All posts by jackcarlson21

Why Be a Foreign ESL Teacher for a Year?

It’s a new and unfamiliar world out there for recent college grads. When the graduation gowns are stowed away to the back of the closet and the celebration champagne runs out, the sobering reality of life as a non-student both frightens and excites young adults beginning a new chapter in their lives.  Some prioritize traveling for a short period of time, unwinding and celebrating their hard work while others immediately enter the work force to jumpstart their budding careers. Job hunting turns out successful for some while others struggle to enter employment.  Unfortunately, many are oblivious to the surprising amount of high-demand jobs readily available on the other side of the world. One of these unorthodox employment options is rarely considered by bachelor degree holders with a firm grasp on the English language: a traveling ESL teacher.

Nanjing has become a 2nd home to me.
Nanjing, Jiangsu, China.  This beautiful city has become my second home.

A 30-second Google search reveals there is no shortage of ESL teaching positions throughout the world. The qualifications for an entry-level ESL teacher position in China’s booming English teaching industry are pretty straight-forward: be a native English speaker with a college degree and (at least) be TEFL certified.  Normally, you can contact a recruiting agency in the U.S. that vets and places applicants in Chinese schools legally, but I’ve also met expats that came to China on a whim with tourist/non-work visa and found work.  This is pretty risky considering it is illegal to make money in China as a foreigner without a Z-visa and SAFEA work permit, and a non-work or residence visa would require traveling outside of the country (or to Hong Kong) every 3-6 months for renewal. Either method works, but I would personally recommend researching reputable recruiting agencies to help place you in the country of your choice; it’s less stressful being a legal foreigner.

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You may be asked to do sample lessons for your agency’s promo videos and it doesn’t hurt to get paid extra for it either.
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Something I particularly liked about my school is that it didn’t give me any guideline for what I should teach. I didn’t use a book and made my activities and work sheets from scratch or pulled them off the internet.
Your school may even use you in its advertisements.
Your school may even use you in its advertisements.

The craziest part about up-and-leaving to teach English in another country—in my experience, China—is how regularly you’ll surprise yourself. The trials and tribulations (maybe a little dramatic, but it wasn’t easy) I’ve faced during my time here influenced my personality, understanding, and overall perspective on life and this world for the better. The definition of success and happiness completely changed for me. Many of my exploits in the past 11 months make for great stories, but those same situations made for even better learning experiences. If someone told me that a year after graduating college I would’ve began learning Chinese, end up favoring Chinese food more than any other food, befriend both Chinese and other expats from around the world (Australia, South Korea, Zimbabwe, Canada, England, Tanzania, Japan, New Zealand, Hungary, Germany, Spain, Ireland, Scotland, and other Americans), travel a good portion of Southeast Asia, complete the Great Wall Marathon, be rented as a foreigner for promotional dancing, eventually walk into a Chinese classroom with no fear or inhibitions to teach 13-16 year olds English daily, and play tour guide for my parents visiting me on the other side of the world, I would’ve found it difficult to believe.

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First marathon in the books. I never thought I would ever run a marathon much less have it be on the Great Wall of China.
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While knowing you give 100% into your work is its own reward, it doesn’t hurt that your school writes a stellar recommendation for you to be one of the ’14-15 Outstanding AYC Ambassador award winners.

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Dry pot. Sausage, beef intestine, tofu, fried cauliflower, bacon, and shrimp. Also involves the fun game of scavenging through it all to find your favorite.

The life of a foreign ESL teacher is what you make it.  Do you just want to work part-time while also private tutoring on the side?  No problem.  Do you want to work full-time with a heavy workload? The opportunities are there.  Will you have time to travel and explore your surroundings?  Oh yah, you betcha’.  Does it provide a decent living?  You would be surprised.  I make 5,000 RMB (~$800) per month with a little extra on the side from private tutoring and my school pays for my apartment, utilities, visa fees, and healthcare.  My paycheck is spent on eating out, weekend shenanigans, travel, and really anything I want since my only regular expense is groceries. If I decided to stay and teach a 2nd year? I would make 10,000 RMB per month minimum, still have paid holidays, housing stipends, and paid healthcare depending on the school. I’m not living the life of luxury—although private tutoring for wealthy families can get you invitations to expensive dinners, wine tastings, and other swanky events—but I’m truly comfortable.

Wine tasting with Chinese French wine makers.
Wine tasting with Chinese French wine makers.
If you are a party animal there is a pretty...let's say interesting club scene in the larger cities of China.
If you are a party animal there is a pretty…let’s say interesting club scene in the larger cities of China.  Foreigners usually drink for free if you know a promoter (who will seek you out).

So whether you’re seeking a change of pace, a new life, a convenient and cost-efficient way to travel, or a résumé builder, be aware of the opportunities afforded to native English speakers.  At first, teaching will be intimidating and you’ll embarrass yourself more than once. Do take solace in the fact that it becomes easier and easier each passing day to the point where it begins to feel natural.  In my experience, after the Chinese academic year flies by and the school year is over, it feels odd not hearing the collective”laoshi hao” (hello teacher) each morning as you begin your lesson.

