Category Archives: TEFL

Thailand – Land of Smiles, Lemongrass and Corianger

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It’s reputation precedes it… Sexy, seedy, scorching. Thousands of travellers (young and old) flock there every year – the Land of smiles, Lady Boys, Ping-Pong shows, Thai Brides, Full Moon Parties and “The Islands”…To be honest, it all felt a bit daunting.

However, my first foray as a “Farang” helped me see a completely different side to the traveller stereotype and gave me a taste of Thai life as a local (well sort of). Thanks to the amazing volunteering organization Lemongrass, I spent an incredible two weeks teaching English at a Government school in Surin (a seven hour bus ride north east of Bangkok).

Possibly the most reasonably priced volunteering scheme around, Lemongrass provides its volunteers with a very comfortable home, full teaching support and the best tour guide in Thailand (thanks June) to see the local sights by scooter or local truck (or bike if you can ride one!).

Trip highlights included the Thasawang Silk Village where you can see intricate Thai silk being woven by hand; the Ta Klang Elephant Village in Tha Toom District with four-legged  film stars and footballers and the Khwao Sinarin silver making village, where it’s impossible not to be mesmorised by the hand made beads being fashioned from makeshift tools, under the shelter of a stilted, wooden house.  And, that’s without even mentioning the local markets, the odd Rice Convention (did you know there are over 120,000 types of rice?) and a Thai Country and Western Karaoke.

But we were there to actually teach…Every morning the Tuk Tuk rumbled and spluttered outside the house, we took the 15 minute ride to school to be met with the wide smiles and eagerly expectant eyes of our students. Having not experienced many native westerners before, the pupils were fascinated by our hair, skin, the way we spoke and the games they knew we’d be playing throughout the lessons – Bingo was a particular favourite!

Staying through rainy season we experienced floods, waded through knee deep water to get to the noodle shack across the road and watched the fish swim across the driveway. During downtime we’d wave to the local elephant as he made his daily walk by the house selling (and eating) sugar cane, got to grips with a great number of geckos and learnt to cook Thai food – June’s fish can salad has a mean kick!

Although I enjoyed learning to cook, Thai food was my stumbling block. Despite sampling a full range of Thai cuisine from roadside Pad Thai, Pork Satay, a plethora of noodle soups; the school canteen’s ground, minced and fried frog and super spicy papaya salad; plus hotel A la Carte curries, I am still not a Thai food convert. This is due to my absolute hatred of coriander – the standard ingredient of most Thai food. This menu translation for fried fish summed up my feelings and gave us a titter!

Anyway, apart from my food foibles, suburban and rural Thailand is beautiful and completely different from the decadent and debauched ditties of many a traveller. The Lemongrass experience was amazing. I have made some great friends, been humbled by the kindness and generosity of wonderful students and learnt to appreciate a totally different way of life.

Lemongrass are always looking for volunteers, so get involved and have yourself a unique Thai experience you’ll cherish forever…


More visa chaos…I hate to say I told you so!

I was woken up at 8am on my day off by my teaching assistant banging impatiently on my apartment door (anyone who knows how much I like my sleep, will know that this is starting badly!). “We need to leave urgently, you have to go to Son Yuan to get a new visa. Today!”.

So after the last debacle (where there was opportunity to extend the visa for the length of my contract, but no), I was less than surprised that this had been left to the last minute, but even I had not anticipated what a convoluted and chaotic 48hours I was in for.

I will only preface what I am about to tell you with NO-ONE TOLD ME ANYTHING and, as you know, I don’t speak Chinese. So, here’s how it went:

Jumped in a taxi to Tanggu station at 9am on Thursday with as much stuff as I could shove into a bag (and the emergency Snickers my flat mate threw at me as I was running out the door), for the train to Beijing. No train. Taxi to the Chingway in Tianjin, 45 minutes away (which I could have caught from my apartment at 9.30am and been there for 10am).

Arrived in Tianjin at 11.15am. Another taxi, this time with an incredibly dodgy driver and some other random old man with intensely bad breath. To Tianjin Railway Station for Beijing train. Stuck in traffic due to a burst water main.

Got to the station, purchased tickets and unsubstantial snacks for lunch and transfered to Beijing South. Caught another two metro trains to Beijing main station and made the 1.15pm train to Chang Chun by the skin of my teeth (with a sneaky MacDonalds to boot – which is a blessing as it turned out to be an eight hour journey!).

