Why I Almost Didn't Go to China

December 10, 2015

It's hard to believe that soon I'll have been living in China for four full months. Time is flying by so fast and every week it seems like I'm either traveling, exploring Shanghai, or attending an event. Trust me, that is not a complaint! I couldn't be happier with my choice to move to China, but last year I started having health problems and doubts about whether or not moving to China was the right decision for me. At one point, I even told the program I went through that I would not be able to work in China at all this year. Let me explain...

Last year both socially and professionally, I had a rough time so I began to consider working overseas again pretty early on, which was my initial reason for even getting a Masters in Education and a teaching license to begin with. Although my previous experiences working abroad had been positive, I was still a little hesitant to be 100% committed to the idea of living abroad again. While I wanted to leave the high-stress working environment I was in behind, I worried about whether or not my future school might have a whole new set of problems that could potentially come with it. I decided that I would feel more comfortable working at a school if I could talk to someone that I trusted who was already working there. Since my friend Rachael was employed at a school in Shanghai, I started messaging her and asked her all about the school, curriculum, the city, and the housing. I liked what I heard, so I decided to apply as soon as I possibly could even though I did have a few reservations which I'll list below.

Worry #1: "Am I too old for this?" When I worked as an ESL teacher in Korea, I was 22 years old, fresh out of college, and had no teaching experience. The majority of expat teachers in my school were in their early 20's like me or else in their late 20's. I couldn't help but worry and wonder if I would be the odd one out as someone in my 30's.

What persuaded me: Rachael reassured me and told me that she was the youngest teacher and that most teachers were in their late 20's and early 30's. She mentioned that there were a bunch of young teachers, but there were also teachers that were a lot older. She convinced me that I was being silly and to go for it!

Another factor that influenced my decision was that at the public school I was working for in the States, I was one of the youngest teachers. Many of the teachers at my previous place of employment were much older than me and still were struggling to make ends meet on their salaries. I had been told several times that they lived paycheck to paycheck, couldn't afford to pay their bills, and had very little savings. I heard the same thing from several of the cooperating teachers I'd worked with in Ohio. That was a bit concerning, especially since those teachers had been working for the school district for many years and were obviously making more than what I was making. If I stayed at the school or district I had been working for, yes, I would be more established, but it was not ideal financially.

How it panned out: Like Rachael said, yes, there are young people fresh out of college, but there are also people my age and older. Plus, it's not like everyone knows how old I am, so it's not as big of a deal as I made it out to be! In fact, the co-teacher I'm paired with is two years older than me.

Worry #2: "What if I can't tolerate the pollution and get really sick?" This one really scared me because at the end of my third year in Seoul, I had chronic laryngitis. While part of it was from teaching, I don't think the pollution helped any. It got to the point where it affected my life. I wouldn't go out on weekends because I felt like I had to rest my voice. I stopped hanging out with my friends because I felt like I was forced to stay in. My throat hurt almost every day and losing my voice all the time started to affect my teaching. I saw an ear, nose, and throat doctor who told me that I had vocal nodules and that the only way to cure them was to talk less. As a teacher, I told him that was practically impossible. He advised me to just tough it out for my last few months in Korea and that when I returned to the States that I should get a vocal coach to teach me how to speak properly. He said I needed to retrain myself on how to speak or else get surgery, but that the nodules would just come back if I abused my voice again. In the States, I was able to rest my voice because I was a full-time student for a year. My chronic laryngitis went away, and I was more conscious to not talk loudly/scream when I didn't have to. Needless to say, I was concerned the air quality in Shanghai combined with teaching would cause me to have vocal problems again.

What persuaded me: I hadn't had vocal problems for years and since I'm aware of steps to take to avoid getting them back, I decided to take a chance. I couldn't not take this opportunity based on a fear I had.

How it panned out: On days when the air quality is unhealthy, I try to stay inside as much as possible. I drink a lot of tea and warm drinks, and if I start to lose my voice I immediately rest it so that it doesn't get out of control again. A big difference between my job now and from when I worked in Korea is that I teach less since I work with a co-teacher. I'm not talking for 11 classes straight like I was in Korea. My co-teacher and I will alternate and the students also go to specials, so I'm not constantly talking for eight hours straight. Also, when I was teaching in Korea, I had never been to teaching college or had any training on classroom management. When the kids got loud, I would just try to talk over them. Now that I know better strategies to help control the class, I rarely find myself shouting...not my style!

Worry #3: "I'm not building towards something career-wise." I worried that going to China to teach wouldn't help my career since most districts in the States do not recognize years spent teaching abroad as part of your overall teaching experience. If I ever went back to teach in the States, this means that on the sliding pay scales, I would be paid the same as a 2nd year teacher, even though I've been teaching for many more years than that.

What persuaded me: At this point, I don't really want to go back to the States to teach. I really enjoy teaching in other countries and like that there's less bureaucracy for me to deal with in addition to better pay. If my years teaching in Korea and China don't count in the States, then so what? Those years will matter to future international schools that I apply to.

How it panned out: I'm so much happier this year than I was last year. Being able to teach abroad at legitimate schools was the main reason that I got licensed in the first place. I'm relieved that I didn't stay and teach another year where I was just so I could have another year of teaching under my belt in the States.

Worry #4: "My family wants me to stay State-side." My dad flat out told me that he wished I would settle down in the States, and I know that my sister also wanted me to stay. My grandparents won't be around forever, my niece is a baby, and it would be nice to be able to see my family members more often than if I were to move to another country.

