Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, is a far cry from the bright lights of the country’s first-tier cities. It’ll also no doubt feel like a long way from home for most expats. But for me, at least, teaching here was an incredible experience that I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere else in China. I bring you a day in the life of an ESL teacher in Urumqi, China.
Introducing China’s Remote Northwest
Life in Urumqi is very different to life in a first-tier Chinese city. Few English speakers will be found, and even Mandarin speakers are not as common. The mix of Uyghur and other Muslim cultures are unique within the Middle Kingdom, making this a fascinating place to be based. Xinjiang is, of course, also notorious for certain domestic tensions that I won’t go into detail about here, but the knowledge of these tensions and the tight security that goes hand-in-hand with them can sometimes feel repressive. On top of this, those who choose to live here will have to contend with the sub-zero temperatures of winter. You have been warned!
A smattering of Western-style bars and restaurants can make life here seem a little more normal for a homesick expat, however. And the natural scenery surrounding the city is truly incredible. You can go snowboarding in the Tianshan mountains one day and explore the desert of Turpan the next.
I’m not exaggerating when I say living in Xinjiang is not for the faint-hearted, but in some ways, the struggles can also be rewarding. Being in an environment with few expats and where few people speak English may force you to learn more about local culture and the language (or languages in the case of Xinjiang). But overall, living as an expat in Urumqi requires a willingness to adapt and a certain level of open-mindedness.
A Typical Weekday
As I was teaching ESL at a training school in Urumqi, I worked to a very different schedule than teachers at public or international schools. Training schools offer parents an educational service that is supplementary to regular schooling, meaning we have to follow the hours of most service industries. They serve their paying customers (parents) at times most suitable for them. As a training school employee, therefore, I got two days off during the week and worked a full schedule on Saturdays and Sundays.
Another thing worth mentioning at this point is “Xinjiang time.” Officially, Xinjiang follows Beijing Time, as is standard across the whole of China. In reality however, the region is many miles west of Beijing. As a result, the schedules here tend to be 2-3 hours behind the Chinese capital. Bear this in mind when I talk about my typical day.
A weekday as an ESL teacher in Urumqi starts with some free time. Before 1pm, I stroll around the local community, making sure I’m wearing plenty of layers in the winter time. I’ll perhaps get a coffee in one of the local shopping malls and grab some lunch before starting work. Other more energetic teachers like to use this time to work off those noodle pounds in the gym.
1pm-7pm: Class Preparation/Staff Meetings
Sometimes I’m expected to attend training sessions on weekday mornings, but for the most part, my working weekdays begin at 1pm. At this time the school is eerily quiet without any students.
Wednesday (the start of my working week) is the time for the weekly staff meeting. The rest of the time is mainly spent on lesson planning, preparing lesson materials, grading test papers and other administrative work.
By around 6pm I usually have time for a short break. The convenience store next door is a godsend, stocking a selection of cold drinks, coffee and snacks. This is my last chance to relax before the evening classes.
7pm-9pm: Evening Classes
I have no more than a couple of one-hour classes on weekday evenings. These classes tend to be for the youngest age group (3-6 years old). Class sizes range from as few as three students to as many as 16. I occasionally teach a one-on-one class, but these are the exception.
A typical class follows a structure of drilling vocabulary with flashcards, playing games and doing bookwork. Some students, particularly in younger groups, can be difficult to deal with, forcing me to send them to sit on the “naughty chair.” And of course there are those who cry and simply refuse to participate. But when my young learners surprise me every once in a while with a perfect English sentence, there is perhaps no better feeling as a teacher.
Dealing with students is one thing. Dealing with parents is quite another. Anxious mums and dads watch eagerly through the classroom door and bombard me with a barrage of questions after my lessons. Dealing with the parents can be overwhelming at times, but I figure their concerns are perfectly understandable given that they are paying customers and expect a return on their investment.
Weekday evenings are not all occupied by the youngest students. On occasion I teach a discussion class with students aged around 16 and over. The atmosphere tends to be more friendly and serene, although some form of discipline is still necessary to prevent students from playing on their phones the entire time.
After 9pm: Dinner and Home Time
Once evening classes have finished, I spend time completing daily administrative tasks. After that, home time!
Eating dinner post 9pm is not uncommon in Xinjiang (the whole “Xinjiang time” thing I mentioned above is relevant here). Local restaurants will be packed with people eating, drinking, smoking and talking loudly (sometimes very loudly) late into the night.
Choices for dinner usually include a restaurant we have come to know as “Mao’s” thanks to the generally Communist theme, or a restaurant run by Hui Muslims serving pulled noodles and barbeque. Smaller establishments offer a variety of simpler Chinese classics. One spot — affectionately known as “rat restaurant” for the little creature that some of my colleagues saw scurrying around — we avoid… like the plague.
