Goodbye, Acne. Goodbye, China.

I just gave up the only job I’m probably ever going to have that requires me to work less than 20 hours a week, only eight months a year, and pays me for two of the other four. But before you call me crazy, hear me out.

Some of you know from our Skype chats that a few weeks after arrival in China my face exploded in a shattered array of white and red zits much like the firework pattern I witnessed nightly from my apartment there (the students light them off whenever an upperclassmen starts dating a freshmen girl). At first I thought it was just the small breakout that occurs each time I travel to a new country, but before I knew it, the acne had manifested and refused to dissipate.

Not only is it the most hideous, disgusting, embarrassing, hibernation-worthy thing that’s ever happened to me (it definitely tops falling in the pool at that swanky L.A. party), but it was painful and itchy, too.

I tried to remedy it with internet research and frequent visits to Watsons, and each time I would try something new, it would appear to heal – but only temporarily. By the end of four months, I knew I needed to see a dermatologist, and that I wasn’t going to do it on the mainland after the stories I’d heard. One of my friends went to get his testicle tested and was told they needed to operate. Thankfully, he denied their urgent request and returned to the U.S. instead, where the doctors told him he surely would have died in the Chinese operating room had the doctors done what they suggested. (He blogs about this experience and many others here.)

I know my acne doesn’t pose a death threat, but I’ve also seen the inside of two hospitals that I don’t care to revisit, and been totally ripped off at a private clinic. Plus, all of these experiences were met with doctors who didn’t speak English well enough to satisfy my need to know what I’m putting in and on my body.

Then I thought, Maybe it will just go away when I leave China? It did improve rapidly in my first two weeks away, but then it got worse again. So I finally went to a skin doctor (India’s doctors are quite reputable and they speak English) with one of my Couchsurf hosts and have been following a strict regimen since. It improved, however painfully slow, and I’m confident it will fade in due time.

I’m not confident, however, that if I return to China I can handle another four months of the acne at it’s worst. In fact, I don’t think another four months of an awesome job (albeit in a country I don’t really enjoy living in) is worth the potential scars I could be left with on the one part of my body that’s impossible to hide. I’ve decided instead to follow my heart, not knowing exactly where it would lead me. When I really listened however, it screamed for Thailand.

When my plane landed in Bangkok, I felt like I had come home. And since I’ve arrived, things have fallen into place. I’m staying with a friend who, unbeknownst to me, lives one block from my agency’s office. My old boss is pulling magic cards out of an ordinary deck to find me a job at this point in the semester (the Thai school year will end around March 15), and has promised to even hire me as a substitute for next semester, should I still be here.

Until my position is confirmed (a two-month summer camp is probable), I’ll be bouncing around the country working with English Camps (Get paid to travel around Thailand? Yes, please!), the first of which is in Khao Yai National Park. Even though I didn’t particularly enjoy the teaching part of my stay before, I’m excited to give it another chance with a different school.

So far, my heart has yet to lead me astray. I think I’ll listen to it more often. China can keep it’s (up-and-over-the-top-of-the-charts) pollution, sulfuric water, oily foods and whatever other component is responsible for messing up my face. I’ll be just fine right here. And when I’m not anymore, I’ll leave.

Goodbye, Acne. Goodbye, China.
Written by:Jessica J. Hill

I Miss My Ex, But Not All of It

After teaching in China, I’ve been forced to admit how much I didn’t enjoy teaching in Thailand. It’s like the opposite of the phrase, “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”

I relate my experience more to a bad relationship – one where you don’t realize it’s bad until you’ve moved on to realize what a good relationship actually is. Now that Thailand and I broke up, I have not forgotten all the things I love about it – it will always be my first love, an affair that taught me a lot about myself and my partner – but I have since discovered one thing I didn’t like: Teaching.

My freshmen university students here, in China, are absolutely fabulous. They actually want to be in class, for starters, not just because their teacher is white, but because they want to learn. They understand what I’m saying (it’s a dream come true!) and actively participate when asked. Even the not-so-enthusiastic classes will come to the front of the room and speak, even if reluctantly.

In Thailand, if a student was adamant about not speaking (which is the reason they were in my class), they would simply run out of the room shed. I do understand there are some vast differences between my high-school-aged students (eighth graders and sophomores) and my college freshmen when it comes to maturity and taking control of their own education, as is true in any country (in fact, I spent a lot of time defending my Thai students for these very reasons), but there are some other huge factors that play into it too.

Chinese students are told on the day they are born how important it is to be educated, and they spend their entire childhood studying and stressing about their college entrance exams. It’s a part of the culture to be studious, and more than half of my students named reading and studying as hobbies (as well as sleeping and eating, but that’s another story).

In rural Thailand, the emphasis on education is much lower. A priority list with education at the top exists for few, and not one of my students was ever caught reading a book. Students will skip class for reasons such as helping with the family farm or being too tired from a field trip (like I was after this one), and it’s perfectly acceptable in a country that allows students to drop out after freshman year of high school.

Many of my Thai eighth grade students will choose that option, and the few who do finish twelfth grade won’t further their studies at university. They have other priorities, like caring for the family and helping mom with the family’s street-food stand.