Introducing your students to the Charlie Brown holiday specials sparks some serious nostalgia.
Introducing your students to the Charlie Brown holiday specials sparks some serious nostalgia.

If you have any questions about being an ESL teacher in China specifically, don’t be afraid to ask!

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SE Asia Trip Part 4: Getting Fitted in Hoi An and Da Nang

With a promise never to fall into another tourist trap for the rest of our trip, Zach and I arrived back in Hanoi to rest up and prepare for the beginning of our road trip through Vietnam. Our original plan was to ride the A1 down to Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An, continue south to Nha Trang and then cut west inland through De Lat and ending our trip in Ho Chi Minh City.  After riding for nearly 5 days in absolutely miserable weather and stopping in a few towns off the A1 highway (the road trip summary and video can be found here), we eventually found ourselves biking through Hue.

We meant to push through Hue to Da Nang to save time, but after a random encounter and a day of partying with the locals, we holed up for a day there. We woke up refreshed–albeit a bit hungover–and continued onwards to Da Nang and Hoi An, Vietnam.  We trekked the mountain motorbike trails on the east coast to come up Da Nang seated in a sparkling blue bay surrounded by the mountains that we still had to descend.  After almost a week of rainy weather, no sun, and impatience, we were finally glimpsing the beauty of the Vietnamese coastline.

Top of the switchbacks.  Cruise down to Da Nang.
Top of the switchbacks. Cruise down to Da Nang.

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As far as my travel through were, Vietnam, Da Nang and Hoi An were my absolute favorite places to visit.  Da Nang is a vibrant city with an entertaining nightlife that I didn’t really get to experience due to illness, but from my bed I could hear a few venues with patrons belting out karaoke, loud laughter, and the city pulsating; we weren’t even in the heart of it either.  Hoi An is a different kind of liveliness that sits just a 30-minute motorbike ride outside of Da Nang and although it is much, much smaller, it felt like there was so much more to do.  Hoi An is a more pleasant, peaceful cultural hub that contrasts Da Nang’s city life.

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I must’ve been too enamored with both Da Nang and Hoi An because I filmed very little and I have almost no video or film of the latter.

En route to Hoi An from Da Nang, we decided to stop and check out a temple that resided on a random chunk of rock that towered over the roadway off to the side.  I have no recollection on what it was called or what its importance was, but it was still cool to wander around.

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Although my experience in the world is very little compared to many others, I still proclaim Hoi An as the tailor capital of the world; it didn’t matter what you wanted, you could buy it at a cheap price (after haggling) and get it tailored very cheaply. Sneakers, dress shoes, sports shoes, winter coats, suits, Hawaiian shirts, jeans, sweats, summer dresses, skirts, tanks, gloves, winter hats, snapbacks, dress shirts, socks, and even custom-made underwear were all available in wooden shops lining the market street; I couldn’t believe it and I probably didn’t cover everything that you could get. The men’s suits shops were more of an episode than a minute shopping experience.  You get to flip through a catalog highlighting styles from Hugo Boss to Ralph Lauren to Versace; if I could guess there were more than 60 styles.  Next they bring you through the material and color options depending on your price range (I was originally only going to spend $200, but ended up purchasing 2 three-piece suits for $480. Damn those adorable Vietnamese women with their flattering salesmanship).  After a detailed sizing measuring every nook and cranny of your body, they set 2-3 fitting appointments to make sure your suits are to your liking and they fix every single one of your concerns.  You choose your jacket-lining, fit, color, style, etc…everything.  I was overwhelmed and mesmerized at the same time.  Whether you are male or female, I suggest going to Kimmy’s Tailors; they specialize suits but also sell dresses, Hawaiian shirts, winter jackets, and a few other things.  Their packaging is travel-friendly–small and not to bulky–or you can have it air-mailed/ship-mailed back to your home with the price depending on where you live.

The Hoi An night life includes peaceful house bars that allow you to people-watch the inebriated tourists from afar.  We talked up a older British man who just happened to be a SE Asia veteran with his own travel company.  For about 3 hours he gave us hints and tips about traveling through Cambodia and Thailand as he chain-smoked and enjoyed his beer; it was a great time.

Motorbiking through the cramped streets of Hoi An at night, during a full moon, while the orange and red paper lanterns beamed overhead made for a great experience as well.

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Although I find it as an odd descriptor for me to use, I would probably label Da Nang and Hoi An as delightful.  Apart from a small amount of rain, these two places are sunny and very friendly towards travelers.  I want to think that they enjoy travelers because of our personalities, but it’s most likely due to the fact we spend so much money. All of those $5 purchases really add up.

Due to time constraints with our schedule, we decided to ship our bikes by train to Ho Chi Minh City and fly.  If the weather wouldn’t have ruined 3 days of riding through Vietnam, we could’ve complete the entire Hanoi-Ho Chi Minh City extravaganza.  Maybe another time…

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My “Rent-a-Foreigner” Experience

One particularly interesting business tactic that has fascinated me during my time in China is the “Rent-a-Foreigner” strategy.  In order to appear more international and exotic, some Chinese companies—ranging from real estate to engineering—will hire foreigners to give their companies an international face to appear more high-end.  The entertaining consideration is you don’t need any knowledge or education to do this; you just play the role you are assigned.  The greatest part?  You can make some good money as well.

