Teaching English, promoting GAA & singing for Rory McIlroy – Co Down man Sean Cunningham tells us about life in rural China

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Teaching English, promoting GAA & singing for Rory McIlroy – Co Down man Sean Cunningham tells us about life in rural China

Next in Living Away Just when I started to feel more settled, I was diagnosed with a serious incurable condition called Ulcerative Colitis…it was hard to be ill and so far from home

When Sean Cunningham agreed to take up a teaching post in China he wasn’t quite sure how it was going to go.

Before leaving Northern Ireland his uncle offered this advice: “China is not going to change for you but you may have to change for it.”  With that in mind GAA–fanatic Sean immersed himself in local culture from day one.

Having lived in Zhengzhou from August 2012 – June 2015 Sean came home to take up a position with the Confucius Institute in Belfast but now plans to return to China with Ulster University later this year.

NIC: What brought you to China in the first place?

Sean: Following my studies I worked in the Students Union at Coleraine as a student representative. I went to the International Office after that but it was just for over the summer time, helping students assimilate and settle in before the academic year begins.

My old boss Francis Kane – who’s still at Ulster University Coleraine – gave me a phone call out–of–the–blue and asked what I was up to. I told him I was looking for full–time work and he asked if I could meet him in Coleraine for a coffee next week.

It’s a long way to go from Edendariff to Coleraine for coffee but I went on up and met Francis anyway. He asked me if I’d ever thought about China. At his time I literally knew nothing about it – just the old cliche about food (which isn’t actually like Chinese food). He told me that he’d lived in China for seven years in a place called Zhengzhou in Henan province.

He said he could get me work there but despite already having two degrees, I’d first have to get a teaching certificate. He recommended CELTA qualification which I did at International House in Belfast.

While most of my CELT class mates deciding to go to Spain to teach, I decided to give China go. At one point I thought, ‘if I’m going to China would I not be better going to Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong?’ 

Looking back, five years on I’m so glad that I didn’t.  My Mandarin has improved so much more than a lot of people I know who moved to the bigger cities with larger populations of English speakers.

NIC: Can you remember what it was like when you first arrived in China?

Sean: On my way over, the flight leaving Belfast was delayed by three hours and I risked missing all my connecting flights. This was a slight concern given I barely spoke any Mandarin at this point. I made all my flights but arrived with no luggage.

It was pretty hot when I first arrived so without thinking I filled up a glass of water from the tap and drank it. I spent the next couple of days in bed with stomach ache. That was a lesson learned.

Once I was back on my feet I threw myself right into things. I knew that the students I would be teaching would end up studying in Ireland as part of their education, so I thought I’d throw myself into things straight away and organise a cultural week. 

This was a good opportunity for me to learn more about Chinese culture and for my students to learn more about Ireland.

What did you end up arranging for culture week?

The students I was teaching in Zhengzhou also get to visit Ireland as part of their studies. What I found was there wasn’t a lot being done in terms of cultural education before their visit.

I organised this Irish Culture week to help give them a bit of a grounding. GAA has always been a big part of my life and I try and bring that with me wherever I go, so as part of the week they learnt to play GAA and hurling.

So I contacted Croke Park and asked for equipment and jerseys to be sent over and we ended up having a proper game. I had to laugh though because we got sent over some plastic indoor hurling sticks – turns out they were made in China!


I also knew Des Bishop was in China doing stand–up shows in Mandarin. He was living out there and was making a programme for RTE. So I contacted his cameraman to see if they would be interested in getting involved in our culture week.

Luckily Des was interested and actually really keen. They asked me if I knew of anywhere interesting to film. I brought them to the Shaolin Temple – the home of Kung Fu.

I asked Des if he would be keen to try Kung Fu and in return we asked the Shaolin monks to do their thing with hurling sticks. He was happy enough to take part which was a good laugh and the students seemed to really have fun.

NIC: Were you surprised at how quickly you adjust to life there?

My uncle gave me the best piece of advice before I left. He said; “China won’t change for you, you’ll have to change for China”. I thought I’d either be on the first flight home or i’d love it and stay there for a while.

Instead of going home after class like some of the other teachers, I helped coach the soccer team, introduced my students to hurling and GAA, put on English movie nights and things like that.

I spent so much time with the students, immersed in their culture that I picked up the language a lot quicker than I thought I would. There is a big difference in the student culture though – with Chinese students drinking isn’t cool at all.

Imagine a university Ireland or the UK with 20,000 students and not a bar in sight. Not a bad thing necessarily, but very very different!

I can say that with certainty that living in China definitely changed me. For a start, I never knew I had a knack for languages. Never in a million years did I think I would be able to speak Chinese. This year I was the only person in Ireland to receive their Level 5 Mandarin certificate.

NIC: Best memories?

I have so many good memories from China but here’s a few that stand out…

Singing for Rory McIlroy & Tiger Woods

I was out with an Australian friend of mine, Jeff who is a golf professional. He told me that Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods were coming to Zhengzhou for an exhibition round and that they’d be in the Crowne Plaza for a reception. So, like a stalker,  I put my best suit on and went there an hour early for a few drinks before introducing myself to Rory. I told him I was from County Down and had a bit of a natter. I was really impressed by how friendly and normal he was.


Anyway, the singer who was performing on the night wasn’t great. The bar manager told me that Tiger Woods had asked that she stop performing. I then asked him if he would mind if I sang and he told me to check with Rory and Tiger. I did, they said yes and then they were treated to the finest performance of back–to–back U2 hits. I don’t think Rory is a massive U2 but I got a thumbs up from Tiger!

Leaving a GAA legacy

I left a wee bit of a legacy over there in Zhengzhou by getting Poc Fada introduced as an event during sports day. Bearing in mind sports day is compulsory and about 15,000 people take part. I’m proud that it continues to be part of sports day there. 

Family visit

Every May or June there would be contract talks with the teachers. We were incredibly well looked after there – free flights, accommodation and it’s well paid. Despite this a lot of overseas teachers would normally only stay in Zhengzhou for a year and then move a more fashionable city. At the end of my third year my boss asked me what package I needed in order to stay. I told him that I’d had three really great years in Zhengzhou but that I’d been offered a new job at home.

He said ‘no problem, I completely understand, it’s a pity your parents and family never got to visit China’. I said: ‘Sure you never know what’ll happen in the future.’

He then decided that he was going to personally pay for my mum, dad and auntie to come out for an all–expenses paid trip.  

Before this my dad’s last holiday was to Canada in 1989 so it made it that wee bit extra special.

Not only did my boss pay for that but he gave me an extra three weeks off and made sure I had a proper itinerary worked out so that my parents got the best experience possible. I got to see parts of China that I hadn’t previously. To be able to share that with my mum and dad was priceless.

NIC: You’ve been busy then! What are your plans now?

Sean: I’m actually going back over to China in October with Ulster University GAA. I was a member of Beijing GAA for three years while living in Zhengzhou. Because of my association with the Ulster University and my knowledge of China I was well placed to help out during the trip. Whenever the team go home, I’ll stay and take up a new post with Ulster University in Hubei Province.


NIC: And the long term?

Sean: Asia is definitely an exciting place to be at the minute. You couldn’t get bored in China. I’m looking forward to another new challenge in my role with Ulster University but I also can’t wait to become more involved in the GAA scene there. I love introducing the game to new people, so that is exciting. Who knows what the long term future holds, I’m excited about what’s coming up.

NIC: Thanks for talking to Northern Irish Connections, Sean. Best of luck in China and keep us posted on your progress. 

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