FAQS from the China Volunteer Perspective

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Will an iPhone work in China?

Nearly all volunteers buy cell phones and use them as their primary method of communication with others in China. Many US cell phones do not allow you to change the SIM cards so are not useful in China unless you figure out how to unlock them. If you have a phone in which you can change the SIM card, bring it and just buy a new SIM card.

As far as iPhones go, China is beginning to open up to them, but they are not the same iphones that are sold in the US and other parts of the world. There are restrictions on WiFi which you may have to research on the internet blogs to find out about. Try contacting Apple directly, they may be most helpful.

Should I purchase a cell phone before coming to China?

It may be cheaper and more convenient to purchase a cell phone when you arrive in China.People who purchase phones in America and bring them cannot send or receive Chinese characters. The reason this is important is you can get someone to put directions or locations in characters on your phone and its useful for getting help. Some people who don't have phones purchased here, however, are okay with it.

Should I purchase power converters before coming to China?

The plugs here are made for all types of plug sizes, so don't worry about it too much. If you end up needing one here, you could always go to the local computer center and purchase one for much cheaper than you could in America. Computers should be adaptable to different power currents. You will need a converter for things like an electric toothbrush if they are bought in the US.

What about banking in China?

Do you use a US debit card?

Everyone sets up a Chinese account once they get to their site. Most people bank with Bank of China. However, it is good to know that Bank of America and China Construction Bank have some sort of partnership. So if you bank with B of A, you can withdraw funds from your US account without any fees. Chase and other bank cards can also be used at ATMs in China to withdraw money or even check into some hotels, but contact your bank to see if your cards can be used in China. US bank and credit cards are also helpful for travel outside of China. Within China, credit cards are rarely used for purchasing items. Almost everyone uses cash.

What kind of technology do you have at your work sites?

Do you have document cameras and projectors in the classrooms? Do students use laptops or computer labs?

Some people have media classrooms with projectors and computers. Others have only chalk and a chalkboard. It varies. Some students may have their own computers but nothing is guaranteed. Internet cafes are becoming quite popular around China, so it may be likely that somewhere nearby there will be access to computers for students.

Which is better to keep in touch with home and China contacts - a Yahoo or Gmail account?

For now, gmail is great and widely used by volunteers. The current conflict with China and Google may create problems with that at some point in the futrue, and I believe gmail was blocked for a bit during the summer of 2009. Yahoo is also easy to use and has not been blocked. Hotmail is also accessible in China. Many Chinese use qq to communicate with each other. Some volunteers set up qq accounts. Also, texting is a good way of communicating as many people do not check their email as frequently as we may be accustomed.

How do you communicate with your families and US friends?

Skype is great. Set up a Skype account and ask your friends and family to as well. Also, most volunteers have cell phones. Friends and family can call for about 10 cents a minute on their end and it is free to receive calls. Also, everyone is required to have a land line at their site. Also, there is something called a "MagicJack," which is a USB that connects a phone through your internet and allows you to call America for free for the first year and renewal after that is $20, which may be cheaper than Skype for calling telephones phones, and you do not pay by the minute.

Should I set up a website or is this not a good idea?

Peace Corps asks that you notify them of any website/blog type things that you create as they want to ensure that you do not offend the government or your site hosts. You should think of what you post and how it will be perceived by outside readers. You can create passwords to limit this fear but not totally eradicate it. Also, many blogs and other web 2.0 things are blocked. Many people use proxies in order to access these sites, but it makes it a bit more difficult. It seems that wordpress is no longer blocked, but you never know.

I read in the news China is stopping Facebook.

Facebook, twitter, youtube, blogger, and many other user-generated sites have been blocked since the summer of 2009 if not before. You will learn about proxies or personal vpns once you arrive if you don’t know about them and want to be able to access these types of sites.

What is a good blogging site to use in China?

Down time is something that is very common as a Peace Corps Volunteer and aside from integrating into your community this allows you the perfect opportunity to document your experiences and flourish your creativity through blogging. Each individual that holds a blog during his Peace Corps service will need to post some sort of disclaimer stating something to the fashion of: "The view and opinions expressed on this site are my own and do not reflect the goals or intents of the US government, The Chinese government or The Peace Corps. I alone am responsible for the content of this blog." Likewise you will be required to maintain a "suitable for all readers" approach to your blogging, this will be explained at length during your pre-service training. While Blogger.com is a very common site, it is not the best. Other options you might choose: Wordpress.com; Typepad.com; Livejournal.com, this site is not currently blocked in China; Thoughts.com are the most popular. I suggest Wordpress because it gives you the most options.

What kind of luggage do you recommend - hard side or duffel? I've found light weight bags in both.

Hard suitcase can be easier and harder. Peace Corps reimburses us for train travel when we are traveling on official business. A roller suitcase works most of the time and is less heavy to carry, but can be hard on stairs, etc. A backpack can be useful for traveling within China and in surrounding countries, especially if you are hopping on buses and trains.

Those packing lists include so many heavy items - is it really advisable to pack kitchen items and books?

