Tag Archives: Cultural Differences

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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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.

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!

There and Back Again: An American’s Chinese Tale

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How did I go from a Minneapolis job-hunting hopeful to a foreigner casually eating dumplings contemplating whether I should teach American football or tongue twisters on Monday?

February, 2014—In the midst of a pounding blizzard, the University of Minnesota makes the decision to resume holding the annual College of Liberal Arts career fair despite the weather ensuring low attendance.

A week leading up to this job-hunt circus, I research every single one of the 150+ businesses to be in attendance, jotting down notes and marking their locations on the mini map we were provided.  Although I glance at the Ameson Year of China, I put it in the back of my mind since I was determined to begin working in Minneapolis, MN after I returned from backpacking through Europe after graduation.

Although both of my parents are teachers, I didn’t find myself following in their footsteps as I plan on having a career in project management, the public relations, and the advertising industry.

I tirelessly work my way through countless booths, passing off my resume and scribbling down answers from the set of questions I prepared.  When all is said and done, I begin eyeing the exit but notice my path took me right by the Ameson Year in China booth; I decide I can stomach one more informational interview before heading home to contemplate my future.  Although I left the AYC booth feeling positive (I found it was the only job I was excited to apply for), I couldn’t have told you that a year later, I would be living, working, and developing myself in the vast, foreign land that is China.

That’s cool and all, but why would you move to the other side of the world?

Growing up, my parents always made it a point to travel.  On holidays (when I wasn’t playing hockey), my family would either pack up the car for a road trip or collect our bags for a flight.  Whether it was to Glacier National Park, Montana or down to Key West, Florida, I was familiar with traveling and experiencing new places.  I believe that traveling is a necessary influence in becoming a well-rounded person.

After evaluating my post-graduate opportunities, I decided to challenge myself further and work in China for a year.  Maybe I would find more opportunities in a growing country after my first year teaching.  Maybe I would enjoy living there more than America. Maybe I was just delaying the real world back home.  I really didn’t know.  The only thing I understood was that making a big jump like this, sticking with it, and learning from it was a big risk that would make for a worthy investment in my future whether I decided to stay longer than a year or not.

After a successful application process, I was happy to know that the next year of my life was planned for Nanjing; a city that I’d never heard of, living in a culture that I’d never experienced, communicating in a language that I’d no knowledge of, and teaching English in a capacity that I’d never worked.  Challenge accepted.

My 2nd home: Nanjing, Jiangsu, China.
My 2nd home: Nanjing, Jiangsu, China.

After the longest flight of my life, one information-packed week in Shanghai, and a 2-hour train ride, there I was, in a city 12 times the size of where I call home, placed with 2 AYCers (each of us at different schools) that I had come to know at orientation, $1000 that I brought with me, and my class schedule given to me by my school.  The rest of my time here depended upon my open-mindedness, interests, willpower, and patience.

So you have a little optimism, a passion for new experiences, and the ability to just leave all of your family and friends that you have come to know and love the past 22 years of your life. Well aren’t you special.  How did it go?

The first month or two was quite a trial.  I had to establish some type of routine, explore my surrounding neighborhood locating my favorite supermarkets and restaurants, and really put myself out there to meet new people. I eventually found a group, both Chinese and expat/foreigner, who I am extremely proud to call friends and many of whom I will for a lifetime. I’m constantly meeting new people every weekend as well. It was just really difficult understanding how patient you have to be.  Going out and trying to force myself into friendships wasn’t a worthwhile effort.  I had to accept that the friendships and networking come casually and with a little patience, my friends group became apparent and I began meeting more and more people over time.

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A very foreigner Christmas
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New Year’s Eve in the Gulou Tower

Teaching was difficult at first, but with a little experimentation and more time, it became easier.  I started getting acclimated to standing in front of my different classes consisting of 45 13-year-old 7th graders and 45 16 year-year-old seniors.  In total, this year I taught five different 7th grade classes, two 8th grade classes, and seven different senior classes.  I took into full account what my students wanted to learn (US culture, sports, video games, improving their speaking, etc.) because there is absolutely no hope attempting to teach them a language and a disinteresting topic at the same time.  I even surprised myself too.  At the beginning, I would just grind through my classes to get to the weekend.  Eventually, I found myself enjoying this whole teaching thing.

