Experience of living and working in China --Tamzin Hardy
I want to give you a little bit of personal information about myself before I tell you all about my experiences in China - I know that from some of the experiences I have read on this website myself I would love to know a bit more about the people who wrote them. My name is Tamzin Hardy, I'm 24 years old, from Cairns, Far North Queensland in Australia - and this is my first trip overseas. About a year ago I decided that I had two choices, I could either stay in my nice, safe, job as a retail trainer or I could do something that was going to change my life, and take a trip overseas. Backpacking wasn't an option, I don't mind traveling around a bit but I have to have somewhere to call home, and I wasn't interested in a four week whirlwind tour either. So working overseas looked like a good option for me. I decided to take a TESOL course through Teach International, but at this stage I wasn't sure if I would be able to leave my family and friends for such a long time. What made me make up my mind was meeting a couple of friends from High School who had been working in London for the past few years. They had so much to talk about and it made me realize that if I wasn't careful I was going to end up being the person at our 20 year high school reunion who hadn't done anything interesting with their life! So I posted my resume, and got a heap of job offers from a lot of schools I knew nothing about. The job ads all seemed to promise the same things! Some of the schools had a photo or two, but nothing really caught my attention until I found Owen's website. The added security that Owen and his crew personally check out the schools and accommodation was a big plus for me - the last thing I wanted to do was end up in a country where I didn't speak the language, and have problems that I couldn't handle on my own. I'm so glad I did, it's great to have the support the Owen and the crew at Buckland International offers.
So here I am.

Arriving in Yangshou
The night I arrived in Yangshou will go down as one of the most fantastic, freaky nights of my life. I can still remember the feeling of total bewilderment I felt as I got off my plane from Hong Kong in Guilin. I was totally wired from lack of sleep and way too many hours of not being able to stretch my legs out properly. After my brief visit to Hong Kong and seeing their state of the art complex which they call an airport but could be better classified as a small city, I have to admit, I was expecting something similar in Guilin, especially with its reputation for being a tourist mecca. Not the case! I managed to pass SARS inspection (walking through a gate that takes your temperature) and get through customs (two guys talking and drinking tea totally ignoring everyone) and made my way to the gates where James was holding up a sign with my name on it. He first asked if I needed to use the bathroom - which I thought was totally considerate - and let me know that we were in for a bit of a drive. He also asked if I was hungry, and I said no, thinking that I would be able to get something once I got to Yangshou, but more on that later. We walked outside, saw the illuminated palm trees and he went and got the car and we were off.
I think it was about a half an hour to Guilin, and James took me on a scenic drive through the town, which was pretty amazing. Guilin is very much a nighttime city; it reminded me a lot of The Esplanade in Cairns. A long street running along the river, with restaurants and curbside cafes lining the pavement on one side, and on the other trees decorated with fairy lights. The hotels all have huge signs in bright neon, all advertising the names, but you wouldn't believe the difference it makes when you can't understand the language. At home, any type of light show that bright and in-your-face would be an assault on your senses. I found the experience to be, in some strange way, relaxing. When you can't understand what the signs say, you can enjoy the lights for what they are. Also totally amazing was the traffic and lack of road rules there seems to be. We then drove about another hour and got to Yangshou. The trip at nighttime is not impressive, you can see vague outlines of some of the limestone peaks but you can sense that you are in for something special the next morning. It wasn't boring though - watching the traffic and playing dodgems with the oncoming busses is enough entertainment for anyone. There seems to be a kind of code when you are driving in China, dip your lights a couple of times when a car or bus or truck is far away from you, and if they dip back that means they have seen you and know you are there. If they don't dip their lights, lean on the horn a few times. That usually gets their attention. Also lean on the horn if you are about to overtake a man on a bike, teenagers walking home, woman carrying basket full of ducks or anyone else you might see. Lean on the horn a lot if three busses are trying to overtake each other at the same time. In fact, lean on the horn every time a car passes you - I'm not too sure if it is like a hello to them or what but it made for a noisy and interesting ride home. I think that I hitting the brakes more than James was. And perhaps I over-exaggerate, but I have been exposed to the traffic for a while here now, and honestly, it's enough to make you want to take a train. Or walk!