Here is the Weixin commentary based on the BusinessInsider article.  It’s a short, interesting read that provides a little more information on why the Chinese perceive the foreign face to be advantageous during events and other business-related happenings.  I mean, it’s a running joke here that you can buy anything off of TaoBao (think Chinese Amazon and Ebay on steroids), but I didn’t realize that you can really buy anything, even foreigners.  Shoutout to Shelby Tuseth for sending this article to me.

I told myself that if the opportunity presented itself, I would at least interview and try to be that foreign face just to experience it.  I would be able to meet new people and possibly have some fun while earning that sweet Mao money so why not?  On April 4th and 5th, experience it I did.

Over time, a few friends I’ve made over here would post in their WeChat feed (think Facebook, but more mobile-oriented) that they knew of a company looking for a “white male, 6’0″ or taller, aged 21-25.”  A few of the times that I applied for the position, I was turned down with the reason being that I wasn’t skinny enough.  Maybe to some that would be upsetting, but you also have to understand the expectation of skinny here in China. I’m a 33″ waist which is pretty common for men my age in the U.S.  The first position I applied to was looking for someone “lankier than me.”  It was just funny having that explained by my friend who originally asked if I was interested.  After a few more attempts, I was finally accepted to help a kitchen appliances company, Robam, advertise during a shopping holiday at the beginning of April 2015 here in Nanjing.  Little did I know, I signed up for something a little more intensive than handing out coupon fliers.

That weekend, I met up with a group who were also in consideration for this event and I quickly realized that I was the only male among about eight Asian women who were around my age.  We get to Robam’s meeting room where we were told to wait.  The leader of this Robam promotional event has the girls stand up, show her how they look with different hair styles, and a few other things to ensure their qualifications and they wrap up after about 20 minutes.  Meanwhile I’m just twiddling my thumbs wondering what they will require from me.  After the girls are ok’ed, we’re told that all of us can leave.  I’m a bit puzzled so I ask one of the girls why the Robam woman didn’t even talk to me.  The woman heard me and told the girl to ask me if I can dance… which I said yes to.  Apparently, with that sole question, I was hired.  Did I just accept a role in an advertising dance promotion?  Yes.  Yes I did.

We were going to be working Saturday and Sunday doing choreographed dance promotions at 4 different Robam store locations in downtown Nanjing.  They would pay me 2,000RMB (~$330) for the whole weekend and while it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, I went with it.

All of us met again Friday night April 3rd, to finalize the full dance and I was fitted for the outfit that I would rock as the front man of my troupe: a pretty snazzy chef uniform. I just remember thinking to myself what is going on?

IMG_2765 Throughout Saturday and Sunday, we were led around various Robam locations within a shopping mall center and put on a 3 minute show starring Jack the Weigouren Chef and his Chinese French Maids. In total we probably did about 8-10 dances each day and we even got to cruise on Segways a couple of times.  While walking–sometimes Segwaying(?)–between locations, we would carry signs with the girls chanting a slogan in Chinese.  Meanwhile, I would just lead the girls in a line from location to location with the camera crew and assistants directing me.  I have never been stared at so much in my life. IMG_2746 IMG_2747 Every time the music would start, shoppers and passersby would look to the source of the upbeat tempo, see our costumes, and realize that some white guy is making an ass of himself for the sake of commercialism.  We would start dancing in front of maybe 10 people and by the end of our routine, there would be 70+ people recording us on their phones; at other locations, it was much more people.

So without further ado, here is the entertaining video of our dance with the laughing of my friend Tony (the person filming) included.  Sorry it’s not in 4K and surround sound.

Although it was a little odd at first, the whole weekend was fun.  The entire job turned out drastically different from what I imagined and I was paid for something I thought I would never get paid to do.  Sounds like the embodiment of a perfect foreign experience in China to me.

Faces of Nanjing No. 5 High School (3)

Here we go with the 3rd chapter of Faces of Nanjing No. 5 High School with a larger-than-normal collection of my 7th graders.  Unfortunately the seniors that I teach are less accessible before and after my classes, but I will manage to get a few interviews at some point.

This time we have a good mix of 7th graders from both class 10 and 11.  Enjoy!

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She didn’t want her stuffed animal in the photo.

Name: Zhong Yi, G7C11

Voted the most adorable classmate (apparently her class did this in another period), Zhong Yi brings a large lamb stuffed animal almost everyday; it’s uses range from a pillow during nap time to hug buddy when she has to speak English in front of the class.  Usually she can be found walking arm-in-arm with her best friends during P.E. or enthusiastically turning any English lesson into a time for her to practice her drawing.

When are the happiest?
“When I am with my dog.”

If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?
“More time to spend with my friends and family.”

