Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series about Sarah Bellmer, a 2010 graduate of Christian Academy School. She is currently a teacher in China.
SHANGHAI – Sarah Bellmer maintains she’s not spontaneous, but that didn’t stop her from accepting a job halfway around the world and moving to a country where she didn’t speak the language.
“I’m really not,” Bellmer said with a laugh. “I have to research everything. Like even if I’m buying a new computer, I research it for months.
“If you were to actually ask some of my graduating classmates, I would have been the least likely to leave Ohio. Now I’m the furthest one away from all of my classmates.”
Bellmer had just completed classes at Wilmington College in December 2014 when one of her former teachers at Christian Academy Schools inquired about her interest in a foreign teaching job. Less than a month later, she was on a plane to China.
“They gave her so short of time to get there,” said Bethany Kirkpatrick, who was Bellmer’s Bible teacher at Christian Academy in Sidney. “She had to get that together fast.”
Kirkpatrick’s brother, Luke Elie, was an administrator for a private school in China. When one of the school’s American teachers had Visa issues, he immediately needed a new teacher.
And it just so happened, Kirkpatrick had recently talked to Bellmer and learned she was looking for a full-time job.
“The two things went across in my brain, and I said, ‘I might have somebody for you,’” said Kirkpatrick, who herself had taught in South Korea for seven years and Afghanistan for two years.
When she arrived in Shanghai, Bellmer didn’t speak Chinese, which made navigating the city and daily life extremely difficult.
“It was really hard because I didn’t know the language. I was now illiterate,” Bellmer said. “And I’m a very big reader so to come somewhere and I can’t read anything, I can’t go to the grocery store and buy flour because it’s not in English; how do I know this is flour? So that was really hard.”
Bellmer has picked up some Chinese over the past five years but still isn’t fluent. She’s able to get by, though, with her basic knowledge of the language, the help of translation apps on her phone and learning which stores have some English writing on shelves and price tags.
“When I left, I only knew the Chinese characters for male and female. So I figured I could find the bathroom,” Bellmer said. “But now that I’m here, I have what’s called survival Chinese. I can order just about any food from any menu, and I can tell the taxi driver where to go, and I can talk to my 3-year-old students. But that’s about it.”
When she’s out in Shanghai, Bellmer tries to use some of the Chinese she knows, but her limited knowledge of the language can cause issues.
“For what Chinese I do know, I know it pretty good so then they think I’m fluent, and it’s just … yeah,” Bellmer said.
“Whenever I take a taxi or I’m out and about somewhere and I’m trying to explain that I want something, I try to use the Chinese that I know. And then they’ll speak to me very fast and very quickly. And I’ll look at them like a deer in the headlights. I have no clue what they just said.”
When she explains that she doesn’t understand, people tend to write the Chinese characters in the air or on a piece of paper. She then has to explain further that she’s a foreigner and doesn’t understand what they’re saying.
“So then they just start laughing, and they go, ‘Ha ha ha ha ha. Foreigner cannot read,’” Bellmer said. “So the laughing is one of the hardest parts about being here because they always laugh at us because we don’t know anything. But you learn to take it in stride.”
It took awhile to get used to the new country and new culture, but Bellmer has settled into her life in China. She teaches at a school that employs English-speaking teachers, mostly from the United States, and uses her experience of navigating life in Shanghai to help new staff members adjust to their surroundings.
“Whenever we have new people come in, they always send them my way,” Bellmer said, “and I’m like, ‘OK. Here’s what we’re going to do first. We’re going to go to the grocery store. We’re going to go here. We’re going to get your phone set up.’ And I’m the one-woman onboarding team.”
Along with the new language and new culture, Shanghai’s size made for quite an adjustment from small town Ohio. With a population of more than 24 million people, it’s one of the largest cities in the world.
“It was eyeopening to say the least,” Bellmer said. “Shanghai is huge. It’s several times the size of New York City with about four or five times the number of people, so it’s very crowded. But, luckily, where I live, it’s on the outskirts, on the southern side. So it has more of a suburban feel.”
Bellmer’s school in China pays for her housing and has her live in an apartment complex with the other teachers as a way to build a community. She had roommates for her first few years in Shanghai but now has her own apartment with a view of fields outside her window.
When she initially arrived in China, Bellmer would go out and do something new almost every week. She also visited other places in Asia including South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Taiwan but prefers the comfort of her apartment.
“Now I’m more like I just want to sit at home and play my Nintendo Switch because I’m tired,” she said. “But I still go out with my friends pretty regularly.”
The Christian Academy alumna is able to talk to her family back in Ohio almost every day through calls and video chats even though there’s a 13 hour time difference.
Additionally, her sister has visited her in China, and her dad plans to visit later this year. And each summer her school pays for round-trip airfare so she can spend July and part of August with her family.
“I’ve missed my family. I haven’t spent like Halloween or any other holidays with my family for about 10 years, and I really miss them, and I want to see them again,” said Bellmer, who plans to move back to the United States when the current school year concludes at the end of June.
While she’s ready to come home, Bellmer said she’s loved her time in Shanghai and is glad she accepted the job five years ago. Kirkpatrick also is glad she took the job.
“I think it’s great,” Kirkpatrick said. “I think it’s awesome that she’s been able to travel. And she works great with the kids.”
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