the time has come for us to depart. It seems like only yesterday that we stepped into the arrivals hall at Beijing International Airport into the welcoming arms of the ImmerQi panda. And yet, at the same time, it does feel like we’ve been here in China forever.

As when any significant episode ends and another is about to begin, we thought it was really important to reflect on the amazing experience we have had during our time in China and where it will lead us next. We’ve been to some amazing places, tried some unusual foods and met some eclectic people, all of which has contributed to our unique China internship. The video highlights just a snapshot of our time here:

Throughout the experience, Claire and I have learnt an awful lot about education and life in China, teaching English as a foreign language and about ourselves. We’ve summarised what we feel are the most important memories we will take away with us from China below:

The internship provider

One of the hardest parts of the entire internship experience has been selecting the correct company to travel with – there are so many providers out there all seemingly offering the same experience and it can be tough to whittle down the options to ones that are best for you. We opted for i-to-i TEFL and have no regrets in doing so. From start to finish, their support has been first rate and their partnership with ImmerQi to provide the in-country support worked really well for us.

The TEFL Course

The main reason we chose i-to-i for the internship was the quality of their TEFL training course. The online training was thorough and informative and was complimented by the brilliant practical training provided in Beijing by James Jenkin. Curious about what they have to offer? Then why not request a TEFL brochure – there’s no harm in having a look.

Working in China

Whilst for many of our fellow interns working in a school was a new experience, for us this was familiar territory, especially given we were in a senior high school. That said, there were subtle but significant differences that changed the whole experience from that which we had back in the UK. Working with bilingual teachers and students when you don’t speak both languages is definitely something unusual as was the Chinese way of operating which couldn’t work in the UK education system as it’s just too different.

At first these differences were an irritation to us but we quickly realised that was counterproductive: we had come to China to understand a different way of living and working, not get more of the same. We began to simply accept the differences and learn to deal with them from the outset which made things far simpler and more enjoyable!

Daily life in Wuxi, China

Daily life in Wuxi was very different for us to the lives we left behind in the UK. We may have had shorter official office hours in the UK but the workload demanded that we took home work on practically a daily basis. In China this could not be further from the truth. We were able to manage our time in work such that everything that we needed to do to plan, prepare and deliver our lessons – plus any follow-up marking – could be easily completed during the working day.

For the first time in our professional lives we were able to leave work at work and not feel guilty for doing so. This gave us chance to pick up long-lost hobbies like reading (previously a holiday only past time), exercising regularly, cooking using fresh ingredients (rather than rushing between work tasks) and having proper free time. This was a welcome and definite benefit of being in China!

Exploring China

One of our priorities when on placement was to get out and explore the parts of China we could reach. Using only the money given to us as part of the internship, we have been able to visit Nanjing, Shanghai and Suzhou on multiple occasions. Additionally, we were fortunate to be given paid trips to Hangzhou and Changsha by i-to-i and our employers EduChina respectively.

Whilst most of our visits have been confined to Jiangsu province where we were placed, we have explored the main areas of interest in detail learning about the history and culture of each place. The sheer size of China meant it wasn’t practical to travel much further afield at a weekend, despite the great Chinese rail network we had access too – don’t be afraid to use it where you can. To find out more about other areas of China you can read Claire’s posts on her previous tour around China which is written in a day-by-day journal format.

What we’ve learnt

First and foremost, our time in China has been a learning experience. We knew this would be the case before we came but were surprised by something each and every day.

The good

  • Chinese people are incredibly warm and friendly. Despite the language barrier that forever existed between us and the people we met, we were constantly bowled over by how warm and welcoming people were. Wherever we went, we were greeted by a smile and people were typically eager to help us.
  • Anybody can be a celebrity. Well, not everybody – you need to be a foreigner to qualify. Throughout our travels, we were asked multiple times for a photo with Chinese families, children and teenagers. It seemed a real privilege for them to get a shot with us. This discounts the number of times where people took sneaky shots of us although these were often so obvious that we posed anyway much to their embarrassment but simultaneous relief!
  • China is far more Western than we anticipated. It sounds strange but when we were preparing to come to China, we were expecting to find a country with little in the way of wealth or technology amongst day to day life, as Claire had seen on her previous trip here. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have found China instead to be embracing the technology it is so famous for producing, with the plethora of iPhones, iPads and similar consumer goods commonplace amongst many of the people that you see day to day. Added to that the shops you pass in the cities – Louis Vitton, Forever 21 and Gucci to name but a few. True, we were in the East which has far more wealth than the West of the country but even our visits to Changsha further East have shown this still to be the case.

The bad

  • The Chinese way can be frustrating – just go with the flow! That different countries operate in different ways is nothing new to us but we didn’t anticipate how much of a hurdle this would be until we started to work here. Back in the UK, we were used to working in tightly scheduled, structured environments, something that just doesn’t work the same way here in China (and in many other countries around the world). Short notices of major events like meetings with parents (2 hours), changes to working days & holidays (2 days) and similar occurrences all served to test our patience. Eventually we realised that we could either go mad or just roll with it: having chosen the latter, we found the experience far more enjoyable and no where near as frustrating.
  • Losing classes and students. This is one specific to where we worked but High School teaching usually results in classes being lost as they graduate and leave. We also had problems with student absence as they were preparing for external English language tests, being away from lessons for up to a month at a time! It got so serious that we actually went to our school Director to ask for more lessons. This turned out to be the best thing we ever did – we ended up delivering 1-to-1 speaking practice to Yr 10 students, something we really enjoyed and the students found useful for their preparations.

The ugly

  • China’s weather is very changeable and often difficult to prepare for. A gorgeous day can in minutes turn into a torrential downpour which may last days; likewise horrid days can quickly become the best of a week. One day can be freezing and the next roasting. You just have to be prepared, carry an umbrella and get on with it!
  • Being ill in a country where you don’t speak the language isn’t pleasant. This is probably an obvious one but when both of us were taken out with gastroenteritis at the same time it was a real challenge. Fortunately, our school Director was amazing and took us on a Sunday to the hospital for treatment. As we didn’t have any money at the time, she paid for this and bought us some local foods that we could eat to help get better. We were so grateful for her help and the reassurance of getting medical treatment with a trusted translator cannot be underestimated.

What next?

Immediately after completing our China internship, we’re going to take advantage of the completion bonuses we’ve earned and are off to explore Taipei, Macau and Hong Kong. These three cities have a long association with China but with distinct cultural differences. We’re really looking forward to seeing what these places offer and will be blogging and vlogging about our experiences – watch this space.

After our trio of city breaks, we’ll be back off to Europe to see family before heading out on the road again at the beginning of September. We’ll then be following a seven month programme of volunteering in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and South Africa with two great organisations: VPO and PlanMyGapYear. For more details and our plan read about how we made our decision and why not sign up for updates so you never miss a post?

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