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I became close with my coworkers who gave advice on my lessons and would help me with every single problem I ran into including finding the printer room, telling my students what to bring for next class, or even getting my laptop fixed (that was a dark week).  A few even took me out to dinner with their families and the English department presented me with high-quality scarf and gloves for Christmas.  (Side note: They don’t understand how I wear just a light sweater in 50° without a jacket and hat. I’ve tried to explain to them that I’ve lived in the cold my whole life and for 4 years, I braved Minnesota winters just to get to class in the morning, but they still think I am crazy for not dressing “warm enough.”)

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Christmas week. They thought I was going to catch a cold in the 30° weather. I humored them.

The students were not easy at first either.  They gibber-gabber and gossip loudly when they get bored.  They will ask you completely irrelevant questions ranging from if you have a girlfriend to when was the last time I ate at McDonalds.  It can be incredibly frustrating.  Somehow, my students began looking forward to my classes (this may be because I am the only foreigner English teacher at my school) and eventually started policing themselves.  It’s an amazing feeling when a student starts talking when yo are and a few students turn around and tell the interrupter to “shut up because teacher Jack is talking.”  Feels good man.

Thankfully, most of my students have a functional grasp over the English language so I’m not required to speak Mandarin.  I do take the opportunity to at least try because: 1) My students find it incredibly entertaining to hear my horrendous accent and futile attempts, and 2) why not take advantage of a two-way learning system where the students can help me learn?  It takes a lot of stress and frustration off of them when they see me go through the same embarrassment and frustrations learning their language as they experience when learning mine.  The more fun they are having, the more fun and rewarding my job is.

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I do find it entertaining how incredibly physical my students’ friendships are with each other.  In class, boys and girls give each other a couple light jabs on the shoulder, pinch each other’s cheeks, or hang off of each other.  Some hold hands while they walk around the track at lunch and last week I witnessed 3 seniors hold one of their friends down and tickle him.  Not exactly the physicalness I grew up with or a component common in American student friendships, but it doesn’t even phase me any more.

Christmas card making right before the holidays.
Christmas card making right before the holidays.

It’s a huge advantage being an American English speaker here in China as it usually opens opportunities for you to teach others in your free time.  Usually, a coworker of yours knows someone who wants to improve their English or you have a friend of a friend who needs the lessons.  One of the families I tutor for has a daughter attending school in Delaware next year.  On New Year’s Day, they invited me to their daughter’s piano recital and on my birthday, they took me out for coffee and skating.  The father will even make me dinner after our weekly lessons and talk with me for hours. I’m already appreciative that I became close with the students and coworkers where I teach, but I would’ve never thought that I would become so personally close to a Chinese family; a family I feel invested in and who will keep in contact with me when they move to America.

Depending on your age, height, and skin color, you can find other less common opportunities…

Promotion dancing for a kitchen appliance company is apparently a thing.
Promotion dancing for a kitchen appliance company is apparently a thing for “white males who are 6′ or taller.”

That leads me into something I found to be the most profound learning experience here: self-awareness.  Growing up in a predominantly white suburb of Minnesota and attending a predominantly white high school and university doesn’t leave much for being conscientious about your race as a Caucasian.  I was more judged on where I was from, my hobbies, my accent, but my race was never brought up in casual conversation and before coming to China, I never really thought about a person’s race no matter who I was talking to.  The media I ingested, the people I interacted with everyday, and my hobbies had me surrounded by more English-speaking (apart from Spanish class) Caucasian males and females than any other race or ethnicity.  Coming to China was eye-opening.

