Authored by Liz Smith
The most rewarding travel moments are when you can have an experience that few others achieve.
When it comes to exploring China, visiting popular tourist sites like the Great Wall or eating Peking Duck may satisfy the bucket list, but that makes your experience just like any other tourist.
So when we visited China, we wanted to make our experience unforgettable and uncover the real China that few tourists ever get to see. We decided to teach English in China, and on reflecting back, have the following advice for those looking to achieve an immersive trip.
Uncover the Real China that Few Tourists Ever Get to See (Teach English in China)
It’s Not Length of Stay, but Befriending Locals
Most of us feel that staying longer in a destination allows you to see more than just the popular touristy spots. While that can be true, it’s not always the case.
There have been times where we’ve stayed for months in some locations (like Bali or Thailand) and found ourselves surrounded by other travelers or digital nomads. We realized that we didn’t feel like we were learning about the authentic culture at all.
Truly one of the best ways to really gain insight into local cultures and traditions (which we find the most fascinating) is to make some local friends. Especially with a country like China – there are so many interesting aspects to learn…it seems like everything has some kind of meaning!
Luckily in China, it’s pretty easy to make local friends as a foreigner. Chinese people really want to share their culture with other people, and they are fascinated to learn about our culture too. They love telling the stories and explaining what everything means, and it gives them a way to practice their English.
Be Both Student & Teacher in China
If you want to stay in China for more than just a few weeks and build a network of local friends, one of the best ways is to find a job teaching English in China.
We found jobs living and working on the outskirts of Guangzhou, a major Chinese city just over the border from Hong Kong in the south of China. But even though we were supposed to be the teachers in China, often times it felt like we were the students.
We were constantly asking questions like “what’s up with all the red” and “why do you have so many firecrackers over Chinese New Year?” Both our Chinese co-workers and even our students were quick to offer us explanations. It seemed the more we learned, the more we wanted to know.
Our minds were filled with so much new knowledge about Chinese culture, that it didn’t take long before we were gushing to our family back home.
A Real Cultural Exchange
The reaction of our friends and family was further intrigue. So in a way, we were taking what we learned and sharing it with others beyond China too. And isn’t that really what traveling is about? It’s not just seeing a destination, but experiencing a real cultural exchange.
One of the best aspects of teaching adults in China is that it gave me an opportunity to make friends with all of my students. We often spent classes talking about culture, traditions, and even difficult issues — comparing life in China to my life in the USA and even other countries. It was eye-opening for my Chinese students, as well as myself.
While Josh primarily taught young kids in China, he actually had a very close bond with his Chinese co-workers and became good friends with them. They often talked about the differences in love and dating, since many of them were young professionals and at that age in life.
It was all of these things together that brought us to a much deeper understanding of China, and gave us the ability to experience the country through a whole different lens than a typical tourist.
Traveling Like a Local Because of Our Friendships
Traveling in China isn’t always easy, especially given the language barrier. This is where having local friends was a huge benefit to us!
Our co-workers and students were always recommending different local restaurants and places to visit. I even created a special class for my students where I had them write out detailed itineraries recommending special places to visit around China, and they had to practice telling me how to visit these places along with some tips (now that’s a win-win).
Also, having our close network of local friends was a benefit because they would sometimes act as our tour guide, taking us to some amazing places that we didn’t know about. Having them travel with us was a huge benefit because they could also translate for us, which made the experience so much more enjoyable.
The generosity of our Chinese friends seemed to be endless. Using our WeChat connection on our phones (China’s social media platform) our friends would offer to translate for us if we needed them while traveling around China.
There were definitely some times when we were traveling alone and experienced some confusion – so we could text our friends, send pictures and ask them to translate, or just give the phone to our taxi driver to talk with them! They made our experience in China so much more enjoyable!
Experiencing Chinese Traditions With Locals
Few tourists get to spend Chinese New Year making dumplings from scratch in the home of a local family, but it was one of our favorite memories. Pounding the meat, rolling the dough, and stuffing / pinching closed each dumpling by hand. It’s a family tradition, and we felt honored to be a part of it.
We even learned of a game they play, hiding things like a clove of garlic or a hot pepper in some of the dumplings. During the celebration, the family eats the dumplings together and those who bite into these special dumplings are said to have good luck the next year.
It wasn’t just the Chinese holiday traditions, it was everyday activities that allowed us to do more than just peer through a window into their culture. We went for lazy afternoons walking or biking in beautiful parks, and sat around eating Chinese BBQ — eating endless skewers of grilled meats and veggies with savory spices and seasoning while drinking beer.
We even sat one long afternoon at a tea house that floated on a lake in the middle of the countryside – a place where you will find no foreign tourist. We learned the traditional tea ceremony, and spent the whole day sipping tea, watching the birds on the lake and learning how to play Chinese strategy table games.
And at night, we even came to enjoy the crazy times belting our hearts out at KTV, singing classic Bon Jovi songs and rocking out like karaoke stars, something we would never do back home in the States. Maybe in some ways, Josh and I even began to turn a little Chinese ourselves.
Embed Yourself Within the Community & You Will Be Forever Changed
When we talk to people about our time in China, they are often amazed at just how much we got to experience and how much we learned in such a short time. But that’s because we weren’t just a tourist — we found a way to actually work and be able to live like a local.
During our time in China we didn’t just hang out with other expats or digital nomads, we embedded ourselves within the community. We made local friends, did local activities, and exchanged cultures. And in the end, we can’t help but feel like we made an impact on their lives just as much as they impacted ours.
This kind of deeper level cultural experience is difficult for most travelers to achieve. However, that’s what made our time in China the most rewarding of any travel experience we have had around the world.
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