My First Week in China (Finally! The update you have been waiting for!)

Originally published September 11, 2009 1:31 PM. This has been reposted from its home at

Friday September 4th– I arrived at the Qingdao airport around 2 in the afternoon. Standing in line at passport control I became more and more nervous because of an irrational fear that there would be something wrong with my visa or landing card and I would get in trouble. Everything was fine and I went quickly through. Luckily my luggage didn’t take too long coming out so I only had a little time to scare myself that my luggage had been lost or stolen. I was trying to stay calm and rational but there’s something about arriving alone in a completely foreign country where I know no one and don’t speak the language that seems to make me kinda antsy. Strange, I know.

I was met by a young Chinese man who introduced himself as Seashore (All the Chinese who interact with Westerners choose English names, knowing that we cannot recognize, remember or pronounce their real names) and an older man who spoke no English who Seashore introduced as “Mr. Li, our driver.” Seashore is another teacher at the school and his English is pretty good. He’s a skinny, friendly guy in his twenties. His 2 inch long hair is so straight that it sticks straight out from his head, paying no attention to gravity at all.

Seashore told me the drive to ZiBo would be 3 hours but it seemed longer to me. The countryside interested me at first but it was pretty much the same the whole way. One thing I thought was unusual was the trees. I’m sitting there staring out at these forests trying to figure out what is different about them. Then it hits me: they’re all planted in straight lines. Every grove of trees we passed was arranged in neat, orderly rows. It looked so strange and unnatural. I have yet to see a single tree in China that looks as though it just sprung up on it’s own.

When we finally got to ZiBo we picked up a girl who’s English name is Helen before going to my apartment. Helen, together with a woman named Alice, is in charge of taking care of the foreign teachers.  So it was Helen’s responsibility to get me settled in my apartment.  We found the building and then began to climb stairs. And kept climbing stairs. I kept thinking it had to be the next floor but Helen just kept going up. I can’t tell you how glad I am that Seashore and Mr. Li carried my luggage! I counted the floors the next day and there are only 6 but someone that first time it seemed like so much more. I live on the very top floor.

My first thought when I walked in was that I must have roommates as the apartment was too spacious for one person. But, nope, it’s just me here. I really like the main living area. It’s big enough to have a pretty sweet dance party in. There are 3 bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen.

Helen told me that she picked out brightly colored bedding for me because I was young and would like colorful things. Apparently I have caused quite a stir by being 22. Helen says I am the youngest foreign teacher they have ever had. Helen herself is only 24 but I suppose because she has lived in ZiBo her whole life, this isn’t as shocking.

Speaking of shocking… the bathroom was a surprise for me, as was the kitchen. I didn’t post any pictures or video of my apartment the first week because I thought my mother would faint at the sight of the filthy bathroom and kitchen. I have spent quite a bit of money on cleaning materials, I can assure you. But unfortunately I have discovered that no amount of scrubbing can get rid of the terrible smell in the bathroom because it comes from the drains. It gets worse when it rains.

After a tour of my apartment we went to a restaurant down the road where we had dinner with Alice. Alice is over the foreign teachers and Helen is her assistant. They have both been very eager to help me settle in.

Saturday September 5th
– I was to meet Seashore outside my apartment building at 9:30am but I took so long trying to figure out how to lock my door that he came up to find me. And locked my door for me. We took a taxi- which are all bright turquoise here- to the bank so I could change some money. Changing money turned out to be more involved than I had to expected. I had to fill out paperwork and show my passport and wait while they verified my dollars were real or whatever else they were doing back there that took so long.

Then Seashore took me to breakfast. We had little balls of fried bread with meat inside of them. I really like them but no matter how many times I ask someone what they are called I still can’t remember. It starts with a B. Seashore said it was beef and mushrooms inside of them which surprised me because I normally can’t stand mushrooms. This is one thing I have learned about the Chinese: they are masters at cooking vegetables. If there is a vegetable you think you don’t like, come to China and try it here. Seriously! My eyes have been opened to the wonders of eggplant! And I have never seen such ingenious use of cucumber. I really love the food here. When people ask me why I came to China I tell them it was for the food. That’s not actually true, but the food is definitely an added bonus.

Aaaanyway, back to Sept 5th. After breakfast we rode the bus to RT-Mart. When Seashore first said the name I thought it was ‘Arty Mart’ and that made me laugh. It just sounds silly. And not that far away from ‘farty mart.’ (insert grade school giggling here)
He helped me buy a new sim card for my phone and a variety of other things I needed- dishes, cleaning supplies (yes! That was what I was most excited about. I couldn’t wait to get my apartment clean) and some food. The sim card ended up not working in my phone (I guess I forgot to get it ‘unocked,’ however you do that) so I had to buy a new phone. It wasn’t very expensive and I like my new one better so I’m not upset.

