Mary Anne Oxendale currently lives in Shanghai, China. In this interview with PocketCultures she tells us about culture shock, teaching to travel and the difference between Mandarin and Shanghainese.
From your blog I see that you have moved a few times. Where are you originally from, and where have you been previously?
I’m originally from Vancouver Island, which is a small island by Canadian standards, off the west coast of British Columbia. I tentatively left when I was 19 and went traveling around Europe for a few months. After that, I alternated attending university terms with more escapes to Europe, eventually pausing my degree after three years to move to London when I was 22.
I was gone for three years, spending over two years working in the UK, six months in South Africa working for my friend’s theater company, and many months just traveling around Western and Eastern Europe, Africa (Ghana and South Africa) and crossing the US in a school bus. When all my visas and a lot of my money ran out in mid 2000, I moved back to Canada and finished my degree, nine years after I started it.
Then, armed with a BA in Literature and Modern Chinese Revolutionary History, I moved to Turkey for six years to teach English. Now I’m in Shanghai doing the same. We’ve been here two years now and during school breaks we have traveled all over China and have spent a month each in Indonesia and Myanmar.
Would you recommend teaching English as a way to travel / live abroad?
I would definitely recommend teaching English as a way to travel. I actually enjoy teaching and I’ve taught everything from Middle School (10 year olds) to business writing seminars for banks. Right now, I’m working for an Australian university that has a joint venture with a Shanghai university.
I get a lot of paid time off to travel and the jobs I’ve had since 2002 have given me all the work visas and residence permits I’ve needed to stay as long as I wanted in Turkey and China. If I decided I wanted to leave China, I’d have many other countries wide open to easily find work in.
Another perk is that by having daily interaction on a very personal level with so many students, it really helps to get to know a place more deeply than if you were just passing through. I’ve learned a lot from my students, through their essays and through our class discussions.
What prompted you to move to China?
In 2008, we left Turkey to try living in another country. I was burnt out from my job (assistant director of a language school in Istanbul) and my boyfriend was tired of Turkey. We took the autumn off and traveled around Central America for a few months, trying to figure out what to do next. On our way down from Mexico to Costa Rica, we stopped for a week or two each in Antigua, Guatemala and in Granada, Nicaragua to do online job searches (because their internet access was reliable and affordable compared to other places we stayed in).
Finally we came to the conclusion that China was our best bet: there were still a lot of jobs for English teachers in spite of the economic crisis, start up costs were low, and it was somewhere I was already interested in because of my undergraduate studies (I was really into kitschy Maoist propaganda art).
How’s your Mandarin? And, is learning Mandarin enough to live in Shanghai?
My Mandarin is at mid-elementary level, mainly because I find the tones and writing quite difficult. I’ve studied it formally and informally, completing an 80 hour intensive course last summer and continuing with podcasts and self study during the school year when I don’t have time for classes. My passive Chinese is slightly better than my active- I can listen better that I can speak and the very little I can read is still better than the very very very little I can write.
In Shanghai, things are complicated by the local dialect which is not standard Mandarin and which is what I most frequently hear on the streets. This means that what I study and what I deal with daily are two different dialects with some very important differences. I’m never quite sure if what I’m learning/hearing is Mandarin or Shanghainese.
Of all your moves, which provoked the most culture shock?
The biggest culture shock I’ve experienced was probably the first place I moved to when I first arrived in Turkey in 2002, aged 28. I had thought I was a well traveled person by that point, quite adaptable and culturally aware.
However, I found myself living in a very conservative city in Central Anatolia– a city so traditional and religious and conservative that when I finally moved to Istanbul a lot of my Turkish students would gasp in shock when I mentioned it. It became a strange badge of honour.
I made a lot of stupid mistakes in those two years, mostly with regards to women’s roles in society and in religion. There were a lot of unwritten rules that I slowly came to learn. I was accidentally scandalous on a number of occasions and infuriated by restrictions on many others. I got over it. I had a lot of bad, bad, sad days though, as well as some of the most interesting and truly unique experiences of my life.
What do you like best about living in China?
It’s interesting. It’s a really really interesting place to live and I have yet to feel bored by it. Even walking down our street is like live theater- people everywhere, vendors, bicycles, animals… I’ve been blogging about Shanghai in depth for nearly a year now and have yet to run out of things to say. And not just Shanghai- we’ve been to Harbin, Beijing, Yangshuo, Chengdu, Nanjing, Hangzhou and Hefei as well and I’ve found so much to write about. I think I’ve got nearly 10,000 photos on my hard drive already. It’s a huge country with so many different things to see. It’s fascinating.
Do you think you’ll ever go home?
I’d like to. I’m close to my family and I really like where I come from. I miss the trees and the ocean and the lack of crowds. But not yet. I’ll go back eventually, I’m quite certain. I’m not sure what I’d do there though. Teaching English isn’t really a financially stable career in Canada so I’d have to retrain. I’ve been thinking about it a lot though, hoping to get a brilliant idea. I don’t want to just go back and get a cubicle job. I’d like to try to do something interesting that continues to feed my curiosity and love of change. I’ve thought about goat farming. I’d love to become an artisanal cheese maker or maybe weaver/spinner/felt-maker.
Mary Anne Oxendale is on a life-long quest to keep scaring herself silly with new and improbable living arrangements. She is currently based in Shanghai, where she teaches at a university (for money), takes tons of photographs (for pleasure) and writes (for sanity). Read more on her blog A Totally Impractical Guide to Living in Shanghai.
About the authorLucy