After 11pm, it’s time to get some sleep. Fridays in particular are good for an early night. I finish work at 9pm and have to be ready for a 10am start the following day.
A Typical Weekend Workday
It’s on the weekend that China’s training school teachers need to work the hardest. In the eyes of parents, Saturdays and Sundays are great opportunities for their kids to cram in extra study sessions.
10am-12:30pm: Morning Classes
After a quick cup of coffee, I’m ready to go by 10am. Almost all ages are taught on the weekend, with a typical class lasting one hour. Back-to-back classes mean I have a quick 10-minute turnaround in between.
On the occasion I have no classes to teach, I have to be ready to do oral placement tests for new students (a short oral English assessment to determine which class they should enter). The mornings are also the time for the weekly demo class for 7-11 year olds. These are arguably the most high-pressure classes I ever teach. The demo classes are taught to prospective students and observed by their parents. A good demo class could result in parents signing up. A bad demo class could result in them walking away and never returning.
12:30pm-1:30pm: Lunch Break
A variety of options are available for lunch right outside my training centre. Across the street is a shopping mall with western fast-food and sandwiches, while Xinjiang fried rice and noodles are also served up nearby.
After this, I’m lucky to get 20 minutes or so to relax before my next classes. It’s not unusual for parents to wander into the staff room and ask about their child’s progress or simply encourage their children to talk with the teachers in English, however. All I really want to do is take a break right now but it’s very hard to say no.
1:30pm-6:30pm: Afternoon Classes
By this time I’m usually starting to feel pretty tired. I personally find the afternoon classes to be something of a drag compared with the morning. Many students are also tired by this time, having been to other training centers for music class, extra maths tuition and the like beforehand.
The afternoon is also the time for demo classes for the youngest students (3-6-year-olds). If I’m not teaching or roped into demo classes, I plan lessons for the following week and catch up on homework and test grading.
After 6:30pm: Free Time
Once all administrative work has been completed on a Sunday evening, I’m free to start my two-day Monday-Tuesday weekend. A meal at a local restaurant, a drink in a local bar, a night at the karaoke and more are all possibilities for Sunday night.
A Typical Day Off
For the most part, ESL teachers in Urumqi tend to hang out together as there are few other expats in the city. All year round, the Urumqi Grand Bazaar offers a great place to wander around and buy traditional Uyghur products. Everything from fruit, to tea, souvenirs and more are on offer. The nearby neighbourhood of Erdaoqiao is also great for traditional Uyghur cuisine.
The summer months provide a nice opportunity to just sit at a street-side barbeque joint eating lamb kebabs, swigging beer and chatting to the locals. During the warmer months, buses run from Urumqi to nearby scenic spots in the Tianshan mountains. Hiking, horse riding and even glamping in traditional Kazakh yurts are all options. The cities of Turpan, Kashgar and elsewhere are also reachable by train or plane. The height of summer is probably too hot to visit these desert cities, but any other time of year they offer a great opportunity to experience a different side of Xinjiang.
Winter months can be tough. In Urumqi, temperatures can drop to -20 degrees Celsius at night and snow will pile up on the sidewalks. It isn’t all bad, however, as skiing or snowboarding are available nearby at prices far lower than in Europe, North America or even other parts of Asia.
Working at an English Training Centre in China
If you think teaching English at a training centre in China will be easy or like a “gap year” job, think again. The work comes with a lot of pressure, especially at the peak times of the winter and summer school holidays when you will be required to work extra classes. These periods are to training centres what Christmas is to retail. However, if you find the right company, working at an ESL training center in China can be rewarding in the sense that you will have opportunities for promotion and development, both in your career and personally.
What have your experiences been like? Tell us in the comments section below.
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Xinjiang International Grand Bazaar in Urumqi is the biggest bazaar in the world, covering a wide area of 39,888 square meters (47,706 square yards). Bazaar refers to a market or fair in Arabic. Brand Islamic buildings and prosperous booths make it the ideal place for visitors to ensure the unique ethnic flavor of the local Uyghur. Sometimes, Uyghur street singers and dancers give an impromptu performance.
May 04, 2021 13:34 Report Abuse
Great article. Tianchi Lake, or Tianshan Tianchi Lake, or some people prefer Heavenly Lake, is located at the hill side of Bogda Peak in Fukang City of Xinjiang Autonomous Region, about 97km east of Urumqi. In Tianshan Tianchi National Park, besides the stunning Tianchi Lake, there are two more lakes in the area. The eastern one is called East Minor Tianchi Lake, which was called Heilongtan in ancient time.
May 03, 2021 10:07 Report Abuse