When James told me we were arriving in Yangshou, I thought he was joking. After the bright lights of Guilin, I was expecting more of the same in Yangshou, but on the way to the Buckland Hostel there are very few road lights, no signs, and definitely no shops open there at 11pm at night, so when James asks if you are hungry, take him up on his offer of dinner if you are! James showed me how to turn on the heat for the shower, the air-con and showed me the welcome information booklet in my room. He said to just come downstairs when I was ready in the morning. I didn't have a clue how to get into town, I wasn't even sure there WAS a town at that stage, but was too tired to care anymore, so I made myself at home in my room, got used to the Chinese shower, and went to sleep.

The next day I got up and wandered downstairs to the office to meet Jennifer, I also met Betts, David, Star and some of the other Buckland crew. I also met a heap of other teachers who were going out for lunch, so I followed along and got my first look at the town. There are internet bars all the way into town, as well as places you can make international phone calls, so don't worry about keeping in touch with family and friends. We went to MC Blues for lunch, where they do a mean veggie pizza and a great bacon and egg sandwich. I was also warned that this might be my last taste of western food for a while, especially as far as cheese is concerned. MC Blues is a fantastic restaurant/bar and I ate there a lot before I left for my school. The walk into town is also lined with restaurants selling simple dishes, and a street market where all sorts of food can be cooked right in front of you. The street market has all types of interesting things in buckets which you can try - if you're brave enough!

On my second day in China, I came down with the flu! Probably from sitting in planes for a stupid amount of time - and spent most of the next few days laying bed, with a shocking fever. I had brought enough cold and flu products with me to last a week or so, and now I was going to use the in my first few days! Jennifer and Owen were wonderful, they offered to take me to the hospital, but I declined saying I would get better in my own time. I ended up taking the teaching training even though I wasn't well and thankfully I was back on my feet for the start of the demonstration lessons.

The training was very informative - most of the topics I had already covered in my TESOL course, but the lesson on Chinese culture given by Owen really interesting, and the demo lessons by Betts and David were also great. My repertoire of games was fairly limited, so they also helped me out by giving me a few new ideas. David's "Three Little Pigs" lesson was the highlight of my training, and is not to be missed! I've never seen a lesson presented like that before and I use some of the same ideas in my own lessons now. The classes were very relaxed, and you also get a couple of hours break for lunch and siesta.

After I got over my flu, I did get to go and see a couple of things worth mentioning. Buckland had organized a group to see a "show" and despite my questioning the other teachers who had already been about what I was spending my money on, all they would say is "It's amazing - don't miss it!" So I went to see Impressions of San Jie Liu. And I'm not telling you anything! You will just have to come and see it for yourself. But it was absolutely amazing, Andrew Lloyd Webber eat your heart out. We also got a big group of teachers together and went for a massage. $5 Aus for a one hour full body massage!

While this was happening, people were arriving and leaving all the time, the people who finished the course the week before us were all going off to their schools. Make sure you keep your bags fairly well packed when you finish the course, most people got at least a days notice that they were leaving. Jennifer asked me which school I wanted to go to, and I only had a general idea of what type of climate I wanted to live in. I didn't really want to end up somewhere as hot as home! So Jennifer showed me a map of China, I said something between "here and here" and Jennifer gave me the option of two schools in that area. I ended up picking the one where I would be teaching primary school students. The next day I was on a plane to Xian!

Travel to Xian, Shaanxi province and arriving at My School

When I arrived at Xian airport that night, I was met by Frank, the Buckland representative for the region. The representatives have all been taught how to make a teacher feel at home, and they have a good grasp of English. Frank got us onto the airport shuttle, and took me to my hotel. He met me downstairs soon after and took me on a walking tour of the town. We also got some dinner at the markets, which included some tasty BBQ lamb. Xian is a huge city (by my standards, anyway) and is fairly heavily polluted. It's surrounded by city walls, and has some great examples of Chinese architecture and an interesting history. Frank told me that I would be able to sightsee for a couple of days, and I would catch a train to Hanzhong City. He was going to be my tour guide and translator for the trip, and would make sure that I arrived to the school safely and got settled into the apartment. But before that, we were going to tour the city, and also visit the Terracotta Warriors. A couple of days later we caught a bus and traveled about an hour east, with Frank pointing out the sights along the way. Everyone has seen photos of the Warriors, but nothing can prepare you for when you walk into that building. It was absolutely breathtaking. I also walked along the city walls while in Xian, and visited the Drum Tower.

