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  • Writer's pictureSintija Tocs-Macane

Volunteer, Teach, Explore: China

Updated: Feb 15, 2022

I was chatting to some mates at my university one day and they were telling me about their exciting plans for the summer. They found this volunteering job in China through a company called Gotoco China, and all they said is that it is free, just have to pay for the plane tickets and visa and that you don’t know where in China they might send you. Gotoco China also provides a 120 hour TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate at the end of the volunteering. Well, that’s pretty much all I needed to hear to apply and start dreaming about my amazing summer plans. This was a great opportunity not just because I was prepared to spend my summer back home in Latvia, or go pick strawberries in Finland with my friends, which, don’t get me wrong, I was looking forward to, but it also meant that I would improve my Chinese language skills. This is the main reason I went. Of course, I wanted to visit China again, try out teaching and meet new people, but this was actually really useful for my degree.

After sending in the application and doing a few interviews I was offered a teaching job in Shantou, South China. I had never heard of this city, which actually for the size of China is more like a “village”. A “village” of two million people. They also said I would be there with about 28 other volunteers for six weeks. Later I found out that this school I went to took the most volunteers, which is why we had so much fun in the end. My university friends on the other hand were sent to Hangzhou, a mega city, with futuristic views, grand skyscrapers, and exciting nightlife. I got a little jealous, just because Hangzhou looked nothing like Shantou, and later it turned out we were not even in Shantou, we were in a suburb of Shantou called Chenghai ! Chenghai turned out to be kind of a mobster town, and you can read all about our adventures in Chenghai here: Two Months in a Mob Town. Also, Chenghai, as we later found out, is a toy factory capital. A mob town and a toy factory capital …weird dynamic, I know. This actually pretty much sums up China though.

I arrived in this town that felt quite empty, but one thing stood out - it was the BOB Shantou Foreign Language School sign that was massive and bright red, seen from miles away. Then it hit me - I am here to teach! In all this rush I hadn't even thought about what it would really be like to be a teacher. Going to the embassy to sort out my visa a few times, thinking about living with 30 strangers, improving my Chinese and travelling had overtaken my mind. I do sound like a person who really isn’t suitable for teaching when I went specifically to teach, but honestly there were a lot of things to think about. I met the rest of the teachers as soon as I stepped out of my taxi. Everyone seemed so excited, so happy and also a bit shocked about the fact that we would be living in a warehouse for two months. That is literally the first thing one of them said. A warehouse with a toy factory one floor above us. “Great”, I thought. I got to know everyone, most of them were from the UK, some from the USA, and just a few of us non-native English speakers. We all had different reasons why we came to China to teach; some just wanted a volunteer job on their CV, some did it for their degree, some genuinely wanted to teach. I was somewhere in the middle of all these reasons.

When the teacher's training started, which went on for a few days, I realised that I should not stress that much. The Chinese teachers separated the male and female teachers and gave us separate training, which we were confused about, but it was just because the female teachers had younger kids, and the male teachers were teaching teens and adult students. The training put me at ease, but what really made me feel like I can do this is the kids I was teaching. It did take a couple of days at first, but after that it really came naturally for most of us. To be honest, the first lesson was dreadful. I didn’t know how to fill the time of the lesson, I didn’t get any response from my 12/13 year old students, the teacher that was monitoring me was not impressed whatsoever. I felt like they hated me and felt so sorry for their parents spending all this money for what they thought would be a productive English lesson, with a Brit or an American, but instead they got a confused Latvian girl standing in front of them. However, it really was productive after the first few awkward lessons we did together, we just got used to each other. The other class I was teaching was 8 to 9 year olds. The cutest little kids, who made me feel like a great teacher as soon as I entered the room. The older kids of mine were nice, but as a teacher you immediately understand which students want to learn, which ones are there because their parents are making them go to a summer school, which ones are just there to have fun and mess with the teacher, because they aren’t interested at all. This is what the older students were like. The younger ones were really trying to impress, they would cling onto you and follow you everywhere in the school. It was sweet, and even if someone hadn’t done their homework it was unbearably difficult to pretend to be mad at them. These were just my kids though, others had students who were incredibly serious and completely devoted to learning English. Some had just started with their English language learning, and were really struggling, so the teachers had to be quite patient. Some of the littlest kids, who were nursery age, were so hyperactive, the girls who were teaching them had to have heaps of energy. However, everyone seemed to be quite happy with their students, their kids as we called them.