You also have options for non-teaching opportunities just for being an English speaker here in which, some of these jobs are only given to you depending on your skin color.   No matter what, if you do not look Chinese, you will be stared at as people around you try to figure out where you are from and what you speak.  And I don’t mean a quick glance over; people here will stare you down as if you are the first extraterrestrial to ever touch down upon this Earth. They are curious about the laowai ordering Beijing Duck in Mandarin at a Chinese restaurant and look on as he struggles using chopsticks.

While I’d never say it was a negative or distressing experience (outside of a few people making fun of me for my accent or referencing me as a few disrespectful terms), here in China I’d experienced being a minority for the first time in my life.  It was just crazy to realize that.

So it sounds like you had a pretty good year learning about yourself, the culture, and finding enjoyment in your teaching.  What did you take away from it?

I honestly could give a 50 bullet-point rundown of all the differences and learning experiences in China, but you can find anything that I would’ve thought of in the bullet-points section here in a photo-essay written by one of last-year’s AYC participants, Linda Wang.

I’m incredibly comfortable and confident at my job and I couldn’t be happier about my placement here at the Nanjing No. 5 High School.  My students and coworkers respect me, my work is rewarding, and I received a generous amount of holiday time to travel China and SE Asia. Participating in the Ameson Year in China program gave me this great opportunity to further my capabilities while expanding my interests and knowledge; a unique opportunity on the international scale with a multi-cultural experience.

Sports day at Nanjing No. 5 High School
Sports day at Nanjing No. 5 High School

Initially, my plan coming to China was just to take a gap year to figure out my future while (hopefully) learning a few things along the way.  Almost a year later, I’ve learned more about myself than I could’ve hoped.  I proved to myself that I could live on the other side of the world, away from any sort of familiarity or comfort that I’d grown accustomed to, and fully benefit from the experience. I’ve met some amazing people that I would’ve never met otherwise. I like Chinese food more than any other type of food and it’s going to be difficult not having the option to go get chow fan at 3am in the morning.  I’ve continued to learn and push myself and China gave me this motivation.  I’ve assimilated into a completely different culture that, admit-tingly, still feels mysterious at times, but although I still may be a weiguoren, I don’t really feel like it anymore.

Nanjing along the Yangtze River.
Nanjing along the Yangtze River.

7 Ways to Overcome Homesickness

The biggest challenge that you face when traveling for long periods of time is homesickness; depending how you approach it, homesickness will lead you down one of two different paths: growth or debilitation.

Why did you travel?  Take a pick from the numerous reasons why you are currently not at home powing around your favorite hangout, biting into your favorite food while surrounded by your close friends.  You wanted a change of pace, a change of scenery, a new challenge, etc… To summarize your motivations, you wanted to experience something different.

Trust me, it’s not as simple as just moving to a different country and immediately assimilating.  At some point, you’re going to miss the familiarity you’ve become accustomed to.  Unfortunately for some of the great people I’ve met while teaching here, homesickness was too overwhelming and they returned home.

The Ameson Year in China program gave us—its participants—advice in combating homesickness.  Some tips I followed, some I didn’t, and some I put my own twist on.  I can confidently say that after 5 months of living and working here in China, I’ve overcome my homesickness and I embrace the difference in culture, social norms, and life in general here compared to the United States.

Here is what I’ve personally found to be effective in combating homesickness:

  • Hone your patience. 

This will be your most important virtue to live by.  Every. Single. Day. The first 2 months of my time here was an exasperating struggle to become comfortable.  Take away your ability to easily partake in normal conversation, your overall familiarity with daily life, and put yourself in a country you have never been in; you’ll truly see the level of patience you possess.  Now work to improve from that level and you’ve already gotten over the hardest part.


  • Get into a routine. 

I’m not saying that you need to do the same exact thing week in and week out.  Get your work schedule solidified so that you can make time for spontaneity and explore your surroundings.  This puts you in control of at least one aspect of the new life you decided to try.  The more you look forward to burger Mondays with your friends, or going to your favorite Chinese restaurant every Friday, the more incentive you have to get through a stressful week.


  • Don’t rely on alcohol or other drugs as stress relievers. 

