During my second in year in University I was starting to lose it: I was studying economics, but did not believe in the theories, taking out loans to learn those theories, and worst of all I lacked vision for my future. It did not help that I was smoking too much pot at the time. However, during one of my economics classes a professor introduced the class to a study abroad program in China. I was looking to find my future, and thought it would be an interesting place to start.
Fast forward a bit; I finished my first semester in China, but did not go home with the rest of my American classmates. I had such a great time during my first semester, I decided to stay for another one, and did not return home during the Winter break. That Winter I found myself teaching English at an “English Camp” North of Beijing, to make some extra money.
I went up to the camp behind my soon-to-be ex-Chinese girlfriend. But before going to the camp location, all the teachers and students gathered in Beijing and would take a bus up to the camp. The first thing I noticed was the distance between my girlfriend and I. We did not get along very well, so we did not talk or spend much time with each other. And I was supposed to be the only non-Chinese English teacher at the camp for at least 5- 6 days, which I figured was no big deal.
When we arrived at the camp, I realized It was not what I expected. It was located in an old run-down university, by typical American standards. Most buildings had no central heating, even though snow was piled one foot off the ground out side, and the place looked like it was built 75 years prior with very little upkeep. However, I was fortunate enough to be housed in decent living quarters that were separate from the main University buildings. While I was not impressed with the university, that was not going to be my biggest challenge, my isolation was.
After the first day of teaching for 5-6 hours, I went back to my shared room. I turned on the T.V. and realized I could not find anything to watch in English. Well, there was also no internet in the building, so I could not connect to any websites or social media on my laptop. Additionally, I was living in China with an outdated “dumb-phone”, which had no internet capabilities, and I was out of minutes on the phone anyway, so surfing the net on my phone was not an option; this is when I realized I had a problem.
I was surrounded by people, most of whom couldn’t speak any functional English, and I had no outlet for communication. As each day passed, I noticed my anxiety levels started to build. I did not have anyone to communicate with, nor relate to, and my experiences at the camp were so novel for me, I was itching to communicate with someone who could understand my perspective.
After about four days, I was on the precipice of losing my sanity. I felt trapped in a Winter wasteland, far from any cities, no internet, no phone service, no one to talk to, but people all around me, it was one of the strangest feelings. As I was nearing the edge of my sanity, I realized I had to make a change or I would lose my mind. That’s when I left my room, walked down to the staff area, and sat down with Chinese staff members running this frozen English camp.
After a few minutes, some of the staff started talking to me in what little English they knew, though a couple of them had exceptional English, and we began conversing about all kinds of things. Then I started using the opportunity to practice my Chinese and learn more about them. By the end of the day, I felt completely different than the previous days. I was finally connecting with people. After that I spent all of my extra time hanging out with the staff. I started meeting many different staff members, and had some interesting conversations about China, America, and everything in between.
A couple days later I was relieved of being the only native English speaker as several “Westerners” showed up with a second batch of kids. But by that time I had completely acclimated to the situation. However, I had some fantastic times with those guys that showed up, many of which I will never forget. What I learned from that experience was that I had changed. After pushing myself out of my own self-imposed psychological isolation, I approached my remaining months in China totally different from the first few. I got to the edge of my sanity, pushed through, and grew into another part of my life.