What do you want to do when you grow up?
“I don’t know.  I have time to think about it.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“Happy stories.  It will make them feel better.”

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Something sweet.”  Like what? “Uhhhhhhh…Cake!”


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Name: Xuxin Yu, G7C11

While he is one of the more quiet students in Class 11, Xuxin Yu likes to talk to me in-between classes about Transformers, CS:GO, and various superheroes.  His show-and-tells have included his favorite band being Cold Play and his favorite scenes in the Transformers movies.  You can usually find him playing basketball after study hall or just laying down and enjoying the Nanjing sun.

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Chocolate.”

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be a professional computer game player in China.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“I would want to invite them to my party.”

What is your favorite class?
“P.E. class.” Why? “Sports are my favorite.”


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Deadly serious until she is allowed to have fun.

Name: Zhu Kexin, G7C11

Being the deskmate of Wu Longing comes with an exhausting high energy presence during class and no one handles it better than Zhu Kuxin. Once she starts having fun, the party doesn’t stop until the bell.  Her and Wu Longing foster the energy in the classroom and help people be serious or relaxed when they need to be.  They are pretty much inseparable.  She is the other mind behind making every character in a romantic relationship die during story activities and always claims it makes the love more beautiful because it continues in heaven. Always entertaining.

What is your favorite class?
“Computer class.” Why? “Because I can play computer games.”

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be an artist.”  What kind of artist? “I don’t know!  There are so many different artists!”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them? 
“I want to play a fun game with you.  Do you want to play and be happy?”

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“I don’t know.”You have to pick one thing.  “Ok.  Ice cream.”


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Name: LiWei Jin, G7C11

A DOTA player amongst the many League of Legends enthusiasts in my classes, LiWei Jin enjoys everything you would find in a boy his age: video games, sports, and nervously teasing girls.  When he is called upon to speak English, he likes to tap at his teeth as his gaze wanders as if he is following a fly zoom around the room.  He also reps the flyest shoes in the class.

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be Superman.”

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Beef.”

What is your favorite class?
“The holidays.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?  
“You are lucky to be alive.  Don’t be sad!”


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Name: Zhou HongYi, G7C10

Another one of the more quiet students I teach, Zhou HongYi has a tough shell to crack.  His English is actually pretty good for his age, but he can get quite nervous talking in front of his classmates and even just talking with me.  He must think that I am always testing him or something because I can always see his gears grinding for the best possible answer to a question, even if it is a simple answer. He doesn’t ask his classmates for help like many of my other students so he takes the time to think and will then answer my questions 3-5 minutes after moving on.

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be the manager of the biggest company in the world.”

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Pizza.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“Should we go to the sea?  We can be at peace.”

What is your favorite class?
“English.”  Why?  “It makes me feel good talking English and I have fun.”


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Name: Jin Joaquin, G7C10

Although many of my students are avid gamers, Jin Joaquin takes the cake when it come to being a League of Legends fanatic and loves tying the game into our current unit.  His drawings and stories?  League of Legends.  His past 3 show-and-tells?  Each have been about the various aspects of the game.  At the beginning of the 2nd term after Chinese New Year, I asked the students what they wished for going into the new year and he replied: “I hope Teemo gets deleted from the game. I hate him so much.”  (Teemo is a character who embodies the soul of Satan and is frustrating to play against.)

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be a successful computer engineer.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“This is nothing.  You must think of the good things and you will be lucky.”

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Hamburger.  No cheese.”

What is your favorite class?
“Math.  I think it is cool and I wear glasses so I have to like math.”


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Name: Wang WeiChen, G7C10

It can be both funny and annoying at times, but Wang WeiChen is one of the more vocal students in my G7C10. He likes to give his opinion on everything we do whether it be to me, his deskmate, or the entire class. Thankfully he enjoys 99% of what we do so it is never really a problem, but some of his classmates tell him to quiet down sometimes. He has joined Jack’s Super Awesome Lunch Crew a few times and even bought me a few yogurts much to my surprise.  Jin Joaquin and him are very close friends.

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be a teacher when I grow up.”  What kind of teacher? “A math teacher in China.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“I will take care of your problems. You should be happy everyday.  I am always happy.”

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Beef.”

What do you do with your family during the 2 months of summer holiday?
“We will often have a big dinner at my grandparents home many times during the week and we have a good time.”


I love doing these.

SE Asia Trip Part 3: The Tourist Trap in Ha Long Bay

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Just to the east of Hanoi resides the pristine waters of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Maneuvering through hundreds of colossal rock islands, numerous small cruise ships jet through these waters giving tourists a look at Vietnamese floating fish villages, island-top views spanning overlooking miles of the bay, and a chance to hang around some monkeys.

The rock formations in Ha Long Bay were incredibly diverse.
The rock formations in Ha Long Bay were incredibly diverse.

Before arriving in Hanoi, I’d already booked a 3-day cruise in Ha Long Bay and was looking forward to kayaking, fishing, biking, cave-walking, and hiking throughout this UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the first day walking the streets of Hanoi, I found out that you can buy various cruise packages, in the 1,000s of travel agencies scattered throughout the backpacking area,  exploring these waters for much, much cheaper than what I purchased online, but oh well; I was still anticipating a great time.

