Back in 2013 I met an enthusiastic reader of this blog who had recently landed in Chile (Hi Ayanna!) and she asked about how I got started with living and working abroad. Here’s one story.
On May 18, 2006, I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley.
I had no idea what to do next.
A few days later, I sat in my childhood home in the suburbs of San Francisco, as rain poured outside, reading Delaying the Real World, by Colleen Kinder.
That book contains hundreds of ideas of what to do after college. Go work on a cruise ship! Or teach at a ski resort! Or join the Peace Corps! It all sounded more exciting than going straight to graduate school or getting a job in a cubicle.
Given my nostalgia for Chile (where I’d studied the previous year) and Costa Rica (where I’d led a high school summer program) and my interest in all things international, I started looking up everything in the international section.
And so I found out that the Council on International Education Exchange (CIEE) had a program called Teach in China, and they were looking for native English speakers with college degrees. I met those requirements. And the deadline was just a week later. I’d never been to China, never taken any classes about China, never studied Chinese. I’d always focused on Latin America.
But I was curious. I wanted to be the kind of person who could pack up my life and move across the world into the unknown. So I called the CIEE office.
“Great!” the CIEE representative said. “Let me send you the list of program veterans.”
So I quickly wrote this email and sent it to the people on the list, one at a time.
I’m thinking of teaching English in China through CIEE. I got your email address from the office in Maine. I just graduated from Berkeley with a major in Latin American Studies, and I’m interested in exploring a completely different region. I don’t speak any Chinese, but I lived abroad for a year (in Chile) and I love taking on new challenges. I would really appreciate it if you could answer a few questions about the program for me.
What has been your favorite part of this experience?
What has been you least favorite?
Did you feel that the training adequately prepared you to teach ESL courses?
What are your students like?
What are your living conditions like?
Would you recommend this program?
Thank you so much!
Within a few hours, my inbox filled with encouraging notes:
Go Leslie, do this thing and you won’t regret it. I had been to Asia before this and studied in China during the SARS scare for 4 months (crazy times) but my Chinese was still crap and I still will never forget that year. I’ve been back for almost a year now and would go back again without hesitation if i gave up this insane idea of the “family business.” Go, travel, see some unforgettable things and make friends that you’ll get to know way too well. You’ll never be the person at the table without a story again for the rest of your life. — Bob
Do it! I got so much out of the experience. Much more than the study abroad programs that I did in college. I loved it, and will probably go back to study in Beijing next summer. — Andrea
I had never taught before, but I felt pretty comfortable teaching. My school had pretty low expectations of me though, so I didn’t feel much pressure. Honestly, most schools just want a foreign face to give them bragging rights. This sounds bad, but I did sometimes feel like I didn’t serve much of a purpose and I know other teachers have felt that way too. But I always kept in mind that I went to China for ME. And I do think a lot of my students took something away from my class. Most of them had never talked with a foreigner before or had an oral english class. Also, you only teach a 2-3 hours a day, so you really have a lot of time to research and prepare on your own, if need be. — Rosalie
This will be short note as I just had a baby and he is sleeping (for the fleeting moment) right here next to me. I love loved LOVED teaching in China. I had virtually no teaching experience and spoke no Mandarin beyond ni hao and xie xie. I didn’t even know where Yantai WAS (the city in which I was placed). The arrival was a bit rough in the middle of winter and I was their first foreign teacher and let’s just say they were a lot more prepared vis-a-vis living conditions etc. when the next teacher arrived the following year. But I got moved to my permanent apartment and while it wasn’t the Taj Mahal by any stretch of the imagination — and others in other cities had MUCH ‘better’ living conditions — I’ve gotta tell you that I cannot imagine having been anywhere else. Yeah my apartment was a little rough in terms of things breaking down a lot and it was small (when I say small I mean one small room and a tiny bathroom on the 3rd floor of a weird old house) but I ended up LOVING it — big bright window and two old guards who left me spring flowers and whose wives brought me home-cooked treats and whose grandchildren came to visit me. My students were beyond LOVELY and eager and enthusiastic and, just this morning, I have woken up to an inbox full of baby wishes and funny-sweet notes from fellow teachers and students about bringing their ‘nephew’ back to China to visit them. — Cathleen
And along with encouragement, these program veterans sent me practical advice about what to ask for:
You should really think about what kind of city you want to live in. I lived in a small city (Chengde) near a big city (Beijing). This was ideal for me. In a small city you are more submerged in the culture because there are fewer foreigners/foreign influence. You’ll also spend a lot less money because prices are cheaper and expensive foreign restaurants and bars aren’t around. However, it can be a bit boring at times! If you do want to live in a smaller city, I recommend one near a large city like Beijing, Shanghai/Nanjing, etc. This way you can get away for a weekend and go traveling. Also, you might want to consider the weather. If you hate really hot and really cold, Beijing is not the place to be — as I have found out! Anyways, bottom line: you should go for it! — Rosalie
I filled out my application, asking to be placed at a university in a small town near a big city.
The day before the deadline, I stood at Kinko’s, getting ready to FedEx it in. Terrified. I stood at one of the high tables where people staple papers and stuff envelopes, speechless and staring at my passport for a solid hour, asking myself: What am I doing? What am I doing? What am I doing?
I’d never studied Chinese, never visited China, never been particularly interested in mooncakes or Mao Zedong, but I was on my way to China.
That same day, both of my parents mentioned to their colleagues that I’d decided to move to China. And a few hours later, a colleague of my dad’s (who was in charge of the company’s China business) and a colleague of my mom’s (who’d taught in China several years before) both emailed me, ready to answer any questions I had.
That summer, I volunteered at Berkeley Adult School, assisting in a basic English class for adults from China, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Laos, Mexico, Thailand, and many other countries. There, I learned how to talk like a teacher: Hello, my name is Leslie. It’s nice to meet you. What’s your name?
Here’s a photo from a party we had in class.
I also bought a Pimsleur language program, a series of CDs with listen-and-repeat Chinese lessons. “Wǒ huì shuō zhōngwén” – I can speak Chinese. “Wǒ bu huì zhōngwén” – I cannot speak Chinese.
I was diligent with these CDs. I lived in a house in Berkeley with a bunch of students and I’d play it while cooking lunch. One lesson explained the word “ma” which is like a question mark in Chinese. Like, “Nǐ huì shuō Zhōngwén ma?” – Do you speak Chinese? So, my roommate would say things like “Leslie make lunch, ma?”
Less than three months later, I was on a plane to China.
I’d love to hear your stories about your first step into living and working abroad, or any questions you might have about making this sort of leap. Leave a comment or email me (leslie at leslieforman dot com). Thanks!