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Oct 7th, 2019 by David O Connor

8 Tips to know before teaching in China

8 Tips to know before teaching in China

The Best Advice You Need to Hear Before Moving to China to Teach

Scour the interwebs for 101 ‘insider tips’ on how to best negotiate a big move to China as a TEFL teacher and don’t be surprised if you come up with more questions than answers. Don’t worry, it’s happened to all of us. Gathering every bit of useful advice is a utopian dream many of us never managed to achieve – the main incentive for compiling this guide of honest advice about moving to China. We may have learned through trial and error but that doesn’t mean you have to. Sometimes, a head’s up is all you need to make the whole ordeal easier.

You should note that your introduction to life in China will be a unique experience and will likely be influenced more by your chosen City destination and type of teaching job than anything else. That first impression really counts, as do the initial contacts you’ll make here, both professionally and personally.

Having said that, there are a lot of experiences hurdles and regrets we all shared, initially. Here’s some advice we hope you’ll find useful.

1. Come to China for a visit before moving here, permanently

Robert Louis Stevenson once penned one of the most iconic quotes of all time – “There are no foreign lands – it is only the traveller who is foreign” – and if there’s one country that perfectly embodies this ideal, it would have to be China. There’s a lot of ‘newness’ to contend with when you move to China and it’ll be almost foolish to move here to teach without having had at least one visit under your belt. We know it’s easier said than done, especially if you’ve already signed a teaching contract and are now busy saving like your life depended on it. Yet taking a short recon trip to your intended destination will pay off in the long run. Spend at least 10 days in your chosen city exploring, researching and getting your bearings and it just won’t be all that foreign to you when you do make the big move. This is especially useful if you haven’t yet found a job and simply want to scour a potential ‘home’. You may have always dreamt about living in Beijing, for example, but a short trip will either reinforce that or make you change your mind.

2. You could never save ‘too much’

Your ESL teaching contract may well be lucrative yet given you could go at least a month or two without seeing a single yuan, you’ll want to have a decent safety-net in the bank, in the range of USD 5,000. To see where that money will be spent, have a read of our Teaching in China – How much will it cost? blog where we detail all the pre and post-move costs. The main reason we urge potential teachers to come with a healthy nest-egg is because we know how stressful the initial transition is, on all sorts of levels – stressing about money is the one headache you can foresee and can really do without. Trust us on this: you’ll be stressing over a multitude of things but anxiously waiting for the first pay-check is totally unnecessary. You’ll no doubt get all (or most) of that money back, two-fold, so do yourself a favour and come prepared.

3. Consider staying in a serviced apartment or cheap hotel for the first two weeks

Many teaching contracts include living arrangements which can certainly make your initial settling-in period much easier. Yet if your contract doesn’t, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to find a suitable apartment before you’ve even arrived; book a serviced apartment or cheap hotel and leave your thorough search for when you are actually here. You can certainly gather recommended real-estate contacts from local expat forums and try to get an idea of what’s available and for how much, but you’d be crazy to commit to an apartment before you’ve a chance to look at it.Moreover, make sure everything works as it should before handing over your deposit.

4. When looking for a place to live, always opt for the shortest commute

Commuting is annoying enough in the quietest of cities but it can be a downright nightmare in a ginormous Chinese metropolis or even a medium-sized one. No matter how ‘gorgeous’ an apartment you’ll find, trust that you’ll resent if soon enough if it means you’ll need to commute for longer than half an hour, one-way. Many experienced expats in China have learnt the hard way and will attest to the ‘30-5 rule’ being essential: either 30 minutes on foot or 5 minutes by bus. This is the ideal commuting time you’ll want to aim for.

5. Know what to pack and what to safely leave behind

Everyone who’s planning to move to China will invariably search for an ‘ideal’ packing list for their chosen destination and although there are so many out there, most can’t take into account your own personal musts. By and large, we always advise people to pack what they know they can’t leave without (in terms of brand-names) as well as what makes them happy. Sometimes, even a dust-collector or childhood teddy bear that makes you think of home and smile is worth packing. Men ought to definitely pack enough shoes if they have large feet and women may want to ditch the heels in exchange for comfortable and stylish flats – Chinese city sidewalks can be horrendous and you won’t find many expats here wearing heels for this very reason. Check out our Newcomer’s Guidefor more useful tips on what you should bring along.

6. Sort out all your banking options before you move to China

You probably already know that half the internet is basically blocked off in China (the Great Firewall is alive and kicking) so you’ll need a paid VPN installed on all your devices (the free versions are horribly slow) to access everything from Facebook to your online banking. The latter is a particularly important topic to discuss. Once you arrive in China, you’ll need to open a local bank account so your teaching wages can be deposited directly by your employer. You’ll be able to access funds from your home bank account at any ATM but you’re going to have issues transferring your savings from your Chinese bank account to your home bank, if you’re not well set-up.Unless you still have bills to pay regularly back home (which is never a good idea), you can just wait until you go home for a visit – you’re allowed to take USD 5,000 in cash out of the country when you travel. Whilst at it, have a read of this handy guide to taking your hard-earned money out of China, paying attention to the Chinese banks that are affiliated with Western Union. Since, to you, all Chinese banks are created equal, you may as well opt for one that facilitates overseas transfers.

Now that we have a few logistical titbits of advice out of the way, we thought we’d concentrate on more intangible topics. These are, in fact, the ones that matter most.

7. Those preconceived assumptions? Yeah…you can definitely leave them behind

You’ll no doubt be arriving in China with a bunch of preconceived notions. It’s not your fault, really, our country’s mass-media is renowned for painting a picture of foreign nations that sometimes veer so far from the truth, it’s almost comical. No, you’re going to get arrested for looking sideways at a man in uniform and no, nobody hates your guts just because you’re from country X. The Chinese, just between us, are a very friendly lot with a wicked sense of humour. Professionally, they do operate in a league of their own: they are superb negotiators and are renowned for pushing the envelope, as far as work is concerned. You’ll no doubt be asked to work on days you aren’t meant to, longer hours than was agreed upon and even come in if you’re dreadfully sick – it’s up to you to develop a loud voice and steely disposition so you can stand up for yourself. But none of it is meant to be taken personally and, if anything, living and working in China will be an enormous learning curve for you. You’ll learn to be more assertive but will also learn to be flexible and fair: there’s room for compromise in a Chinese workplace, something which is totally missing in many Western countries.

8. Stop thinking of China as one single, homogenous country

Ask anyone who’s spent a decent amount of time in China and they’ll tell you that, somewhere along the line, they’ve stopped thinking of it as one single country. Not only is China absolutely huge but regional differences are so numerous that even neighbouring provinces can be totally distinctive. On the one hand, this makes travelling in China incredibly rewarding as visiting different provinces is almost like travelling to a whole other country, where you’ll find the people, food and landscapes to be wildly different. On the other hand, this means that moving to a different city to teach in China is almost like starting over from scratch. A fantastic option if you, like us, get totally addicted to living here but perhaps something you may not want to do too often.

China is an incredible place to live and work, whether you’re just starting out as a TEFL teacher or already have some experience behind you. Want to move to China and work as a teacher? Here’s a great place to start.

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David O Connor

David O Connor

David is China by Teaching’s chief contributor. When not offering sage advice about teaching in China, David is a headmaster of a Bilingual kindergarten in Beijing. David is a lover of craft beers, book clubs and super long road trips.

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