My only notable experience traveling was during my junior year in high school. I went to Japan for a week and stayed with a host family as part of a sister city exchange program in my hometown. Five years later, I naively thought my short vacation overseas might have helped prepare me for my four-month-long journey to China. I was wrong.
It’s been almost a month since I left the states and moved into my tiny apartment in the city with eight roommates. I live and work in Zhongshan, Guangdong, China, as a volunteer for InternationalLanguage Programs where I spend Monday through Friday teaching English at a nearby kindergarten. During my weekends and vacation time, I’m free to explore and travel the country.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a homebody and honestly, I’m not all that adventurous. I’m not pursuing a degree in teaching, I’ve never felt comfortable around children, and I don’t ever plan on having kids of my own. So of course, my decision to move thousands of miles across the world to teach English to small children surprised people.
For years I have felt stagnant in my typical routine of work and school and not having much else going on in my life. I wanted to do something big, something far outside the confines of the comfort zone I became so used to. A family member told me about ILP, a program that sends volunteers all over the world to teach English in schools, and after some research I decided to apply. ILP doesn’t require any previous formal training or teaching certificates so in my case it was a perfect fit. I’ve always wanted to do more traveling at some point but was never picky about where; I just wanted to get out and see a new part of the world. I was willing to go wherever they needed me.
Every day I spend in China is unpredictable. The inevitable culture-shock has set in and if I’m not fascinated by a foreign sight, I’m horrified. I’ve witnessed animals being butchered in the street and children urinating in gutters. I’ve encountered some of the most horrendous smells I could ever imagine while walking through the markets. Most days, the sky is pure white from pollution.
I get constant stares and gasps from strangers because being 5’7” and blond, I look like nothing they’ve ever seen in person before. More than a few times I’ve been asked in broken English at the store or on the street if people can take a picture with me.
Ordering food at restaurants is a game of roulette. Usually you win, but sometimes the fancy stock photo of what you thought you ordered is nothing like what they bring you. Like my “pork” ramen that I later found out was cow stomach, for example. I’ve never felt so sick from a meal.
Having rarely used any form of public transportation in the U.S., attempting to navigate bus and metro schedules in a foreign country has been tricky but not impossible! In the short time that I’ve been here I’ve already spent countless hours on buses and trains and taxis, and I’m quickly learning that not all aspects of traveling are fun. I’m trying to mentally prepare myself for the grueling 30-hour train ride I’ll be taking to Beijing next month but I am dreading the thought of it.
Ultimately this has been an extremely exhausting but completely worthwhile experience. My students can be unruly monsters at times, but they’re definitely growing on me and I can tell they are beginning to respect me as their teacher. Making a positive difference in the lives of children and seeing their progress, all while being able to grow familiar with a new culture and see the world is something I love being a part of.