First few days in Houjie, Dongguan


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Dongguan, China

So, here I am, settled into my new home and my new job in Dongguan (province of Guangdong), where I will be for just over 4 months. We are in a town called Houjie, about 20 minutes from the center of Dongguan, and I love it here! I’m beginning to realise that what everyone was saying about Beijing is true – ‘Beijing’ and ‘China’ are two very different things. Now I’m in real China, right in the south, where everything is green and humid, there is cheap street food everywhere, cars often drive on the wrong side of the road for no reason, and it is noisy ALL the time.

Anyway, back to my last week in Beijing (it feels so long ago now). We had another week of lessons after teaching practice, but we had handed in all our assignments and everyone was a bit more chilled out – there was time to just enjoy each other’s company for a bit, and go for drinks in the evenings. On the last night (also my birthday) we had the graduation dinner, where we were presented with our TEFL certificates. It was a really nice evening, followed by a night out at this insanely fancy club where we got free drinks all night, seemingly because we were Westerners?! So it was also a very cheap night out! It wasn’t fun getting up really early the next morning for our 22-hour train to Guangdong though.

The train was actually fine, I slept for most of the way because I could feel myself getting ill after a non-stop month. It was a bit cramped and the food was expensive and not good, but I chatted a bit to the Chinese people in my cabin (with great help from my Mandarin phrasebook) and saw lots of fireworks and Chinese lanterns out the window (because it was the Lantern Festival that night) which were really pretty. We also went through some really nice cities all lit up in the dark. As the sun started to come up and we were nearly there, you could immediately tell the difference between the north and the south – suddenly everything was green, people were working in the fields, there were banana trees and many of the houses were like little sheds – it definitely felt a lot more rural. Exciting!

It really baffles me that you can go on a 22-hour train and still be in the same country. After arriving and a 1.5 hour bus journey, we arrived at our apartment and met some of the Chinese English teachers. I think at first we weren’t too impressed with our apartment; it was very basic and quite dirty too, and we seemed to have a park bench instead of a sofa! But it didn’t take long for us to be happy with it. We’re in a perfect area, right near a massive food market with awesome street food and fruit, and also a Tesco’s, bizarrely. We have a balcony that looks out over some trees and a square where people play basketball, and the building even has a roof garden! Now we’ve unpacked the apartment looks a lot more homely and we’ve become the ‘host apartment’ for everyone in Houjie, there’s quite a few of us! I live with Catherine, and Andreas and Mikkel are just across the hall. These 3 are also at the same school as me, and others are in nearby schools. There are some others living in the same building and a few more people about 20 mins away.

We also went to visit the school on our arrival day, and it was quite overwhelming – we had a lot of information thrown at us about what we’re supposed to do etc., it would take some getting used to. We all loved the school as soon as we saw it though. There are 3000 people in the primary school, which is small for China! Our classes have 45 pupils each, and I teach 10 different classes – 450 names to remember! Not happening. There is a running track and basketball court, also palm trees in the grounds. The walkways between classes are all outdoors too which is really nice, it feels very open.The school is called Dao Ming Foreign Language School, and the thing I love most is that along all the hallways and the stairs are inspirational quotes in both Chinese and English… things like ‘Do everything in love’. It’s really sweet and I love reading them as I walk to my classes, there are so many that I can see new ones every day. Also our school is 5 minutes walk from our apartment which is wonderful, and they have piano practise rooms which I’m excited to make use of.

We were shown to our office which we share with other English teachers (Chinese English teachers). So us foreign teachers teach mainly speaking, and the Chinese teachers will teach the English grammar, vocabulary and writing. It’s nice to share an office, the teachers are all really friendly and I’m looking forward to getting to know them better. We have assistants in our classes, not sure if they will always be there but for the first few weeks at least. All of mine are great and it’s good to have someone to help translate sometimes!

