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A Graduate in China - Where I Arrive in Guangzhou to Start Teaching English

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CHINA
Ng Han Guan, AP

Ni hao from Guangzhou! Why am I here, one of 13 million in China's third largest city? And what am I doing, a middle-class history graduate in the heart of this humid, sub-tropical centre of Oriental industry?

It was Easter when I decided not to take up my university place for a law conversion course, increase my debt and still be unemployed. Instead, I invested £900 in a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course (TEFL) in order to follow my girlfriend East.

Surely this was also an excellent way to expand my CV and open up employment opportunities across the planet? In fact, the TEFL course taught me more about grammar than 13 years of school and three of university! What's a gerund among friends?

My problems began when the course ended. I had sorted out a job in China before I started the TEFL course, largely because my girlfriend and a few other university friends were already there. But I do not recommend getting a job before doing a TEFL.

This is why. Two weeks after completing the course, a lady I had never spoken to at the Phoenix City School emailed me in a brusque manner demanding my TEFL certificate. I told her that it took a number of weeks to process the certificate and made a joke about British bureaucracy verses Chinese efficiency. In hindsight, this was not a good idea.

My jokes went down like talk of Tibetan independence and I realised that humour was not the way forward. As the correspondence continued it became clear that she was an Oriental version of the school matron: commanding yet sympathetic.

I signed a contract that said I would start on 1 September, but as the emails went from one side of the world to the other, August all but disappeared. Once it became clear that I would not be going at the same time as my girlfriend and other new teachers, I resigned myself to a start a couple of weeks later.

More hurdles suddenly appeared on the track. It appeared that my teaching experience was insufficient to obtain a working permit. This had not happened to my peers, who had applied barely weeks earlier. The law had changed. Two years' teaching experience were now necessary to obtain a work permit. This school appeared to know nothing of the tightened legislation.

But hurdles are put there for jumping and I made it at the second attempt. I've now been in China for two and a half weeks and have been teaching most days. The problem with accepting a job before getting your hands on a TEFL certificate is that language schools need all your documents before they can apply for your visa. I am known here as a 'foreign expert' which means I have a skill and/or qualification to prove it. Remember that if you decide to follow my footsteps.

The journey here was not one I would wish on a school matron, or anyone. Family visits, a lingering hangover from a drunken reunion with university friends, luggage 10kg overweight, tearful farewells, a desperate conversation with the check-in lady and a Burger King. All that and eventually I was on the plane.

Not having a personal TV screen was as bad as all the visa disappointments. The Atlantic was not like this! A mere 19 hours of flying and two hours of immigration later I arrived to meet a gleeful girlfriend and my 'school matron', a very small, over-excited Chinese lady of around 25.

My first impressions were smog, heat and traffic. How can a city the size of Guangzhou manage with an airport terminal about the size of Stansted's? The sheer volume of people and cars make the arrivals pick-up area utterly chaotic.

But that was serene compared to what followed: my first experience of Chinese roads. With heavy traffic in Britain, most road users stay in their lane and weather the storm. But in China, at the first sign of congestion, everyone changes lane as a point of principle. Hairy manoeuvres in one direction while indicating the opposite are normal. Lorries heaving with cargoes of all shapes and sizes lumber along in the middle lane and the horn does not signal discontent, but determine intent. To beep whenever and wherever possible is expected.

After an hour of near-death experiences I made it to my home for the next eight months. In this blog I will chart my experiences for your edification and, hopefully, entertainment. There is already much to tell.

I look forward to discussing the differences between China and Britain, between the Orient and the Occident and supplying Huffington readers with an idea of life in this part of the world. Post your comments and questions and I'll do my best to answer.

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