How I Stayed Sane While Experiencing Culture Shock in China. Part 3: When everything is Cool

This article is part of a series on experiencing, and dealing with, culture shock in China. The articles are based on my own experiences moving to and living in China, looking back at how I overcame each phase of culture shock, making it through to the other side and having stayed in China for over seven years.

Previous (What is Culture Shock?)

The first time I visited China was my trip to Shanghai in 2010 right before the Chinese Spring Festival, the Chinese festival similar to our Christmas and New Year’s Eve put together into one. Everywhere I went I saw red lanterns, happy people, and tall skyscrapers. I fell in love instantly.

Shanghai Skyline

A friend of mine, a local Chinese girl, was working in Shanghai at the time, and she agreed to show me around. Coming to China for the first time as a tourist can be a bit overwhelming. Many do not speak English very well so having someone around who could help was valuable.

Having someone around to talk to the taxi drivers, show you around and take care of you was great. I got to experience everything while worrying about nothing. My visit to Shanghai was smooth, energetic and full of excitement. A great experience, everything was cool!

I finally moved to China in the summer of 2010, starting out with a month-long TEFL training program in Beijing and then moving to Changsha in Hunan province for my 5-month teaching practice. The time in Beijing was like a study-holiday. We would study during the week, but we would go on trips on the weekends.

The Great Wall of China

Arriving in Changsha, we lived at a privately owned boarding school for primary grade students. We worked in the English teachers’ office, and all the teachers communicated well. They took care of most things for us, and we were even assigned a kind of “buddy” who would help us out with anything we needed.

It was great! It was not my first time in China, but it was my first time in Changsha, entirely different from Shanghai and Beijing. Every day was a new experience, and something as simple as going to the supermarket was a new feeling. Shopping alone was a challenge and an experience. Missing your bus stop was an excuse to wander and get lost, talking to a person saying more than just “hello” felt satisfying. “I could live here!”

New people, new tastes, and smells, the language, the culture. I felt like I was living an adventure, nothing could compare. I was not making much money or anything special, but the experience was fantastic, and I loved every second.

Chicken feet, you gotta have’em!

Moving to China was, however, not my first time to live in a foreign country for an extended period of time. I spent one high-school semester studying at the TAFE institute in Wagga Wagga (Yes, that’s the name of the city) in Australia. Wagga Wagga is the biggest inland city, about 400 kilometers east of Sydney. I knew that eventually, I would face a wave of discomfort and slight depression because I’d gone through it once already when I was there. Having traveled a lot with my parents and sister as a child, I am very familiar with this feeling, and I can sense when it is starting to change. For me, personally, this is a great tool because I can then prepare for the coming phase of uncertainty where the excitement is replaced with worry, confusion and, sometimes, anger. Having had this particular experience before, also made me able just to enjoy how I was feeling, and mentally prepare myself. I wouldn’t be surprised by the onset of the depression stage, I was anticipating it.

In Australia, everyone speaks English, so even when I was feeling down, it was easy to talk to people around me. In China, I was surrounded by English Speaking teachers who all communicated quite well, but where Australia shares a lot of culture with other Western countries, China is vastly different, and sometimes the culture and how people behave can be tricky to adjust to.

While you are enjoying yourself, wandering around, getting lost and tasting the delicious food, remember to get to know the people around you. It is easy to get lost in your own agenda when all you want to do is explore your new surroundings. But your friends and colleagues will be an essential lifeline for when you start feeling down. Take them with you, explore together, share memories and your adventures. Don’t forget to talk to your friends and family back home, the more they know about what you are doing and experiencing, the more they will be of help when you need them later.

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How to manage your students, without saying a word

One of the biggest factors of having a good class is how you, as the teacher, can effectively manage the classroom. Also called classroom management. Classroom management is where new teachers struggle to adapt because a lot of teacher training today is focused on how to teach vocabulary, grammar, and writing but doesn’t dive deep enough into the art of actually having the students under control. It is not only about how your students behave, or whether or not they sit quietly and listen, but also about how you move from topic to topic, how you explain the steps of your activity and how you deal with students who lose focus or are having difficulties.

Classroom management, for me, is perhaps the single biggest factor that determines whether or not a class went well. I can have a great time teaching students who are struggling with the content but somehow seem to understand what I want to do and how to do the activities. Similarly, I can have a terrible time teaching students who are at a high level, but I am unable to manage efficiently, and they start doing their own thing. Also, if the students do not understand my instructions, fail to understand the activity I am explaining and have no idea why I just raised my voice, the class can feel rather exhausting.