In the morning, we were picked up from our hotel and on our way. Think of every terrible “Dad joke” you’ve ever heard.  Not the “it’s so bad, it’s good” kind.  I’m talking about the “I’m cringing because I can’t handle how awkwardly bad that joke was and now it’s really silent on the bus” jokes that you see in family vacation movies.  We endured that for 1-2 hours before arriving at the embarking location for our ship.

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Now, I cannot remember where we booked our cruise from or what company it was, but I do remember specifically reading that we would be welcomed with a free beverage upon boarding. We were greeted with a 1/4 coffee cup of something that tasted pretty familiar, but I couldn’t quite identify what it was; more on that later.

After boarding the ship with 10 other unknowing travelers (4 of them turned out to be a family from Minnesota; small world) and finding that Zach and I had a pretty cool cabin for the night, the ship set sail for the first stop of the day.

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We arrived at a smallish island that held a beach and a stairway, leading you up to a beautiful top view of the surrounding area. Immediately upon disembarking, our crew was greeted with a sign warning about getting too close to the monkeys who had decided to come out to the area in a large group.  The group of monkeys postured on the main rock face and we just chalked it up as them being conditioned to sit there for food.  As we headed towards the beach and stairway, we looked towards the rock face from a different angle and I kid you not, there were manmade shoots leading out from cages planted in the back of the rock.  Zach and I began to have an inkling that we may have signed up for a tourist trap.

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The first destination did provide a fantastic view, a beach restaurant where everything was extremely overpriced, the chance to swim in the waters of Ha Long Bay, and I actually had a monkey jump onto my backpack and jump back up into a tree when I was trying to take a selfie with it.  I even captured the thrilling moment on film as it is in my Ha Long Bay video if you haven’t taken a look.

View from the top of the first island.
View from the top of the first island.
One of these dudes probably could have bit me if they wanted to.
One of these dudes probably could have bit me if they wanted to.

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The second destination was a visit to Surprise cave where there were hoards of other tourists to welcome our arrival.  While the cave itself was pretty cool, the walkway moved at a sluggish pace as it was pretty overcrowded.  Once you moved through the cave, you end up at an outlook point with a view of the entire bay harboring the cave.  Guess what was at the top as well… Another over-priced tourist stand with some lackluster handmade jewelry and a few souvenirs to commemorate your visit to Surprise Cave.

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I read the full rundown of our Ha Long Bay cruise before the trip so I was excited about the third item on the list: kayaking.  We stopped at the location and everyone hopped into their two-person kayaks.  All of us were a little surprised to find out that we were being given only 45 minutes to traverse the waters of Ha Long Bay; oh, and we couldn’t leave the kayaking bay. I understand that they have liability issues and there is safety hoopla, but from the description that I read on the website, it was going to be a much more exciting experience and we would get the opportunity to explore the surrounding area, but no.  We were able to aimlessly paddle in a small bay with the only semi-exciting aspect being drifting near the shores of the rock spires surrounding us.  I will admit that this cruise began to sour for me at this point and we were only on day 1 of 3. I guess we still had the night in the bay and the next day to look forward to.

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Once we were shuttled back to our ship, we were treated to a dinner of fried foods.  We were offered the opportunity to make our own Vietnamese spring rolls, which were delicious, but apparently the money all 12 of us on the ship had used to pay for this cruise only bought us enough meat to satisfy a goldfish; this was split among everyone.  Hooray. With the oily, fried food and one spring roll in my stomach, it was time to endure some more “Dad jokes” as our dinner entertainment.  They offered everyone the option for karaoke, but everyone single traveler chose to enjoy the mini-bar and enjoy the peacefulness of the night anchored in Ha Long Bay.

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Now it was time for another one of the things I’d been looking forward to: some squid fishin’.  Now anyone back home that fishes with me can tell you that I am not the most capable of fishermen (See: does not understand line allowance and rapola depths so his lure just drags off the bottom until it inevitably snags a rock and snaps off).  Thankfully this squid fishing was just bobbing a tri-hook and waiting for the squid to see it flash and attack it.  I bobbed for about an hour before I saw my first squid, but missed it. After about another hour–and 4 drinks later–I managed to snag one of those bastards.  With an excited whooping yell, I ripped that thing out of the water and onto the deck with ink flying everywhere.  I was also the only one to catch anything.  The crew said they would make calamari for me in the morning for breakfast, but I never saw my catch again.

I never said it was huge...
I never said it was huge…

After that, Zach and I talked with two Australian backpackers we befriende–Jack and Shanae(?)–to the tune of the ship crew belting out karaoke while we enjoyed a couple more drinks.  The wind blew both Zach’s and my empty glasses off where they were sitting and shattered them on the deck.  The crew must have thought we were pretty loaded although we really weren’t, but they didn’t believe us and just thought we dropped both of them.  Ok then.  After hanging out a little bit longer, we decided to hit the sack.

