Letters from Zibo: Tristan in China

As a meticulous planner, you can imagine when it came to applying to TEFL work I spent many an hour researching schools, and cities. In hindsight, during my research I came to the realisation that nearly all TEFL job positions are advertised in almost identical ways; whether that is through school websites, or social media presence, whether it is in China or South America. The three most common enticements are; the opportunity to work and travel the world, having a good income with relatively low living costs, and the opportunity to learn a language.

The idea of being able to work and travel indeed attracted me. I am someone who has relatively vast amounts of international experience for my age. I quickly learned to believe in the saying

“Travel is the only thing you buy, that makes you richer”

On this point, I have to say how fantastic it has been so far to see the real China, and everything it has to offer. I must have a list 100 points long of what else I want to do and see here. My school, part of the Aston Educational Group, have been more than helpful with assisting me plan and book my travels, and once in a lifetime experiences. I do not want to give too much away just yet about my travels, as I have an exciting trip coming up soon, that I hope to share with you all later.

Tristan in China

Now having a good income with relatively low living costs, was not necessarily of the highest importance to me; however in talking with my fellow foreign teachers, it is allowing them to pay off debt, or student loans. The cost of living is indeed incredibly low here in Zibo. I was once told a good way of comparing the cost of living is to compare the cost of a bottle of Coca Cola. Now in the UK a bottle is nearing £2, here it is about 40p, one fifth of the price.

Finally, the third most common advert is the opportunity to learn a language. Now I am going to go over the importance of learning another language while TEFL Teaching in a later article. And if you don’t believe me, there are plenty of studies that highlight a multitude of benefits to knowing a second language. As a bit of a TEDx Talk junkie I suggest watching John McWhorters ‘4 Reasons to learn a new language’

While these three enticements are all right to an extent, having now been living in China for a little over two months, they seem only superficial. I cannot help but feel as if the benefits and advantages advertised are only just scratching the surface. In my opinion, the greatest advantages to teaching English as a foreign language are only flirted with by the advertised benefits. They are time, and by association, opportunity. Time allows you to learn that language, and to explore all the wonders your host country has to offer.

Now many students and recent graduates like me like to think at university that they are really busy. That is until they start a real job and quickly come to the realisation they had more spare time than they will likely ever experience for the rest of their lives. At university you are enticed that free time, or the vacuum of time will somehow be wonderful, and allow ideas to flourish. Upon reflection without a structure, or a plan, I was only reactive and never proactive.

TEFL Teaching will provide more time than you could possibly dream of. My former student self could never have utilised such an opportunity to its fullest. I implore you, if you are teaching TEFL or looking to, take advantage of what it offers you. TEFL Teaching is giving me the greatest opportunity to develop myself, not just what I learn on the job but what I learn and do for myself away from it.

Pictures from China

Learning from my missed opportunity, I arrived here with a list of the things I was interested in, put them in a hierarchy, divided them into chunks of time and then made a plan. I am now pursuing more writing, assisting in creating content for; DailyDOOH a global blog on the digital out of home industry, Beasts of War the leading news website on the Tabletop and Board Game Industry, and hopefully soon ESL Magazine. A book is in the pipeline. I am “attempting” to learn another language. There is no other job I can think of that allows such an opportunity to develop yourself. While these interests are not directly linked to my current position, who you are is as much to do with TEFL teaching as the content itself. I have quickly learned here that the foreign teachers are a significant selling point for the school. It is why they are willing to invest in you, so I suggest you do the same.

You can of course only invest in yourself if you are able to cope with the external forces forced upon you. Nothing bad, just the simple fact that living in a foreign country is far more challenging than it is living in your home country. I have a few suggestions on what you can do to make sure your transition is as smooth as possible.

A long time ago, I was a Scout. They taught me many valuable lessons in my life but, it was not until I came to China did I fully comprehend the meaning of their motto

“Be Prepared”

I have come to the realisation, the single greatest challenge to moving to China, or any country in fact. Is the loss of your support network, whether that is family, friends, or loved ones. Their loss drastically alters how you perceive yourself in the world. My four suggestions on what you need to survive in China, all in some way help deal with that loss, or reduce hassle and stress when you are already here.

A good coping mechanism is social media, unfortunately all of the usual suspects; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, are all blocked by the Great Fire Wall. So my first suggestion is get yourself a decent VPN. I did a bit of research before arrival, and was offered a few suggestions. Eventually I settled on ExpressVPN, and was glad to know when I arrived most of my colleagues use the same, and have had little to no issue with it.

Unless you’re planning on settling here permanently, you are going to need a way of getting your earnings home easily. While I have high hopes for Revolut, it is not yet available here in China. So before you arrive, make sure you have some sort of plan on how to get your money out of the country when the time comes. I personally use Paypal, user friendly, and secure.

Pictures from China

My third suggestion could easily be redundant, simply because 99.9% of the people I know, own one. It is what you nearly always have in your pocket, a smart phone. I plan to go into more depth on phones, technology and the use of mobiles in China in a later article, but in short, life really does revolve around your phone here; WeChat and AliPay being the big two apps. I came with my phone unlocked to put in a Chinese SIM, if you are also to do that, make sure you note down whether your phone is a GSM, or a CDMA. They use both types here.

Going out and embracing all the riches Zibo, Shandong, and China has to offer is truly an incredible experience. If you don’t get to experience any other country in your life time, experiencing China at least once is a must. Living here does require endurance; the mental exertion is something to be aware of. A simple task that takes the whole of five minutes in your home country, can take significantly longer here. You look different, you are treated differently. The language barrier, if your Chinese is a work in progress, compounds the issue. That is why my final piece of advice is to make sure you have a nice apartment. Most teaching contracts I came across included an apartment; I myself pay a little extra for a nicer apartment. My colleagues at Zibo Aston did a great job in finding one before my arrival. From what I have learnt, I am glad they did. Your apartment becomes so much more than a place to eat, and sleep. It becomes a safe haven, a place to mentally, and physically recharge. As Dr Sheldon Cooper would say

“In an ever-changing world it is a single point of consistency. If my life were expressed as a function on a four-dimensional Cartesian coordinate system, that spot, would be (0,0,0,0).”

Tristan completed the 120-hour TEFL course at the end of 2016 – you can keep up-to-date with his journey in China with his regular ‘Letters from Zibo‘ and follow him on Twitter

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