Life in the Middle Kingdom

23 March, 2012, by Rose Daggar

Rose Daggar

Arriving in the South of China (Yunnan) nearly a year ago and throwing myself into the middle of a strange and often overwhelming culture was a shock to the system.

However, China has the ability to slowly seep under your skin and after a year I have learnt to love the culture, people and lifestyle of China. Living here has become an adventure and living in a region that borders neighboring Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar presents plenty of interesting travel opportunities.

Yunnan is a fascinating region to live with over fifty-six recognized ethnic groups, over a third of China on a whole. Chinese, Thai, Tibetan, Burmese and various other ethnicities mingle here in Yunnan, which is a far cry from the homogeneity of many other parts of China.

Traveling to diverse area such as “Shangri-La” on the border of Tibet or towns solely run by women, where men are, well let’s say, superfluous, has been a highlight of my experience. Kunming, where I am currently living, is a city of 4 million people, small by Chinese standards but chaotic after life in peaceful Wellington.

Every day the sounds of more and more buildings being demolished infiltrate the city making way for the new China. Don’t expect to see much traditional Chinese architecture here as the taste for star bucks, KFC and flashy malls gets stronger and stronger!

A short trip into the countryside starkly exposes the reality of life for many people in China and the poverty associated with it.

As with any experience living in a foreign county it has not always been a smooth road. Like most foreigners in this area, I was hurled into a classroom of ten year olds, which I admit, having never taught before, was a terrifying experience.

The differences between China and New Zealand’s education system are vast and a naïve foreigner like me receives many sideway looks from my colleagues. The students work incredibly hard here as the competition for a place in a top school or university is fierce. My eleven year old students average 5 hours of homework a night, attend school on a Saturday and extra classes on a Sunday.

Working for a Chinese company has also had its challenges as the way things operate completely differ from home. I have read many papers (as most of you probably have) regarding power distance/collectivism vs. individuality and have come to realize that as soon as you get off the plane, throw away any pre conceived ideas about how you expect to be treated within a company and get on with the job!

After the egalitarian ways in which Kiwi companies usually operate it can be frustrating to accept all decisions without any challenge from management.

The longer I work in China, the easier it gets to navigate and accept the way things work here. As a teacher, the generosity, respect and astonishment at how fast children can learn a language makes the work as rewarding as it is sometimes frustrating.For anyone thinking about living overseas, I would truly recommend this experience, particularly for cross-cultural students. What better way to put all that research to use! Learn a little Mandarin, leave with an open mind and you will have a brilliant experience living in this fascinating land.