How might moving to China help you grow as a person? We asked Kate Woodruff, who is taking part in the British Council's English Language Assistants programme.
China represents a challenge
When I applied to the English Language Assistants in China programme, I knew that I would be flying into the unknown. I had never lived abroad before, so the concept was exciting, but almost too big to be imagined. This was compounded by the fact China is such a vast and diverse country. I wanted to learn about China first-hand, beyond news reports and textbooks.
Freshly graduated, I also wanted to challenge myself, and pretty much everyone seemed to agree that moving to China was a good way to do that. I heard the phrase ‘life-changing experience’ many times before I arrived in Suzhou, a city about 100 km north-west of Shanghai.
However, once I got past the culture shock of squatter toilets with (gasp) no loo roll, the effects of living abroad were hard to notice. Once settled into a routine, even things like strangers discreetly (or not) taking pictures of us 外国人(‘waigouren’ - foreigners) no longer fazed me.
That is not to say that the transition was entirely flawless. I found the language barrier led to situations which felt anything but amusing at the time, especially when I couldn’t Google my way to a solution. There is nothing as crushing to your sense of new-found independence as realising you’ve taken the wrong bus and have no idea where you are. The internet restrictions are hugely frustrating, and I even find myself longing to use a vacuum cleaner again, because here, sweeping is the floor-cleaning method of choice, which results in a constant showdown of 'Hair vs. Broom'.
Get used to being visible
As a foreigner in China, you stand out, and can very much feel on display. Even in a large city like Suzhou, which has a lot of expats, there are people who have never seen a Western face before. At first, this made me feel very self-conscious, and I wish I could say that it made me more conscious of how I presented myself in public. But instead, I slowly found myself becoming more Chinese in my behaviour. I think nothing of loudly blowing my nose in public, get approving nods from elderly women when I offer them my seat on the bus, and have fully converted to drinking hot water on its own - something that would shock my former self.
Sometimes, however, there comes a more literal form of display. Being foreign makes you part of your organisation’s PR, which in my case extends to the city’s education bureau, which placed us in various schools in Suzhou. One bemusing morning, we found ourselves among newly graduated Chinese teachers being commemorated for Teacher’s Day, reciting (or in our case mumbling) something in Mandarin while the whole thing was filmed for local news. We got very little explanation of why, or what exactly, was happening, but that is another thing that we have become very used to. You learn to go with the flow.
Expect the unexpected
The Chinese concept of ‘nowism’ is the tendency for things not to be shared with you until the very last minute. There have been occasions where my fellow Suzhou language assistants and I haven't been told about events until the day before, or even the morning that they are scheduled. On my very first day at my school I was told to introduce myself to over 2,200 children at their flag-raising ceremony. Another time, we were told that we would be teaching a lesson in a ‘rural’ school (meaning the outskirts of Suzhou) the next day, and had to plan another lesson at short notice.
To a British person, this can defy logic, but you get used to it surprisingly quickly. It has made me more adaptable. Living in China teaches you to take things as they come, and you have no choice but to relax.
Speaking Chinese is deeply satisfying
Mandarin has such a notorious reputation for being difficult, that if I hadn’t decided to move to China, I don’t think I would have ever tried to learn it. But I now find speaking it to be one of the most fun and confidence-boosting parts of living here. The satisfaction of being able to direct where you want to go in a taxi, and order correctly in a restaurant, cannot be overstated.
My language level is still incredibly basic and my communication still seems to involve much arm-waving, but when I reflect on how I had zero knowledge before I arrived, I am thrilled at how far I have come. Living in a country without your alphabet can feel like you have lost a sense sometimes. Just being able to recognise a single character can ground you again. It is also hugely rewarding to see the smiles you elicit from simply saying 'xiexie' (thank you).
If you can handle China, you can handle anything
The very act of up-and-moving to another country is pretty much guaranteed to boost confidence, and negotiating a new city in a different language has been a crash course in personal development. I wanted to move to China simply to prove to myself that I could. I figured that if I could adapt to what were sure to be a multitude of cultural differences, then I would be able to handle whatever my career has in store for me in the future.
In truth, I don’t think I will stop having existential crises about what I want to do with my life anytime soon, but I do feel that now, whatever happens, I’ll be able to handle it. The experience of being a foreigner in a non-Western culture has given me a perspective I will always be grateful for.
Six months ago I was excited, but daunted, about moving to China. Because of the kindness of the people I’ve met, and the welcome extended to foreigners, I realise that my apprehension was unnecessary.
Everywhere you go in China, you are aware that the country is developing at a breakneck speed. My personal growth has been more incremental, but there is something about living here, surrounded by change, that makes you feel like anything is possible.
Applications for the 2017-18 British Council English Language Assistants programme are now open and will close on 28 February 2017.