How Did I Get Here?

We’ve had a bit of a lull here lately, with nothing much new to report (still waiting on spring!), so I thought I would do a more reflective blog post today. I’ve had several potential world-travelers email me or Facebook message me recently, asking about the specifics on how to go about teaching overseas. There are several different ways that you can go about getting a job overseas, but the way we chose was relatively hassle-free (as hassle-free as moving to China can be), so I have decided to divulge my secrets.

Let me start by saying, though, that if you had come up to me one year ago and told me, “By this time next year, you’ll be living in China,” I would have doubled over in laughter. Moving to China was never really my dream. It was more Justin’s dream, and I nurtured his dream in a, “Sure, when we’re old and gray and the children (who we don’t yet have) are grown, maybe we’ll move to China,” kind of way. But I never, in my wildest dreams, realized that the opportunity to move overseas would arrive so soon.

As everyone knows, the economy in America, and all over the place, really, is doing very poorly (not in China, though! But I’m getting ahead of myself). I was a high school teacher living in Tallahassee, Florida and commuting one hour (each way) to a little country town called Blountstown where I taught ninth and tenth grade English. Schools across America are going through a period of “educational reform,” which sounds really nice on the outside, but on the inside of the classroom, it means shoving classic literature to the side (like Great Expectations and Romeo and Juliet) and instructing students on how to take a multiple choice test. I compromised with my curriculum a little (after all, I did want my students to be prepared for the test, but I also wanted them to experience The Odyssey….is that wrong?), but I did not compromise quite enough for my administrators’ liking, and at the end of the school year that decision cost me my job.

I’ve never been let go from a job before, and I must say, it’s a really horrible feeling, somewhat akin to the first time I was ever dumped by a boyfriend. People who slack off during work hours and don’t care about their job, they deserve to be let go, without a doubt. But to drive two hours each day to do work that I really love and pour my soul into, and to be told at the end of the year that they don’t want me to come back? That was heartbreaking, and it’s a feeling that I share with a million other Americans who are experiencing something similar in their own career fields right now. It left me feeling kind of lost, wondering, “What now?”

Of course, I started applying to other schools and other school districts. Many places these days kind of laugh when you walk through the door with a job application. I once had a rude secretary tell me with a smug smile, “We’re not hiring any teachers this year–only firing them,” and she barely waited for me to walk out the door before dropping my application in the wastebasket. I had a couple of job interviews that summer, for jobs that doubtless 800 other out-of-work teachers had also applied for. I was feeling pretty hopeless.

Then Justin planted this seed in my mind about teaching overseas. He had an entire Pro/Con list ready for me (heavy on the “Pros” of course): Pro: I would still be able to teach, Pro: We don’t own a home yet, making it easier to leave, Pro: We don’t have any children yet, also making it easier to leave, Pro: It would end my fruitless American job search. Con: We would have to find someone to care for our cat while we’re gone, Con: We would miss our family and friends while we’re gone, Con: We’ll probably get tired of Chinese food.

At first, I was completely against moving to China. Forget the Pro/Con list–it’s CHINA! It’s as far as you can get across the globe before you begin circling back again! I don’t even speak Chinese or care to learn! I completely dismissed the idea. But then, one day when I had been filling out job applications for hours on end, I secretively did a quick Google search on teaching overseas. A million websites came up, and I clicked on a few of them. They all had pages that said, “Want to learn more? Fill out your information below, and we’ll get you started!” I thought….”What’s the harm in learning more?” So I filled out a few forms. Can I just say, filling out those forms took two minutes (as opposed to the two hours it usually takes me to complete a twelve-page application for a school district), and people emailed me and/or called me back immediately (as opposed to having to call the school district myself and say, “Did you ever happen to look at my application that I sent you a month ago?”). Isn’t that how a job search is supposed to work? With the realistic expectation that you will actually end up with a job?

So I finally admitted to Justin that I was coming around to the idea of teaching for one year in China, and he was really excited. Things weren’t going very well at his engineering firm, either. One by one, employees were being let go, the company was receiving fewer and fewer jobs to work on, and Justin felt that it was only a matter of time before the elderly owner would decide to close up the business and retire while he still had money left. Justin and I were both ready to make the move, and we pretty much had nothing to lose.

