CTA—A foreign teacher’s best friend


When I first got to China I didn’t know how to shop, purchase a phone plan, or open a bank account. Sias’ answer to those problems is the CTA program (Culture Team Ambassadors). This is definitely one of the perks of making Sias your first choice rather than another college when first deciding to teach in China. The culture team is a group of Chinese students who have good English skills and who want to meet and be friends with foreigners. Many of them come back to Sias weeks before classes begin to help new teachers acclimate and learn the many things they need to know in order to survive and thrive in China. They help us before, after, and between classes for no pay. Their compensation is the satisfaction of helping others and the undying gratitude of the foreign teachers they befriend. Many of them form lifelong relationships with the teachers they help. Several of them have become my good friends.

CTA student help ranges from the tiny to the huge. From handwriting the address on a letter and helping us pick up packages, to accompanying us to our doctor appointments. Their willingness to help us is invaluable. Following are just a few examples of how they have helped me.

Carol, Culture Team Student

When foreign teachers first get to China, they need to purchase a phone plan before they can open a bank account. In my case, a couple of CTA students accompanied another new teacher, Michelle, and myself to the China Unicom store. The process of purchasing a phone plan in China is quite different than it is in the United States. In China, phones and phone plans are usually purchased separately. Chinese people pop the SIM cards in and out of their phones like it’s nothing. They move them from phone to phone as convenience dictates. For us as foreign teachers that means we can usually use our American phones in China (particularly iPhones as long as they are unlocked) or we can purchase a Chinese phone to use with the SIM card. In my case, I chose to purchase a Chinese phone since my American phone was out of date and about 3 years old. We used my new SIM card in a student’s phone to set it up and test the SIM card. Then the student helped me to order a Xiaomi phone online. Once I received the phone I was able to install the SIM card and I was in business.

The next step to functioning in China was to set up a bank account. The phone plan had to be set up first because everything is connected to your phone number in China. You cannot get a bank account without a Chinese phone number. So, once we had our SIM card and phone number, Michelle and I headed to the bank. Again the students translated, helped us fill out forms in Chinese, and used their phones with our SIM cards to set up and verify the bank account. They also helped us convert some dollars to yuan.

Once we had some yuan in hand we were able to go to Waka—one of the large local grocery/department store chains. Our CTA students helped us purchase supplies such as toilet paper, tissues, and some basic cleaning products. The bank, phone store, and Waka are all within walking distance from Sias campus. You may find that you do a lot of walking when running errands here, but there are also other alternatives.

The final lesson our CTA students taught us was how to do was to take a bus back to Sias. The bus system is very efficient and inexpensive. It costs about 23 cents to ride it. The local buses run about every 3 to 10 minutes. You rarely have to wait more than 10 minutes to get to any local destination, although you may need to change buses a time or two.

Carol’s graduation

After the bus ride back to Sias, Michelle and I said goodbye to our CTA students for the day. These are only a few examples of the invaluable help our CTA students give us. One CTA student, a young man named Jack, recently helped me to find a hair salon, book an appointment, and translate my instructions to my new hair stylist. He did a great job and so did the stylist. We love our CTA students and many of them love us. We hang out with them, shop with them, go to movies with them, and sometimes travel to their hometowns to visit. We often form firm friendships with them that extend beyond the initial help they give us. They make moving here much easier and provide ready friendship and acceptance we sometimes desperately need.

Have you had a similar experience with a person or persons who have helped you to adapt to a new situation? Have you needed to figure things out on your own without help in a strange culture? Do you have questions? Drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.

Academics In Asia

1 Comment

  • What a wonderful article Sheila! I love the respect, kindness, and gratitude expressed in your article for the student ambassadors. What a positive experience for both of you. I am encouraged not only by how much value the CTA students bring to your daily life, but how you value and respect each other relationally.

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