We were given these books, from which we had to plan our lessons from. The books were quite old, so it would lead to a few amusing lessons, like where the profession described in the book doesn’t exist anymore. We still had to work with it, and the book was only kind of like a base of the lessons. We were able to take the lessons in whichever direction we wanted, just making sure we read the dialogue, and go through the new words. Playing games was always fun, and it did not matter what age the students were - they loved it. We had to plan lessons every day, for some people it took 10 minutes, for others a couple of hours, but again it's up to you how much detail you want to put into planning. Some of us were just improvising, but still gave the best lessons. No one was really monitoring whether we had the lesson plan or not, as long as we did our best in the actual lesson. At the beginning of each week we’d have meetings with the Chinese teachers, who would update us on things like where the next day off trip is going to be, and who were the best top 10 teachers last week. Best top 10 teachers would get this little red envelope with 100 yen, which is about 10 British Pounds. They were not supposed to pay us and 100 yen was a lot in China. You could easily live on 100 yen for 2 weeks, without being too careful with your expenses.

The structure of the workweek did not change for the first couple of weeks until the Bilingual Festival, which I will go into detail in a bit. We had to teach all work days apart from Wednesday or Thursday and on Sundays, and at least 4 hours each day. Some of us, like Matty who actually wants to be a teacher, taught for 6 hours a day. If one of us would get food poisoning, which happened from time to time because two of our favourite places for dinner were the food cart, where you’d pick some veg and meat, put it in a semi-clean basket and a man would roast it all on a grill he’d never wash. We did not care, the food was amazing. Or ‘ the dumpling man’, who’s dumplings were incredible, but the hygiene levels were low, as this one time we discovered that the toilet, aka the whole in the floor, was right next to the massive dumpling pot. Seriously, the dirtier the restaurant, the better the food in China. So that would be one of the reasons, second - someone seriously would hurt themselves. As a bunch of young, reckless students, who just have realised that we can do pretty much whatever we want, because norms in China were different than in Europe or USA, we got into trouble quite a bit. So, when one of the guys played footy on a rooftop and properly fell onto the aircon and split his leg open, we had to replace him and take his lessons, or when one of the girls climbed on top of this KTV sign (again on a rooftop, which seems to be the issue, but also so much fun), fell and hurt her ankle, we obviously took her lessons whilst she recovered. Things like this happened and we were always there to help each other. We would also snap at each other, because we had to be with each other pretty much all the time, and there were thirty of us, so obviously some people you’d like more than others, but generally we really were great together, we were supportive and most of the time understanding as well.

On our days off we’d venture off somewhere beautiful. We’d start the morning with going to our local corner shop with our pal Olong Way ( or Oh So Far, as one of the girls called him), get our daily dose of ice tea in a bottle or walk those extra 10 minutes in the sauna that is South of China and sit in this Western-like café called Four Seasons and get Oreo Frappes, Mocha Frappes or a Strawberry Frappes. We were immersed in the Chinese culture, but those frappes and the aircon at Four Seasons after a walk hit differently. Anyway, we would usually go somewhere together, like a scenic place or another city/suburb of Shantou, and though sometimes it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, there was always something to see, something absolutely amazing. On the night, when we got back, we sprinted to the showers (there were 3 showers for the 30 of us, so yes we ran) and went out. Most of the time we would get properly drunk, but the thing is - we all knew that we had to teach the next day, so no matter how terrible and hungover we felt, we’d always be in the next morning at 8am, ready to teach and actually give a good lesson. We went to this crazy tequila place, where the bar staff allowed us to put on the music we wanted, and played Chinese card games with the locals. We went to this Western-style beer bar, which was quite expensive, but the owner was super nice and even served Tiny Rebel and Brewdog! Our favourite place though was KTV - Chinese karaoke. We had some mad nights at the KTV place, and I’m sure the staff still hates us. We were not disrespectful or anything, but we would go and stay till 3 or 4am and party with the mobsters, so we were the reason they were kept there for that long. We would also try to climb on the roof, of course. One night we ended up in the most bizarre situation, like this one time after leaving KTV a tea shop owned by this sweet family was still open, and half of us walked up to this tea shop and the woman who had a newborn baby just started to pass the baby around us! It’s random things like this that make going to China so worth it, especially when you can actually benefit so much from volunteering as well. For a lot of us, this trip allowed us to escape and experience something special. You can read about it in detail here: How China Saved my Mind.

