One of the most impactful experiences in my life was my time spent living and working in China as an ESL teacher. I originally traveled there for a summer trip, between my Junior and Senior year of college, and then I decided to take another job in China after my college graduation. A one year contract turned into three years, and it was honestly hard to move back to the States after such an incredible and unusual experience.
I used to write more about my experiences on my blog, and some of you have written to me asking where you can find these old posts. But as the old days of “diary blogging” went out of style, and now people want the recipe with little to no life story (and Google wants search engine optimized posts), I no longer talk much about that time of my life in my recipe posts. So if you want to know more, keep reading!
How It Began
My bachelor’s degree is in Creative Writing, with a minor in English Literature. I’ve always been an artist, a writer, a creative and a dreamer. A conventional desk job was never what I was meant to do, although I’ve worked plenty of desk jobs that threatened to suck the life out of me.
At the end of my Junior year in college when I was 20 years old, I signed up for a summer teaching program in Dongguan, a city in Guangdong Province, China. The idea of traveling so far from home was exciting to me, and I believe I was there for about 6-8 weeks, teaching a summer school program to Chinese high school students.
I don’t remember too many details about that summer, just vague memories of some of my students, the most enormous spider I’ve ever seen in the bathroom of my dorm room, spending a weekend in Hong Kong, seeing all the tourist places in Beijing, and meeting a girl who would become like my own sister over the next few years.
That summer was my first taste of something completely different from the sheltered existence I had known up until that point in my life, and I wanted more. So I found another teaching job at the Dalian Neusoft University of Information, which I would begin in the fall of 2001. The school was founded in the year 2000, and I was going to be teaching there during its opening year.
Dalian is a major, modern port city in the Northern province of Liaoning. It’s a beautiful city, with the coast just minutes away from the university. It’s very warm and humid in the summer, and extremely dry, cold and windy in the wintertime. I lived there from the fall of 2001 to spring of 2004, only flying back to the States for summer breaks.
The university campus has expanded exponentially in the 19 years since I was last there, and student enrollment has gone up from a few thousand to over 20 thousand now. The teachers’ apartments were in a building right next to the students’ dormitories, across the street from the school campus. I taught about 10-12 classes a week, working with each class just once a week. Some of the students already spoke excellent English, and teaching them was so easy. Others barely spoke any English at all, and those classes were much more challenging.
The other foreign teachers and I were from all over the world, but mainly from the US, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. We created the ESL curriculum, so each week, we’d pick a topic and create the lessons to accompany it, with everything in PowerPoint for the students to access. While there were Chinese English teachers at the school who focused on teaching vocabulary and grammar, the foreign English teachers concentrated more on spoken English, idioms, slang, foreign culture, etc. A week’s lesson was sometimes as simple as practicing ordering food in a restaurant.
Several times a year, we had to give the students written and verbal tests, and the hardest part was that the school required us to grade the students on an assigned curve. No matter what their actual test score was, we had to assign As to a certain percentage of students, Bs to another percentage, and so on. A certain percentage of every class was forced to fail their exam to fit into the curve.
Many people ask me if I speak fluent Mandarin, and while I should, the answer is no. I’m not a good student, and never was. I hate to study, have a terrible memory for vocabulary, and didn’t apply myself to learning Chinese like I should have, which of course I regret now. I understood more than I could speak, though, and I knew enough to get by with ordering food in a restaurant or buying a ticket at the train station, but that was about as far as it got me. Many people want to practice their English when they meet an American, and it was just easy to be lazy and not learn to speak Chinese.
Outside of my Monday to Friday teaching schedule, my life in Dalian was very free. The other teachers and I were able to travel to other cities, take the bus downtown, go shopping, go on coastal hikes, visit our students’ homes, go to restaurants and theaters, explore the city, and really just soak up all the local culture. There is a very reliable public transit system in the city, so anywhere I needed to go, I’d take the bus, or sometimes a taxi.
It was interesting (and very unfair) that the school gave preferential treatment to the foreign teachers, compared to the Chinese teachers. While our Chinese coworkers were placed in very basic, shared apartments with barely any furnishings, the foreign teachers were not only paid a higher salary, but we each had our own private furnished apartment on campus. I believe my salary at that time was the equivalent of about $350-450 USD a month, but my rent, utilities and 1 round-trip international airfare per year were included. So as small as that seems, the amount really went far when all I had to pay for was food and traveling for fun.