Don’t just look forward to getting hammered every single weekend with your friends as your sole means of an escape; you’ll be miserable and you’ll spend unnecessary amounts of money.  By the time you leave, what would you rather talk about when people ask about your time traveling?  Every weekend you don’t remember, the time you went down to the stall markets and had a competition with a friend to see who could get the best bargain, or the families that you private tutor? Choose two.


  • Don’t kill your time with social media; utilize it to inform and keep connected with others. 

There’s a difference between mindlessly scrolling your news feed for 2 hours, and spending that 2 hours messaging and reconnecting with friends. Your homesickness is only going to get worse if you dwell on what your friends and family are doing without you.


  • Make the effort to stay in contact with your friends and family. 

Your friends and family have their own life.  Bills, work, social life, and their hobbies don’t allow them to dwell on you every single hour. You’re not going to be getting 40 Facebook messages and e-mails a day from your friends about how they miss you.  The friends and family who do reach out to you?  Appreciate that they took the time out of their busy schedule to inquire about your life, and make the most out of the conversation.


  • Realize you don’t have to figure everything out within the first month. 

The farmer’s market and main grocery store I go to?  That took three months to find both.  My favorite bars, Chinese food places, and local spots?  It’s changing every month. Who do I mainly hang out with?  It took me four months to find the two groups of people I experience life in China with; both foreign and Chinese.  Take a deep breath.  Everything is going to fall into place and be ok.  Just be open to new experiences and be respectful; it goes a long way.


  • Don’t adhere to ethnocentrism. 

This is the most difficult advice to give because I sometimes get stuck in this way of thinking.  Stop evaluating and comparing the culture and customs of the country you are residing in to your original culture.  It’s ok to observe the differences because it’s a learning experience, but don’t think in terms of superiority.  Don’t compare RMB to the U.S. dollar/any other currency.  Don’t sit there and think, “Well in my country they do this better and this better.”  No one cares.  No culture is better or worse than any other culture; it’s just different.  Stop thinking YOUR culture is the best; you won’t make friends easily and you’ll quickly label yourself as an insufferable foreigner. The more you accept and embrace the different culture you choose to live in, the easier it is to assimilate and learn from your experiences.


Again, why did you travel?  Did you travel so you could continually think about all the things you miss?  No.  You traveled to get away from that familiarity.  Use these tips to get over the depressing, hindering effects of homesickness and appreciate the time you have away from what you’ve deemed mundane, humdrum, and normal.  Follow these tips and eventually your daily life in a foreign country will become that comfortable feeling of “normal.”

You traveled to relax.  It is impossible to relax and enjoy yourself if you allow homesickness to take up your valuable time.

Homesickness: 21 Things I Miss About America

Well Christmas has come and past and I must say that these past four months in China have been quite the learning experience.  Now, I am anxiously looking forward to what the New Year rolls in for the next six before I come home.  There are still many

That being said, being around your friends and family for the holidays is a privilege that no one should take for granted.  It is my first Christmas away from my family and while I knew this would eventually happen at some point in my (hopefully) long life, the holidays still feel a bit hollow without being with my Mom’s family on Christmas Eve, over the Mississippi River and through the White Bear Lake woods to my Grandma’s townhouse we would go on Christmas morning, and then enjoying the company of my Dad’s family throughout Christmas day.  Christmas day ends lazily as my parents and I unwrap our gifts while the yule log burns on the TV screen; Frank Sanatra’s White Christmas and other Christmas classic’s play over the crackling digital fire.

