A Chinese performer performing a dragon dance during the Spring festival.

A new adventure

Words and photos by Tim Jamieson

When I first arrived at Shanghai airport I took one look at the mass of people waiting for immigration and scoured the list of destinations on the departures board. New York, Bangkok, Sydney.

Any place that wasn’t here.

Last call for the 12:25 to Helsinki?


I stared out at the sea of people surging forward in front of me and I couldn’t help but feel I’d made a big, big mistake.

My palms were sweating when I eventually made it to the front and handed over my passport to the official who, by all appearances, hated his job. I managed a half smile as he swished through the pages of my brand new passport in an obvious attempt to rip them out. I tried to act calm as he looked me up and down one last time and finally slammed down the stamp in the middle of a blank page.

It was done.

After months of interviews and waiting for documents to process, I’d finally passed though Chinese immigration.

I collected my backpack from the carousel which looked as bad as I felt. I shrugged it onto my shoulders and walked out into the arrival hall. I shuffled forwards and stared at all the people waiting for the new arrivals: businessmen shaking hands, parents picking up babies, lovers embracing. I needed a hug.

Instead all I got was a shout from a skinny guy holding up a sign of my misspelt name, a face mask pulled down around his chin, smoking a cigarette. He offered me one and rapidly fired Chinese at me, I declined and it was very apparent we wouldn’t be communicating with each other.

We walked out to the car in silence, I jumped in the back and off we went.

I had never felt so nervous before in my whole life.

Two hours later I checked into my hotel that would be my home for the next few days. I picked up my phone. I seriously debated calling a taxi to take me back to the airport but I took one look at the screen and put it down. I didn’t know what planet I was on let alone how to order food, take a taxi or generally look after myself, so that was it.

I was stuck here.

A week of apartment hunting, training, medical checks and meeting colleagues whizzed by. It was painfully obvious that my hastily-bought-online-at-a-discount TEFL course had taught me exactly nothing about teaching English.

What the hell was the past perfect continuous tense anyway?

I had one day left before I had to teach my first class. The terror took hold. I felt like hurling up the budget dumplings I’d wolfed down for lunch that had looked so good at the roadside stall, that had tasted so good going down, but I feared were so close to coming back up and decorating the wall of my new apartment.

My stomach gurgled.

Quite frankly had I projectile vomited my lunch everywhere it probably would have improved the decor, distracting the eye from the grey-green walls and various stains splattered on the skirting boards. It occurred to me then in my panic that whoever had painted the apartment really didn’t like the owner, or perhaps, just didn’t care that generally paint is for the walls; not the floor, sofa or refrigerator.

It took me a long time to sleep that night.

I made it through a fitful slumber, managed to hold down a bowl of cereal and left for work. The hours flew by until I found myself five minutes before my first class standing in front of the bathroom mirror trying in vain not to hyperventilate. I looked over my lesson plan for the twentieth time, which looked more like a detailed manual for assembling a flatpack Ikea dog kennel than the key that would get me through the next ninety minutes.

I took one more deep breath, walked down the hall and pushed open the door to the classroom.

Ten young faces all looked up from their desks and a collective gasp left their mouths. Then they went nuts. I tried my best to get them to listen to me, I threw game after game at them. I skipped over to the corner to decipher my lesson plan every five minutes trying desperately to stay on course.

I jumped around the room like an ape. The teaching assistant spent most of the time staring at me open mouthed, no doubt wondering if she should send for a doctor or if I was way past help by that point. Then it was over.

Everyone shouted goodbye, I collected my things and slid out of the door. I stood with my back against the wall and took a deep breath, resting my head against the whitewash. I felt a tug at my jeans and a little boy was holding out a hideous mess of something in his hand. I was pretty sure it was food, but I wasn’t sure if it had already been eaten or not.

“It’s for you. It’s chicken,” said the teaching assistant as she came out of the classroom.

“Er, thanks,” I said, deftly wrapping it up in a tissue and putting it in my pocket for discreet disposal later on. The boy tottered off and I managed to ask how she thought my lesson went.

“Actually it wasn’t too bad,” she said, “the students like you. Just do that thirteen more times this week and you’ll be fine.”

Then she walked off, leaving me alone to contemplate the life choices I’d made.

It was going to be a long first week.

I learned on my feet. The weeks passed and then the months and before I knew it I was a confident teacher who would go into work every day and enjoy the job, enjoy the classes and look forward to spending some time with the students. No more panic for me, just exhaustion at the end of a hard working week.

I discovered the delectable variety of Chinese food (soggy chicken feet aside) so different to the fare found in England. I travelled in my time off and soaked up the vast and rich history of China and its culture. The natural beauty of the country alone had me hooked.

The months turned into a year and then six months more passed. It was over. My life in China had come to an end, time had warped and fast-forwarded me into the future.

I found myself waiting at the airport to fly out of China. A whole new set of emotions greeted me, but this time, I didn’t want to leave. I stood in the queue to face the another grumpy looking official ready to facilitate my departure. I’d met so many people along the way, other foreigners from all over the world, Chinese colleagues who taught me how to be a teacher but most importantly, my students.

They were the hardest thing to leave. I taught them English but they taught me a whole lot more about living and quite honestly, changed my life. All of the students I’ve taught have had an impression on me in one way or another.

There’s Doc who’s twelve years old and is the most curious bundle of creativity I’ve ever come across in a person before or since, his doodles covering the whiteboard before class were always a highlight of my Saturday.

There’s Frank who’s four and in every class tried so hard to pronounce his name but could only ever manage a very enthusiastic, “I’m Flankuh!”

Or Cindy who would always come and find me when she arrived at school to show me the new ballet moves she’d just learnt. Other staff would have to sidestep and jump out of the way of this tiny girl twirling around and doing the splits in the middle of the teachers office.

So many busy young minds that I’d see for an hour and a half each week and throw as much English at them as I could, in the hope that some would stick. Even the nightmare classes. The ones that seemed to be filled with misbehaving imps spawned from the devil itself.

They improved as I got better at teaching, the kids became funny and less annoying and little by little my confidence improved. Each day the lessons went by quickly.

I could hear planes taking off somewhere outside as I stood in front of the booth waiting to get my passport back. I thought about my time in China and all the students I’d met. I thought about all my classes that had been taken over by a brand new teacher from the exotic land of the United States of America.

I thought about each of the individual personalities and I wandered who they would turn out to be, what they would achieve, what they would fail at and ultimately what kind of people they would become. When the journey is over and it’s time to move on all you can do is think back and appreciate the time you had, the people you met and the things you learnt.

Even though I was leaving I felt happy, I knew one day I’d come back to China and start a new adventure all over again.