After struggling with classroom management myself for months, I finally found my best weapon was not my words or my voice, but my body. I always had a talent for imitating characters like Mr Bean, and I always loved to act. I realised that my movements and gestures were often more efficient in conveying meaning than my words, just because my students did not know my words, but my actions were. I started to teach students to look at my actions as well as my words, made it an integral part of my classroom routines and suddenly explaining new vocabulary, a new game or activity became a lot easier, and my classes started flowing much better.

Gestures accompany your language, but cannot entirely replace it.

Some gestures are powerful enough that they can replace upwards of a dozen words of explanation. The same way a picture says 1000 words, gestures can save time explaining, and keeping your gestures and language linked closely together will increase your students understanding, and you can use that gesture later.

Gestures can communicate pretty much anything, whether you need to facilitate discussions, encourage more interaction, do error correction, teach vocabulary or convey an emotion. You are likely already using some simple gestures in your classroom already, “stop,” “stand up,” “be quiet,” “sit down” and “listen” as well as students raising their hand when they have a question are all commonplace in classrooms across the world. A thumbs up or an applause for praise and encouragement, an open palm to invite a student to talk or making an X with your arms to signal a wrong answer are also fairly common, but you can take non-verbal classroom language much further.

Try and consider some of the classroom languages you often have to use that maybe your students do not always understand. For me, it is often instructions like “make a sentence,” “what does this mean?” “ask a question,” “work in pairs,” or even something as simple as “take a break.” Try for yourself to make gestures for each of these words or phrases:

• Work in Pairs
• Ask the other students
• What do you think?
• Nearly right
• Stand up / Sit down
• It is your turn
• Make a longer/complete sentence
• Please, stop talking now
• Three minutes left
• Listen to me
• Don’t show your paper to your partner
• Good job
• Open your book (to page #)
• Read
• Write
• Listen
• Spell
• Quiet Down / It is time for class

Can you think of any other useful classroom language words or phrases for which you could use gestures?

By using my body more than my voice has allowed me to make my classes more enjoyable for my students and myself. I spend less time raising my voice, even when my students are misbehaving because they can look at my gestures and body language to know what I am thinking. On top of that, I tend to make my gestures exaggerated and comical because laughing is always a good way to keep students interested in you.

How I Stayed Sane While Experiencing Culture Shock in China. Part 2

Culture shock is complicated. Moving to another country long-term affects people differently. I’m no expert on Culture Shock, but I’m happy to share my experiences trying to stay sane while experiencing culture shock in China. Everyone experiences culture shock differently, but it does affect everyone.

The model below shows one of the simpler illustrations of culture shock. It shows four phases that travellers or expats go through when visiting- or moving to another country. The four stages are called honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment, and adaptation.

We first experience the honeymoon phase when we visit another country. Everything is new, exciting, and interesting even though we can’t communicate with the locals. Little setbacks such as getting lost, or not finding what you needed from the supermarket, you shrug off as being on an adventure. Also sometimes called positive culture shock and this is why we like travelling. When we visit a new country or place, we experience this feeling, falling in love with the language, culture, food, and history.

When the second phase, the depression, sets in, this is what most people refer to as culture shock. You’ve been in the same place a while, and you’re no longer on an adventure, now it’s everyday life. You notice you can’t communicate efficiently, find what you need to buy, or order food at a restaurant without help, this leads to feeling powerless and dependent. The locals act differently than what you’re familiar with, and you start missing home and your family. It’s natural to feel sad, irritated or depressed and it’s important to have someone to talk to and lean on for support at this stage. Stay in touch with friends and family, keep a positive outlook. Some make it through this stage very quickly, but others need more time to adjust.

Everything improves when you reach the adjustment stage. You begin to overcome your depression and learn why you’re experiencing these emotions. You learn more about the people around you, the customs, traditions, and how to interact with your surroundings. Your view of your new home changes and starts to make sense. You’re on the right path, already further than many who go through culture shock. It becomes easier to take care of yourself, you learn the language and get into a routine of working, playing, socialising, and relaxing by yourself and your newfound social circle.

Finally, you’ll experience the adaptation stage. Also known as the acceptance stage, you feel that your horizon has broadened, you’ve become more open-minded and more tolerant of what bothered you before. Your more proficient in the language, you’ve made local friends, and you’re starting to make sense of everything. Life is more comfortable and normal and although you might not reach the same high as the honeymoon stage, you’ll feel like you belong.