Missing Christmas in America has me feeling a little bit homesick, but it got me thinking about all of the things I miss about being back home; so I decided to compile a list.  Some of these may be specific to my local area so just imagine your favorite local beer, restaurant, or activity to replace with the ones I directly apply to Minnesota.  Some are large things, but most are just the small luxuries or conveniences I have become accustomed to:

  • Your family.  “Obvious Alert.”  My family is incredible.  I’ve talked to some of the other participants in my program and some didn’t exactly have parents and other family members who encouraged their ambition to work abroad here.  Ranging from my parents to aunts to my grandma to my cousins, they check-in and make sure that I am happy, healthy, and enjoying my time here.
  • My friends.  “2x Obvious Alert.” One of my biggest worries about coming to China right out of college was losing touch with many of the people that I was privileged to know and befriend during my time at the U of M.  It makes me feel fortunate that a large number have reached out to talk over Facebook, Wechat, and e-mail. I can’t wait to come home to you amazing human beings.
  • Buffalo Wild Wings.  Actually any chicken wings with ranch for that matter.  Ranch doesn’t exist here in China.
  • Local Minnesota beers. Surly, Summit, Nordeast.  (sigh)
  • Driving.  I would never drive a car here in Nanjing.  It makes any traffic in any American city you think of look peaceful, but I do miss my car.
  • Open Internet.  Seriously, using a VPN on your phone just to use SnapChat or check your email is frustrating.  Slow Internet speeds to your favorite sites are common, but I mean, I’m proxying a server halfway across the world in San Francisco.
  • Minnesota lake life.  Although my family sold the cabin a long time ago, I have a great number of friends who kindly invite me to their cabins in the summer for some good ol’ fishing, paddleboarding, boating, and cabin lifestyle.  It’s the only summer life we Minnesotans know.
  • Drinking tap water.  Fill electric kettle with cold water.  Boil that water and wait for it to cool down.  EVERY.  SINGLE. TIME.  Or switch out large gallon bottles to fill up like I do, but still.
  • Wide sidewalks.  Even in a city as developed as Nanjing, the sidewalks are narrowed due to the e-bike lanes.  And even then, people will ride their e-bikes on the sidewalk… You could walk in the e-bike lane, but you have to keep your head on a swivel.
  • Paying normal prices for American or European clothes.  American and European clothing brands are marked up in the shops here and only come in Asian sizes.  I am XXL-XXXL here.  How is that for self-esteem…
  • Paying normal prices for American or European groceries.  A regular package of Crystal Farms string cheese is 55 yuan.  Coming from the Midwest and paying almost $10 for a pack of this is maddening.
  • Sports hysteria.  Although the Chinese do broadcast basketball and soccer, the skill level and production level comes nowhere near that of America’s.  Announcers are unenthusiastic, there are not many sports bars (even in a big city like Nanjing), and finding worthwhile discussion about sports that aren’t soccer or football is rare.
  • Your native language.  It can be frustrating just walking down the street and having no clue what is being said as you walk by.  I’ve heard people walk past me, say “lao wài,” (more offensive term for foreigner or outsider) and talk about me.  You just have no idea what they are saying about you.
  • A full kitchen.  As someone who loves to cook, only having one electric hot plate for my kitchen is exhausting.  No 4 stove-top burners.  The closest equivalent to an oven you will find here is a toaster oven.  YOU EXPECT ME TO COOK MORE THAN 4 COOKIES AT A TIME.  OUTRAGEOUS.
  • Bacon.  It hardly exists here.  Only in a few foreign restaurants can you usually find it, but prepare to pay a hefty amount.
  • Your comfort foods.  For me, mini corn dogs, macaroni and cheese, legitimate crescent rolls, and venison to name a few.  It’s been about 101+ days since I’ve any of these things.
  • Dryers.  This is just based on preference, but I like drying my clothes in a dryer.  Pretty much 99.99999% of Chinese people air dry and while I don’t mind it (ya’know, having no dryer), sometimes a man just needs his dryer sheets.
  • Indoor smoking laws.  Prepare to be exposed to second-hand smoke like you never have before.
  • Soft mattresses.  I had a friend who was in China for a month before I traveled here tell me that “The hardest bed in America is the softest bed in China.”  Your back will either survive and become stronger, or wither away leaving you in the fetal position.
  • Adherence to time schedules.  If your repair man says that he will be to your place at 4pm, you better make damn sure that you are at your place from 12pm-8pm because he is sure as hell not coming at 4pm.
  • Central heating.  One half of my bedroom makes me sweat.  The other half of my bedroom requires at least 2 layers to pass through comfortably.

