Protect your hopes!

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Not pictured: Awkward small talk

It seems to often to be the downfall of new visitors to China: broken expectations. Everyone who gets on the misery of the flight must have some clear hopes. Maybe you’ll get to spend more time on your writing, you’ll make some cool new friends, you’ll just be a more grown up guy.

Maybe a few days after you land (on the flight over in our case) some of these expectations will take a pretty big knock. Foreigners here can be very cliquey, or even downright weird. The difficulty of speaking to people can make you feel pretty isolated. Your colleagues don’t really want to talk to you and the school doesn’t really care about you or your classes. We have known several people who spent night after night on their own in their apartments.

Maybe you’re looking forward to the teaching, hoping it will be a fun but easy challenge – and it can be, you will definitely be under less scrutiny than the native teachers. In reality teaching can be massively frustrating, whatever you expect of the students you are going to be massively frustrated. Their experiences are so different that even the simplest of instructions – “Put your hands up if you have the textbook” or “please get into groups of four” – will present considerable challenges.

This can result in real stress. A colleague at our school told us about one foreign teacher who set an essay for homework and collected them in class, scanned a couple, picked them up and ripped them in half. Another came to the conclusion that  the students didn’t want to learn, so, one day, came into the classroom, told them the textbook activities to work on and then sat down and stared at the wall, refusing to answer them.

So how, especially in that first week or so, can you help yourself avoid these kind of hurt expectations? Ask questions of people who have already been here and listen to the answers.

What kind of Questions?

“What are the students like?” “Is it OK to eat this?” “Do you know where I can get a pizza?” “How do I get packages delivered?” “What happens if I am late?” “My students are being rude what should I do?” “How the hell do I teach this?” “Why are the teachers so hard to talk to?” “How do I say  ___ ?” “How do I collect train tickets?”

The answers will come to you thick and fast, people love talking about the differences – but you have to sift through the anecdotes and general theories of China and find the bits which are important to you. It won’t be perfect but you will at least help yourself to develop expectations which won’t be hurt.  Things are different abroad, and if you fail to ask questions you will come across differences with only what you think should be the case to protect you…

But I want to find out for myself…

Clearly one of the reasons that people come and live abroad, especially to developing China, is to explore a strange new place and themselves out of their comfort zone. So if you find out the answers to stuff beforehand you’ll lose the sense of adventure right?

Well, maybe slightly, but honestly

If I tell you that Chongqing is humid, have you explored that?

If I tell you that you’ll never been seen as a real member of staff, have you explored that?

If I say that you can’t easily buy tampons, have you explored that?

If I tell you the students stand up when they answer a question, have you explored that?

You will explore everything from the fascinating to the mundane. If you ask other people their thoughts, you will at least spare yourself the pain of broken hopes.

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