What Teaching English in China is Really Like

This month, we’re featuring ESL teaching extraordinaire Jonathan Poelman to find out about his experience teaching English in China. Read on to find out more!

ESL teacher feature

How long have you been in China? What have you taught?

Well, I’ve been in China now just over 3 years. Started pretty much immediately after my first year contract teaching in Ulsan, Korea. There is a good chance I’ll be signing onto a fourth year contract soon. So, I guess that makes it 4 years and 4 months from today. Not the luckiest of numbers, especially in Asia, but I sure feel lucky to be here. I’ve taught English grammar, oral, and immersion.

What is your living arrangement like?

My living arrangements have been fabulous! I’ve always lived in well-furnished apartments. I’ve had the opportunity of living with other teachers from other countries or parts of USA as well as on my own from time to time. Apartments are much bigger than I imagined them to be. They are situated pretty much downtown, not far from school.

What is the wildest experience you’ve had?

The wildest experience…that’s a hard one! I’ll have to go with climbing to 4,000 meters on a three-day weekend. Andrew, a travel enthusiast from Shandong, China was visiting Siguniangshan at the same time as me. We climbed to 4,000 meters the first day we arrived in Rilong city. We never made it to base camp, so we were forced to camp out under a rock in the middle of nowhere. The altitude sickness kicked in a bit later. We didn’t expect this to be the case, so we hadn’t packed much. We didn’t have enough water to get the beef jerky and dried fruit into our bellies. The next day we were forced to head back to the city at 3,200 meters. On the way down we would scoop snow into our mouth to help quench our thirst. Despite the challenge, this was and still is one of the most beautiful and wildest experiences I have ever had. Through this trip, I was able to make a new friend, someone who shared the same passion of mountain climbing as me. And I believe our next trip is going to be even more wild: K2 base camp!

How did you meet people and what was your social life like outside of work?

I meet people in and outside of work. Basically, it comes down to just saying yes. Colleagues will invite you over their homes, locals will approach you in parks, restaurants, and supermarkets. You will meet people wherever you go. You will become closer friends if you show interest in their language and culture.

Where else did you travel?

Well, the better question would have to be, “Where have I not been?” I’ve seen most of top highlights in each province (Lonely Planet China highlights, CNN 40 places to see in China). The only provinces I have not visited are Gansu, Ningxia, Xijaing, Xingjiang, Inner Mongolia and Jilin.

What was the biggest challenge in moving and working abroad?

The biggest challenge was simply taking that first step. There was no certainty as to what things would be like. I heard about teaching through a classmate back in college. It was a risk, the best kind. Best decision I ever made.

What was your biggest accomplishment?

I’d say the biggest accomplishment has been realizing that this is what I want to be at this point in my life. For the past 4 years, I feel like I really have been “living each day as if it were my last.” Each day offers something new and exciting. I feel like I have found that dream job, the job many back home are still in search of. You learn so much from teaching abroad. You get to immerse yourself in a whole new culture. It is more than just a job, it is an experience.

What would you do differently?

Haha, initially I want to say “nothing.” But, if I take time to think about this more… I’d find a way to share my photos, moments, stories and videos of teaching abroad differently and more effectively. We, as foreign teachers, have the opportunity to bridge the gap between the differences and conflicts that exist in our respective countries. It is important to share our experiences with friends back home, so that they can see “China” (any country) for what it really is. I wish more people back home, friends of mine who are uncertain about where they are in life and what they should be doing, I wish they would take that step, that risk. Coming out here really makes you grow as a person. It opens your eyes to what the world really is. Everyday I wake up, open the door, and step into the world as a student. I am constantly in a state of learning and applying what I have learned. It is a very rewarding experience, one that I’d like to spend more time sharing with friends and family back home.

What’s a piece of advice for other teachers or those considering teaching abroad?

Haha, funny you ask! I’d say “You should probably do this.” And that came directly from you guys at Adventure Teaching. You won’t know until you try. And why not try? I’d also steal from Mark Twain “Twenty years from now…” and Nike “Just do it.” And in my own words, learn the language, eat anything that’s put in front of you, spend each and every festival or holiday in the country you teach in, travel on the weekends, separate work and personal life, branch out from your expat clique at the bar that is all too comfortable, go over to locals’ homes when invited, try new things, take pictures, ask not only colleagues and adults questions when curious or confused, but also students, share your culture with others, most importantly… smile.

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