Before coming to China, Amy taught for two years at a for-profit language school in South Korea. She returned to the United States, worked at some non-traditional education outfits and taught as an adjunct college professor. She then went back to school for K-12 teaching certification to supplement her Master’s in Fine Arts. She’s now had a successful first semester teaching at the Peking University Experimental School in Jiaxing, in part because of her online negotiations with the school. She passed relatively swiftly through the difficult stage two of culture shock.
Amy and I talked at my house in the Philippines when she came for a visit. Thanks to Amy for the photos.
To the core of my being I’m an artist and an educator. I love being a student of life, and I love watching my students learn.
Which art media do you use?
I’m a multi-media artist. I work in collage, assemblage and installation. Installation is a newer form of art which creates an interactive environment. It’s not limited to the parameters of the picture frame or the pedestal. It offers artists an opportunity to challenge the limitations of the three dimensions. Nowadays artists have to compete with the shiny vastness of technology and the internet.
In my past I’ve done things with Play-Doh and discarded plastics. I did an installation made of nothing but pornography, staples and scotch tape. I choose a particular object to work with based on its social connotations and then try to challenge our relationship to that item by formally altering its presentation: a magazine as an architectural construction or the difference between one and many. (Link) to her website.
So how would you describe the process of your applying for a job in China?
While I was completing my teaching certification, I started teaching English as a Second Language online to students in Beijing. It was a perfect job for a graduate student because of the flexible schedule, early morning hours and low commitment of teacher preparation. I had some experience teaching ESL in South Korea about ten years earlier. Working with the students reminded me how much I love ESL and the cultural exchange. As a vivacious person, I feel I have a natural disposition for being an effective language teacher. As an artist, I use art and creativity in every class I teach, which makes me different from the average language teacher.
One day out of the blue I got a cold-call email from Monster.com, an employment agency. I don’t even know how I got on the list. The announcements of job openings included one for an art teacher in China. Then it occurred to me that I could combine my two passions, and I started looking at websites like Dave’s ESL Cafe. Having worked in Korea, I knew teaching abroad could be amazing, or it could be terrible. So I tried to avoid any mistakes of the past by going through a recruiter.
Well, the recruiters can also be terrible.
But I tried to have some filters. Even with your best efforts it’s a blind process—going to the other side of the planet, trying to take a job in a country you’ve never been to, hardly understanding anything or anybody at the school. At best it’s a leap of faith. I found a recruiter who I felt was taking my credentials seriously and seemed rather thorough in asking about my background. I was able to look at the school online and email teachers who assured me they were reasonably happy. I tried to be as thorough as possible.
That’s a lot more than most people seem to do.
Because it was a two-year contract, I didn’t want to sign up for chained misery. I did maybe five interviews. The job market is just crazy in China. If you don’t have a criminal background, you can put a sentence together and you’re a native speaker with a bachelor’s degree, you can find a decent job.
There are a lot of attractive things about being a teacher in China. With my position there’s lots of paid vacation time—summer vacation, three weeks off for Chinese New Year, a week off for spring break and a week off for a national holiday. The international division has two weeks off for Christmas. My job also offers a free round-trip ticket and moving bonuses coming and going. I have a nice two-bedroom apartment rent-free, and I can eat three meals a day at the school café.
Is it any good?
I got sick of the Chinese café rather quickly. Usually I spend a day’s credits on lunch at the western café, which is more expensive. Still it’s a very inexpensive way to live.
You said the salaries are western-size. They don’t sound extravagant, but you can save almost everything you make.
With cost-benefit, I would say that starting out I make three times as much as a teacher in America. I have a free place to live. All together my utilities—heat, water and electricity—are about $50 a month, which I just pay my landlord. In China all payments are transferred from your bank through your cell phone. It’s very convenient.
You said you’re anticipating being able to pay off all your student loans and start socking away for retirement. How about your working conditions? I understand there was a bit of a glitch when it came to art supplies.
Yeah, I would say I’m on the other side of a rather difficult cultural adjustment. If we’d had this interview three months ago you might have heard a very different story from me.
That’s why we’re having it now.
