My First Month in China

It’s crazy to think I’ve already been in China for a month! How wild. For my two readers who aren’t my parents, hi, thanks for being here, here’s the rundown: for the past month I’ve been living in Zhongshan, a beautiful and large city in southern China. I’m here to teach English to children with the International Language Program, or ILP based in Utah, and I will be here either until the end of June or the beginning of July.
Moving from the quaint, but sheltered valley of Utah County, to the hustle and bustle of a big city in China hasn’t been exactly the smoothest of transitions. I had only been planning on coming to China about a month before I arrived here on Valentine’s day, which I now realize was not nearly enough time to mentally or physically prepare myself for the jump that is moving to another country. The plan for this spring semester was to live at home and go to school to prepare for a summer abroad elsewhere, but hey, when opportunity knocks, you answer.
After a 2-hour flight from Salt Lake City to Seattle, a 16-hour flight from Seattle to Hong Kong (which was brutal, let me tell you), and a 1.5-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong to Zhongshan, I hopped into a van with my six new roommates/ fellow teachers and our native coordinator and we headed to our new apartment. Looking out the car window and trying to fight off sleep, the first thing that shocked me about China was the characters. Now I know what you’re probably thinking, “duh. It’s China, they use Chinese characters”, and yep, you’d be right, but I had never in my life been somewhere where I couldn’t tell a hair salon from a grocery store just by reading the sign. My head started to spin, and I began to wonder what in the world I was doing here, a thought I still occasionally have, albeit a lot less often.
We arrived at our new home, and as I began settling my things into my half of a bedroom, I noticed the bed. Although it looked like a normal twin sized bed, my bed was anything but: a typical bed frame, headboard and foot board, and a few provided blankets and pillows surrounded what appeared to be a mattress, but was simply a hard board encased in cloth. I winced internally, but felt so tired that I probably could’ve slept on the floor if need be. The next shock followed quickly when I had the urge to use the bathroom. I’ve always taken Western toilets for granted, I figured that they’re so great, everyone must use them, but a majority of the Chinese don’t. I walked into the bathroom and felt a sense of confusion: where a toilet should have been there was simply a porcelain hole in the floor, something I now know is called a squatter. At first making the change from Western toilets to squatters was hard, but you can get used to just about anything if you give it enough time.

The last big shock I faced in moving to China has been the food. I’d eaten orange chicken and chow Mein a million times in the States, so how hard could this really be? Firstly, discard your idea of what you believe to be typical Chinese cuisine, because orange chicken and chow Mein are anything but. The Chinese like to use all parts of the animal, skin, feet, you name it. They also do not take the time to debone the meat that they do use, which I learned the hard way after choking on one too many fishbones. White rice is a huge staple here, at every meal I’ve had so far rice has been present in some form. People from home often ask me, “what new foods have you tried over there?” and I often respond by telling them, “it’d be easier for me to tell you what foods I’ve recognized over here, because that list would be much shorter.”

The first two weeks here were especially rough, I dealt with a lot of culture shock, and had a hard time becoming acclimated to a new way of life. The one saving grace during that time was the children that I teach. I teach at a kindergarten here, and the kids range in age from 4-6. They are so sweet and loving, and always so excited to see their American teachers. They are a great reminder that no matter what happens, no matter how homesick I get, they want me here, and at the end of the day I’m here only because of them.

I’ve been learning to deal with the culture shock that still comes and goes in various ways. The first is by getting into a routine, and although there are often variations, I know that for the most part every day I will wake up, go to school, eat lunch, call friends/family etc. etc. Knowing what I will be doing regularly helps eliminate some of the unknowns in my life, and some of the stress. I also combat the culture shock by making sure I find ways to do the things I enjoy, like write for my blog, exercise and read books. These things help to take me out of the world for a little bit, and I return to it feeling refreshed and ready to take on more.

All in all, this first month has been equal parts challenging and exciting. I have made new friends, experienced new things, and I am excited to see what’s to come in the next few months.

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