After being shown around the school, and grabbing some dinner at the canteen (the food is so much better than from the canteen in Beijing, luckily!), we had a lot of lesson planning to do that weekend so we made a start. We had been invited on a school trip on the Sunday so we had to get it done quickly! On Sunday we made our way to the school, the plan being a bike ride around a nearby lake (I can’t remember the name). We squeezed into one of the little school buses and headed there, then hired bikes. It was a super-warm day and the sun was shining, we had a few hours to cycle round and it was great being outside, being warm, and being in such a pretty area with actual flowers and green trees! The park was really busy and apparently it’s always like that… Chinese people are just as crazy on bikes as they are on cars, ringing their bell at everyone and zooming around. I got into the spirit and did the same. Had quite a few near misses in terms of bike collisions, it was that busy! So much fun though and nice to meet some other people who work at the school, most don’t speak English though so it’s hard to communicate.

After the bike ride we had a quick trip to the centre square of Dongguan, just to have a stroll. It was so pretty there! They had lots of decorations up presumably for Spring Festival, palm trees and lanterns were everywhere, and it was a really massive square and so clean (very different from Houjie!). Everywhere people were wandering around with their kids and playing games of badminton. I’ve noticed around here that Chinese people love to get out, walking or biking, with the whole family – including babies and children. It’s really nice! They don’t just stay in at the weekends and watch TV or go for a drink, they are always out doing things in parks or in the town. Whenever I see kids around though, they are always younger children. Once they get to middle school they are always, always working; every day until late, even at weekends. No wonder they’re all so clever! It’s nice to see the younger kids just being kids – playing on the streets, being out and about, making the most of their childhood before the hard work starts.

Early night that night, because of an early start on Monday and the beginning of our first week at Dao Ming. Exciting and nervewreaking… the first week felt like the ‘make or break’, and I really wanted the children to like me. I would be teaching Grade 1 and Grade 4 – a really good mix of ages (grade 1s are cute and you can play loads of games with them, and grade 4 you can have conversations with and do a bit more teaching with). I’ll talk about my first full week in my next post.

I really need to take more photos of my area and of the school, these are the few I’ve taken so far. Sorry for the bad quality… most are just off my phone.


Great Wall of China – the beginning


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Beijing, China

On Saturday, I went on an adventure out of Beijing, along with Charles (from UK). We had an assignment due today so most people stayed at the hotel to finish that, but I really wanted to see another part of the Great Wall and I knew I’d regret it if I stayed in to do my ‘homework’, so we took it on the train and did it on the way there and back. Luckily I’d already started so it didn’t take long. Sorted!

So the aim was to go to the beach, to see the very beginning of the Wall. In case you didn’t know, the wall starts on the beach, barely touching the sea. Couldn’t the enemies just get round it?! I don’t know, but you never really think about the start or end of the wall, so it was weird to see it just stop! Yet another early start, and about half an hour (including standing in 4 different, and wrong, queues) trying to find the ticket office at Beijing Railway Station, saw us on a 3 hour train to Shanhaiguan. First class as well, because it was only 10 kuai (£1) extra! Not much to see on the journey unfortunately, a few little villages/shacks and lots of farmland. It was snowing which made everything pretty. We arrived in Shanhaiguan about midday, very hungry. This was our first time out of Beijing since being in China, and there was no English anywhere. Makes everything a lot harder! I actually managed to order us both a plate of noodles for lunch, with no chicken feet or weird things in. Then we managed to work out which bus to get on to get to Laolongtou, where we would find the Old Dragon’s Head (start of the wall).Result!

As soon as we were out of the bus we could feel that we were near the sea. The air also felt a lot fresher – nice after nearly a month in a smoggy capital city. We walked up some steps towards the wall and got our first view of the sea, the beach, and the start of the wall – it was very exciting! I couldn’t believe we were actually there. Seeing the sea, but also the Great
Wall, felt so out of context with each other. Spent a while hanging around enjoying the view, and walking along the beach. We could see the outline of an impressively sized boat in the distance. Popped into the nearby Sea God Temple, which also stretched out to sea a short distance away from the wall. I also managed to have a short conversation with a Chinese man about what country I came from, which I was pleased about.