Traditionally, culture shocks ends with the adaptation stage but I think it’s also important to consider how you feel going home after spending years abroad. When you return home you can experience reverse culture shock, having to get used to your old surroundings all over again. Reverse culture shock is not as prevalent as culture shock but it remains somewhat common.

Culture shock isn’t a disease and it is not the same as a depression. You should never be afraid to talk about culture shock. Admitting you’re experiencing it, sharing with friends and relatives and other expats are the first steps of dealing with it and getting through it.

How I Stayed Sane While Experiencing Culture Shock in China: Part 1

Around eight years ago, I found myself sitting in front of my computer, experiencing a broad range of emotions. On the screen in front of me, was a “thank you” note, confirming my application for a teaching internship in China. This program eventually leads to where I am now, living and working in China, making this my chosen career. I was 21 years old, scared to leave everything behind but excited about what my new like might be. I was hopeful of what the future might bring, but doubtful if I would be able to pull it off. I was proud that I made such a dramatic decision but remorseful that I didn’t include my family more in the process.

Nonetheless, I called my family to tell them the good news. I remember my mom being emotional and my father’s resistance. But they understood this was something I needed to do, and they even lent me the money I needed to pay the program fee. They were worried because China is so far from Denmark, and so different. They couldn’t fathom their son living so far away, let alone imagine how I could get used to living there. The image Western people have of China is distorted, and coming to China is vastly different from anything you think you know from movies and the news.

Before making this decision, I had just returned from my first overseas trip alone. I spent two weeks in Shanghai, looking for a university to study at, but ended up spending most of my time just touring around. I experienced the kindness of the people, the great food, amazing architecture, and stunning views. I had always known I was a big-city person, even though I’d only ever lived in smaller towns, and I fell in love with Shanghai in a matter of hours. My camera was glued to my face, and I still go back to revisit my photos to relive my memories of my first visit. For those two weeks, I was euphoric; everything was new and exciting, and I loved every second.

Copenhagen Airport on my first ever trip to China
Copenhagen Airport By Mikkel Larsen

Traveling to a new place, be it on business or holiday, makes us feel excited. I have traveled to a lot of locations in the past, and the feeling is always the same. But, that feeling of excitement is just a fraction of the emotional rollercoaster you go through when you visit another country. Your holiday is typically not long enough, for you to experience the rest of the ride. Being on vacation for one, two, or even three weeks, you only feel the newness. When you get lost, you see a chance to explore, and when your food tastes funny you just photograph it, post it on Facebook with a comment and quickly order something else. You’re only experiencing what is commonly known as the “honeymoon” phase of culture shock, something you are likely to face if you move to a new country for an expected period. Knowing about culture shock and how to deal with it, can significantly improve your experience of living abroad.

Culture shock happens in four distinct phases known as “honeymoon”, “depression”, “adjustment” and “adaptation”. Each step, its length, and impact vary from person to person. The honeymoon period is what you experience in the beginning when you first arrive in a new country. Everything is new, the language is interesting, the habits of the locals, and the food will almost get you high. But when the honeymoon ends, reality starts to set in, and you start feeling depressed with your surroundings. The language barrier, traffic, safety, difficulty of doing things without assistance, and missing home are all very prominent feelings. The second phase is usually the hardest, and it can last anywhere from 3-9 months. This is the stage that makes some people return home. But once you make it past this stage, comes the adjustment. Here, you will start to grow accustomed to what is going on around you, you develop a routine, you start learning the language, and you can support yourself. You develop skills to deal with everyday problems, and adverse reactions to the culture around you lessen.

Finally, adaptation sets in and you begin to take control of your surroundings. You participate in social events, you make close friends, you learn to accept the new culture, and you become somewhat bicultural. Now, living in the country is, in many ways, similar to living at home. You’re no longer bothered with the new culture, but start to embrace it.

In the following articles, I’ll talk about each of the stages I experienced, and I will touch on how you can overcome each of the stages of culture shock while living in China.

The Nasty Truth About Teaching ESL in China

Anyone who spends ten minutes reading online reviews of schools in China knows this: teaching English in China is a horrible, miserable experience you wouldn’t wish on anyone.

But why is it when people come here and actually speak to expats who have been teaching for a while, they hear a different story? Their friends say: it’s fun, they love their school, and they plan on staying two or three more years.

