8 Things I Wish I’d Known BEFORE Teaching English in China

When I boarded my first plane bound for China, I hadn’t given much thought to where I was going. My decision to take a job teaching English in China was one based on the sole fact that I’d recently returned to Oregon, USA from eight months of traveling around Southeast Asia and teaching English in Thailand, and that I wasn’t ready to be back home. I felt like I’d left Asia prematurely and I desperately wanted to go back. In the midst of my rash decision making, I stumbled across a position in China and thought, I might as well try somewhere new! Within a month I was on a that plane.

But teaching English in China was very different from teaching English in Thailand, and a bit of research would have better equipped me for success there. Here are some things I wish I’d known before teaching English in China:

1. There’s no social media or blogging allowed.

Legally this is true. The government prevents the more commonly used social media sites such as Facebook and Youtube as well as blogging platforms like WordPress, but there are two ways around this rule. One, you can partake in the local versions like WeChat, Weibo and QQ, which are essentially the same thing but local to China (and with more users!). Or, two, you can invest in a VPN (virtual private network), which will trick your internet server into thinking you’re in some other country of your choosing, thus allowing you access.

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2. Students are shy. 

Chinese students are culturally quiet and reserved in class. The traditional Chinese way of instruction is one geared more toward listening and note taking than active involvement, which is one reason students love coming to English class. Most foreign ESL teachers are used to a more interactive classroom, and thus bring that expectation into the Chinese classroom. It might take some warming up, but eventually the students will love it!

3. Saving face is a thing.

wish i'd known before teaching english in china

On that note, there’s such a thing as “saving face” referred to frequently in China. It means that nobody wants to look bad in front of another, and they also don’t want to do anything to make you look bad. This has it’s benefits and downsides, but one thing to know as a teacher is this: giving directions for a classroom activity, then asking if everyone understands will likely leave you with blank stares. Nobody wants to admit they don’t understand for fear it might make you look bad. A better way would be to demonstrate, perhaps with volunteers.

4. Traveling within China on big holidays is a zoo. 

During the two big week-long holidays, Spring Festival and Golden Week, as well as many shorter ones, you can bet that nearly everyone in China will be traveling somewhere. And that’s a lot of people! Traditionally, most Chinese spend their holiday time traveling to their hometown/village and sharing a meal with family, though others use the time to travel nationally. Regardless, you can expect trains and buses to be booked up, as well as lodging and major attractions. Not to mention, they’ll be more expensive than other times during the year.

5. You should always be camera ready.

wish i'd known before teaching english in china

As a foreigner in China, you’ll stand out, and many people (often the local tourists mentioned above!) will stop to ask for a photo with you.

6. Bus trips can take varying lengths of time. 

From my school to the biggest city the bus would sometimes take four hours and sometimes six. I never really knew what accounted for the difference, but know never to keep too tight of a schedule! 

7. Mandarin is not the only language  wish i'd known before teaching english in china

While Mandarin is often the only Chinese language taught outside of China, there are several other dialects spoken, most commonly Cantonese. I made the mistake of trying to learn Mandarin while living in a Cantonese-speaking area, and my efforts failed tremendously. Keep this in mind if language acquisition is one of your goals!

8. They are probably already studying for college and post-college competition.

wish i'd known before teaching english in chinaIt’s highly likely, even if you’re teaching youngsters, that they’re already being primed for the pre-college entrance exam, aiming toward a specific university of their parents’ choosing, and thus a career following. The students in your English classroom have a lot of pressure to learn the language, as well as pressure to do well in all their other subjects, and you might sense this in their stress levels or notice their always-busy schedules.

These are just a few of the things worth looking into before teaching English in China, but of course half the fun is figuring out things for yourself. Go teach English in China!