What persuaded me: When I was tossing around the idea of staying in the States, even my sister who desperately wanted me to stay told me that I should just go to China because she knew I would regret it. She said she would miss me, but that she understood why I wanted to go and encouraged me to do so. (What a great sister, right?)

How it panned out: Although my family members prefer that I stay in the States, they have come to terms with my decision, have accepted it, and support me. My sister even downloaded We Chat, so we are able to message each other throughout the week.

Worry #5: "Will I lose my state teaching license if I don't teach in the state I'm certified in?" Last year, I was the holder of both an Ohio and South Carolina teaching license. In South Carolina, first year teachers have to complete an induction year, which means that we got observed many times and got assigned a mentor teacher. After the induction year is completed, first year teachers have to go through something called formal evaluation and then they can get their professional licensure if they pass. I was warned by some teachers in South Carolina to stay another year just to get my professional license and that otherwise all of the work I did for my induction year would be for nothing. Since I haven't been teaching in Ohio at all, I wondered if that meant I would not be eligible for renewal.

What persuaded me: While it would have been nice to have a professional teaching license in any state instead of just the initial one, I didn't want to stay in South Carolina for another year at the school I was working for. The district I was at wouldn't let teachers transfer to another school within the district until after teachers earned their professional license, so I would have been stuck there for another year. I also called a representative the Ohio Department of Education and found out that I can apply to renew my Ohio teaching license.

How it panned out: I'm going to let my South Carolina license expire and have no regrets about that. In order to keep my Ohio teaching license, I am going to have to take a distance learning course from China. It also seems like I might have to go back to Ohio to get my background check as well, but I'm not 100% sure about that yet. 

Worry #6: "The dating scene for me was terrible in Seoul. What if it's the same in Shanghai and there's no possibility of ever meeting someone decent?"

What persuaded me: The benefits of living in China were too great to pass up compared to the situation I was in at the time. I decided that even if I didn't go on one date that my life would still be better than it was before. Also, in South Carolina I didn't have time to date at all because of my workload, so it's not like going to China made me suddenly miss out on tons of great dating opportunities. 

How it panned out: While I think the dating scene for me here will be pretty dismal, it seems to at least be better than it was in Seoul. I'm hearing more success stories from other female teachers, anyway. 

Worry #7: "I'll be leaving Savannah, and I love it there. Should I have tried harder to make it work?"

What persuaded me: I tried to live closer to Savannah and loved it there, but then moved to South Carolina after I got a job there. I technically didn't live IN Savannah and lived in a smaller town in SC that I really didn't care for all that much. If I had actually been in Savannah it would have been a different story, but I had to have a reading endorsement in order to work for Chatham County Schools in Savannah and I don't have one/didn't want to have to spend thousands of money out-of-pocket to get one in order to maybe obtain a job there. Also, it did help that I had been to Shanghai before on a weekend trip and did have a positive first impression of the city.

How it panned out: Yes, I love Savannah. Every minute I spent there was time well spent, and I did enjoy it there A LOT, but sometimes weeks would pass and I wouldn't be able to make it into the city center. Admittedly, I do still miss Savannah sometimes, but I am way happier here and am also finding tons of fun and exciting things to do in Shanghai.

Worry #8: "What if I need to have back surgery?" I've had chronic back pain for years, but last year around this time, the pain started becoming unbearable and by mid-January it started radiating down my right leg. Since I would have had to take a day off to see a specialist due to the clinics not being open on the weekend, I put off seeing anyone for the pain until my spring break. (In retrospect, I cannot believe that I did that! I got 10 sick days per year but felt guilty about using them, but should have put my health first.) It got so bad that I would be limping and even had trouble standing by the end of the day. I couldn't sleep at night because it hurt too much. I ended up going to an orthopedic specialist who recommended that I get an MRI because of the disc damage he saw from my x-rays. I ended up having a herniated disc in two parts and a severe case of spinal stenosis. The doctor told me my back looked like a 60 year old's and that I would eventually be needing surgery later in life--that was a given.  He told me that I should take steroids and get physical therapy to see if that helped the problem and that later we could take more invasive measures if it didn't. He mentioned cortisone shots and a more immediate surgery.  At this point, I had to decide whether or not I'd be going to Shanghai the following year, and I decided to turn down the offer. If I had to have surgery and could barely walk, I didn't want to lose my health insurance and not be able to get around in China.

What persuaded me: I took a round of steroids, went to physical therapy for a month, and then got the cortisone injections. While my back was still bothering me sometimes, I didn't have any pain down my leg and was able to walk around more. I also talked to my doctor about it, and he informed me that if I did have to have surgery that he could do it in a day and to not let it stop me from going to China. I seriously want to thank that doctor a million times over for telling me that--especially because the first doctor I saw wouldn't sign a paper saying I was fit to work! Also, since I initially turned down the offer to work at my school, I thought I had lost my chance for this year. Luckily, because I had applied so early, there were still positions open when my back started improving, and I was able to be hired on.

How it panned out: I don't know what happened or why it happened, but I have had little to no back pain here. My bed is brand new and the mattress is firm, so I think that plays a part, but I went from being in excruciating pain to being almost completely pain-free. I do get regular massages here in China, so maybe that helps, too. I have lost a little bit of weight, so that also takes pressure off of my spine and helps with the pain.

As you can see, although I had some major reservations about working in China, it all ended up being okay. Well, more than just okay...I'm having a phenomenal year and am thinking about staying here for another year! Everything worked out in my favor, and I think I had a lot of signs to leave South Carolina. Thank goodness I went with my gut, took a chance, and am here now having a wonderful time!

What was a time when you were nervous to start something new? Did you ever change your mind at the last minute and make a life-altering decision?
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