One thing I was not prepared for is how rare foreigners are here. I knew I would be in the racial minority but I had no idea how much of a minority. Everywhere I go, people stare. And I mean STARE. I guess they’ve never seen a white person in real life before.  I’m surprised I haven’t caused a traffic accident. It wasn’t so bad that first day as I was with Seashore. It is worse when I am alone.

I had been warned that although clothing is cheap in China it is difficult for Westerners to find their sizes. I don’t think this is going to be a problem for me. I have seen plenty of locals who are taller and heavier than me. Some of the women here are so curvy it makes me wonder if they might have hispanic ancestry.

My aunt Carrie predicted they would call me fat here. Nope. People have actually commented on how thin I am. Helen says American teachers are usually “fat and strong.” “I am fatter than you!” she told me.

The traditional image of Chinese people being small and slight is becoming less and less accurate thanks to both a decrease in poverty levels and the introduction of westen food. There are plenty of overwight Chinese. No obese ones, though. Nothing like the huge people you can find in the American midwest, but a little bit of chub.

Sunday September 6th-I was taken to a branch of Global in a different district of the city. I can never remember the name of the district so I just call it ‘Mary’s school,’ Mary being the (English) name of the headteacher.  My job was to interview potential students and determine what class they should be put into. I actually have a journal entry from that day so copy-and-pasting will make this much quicker:

I like my apartment except for the kitchen and bathroom. I try to stay out of those rooms as much as possible. Alice came with an electrician last night and he fixed the air conditioning. I briefly had access to the internet but now it is down again. I keep praying that the Lord will make it work for me. I want so badly to hear something from somebody in my old life. Family, friends, anybody. I don’t even know where I can go to use the internet. Are there public libraries in ZiBo? Internet cafés? I need to learn Chinese, I need to learn Chinese, I need to learn Chinese. I think this a hundred times a day, every time I feel isolated and alone.

I met Mary today. I like her. She is the most warm person I have met so far. She includes me in the conversation more than anyone else, which isn’t very much but never mind, I appreciate whatever I can get. She held my hand today as we were walking to lunch. I am glad I learned about hand holding in Asian cultures in Hawaii or I might have been surprised and weirded out. It was a friendly and protective gesture.

Today was the first time I started getting irritated at people staring at me. Probably because of the way I felt like an animal in a zoo sitting in that little office with the glass wall while parents and children gawked at me from the other side. Twice mothers came in to talk to me thinking I spoke Chinese. I wish I did.

I enjoyed talking with the children. Especially when I could get them to smile. Some of them could hardly understand a word I said but some could speak and understand very well. I had a big list of questions that I was to ask them to figure out which class they should be placed in. One of the questions was “Do you think dogs are beautiful?” but I didn’t ask anyone that because I just can’t imagine saying that in everyday conversation. I did ask them what their favorite animal was and what animal they didn’t like. The most common disliked animals were lions and tigers. Two different boys told me they didn’t like lions because they are “ugly” and several said tigers were scary. One girl told me she didn’t like dogs because she thinks they are dangerous.

Another question that most of them could answer was what kind of movies they did or didn’t like. I had the following exchange with one 12 year old boy:

Me: What is your favorite movie?

Boy: Titanic

Me: Why?

Boy: I like Jack.

Me: What kind of movies do you not like?

Boy: Romances. They are boring.

Yeah… somebody missed the whole point of that movie. But maybe that’s a good thing.

The moment that surprised and amused me the most was when I asked one rather nervous 11 year old girl what she liked about China. She paused for a moment and then replied “yes.”

“Yes?” I repeated.

“Yes” she said confidently.

Figuring she must have mistaken the question for ‘Do you like China?’ I then followed up with “Why?”

She passionately blurted out “I love you!”

I was startled and didn’t know what to say to that until, after a moments thought, she clarified it with “I love you, China.”

Ah, I see.

She answered yes to several other questions that weren’t yes/no questions but I can’t criticize her for that. At a similar age my method during periods with the French assistant was to answer every question I didn’t understand with “oui.” Unfortunately this doesn’t work with Chinese as there aren’t words for ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ As I understand it, when someone asks you a question you say yes by repeating the verb. So if the question is “Are you going?” you answer either “going” or “not going.” I think.