[Laughs heartily] A few times I came very close to just booking a return ticket and disappearing, but I think everybody goes through that. It’s not a small adjustment. Moving from a western country to China means going through some of the most extreme cultural changes on the globe.
Right. Anthropologists have confirmed that the most extreme cultural differences are between East and West.
People ask me what it’s like, and I say China is another planet. It’s hard to understand how much you’re acclimating because you can’t compare a lot of things to anything you know. For example, I was convinced that people in my department were lying to me. When they hired me they promised me a generous art budget, a bilingual teaching assistant and an English and Chinese-speaking staff. None of that was true.
Everything that comes to me is in Chinese, and most of it has nothing to do with me. The department schedule came in Chinese. Using my Google app, it took me three days to figure out what my schedule was. It was migraine-inducing. When I complained, I got, “We gave you the schedule.”
“I can’t read Chinese,”
“Well, that’s not really our problem.”
I have 680 students, 36 in a class. The art supplies I was promised didn’t appear, so for three months I taught with used paper and 12 boxes of markers. Several times I went to the office and asked about the supplies, and each time I was told I would have them in three weeks. I started stomping my feet. “You guys promised me they’d be here two months ago.”
What made me angriest was that they kept raising my expectations. Finally, my Chinese cooperative teacher in the art department, who speaks English pretty well, spoke up. “I want to tell you something, Amy. Calm down. I think we have a cultural problem.”
“What part of not having art supplies, not having an assistant and not having information is a cultural problem?”
“People are telling you what you want to hear because they don’t want to upset you, even though they have no intention of giving you what you want.”
“Aaaak! That’s lying!!” In my society lying is one of the most horrendous things a person can do. You’re supposed to mean what you say and say what you mean. But here the staff was saving face by not telling me they didn’t have the money for the supplies. They hadn’t even been ordered.
It took me a couple of days to assimilate the information that I wouldn’t get straight answers in this culture. Stomping my feet and running around the school like a raving lunatic wouldn’t get me my stuff any sooner. I accepted that I had to do the best with what I had. As soon as I started to have peace with that, I could see that the Chinese teachers were doing the same thing.
I heard a radio interview with a guy who’d been a prisoner of ISIS or some fun group like that. He said the mental torture he endured came from constantly having his expectations built up that he’d be released in three weeks, then another three weeks, then another, for a long time. Only when he came to accept his current situation did he discover peace of mind.
At a much more minor level I had the same epiphany. At the end of the day it has made a better educator of me, managing 36 non-English-speaking students and teaching them art.
With markers and the backs of used paper.
In the last three weeks of school we got money for the kids to buy their own supplies and bring them to class. The last week of school I had them all make portfolios. Each student had done about five projects. We’re in the National Division, which is Chinese curriculum, very militant, very rote memorization, very much…
Yes. In art class they’re supposed to memorize any technique the teacher uses and follow it exactly. But I used art as a wonderful platform to understand culture, history and different media. I showed how western artists paint and draw and what they draw. The students had ever seen this in a classroom. Their jaws were dropping when I showed presentations of artists and movements they had never thought of before. Then I had them make something in that style in order to help them process and explore the content I had shared.
What did you have in the way of audio-visual stuff?
We were top-notch in that department. We had a screen that connected to my computer and PowerPoint for videos and visual examples. I used music to make a presentation multi-sensory. I also tried to include literature, a lot of subject-related children’s books on YouTube. That included language acquisition as well.
The students were so excited about their portfolios. “I can take this home and show it to my mom?” Their excitement verified for me that I had done something significant in my 35 minutes once a week and in a relationship that was drive-by at best.
At the end of the semester, only a few days before break, the students were filing out and trailing away. I was tired, drained and burned out. A student with the English name of Joyce approached me with her portfolio under her arm. I hardly remembered her out of my swarms of students. She was shaking as she tried to talk to me. “Teacher… I want to… say thank you. You show me… many things, and I am changed. Thank you.” She had tears in her eyes. I gave her the most heartfelt “Thank you. I’m very happy to hear that.” With that one act, Joyce had reminded me why I—we as teachers—do this. It’s for the moments like these, which are priceless.