My first train trip in China was great! After being in the city for a few days, I was dying to see some green grass and mountains, and on the 9 hour journey to Hanzhong City I got to see so much of the countryside. The trip was very comfortable; we traveled in hard sleeper, which is a bunk bed with a thin mattress. They also give you a blanket and a pillow, which I was grateful for after a few hours. We arrived at Hanzhong city at about 9pm and the Principal, Vice Principal, Foreign Teachers and about ten other teachers met me at the station. They were holding a banner and presented me with a huge bunch of flowers! They took me to the front of the station and we got into a fancy car which drove me - across the street (it was raining, but not heavily) - to the hotel where I would be staying while they put the finishing touches on the apartment. The hotel was lovely, very fancy, and they had brought a heap of fruit and snacks for me, as well as some Nescafe instant coffee. They had ordered dinner for me in my room, and after chatting for a little while, they left me to settle in.

I was picked up the next day and taken to the Post Office Hotel for a welcome lunch, where they have a restaurant on the top floor. We had a private room, and they brought out heaps of tasty dishes. The food in this city is great and I only ever cook for myself at night when I don't feel like going out. Breakfast and lunch are my favorite meals here; make sure you try the steaming hot baozi stuffed with pork or green vegetables and tofu. Most of the locals eat noodles for lunch, but they put too much spice on for me! I have eaten all sorts of strange things since I have been here, chicken's feet, pigeon, and something I think was a centipede. The other teachers love watching me freak out when they tell me what's on the table.

The Accommodation

They took me to the apartment a couple of days later, and it wasn't at all what I was expecting. In Australia, I lived in a one bedroom shoebox which cost an absolute fortune because it was in the city. Here I live in a semi-loft style apartment which is about four times the size! The place looks like something out of a TV show, or a Better Homes magazine.

The whole place has been painted in a very light purple, there are full length cream drapes on all of the windows and the floor has parquetry floorboards. There are two bedrooms, office, dining room and lounge, bathroom and kitchen. The lounge room has a funky purple and cream lounge suite, big screen TV, DVD player, entertainment unit, heater/air-conditioner, coffee table and water cooler. The office has a bookcase, brand new computer and computer desk and filing cabinet. The bedroom has a closet and a huge bed with matching side tables. In the kitchen there is heaps of pantry space and lots of benches to put dishes, pots and pans. There is a stainless-steel-look fridge, microwave, grill, gas hotplate and a sterilizer. The whole place is fairly quiet and feels very secure - there is a gate watchman and my door is metal with a security peephole. It's on the second floor which is nice because there are no elevators - just stairs! The school had fitted the place with all of the basic necessities as well, linen and towels, dishes and cutlery and had also filled the fridge with food!

Across the street there are fruit stalls and vegetable markets. There are also good corner stores and bakeries along the street to school, a good supermarket and some great places to get your hair cut. Down the street there is an excellent bookstore where you can buy DVDs and some English books - they're all classics though, the university students use them as their texts for English studies. There is also a great gym near my apartment, with modern equipment.

Hanzhong West Street Primary School

The school is only about ten minutes walk from the apartment, and although the school gives you a bike I don't usually get it out just for the quick walk. The school itself is very modern looking; inside all of the classrooms have whiteboards instead of blackboards which is a definite bonus. Chinese chalk does terrible things to your hands! I have an office on the second floor which I share with 5 other teachers, including Helen, the teacher who sits in on my classes to translate when necessary, and she also helps me with marking and lesson planning. She's learning my teaching methods at the same time.
The other Foreign Officer, Donna, is just down the hall. Both of the girls have been really helpful since I have arrived, they go out of their way to answer my obscure questions about postal services, international phone calls etc. The Principal of the school, Mrs. Wei doesn't speak much English but she is a great lady - she's even come over to my place to show me how to make dumplings! Mr. Chen, the Vice Principal is also very helpful, he is always interested in the lessons and the progress the classes are making. I have made some great friends here which is strange because I speak about as much Chinese as they do English (not much) but they are always keen to learn and love singing karaoke and dancing. I invited twenty teachers over to my place only a couple of weeks ago, and made them some hamburgers! Everyone had a great night and we played a few games I teach the kids in class. I have three classes most days, and teach grades 2-6. They have three classes with me a week, so after a month they are starting to make some real progress in their studies, which is very rewarding. The classes are 40 minutes long, and most of the students are beginners.

The school has been fantastic ever since I arrived, they always welcome my opinions and ideas, and I feel really lucky to have picked such an excellent group of people to spend a year with. I would highly recommend this school to anyone thinking about teaching here; they have been fantastic from day one.


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