You can buy most everything you need in China. If you are not in a big city, you can buy things when you go to the PC office in Chengdu or have them sent from home. You also get used to not having everything you did before. If there is one thing you can’t live without, think about packing that. Books are floating around, but not as available as you might like. Ask around to other volunteers and have them sent later if you are really at a shortage. There are also e-readers (like the Kindle), which are more expensive but may be easier to pack. Amazon is also delivering to China now. If you enjoy reading, it may be difficult to find a lot of books in English here that are at a reasonable price in regards to our PC allowance. I have seen some volunteers utilize the Kindle program and purchase books online and read them off their computers. (Apparently with Kindle, as long as you "return" the book within a month, you get your money back.

If you need something very specific, like certain hair products or lotions that you prefer to use and you wish not to venture into Chinese products, then bring as much as you think you need. For packing, I found the best thing I packed was the stock pile of hair products. I have super curly hair that is difficult to manage, and since Chinese people typically don't have big, curly, frizzy hair, I knew product would be hard to come by.

As far as electronics go, don't worry too much about converters or adapters. Almost everything will work here, and if not you can buy adapters and converters here for much cheaper.

When are you free to travel or have visitors?

The first semester is generally from late August/early September to January 1 or early January. Then there is generally PC training. You are then free until March 1. The second semester starts in March and ends in late June. In between your first and second years of service, volunteers participate in a two week teacher training program. Then you are free from mid July until school starts. This being said, PC has various rules about vacation days that you will learn at the end of PST.

What is the laundry situation?

Most volunteers have their own washing machines in their apartments. Very few have a dryer, and most people hang their laundry outside to dry. You can buy detergent here; Tide is pretty popular. Something that may be useful, though, is a good stain remover. Dry cleaning is also available in almost all places.

Do you have roommates in your apartment?

No, we don't typically share our apartments with any roommates. In fact, Peace Corps regulations state that we can't have any roommates. There is one exception though, where the school didn't have two apartments for their two Volunteers, but they did have one huge one. So for this one site, there are two Volunteers living together (but they were asked first if they'd be willing and able to do it--- and now they say they can't imagine it any other way).

This is a video that a former China PCV made of his apartment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMie7fugY9U

What exercise options are available?

Most sites have some kind of gym option. You'll pay between 70 and 200 RMB per month for membership, depending on your site. I actually have a gym where I paid 588 RMB ($75) for 12 months. It has treadmills, weights and various exercise classes. I also regularly use my school's track to go running. Some people go running on the streets, but I'm not brave enough for that! (Too many stares, cars and too much pollution.) I have found a yoga class in my community. It is taught in Chinese, so is really my most authentic language experience. It has been nice, but requires a lot of observation on my part.

Have you had friends/family visit?

Yes! My parents came to visit me this past January. It was kinda hectic preparing for it, finding the flights, getting the visas, etc. But once it was all taken care of, it was great. They were here for only a week, but I think it was enough. My school was so happy to have my parents come visit, they hosted a pretty awesome "banquet" (nice, fancy dinner in a nice hotel) for my parents.

Do you wear contact lenses there or just glasses as they suggest because of pollution?

Many PCVs wear contacts regularly. But you absolutely should bring the glasses that Peace Corps suggests. Each site has different air quality. If you bring both contacts and the glasses, they you'll have the option to decide for yourself what you're most comfortable doing. Also, because so many people (especially students) need glasses in China, purchasing contact lenses can be cheap in comparison to America; however, Peace Corps will not reimburse for contact lens purchases. I have used both contacts and glasses. That being said, eye infections seem more common here. I got pink eye and the PC doctor asked me about contact use. I had been wearing glasses almost exclusively but have used contact lenses since I was 16, but her response showed her cautiousness with contacts. They are just not common here.

How much luggage did you bring?

I brought one big bag with wheels for all of my clothes, books, etc. I also brought backpacker's backpack for long trips here during the holidays. And I brought one school-type backpack that also holds my laptop. This bag is big enough for day trips and weekend trips, so it has also been really convenient. While here, I have bought a couple of bags that I use for my daily commute to school and stuff. They're really cheap.

Are feminine hygiene products hard to come by?

Tampons are VERY hard to come by typically, but you can find the OB kind in the bigger cities (our regional capital has them in the pharmacies). Pads are the regular commodity here, and are of good enough quality. I personally brought a year's worth of tampons with me from the States, and haven't regretted it.

Are the students friendly?

Students are SOOOOO friendly! They are very polite, and maybe a little timid, especially in the beginning. Some students are "too friendly," and PCVs wish they'd be given more space. Other students aren't assertive enough, and some PCVs wish the students would be more proactive in initiating relationships with the PCV.

Have you ever felt under-prepared for the teaching assignment portion?

I have never felt under-prepared for the teaching assignment, though I do go through waves of thinking I could be doing a better job--- that goes with the territory. Especially when my motivation is low, I think my teaching really suffers. But that is true with most jobs. Typically, the fact that you are a foreign teacher gives you TONS of "street cred" with the students, so you have a lot of leeway. (But if you just don't care about the job, students will pick up on that, and its a pretty bad experience for everyone involved--- this has happened with some PCVs, but the only reason was their own level of commitment to the job). So if you care about being a good teacher, that's enough! Everything else will absolutely fall into place. If you are a first time teacher, you may find that finding your "groove" may be stressful, but again this is no different from adjusting to the demands of a new job. Also, some veteran teachers who are also PCVs are developing a professional support network to support new teachers and serve as a resource for everybody.