Afterwards, we made our way to the First Pass Under Heaven, which is another part of the wall. To get there, we walked down hutongs with lots of quaint shops, there were some really pretty streets actually. The town wall surrounded this but the Great Wall was also winding around, it was hard to tell which was which at times. The part of the wall with the First Pass Under Heaven was definitely a lot bigger/taller than the part we visited a few weeks
ago, so I can see how it was used as a defence. It was also less restored which was nice. There was a good view as we walked along – hutongs and Chinese-style architecture on one side, and the sight of the wall continuing on the other side.

We’d heard of a really nice place to see the wall nearby, at Jian Shao – it winds up into the hills. Due to a lack of taxis around, we hailed a rickshaw, and made sure to agree on a price before we got in (easy to get ripped off in these; at least in Beijing, I wasn’t sure about here). We told the guy where we wanted to go, and for a while he kept driving around and
then stopping, and talking at us in Chinese. We just thought he was trying to get more money out of us, so just kept telling him to take us to Jian Shao. Well, we arrived there, to find the site closed. Turns out that’s what he was trying to tell us – it only re-opened the next day! Oops. I guess the lesson is to learn more Chinese! Still, we had a view of part of the wall over the hills
which was very beautiful, and then we headed back to the town to start our journey home. Time to do a bit more of the assignment in a restaurant before the train arrived. Long day, but so good to get out of Beijing and experience ‘real’ China! I used more Mandarin that day than I have so far the entire trip, and actually picked up a few new phrases too. Awesome.

Getting off the train back in Beijing at about 11pm that night was just crazy. It’s the end of Spring Festival, so everyone is commuting back to Beijing, and there was an insane amount of people! Seriously, London rush hour is nothing compared to this. It was like an ocean of people all getting off trains and heading towards the exit. The taxi queue must have been a mile long. It was overwhelming.

Teaching Practice, and some last few outings


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Beijing, China

Our week of Teaching Practice is over! It was time for another ‘weekend’. We all needed rest and sleep, but I also needed to see more of Beijing before we leave next week, so rest and sleep were not had.

Teaching was really fun. The first day was so nerve-wracking, because we didn’t know what to expect at all. We were put into groups of 4 – I was with Emily (from Australia), Granita (from Norway), and Sebastian (from Denmark). Luckily all nice people and good teachers, so I was happy with my group. We were given a 2 hour slot each day and had to teach for 30 minutes
each, whilst the others observed at the back of the class. We were also observed by a tutor once. We were teaching 8-10 year olds. This TP was voluntary school for the children – they were still on their New Year’s holidays, but they could come and get English tuition from us for free during this week. I don’t think any of them wanted to be there! Their parents would have made them come, so if we weren’t careful they would get very restless very quickly. My first day of teaching went really well actually, I had planned for the possibility that they would all be shy and no one would speak to me, but they were all very responsive and enthusiastic. Unfortunately my observation day the next day didn’t go quite as well – the lesson I’d planned was too easy for them, and I’d planned some harder work too in case that had happened, but even that was too easy! We’d massively misjudged their level on the first day. However, I still got good feedback from my tutor especially for my lesson planning and presence in the classroom. It’s just annoying that my worst lesson of the week was the one that was observed!

The rest of the week went well for all my group I think – all of us had a couple of activities that we either didn’t explain properly, or just didn’t work, but that’s the point of TP and we learn from these experiences. We had a few naughty kids in our class, which were hard to deal with at times, especially when one of the naughty kids from another class then got moved to our class! And seriously, how do Chinese children younger than 10 know English swear words and hand gestures?!

Anyway, we all felt a lot more confident in front of a classroom after the week, and all of us passed the TP, which is really good news. Straight after our last TP feedback, me along with Lars (from Norway) and Zoe (from Germany) caught a cab to 798 Art District. It is the most famous ‘arty’ place in Beijing, with galleries and quirky shops, lots of graffiti (good graffiti, not stupid graffiti), and random sculptures on the street. It was really empty due to Spring Festival, which was a shame because I imagine this to be the kind of place that’s more fun when it’s buzzing with people. Was kind of eerie how deserted it was, and some of the galleries were still closed. Still, I spent a good few hours wandering around (the others went back earlier), and I managed to look around a few galleries with some pretty cool artwork. I loved just wandering around the streets too, taking in all the weirdness. Wouldn’t mind going back there, it’s well worth doing.

