The Great Wall, the Giant Panda and You: Teaching English in China

Guest written by Beth Green

Do you want to teach English to dedicated, hard-working students? Explore one of the world’s oldest civilizations? Have a million and one stories to tell when you do go back home?

In short, I’m asking—do you want to teach English in China?

The People’s Republic of China is now one of the world’s top destinations for English teachers—if you doubt me, just check any online job board.

On the other hand, China has a reputation for being a hard place to live—and newbie teachers going abroad would be unwise to ignore some of the stories coming from the Middle Kingdom.

So, what’s the real dirt on whether it’s a good idea to teach English in China? Read on for my two cents:

The Good

●  Teaching Contracts in China Offer More Perks.  When you take a job in China, or do an internship like the one at TEFLinternships.com, you usually get your housing paid for by your employer. Other perks may or may not include paying for your utilities, cable TV, internet service, Chinese lessons, phone bill, working lunches and travel bonuses. While there are other positions in the world that offer nice sweeteners like these, the proportion in China seems to be way higher.

●  They Won’t Mind If This Is Your First Job. Chinese public schools and training centers—even universities—are often open to giving greenhorn English teachers jobs that in other countries could only be had by more experienced educators. This may not be true of all cities, competition for teaching jobs in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai is fierce, but the broad-reaching demand for English instruction in China exceeds supply of teachers, especially in rural areas.

●  See History and History in the Making. China is just a cool place to be. It’s got thousands and thousands of years of history as a civilization—the Great Wall was started about 700 BC, and the Terracotta Warriors were buried about 200 BC—and its contemporary culture is changing about as fast as I can type this. While fast-paced modernization coupled with dusty relics won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, no one can say it’s boring.

The Bad

●   Chinese Language is a Puzzle. In English we call gibberish “Greek.” In Spanish they call it “Chinese.” The Spaniards may be closer to the truth. China has more than five official languages and dialects spanning more than eight language families. The two big languages we hear about in the West are Mandarin and Cantonese, however even if you’re working in a place that speaks one of these two, there are dialects to contend with. Of course, you don’t need to speak Chinese to teach English. However, being in a rural area or anonymous second- or third-tier city without a scratch of language can be very isolating for a teacher who’s come abroad for the first time. Extra effort is needed for even simple daily transactions. The good news is, most schools will lend you a helper (maybe a colleague) to translate for you while you’re getting set up in a new town and job, and finding people willing to help you learn basic Chinese is easy.

●  Don’t Drink The Water, But What About Breathing the Air? Big cities in Asia just don’t have the same clean, fresh air that North Americans, Europeans and Australians are used to. Attitudes to environmental safety standards in China are very different than you will see even in more developed countries in Asia. Slowly, more is being done to make Chinese cities a healthier place to live—but there’s no guarantee your city will have adopted these new measures.

●  The Giving and Losing of “Face.” It doesn’t matter what country you go to as an English teacher, you will find some cultural differences between there and your native land. Expect to feel a bit of culture shock wherever you go. But in China, many teachers say they have experienced much higher degrees of culture shock because of the differences between Chinese and Western cultures. One example is the importance of Chinese “face”: sometimes people will not concede a point simply because they don’t want to lose face for having been wrong. Or, they might say “yes” to something because they don’t want to lose face (or make you lose face!) by saying “no.” Another important cultural stumbling block to take into account before looking for work in China is that Caucasian or white-looking teachers often are given preferential hiring treatment at Chinese schools. If you are of Asian, African or other non-white origin, or if you even might look it, then you will probably be asked to explain your family history (proving that yes, you are a native English speaker) before you get a job.

Obviously, these are just a few of the common “good” and “bad” points that English teachers observe when they go to China. For most people, teaching in China—or even doing a short stint, as through TEFLinternships.com—is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that they will treasure the rest of their lives.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Don’t take a job in China on a whim. Research a little about the culture and situation before you decide to go. Like anything, it can be a brilliantly wonderful experience, or not.

TED’s Tips™ #2: If you do decide to go to China, try to bone up on some Mandarin before you go. While you won’t need local language skills for your classroom, even a few words will help you settle in to your new life abroad.

Teaching Internships in China