I had to write comments about each child on a piece of paper that I then passed on to Helen and she would go over with the parent. I wanted to write positive things but Helen told me that if I did that the parents would think their child didn’t need English lessons. So I had to write each time that they needed improvement.

The interviewing part was fun and lunch with Mary and Helen was good but the rest of the day was painfully boring. I wish so badly I had taken something with me to do. A book to read or something. I would have long stretches of nothing between interviews and everyone else was occupied speaking at great length with people in Chinese. I hate having nothing to do. It’s so much more stressful than being busy. I felt so useless. By the end of the day I was pretty depressed and came home and cried.

I have to work every Sunday, all day. Helen says this is the most important day because during the week I will be teaching at public schools but Sundays are when I teach directly for ZiBo Global Language School so my lessons have to be really good. .

Which means I can’t ever go to church. Ever.


Monday September 7th– Happy Birthday, Dad! I actually didn’t remember until 2 days later. Oops, guess I was a little distracted. I couldn’t figure out how to work my internet at the time anyway so I had no way of contacting him.

I spent most of Monday cleaning my kitchen (*shudder*). Apparently mold grows very fast here.

In the afternoon I went to the police station with Helen to… uh, do whatever legal stuff it is that foreigners have to do here. I don’t actually know. I’ve given up asking Helen questions because it’s difficult for her to understand my question and it’s difficult for me to understand her answer. It’s much easier just to keep my mouth shut and go with the flow. So I sat there and smiled while Helen talked with the policeman in Chinese. He went off to photocopy my passport and I kept myself entertained by watching 3 or 4 younger guys (they might have been janitors but at least one was an officer) passing back and forth in front of the door of the office I was sitting in. They kept craning their necks trying to get a good look at the foreigner while pretending they were just nonchalantly walking down the hallway. Then the man came back with my passport and instead of handing it to me, he handed it to Helen who handed it to me. It’s not like she was closer to him or anything. Being a foreigner here feels a bit like being a very young child.

Tuesday September 8th– I gave a practice lesson in front of Alice and some of the other teachers so they could offer feedback and advice before I start teaching for real. The lesson ended up being very short as I forgot the 2 activities I had planned and clung to my powerpoint like an amateur. Which I am, so I guess it’s ok.  All I remembered was what I’d put in the powerpoint presentation and that only filled about 5 mins. Gotta remember to write things down or I forget it all in the nervousness of being in front of people. It was weird teaching adults and trying to pretend they were children. Especially since I know they already know everything I was teaching.

One of the teachers was Kate, another foreign teacher. I had been beginning to think they were lying to me about there being other foreign teachers here. This was my first time seeing a fellow causasian since leaving the airport. Kate introduced herself as from London but I noticed quickly that her accent is not British. She is actually Hungarian. Still, she is fluent in English and it was nice being able to speak in full sentences at normal speed to someone. I asked her how old she is and she is in her mid thirties. She then said that she knew I was 22 because when she had arrived a day or two before me, everyone had been talking about the really young girl who was coming from America who is only 22.

Tuesday was also the day I went out to eat on my own for the first time. Friday through Sunday I had people to take me out for meals but Monday I was alone and too afraid to attempt it on my own so I just stayed home and nibbled on snacks I’d bought Saturday. So by Tuesday afternoon I was hungry. I wanted a hot meal. I searched through my pocket dictionary and my teach yourself Chinese book but couldn’t find enough vocabulary to order a meal. So I took a deep breath and set out to wander the streets of ZiBo alone hoping to find somewhere I could order food through gesture.

I found an indoor market a little way behind my apartment building. There were a few things I wanted to buy (such as hangers) but I didn’t dare, assuming the sellers would try and cheat the foreigner. That and oh, yeah, I CAN’T SPEAK CHINESE.

I headed towards a restaurant that has a man’s head as a logo, KFC style thinking it was likely to be fast food and so have a picture menu on the wall. I was in luck, I could see a large menu on the wall through the window. But then I noticed that the restaurant next to it also had a wall menu with pictures. Its decor was more traditional Chinese while the other place, which was called Mr. Li’s, looked very modern. So I chose the more traditional looking one.

The second I stepped inside I was practically surrounded by wait staff- way too many for such a small place! Startled by the sudden attention I attempted to babble in Chinese (I was trying to explain that I don’t speak Chinese but I couldn’t remember the verb to speak and I’m pretty sure I miss-pronounced everything else and forgot about tones completely). Hearing my desperate babble, a man sitting up near the register spoke up. “Do you speak English?” he asked. I was so relieved I could have cried. He explained the menu to me and I ordered a bowl of noodles and vegetables for 5 yuan which I sat and enjoyed while trying to ignore the stares of the other customers and the wait staff. I felt both relieved and victorious.