The next day, it was back on the bus at 7am for our second organised tour day. A lonely few of us boarded the bus – most people couldn’t handle the early start after a tiring week, so would meet us later on. We headed to the Summer Palace – the new one, not the one that is in ruins. It was an absolutely freezing day and I did worry a few times about getting frostbite
– yes, it was that cold! What a beautiful place though. I can only dream about how amazing it must look in summer, with all the trees green and the lotus flowers blooming around the lake. Even in winter, it was charming. The Emperor would live here during the summer months in Beijing, and move to the Forbidden City in the winter, when the Palace became too cold. We walked in through a grand entrance to the administration area. More typical Chinese buildings, along with some weird statues. One of them looked like a cross between a dragon, a horse, a snake, and various other animals. I finally had a chance to ask what the purpose of the lions are, that guard most imperial places – like the ones you might see outside Chinese restaurants at home – they ward off evil spirits, and one is male and one is female. Common people aren’t allowed to have them, so they tend to guard mainly the palaces.

The Summer Palace is (predictably) very big, so we wandered through various areas, all very ornately designed – each section of each building being a unique painting, and they were on both the inside and the outside. The most spectacular artwork was the entirety of the Long Corridor – this is basically what it says it is, a long walkway with a roof, used for shade in the summer when walking beside the lake. So many paintings – tiny, unique and delicately created. It was spectacular to see. Our guide said that, at nearly 800m long, this was the longest art gallery in the world. Not sure how true that is, but cool to see nonetheless.

The lake was enormous, and surrounded by some of the Palace buildings as well as large hills in the distance. There were some pedal boats that are used in the summer, and ice skating is normally common in the winter – but it’s been too warm this year. Shame, that would have been really fun. Anyway, after a few hours of wandering around the grounds and the lake, admiring the scenery, and eating a disgusting sausage in the hopes that it might warm us up
(it didn’t), we were all so cold that we decided to head back to the bus and onto an early lunch.

After lunch, we headed to Tiantan Park (Temple of Heaven). Me and a few others had already been a couple of weeks earlier, but that was in the evening so it was nice to see it in the daytime – not quite as spectacular but still pretty and this gave us the chance to see some more of the park. I really do love the park there. I would have liked the chance to go inside the
temple, but a couple of people asked if we could stay in the park for just a half hour because they were too cold. This was annoying… we would have been inside! Oh well. We were told that the emperor came to the temple twice a year to pray for a good harvest. The reason it is round is because the Chinese thought heaven was round and earth was square. So most of the other temples and palaces are square (or rectangular); this is the only round one I’ve seen.

The Pearl Market is just across the road from the park so that was the next stop. Famous for its pearls, but you can buy anything there from phone chargers and fake designer clothes to head massagers and chopsticks. I wandered around for a bit and headed to the top floor where there was a terrace garden, with a lovely view of the park – all the trees with the temple
in the middle. Then I managed to find a Starbucks, which made me very happy because I was missing hot chocolate a lot, so I sat and relaxed. Soon everyone else had the same idea. Sat with some of the Danish guys among others, and they told me some things about Denmark. Was nice to just sit down and stop for a couple of hours!

After dinner, we headed to the theatre for something I had been looking forward to since I arrived – the acrobatics show! Seriously, if you are ever in Beijing, go and watch an acrobatics show. So so so awesome. It was only an hour long but there was so much variety and randomness involved – champagne glasses, umbrellas, straw hats, bikes, hamster wheels, hoops, motorbikes… I know that makes it sound really weird but it was amazing, and so much talent and colour. I spent the whole hour with my mouth wide open and I heard other people gasping. I want to go again!

