Taking the Plunge: Adventures in The People’s Republic

This article is the first in the Lens on China blog series by Lauren Katalinich. Lauren is a 2011 International Studies graduate of the University of Iowa and spent the last year living and working as an English teacher in Chengdu, China.

Chinese sculpture
2012- Year of the Dragon

"China?” my dental hygienist asks as she inspects my back molar, “Well, how was that?” The dentist chair is in full recline with my mouth obligingly open to allow her metal tools to prod away. In the end all I can manage is, “oh, it was grood…” It is the fate of every traveler when they return home to be asked that dreaded question – to sum up the experience of a lifetime in a sentence short enough to be uttered between teeth x-rays. But China is a particularly ambitious task, dental impediments aside; I have yet to come up with a good response.

fellow teacher and students
A fellow teacher on our first day of classes. Yes, all of those students are ours!
decorated poodle on a walk
Dog fashion- it's all the rage

So here’s the story. As a kind of last hurrah of adventure before entering the world of salaried jobs and graduate school, I decided last May to move to southwestern China and work as an oral English teacher. While I regretted the decision at times (usually while hovering perilously over a squat toilet), I knew from previous experience studying abroad that if you want to learn about a country there is no substitute for living there.

When I told people it was China I had chosen for my post-college-gap-year, some were excited and intrigued; others skeptical. China is a country that’s in the news every day and brings myriad thoughts to minds here at home. To my grandmother, its mention created images of communism, corruption and over-crowding. To my co-worker – delicious cuisine and studious school children. It is an up-and-coming power that is simultaneously a threat and an opportunity for success. In a word, China is still a mystery to us all.

Guangzhou's smog
A smoggy introduction in Guangzhou

By no means did I unravel the identity of China during my brief stay, but I did teach English in classes packed with 70 kids; modeled at the opening of a Chinese clothing store; endured 54 hours on a crowded train in a single weekend; ate dog, rabbit head, chicken feet and any number of unidentifiable meals on a daily basis; and, most importantly, developed a deeper understanding of this rapidly evolving nation and the mindsets and practices of its people.

In this blog series I will share my stories and observations on life in the People’s Republic. My goal is to give everyone back home a small glimpse into the fascinating, frustrating and transforming country that is China in 2012. And who knows? Maybe you will want to visit for yourself!

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