Although I know that by the time my contract ends, I will be prepared to go back to the U.S. for some much needed familiarity.  I am in no way ready to go back at this time though.  There are still so many things to learn, a 5-week backpacking trip through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, The Great Wall marathon, my parents visiting for about 2 weeks, and me going to South Korea for about a week before heading back to the States. Life is good.

What are some things that you have ended up missing (however big or small) when you were abroad?

Culture Shock: A Foreigner in America

While I have gone through a great deal of culture shock here in China, I can only imagine what it feels like for someone to live in China his or her entire life and then move to America. Although I attended the University of Minnesota, a large university that boasts an impressive amount of international students (~6,521) with 2,727 or about a 1/3 of these students being Chinese, I never took the time to learn from just one of these students about the transition from China to America culture. Luckily, within my first week of teaching at the Nanjing No. 5 High School,  I befriended an ambitious and bilingual college student who was preparing to fly back to Seattle to continue his undergraduate studies.  He translated for me in my 7th grade classes during my first week (thankfully or that first week would have been 8934275892374x more difficult) and helped me realize that I was speaking way too quickly and teaching at a difficulty that was a little out of my class’s grasp.  Now, he is back for winter break  (American college and universities winter break is Dec. 20ish to Jan. 20ish depending on the school differing from the Chinese winter break/Chinese New Year during the month of February) and I had the opportunity to sit down with him and talk to him about his experiences being a foreigner in the U.S. from the perspective of a student.

Yuxing Sun AKA Action.
Yuxing Sun AKA Action.

Meet Yuxing Sun AKA “Action” (his nickname in America) who is currently 21, in his 4th year at the University of Washington in Seattle, and is enjoying his 5th year living in the United States.  He’s studying to obtain his B.S. in Chemical Engineering and only has two more semesters left until he experiences the bittersweet yet rewarding feeling of graduation.  He was originally a high school exchange student placed in Holly, Michigan and attended Holly High School for one year. He then came back to China to finish his senior year of high school and decided to began his undergraduate studies at the University of Washington.  Through his time in America, he has developed an unwavering passion for Seattle Seahawks football and sports in general.  He has an impressive grasp and understanding of the English language as well.

Me: So what exactly made you want to study abroad in America?

Yuxing: “When I was in high school, I just wanted the opportunity to explore other cultures and other countries and America was a big option because there are tons of programs [for Chinese students to study abroad].  The other program available was in Germany and I didn’t know anything about Germany or its language and that’s why I applied to the program in America.  When I was in America for high school, I felt that the size was comfortable and there were a lot more sports going on.  Since I am a big sports person, I decided to go to college in America.  Another thing was that high schools in China don’t accept credits from American high schools so if I decided to stay [in China], I would have to stay an extra year with all the homework and I didn’t want that.  The reason why I went to the University of Washington is that I only applied to public schools in America because they’re cheaper. I was also accepted to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but I felt that Wisconsin is too cold for me.  I didn’t have a ton of options and felt that the University of Washington was the best choice.”

Me: What do you think was the most difficult part about transitioning between Chinese culture and American culture?  What was the easiest part?