The reason is simple: selection bias. Wikipedia says selection bias occurs when, “…groups or data for analysis in such a way that proper randomization is not achieved, thereby ensuring that the sample obtained is not representative of the population intended to be analyzed.”

So what is it about the people who write these horrid reviews of ESL schools that skews the sample? Generally speaking, those who gather on ESL threads to bash their school are negative people who’ve developed a herd mentality. They say “misery loves company,” and what better way to increase your feeling of self-worth than to join into a frenzied mob of disgruntled teachers with an ax to grind?

Their posts often start like this: “I worked at Blah Blah Blah English School for three years and boy they were a bunch of….”.

Riiiiight. So, this place was so incredibly terrible you stayed for how many years?

Many people forget an important fact: You’ll have problems at your job in China….just like you did at your job at home! There’s no such thing as a “perfect job,” and being able to cope with difficulties in your workplace is a part of life. Learning how to deal with these problems means you’re not lying when you write, “Works effectively in cross-cultural settings.” on your CV.

There’s also a subset of people in China who “can’t hack it” in their home country, and are forced to stay in a foreign country for much longer than they’d like. They’ll tell you how much they hate the food, the people, their school, etc. If you talk to this person long enough, you’ll probably also discover they think their home country is rubbish, too. These people have no business teaching, especially teaching children!

 
Okay, okay – I’ll get off my soapbox now! Do you want to know the truth about teaching ESL in China?

  1. You’ll be surrounded by the laughter of happy children every day
  2. You’ll work with a diverse group of really interesting people
  3. You’re doing something bold and growing as a person
  4. You’ll see sights, eat foods, hear sounds, and smell smells you never imagined
  5. You’ll earn good money while doing work that’s challenging and rewarding

I know it can be pretty shocking to hear, but that’s the nasty truth! The people who teach overseas (and stay because they love it) generally don’t spend their hours trolling ESL message boards. Ya’ know, because they’re outside…enjoying their life. Maybe eating dumplings, or climbing a mountain, or writing in their journal.

 

Have you spent a year or more teaching overseas? We’d love to hear your thoughts and stories! If you have incredible travel photos, please send them our way!

Also, if you’d like to learn more about how to become a guest blogger, write us at info@eslsuite.com with the phrase “Guest Blogger” in the SUBJECT LINE.

Written by Christopher Ribeiro | Managing Director at ESL Suite

roundedChristopher came to Tianjin via Buffalo, New York, and Los Angeles. He’s lived in China since 2009, and has traveled to over 20 countries on six continents. Christopher has been in teaching and recruiting for over five years – he’s the co-founder of ESL Suite, a husband, and father to two strapping little boys. If he’s not at work, you’ll find him in the gym, or narrowly dodging oncoming traffic on his fixed-gear bicycle.

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Six Schools Hiring Like Crazy This Year

Okay, I admit it…..I’ve been a very bad blogger.

But I have a good excuse: we’re BURIED in applications and recruiting our faces off this year!

Summer is here, and teacher recruitment is really heating up. Schools across China are searching for top teaching talent – hopefully that means YOU!

Here are SIX schools you’ll want to know about for the upcoming school term:

If you’re interested, you can apply directly through the links above. OR you can shoot me an email at christopher@eslsuite.com. Write “BLOG POST” and the title of the job you’re applying for in the SUBJECT LINE of the email.

Not sure if you’re qualified? Or, maybe these six jobs aren’t what you’re looking for. Nothing to worry about!

Simply fill out a general application form to connect with a recruitment specialist and find out what kind of teaching jobs in China might suit you.

We want to hear from YOU – apply today!

Written by Christopher Ribeiro | Managing Director at ESL Suite

roundedChristopher came to Tianjin via Buffalo, New York, and Los Angeles. He’s lived in China since 2009, and has traveled to over 20 countries on six continents. Christopher has been in teaching and recruiting for over five years – he’s the co-founder of ESL Suite, a husband, and father to two strapping little boys. If he’s not at work, you’ll find him in the gym, or narrowly dodging oncoming traffic on his fixed-gear bicycle.

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4 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Teaching

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Having been in the ESL industry in China for many years I’ve seen the ins and outs, ups and downs, and trials and tribulations of the ESL teacher.