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The next morning, we were treated to a basic breakfast with no sign of my calamari (the crew never answered what they did with it) and we transferred ships to begin day two of the Ha Long Bay cruise. Little did we know that those broken glasses were $3 each (price gouging intensifies) and that Zach and I had spent about $30 a piece on drinks the night before.  Although I was told a different price at the time, the 2-fingers of Johnny Walker Red Label I enjoyed at dinner ended up being $8 and my White Russians $6 each.  These may not sound expensive, but for Vietnam this is highway robbery. We couldn’t transfer ships without paying the tab so we begrudgingly did so.  Twas’ not a great start to the morning.

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We were offered coffee on the next ship only later to find out it was $2 a cup although there was no mention of this when it was given to us and after paying that and the bar tab, we were on the spectrum between irritated and furious; the cruise had basically cost us $300 at this point.

The ship journeyed to our next location: a dingy oyster farm.  This stop showed us bags of oysters in bags floating in the water and a showing of how these farmers begin the pearl-making process (this was actually pretty cool, but very brief).  Our group was then led to a big display room featuring…and you guessed it, a bunch of overpriced “pearl” jewelry with prices being cheap at $100 and reaching upwards of $1,000s.  This had to be some type of joke.  This cruise was not what we had read about or even slightly anticipated. There were a few good things, but oh man.  I don’t even know how to describe our feelings at this point.  We still had two more things to do that day before reaching the hotel at Cat Ba Island.

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The next activity was a bike ride around one of the bigger islands in the Ha Long Bay area.  Ok this could have some potential.  I remember sitting on top of the deck cruising towards the bike ride just laughing about the past 24 hours.  How could it get any worse?

The bike ride redeemed a large portion of the experience for me. It was a neat ride through mountain terrain (still on a paved path though), areas with dense vegetation, and a remote village surrounded by large mountains.  We cycled for a few hours through the island before heading back to the boat.  The bike ride had actually made me feel a lot better and calmed me a bit and I even got to witness the after party of a Vietnamese wedding at the village.  This was a taste of the scenic and cultural adventure I’d signed up for.

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We then meandered to our 2nd to last destination at Monkey Island. About 8 monkeys hung around the beach area as we walked onto the beach.  Some were looking at us for food while others were play-fighting.  I witnessed a monkey snag a whole bag of fruit from a tourist’s hand and scurry away.  I even had a monkey hiss at me as I was climbing the rock trail that spilled over onto the hiking trails, but I wasn’t given much time to explore the forest areas of the island. Our group stayed here for about an hour before disembarking to end of the cruise experience and head to our hotel on Cat Ba Island.

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Top of Cat Ba Island
Top of Cat Ba Island

The past two days had deterred Zach and I from even thinking about partaking in something remotely similar to that tourist trap the rest of the trip.  When we arrived at Cat Ba Island, we asked our guide about night buses back to Hanoi because we just wanted to start our road trip down to Ho Chi Minh City.  The company was really concerned about us asking for a refund and didn’t care about our feedback about how disappointed we were with the cruise.  We just said screw it and bought bus tickets back to Hanoi for $20 each.  Six hour later, we were back Hanoi preparing for our road trip.

Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba Island

Overall, it was a pretty fun time being within touching proximity to monkeys, biking through a tranquil Vietnamese village, and catching a squid for the first time of my life.  Unfortunately it was the tourist-heavy events that sucked the soul out of the experience.  It just felt very generic, but I would still recommend visiting Ha Long Bay; just don’t buy the tickets online and don’t go into it with high expectations.  The views are incredible and it is a peaceful place to relax.

Oh and the welcome drink we were offered when we first boarded? Zach came to the conclusion that we had been given orange pop as the welcome drink and after reflecting on the taste, I realized it was most likely Fanta. We couldn’t help but laugh hard at this realization. What an experience.

Advice From an ESL Teacher Who Didn’t Have a Clue What He Was Doing The First Day of Class

(I would like to thank GoGlobal for asking me to write an advice piece for future teachers in China.  If you are interested in ESL teaching and are toying with the idea of traveling while working, make sure to look them up.)

After talking to students and teachers from Australia, Canada, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Italy, Ireland, and many other countries around the world, I’ve understood that your academic experience is going to be different depending on where you grow up; China is no exception.

Different classrooms and different students require a range of techniques to effectively teach without driving yourself or your students crazy.

You're going to be nervous the first day no matter how confident you feel.
You’re going to be nervous the first day no matter how confident you feel.

Just to re-iterate the title of this post, I went through an orientation through the AYC program about teaching in China, but I still  had no idea what I was doing in the beginning.  It was nerve-racking, downright intimidating, emotionally exhausting, and there was a lot of trial and error.   Now, I get excited about teaching my classes, the students have fun, and I can walk into my classrooms with full confidence and leave at the bell with a smile as they wave and say “goodbye Jack.”

In my first year of teaching China, I’ve learned so many new things regarding this work that it is hard to pin them down.  I hope that the advice I offer here, to foreign teachers entering the Chinese classroom for the first time, allows you to have some traction as you begin teaching the first couple months of class.  Just remember, you are not alone in your anxiety and it only gets easier.  Much, much easier. Let’s get into it.