Y: So when I stayed with my host family, the most difficult part was definitely the religion.  I was raised in a non-religious family (China country-wide atheism until recent years, ancestral worship is more common than well-known religions according to 2010 Chinese Spiritual Life Survey) and my host family was a Christian family.  So when I went to church for the first time, I didn’t know how to behave or what couldn’t be done in church and I guess I made a couple of mistakes that I had thought were ok, but my host family got really mad at me.  It wasn’t too bad… I think, because due to the language barrier, I was trying really hard to understand what the priest was saying.  I decided to close my eyes and concentrate and they were telling me that closing my eyes was very disrespectful.  So that was really rough.  Another thing was about making friends because I was just there.  I mean, I was from a different country and it was difficult to bond with others and for the first couple of months, I didn’t really have someone I could have a heart-to-heart conversation with.  I think as I learned more about American culture, it seemed like Americans tend to focus on meeting more people than making deep bonds with those people.  As I understood this, I felt better and better, but it was pretty tough for me to not have any close relation friends. In college, it was pretty much the same thing because I didn’t figure everything out in my first year.  It took me awhile to figure it out because in college, I could talk with my roommate and the people in my dorm about “what is your major” or “what classes are you taking,” but I wasn’t able to talk about my interests which was stressful for me.  I couldn’t find topics that I could really talk about for a long time with other people.  I had heard stories about international students just make friends with other international students who speak their own language and I didn’t want to do that.  It took me awhile to make this transition and once I watched more and more football my sophomore year, I found that I could make friends easier through knowing football and American sports.”

“For my first year in America, the easiest part was the language barrier.  When I went to America for the first time, my host family and classmates were very nice with me.  They were patient enough to talk to me and correct my mispronunciation, names of certain things, etc. and so they really helped the language transition.  A lot of things are different language-wise [between English and Chinese] such as, I don’t need to differentiate between “she” or “he” in Chinese, but I always have to think about specifying gender when I speak English.  I didn’t feel stressed because of the language barrier due to my host family’s support.  Without the support, if people would give me a cold face or blank stare when they didn’t understand me, the language barrier would’ve been really really rough. It became a little more difficult in college though.”

Me: Did you have any positive experiences that you particularly remember?

Y: “A positive experience that comes to mind is the first time I was celebrating Halloween with my host family.  I had never experienced Halloween before and I remember the first time I trick or treated.  I didn’t have any costumes so I decided to just go as a pizza man.  I just carried a pizza box with me around.  It was the start of learning about another culture and truly experiencing it. The first time I was invited to a friend’s house was also big for me because I felt like I wasn’t alone anymore.  I was able to meet his parents and sisters and I thought it was pretty cool. I was recently invited over to another friend’s house for Thanksgiving which made me happy.  It had been a long time since I had eaten turkey and the pie her mom made was so delicious, I ate the whole thing over the next two days.”

Me: Having the luxury of being able to fly back home for a month after the 1st semester must ease your homesickness a bit, but in general are you homesick when you are in America?  If so what do you miss the most about here in China?

Y: “I’m not a person who feels homesick a lot because I started my journey to go abroad when I was 16.  It hasn’t been a big deal.  The time when I felt the most homesick was when I got yelled at about the church thing.  Other than that, I do miss my family, but now the Internet and technology allows me to talk to them when I want.  What I do miss the most is the food.  Eating salad, burgers, fries, fried fish, chicken nuggets and other popular American foods is ok, but I get sick of it.  I miss the diverse food of China when I am in America.”  

Me: To reverse that last question, what do you miss the most about America when you are back in China?

Y: “I think you are expecting this answer, but the biggest thing I miss is football.  It is the end of the season right now and every game contributes to the playoff picture.  I really miss watching the games with my friends and talking about it.  The second thing is I miss the availability of napkins and tissues at restaurants and other places.   There are many small conveniences in America that are not in China.  The third thing is the central-heating where I live.  The opportunity of playing basketball and working out indoors is something I miss too.”  

Me:  While moving to an entirely different country half way across the world is already taxing enough, does the stress of college add to this mental toll in a significant way?  Do you think working a full-time job instead of college would be better or worse for the transition?

Y: “Schoolwork always gets me frustrated.  I don’t think there is a big difference between the stress of studying in America and China.  It can be a little difficult due to the lectures being in English, but I didn’t think it was too bad.  I do think college is better for the transition because it’s easier to make friends, develop different interests, and get to know about cultures when you are in school.  I heard it’s harder to make close friends when you have to work a full-time job.”

