By Jasper Gogol-Sicklen

26 November 2020 - 12:03

'Physically, the terrain was unlike any that I had experienced, and the altitude and lack of oxygen took its toll.' ©

Jasper Gogol-Sicklen

Jasper Gogol-Sicklen spent three years teaching English at Chongqing Foreign Language School in China. He used his time abroad to seek adventures across all of Asia. 

New country, new challenge

When I applied to the English Language Assistants programme, I never thought that the opportunity would lead me to the highest mountain the world.

I signed up to teach English abroad during my last year of university because I didn't want to get lost in the London bubble after graduating. A two-week holiday in Bali or trip in Europe is not enough to understand local culture or build a skillset for future opportunities.

I knew that I had to challenge myself further, and immerse myself properly in a whole new lifestyle. China was the perfect place to build my language skills, improve my public speaking, and test my confidence.

The teaching experience in China was nothing like I imagined

The Chinese education system is tough and your lessons as an English Language Assistant are often a relief for students from a long week of classes and homework.

We played lots of engaging games, and the energy and vibe were unlike anything that I had experienced. You have to think on your feet at times. Some days you may think you are teaching 20 students, but you end up using a microphone and playing a game called Jeopardy in front of 60 of them!

I was lucky to be allocated to a school which wanted to use my degree in American Studies to teach history to their high school students. The school were really understanding and even gave me and my colleagues opportunities to make our own modules. I created one on British Style Parliamentary Debating. It is important to take advantage of these situations. You never know what experience can prepare you for your next opportunity.

One of my most profound teaching memories was a student who did not have much confidence in his language skills. Lesson by lesson, he was slowly able to talk more to me. During my last class he told me how grateful he was and even expressed that he became more confident in himself and part of his identity through my classes.

My free time was a chance to explore

I was teaching in Chongqing, a megacity in southwestern China, but had opportunities to travel all across Asia. My adventure to the Gobi Desert was one of my favourites.

My route took me from the rainbow mountains of Zhangye Danxia, to Jiayuguan, an ancient fort on the Great Wall of China. I ended at Dunhuang, one of the central parts of the Silk Road in the Gobi Desert.

Solo travel made me grow as a person

I did the journey all by myself, from the sleeper trains to the coaches. A trip alone meant that I had to rely on my Mandarin speaking skills. When I first arrived in China my Mandarin and especially my tones were not so clear, but I threw myself into the deep end and spoke to local families and children on the trains.

They were all very approachable and it was amazing to talk to them. I had families practising English with me as well. We all got our translation apps open when there was an unfamiliar word. I was able to haggle for authentic silk scarves, and most of all I was able to meet new friends.

One of my most heart-warming memories from that trip was spending the day on sand dune bikes with the new friends that I had made. We ate hotpot together in the middle of the Gobi Desert, which turned into a party and a Chinese singalong by a campfire. We then spent the night camping followed by watching the sunrise together.

I felt a real sense of pride when I could communicate with local people. At one point I even got emotional after I had spent the whole day making friends in Chinese. I believe that this level of immersion and empowerment through language is what a true English Language Assistant adventure is all about.

'One of my most heart-warming memories from the trip was spending the day on sand dune bikes with the new friends I had made.' ©

Jasper Gogol-Sicklen

Jasper in Wulong Karst National Park, Chongqing. ©

Jasper Gogol-Sicklen

I became the group’s translator

Mount Everest was my last major trip before leaving China. A tour group of us travelled through the sacred Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, to the crystal blue Yamrok Lake, before making our way to the famous mountain.

It was amazing to immerse myself into Tibetan culture and experience the world through their eyes. I used my language skills to help our group order food in the markets and translate to English when our guide couldn’t find an accurate word to express something.

The climb was a complete challenge

Physically, the terrain was unlike any that I had experienced, and the altitude and lack of oxygen took its toll. One of the worst night’s sleep of my life was at the top of the mountain base by Rongbuk Monastery, the highest monastery in the world. I distinctly remember waking up in the night grasping for my oxygen tank multiple times.

However, it is memories like that which will stay with me, as I was able to make the most of the opportunity and rise to the challenge. After three days travelling through the Himalayan Mountain range, we eventually witnessed sunset and sunrise at the top of Base Camp of Mount Everest.

To push my mind and body on the journey was the best reflection of how far I have come. The whole experience gave me the travel bug, and a desire to experience even more of the world.

My advice? Get stuck in

My advice to language assistants and future assistants would be to get involved in every opportunity that you can. Practice your language skills on a sleeper train and don’t be afraid of the awkward and embarrassing moments in parks or scenic spots. Those are the ones that you will remember!

Be aware that there will be some ‘Bad China Days’. This can be when something might have pushed you over the edge, where students may not be forthcoming or it may just be feeling homesick over the Christmas period.

In these cases, it helps to share your troubles with your network of fellow language assistants, or push yourself to make new local friends. You can also order home comforts from the UK (like Maltesers!) from Taobao, China’s version of Amazon.

The experience was daring and amazing

The many incredible days outnumber the few bad days. The rewards make it all so worth it, from learning a whole new language and culture, to watching your students grow in ability, and the new places which you uncover.

I can say for certain that this was one of the most daring, but ultimately amazing experiences of my life and I have never looked back on it in regret. Adventure is waiting.

Jasper took part in the English Language Assistants programme. Every year, around 2,500 language assistants from the UK support the teaching of English in 15 destinations around the world. 

Applications for the 2021-22 programme are open until 3 February 2021.

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