By American standards, my apartment was not so luxurious. There was no air-conditioning, so it was very hot in warm weather. And we had no control over the heat in the winter. The radiators would automatically turn on and off several times during the day, barely heating it enough, so an electric space heater was necessary to stay warm in the coldest months. I line-dried all my clothes in my kitchen or outside the window on clothesline. My microwave gave me an electric shock every time I touched it. There was no running hot water in the kitchen, so to wash dishes, I filled a bucket of hot water from my shower, and poured it into the kitchen sink. There was a 2-burner electric stove, but no oven, although there was a very small convection-style toaster oven that I could bake 6 cookies at a time in. One evening, I spent hours baking cookies in that tiny oven so I could bring homemade peanut butter blossom cookies to all my students that week. And I did once manage to bake a not-so-great apple pie in that oven. The chain in my toilet tank was patched together with string and a paper clip. The plumbing there is very old and barely functional, and flushing toilet paper is not advised. It took quite a bit of getting used to throwing used toilet paper in a trash can instead of flushing it. Needless to say, the trash needed to be taken out daily.
But as shabby as it was, the apartment was clean and it was all mine. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t sharing a bedroom and a double bed with my sister. I wasn’t living with my parents. I wasn’t living in a tiny dorm room with 3 other college girls. I had my very own apartment, complete privacy, and I absolutely loved it.
That first year, I adopted a kitten and named her Mia. She was a pretty little orange tabby, and I adored her. She lived with me for months until the school said we couldn’t have pets in our apartments, and one of my students had to take her away.
After a year at Neusoft, there was some unresolved red tape over my contract, and I ended up having to leave to work at another college during my second year. This one was located downtown, and I was relocated to an apartment in the middle of the city, 45 minutes away from my friends and coworkers. This job was a bit different, in that I was teaching advanced English to middle-aged adults looking to improve their spoken English for work.
My new apartment was also very different. Most apartment buildings there are at least 6 stories high, and of course they’re all walk-up. I was on the 6th floor, and had quite a workout every day walking up and down 6 flights of stairs. The building was dark and dirty. My bathroom was so tiny that my knees touched the opposite wall when I sat on the toilet. There were ants in my refrigerator. The kitchen was a tiny, glass-enclosed balcony kitchen that became so cold in the winter, I woke up Christmas Eve to icicles dripping out of the faucet. Oddly, I never took any pictures of that place, which of course, I should have.
I was the only foreigner living in that building, as well as in the entire neighborhood, as far as I could tell, and I was extremely lonely there, in that apartment and at that job. Every Friday after school, I took the bus 45 minutes back to the Neusoft campus, to stay with my best friend for the weekend, and then headed back downtown on Sunday nights. I missed my old campus and my friends, and fortunately, was able to resolve the problem with my contract and move back to Neusoft for the spring semester.
It was that same winter of 2002 that the SARS epidemic broke out in China. Much like with COVID, masks were required, students weren’t allowed to leave campus, and temperatures were taken at airports and train stations before we were allowed to travel outside the city.
Everywhere a foreigner goes, people will stare. They’ll take your picture, or ask to take a picture with you. Even in the early 2000’s, it wasn’t super common to see foreigners in Dalian, and the locals were fascinated by my golden brown curly hair, green eyes and pale skin. They wanted to touch my hair, wondering if it was real. They thought I looked like Kate Winslet in Titanic, which was a very popular movie at the time. Many assumed I was Russian. I was asked “how much” more times than I can remember by Chinese men, but I don’t want to imply that they were all lecherous, because that’s certainly not true. Most people there are curious but very respectful.
Being only 2-3 years older than most of my students, I became great friends with many of them, and they loved showing me the city, or taking me to their homes if they lived locally. The other teachers and I truly became family to each other. We each have our own unique story to tell about that time together.
Shopping was always an interesting experience. At many markets, you’re expected to haggle over prices, something I never loved doing. Grocery stores carried a unique variety of foods that you just wouldn’t expect to see, from things like chicken feet to silk worms. But there was also a wonderful assortment of exotic fruit, like lychee, that I came to love.
There are many items that you couldn’t find at all. Tampons, for example, are not widely available, and I had to bring a year’s supply with me each year that I returned. Certain foods and ingredients like breakfast cereal, peanut butter, cheese and butter, could only be found at special international grocery stores, and they were very expensive, so buying them was a luxury.
Buying clothes and shoes was also problematic, if you’re not teeny-tiny. I have very average sized feet for a woman (8 1/2), and wear a size Medium to Large in clothes, but that was larger than most women’s shoe and clothing sizes in China.
Since I didn’t leave China in the winter, I spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter there. The school usually hosted a banquet or party for us to try to make it special. But for me, Thanksgiving and Christmas are family holidays to be spent at home, not at a loud party. So the other teachers and I would do our best to celebrate in a familiar way. We’d exchange presents, make some of our favorite holiday dishes (although they didn’t turn out so well since none of us really knew how to cook), and reminisce about being home.