I have tears in my eyes now.
That’s why we do this. It’s not about supplies or promises made to us. It’s about what we do to help these individuals become contributing members of the global community.
Years ago an education researcher who interviewed my students individually said that several of them had said roughly the same thing, “She has made me into an international person.” I thought that was wonderful. And of course that’s exactly what my textbook is designed to do.
So what’s next?
I’d say that the hardest challenge for any individual living internationally is feeling conflicted between the job they know they’ve put on the planet to do and the separation from everything familiar, including all their friends and family. It’s been heart-wrenching for me because I left a very happy family life and a very happy relationship. This is the most rewarding thing I can think of to do with my life, so it’s what I should be doing.
I had a terrible bout of homesickness with physical nausea, insomnia and panic attacks. I’ve lived all over the world my whole adult life, so it’s unusual that in my 40s,I suddenly feel homesick. I did some research online and read that it would get better if I stuck it out.
I had to give myself some time to recalibrate, to learn how to have functioning relationships with my family and my friends and my loved ones from afar. So we have rituals now, talking at certain times of the day. Video chat makes people feel they’re not so far away. I can’t even imagine what it was like for you to correspond only with letters. Write a letter and then a month later you get a reply.
My boyfriend and I watch movies together in WeChat. We have date nights. We’ve figured out a way that I can go see him and he can come see me. That way, our dynamic leads to many more adventures. It’s way more exciting than two people having two careers in suburban Ohio. So it’s a give-and-take exchange, and if you can let yourself adjust to it, the rewards are worth the sacrifices.
So how about adjusting to China outside the school?
I feel really blessed. I would live in my apartment even if they hadn’t given it to me for free. I’d given detailed specifics about what I wanted, and I think that was helpful.
They asked? That’s amazing.
No, I asserted.
I was going to say here someplace that the behavior of the expat in China is banging on the table or the counter and yelling your head off.
Right. You learn quickly that’s how people will pay attention, unfortunately. If you’re nonchalant, then it’s in one ear and out the other. “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, sure, sure, sure.” So before I took the job I demanded a nice apartment, and wanted evidence before I agreed. They sent me a video link. I said no to several apartments before the one I got.
People ask about the difference between China and Korea, Obviously, the languages are very different, but otherwise they seem very similar. Although China is a communist state with societal limitations underlying everything, for the most part we move freely without awareness of the curbs on our freedom. It’s like the rules are invisible until you break them. China has a vibrant economy, and the construction and development are astounding.
Skyscrapers are going up all around me. At two in the morning there’s construction going on, with welding devices and cranes swinging around buildings. The growth looks like it came out of a time machine. I’ve never seen anything like it. Even in the small complex that surrounds my apartment, there are new buildings and then around the outside of the complex little shops for the 800 complex inhabitants—a bakery, a coffee shop, a pharmacy a mini-mart, that kind of thing, often undergoing rapid transformations. I’ve seen shops closed, gutted inside and reopened within days. Overnight a fish restaurant became an oil change place, I have no idea how.
This is still very much a first-world, third world collision. You have people making oodles of money and an older woman on the street corner selling her vegetables out of a bucket, measuring them with a hand-held scale, and you pay for them online through your cell phone.
So you cook at home?
At first I didn’t because I was hesitant to go to the vegetable market by myself. I’m still not comfortable buying meat. But here the restaurants deliver food to your home. There’s an app on your phone with pictures, so you can select your dishes, pop in your address and it gets delivered – chicken, hot pot, any kind of rice dish, dumplings, soup of any kind. I can eat like a king for $5.
But I actually enjoy cooking, knowing what’s in my food and nourishing my body. So I usually make dinner and eat lunch at the café.
As I mentioned, I found it difficult to live without my friends and family, but now I have a fresh new family, some Chinese and some expats. It’s important to me to spend time with Chinese people because the last time I lived in Asia I only hung out with expats. I don’t see much point in being in China if I’m only with other foreigners. From the Chinese you can get much more of an insider view.
And also they’re your protection.