The first three weeks we were there we had to teach two different groups of students, and at the end of it, to show off how massively their English has improved, the school organized a Bilingual Festival. The Bilingual Festival was a big deal. The school wouldn’t spare any expense for this Festival. It would happen in a huge hotel, where they would book a conference hall, invite all the parents and have rehearsals a week before the actual Festival. Most of the Bilingual Festival performances would be songs in English, or a play. You could see how everyone was really trying to impress their Chinese teachers and parents, less us. We tried to make sure everyone was involved, everyone displayed their talents and were confident. It required a lot of patience, but it was so much fun! I think everyone, even some of the people who didn’t enjoy teaching as much were happy and proud to be there, and be their teachers. I was beyond happy and proud, and could not stop smiling.

Then, after the bilingual festival, we were given new groups of students, which was a little sad, because we had to say goodbye to our kids, and find new ways to make the new students like us and respect us, but it was a good challenge. My second lot of kids were the opposites of each other. The first group of 12/13 year olds were crazy smart and tried their absolute best to study and do well. They loved to compete with each other and whenever I forgot to mention that they had homework, they made sure I would give them one. The second group was really hard to work with. There were about five class clowns in a group of fifteen kids, and that’s not productive to work with. With them I really went through the whole range of emotions. One day I was so done with them I really told them off, and one of them had the nerve to write “Sintija is not a good teacher” on his test. I’m not easily upset, so I just put myself in the mindset - you’re still their teacher, and you still have to do the best you can.

I still remember them fondly, and hope they are doing great. The time for our second Bilingual Festival came and it was in a hotel in Shantou, and that was only a day before our summer volunteer program had come to an end. We took pictures with our kids and their parents, and said goodbye.

Most of my colleagues, now friends went to Yangshuo and Guilin, which is a stunning region in China where you can go view the floating mountains, and have a good night out. You can read all about how peaceful and amazing this part of China is here: Yearning for Yangshuo

This trip after the teaching is also organized by Gotoco China. It’s kind of like a well-deserved holiday after teaching for 6 weeks. Unfortunately, I didn’t go because I had already booked my tickets back home, and I wasn’t able to go to Yangshuo and Guilin and then go back to Guangzhou where my flight was from in 3 days. So, I decided I was going to Shenzhen, since I haven’t been. The best thing about Shenzhen turned out to be the food, and I have actually written a blog about how it’s an amazing place for foodies here: Shenzhen, New Destination for Foodies?

This trip has been the most rewarding and amazing experience I have ever had in my life. I miss China every day, and I miss the people I was with (except for Matty because now I get to live with him every day), I miss the feeling of freedom. I miss my kids and the school. I even miss our shitty compound, and the roof birthdays, graduations, and just relaxed nights up there. Being a teacher turned out to be something I actually loved doing, something I had never looked at as a profession I would like to pursue, but after China I can’t wait to go back and do it again. The feelings you go through as a teacher are different every 10 minutes. I've cried after my lessons, I’ve laughed at what some of the kids come up with, I have been extremely proud and happy and incredibly annoyed and angry, and all of this in a two hour time period. Children I taught gave me so much energy and desire to make every lesson enjoyable, so that they would want to engage. Finding different approaches on how to communicate with children who had different backgrounds, personalities and ways of thinking was challenging but extremely rewarding. I would go on this program again and again and again.


Thank you so much for reading guys!

Please be sure to go check out Gotoco China website and their Instagram full of beautiful videos and pictures from volunteer experiences. They also have launched a YouTube channel and blog, so if you are interested in applying have a look at their Linktree.

You can also apply to volunteer through the Linktree link!

The Gotoco team is super nice, so if you have any questions, we're sure they'd love to hear from you.

Also, I you have more questions about this experience, don't hesitate to message us as well.


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