8 Insider Tips for Winning at Life While Teaching in China

by Zach Herzog

The most life changing part of an immersive international experience like teaching in China can be the opportunity to live like a local in a whole new culture. Not only do you get to taste exotic foods and do things no liability waiver would allow you to do back home, but you get to live like everyday people live on a different part of the globe.

It is the ultimate “virtual reality” because you get to totally change your reality, for a short time.

China has been a strong contender for top teach abroad destination for years now. Whether you’re drawn to teach in historic Beijing or prefer the glitz of Shanghai, one thing remains: the culture of the Middle Kingdom is AWESOME. But in order for you to really get the most bang for your kuai, here are a few differences you should be aware of before teaching English in China.

Forbidden City, Beijing, China

1. Oh, what’s in a name?!

Chinese names are structured differently than western names. The family name is stated first, followed by their given name (and they almost always go by both). Whichever way your Chinese supervisor or student introduces themselves, that is how you should refer to them. 

Even so, many of your English-learning students may have adopted English names of their own. You’ll probably meet a lot of Michael’s, but you’ll also run into some odd honorifics like “Eleven,” “King,” or “Panda.” If your students prefer you to call them by their English name, go for it. They may also want to dub you with a Mandarin version of your name; it’s really fun to have your students help 起名 (qǐ míng) and christen you with a Chinese name all your own.

2. DaGe (Big Brother) is watching

Coming from the land of the (more relatively) free, it can be a bit of a shock to live and work in a communist country. On one hand, you may be shocked by the similarities to life back home. On the other hand, there are some notable differences, especially when it comes to using the internet. Many western based websites, including Facebook, news agencies, and anything owned by Google, are totally blocked by the “Great Fire-Wall of China.” This can be an exceptional bummer for international teachers in China, because it makes Googling class ideas all the more challenging!

In order to stay connected with family and friends back home (and last minute ESL lesson plans), you’ll want to purchase a VPN that will allow you to access these websites from within China. Most of your Chinese students will have one, and they will happily help you set one up. Alternatively, you can sign up for one prior to leaving for China (as some VPN services are blocked there, too!).

Downtown Shanghai, China

3. Let’s get personal

From a more conservation perspective, Chinese people can be a bit nosy. They will talk openly about their finances, their health, their relationships, and other matters that you might consider rather personal and/or private. 

During my time teaching in China, I was constantly bombarded with questions about my marriage status, whether or not I had a girlfriend, why I didn’t have one, and when I planned on starting a family. If you find yourself being questioned, don’t become defensive or offended. Just answer as openly as you feel comfortable.

4. Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore

Unless you have Chinese ancestry, you’re not going to blend in. Both physical appearance and body language differ between the West and the East. You’ll also find that Chinese people will take a keen interest in foreigners, particularly if you have notably different physical features, such as body hair, blonde hair, blue eyes, or dark skin. They may want to touch you or take your picture (even in the middle of class!).

Culturally speaking, Chinese laud teachers as highly honorable. Enjoy feeling like a celeb for a bit! Bluntly complimenting foreigners is quite common; you may be told you are very attractive with pretty eyes, while also being told you are fat. Neither the complimenting, nor the criticizing is meant to be intrusive or insulting. It is simply an expression of genuine interest. If you are getting a lot of compliments, return them with similar flattery. If you find yourself feeling insulted, just shrug it off. 

5. Personal space??? HA!

In a country with over a billion people, the comfort bubble for your physical closeness to others does not exist. Inside the classroom you should be fine, though your commute to school may be a different story. From subways to supermarkets, you’ll be with loud, pushy people all. the. time. Forget about waiting in line in China; the first person to the counter gets served next, and don’t be insulted if you get shoved when boarding a train. Just keep up with the pace of the crowd, and if you need a break, step out of the flow of traffic to gather your thoughts.

The Great Wall of China

6. Plan lessons with a variety of methodologies.

A bit of learning English as a Chinese student from a foreign teacher is the exposure to a native’s accent, but equally important is the exposure to new ways of learning. China is famous for its emphasis on rote memorization as a means to grasp new information. As a teacher, you're not only responsible for training your students in basic grammar and vocabulary, but you can also give them a peek into the culture of your home country and teach them about pedagogies found there.

Mix it up! Have students write short essays one day, watch a movie the next, work in small groups the next, and present to the class on day four. Ask them to state their opinions. Ask them to argue for something they believe in. Ask them to draw a picture based on a paragraph of descriptors.

Challenge students to use different parts of their brain. Happy students = happy teacher!

7. Use your TEFL to get better jobs.

Having a TEFL certificate can make or break your salary as a teacher in China. It may cost a bit up front, but it will ultimately allow you to earn a higher average salary than other individuals teaching in China. Since you’ll be making the big bucks, you can carve out a serious chunk of your student loan debt or plan fabulous trips during the national holidays to nearby destinations (Southeast Asia, anybody?). 

The secret to satisfaction while living and teaching in China is acclimating to your everyday comforts looking a little different than they did before. Having more financial freedom (aka. earning more money) is the secret sauce to designing a normal life as an expat teacher in China.

Shanghai Cityscape

8. Work hard, play hard

Chinese youth work very long, hard hours both academically in school and professionally in the workplace. Living at the library and spending weekends hitting the books are the norm. Your students will want to take you for lunch or dinner to continue practicing their conversational English. Be prepared to eat multi-course, shared meals with the people you meet. 

Be prepared to work hard, but to also make time for relaxing, taking in the sights, and enjoying the finer things when in China. From late night KTV nights to weekend trips into picturesque Hangzhou, to enjoying the occasional Tsingdao and 串儿 (chuàn ér) while sitting on a tiny stool in the street, the delights of China are yours to discover (and never tire of!).

Take the time to observe the differences around you and enjoy all of the opportunities to learn about life in one of the world’s oldest societies. Teach in China, but also be taught!