In my bout of homesickness and refusal to adjust, I read that it’s important to remember why you came, why you fought so hard to get there. Getting to China took me about eight months. The visa alone took three months. And then—it’s not culture shock but culture whiplash.
Now I feel happy and excited about every day and the adventure it presents. I really let go of being frustrated in certain situations. I know mailing a letter means I’ve got to figure out how to address my envelope, how to find the address of the school, how to write the characters, how to get to the post office, how to talk to the person at the desk and how to get the stamps. That takes pretty much all day. But after a while it should be easier. You can lament spending the whole day mailing a letter, or you can celebrate writing the characters and seeing a new part of the city, It can be a day of adventure.
I live in a small town—of four million people—45 minutes away from Shanghai by bullet train. Life is slower than in the city. I imagine if my first exposure to China was Beijing or Shanghai it might be a little overwhelming.
On the other hand, it might be easier. You never know.
My school has a National and an International Division. Right before I left for break I interviewed for the international art teacher’s position, which they gave me. It’s a better career move. It’s a language program where the students have already learned English for several years, and it has a bigger budget. It will include International Baccalaureate training, which will offer me some professional development that is of great interest to me.
When they pulled me in to tell me about the job, they said, “Oh, we have this job for you. By the way, can you teach just English next semester?”
In my dealing with the department, this was clearly a matter of one hand washing the other. I’d suspected the art program was going to be pulled. In the last few months the foreign staff had all but emptied out the English program. One teacher never showed, one had legal problems, and the third quit as soon as she heard the school wasn’t going to renew her contract for the following year.
This all may seem rather dramatic, but it’s not so shocking in the world of a foreign teacher in Asia. People come and go quite regularly, and there can be quite a bit of tension between a school and its teachers.
In the end, I realized they were offering me a very nice job, so compromise was good. They also desperately needed my help. It’s good to be part of the team, yes? After we negotiated my teaching load, I said yes. It’s my wholehearted intention to teach art in the language classroom. What better way to test out my claims about art as an effective tool for language acquisition!
No reason why you can’t. I was teaching culture in my English classroom.
Absolutely, So I’m still going to teach art. I’m already moving some pawns to get art supplies into my classroom. So in many ways it might actually be better.
Other things I’m doing include trying to learn Chinese. I spend at least half an hour every day studying, using Rosetta Stone materials. A math teacher volunteered to tutor me because he wanted to practice speaking English. He comes on Wednesday nights to help me with pronunciation and pinyin, the writing system that uses the Roman alphabet. I feel there is an agency in learning Mandarin. So I’m now—as always—a student as well as a teacher.
At the moment, I feel as if I were at mile 13 of a marathon. There’s all this work, all this hardship I have endured and yet I gained some amazingly great things from the challenges I faced. I need to keep going, but I guess I’m pausing to look back at where I came from and forward to the adventures ahead. So, grateful for small accomplishments and awareness of how much more there is to do.
I have no doubt that China is not for the faint of heart. But if you are willing to submerge yourself in the great unknown, there are promises of wonder which you could never have imagined.
A couple of weeks after this interview, Amy returned to China’s heavily polluted air, which had been causing her health problems for months, and decided she had to put her health first, and she submitted her resignation.
“We all need balance in our lives, between that which fulfills us professionally, personally, and physically. Without our health, we cannot enjoy our life, and this I know now is paramount. I never could have imagined how truly impacting the air quality could be to a person unaccustomed to the reality of a polluted environment. Although many attempted to console me with sentiments such as “Oh, it’s not that bad… after all, there are still old people in Beijing.”, but nothing seemed to combat my looming sense of claustrophobia.I have never known not being able to feel like I can take a deep breath of fresh air. It is something every person should consider before relocating to Asia.
“Not all areas are as bad as the region I was in. I recommend doing your research before you jump. In the end, some risks are simply not worth taking. I should say many foreigners did not have the severe reaction that I had, but many foreigners are sick often around me. I had other reasons for returning too, but the inarguable one, was my health. I have no regrets about coming to China. I am forever changed by my experience here. It was not foolish to come, but it would be foolish to stay. So my final words of advice is to look before you leap and go knowing that in the Wild Wild East of China, any outcome is possible.”