Life in a new country is often bizarre. The first sign that you have adjusted is generally when you fail to notice your adopted nation's idiosyncrasies. For me, this occurred when I saw a panda. Not a real one eating bamboo in its natural habitat. No, the moment I realised I had properly settled in Shanghai was when a man dressed in a panda onesie lumbered past me, texting frantically, eyes down, ears up. I hardly blinked. Shanghai is very much that kind of place.
I've been teaching English at Dulwich College Shanghai, a school that serves the city's thriving expatriate community, since last August. I made the move to fulfil my lifelong dream of teaching abroad and travelling the world.
Now I wonder why it took me so long. After years in a challenging London comprehensive, the notion of work-life balance was idealistic hearsay. But here in China, I am far away from Ofsted inspections, endless goalpost-shifting and the crushing pressure of a system that is always looking over your shoulder. My schedule is still demanding - on top of a full teaching load, I also help to lead two time-consuming extracurricular activities - but I feel respected as a professional and appreciated for the time I give.
My students are conscientious and lively. Behaviour management was a key part of teaching in London, so I was heartened to walk into a classroom here and teach without argument. After every lesson my pupils leave the classroom saying "Thank you, Miss", even when I've given them a practice paper or they feel disappointed by a grade.
Many students are from Chinese and Asian backgrounds but they hold passports from a range of countries, some of which they've never even visited. They are well-travelled, often because of their parents' careers. For this reason, most of them speak a minimum of two languages; parents' evenings sound like a gathering of the United Nations. For my students, identity has little to do with their countries of origin.
Living here is not without its challenges: air quality is a chief concern. Our school monitors the pollution four times daily and relays the message via signs next to every door. As the pollution changes, so does the schedule. On high-pollution "red" days all outdoor activities are cancelled. Fortunately, we've had few of these since my arrival, but last year's "airpocalypse", when you could barely see your hand in front of your face, lingers in the memories of my colleagues.
If I'm feeling adventurous after a day of teaching, I hop on the metro and head to the bright lights of central Shanghai. The system carries more than a million people daily and it's becoming more and more like a rugby scrum. But it's worth the tussle to reach the French Concession, an enchanting quarter of the city lined with leafy plane trees. People-watching is entertaining here: with nimble dexterity, locals cross the road while dodging taxis; a group of pensioners line dance en masse to American country music; peculiarly attired individuals gather to compare fashion choices.
In a country where anything goes, I feel grateful for my jump off the treadmill of relentless government initiatives and one-size-fits-all policy. So where do I go from here? To buy my own panda onesie, of course.
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