We’ve just found out our placements – I will be in Dongguan, in Guangdong province. Really happy with my placement, it’s right down south which is awesome, kind of near the sea, right next to Hong Kong and Hainan! Unfortunately I can’t go to Hong Kong because I’m on a single entry visa, which is really frustrating… maybe at the end of my trip. Hoping for visits to Hainan though to relax on the beaches, as well as lots of travelling elsewhere, as there is some
really amazing places nearby! I’m in a Foreign Language school along with Catherine (from UK), Andrea (from Australia), Andreas (from Denmark), Josephine (from Denmark), Hannah (from Norway), and Mikkel (from Denmark). So I assume we will be living together, and I’m really happy with my group, they’re all cool. There are a couple of other people in the same city but a different school, and 67 of us in the province! Some people haven’t found out their placements yet so we will probably have some more joining our school too. I’m really glad I’m with a lot of people – as interesting as it would be to be more rural, I can imagine it might get quite lonely. It’s nice to be in a city with lots of others, with the opportunity to visit rural places nearby.

New Year temple celebrations, and some ruins


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Beijing, China

Chun jie kuai le (Happy New Year!) How else to start the New Year than by going to a traditional Spring Festival temple fair? I had heard that the White Cloud Temple had a particularly spectacular fair, so me and Annelieke headed there (most people were too tired after the night before, but I just drank a lot of Diet Coke and that seemed to help). There were so many people there, all Chinese – we were the only foreigners! I imagine most of the people there were still tourists however; most people who actually live in Beijing leave for the New Year. It was so busy and buzzing inside the temple complex, which was nice because Beijing has been pretty empty so far (everyone’s gone home!). We walked in amongst hanging decorations of lanterns and flags, and there were so many police around – I guess because it is an important event. There was a long queue of people waiting to touch this stone decoration which was part of the entrance archway, I can only guess that it brings good luck. We couldn’t be bothered to stand in a long queue to touch the stone so I hope that doesn’t mean we get bad luck!

I think most of the activities going on in the fair were routines to ensure a good year for the individual. You could buy a big mound of bronze coins near the entrance, and everyone was throwing them underneath this bridge where there hung a big bell, trying to hit the bell. I would have liked a go but unfortunately there were no English translations on the signs so we couldn’t work out how to buy the coins.

The White Cloud Temple is a Taoist temple – I don’t know much about Taoism yet so I will have to read up about it, but from what I can gather it is about balance and opposites. It is the religion that has the yin-yang symbol and they also have a lot of deities who protect them in various ways. They had some pretty and ornate statues of these deities in the temple rooms and the usual people praying with incense sticks. There were also massive open fires that the incense sticks were being thrown into after they were used. I wish I knew the significance of some of these rituals, they are so interesting to watch!

It was really nice walking around and observing everyone going about their rituals throughout the temple. I could tell that this is not a temple that foreign tourists tend to visit, so I’m glad I managed to find out about it. All throughout the complex there were stone statues or wall carvings and people were slotting small change into the nooks and crannies, and touching the stone. We came across a lovely long carving of all the animals in the zodiac, and another long queue of people waiting to touch the stone. Nearby were more carvings which I think represented religious stories.

After all these warm days we’ve had, New Year has begun by reverting to ‘normal’ Beijing temperatures – freezing, and snowing! Oh well, it was good while it lasted.

The remaining free day we had, some of us went to see the old Summer Palace – the one that was bombed by the British and is now in ruins, in a massive park. This was a few hundred years ago I think and we took all the Chinese artefacts and put them in museums in the UK… apparently they’re still pretty annoyed about it (understandably). Awkward. The ruins were still charming to see, and I was very surprised that the Summer Palace had been European architecture. China is the last place I thought I would see European designs, but apparently they used to employ people from Europe to build in that particular style. I found that interesting when they seem to have such a ‘set’ style for most palaces/temples/buildings in China – those I’ve seen so far have all had very similar designs to each other.

The ruins were only in a small area of the park, so we explored all of those (we were able to climb around on them which I found odd, I tried to avoid climbing on them anyway!). There were also some small (and very creepy looking) statues of all the animals in the zodiac – I’ve found them to be quite common so far, and have seen statues or drawings of them in lots of public places – even massive statues of them (which were also creepy) on the top of a shopping mall! They are obviously very important for the Chinese, especially around this time.