Me:  What interests, hobbies, or curiosities have you developed from being exposed to American culture in the most direct way possible? (e.g. living there, taking classes in English)

Y: Since I was in the American environment that is big on sports, I was motivated to watch sports as well.  It got me more involved in playing sports and working out too.  Besides sports, I have become more interested in American television such as Cash Cab and Family Guy.  Before that, I had only watched a few American movies, but nothing on American television.  Living in America has further developed my interest for American movies even more as well.  

Me: While Nanjing has a healthy amount of international influence that heavily differs from more rural parts of China, the Chinese culture is still heavily prevalent.  Were there any big surprises about America during your first couple of months there?

Y: On the first day I got in America, my host family took me to a barn that had a lot of animals.  That was the first time I legitimately “wowed” and I thought it was pretty cool. Everything in those first three days was very new and I am pretty sure I “wowed” many times.  American breakfast with juice, bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, and toast was really new for me.  I had only had hard-boiled egg or fried egg before, but never scrambled.  It was a buffet style which made it cool to see all of the different foods.  My host family lived in a big house in a forest area which was crazy to me because it go so dark at night.  It was fun to go hiking and horse-back riding for the first time too.  It was very exciting to be experiencing so many new things.  

For school, it turns out that the school bus I rode went to the middle school first and then went to the high school.  My host brother told me that I was supposed to get off on the first stop and so I got off at the middle school without knowing it.  I started to notice that everyone was a little shorter than me and eventually found out I was at the middle school.  Luckily, there was still a bus at the middle school and the drive took me to the high school.  When I got to the high school I “wowed” many times.  The school was so big compared to those in China, the windows stayed close during the day, you moved between classrooms, it had central heating, I had my own locker which had never happened, renting textbooks, less homework, and different class times had different lunch periods were very new and pretty crazy to me.

For college, the buildings at University of Washington are older and more classic than the universities in China.  The gyms were really cool to see because they were really nice with water fountains and rent equipment.  The first time I went to a sporting event was a baseball game with a teacher of mine.  It was surprising to see how popular baseball is in America and how passionate the fans were.  It was all very surprising and exciting.

Me: Hypothetically speaking, say a friend asks for your advice about moving to America.  What advice, tips, or warnings would you give concerning school, life in general, adjusting to a different culture, etc?

Y:

  • “Have has much of your cultures food you can before you leave because you will miss it.
  • Learn about sports in America.  It helps you make friends easily.
  • Have an open heart.  Be outgoing.  I feel this is really important in America.  Don’t just make friends with those who are from your country/culture.  
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions.  It’s how you learn about differences you may not know.  
  • Learn the correct terms that people use.  Here in China people say “I need to use the toilet” instead of “restroom” or “bathroom” which is more acceptable.  Also in China, people will ask for a “rubber” if they need to use an eraser, but no one in America calls an eraser a “rubber.”  It’s a condom.  There are a lot of little things like this.  
  • Always remember to give tips after eating out and taxes at grocery stores exist too.  
  • Go to a grocery store and learn the different names for food.  Subway is also a good place to do this.  It will help a lot.
  • Don’t think of American prices in Chinese RMB currency.  Everything will seem super expensive, but American wages are much higher than Chinese wages.”

Me: Do you ever see yourself living and working in the U.S. in your lifetime?  Why or why not?

Y: “I can definitely see it.  For me right now, I am on the fence because I am still getting used to some things and I know I will miss things in America that I really enjoy if I come back to live in China.  I will always keep it as an option.  I could have a bigger house and make more money.  I would like to visit other English speaking countries like Australia, Canada, and England, but I am worried about countries that don’t have English as the main language.  It is hard to say where I want to live right now, but I can see myself working and living in America.  I feel that my experiences in America opened me up to different cultures.  It has been really unique, and it’s not over yet.”

Sitting down and talking about the differences between China and America was a lot of fun with Yuxing while also being educational.  I find it fascinating how different cultures clash and how those of us deeply rooted in the culture we were raised in react to the vast differences in language, daily life, social norms, food, and even our preconceived expectations.  In some cases, for example Paris Syndrome, the change can be so exhausting and intimidating that it makes you sick.  Thankfully moving to China hasn’t been that shocking for me.