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An American in the Middle Kingdom

Updated: 2011-09-14 09:25
By Benjamin Cohen (

China Daily website is inviting foreigner readers to share your China Story!

After graduating from the University of Florida in May of 2009, I was presented with a multitude of choices regarding the next stage in my life. Head off to graduate school and get a Master's Degree? Go for an internship? Join the rat race and get a job right away?

An American in the Middle Kingdom

Benjamin Cohen and his girlfriend Phoebe. [Photo provided to] 

Frankly, none of those options held any much appeal to me, and I was interested in pursuing something a bit different than the usual options facing a recent college graduate. I knew of some friends who taught English overseas, in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. One country intrigued me more than those, and it was China. I had always been interested in Chinese culture and history, and in particular, I was attracted to the middle kingdom. I guess watching the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games just about clinched it for me. On August 15, 2009, I set off from my home in Florida, bid farewell to my sad, but supportive parents, and I flew to the other side of the world.

When I arrived in Beijing to begin my teaching assignment at a private kindergarten, I was more than a little overwhelmed. A new language, new area, new customs, new food and new friends proved to be challenging at first, but after about the first month I started to get the hang of it. I went out, met new people and tried new things. I found that most people in Beijing share a love of karaoke, pizza, and alcohol. You don't need to speak the same language to enjoy these activities! After a relatively short time, I was happy to find a comfortable little niche for myself.

I was also somewhat overwhelmed by the task of teaching English to children with no prior knowledge of the language. This was something in which I had no experience. Through improvisation, trial and error, and getting to know the kids a little better, I gradually got the hang of it. Teaching English to these children is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I was able to directly see how my instruction impacts them. When the children started speaking and using the techniques I had taught them, I knew I was on the right track.

The best aspect of teaching Chinese children is that no matter what kind of mood you're in at the start of the day, their smiles and warmth will instantly pick up your spirits. Over the past two years I have gotten to know the children very well, and I have even given them new English names for them to use in my class. Often times I give them a name that sounds similar to their Chinese name, but sometimes they already know what they want to be called. Some of the more interesting requests have been for Nemo, Yo-yo, Winner, Ultraman, and when one child was envious of Ultraman, Ultraman 2!

In addition to my English teaching position, I also have a part-time job with a travel company called Great Wall Adventure Club. Run by a Chinese businessman, this company deals with westerners traveling to China. They offer a variety of tours, such as Great Wall hiking, cycling in Guilin, and horse riding in Inner Mongolia. I write tour itineraries, update their website, and also blog for the company. This job has provided a great experience for me. While the extra income is nice, the job is also a great resume-booster and has taught me a great deal about the business and behind-the-scenes workings of the travel industry.

While I think I have gotten the hang of living in Beijing, there are still a few cultural differences that throw me for a loop. Driving, for instance, is much different here than it is in the United States. The first time I got into a taxi I saw my life flash before my eyes as the cab zigzagged from one lane of traffic to the next. While my taxi experiences have gotten better, my blood pressure goes up every time I have to navigate my way across the road.

Spitting, something I thought was reserved only for baseball players, is a common occurrence here. While I was grossed out at first, I have come to regard the sound of hacking and spitting as a reminder of Beijing's loveable quirkiness. I've become so used to it in fact that I find myself doing it too! As they say, "when in Beijing"... Kindness, which is sometimes in short supply in the US, I find in abundance. Whenever I need in help in finding a certain restaurant or looking for something at a store, I find that Beijingers are exceptionally kind people. Unlike some European countries, where an honest question can bring about nasty glares, Beijingers seem to be happy to help, and that is one difference I can get used to.

While teaching English in Beijing has been the most enlightening period of my life, it would be extremely difficult to get through if it weren't for the new friends I have made. Through school, travel, socializing and hobbies I have made new friendships that will last throughout my life. I am truly grateful to know all my new friends. One friend, who has become very special to me, is my girlfriend Phoebe. Phoebe's Chinese name is Zhong Hongyan. She loves the American TV show Friends, and chose her English name from her favorite character on the show - Phoebe. She has made my time in China wonderful. It is awesome to have someone to share my experiences and joy. Without her I don't know what I would do, and she is the greatest thing that has resulted from my living in China.

Through my experiences and observations, I have learned that China and America are actually not so very different. Varied and beautiful geography, a vast multitude of travel destinations and attractions, a broad spectrum of different cultures and languages, these are things both countries share. Going forward, I hope both countries can make more out of these shared characteristics than of their differences.

My two years in China have been a whirlwind-fun, daunting, confusing, rewarding, but always interesting. I think my time in Beijing has given me a lifetime of memories, and I can think of no other experience that can better prepare me for my life ahead. When will I return to America? That's hard to say. Right now I see no reason to go back, but when I do I will always have a place in my heart for China.

The author, born in New York but raised in Florida, is an English teacher and travel writer who has been living in Beijing since August of 2009.

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