The school is in a suburban area of Dalian, and there were some great little restaurants within walking distance that we’d often eat lunch and dinner at. I found that the tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants always had the best food, and after eating authentic Chinese food for years, I don’t enjoy most of the dishes at Chinese American restaurants.
I didn’t often cook for myself, although occasionally I’d make a pot of beef and vegetable soup, or some kind of chicken and potato stir fry with rice – so my small fridge was usually pretty bare. I kept a few boxes of coffee-flavored milk and some eggs on hand for breakfast, cans of tuna and a package of hot dogs, and that was about it. Mornings usually consisted of a packet of Nescafe quickly downed before class, along with a packaged muffin or hard boiled egg. Lunch was nearly always spicy chicken and peanuts with rice from a restaurant close to school, or a package of ramen. And then the teachers would usually go out together for dinner, or sometimes make a “family dinner” in one of our apartments, like spaghetti and garlic bread with apple crisp for dessert, or we’d make homemade tortillas together for taco night. A few of us attempted to cook steak once, with the disastrous results of setting a pan of hot oil on fire.
Some of my favorite restaurant meals to eat were hot pot, where you dunk a variety of meat and vegetables into spicy simmering broth to quickly cook them. The restaurant would become so full of steam, you could barely see in front of you. Or dumplings – steamed and filled with pork and green pepper or beef and celery. There was a pancake restaurant where you get a pile of little pancakes (which are not like sweet American pancakes, but thin, soft, circles of bread) with a variety of meat or vegetable fillings to stuff inside them.
One of my students introduced me to Indian food, and I instantly fell in love with the spices and flavors. The first dish I tried was chicken and potatoes in a creamy yellow curry sauce, and I went back to that restaurant again and again for bowls of curry with rice.
While shopping downtown, there were vendors selling the best soup buns you’ve ever tasted – steamed dough filled with meat and broth. Or we’d order family style dinners at a hotel down the street where you can get 8-10 dishes and try a little of everything, like eggplant with peppers and potatoes, garlicky snap peas and crispy fried fish. There was a Mongolian restaurant near the school that had the best skewers of grilled meat and absolutely wonderful soup and bread, a perfect meal in the winter.
Dessert after meals was rare, but might have consisted of fried dough or sticky caramelized apples dipped in sweetened condensed milk, or just some fresh fruit.
I once had the opportunity to make homemade jiaozi (dumplings) at the home of one of my students with his mother and grandmother. It was quite the fun experience of making and rolling out dough, filling up little parcels, and shaping the dumplings to be pan fried or steamed, then eating together with his family.
There was also a McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut, if you were craving something familiar from the US. And you could easily find things like Oreos and chocolate bars, but sweets aren’t a big thing there like they are in the US. If you bought a popsicle or ice cream bar, you’d find flavors like sweet mango, orange cream, coconut or red bean paste. For a sweet treat, creamy bubble tea was a popular option. Buttercream on a cake is pretty much unheard of, and bakeries sold cakes frosted with whipped cream and decorated with fruit.
I traveled to so many cities in China. I visited Beijing multiple times, as it was an overnight 12-hour train ride from Dalian, so it was fun for a weekend away from the school. You could pay for a private sleeper (called a “soft sleeper”) with bunk beds to accommodate 4 people. These cars were more comfortable, with a door for privacy and security, a softer mattress, blankets and pillows.
But we usually paid for the cheaper “hard sleeper”, a train car with open bunks with firm rubber mats to sleep on stacked 3 high that we shared with dozens of other people traveling. One of us would hold up a blanket to provide a bit of privacy whenever we needed to change clothes on the train. Those hard sleeper cars were freezing cold in the winter as the wind blew in the doors at the end of the cars. And the bathrooms on the train had the typical “squatter” style toilets, that flushed through an open hole right onto the train tracks.
In Beijing I’ve seen the Great Wall of China, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, Silk Street, Jingshen Seafood Market and so many more places.
I’ve been as far south as Hong Kong, and as far north as Harbin, which is near the China-Russia border, and easily the coldest place I’ve ever experienced in my life. We went there for an ice festival in the winter, walking around in 6-7 layers of clothes and still feeling chilled to the bone. I’ve been to the Sichuan province, and floated down the Yangtze River on a boat. And also Tibet.