So, the moment you’ve been waiting for….here is how we ended up moving to China, and how you can do it too, if you’re interested:

1) We found a reputable recruiter.  There are a bunch of recruiters listed out there on the internet–some are legitimate, and some are just waiting to scam you out of your money. I think there is always a leap of faith that you must make with these recruiters because you will inevitably have to pay them a lot of money up front and then wait for them to do their magic and hope that they come through for you. However, we strongly recommend researching your recruiter. You can look them up on websites like the Better Business Bureau, or check to see if their website is legitimate by looking them up on www.whois.com. However, I would not recommend trying to bypass the recruiter and getting to China on your own. If you think there are scammers in America, you’d better believe there are scammers in China waiting for some naive foreigner to wire tons of money overseas. We decided to go with Keith Curran who works for Journey East. Their website is www.journeyeast.org. They are a small company based out of Connecticut, and it is difficult to find a lot of information about them online, but you have at least one person (me!) vouching that they are the real deal.

2. We decided to both teach at a public university. Justin originally wanted to look for an engineering job in China, but I convinced him to teach with me so that we could use our school breaks to do some traveling–a wise move! We also, at the recommendation of Keith Curran, decided to teach at a public university instead of a private language school. Keith warned us that many Chinese private language schools operate during inconvenient hours (often after “normal” school, from 4PM to 9PM) and on weekends and holidays. I was considering going with a larger, more reputable company called English First, and Keith warned me that if I went with them, I would never get to see the outside of my classroom walls. After living in China for a while now, visiting a language school firsthand, and talking with other foreigners here who have gotten burned by private language schools, I know we made the right decision. Keith was able to talk with our school administrators on our behalf and negotiate the highest possible salary with the least amount of working hours so that we would have plenty of time to explore and travel.

3. We had to wait for our Z-Visas. It is alarmingly easy to get a teaching job in China. If you are a native English speaker and you have a Bachelor’s degree in anything, there are millions of universities across China who are waiting to welcome you with open arms. (In fact, Justin and I get job offers from random people on the street almost weekly now, but that’s another blog entry entirely.) Likewise, getting accepted into the Journey East program was a snap. I filled out a form online, and Keith called me the very next day and set up a phone interview. Justin and I did the interview on speaker phone, and he called us back a few days later and said that we had a spot. He told us the locations that he had connections with that were still available, and we had NO IDEA where to move, so we picked the one that was right in the middle of China, near Shanghai (Huzhou). Then we had to fill out a million papers (still not as bad as those school district papers, though!), and we each had to get a physical at the doctor and get her to fill out forms about our health. I had to get an expedited passport since mine had expired, but luckily Justin already had his. Then we sent a big Fed-Ex envelope full of important papers, passports, and a LOT of money to Keith Curran at Journey East (see why there’s a leap of faith involved?). Then we waited. And waited. A month went by. People asked us, “Are you guys still planning to go to China? When is that exactly?” And we would have to shrug our shoulders and admit that we didn’t know the exact date because we were still waiting. We got angry with Keith because of all of the waiting, but we eventually had to realize that it wasn’t his fault. We weren’t waiting on Keith, we were waiting on the Chinese government to decide that it would be okay for us to live and work in China for a year. Altogether, they took about two months to approve us and send us our visas. We literally got them in the mail three days before our flight to Shanghai–it was a nail-biter!

4. We had to wrap up our affairs in the United States. We did a lot of things to prepare for our big move. We packed up everything that we own and hauled it into a storage unit in Tallahassee. We frantically begged everyone we know to take our cat for us, and our couple-friends, Tiffany and Ruben, acquiesced (we’re coming back for him, Tiffany! Only four more months). I sold my car, ironically, to a Chinese guy who is living as an ex-pat in America for a few years. Justin decided to keep his car, and his dad is taking really good care of it for us. We had to adjust our car insurance, cancel our cell phone plan, renew Justin’s car registration ahead of time, get automatic bill pay going for our bills…..there were a lot of things to wrap up before leaving! But in the end, we managed to get it all done. Pretty soon though, we’ll have to figure out how to file our taxes, factoring in income earned overseas….yikes.

Though it may have been a lot of work getting here, and it took a lot of convincing and arguing before our parents finally gave us their blessings, Justin and I have never regretted our decision. We miss home sometimes, but we know that we’ll be back soon. Every day here is a new experience–something strange or unexpected ALWAYS happens. To anyone contemplating teaching overseas, especially in China, I say, go for it! (And if you really need to, like I did, try the Pro/Con list.)

What have you got to lose?

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