Dr Julie Whitfield is currently Lecturer in Events Management in the School of Services Management at Bournemouth University. She previously worked as a Tourism Lecturer and Coordinator of Post Graduate Studies at the Institute for Tourism Studies (IFT) in Macau, SAR, China.
Macau lies on the western side of the Pearl River Delta and is one of two special administrative regions (SARs) of the People’s Republic of China (the other is Hong Kong). It is both one of the richest cities in the world and the most densely populated. Formerly a Portuguese colony Macau reverted to Chinese rule in 1999 and 95% of its population are Chinese. Tourism plays a central role in Macau’s economic prosperity, which itself is heavily dominated by the casino industry. Dr Whitfield recently talked to Sarah Marten about her experience of working in China.
Why did you choose to work in China?
Having previously worked as a Tourism Lecturer at the Mahidol University in Bangkok for a year, I was keen to work overseas again. Macau offers a blend of Chinese and Portuguese cultures, with a heavy reliance on the tourism industry. So it fitted my work requirements, mirroring the work I was doing at Bournemouth University with regards to teaching tourism and event management, whilst enabling me to experience this unique blend of cultures.
How did you prepare for the move?
Obviously I researched the Institute for Tourism and the courses they offered before I applied, but I had a telephone interview, so had not actually visited IFT or Macau prior to leaving the UK. There was only a short time between finalising all the paperwork such as visas and departing for a year in Macau. In terms of learning the local language, languages are not my strongest point, and I really did not have the time to learn any Mandarin before leaving the UK.
What was it like in the first few days/weeks?
The first few days were a mixture of emotions. On the one hand IFT had booked me and my husband into the Pousada (on-site hotel) so being able to contact other lecturers and the support staff at IFT was easy. On the other hand I also had to find somewhere to live long term. Finding suitable accommodation was very difficult, and although we spent the first week in a hotel, our bills there quickly accumulated and we were keen to move to our own flat as soon as possible.
When you know neither the local language nor the city, finding somewhere to live is a real challenge. One example being that after my husband and I viewed a flat, which we declined, the estate agent just left us in the middle of Macau without us knowing how to return to IFT. At the time this was frustrating, but looking back on it now it was all part of the experience.
The local university staff were very supportive, and they helped us to sort out the contracts for our flat located on the 22nd floor overlooking the city. Once we had moved in our first task was to find a fridge and ‘western-style’ cooker, yet another challenge as the locals seemed to just cook on a single gas ring.
What sort of work were you engaged in?
My key role was to teach on a range of courses. I taught Tourism and Event Management to groups of approximately 40 Chinese students, as well as approximately 10 international exchange students. I also designed a postgraduate course in conference and event management. The Chinese government have still not granted permission for that course to run, although I am hopeful that the course will soon begin, having set the wheels in motion.
Did you find the HE sector very different to that in the UK?
The Institute for Tourism Studies offered courses that were fairly similar to those offered at Bournemouth University, which was part of the attraction of the job. I felt that this would make good use of my previous experience and qualifications. The academic year both here and at IFT are the same, starting in September and ending with exams in May.
The courses at IFT were also taught in English. However, one significant difference was that final year students were taught in the evening as they all had full time jobs during the day. This made for some long days teaching, but enabled the students to draw on their own experiences and apply it to the theory.
What about the Chinese students?
Students within Asian universities are very different to those I had been used to in the UK. Asian students are very respectful towards teaching staff, but have been educated in a very different environment that does not always value questioning and analysis.
The Institute for Tourism Studies in Macau was keen for me to incorporate western teaching methods, and I was able to gradually introduce methods to encourage students to talk to one another and to air their views. They soon discovered that it was acceptable to make mistakes, and indeed that they would be commended for trying.
The development of debating skills was an important process, and students began to learn to question and not to simply accept everything presented to them. I keep in touch with several of the students, and it is so encouraging so discover that they have successfully employed these skills at work. For the vast majority of the students, this means the Casino industry in Macau, where employees need to be dynamic and innovative.
How did the visa process go?