After finishing my third year of teaching, my friends and I decided to end our time in China with a trip to Tibet that summer. We flew into Lhasa, the capital, home of the Potala Palace (former winter home of the Dalai Lama). The elevation in Lhasa is about 12,000 feet above sea level, and I felt it the second I stepped off the plane. The sun is intense at that altitude, and it didn’t take long to feel winded, tired and headachy. The temples and music and colors and sounds and closeness to the sun makes it the most unique place I’ve ever been in my life.
Over the next few days, we drank yak butter tea and saw everything there is to see in Lhasa, although I struggled with continued headaches, a constant fever, a strange cough with a gurgling sound in my chest, and a complete inability to sleep. If I tried to lay down in bed, I couldn’t breathe, so I had to sit up all night long coughing. We stayed in hostels, even befriending a guy we had met on the plane from Chengdu to Lhasa and invited to share our room – which always seems like a great idea in your 20s – and carried all our things in huge backpacks.
After a few days in Lhasa, we drove a bit higher to Shigatse. Our plan was to spend the night at a monastery, then head to the base camp of Mount Everest and do a little hiking, just to say we did. But I never made it there. My symptoms suddenly worsened, and came to a pinnacle when I deliriously left our hostel room, walked out into a dirt road, sat down in the middle of the road, and sobbed. I remember an elderly Tibetan woman rushing over to me, putting her arms around me and hugging me.
My friends realized just how sick I was and took me to the hospital, where they x-rayed my chest and found my lungs were full of fluid. I had HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema), which is a very dangerous (and fatal, if untreated) sickness where the lung capillaries leak fluid into the lungs. Essentially, it’s like slowly drowning. Without oxygen, and/or moving to a lower altitude, it leads to death in 50% of those affected.
I was promptly given a hospital bed and an oxygen tank, and as soon as I started to breathe again, I fell asleep for the first time in 5 days. I spent the next 2 days mostly sleeping, while the oxygen healed my lungs and the fluid drained. The guys in our group continued on to Everest and met up with us a few days later, while two of my girlfriends stayed with me and shared the other small bed in my hospital room, going out to explore the city during the day while I slept.
Since this was 2004, all of this was before I had my first cell phone, let alone a smart phone, and I had no way of letting my parents know what had happened or how sick I was. But my friends were able to find an internet cafe in town to send my parents an e-mail.
A Tibetan hospital is an interesting experience, to say the least. My room had little in it except for two narrow metal bed frames holding a cot-like mattress. Nurses and doctors do not routinely wear gloves. And I’ve seen doctors go shirtless, with just their white coat on in hot weather. The nurses all gathered one day to come in and look at me, since they’d never had a foreigner stay in the hospital before. They didn’t really provide any care, other than changing the oxygen tank, so it was up to my friends to help me wash my hair in a bowl and bring me things to eat and drink when they came back after a day around town. I remember eating mostly yak meat with rice those two days.
After leaving Tibet and flying back to mainland China, we rode a cramped bus about 200 miles from Chengdu to Chongqing. The last leg of our trip was a Yangtze River Cruise (which sounds fancier than it really is), sailing from Chongqing to Yichang. We saw the infamous dam, and many deserted towns and villages on the shoreline. We had a few excursions to shore here and there, exploring the creepy, abandoned towns that had been taken over by nature with no one living there.
It’s a slow-paced way to travel for a few days on a very basic river boat, while staring at the murky polluted water, sleeping on bunk beds in a small cabin, washing up in a bowl, and almost nothing substantial to eat on the boat. We were all pretty hungry at the end, tired of ramen noodles and bananas, and in desperate need of a shower.
I remember like it was yesterday, though, leaning against the railing of the boat, my disk-man clipped to my pants and earbuds in my ears, listening to Dave Matthews or Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”, feeling utterly and completely free. But at the same time, also dreading that I would have to leave everyone in a few more days, and feeling nervous about the uncertainty of my future. Even now, when I hear that music, it takes me back to that moment.
And then, far too soon, it was time to leave and to say goodbye. These experiences, the places I saw, the people I knew, befriended, loved and who became my family, forever changed me. I always thought that I might go back to China one day, but it never happened, and it probably never will at this point.
They say you can’t go back, and I think that’s true. And if I did, I know that it wouldn’t be the same for me now as it was then, without the people that made it such a personal experience. To be honest, it wasn’t always happy and fun; there were friendships that went sour or just simply disappeared over time, other relationships that I wish I’d pursued, and many other things that I would change if I could. I think that when 20 years has passed, it’s easy to romanticize the past and forget the more difficult moments. But it will always be such an important part of my past that truly shaped me into the person I am now.
Leaving the States to move to China for three years wasn’t a hard decision to make; it felt like the most natural thing in the world to be there. It’s where I learned independence, and really, where I found myself. But deciding to leave China and my friends to come back home was so much harder.