The joy of getting through to that first child – the frustration of encouraging a challenging student, week after week, in the hope that you’ll help them achieve the potential you know they’re capable of.  I’ve been there.  I’ve done that.  I’ve spilt paint on the shirt during the craft stage of the lesson.

Having been through the trenches of teaching under pressure, when sick, or when missing home – there are a few nuggets of truth and wisdom I  have to offer – if you’re open to hearing them.

YOUR KIDS WILL PULL YOU THROUGH.

When you first arrive in China, as with any country you’re settling into for a year, we’re exposed to new bugs and “nasties” – colds we’ve never been exposed to, food that’s playing havoc on our tummies.   Trust me, it happens to all of us: you’re in your new job wanting to make a good impression, but all you want is Mom.  You dread the idea of a dozen excitable kids waiting for you on the other side of that door.

The funny thing is – it’s the kids that are going to pull you through that class.  Remember, you can’t fool kids – they’re a notoriously honest audience – you can’t fake it.  Level with them.  Tell them you’re not feeling great and you want them to treat you with a little tenderness today.  You’d be surprised how the most rambunctious boisterous boys will be offering to bring you a tissue or pick up the pen you just fumbled to the floor for the 40th time today.

DON’T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF.

The pursuit of perfection is enough to drive any teacher of young learners ’round the bend.   There’s only SO PREPARED you can be for a class.  You’ll eventually come to terms that KIDS WILL BE KIDS – and we should celebrate them for it.   You’re likely to encounter the repeated audio onslaught of a box of pencils being dropped from the desk to the ground and rolling everywhere.  First time, okay.  Second time, really?  Third time, now you’re doing it on purpose.  Fact is kids will be kids, they’re clumsy and energetic and their arms and legs are longer than they were last week.   Learn to enjoy them for what they are and use their energy and silliness to keep you young in the classroom.

LAUGH AT YOURSELF WITH YOUR STUDENTS, BUT NEVER AT THEM.

Don’t learn this one the hard way like I did.   Students will happily spend an hour drawing ridiculous clothes on a print-out of you, and they’re likely to give some weird names too – especially when they’re learning new vocabulary. How often have you had a 5-year-old say “Teacher is a pencil.”  Not funny at all right?  But you laugh anyway cause we’re teachers and we’re approachable and we have a connection with the funny guy.   Allowing the kids to feel safe in your company – safe to express themselves and try out new things with the language will result in hours of giggles and chuckles – but there’s a big difference between laughing AT a mistake and laughing WITH someone who made a mistake.  Kids are emotional creatures still figuring out how to react and build a thicker skin – feeling laughed AT is going to shut them up faster than a clam in low-tide.   Learn to find the moments of humor in the lesson, don’t take what your kids say personally (no, you don’t really look like a monkey), know when to laugh and when to empathize and encourage.

AND FINALLY….

HAVE PASSION FOR WHAT YOU DO.

Think back to your favorite teacher from kindergarten or primary school.  If you’re as old as I am (that was a good few rotations round the sun ago), I honestly don’t remember WHY Mrs. Urry was my favorite teacher.  I remember getting in trouble, being told to stand at my desk, not earning the gold star because I was talking to my desk-buddy…I was that challenging kid!  So how could it be that she would be my favorite teacher?  Because, she always gave me another chance.   She helped me get that gold star, she reminded me that talking during reading time is rude to the others who want to read, and that when there are 20+ kids in a class – sometimes you got to give a lady a break.   The point is I remember her forgiving smile and encouraging aura.  I don’t remember the words she used to encourage me but I remember the feeling.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be that teacher to someone?

 

Teaching is a work of passion – and the kids are going to teach you as much, if not more, about whom you are as a teacher and as a person.  It taps into that sense of nurturing even the most macho men would try denying.   Whether you’re asking hyperactive Emma to sit down back in her chair for the 1,000th time, or giving Leo a high-five for finally nailing his spelling test this week – enjoy your kids – enjoy the chance you’ve been given to make a difference in someone’s life.  We’re educators – we were born to make a difference.

Written by Matt Zweig | Recruitment Associate & Blogger at ESL Suite

644372_829753400381070_7018025203776288672_n Matt is a born and bred Capetonian from South Africa and has been living and working in China since 2010. He’s worked in many different departments of the ESL industry, and won the SINA GOLDEN TEACHER OF THE YEAR award in 2014. Matt became a recruiter so he could share his love of teaching in China with the rest of the world. Matt’s favorite China moment was a shopping trip to Hong Kong in 2013.

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