While the first half of my trip took some getting used to it was mostly positive and time went really quickly. I loved teaching and my classes, I had made great friends and my flatmate and I had a little routine going and had got used to living together. However during the last two months I definitely faced some challenges and homesickness. I felt like I had failed at my first attempt at travelling and I didn’t want to tell anyone in case I seemed pathetic. However, the most important thing I would say to anyone who feels homesick is that it is normal and you can ride it out and don’t feel bad if people around you don’t seem homesick (if someone tells you they don’t ever feel homesick, they are probably lying or playing it down.) Sometimes gap years get a bad name as people question their validity and how much they really help the people they intend to and a lot of sceptics ask me if this whole trip was really just for me. Obviously this was a massive learning curve for me and I got so much from it, but I hope the second part of this blog shows who worthwhile teaching abroad can be for everyone involved. As with Part 1, I’ve taken bits from my the blog I wrote while I was in China (which you can read in full here) and said a little bit about them underneath.
In the hostel, sitting on a big comfy sofa with my first cup of tea in two months, I realised the time I am spending in Yunnan only shows me a fraction of China and its vast culture. In Shanghai, I could have easily been in a different (almost Western) country. I started the day with toast and jam, I could even watch BBC News. That night we all said goodbye and it was odd to think that this would be the last time we were together as a group after starting the whole journey together. Shanghai is a city everyone should see. It was amazing and exciting to see how far China is moving forward and it makes me wonder if or when this will begin to spread to the type of town I live in. The people in Shanghai were so different to what I am used to.
I love Shanghai. From what I have seen so far, it is one of my favourite places in the world. I won’t talk about it too much as I am planning a blog on the two months I spent there in 2014, but the few days I spent there were exactly what I needed on this particular trip. It was so far removed from the landscape around my school, which was built into the mountain and surrounded by rice terraces. My students had never even seen pictures of Shanghai and some of their parents had never seen anyone who wasn’t Chinese before. However don’t get me wrong here – they were also actually aware of how the rest of China and European travellers might see them, they’d often ask if I though their way of life was backwards and if I thought they were stupid (the fact they knew that some people might think this about despite not knowing much of the world around them told me absolutely not.) Yet my experience of Yunnan made the people in Shanghai seemed like they were from another world but actually they were just like me, they go out and go to bars on the weekend and they love social media, things my students didn’t yet know about. I have a fond memory of making our way around a Western supermarket in absolute delight. I know some die-hard travellers out there will probably be thinking why but I think part of the excitement was that I honestly didn’t know these things even existed in China.
As I made my way back from Kunming, Yunnan’ s provincial capital, I felt tired and dejected. I had travelled three hours to see an English speaking doctor and the traffic was delaying the journey home to five hours. I arrived back to school and trudged through the door and as I dumped my rucksack on my bed, I noticed a small collection of letters from my students. One said “I’m sorry to hear that you are unwell, take care of yourself and we hope you come back to teach us soon” and messages saying they missed my classes this week. It instantly reminded me how much I love teaching and why I am here.
My students were genuinely so thoughtful and showed so much concern if they ever thought my volunteer partner or I weren’t happy at school. Sometimes they frustrated me to no end and quite often the culture clash got to me and I felt like I was having to try tolerating rudeness, but I soon learnt its their culture and they would be mortified to think they had offended me. I actually found the second time I went to China that most things I found rude became quite amusing when watching ‘first timers’ deal with them and now I just think its all part of the experience. But at the end of the day I had twelve classes who wanted to be my friend and that was the best part of my trip. They had no intention of being offensive and they also taught me to consider the many things English people must do that seem offensive to them.
I now know the classes who will really need to be encouraged to speak, but write fantastically and I know the classes who love group work but need to practise their listening. My Monday classes are no longer my ‘chance to find what’s wrong with my lesson plan’ class. I no longer need to tell my classes to settle or be quiet; they know they can chat when I’m writing on the board or when they are working but as soon as I face them to talk I hear a chorus of SSSSHHH! … I don’t know where they got that from. Of course, there are still those who are falling asleep at the back of the room, head against the window and no idea another lesson has begun since the previous one that must have sent them to sleep. You can’t help but laugh when they wake up to see their English teacher standing in front of them, with a, ‘why is Emily here already’ look on their face. Last night I watched Good Will Hunting with Class 2; their teacher lets them watch a film in English twice a month instead of evening classes. One of the things I love most about them is that they know I’m only their teacher for forty minutes and then I can be their friend.
Despite all the culture clashes and unspoken disputes I had with my students about what is rude and what is not, deep down I think people are the same the world over. I was only one or two years older than my students and while we often felt literally worlds apart, we worried about the same things and were interested in the same things. Sometimes they seemed a lot younger than me which actually helped me as a teacher, but when we watched films and discussed Katy Perry, there really weren’t many differences. A note on the sleeping – if you go to a Chinese school and this happens to you, it is normal. Chinese students fall asleep at every opportunity. Their day starts at 6.30am and ends around 11pm so they nap in the five minute break between classes because really what teenager can stay awake for that long.
I had to use a lot of patience and encouragement with my students to get them to the level they are at now, but as I look back I see now how encouraging and patient they have also been towards me. Alice, my volunteer partner made the apartment a home and for her support I will always be grateful. The other volunteers have also been a highlight of this trip. I’ve learnt more than I ever could from a textbook and the questions I had about life in China have been answered. As it is such a vast country, I feel I’ve only scratched the surface and it’s what I’ve already seen that will draw me back here in the future. I came to China with a slight fear of crowds, I get claustrophobic on the tube and I didn’t like rice. So how can you go to China, a lot of people would ask me. I came here because I wanted to see if I could put my anxieties aside to see a new culture, I had so many curiosities about how people live here and I wanted to experience teaching oversees.
I would like to dedicate this blog post to my A Level Geography teacher, Mr. Tucker, who very sadly passed away this year. Despite my anxieties and total inexperience with travel, he encouraged me to take that first step into the ‘real’ world. He exemplified the idea that you will only learn so much sitting in a classroom and that the best thing to do if you aren’t ready for university is to go and see the world. I wanted to be the kind of person who, like him, could share stories of people I knew from other continents and I will always remember his influence when people ask me why I took a gap year.
Thanks for reading another long blog, well done if you got to the end! You can find Part 1 here