I realize it’s completely unfair to compare China to Thailand – they are very different countries in almost every respect of the word. However, just like a girl can’t help comparing one boyfriend to the last, it’s hard not to make these kinds of connections.

Living in China could (and will) never take away the unbeatable adventure I had in Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia, but I loved those countries for their people, their culture, their food, their sites, etc., not necessarily because I loved my job. I’m forced to see that now, as unfair to my ex (Thailand) as that is, but teaching is the only contrast I will allow myself to make.

I foresee my time in China being no less than wonderful, and though I know my job will be more fulfilling and beneficial to my future than any of my days in front of a white board in Thailand, I don’t believe the rest of my China experience will ever be able to top my village life in Thailand.

Five Things I’ve Learned About My Students

After my first week of teaching, I’m left ecstatic and exhausted. I’m really pleased with how great my students are; how much they understand; how willing they are to participate; how eager they are to learn. But I’m tired of standing on my feet all day in uncomfortable (but really cute!) shoes. It’s taking some getting used to on my end after five months of travel and relaxation (I know, life’s rough), but they’re just excited to finally be at university.

I hear it’s a typical first week for freshmen classes to act this way, and that once the newness of both college life and a foreign teacher wear off (probably about the same time I’ll break in my shoes), they’ll begin to slack off. I hope that doesn’t happen, but it’s easy for me to see that even if it does, I’ll still think my students are as sweet as peaches when compared to my broom-stick-fighting, spit-wad-shooting, elementary-level high school kids in Thailand.

Aren’t they sweet?

During our introduction lesson, the students asked me a lot of the same questions I asked them: Where are you from? What are your hobbies? How old are you? (Every class guessed 18…err, that’s a good thing, right?) and Why did you come to Peizheng?

I told them I came because I want to learn about Chinese culture, and that teaching allows me to do that. “Why do you want to teach us?” one student asked, to which I replied that one of the best perks of being a teacher is that I constantly get to learn new things.

“By being in this classroom together, you get to practice your English. And I get to learn about you, your culture, your country and your ideas.”

Here are five things I learned from, and about, my students last week:

1. Peizheng wasn’t their first choice for university. Chinese students spend all of junior and senior high cramming for their college entrance exams – a rigorous test often compared to the SAT’s, but with far higher consequences. And they only get one shot.

A good score can send them to one of the country’s top public universities (the best, with ivy-league-comparable options) for very little tuition. A bad score means they’re forced to choose a private college, and pay more than triple the price. Peizheng is a private university charging more than $3,300/year, according to one of my students. A government school would be somewhere around the $600 mark.

2. They don’t always get to choose what they study. Three of my classes are full of marketing majors. Two of those (about 40 kids) didn’t choose marketing. In fact, most of them chose business administration (Peizheng is a business school with a high priority on learning English), but that major was already full, so the college chose for them.

Some of my students, like my accounting majors, were forced into their choice by their parents, though they hate the thought of working with numbers.

The other half of my classes did get their major of choice, and are unaware of the problem facing their peers. Luckily, they chose majors the school needed to fill, like law, psychology and marketing.

3. They LOVE China. There are several questions the students will ask, to which there is only one right answer. For example, “Do you like China?” obviously has a positive answer. China is communist, and all of my students believe it is quite possibly the best country ever. But the trick question? “Do you like China or America better?”

Answering America would leave them dumbfounded and questioning why I’m here, but eventually they would realize America is my home. Answering China would bring a big smile to their shining faces, but then, once they realize how unnationalistic that is of me, it would quickly fade.

It seems even trick questions have only one answer: I love them both, for different reasons.

4. The boys want girlfriends. The girls just giggle. Nearly all of my male students found a way to talk about girls in class, whether we were discussing favorite hobbies (“watching girls”) or how beautiful the campus is (“the girls are very beautiful too”), but all of my girls are too shy to reciprocate, unless it’s for a friend.

I had groups of two come up and deliver an impromptu introduction conversation. One girl wrote down her partner’s phone number on the chalkboard and told all the boys to write it down. And they did.

Yes, those are their chosen English names.

5. They have curfew, every night, in their dorm rooms. If they don’t return on time, they’re locked out for the night. None of them want to experience this because it means an uncomfortable night sleeping outside (like I did my freshmen year of college), or getting a ride to town after the buses have finished for the night and paying for a hotel.

On any given night, a walk around campus is shared by couples holding hands on the river path, or canoodling on a park bench – their only “alone” time outside of the rooms they share with at least three roommates of the same sex.

On Friday night, I saw girls dressed for the opera, others dressed for the club, and all of them just wandering around campus or eating dessert because they don’t have time to go into the city. They make the best of their time, and the innocence is adorable.

For Chinese students, all of these things are normal, so they don’t sit around talking about how they wish they could be at the bangin’ keg party on Greek row. They don’t need to go to the bar and drink until they puke because it’s legal for them to go and have one or two beers, then call it an early night.

They’re in it together, and they seem to have light-hearted spirits about the things they can’t change, like their poor exam scores and the major they’re stuck with for the next four years.

To them, freshmen year of college holds the same amount of freedom it did for us at 18 – freedom from parental rules, freedom to make their own friends, and freedom to go out to dinner whenever and with whomever they choose, as long as they do it within curfew limits.

Do you have any questions for my students?