After the Degree: Patrick McKeon

Zen In Shenzhen

I graduated from Maynooth University with a degree in English and Philosophy in 2015. If, at that time, someone told me I would be living and teaching in Shenzhen under 3 years later I wouldn’t have known what to say, mainly because I didn’t even know of the existence of Shenzhen at the time.

Shenzhen is a rapidly developing city in Southern China with a population of over 12 million. It is joined at the hip to Hong Kong and has many border crossings. It was developed as a mainland rival to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and is an area of extreme growth. Shenzhen is comprised of ten districts. I live in Yantian district, the second smallest in terms of population. In Yantian itself I live in Dameisha, which, with its beachside life, is the Bray of Shenzhen (scaled up by a very large degree).

I got the job of teaching English after applying to Teachers For Asia, being put in touch with an agent of theirs, taking part in a Skype interview, and then being recommended to my current employers – Sea Dragon Education Shenzhen. I had another Skype interview with them before being offered a contract. I took it.

When people ask me how I got to Shenzhen, a lot of the time my answer is momentum. Each stage of the application process was so quick that I didn’t have a whole lot of time to think about it until I had a contract sitting in front of me. After going through the totally relaxing and chill process of getting all of my documents in order I was assigned a school 2 and a half weeks before I was due to leave Ireland. That school was Dameisha (literally “Big Beach”) Kindergarten.

I have held many jobs in my lifetime, from furniture upholsterer, to kitchen porter, to Dunnes Stores minion (two years), but I have never been a teacher before. SDE provided all new teachers with training, as well as a network of more experienced teachers we could go to for advice. This was just as well, for when I arrived at my school I found out three things: they thought I was fluent in Chinese; I was the only foreign teacher in the school; and the only male teacher in the school (out of 40 teachers). So a little bit intimidating.

I also had to adjust to life in China. A lot of things are quite similar, but when things are different, they are VERY different. There are zero takeaways, although the street food is spectacular. In the course of my almost seven months in China I’ve eaten everything from chicken feet (mostly awful) to pig stomach (not terrible) along with a wide assortment of food which I ate solely because it was put in front of me.

Another thing which I’ve had to adjust to was a little more surprising. Western Privilege. It is a major theme in China, to the point where there are bars that will give westerners free alcohol just for being western. My school try to get me to be as visible as possible during all events. People will stop you in the metro on the street just to take a picture. I once wasn’t charged for a taxi in exchanged for getting a selfie with the driver.

Another difference is social media. Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc. are all blocked except if you have a VPN. As such, everyone in Shenzhen uses an app called WeChat. It is honestly the best app I have ever encountered. Everyone uses it for everything, from messaging, to organising events, to paying for goods and services. I send my rent straight to my landlord via WeChat every month. The only downside is that the Chinese government can see everything posted. A number of teachers have been deported in recent years for “controversial” views posted to their WeChat accounts, including one who posted while he was in Tibet. This also resulted in his travel guide losing his license and being refused entry back to mainland China.

Despite this it does not feel like a Big Brother country. Moving here has been one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. Despite it being the first time I have ever lived outside Ireland, I am quickly finding it to feel more and more like home, thanks in a large part to my school, the parents, and the kids themselves. Another factor is the Irish presence in Shenzhen. I am the only Irishman in my district, but with the city having more than 12 million people, there is of course enough Irish (and curious people of other nations) for there to be a GAA team in Shenzhen.

I have found my early experience of teaching English to be extremely rewarding and I think I will be in Shenzhen for a few more years yet.

Slán go fóill.