The park was massive so we didn’t walk round the whole place, but just like the day before it was super busy with Chinese people, and again the atmosphere was buzzing. There were lanterns hanging everywhere, and music, and also a massive TV showing random things like people roller skating. It was a really pretty walk around the lake (unfortunately not frozen enough to skate on, it’s been too warm), with tall trees surrounding the path and weeping willows beside the lake.

Since Saturday we have all been busy lesson planning, since we have been teaching this week. I’ll talk about that more in my next post. Anyway, it’s been a week since the official Chinese New Year, and fireworks are still a daily occurrence… luckily I have my earplugs…

Bargaining, more temples, and Chinese New Year


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Beijing, China

After a busy few days, I was feeling rather happy that I’d finally seen quite a bit of Beijing. The thing is, because it’s so big, it’s not somewhere you can just wander around and find interesting things (believe me, I’ve tried) – you have to seek them out and do your research. Going to interesting places normally involves going on at least a bus and a subway journey… so it’s not something you can do quickly. I had a lot of work to do after the trips so that restricted my exploring time quite significantly for a few days. However we were able to make an evening trip to the Silk Market, to try and bargain for some smart clothes to wear for teaching practice. I had most things already but wanted a couple more shirts since you can get them for about 60 Yuan (£6). The Silk Market is basically a massive indoor market with lots of small shops, selling fake designer clothes – mainly shirts, shoes and trousers. It’s become a bit more touristy recently, which is a shame because the shopkeepers try and rip you off with the prices, knowing tourists will pay more. They all speak perfect English and start asking for prices like 800 Yuan for a shirt, pretending the item is really good quality etcetc. You basically have to be really firm with them, refusing to pay that amount and not budging from your own offer (about 90% lower than what they’ve asked for). If they won’t agree with your offer, just walk out the shop and they will (hopefully) call you back with lower offers. Sounds simple right? Well it’s not… they are all so much more stubborn than I thought, it’s hard to make them budge on an expensive price, and they make you feel bad by saying stuff like ‘oh, you’re robbing me..’ etc. It was a lot more difficult (and even hostile) than when I’ve bargained in the past. Luckily Rob (one of our tutors, he’s lived in China for years) helped me out and got me a good price for a shirt, but the woman who sold it to me literally looked like she hated me with a passion as she sold it to me, she was calling me cheap and all sorts. Rob says it’s just an act. And I guess if we were offering too low a price they just wouldn’t sell it!

On Valentine’s Day, we had a Mandarin lesson and learnt how to sing a Chinese love song. It’s kind of annoying that this is the only Mandarin that’s really stuck in my head, and I can’t really use it because it means something like ‘you smell fantastic, I have dreams about your sweet smell’. It was so funny singing it in class though. When I get more time I really need to keep practicing the language. I’ve picked up bits and bobs and carry my phrase book everywhere. I’ve also started to look at the symbols when I’m out and about. I know meanings for a few and am starting to recognise quite a lot of them too – if I see a certain symbol quite a lot, I try and ask someone what it means, because it’s obviously a common word!

A couple of days ago, after class a few of us headed to Tiantan Park, location of the Temple of Heaven. I’d heard it was a beautiful park and so my idea was to go and watch the sunset, unfortunately big buildings and trees were blocking it so that didn’t really work… but it was still such a beautiful evening, and so peaceful in the park – despite it being quite a touristy area (I think we came at the right time, most people go during the day). We could see the Temple of Heaven in the distance, and strolled down amongst tall trees, smaller temples and also a group of men singing very deeply – which just added to the atmosphere. A few people were jogging in the park or playing ping pong. As it got darker, the Temple of Heaven and the surrounding trees were lit up with very bright lights, and it made the temple look truly amazing; like it was glowing. I’ve seen pictures of it in the daytime and it is beautiful, but it looked even better at dusk. The colours and designs really stood out. It was just such a pretty and peaceful walk. Further on there were lanterns on the trees, and you could see the busy Beijing with all the lights, traffic and high-risers in the distance through an archway – a little reminder that despite the quiet park, we were in one of the biggest cities in the world.

