10 Things to Expect When Teaching English in China

Moving to the other side of the world will bring about an endless number of changes, from missing your family back in the U.S. and other comforts of home to experiencing a new school system and culture. Fortunately, there’s an excellent network of expats that can help you adjust to your new life of teaching English in China. Here are 10 aspects of living and teaching in China that you should prepare for before you embark on this great adventure.

1) Internet

It’s no secret that China has restrictions when it comes to internet usage. Westerners will often reference how Chinese people can’t access Facebook, certain news networks and other websites you might peruse often at home due to government censorship. You can either learn to live without the parts of the internet that are banned there, or you can pay for a VPN. This stands for “virtual private network” and essentially tricks servers to think you’re using the internet from the States. With a VPN, you can enjoy all the websites that you do at home, including full access to the content on Netflix in America and YouTube. (In case you didn’t know, Netflix has different licenses in different countries, so you’ll find that the offerings vary based on where you you’re VPN says you are.)

2) Eating

teaching english in china

When you’re looking for food in China, you have quite a few options. There are fancy restaurants and Western food chains around cities, but the most cost-effective way to eat is by frequenting street food carts. While you can save tons of money by avoiding more formal dining establishments, you’re also more likely to encounter unsanitary cooking conditions with street food. Make note of how the cooks are handling and storing food before you choose a stall to eat at.

3) Shopping

Of course you’ll find sprawling, shiny malls in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but local stores and street markets have less expensive and more unique clothes and accessories for you to explore and fall in love with. You can find most things you’ll need in the big cities, including toiletries and household goods, but I prefer to buy clothing at markets where I find interesting outfits while supporting small-business owners and independent vendors in the community.

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4) Drinking water

Like in most Asian countries, you should avoid drinking water from the tap. It’s hard to know when the pipes and other infrastructure was last replaced or cleaned. Additionally, unless the water is purified, you might encounter bacteria that will make you sick. It’s best to only drink bottled water unless you know for a fact that it’s been boiled to kill bacteria. If you’re lodging is including in your teaching contract, you’ll likely have a water filter system provided. If you do happen to ingest some water or bad food, you can often find over-the-counter medicine that will help you get through the bad times.

5) Bathrooms

You will have to adjust to using Chinese-style squat toilets as many places don’t offer Western toilet options. It can be difficult to get used to squatting over a toilet bowl on the floor, but it’ll seem normal after a while (and better for your bowels!). Prepare to test the strength of your thigh muscles and possibly pee on your feet at first, though. It’s a good idea to carry a little pack of tissues with you because you’ll find that many restrooms don’t have toilet paper in the stalls. Pro Tip: Squat toilets are much easier to use when you’re wearing a dress or skirt rather than pants!

6) Money

teaching english in china

Chinese currency is called Renminbi or RMB, which includes jiao, fen and yuan, all of which operate with the tens system. For example, 10 fens = 1 jiao and 10 jiao = 1 yuan. You can expect to be paid in local currency, and you should make enough money to save a bit because major Chinese cities have a cost of living that’s about five times less than in the U.S. You’ll earn a higher salary than Chinese teachers so you will have plenty of funds to travel, even after the Chinese government takes about 20 percent of your income for taxes.

7) Transportation 

Depending on where you’re based, options for transportation include busses, trains and taxis. Cities have plenty of public transportation for you to take advantage of, but you may have to rely on walking or taking cabs in more rural areas. Make sure you have your destination written in Chinese to show the drivers, as most don’t speak English. It’s illegal for taxi drivers to charge a flat rate and forgo using the meter, so it’s best to find another cab if possible when that happens. If you’ll be walking around town a lot, make sure you look before you cross the street as Chinese drivers may not stop for pedestrians.

8) Respect for elders

Hopefully you respect your elders at home, but it’s even more important to show reverence to people who are older than you while you’re teaching English in China. This especially applies to interactions with your bosses and coworkers, as well as the parents of your students.

9) Manners

Manners in China extend beyond showing respect for your seniors. Overall, it’s essential that you practice patience and remain polite in every interaction. It’s not culturally acceptable to have outbursts or outwardly demonstrate anger. Hold your tongue until you’re back in your apartment with friends, where it’s safer to vent about whatever is frustrating you.

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10) Flexible schedules

While American schools plan out vacation weeks, days off and special events in advance, the school where you’ll be teaching English in China might not provide quite as much information in advance. You’ll likely have to go with the flow and plan your leisure travel on short notice in some instances. Simply follow instructions from your supervisors, and everything will be okay.

Once you’re TEFL certified, you’re ready to fly across the world and begin life as an ESL teacher in an amazing country!

Words by Christine Hayes.