Late night arrival in Chang Chun to meet my boss (grateful for the deserted train station experiences of the Trans Siberian to stop me from freaking out). No boss. Instead, a nice Chinese lady who lived in St Helen’s, but was visiting family in Chang Chun, collected me in her brother in law’s car and drove me to a hotel which wouldn’t accept foreigners, so drove me to another dodgy looking backstreet hotel which was Korean and “safer”.

At 10pm I lay on my bed, in the hotel I didn’t even know I was going to be staying in, starving but too scared to go out (as even St Helen’s lady said it wasn’t safe and she used to live there), a little bemused and grateful for the Snickers!

At 6.45am Friday morning, I flagged a taxi (using the Chinese instructions given to me by the nice St Helen’s lady) to a Lake in the middle of nowhere, where she would pick me up again. Ding Ding (yes, as in bell), my bosses driver turned up out of nowhere, as did St Helen’s Lady and her sister, Meow (yes, like a cat), with a picnic breakfast. The four of us set off on the three hour journey to Son Yuan.

Approaching 11am, after passing fields of sunflowers (singular trip highlight) we arrived at the toll near to our final destination only to get stopped by police for not having any registration papers (bearing in mind we are in the brother in laws car, with a random driver). After several frantic phone-calls we abandoned Ding Ding with the car and got picked up by the school minibus.

At the school my boss didn’t even say hello, just told me to go “with him” (a guy I’d never seen before) to the Police Security Bureau (PSB), where I had two photos taken, handed over my passport (despite much resistance), all the while being interrogated by an aging and partly deaf American who wanted to quiz me about working for my boss’s school. To say I was a little fractious would be an understatement.

Back to the school for 3pm where I was accosted into taking PR shots to publicise the school. I was then left to my own devices for three hours with nothing to do except be invited out to dinner by a Chinese Army Major who showed me his thesis on Ancient Greek Military Strategy – “It is in English”… I was rescued from this surreal scenario by the nice St Helen’s Lady, Meow and Ding Ding with the car released from police custody and another three hour drive, back to Chang Chun.

Following an inspirational and insightful conversation with Meow, Ding Ding and I were abandoned at a petrol station, got into another cab which drove us into the dodgiest place I have EVER been, to get me a ticket to the overnight train from a guy in a thick gold chain and a blacked out Audi. Money and tickets exchanged, just enough time for a  McDonalds (yes another one)with Ding Ding – eaten in the painfully uncomfortable, yet polite, silence that only two people who don’t speak each other’s language can achieve.

I got on the 10pm train without a passport (knowing that I couldn’t get through Beijing without one) to be met at 8am on Saturday morning in Beijing by the over-friendly Frank (another friend of my boss), who was meant to buy me a ticket with his ID, but he didn’t bring it. He did however buy me a KFC breakfast (savoury porridge) and offer to take me back to his house so I could shower, rest and spend weekends with him whenever I wanted…er…no thanks, Frank.

To cut a marathon 48 hours short…I politely declined Frank’s further offer of lunch and an afternoon at his apartment, waited until 6pm to get a train ticket that didn’t require my passport to purchase, returned to my apartment at 9pm on Saturday evening to a frantic flatmate – exhausted but safe and having seen another part of China (albeit one that I could have probably lived without and could have been avoided!).

Moral of the story…sort out your own visas in advance and always expect the unexpected!


Vexed, lies and Red red tape

My declaration...!

Despite giving my passport to my ‘employer’ to get a work visa two weeks prior to its expiry, I found myself sitting at the Personal Security Bureau (PSB) in front of a stern but friendly enough immigration official questioning my intentions for the following 30 days.

‘Why do you want to stay in China?’, ‘What is your schedule for the next 30 days?’ ‘You have already been here for four months…that is enough for most travellers, what is there left to see?’ Hardly the entrance exam for Cambridge is it? And, under normal circumstances his questioning would have been a breeze.

However, the small flaw was that I didn’t really want to stay, my remaining schedule was teaching business English to Chinglish speakers who didn’t want to unlearn the mistakes they were fluent in. The only reason to stay was for the money and to work…but I wasn’t allowed to say that, as I was ‘working’ for a corrupt, unscrupulous liar who wasn’t true to his word on any of the things I had been originally told.