After Tiantan Park, we headed to Hotpot which is a restaurant that I’d been recommended. You order a massive saucepan full of a certain flavour soup, which is boiling hot. You then order lots of different food, and it comes to you uncooked. You have to put it in the soup to cook it. I had dumplings, lamb and lettuce, and tomato soup. We weren’t sure what to do at first and all the Chinese people eating there were laughing at us! We must have looked ridiculous. It was really good though, an interesting experience.

Today is Chinese New Year! It’s the year of the sheep. So last night to celebrate New Year’s Eve as well as the handing in of two difficult assignments we had a karaoke night – pretty much everyone went. You hire out booths with maybe 15-20 people in each, but we all ended up in one room by the end! It was so much fun, there were a couple of microphones but everyone sang along together anyway. That ended at 10pm and afterwards most of us went to bars. Walking along the streets, everything was lit up and the atmosphere was buzzing. People were setting off fireworks literally everywhere, all over the street, it was pretty albeit very dangerous (none of us got hurt luckily). Everyone was in a crazy good mood. New Year is such a huge thing for the Chinese. Fireworks have been going off all day today too (one right outside my window woke me up at about 8am)! Apparently fireworks are pretty normal in China and they’ll set them off even for the most random things like a new supermarket opening!

The Great Wall, Olympic Park, Hutongs


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Beijing, China

I’ve been pretty busy for a while now, and have completed 2 out of 5 assignments – writing about 4000 words in total. I have had one assignment back so far and managed to get a Very Good, which is the highest grade so I’m pretty proud of myself! This week we have to start creating lesson plans for 50-minute slots, and we start teaching practice in less than a week. We will be teaching at a school in Beijing, one lesson a day, for 5 days. The problem is that we are given no information about the ages or levels of the students who will be in our class, until we walk in on the first day and have to teach. Very daunting!! The trick is to plan for low-level students, and adapt the lesson plan to a more advanced level if needed.

I’ve also found time to see a bit more of Beijing, luckily. The day after we went to the Forbidden City, we had a ‘tour day’ – organised by the staff who run our programme. We were going to see the Great Wall of China… eagerly anticipated by us all. What I found strange is that none of the staff seemed to know which part of the wall we were going to, only that it began with ‘J’. All I know is that it wasn’t one of the most touristy parts of the wall, which I was pleased about.

I was pretty sure that it would be at least 2-3 hours drive to the Wall, so was pretty surprised when about an hour (or less) into the journey I suddenly saw it right in front of me. It was pretty exciting; it’s always cool seeing something so iconic in person, after seeing thousands of photographs… nothing ever beats the real thing. Knowing a bit of the history behind the Wall just makes the experience even more awesome. It was actually many different dynasties who built it, so it is was not built as one continuous wall, and different parts are different ages. Now, it stretches for over 13,000 miles! It’s a bit creepy that there are actually thousands or even millions of Chinese people buried inside the wall; people who died building it were simply included in the mix, making the Wall the longest cemetery in the world as well as the longest manmade structure.

We were given a couple of hours to walk up the wall and then get back to the coach, which was disappointing as that was only enough time to get up to the highest point and then walk back down – I would have quite happily have spent a whole day trekking along the Wall, but I guess that’s what organised tours are like – they want to squeeze in as much as possible, and as a result you are constantly rushed and don’t see as much as you want to see! But still, it was a magical and fairly quiet trek up lots and lots of steep steps, and as you climbed you could see more and more into the distance – to the outskirts of Beijing, the smoggy hills, and eventually (at the top) more of the Wall in the distance, snaking through the terrain. It was so beautiful especially when you reached the higher parts of the wall. After being told it was chilly up there, I was wearing 4 layers, including a coat and a thermal… I ended up in just a thin long-sleeved top, carrying my other layers. Beijing is still so warm!! I don’t understand. Not complaining though.