Wednesday September 9th- I went to a government building for a physical. They took some x-rays, took my blood pressure and then hooked me up to this scary looking machine to test my heart. It had 4 clamps that attached one to each ankle and wrist, and then several more wires which a nurse attached to my chest with suction cups. Apparently my nerves were affecting my heart rate as the nurse said something to Helen who then told me “Don’t be nervous!” After that another nurse listened to my chest with a stethescope and poked and prodded my stomach. Then they tested my eyes and lastly drew some blood. The whole physical, x-rays, blood work and all cost me 215 yuan (about $30).

That afternoon I went to a middle school with Alice and Kate to observe Kate teaching. Alice thought it would be helpful as I have never taught before. She taught 3 classes, each 40 mins with a 10 min break in between. Alice didn’t stay in any of the rooms for the entire lesson and the kids would sometimes get a little rowdy when she wasn’t there to bark at them in Chinese. I found that if I stood at the back of the room instead of sitting at the front near Kate as I had been doing the kids stayed quieter. I hope Kate gets better at controlling them on her own.

Thursday September 10th-This was national Teachers Day and also my first day as a professional teacher. Alice and I rode in a taxi to Lin Zi, another district in ZiBo. I taught 3 classes that morning, all to fifth graders (10/11 years old). I hadn’t been given any instruction on what to teach them and Alice had assured me that anything would be fine as they would know very little English. They knew far more than I expected.
I had planned to start by teaching them Head-shoulders-knees-and-toes but discovered that the first class already knew it. I moved on to days of the week which they also already knew. Months of the year? They could say them perfectly.  I moved on to animals, which they also already knew. I was beginning to feel desperate. Forty minutes is so much longer when you are solely responsible for keeping it going. I thought it would be fun to have them come to the front of the classroom and imitate an animal and have the others guess what they were. Not such a good idea. It caused way too much giggling and general rowdiness. Simon Says (which they also already knew) was a much better option. I learned from my mistakes and my second and third classes were better. The second class was my favorite, probably because the teacher sat down with me right before it and showed me their work book and what they had been learning and suggested some things that I could go over. The teachers tell me that my job is not so much to teach as it is to help them practice and improve their pronunciation. So I make them repeat things over and over.

I hadn’t wanted to do anything competitive but after the first class Alice told me I needed to do something to keep them behaving and told me to divide them into 3 groups and award points for good behavior. I decided to give it a try and was amazed at how effective it was! You don’t even need prizes, just the points on the board is enough to keep them quiet.

I was very pleased that a few students came up and gave me carnations after class. Teachers Day is a pretty big deal and the students come to school armed with gifts for all of their teachers. I didn’t really expect any as it was my first day but I got a few.

The headteacher took me, Alice and 3 other teachers out to lunch. We went to a rather fancy looking restaurant and I was the guest of honor. I was toasted several times and every time a dish came it was set in front of me and everyone watched me take the first bite to see how I liked it. Eating out in China is different from the west in that you don’t order individual meals but order several dishes that everyone shares. You all eat off of the serving platters. If there is something you can’t easily reach you can scoop some onto your own personal plate which is about the size of a saucer. The food was wonderful and I ate as much as I could handle. One of the teachers brought her 2 sons with us. The older had been in the second class I had taught and had been one of the brightest and most eager to answer questions in the class. With help and prompting from his mother he asked me some questions about where I was from and what sports I liked and what I thought of China.

So much food! Some of it absolutely fantastic and some of it was difficult for me to get down. The Chinese seem to love very fatty meat. My aversion to meat fat has been very deeply rooted in me my entire life but I am now attempting to overcome it. It’s very difficult. I tried a small deep fried fish but it was so salty I almost gagged. And this is ME, the girl who grew up eating rock salt. For the first time I can remember, I have been out-salted. I have not been out sweeted yet, however. The sweet potatoes encrusted in sugar I could eat all day! And there were these little green disks that were really good. They told me it was made from some sort of potato flavored with green tea.

Friday September 11th- I taught at Lin Feng Elementary in Zhou Cun district. It was quite a ways from where I live. My district, Zhang Dian, is near the center while Zhou Cun seems to be more on the outskirts. And you know what? It’s getting late and I’ve been at this for hours. This is such a long post that I am amazed you are still reading. I’ll finish this later.

Categories: ChinaSharah reposts | Leave a comment

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