Perspectives: Teaching English in a Chinese High School, Part 1

In part 1 we cover what can go wrong, why she'd still recommend teaching English in China and see how your placement location has a huge effect on your experience.


Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you’re doing at the moment?


My name is Richelle Gamlam, I studied abroad in China during my undergrad, loved it and ended up coming back to teach in Ningbo. At the moment I'm teaching English on the Ameson Year in China (AYC) programme at a high school and a local primary.


How did you find Ameson and end up teaching English in China?


When I finished my bachelors in DC, America, I’d decided instead of going straight to grad school, to take a year off and go back to China. 


During my undergrad I'd taken part in a study abroad programme with the Alliance for Global Education which was fantastic. I can’t say enough good things about them.


"I would definitely recommend teaching in China, with the large caveat that you’re placed in a city you want to be placed in."



So I wanted to go back to China and the only job I was qualified for, for which I could get a visa was teaching.


I was looking at different companies online but I didn’t know what was reputable. I got a message on LinkedIn from a woman who studied abroad on my progamme a few years before me, who was now working for Ameson. I felt more trust because I theoretically had a connection with her. When I went in for the interview I saw the office - a real office in a nice part of DC.


I was like ok, this is a proper company. I can trust them to send me to China and not screw me over.


Unfortunately I put way too much trust in them. It looked like the best of both worlds, something between a programme and an ESL school. You got paid, but they still organised things like an orientation.


Ok so first you had visa problems. China has a notoriously confusing visa system. How did you end up getting one and starting work?


The visa laws changed right before I went to China, so it was a huge mess. Half the cities who were meant to take teachers didn’t take them and Ameson just kind of threw us into whatever school wanted us.


I was lucky enough to be white, able to speak Chinese and had spent time studying abroad in China, so I was snapped up. I found out my placement in good time, but some people didn’t know until right before they got to China.

I arrived on a tourist visa in July because the paperwork still wasn’t ready, and randomly lived in Beijing for a month before going on a month's trip I’d been planning. That took me around Tibet, Nepal, Hong Kong, Guangzhou and backup to Shanghai for orientation.


The plan was for my school in Ningbo to send me all the paperwork while I was living in Beijing. I’d factored in going to Hong Kong so I could get my working visa before orientation, but the paperwork wasn't arriving. I started to panic and emailed all the hostels asking if I could have really important paperwork sent to them and tried to look up Chinese postage times.


Two days before my flight left for Hong Kong it still hadn't arrived and the person I was dealing with at my school sent me an email saying “yeah that’s not going to happen”.


"I found out later the problem had been my school wasn’t legally allowed to have a foreign teacher."


At this point he had been promising me the visa documents were coming for over a month so I called him over Skype and basically yelled at him. He wouldn't tell me why they weren't ready and said I'd have to go back in October. I didn't have any other options so I agreed but told him I wouldn't pay for it. Then in October I had to take another week's trip to finally go get my visa.


I found out later the problem had been that my school wasn’t legally allowed to have a foreign teacher. (Ameson hadn’t looked into that.)


Out of the eight schools in my area, there was one school who was allowed to have foreign teachers and so I was technically working for them. Because they were doing my school a favour by pretending to hire me, my school didn’t want to bother them for the visa paperwork.


That’s the benefit of working for a company like EF or Disney English, they’ve got it together and that’ll never happen. The problem with AYC is they work with individual schools so a lot of the responsibility rests on the school's shoulders. If they don’t get it together then you’re just kind of screwed. I know so many people who didn’ t get to go.


You finally got to your placement in Ningbo, what was your first impression like?


I did research online before going and I was excited about Ningbo. Ningbo looked nice, I love sea food which is a big part of what they eat, there were a bunch of other teachers in my city and Ameson said we’d all be in schools together.


After all the trouble with the placements and visa's, getting put in schools together obviously wasn’t going to happen but I was fine with that. I thought I’ll make good relationships with my school and my teachers and then I’ll have foreigners to hang out with on the weekend.


So they picked me up in Shanghai to drive us to Ningbo. It’s about two and a half hours and we're driving and driving. It just looks like an industrial wasteland. Its polluted, there’s lots of concrete and farms. We keep driving, going past run down apartment buildings on pretty terrible roads.


We change cars at the principals house and they tell me we’re almost there.  I’m really hoping I don’t live somewhere like this. We drive for a little longer then stop randomly. There’s the school. It's the middle of nowhere on a highway, the only things around are a couple small factories and auto part shops.