What can I pack for my mental health?

Save room in your luggage for or arrange for shipping of seemingly non-essential items, but which are necessary for you to continue with your hobby. For example, photography equipment, musical equipment, yoga gear, cooking utensils or ingredients, sports equipment, art supplies, or any other supplies necessary. While some of this you can buy in China, sometimes it's nice to have something with a little personal history. Also, don't make all your packing practical, bring a few clothing items that make you feel like “yourself.” Bringing your favorite toiletries (shampoo, lotion, Glide dental floss) is a nice reminder of home and the PC provided dental floss and local lotions aren't quite the same.

What are some common secondary projects, and how do you decide what project to undertake?

On a more personal note, as far as secondary projects go, Peace Corps usually encourages volunteers to wait until the second year before getting something really going. However, it really depends on the volunteer and the site they are placed at. Our primary assignments keep us pretty busy. Besides teaching, our primary assignment includes weekly office hours (where students will come to just chat with you) and weekly English Corner (an opportunity for students to practice English with you). At my site, PC has been established over time, and former volunteers had set up a weekly radio show and movie night - so I just picked up right away with these two projects. Early in my first semester, though, some students who had been in the previous volunteer's women's group asked me to reorganize something for the female students, so I did. Some volunteers opt to begin English resource centers at their schools (Mine already has one that was set up by a volunteer 6 years ago, so I am working on updating it,). I have met some challenges though when I tried to branch off and do another secondary project (teaching in the countryside), and my school suggested I wait till my second year. It really will depend on your situation and school. Other volunteers have done things like yoga classes, knitting groups, coaching sports teams, etc. Your Program Managers will be most helpful with this and will address it at Pre-service and In-service training. To be honest, I had ideas of secondary projects coming into China, but when you really assess the needs of your community, perhaps you will find your ideas of a secondary project won't be of much help to the community.

What is the typical dress code for PCVs in China? What about facial hair and hairstyles?

As far as dress code, you do not need to stock pile your suits. During training, Peace Corps expects you to dress in dress business casual (So for men, slacks and a button down or collared shirt, and the women, something along the same lines). Also, no open back sandals - but to be honest, you probably won't want to wear flip flops out too much because your feet will get dirty). No tie or jacket is necessary on a daily basis. However, bringing a suit or more formal wear for special occasions (like swearing-in, host family dinner, school functions, etc.) would be a good idea. Each school's expectation of dress code is different. Staying with the business casual attire is always safe, but this may be different from one site to the next.

PC China may send you some strict requirements to follow upon arrival. But once volunteers arrive at site they generally find a more lenient situation. Facial hair really doesn't seem to be so much of a problem as long as you keep it clean. Most Chinese men do not wear facial hair, but as long as PCVs keep the facial hair cleaned up, it doesn't seem to be a problem. Hair-wise, you can have whatever style you want, as long as you keep it professional. A bit shaggy is ok, but keep in mind, being here, people will judge you on appearance (or at least talk about it), and most people are traditional and conservative. So, all in all, keep your style as long as you feel like you can wear it professionally and does not compromise your sense of self.

How do current PCVs handle isolation and loneliness?

Isolation and loneliness are things that many of volunteers in China find are the most difficult to deal with. As a teacher, your schedule will fluctuate a lot, so if you have hobbies you like to stick with, then make sure you bring whatever necessary to keep your hobbies alive. Some volunteers keep themselves busy with language study, or other projects they pick up along the way in China. Some volunteers spend extra time outdoors or with students, pick up Tai Chi, travel, etc. From what I hear, downtime and alone time are 2 things PCVs all over the world have to get used to, but always have a back up plan to keep you occupied when you need. However, China is not a place where you will run out of options as far as new hobbies goes, it just depends on your drive. Even if you want to pick up a new instrument, there are instrument stores all over the place. Language isolation can be difficult. Learning Chinese requires a lot of work, and we spend a lot of time speaking English. Think about how you will tackle language learning and whether it is important to you to communicate with people besides your students and Chinese English speakers.

Can I find contact lens solution in China?

Contact lens solution is available, as contacts (or "invisible glasses" as they call them here) are becoming more common. Perhaps in more developed areas, like big cities, this can be found in eye glass stores. Peace Corps, however, does not cover the cost of contact lens expenses.

How do you get around? How is public transportation?

Public transportation is quite convenient in most places. The bus systems are pretty efficient, and you are never too far from a bus stop. From city-to-city, common forms of transportation are bus and train (and airplane, if you happen to be in a rush). Depending on the location, the bus lines cut off in the late evening. Taxis are commonly seen, however, on a volunteer's salary, it may be better to utilize the bus system whenever possible. Some people by bikes. PC requires that you were a helmet, not common in China, and they supply it.