IFT organised my initial visa which lasted for six months so that was very straightforward. However, from then on the visa process was very long and tortuous and often meant standing in queues for hours on end, at the end of which I often felt rather uncertain about the outcome of my application. I was fortunate in that English-speaking local university staff were often able to accompany me to these meetings. Without this support it would have been virtually impossible to communicate with the relevant Macanese officials and to show the necessary paperwork.
How has the experience of teaching in China affected your work back in the UK?
Working in China has given me a great insight into Asian culture and learning methods, which has been really beneficial in my work at Bournemouth University. Asian students have so many fantastic qualities, which are of great benefit in the tourism and hospitality industries.
I am now in the process of setting up various links between Bournemouth University and the IFT in Macau, including conferences, exchanges and research projects. This Summer I am returning to the IFT for two weeks having won a travel award by the Centre for Global Prospectuses, which will enable me to further develop the association between the two academic institutions.
Here at Bournemouth University we have also been able to welcome students from the IFT onto our Master’s programme in Event Management. Working in Macau has enabled me to have a much greater understanding of the issues these students may face during the transition to life as a student in the UK. Whilst in Macau I also organised work experience with the National Trust for some Macanese students to offer them international experience. Since leaving this has continued and annually Macanese students have found work placements with the National Trust.
What was the social life like?
The job in Macau involved working fairly long hours, starting at around 8.30 am and finishing at about 6.30 pm, with preparation and marking on top of this. This did not leave a great deal of time for a social life, although in the evenings I really enjoyed visiting the local markets to track down some bargains. With no knowledge of Mandarin, it was very difficult to get to know local people, although I did make friends with other staff at the university. .
There are 16 casinos in Macau, which are very popular both with local residents and tourists. However, as an employee of the Chinese government I was not permitted to visit casinos, or even to dine at their casino restaurants offering western cuisine.
What did you enjoy most about your work in Macau?
For me, working in Macau was the most amazing experience and I would recommend it to anyone. The opportunities to explore, to travel and to see Asian cultures are fantastic. Airline flights from Hong Kong and Macau are cheap, and I travelled throughout Asia to Borneo, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Taiwan, Thailand and to Mainland China to visit the Great Wall. I also really enjoyed working with Macanese students and have no regrets at all about this fantastic experience which has also really benefitted my career back in the UK.
What was the worst moment?
Not knowing anyone when you first arrive in Macau is very difficult. I had no car, and had to travel everywhere on foot or by bus and it was very easy to get lost! However, for me the unusual food, bearing not the slightest resemblance to anything available in the UK was the most challenging aspect of life in Macau. I am quite adventurous when it comes to trying local dishes, but ducks blood soup and chicken feet were beyond my palate! Western supermarkets are hard to find, and tend to be very expensive.
Language is also clearly a huge barrier, and as I do not speak any Cantonese I had to learn to communicate at markets using hand signage. This is harder than it sounds, but did enable me to buy the fresh food I needed.
Macau experiences extremes of weather, from hot and humid summers to cold and wet winters. There is no such thing as central heating, and I found the damp winters particularly difficult.
Have you got any advice for other academics planning to work overseas?
Working overseas is the most valuable experience you can have, and will really benefit your career back home as well. Planning your accommodation before you leave the UK if possible is advisable, and the overseas university can help you with this process. Try to get an extension on your baggage allowance – 20kg is not really enough for a year overseas.
Dr Julie Ward attended Reading University for her first degree, a BSc (Hons) in Human Geography. After graduating Julie obtained a PGCE in Secondary Geography from the University of Sussex. She then moved to Bournemouth University for her MSc, in Tourism, Management and Marketing, and stayed there to complete her PhD in Conference Tourism. Julie also holds a Postgraduate Certificate in PhD supervision from Bournemouth University.
As well as working as Tourism Lecturer and Coordinator of Postgraduate Studies at the Institute for Tourism Studies in Macau, Julie was previously a part-time Tourism Lecturer at the IHTTI School of Hotel Management at Neuchatel in Switzerland and a full-time Tourism Lecturer at Mahidol University International College (MUIC) in Bangkok in Thailand.