It’s pouring down rain and it turns out my apartment isn’t ready so they drop me off at a hotel next door and the teacher who’s in charge of me says:


“Oh there’s a Sichuan place across the street, you can go for dinner. Here’s some money, we have a meeting tomorrow, we’ll let you know” And then she just leaves.


I’m at this hotel by myself and it's pouring down rain. I got the food because I couldn’t handle talking to people, I was so upset. I freaked out called my mum when I knew she’d be up, cried, then I called the DC office and they agreed it wasn’t what they promised me and told me to call the Shanghai office the next day.


Wow that's pretty terrible. So your school hadn’t prepared or thought about having a foreign teacher?


No, they didn’t realise how horrible it would be for me to live in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do and nowhere to go.


There’s barely anything in walking distance, getting anywhere on the bus takes ages, none of teachers live at the school and they’re all married with kids anyway. They didn’t think about any of that, they just thought "ooh we can get a foreign teacher"; it didn’t cross their minds about what my quality of life would be like.


I called the Shanghai office which is run vastly differently from the DC office, they basically didn’t care. I’d just found out the night I moved in, that my grandma was really sick and it was only when I started crying on the phone about her, that the office really took notice.


They called my school rather than try to work something out with me, so then my school freaked out which was awkward because I didn’t want them to know I didn’t like it.


My school then realised they needed to at least help me get settled, show me where the grocery store is and that sort of thing.


You’re still there 8 months on, how did you cope with it?


I had a friend who was also living in a horrible place, where he was the only foreign teacher in the city. We’d become friends on orientation and chatted loads to get through the loneliness of not having anyone to talk to, especially because none of the other AYC teachers arrived in the first two months. It meant I ended up spending more time getting closer to the local teachers too, even though they were mostly married with kids.


Eventually other teachers turned up, but they were still kind of far away, it was a 45 minute cab ride to the nearest one. 


I basically looked forward to travelling, plus on weekdays I would just come home and make myself dinner, because after teaching five classes you’re exhausted. 


There’s a lot of pressure I put on myself too. I wanted to be travelling, I wanted to be eating new foods and exploring new things, but when you live in the middle of nowhere you don’t get to do those things all the time.


In America if I do my laundry, get some reading done for school and cook dinner then that’s a successful day. In China I can clean my whole place, do three loads of laundry, plan my lessons, cook two meals, write a blog post and still not feel like I’ve done anything because I didn’t leave my apartment.


Did you consider just upping and leaving?


I applied to a few other jobs while I was there, and was trying to figure out how to get out of it after the first semester. I considered going home for a job with the company I studied abroad with, but didn’t end up getting it. I realised there was no way I could get a job in China and have my school be ok with it. In my contract I owed them up to 8000 dollars if I left, so that wasn’t going to happen.


I definitely considered just leaving, there were moments when I was like "Mum, Dad I need to come home”. But there’s also complacency,  that feeling of "well I’m almost done", especially now.


At this point I’m kind of over it. I’m ready to go home, I need to take a break and to go back to America. I don’t hate it, but I don’t love it. It’s just fine.


So after all that would you recommend people teach in China?


I would definitely recommend teaching in China, but with the large caveat that you’re placed in a city you want to be placed in.


Life can be really fun and exciting in China; it’s so completely different from America, England etc. you’re constantly surrounded by a new different culture.


There’s always new food to try and opportunities to travel, just this spring festival I got to go visit Vietnam and Malaysia.  Teaching is a really great way to set yourself up to make money in China, live a cool life in a new country and travel. Teaching can give you a lot of great skills, it really improved my confidence, I learnt how to manage huge numbers of students and my public speaking is far better.

I feel it’s good for most people to explore a completely different place and put themselves outside their comfort zone and I think you get a lot more living there than just travelling through it. If you go on a vacation to China with your family for three weeks, you’re not going to get that experience. But if you live and teach in China you get that experience.


There’s a phrase in China I really like - “ruxiang sui su” which is like “when in Rome do as the Romans do”  or when you’re in a new culture, embrace it.


It’s not always easy, a lot of times it’s really hard and stressful but I still find myself convincing other people how awesome China is (again with that caveat that where I am now is not so great).  I had an amazing time studying abroad, that’s why I wanted to come back in the first place as studying abroad does coddle you a little bit. You still get some of the experience but it’s nothing compared to teaching in China, working in China and having a Chinese boss.


In part 2 we talk about teaching 1600 students, what an average day in a Chinese high school is like and how the Chinese high schools differ from Western ones. Read it here.