We recently caught up with Greenheart Travel alumna, Shannon Brayshaw, to hear about her homestay experience in China, what motivated her to travel across the world and what she has learned form her time as an English tutor abroad.
Read on to learn more about Shannon’s adventure teaching in a homestay program in China.
The short answer to this is that I am a middle school art teacher and I sought a way to spend my summer break wisely. I enjoy travel that allows me to give back somehow, so teaching English for Greenheart Travel was a no brainer.
I was also easily convinced to experience China some years earlier after a summer camp staff friend told me about the wondrous times she had in Southern China (including the best noodles of her life), all made possible through Greenheart Travel. I was sold then and four years later it became a reality as I found myself Beijing-bound, primed for adventure and some culture shock.
My host family was both caring and very accommodating. Despite language barriers, we bonded very easily and I was made to feel like one of the family. My student Bobby, my host parent’s only child, was clever, mischievous, hilarious and very bright, so teaching him English was a pure joy. (Ironically he spoke better English than the host parents).
Since Bobby was extremely energetic and imaginative, I taught English through playing games. I brought a card game with me called, “Spot It”, which I highly recommend. I also made use of Bobby’s toys to play out scenarios and help him better understand English terms we were learning in his English Language workbook.
Furthermore, Bobby and I were able to converse in English while exploring and taking in Beijing’s incredible sites, such as the Forbidden City, Great Wall of China, Temple of Heaven, historic hutongs, and the Summer Palace just to name a few.
I was privileged to spend a whole month in the heart of Beijing where the Forbidden City was only a couple quick, easy subway changes away. In fact, the subway system sort of became my best friend and I enjoyed how easy it was to read the map and get around that way. Beijing’s public transportation system definitely still has me craving equally efficient public transportation in the United States. With it’s rich history, incredible architecture, peaceful parks and gardens, and enticing variety of Chinese cuisine on every corner, Beijing was a real gem to live in and explore.
My host family and I also took a 6 hour road trip into the Hebei Province where my host dad keeps his horse and where we went horseback riding for the weekend. Seeing some of the northern countryside of China on horseback was a real treat and unforgettable. Passing segments of the Great Wall high above our car along the mountainside and seeing Buddhist temples tucked against sheer rock faces were surreal sites to see on a road trip.
I enjoyed the historic sites of Beijing and was consistently in awe at the mere fact that I was getting to traverse areas where once only the emperor and his courts were allowed. One memory that stands out is the day Bobby and I visited the Forbidden City. It was both our first times and I think we both were excited and a little overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place and the crowds within.
To keep Bobby’s energy up, we played “spy mission” imaginary games, jumping from ancient stone tile to stone tile in the vast series of court yards to avoid “booby traps” until ducking into exhibition halls to marvel at Ming and Qing Dynasty art. In this fashion, we navigated and explored the Forbidden City until exhausted and content by all we could possibly see in 4 hours which probably only covered a quarter of the entire area.
Another favorite memory was horseback riding with my host family in the Hebei Province, which was one of the last things I thought I would be doing on my China adventure (but then, I did not think I would get to experience an American monster truck jam in the Olympic Bird’s Nest either, which happened as well!).
Spending a few days away from the Beijing metropolis and crowds in exchange for galloping along rolling countryside on horseback, friendly new faces, home-cooked banquets, and releasing paper lanterns into a sparkling night sky could not have been more refreshing experiences. I especially enjoyed the fragrant floral tea offered in glass tea pots inside the rustic tea tent posts we would rest the horses at in between rides. It was a relaxing way to spend time in between the excitement of galloping with the group.
This experience has developed a deeper respect for the Chinese culture, which I will pass down to my students. I was enthralled the entire trip by the gorgeous architecture and the amount of intricacy in their art- it was an art teacher’s paradise and I will definitely be teaching a China-inspired art lesson to my middle school students.
It has also instilled in me a stronger desire and confidence to travel to more countries, give back any way I can, and create more human connections through cultural understanding. I developed a very warm friendship with my host family which I still cherish and I hope to visit them again in the future.
Beijing is a very international city so I did not feel too out of place. Some cultural differences I took note of was the incredibly high level of patience most Beijing people displayed. Despite sardine-like conditions in the subway system during rush hour times, or the great number of public bikes and scooters sharing the streets and pedestrian walkways, I never saw anyone show outward frustration or complain.
I found it fascinating that Chinese in Beijing rarely say “sorry” but frequently say “thank you”Xièxiè – the first word I learned to say with ease. Squat potties are a thing but nothing to be feared so long as you bring your own toilet paper with you; I was relieved to learn how easy it was to find a public restroom to use. I highly recommend downloading the WeChat app- all the friends I met, including my host family, have one, plus I learned most people in Beijing use WeChat as a way to pay for things as well (most businesses except the QR code off WeChat).
My last word of advice is to be open in trying new food. Food in China was a major highlight for me and I was able to savor and enjoy new things such as lotus root, Sichuan dishes, hot pot, and fresh dragon fruit and lychee.
If you have even the slightest desire to travel abroad, but are facing some fear, it is probably a sure sign you should take a chance and go. I was very nervous prior to leaving for Beijing since it was my first major trip traveling alone and being so many miles away from home. Getting over that fear of the unknown, being flexible and going with the flow of a new culture and lifestyle was one of the most empowering and humbling things I have done in my life.
Teaching can naturally make anyone feel a bit vulnerable and intimidated, but if your heart is in it, it is one of the most rewarding challenges you can have the pleasure of experiencing. There are so many teaching resources and support you can access to aid your teaching experience, and finding ways to infuse a little creativity and play in your teaching only makes the experience more fun for your student(s) as well as yourself.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.” -Frank Herbert, Dune
Overall, China should be a high priority on anyone’s bucket list. I can not write enough about how much I enjoyed meeting and making new friends (Beijing’s KTV karaoke is legendary and fun to do in a group!), trying all the amazing Chinese cuisine (Sichuan cuisine was my favorite), experiencing famous historical sites (the Great Wall and Temple of Heaven are surreal, amazing places), and having fun interacting with and teaching my student and host family and learning from them in return. My host family taught me to enjoy learning Chinese and experiencing their culture in its entirety, and the memories I accumulated I will hold the rest of my life.