Once I reached the top I stayed up there for a while enjoying the view with everyone else. It seemed really odd that this part of the wall was just beside a road, houses and shops; you only ever see pictures of it looking like it’s in the middle of nowhere (I guess it’s the same with a lot of these sites, I’ve heard the Pyramids are the same!). The only thing that disappointed me about the Great Wall was that the part we visited had obviously been very restored. I would have loved to see parts that were crumbling and old, hence why it would have been so good to have a day to trek – how often do you get a chance to walk along the Great Wall?! But a really cool experience nonetheless.

Far too quickly, it was time to head back down. We were then taken for lunch at a place that was obviously catered for tourists coming from the Great Wall – we had all the kinds of food we get at home in Chinese takeaways, rather than actual Chinese food which is very different! This restaurant was in a massive shopping area with jewellery and trinkets to buy, and we were given an hour to look round after eating, another thing that bugged me… we could have had more time at the Wall or doing the afternoon sightseeing!

Back in the coach after lunch for a quick visit to the Olympic Park. We had only 20 minutes to walk round, and it’s huge… so ridiculous. Oh well. I saw the Bird’s Nest which was cool because it was massive, but I didn’t think it was particularly pretty! The whole Olympic Village was big, so it was interesting to see. Apparently before Beijing hosted the Olympics there was just a village in that area, and everyone who lived there had to move elsewhere. Now it’s just a really really long and wide pavement that goes on for miles, all the way to Tiananmen Square and all the way through the Olympic Village. There were some really interesting sculptures dotted around the park too, showing people playing different sports.

After that we had a coach drive through the hutongs on the way to Houhai Park. Hutongs are very common in central Beijing and are streets with traditional courtyard houses. These houses are small, grey (only important people could have red or gold on their houses), with shared toilets and I’m pretty sure they have no electricity or heating either. It’s so easy to assume that these are like the ‘slums’ of Beijing, where families have existed for ages, but in truth they are very expensive – 10million Yuan (£1 million)! Crazy. But if you think about it, most people who work in Beijing have family elsewhere – they have to come and work here for the money, and maybe go home and visit their families once or twice a year on holidays. People who live in the hutongs can come home from work and their family is all around them. You can see why living here is desirable.

We had a chance to have a quick walk around the lake in Houhai Park – all frozen over. It was lovely having a stroll down the hutongs, restaurants and quaint shops, with tuk tuks racing past. Apparently this is the main nightlife scene in Beijing so hopefully we will be going back.

After a long coach trip back due to rush hour, it was time for a rest after an exhausting weekend. More school tomorrow!

A quick point about the Great Wall… after seeing it in the flesh, I can clarify that there is no way it can be seen from space. No way. It’s a lot smaller than you expect! I knew that was a myth anyway, but I don’t even know how that rumour started, it’s so ridiculous!

How does TEFL work?

Beijing, China

A couple of people have been asking me how it’s possible to teach English to Chinese students when we don’t have a shared language to communicate in – I don’t speak Mandarin! Since every single child in China now has English lessons from a young age, normally from a Chinese teacher, it’s pretty safe to assume they already know some English – they are also exposed to it through TV, music, etc. There are a wide range of activities we can use in the classroom to suit all levels and ages, and all kinds of purposes (vocab learning, speaking practice, functional language, grammar, phonemes, etc.); we would normally focus on one topic in a lesson (like ‘food’) and do several short activities relating to that topic. For example first you could do an activity relating to some vocabulary of different foods, asking students what food they like and brainstorm, you could then slowly (step-by-step) build this up to students performing a role play of ordering a meal in a restaurant.
We need to remember to give very simple instructions that the students will understand, without using new vocab in the instructions, and then give them an example of the activity so they can see what they have to do. We have to use lots of gestures/facial expressions/board drawings, and there are many different ways to explain the meaning of a new word without simply translating it into Mandarin – like pictures, actions, synonyms, examples. The main purpose of getting foreign teachers in to teach English is for speaking practice; Chinese teachers may not have the correct pronunciation. We have to speak English always, and never use Mandarin; which is good practice for the students who will in time pick up words, phrases and even idioms from the context in which we use them in. There is a lot of emphasis on teaching ‘natural English’ – that is, conversational English rather than textbook English. It is hard for someone who is not a fluent speaker to teach this.