1) It’s all about the environment.  You want to start off your classes well? Smile.  Laugh.  Embarrass yourself a little bit.  I introduced myself the first day with a Powerpoint that had awkward baby photos and the students loved it. Just prove to the students you’re human.  Try to speak some Chinese (even if its wrong or terrible) because that shows you understand their struggle with English. Your students will be a lot more willing to try English when they feel comfortable.  Also, seeing you make mistakes with their native language lets their guard down.

Your students may even ask you to come participate and watch during Sports Day and go on field trips.
Your students may even ask you to come participate and watch during Sports Day and go on field trips.

2) Questions.  Your students have been taught since day one in primary school that the teacher’s word is law and you don’t question it…ever.  Remind your students every single class that they can ask questions if they are confused or if they need help with an English word.  Just make sure they know you are ok with questions and that you WANT them to ask questions.

3)  Who will answer?  You have to directly pick out a student if you want them to answer a question or speak in front of the class.  No one will raise their hand if you ask “Would anyone like to answer the question?”  Learning 80 different Chinese names can be a bit difficult so (if they already don’t have them) assign “study numbers” to your classes.  If you call out “21,” you’re asking the student with that number to answer or speak and they will do so.

Some students will shout out their friend's
Some students will shout out their friend’s “study number” for fun.

4) Critical thinking.  One of the most confounding things I’ve noticed in the Chinese classroom is that rote memorization is love, rote memorization is life.  They are taught to pass multiple choice tests, not answer open ended, opinionated questions. Students memorize their vocab books and activity logs, but when you ask them to apply that knowledge, you are met with blank stares.  In all of my lessons, there is at least one activity that requires students to speak their opinion about the topic and explain their opinion.  Each class they are expected to be called upon with this activity so they remain engaged and are more willing to ask questions.  Get them solving problems too.

5) The chattiness.  Students will jibber jabber while you lecture or try to explain an activity.  The students don’t talk to personally spite you; get that through your head.  Just understand that they only understand 50% (if that) of what you’re saying so their attention can be fickle.  Eventually your students will know not to talk when you are talking (I have a loud, booming voice which helps too).  Make sure to establish some type of attention seeking device for when your students are less than respectful and make that device clear. A sharp whistle (works wonders) or three quick claps are effective.  If you look intimidating, a silent stare can get the class to quiet down, but you will be met with looks of fear.

6) Ask your students what they want to learn.  I did this with every single class of mine on the first day. Asking students what they want to learn will basically write your lesson plans for you. Different cultures and food, conversational English slang, how to talk to an American girl, U.S. politics and history, English humor, and how to make friends were a few things my students listed. Obviously I couldn’t teach all of this, but it gives you an idea on what your students expect from you.  They’ll respect that you actually took their suggestions seriously and in turn, your lessons will be more enjoyable to them.

Christmas card making right before the holidays.  Make sure to set aside some arts and crafts days.  Older students don't really have the opportunity to be creative during school.
Christmas card making right before the holidays. Make sure to set aside some arts and crafts days. Older students don’t really have the opportunity to be creative during school.

7) Remove your “ums” and “likes.”  I’m still challenged with this aspect of public speaking, but your ability to teach and lead a classroom will exponentially increase with the less filler words you use. Whenever you use these stallers in your speech, your kids pick up on it which can be a bit frustrating.  Be conscientious of your speech and it doesn’t hurt to write out notes on your PPT or a note card.

8) Word Choice.  So you have graduated college and you use an array of vocabulary to communicate, great!  Now that goes out the window when you are teaching a class of 7th and 10th graders who barely know English much less understand you.  Although it may sound–and feel–like you are talking down to your students, make sure you use the simplest of words and talk at 50-75% speed.  You just have to gauge your class’s English level to realize what vocabulary you can use to communicate your lessons.  Otherwise, your entire lesson will go in one ear and out the other.

9) Lesson Planning.  Plan your lessons ahead of class.  It’s much easier going into the week knowing exactly what you are doing each day with all the materials ready instead of scrambling at the last moment.  Make sure you make the purpose of the lesson clear to your students so that you are not met with”Why are we doing this?”

  • Preview: Show students what they are going to learn.
  • Presentation: Present the material to them and if you able to, use videos.
  • Practice: Have the students repeat new words, have them do dialogues, have them ask and answer each other’s questions, fill in the blanks, etc.  Just get them using the new information.
  • Production: This is where I have games come into play.  The students enjoy competing and they are using the new information without really realizing it.
  • Performance: Homework, finishing activities, talk to their parents in English using the new words, etc.
Once you get familiar with it, lesson planning becomes a breeze.
Once you get familiar with it, lesson planning becomes a breeze.

