My three months visit to China this summer could be compared to a modern-day adventure into an alien civilisation. Even without the test of communication, there were many challenges to overcome and experiences to take way and keep for a lifetime.
Applying to teach English to a family of a foreign country naturally came with apprehension. How would I communicate, explain, express culturally appropriate gratitude or problems? How much experience do I really have working with children? I made sure to keep active in the Chinese language before I left, speaking and listening to fellow students, watching Chinese movies and drama shows (some were quite peculiar) and reading short Mandarin stories. On top of this was my lack of general travelling experience. I had never travelled abroad on my own before, certainly beyond Europe, and felt both excited and nervous about the prospect of landing in an entirely unrecognisable environment with nothing but my thoughts to keep me company.
Upon landing, I realised the many ways my body was in shock. This worsened over the first few days. Differences in diet (rice and noodles) air, temperature and active community culture certainly took its mental and physical toll. However, I embraced this, deciding that this was what I had to be able to withstand if I wanted to start appreciating the more enjoyable aspects of the city. The second thing I realised was, after all the study I had spent, I didn’t know the language. Learning from a textbook is different from learning from real life and the experience of different speeds, dialects, word choice and slang of the Mandarin language was enriching to handle head on. Trying to invent creative ways to teach new English grammar and spelling was just as beneficial for me as it was for the children. I started to realise the fluidity and parallel patterns between seemingly un-relatable languages, an understanding I would never have found had I not been immersed in the culture, whilst also pressured me to be critical and analytical about my own English in order to teach it adequately.
The outside environment was highly stimulating, this led to another important learning experience in the appreciation of a new culture. Tourist attractions were not my interest, however, the difference between the initial perceptions of the country before arriving and actual immersion into it were staggering. Asking for directions, ordering meals and trying to decode street signs were much more revealing of a community and culture than visiting famous monuments. I learned to value it was indeed the small-scale trips to a city, relaxing in a park, walking down an alley, that could create valuable memories when looking for refreshing perspectives on an exciting and unfamiliar environment.