It turns out his usual Government contact who passes visas for him was on leave, so we had to go through the ‘official’ channels, which meant concocting a story of how we knew each other and what delights I had planned in TEDA, Tianjin and Tanggu for the next month (and if you’ve been to any of them, you know that is a tall story in itself). He came out of his interview saying under his breath ‘You know Peter, an old colleague of mine, he is your friend, we are friends.’ And then, in an audible voice “Your turn to go and speak to the immigration officer”

The preceding two days I had spent going from one branch of PSB to another, been ushered into a car with three Chinese men and driven around the city trying to get a residents permit, been forced to open a Chinese bank account whilst photocopies of my bank details, passport and most important travelling documents were strewn around willy nilly and given to complete strangers without explanation. At one point four people were all telling me conflicting information (in Chinese) on how to complete a bank form and telling me that I could withdraw my money (or not) in a number of different ways…so I dealt with it in the mature, calm and collected manner befitting such a situation and burst into tears!

So, already on edge, a little fractious and mortified with myself that I didn’t have the strength of character to say ‘stick your job up your…’ and walk away, when the immigration officer said “So how do you know Mr X?” and “What are your plans to invest here?” and the lie fell out of my mouth I felt corrupted, unclean and very alone – not my finest hour!

After waiting a few minutes I was granted a 30 day extension. It all turned out more than OK in the end, but a lesson to anyone else thinking of teaching English in China – check out your visas, get honest recommendations about your employer from other teachers in advance and if you are not comfortable, don’t be afraid to move on!


Teaching in TEDA(ious)

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Tianjin Economic Development Area (TEDA) is not in Tianjin, nor is it 29 minutes by bullet train from Beijing as I was told when I accepted the job (whilst standing outside Hong Kong Botanical gardens in the pouring rain!).

TEDA is an hour Chingway ride to Tianjin and half an hour from Tanggu (rough looking Chinese town) where you can catch an hour fast train to Beijing if you can bear to wait in the queue for over an hour and watch the Chinese chavs fight the customer service rep to get a ticket.

Attractions comprise of a man-made beach, a man-made lake, a lame botanical garden, a park, two shopping malls, a library, two supermarkets (including a TESCO) and several seedy entertainment centres (laughingly called bathouses in an attempt to hide the hookers and legitimise the business in the eyes of the Government). It is a new and affluent place, built for growth and where McDonalds deliver!

The weather is grey and oppressive. Pubs (if you can call them that) are expensive and full of lonely Western guys looking for a Chinese wife or bored, desperate expats unable to find much else to do but drink themselves into oblivion. So, what exactly kept a single, white, female entertained in TEDA for nearly four months…?

Well, there was tutoring the Governor of TEDA’s four year old son – one to one – five days a week. Five hours a day of playing shop, make-believe cinema, watching Peppa Pig, learning the names of fruit and veg, making pop corn, going to the park, playing bubbles, finding fun ways to remember new words, playing cars (or more accurately car crash) and having an absolute ball!

Then there were the evening and weekend classes, teaching business English to senior Government officials, public servants and middle managers of petrochemical companies who didn’t want to unlearn their poor pronunciation. They did however display an unparalleled enthusiasm for role play, debating, asking bizarre questions which regularly blind-sided me, such as “Do you believe that the world will end in 2012?” from the lady who couldn’t even pronounce her own job title! And, the students in my Government class were amazing. I only hope that I taught them a fraction of what I learnt in return.

Oh and there’s my surrogate Chinese family too! I ended up privately teaching the daughter of ‘Great’ (the guy who came to fix my internet). For three months, two nights a week, I taught the beautiful Emily at their apartment and was overwhelmed with hospitality, kindness, iPhone translations and mountains of food (and leftovers) from duck neck to shrimp brains and everything in between!

Last but not least there were my incredible flat mates who waxed lyrical with me about everything from communism to cartoon fights, cooking to quitting and talked travelling tales from around the world into the wee small hours (when we weren’t having a movie marathon!). Thank you guys!

I never intended to spend so long in China, but TEFL jobs are very easy to come by (standards and conditions vary) and the longer you spend there the more complex and fascinating it becomes.

I can honestly say, as much as there were a few “what the hell am I doing here?” moments, it was an emotional, exhilarating, exhausting, infuriating and incredible experience that has left me wanting more.