10) You are the fun class.  These kids are at school from 7am-6pm everyday and their study habits are ludicrous.  They have no time for creativity or leisure.  You’re the class that allows them to participate; they don’t want to passively listen to you.  I’ve had success with games that require conversation between classmates, talking about themselves and their interests, or activities that are competitive (e.g. Team hangman, 20 questions, tongue twisters). Arts and crafts days (use sparingly) allow the students to decompress after a rough midterm week. Monthly show and tells are my bread and butter.  Make your students be creative, imaginative, and original.

I've had students that present on video games, their pets, grades, classmates, movies, tv shows, books, music, and many other things.
I’ve had students that present on video games, their pets, grades, classmates, movies, tv shows, books, music, and many other things.

Here are some resources available for ESL teachers: ESL cafe, TEFL.net, iteslj.org, and eslkidstuff.com. This advice mainly applies to middle school and high school students, but some of it is applicable to primary school; I just don’t have an experience with primary school children.

If you are working with 1st graders, good luck and god speed. Have any questions, comments, or want me to elaborate?  Just ask!

Faces of Nanjing No. 5 High School (2)

If you didn’t get the chance to see my last post about some of the wonderful students that I have the privilege of teaching, you can check out my motivations for doing a HONY type human-interest piece here. I get a kick out of doing these interviews, which allow my students to showcase their personality outside of the classroom. This post includes four of my 7th graders that hail from Class 11.  Cheers!

In the rare times that I take pictures of my students, it sometimes scares me that smiling for photos isn't an automatic reaction here.
In the rare times that I take pictures of my students, it sometimes scares me that smiling for photos isn’t an automatic reaction here.

Name: Yang Sen, G7C11 (I didn’t do this in my last post, but from now on I am going to put the surname first since that is typical in Chinese culture.)

Yang Sen is a pretty calculated student.  He chooses his moments to speak and in general, he is naturally curious.  He usually eats lunch with Flint Lockwood and I, but somedays he will not even say a word; he will just listen.  He is constantly puzzled why I always get beef and rice and even though he already knows the answer, he likes to ask me why I don’t get noodles and pork (not very filling).  He is a Minecraft junkie who loves to do everything during class except speak English.

What has been the happiest moment of your life?
“When I go to my grandparent’s home.  I can watch TV, they take me shopping for nice things, and cook with them.  That is where I am always most happy.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“Don’t worry. I will help you.”

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to do something amazing.”  Like what? “Fly in the sky with no help.”


One of the more popular and eccentric students in my class.
One of the more popular and eccentric students in my class.

Name: Wu Longing, G7C11

Harboring a hatred for boredom, Wu Longing puts 100% effort into any activity or lesson during class.  She motivates students with the energy she brings to classroom, but on the 1% chance she is not rarin’ to go for Foreigner English class, it can be a struggle.  During her group story activities, she will somehow steer her team into writing a romance story that ends up with the lovers dying in the end.  Every. Single. Story.  The first story I can remember had the couple dying of heartbreak and the latest one has them falling off of a cliff.  I don’t know.

What is your biggest dream?
“My biggest dream is to be an artist.”  What kind of artist?  “I will use Chinese gardens, flowers, and trees.”

What is your favorite class?
“Chinese.  It’s easier than English.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“I will show you some interesting and happy things.  I want to tell you happy stories to make you feel better so you will smile.”


He tried his best to pose as Ezio Auditore from Assassin's Creed.
He tried his best to pose as Ezio Auditore from Assassin’s Creed, the video game.

Name: Wang Si Miao, G7C11

The self-labeled “nerder” of Grade 7 Class 11, Wang Si Miao is the most video game and comic obsessed student I teach.  He runs around with his hood up, arms flying behind him, and a pencil hidden in both of his sleeves so that he can practice being an assassin. His knowledge of Marvel based superheroes is unparalleled and his passion shows; he became extremely flustered with a classmate who would not copy the Avenger’s story during a group “make up a story in English” activity.  He is the third member of Jack’s Lunchtime English Speaking Crew and never stops talking about Assassin’s Creed…never.

What has been the happiest moment of your life?
“When I came to this school as a top student. Also I was able to finally play and beat Assassin’s Creed Victory. So happy.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“I will say ‘don’t worry’ and then I go help them.  No matter what.”

What is your biggest dream?
“Which dream do you want.”  What dreams do you want to tell me about? “I want to be an assassin with Spiderman’s powers.  I will make the world better. Technology and practice will make it possible.”


“Do I look more business with my jacket like this?”

Name: Ma Wenjie, G7C11

The head honcho and class decision maker, Ma Wenjie is quite vocal.  If she doesn’t like something, if she is bored, or if she is done with an activity and wants feedback, she will make sure you know.  She is the most popular girl in Grade 7 with many friends in the two classes at the high school and with the junior school 7th graders.  She went to primary school with most of her classmates and her decisions are final among her friends.  I swear she is the class mother as some students will check their homework with her or ask her to speak for them if Warren is not around.

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be a teacher.  A Chinese teacher.  Maybe travel, but I don’t know.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“I can cry with you.  No problem.”

What is your favorite thing in the world?
“Hong Kong films.”

Why are their two 7th grade classes at this high school?
“We are the best in all things at school. Much better students than junior school.” (I 100% agree with this statement).