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July 1st, 2019 David O Connor

Newcomers – 10 Things You MUST Know Before Moving to China

Contemplating moving to China to teach ESL? Consider this your newcomer’s guide! Read on to discover the top 10 things you ought to know before making the big move

Moving abroad to teach ESL can be challenging enough as it is – yet moving all the way to China and into a startling new culture can seem even more overwhelming. Whilst it’s true that your best course of action is to simply just dive right in and learn as you go – as most of us have done – getting a head’s up certainly won’t hurt.

The top 10 things you really must know before moving to China to teach ESL?

Here they are!

1. A VPN will be your new BFF

The internet restrictions in China are easily circumvented by installing a VPN on your laptop and phone – but you must do all that before you even arrive. The feeling of social isolation that usually comes from moving abroad to teach English is compounded tenfold if you can’t get on social media or Skype to call home. Lessen the effects of culture-shock by keeping in touch, especially in the first few months. You may actually find this difficult, at first, as most of your time will be taken up with the logistics of settling in but home connections become even more important as the months wear on so set up scheduled calls and chats and you’ll find the initial period won’t be nearly as painful as you may imagine.

2. It’s too easy to get totally sucked into expat life – fight the urge to get stuck into that bubble

The expat bubble is alive and well in every major TEFL destination in China. It’s not hard to see why foreigners band together and there’s surely nothing wrong with that but (and that’s a big BUT) you’ll be doing yourself and your destination a disservice if you consciously skirt the obvious. Take Mandarin or Cantonese lessons, from the get-go, and have as many immersive experiences as you can. Day-trips to nearby destinations are always fun in a group but go alone, every now and then, just to dedicate yourself fully to your surroundings and the locals you meet. Learn more about the Chinese culture and what makes people tick, spend time with local teaching colleagues (not just foreign ones) and accept invitations to meals out or a special birthday, if invited. Practice your new language skills and you’ll find a whole new world opening up to you – something most expats never experience, even after a few years. China and its ancient culture are astonishing but you need to be open to really absorb it all in. The key here is finding a healthy balance between these first two points: keeping in touch with friends and family and immersing yourself in your new home country.

3. Smaller cities will offer a more culturally immersive experience

We’re not saying you have zero chance of coming anywhere near assimilated in cities like Shanghai and Beijing, but given the sheer size of expat communities in Tier 1 teaching cities, you may the expat bubble a little too good to resist. Smaller cities, on the other hand, are ideal if your main priority, from the start, is to dive head-first into Chinese culture. You’ll still come across plenty of expats in cities like Kunming, Nanjing and Dalian but they will offer a totally different teaching experience. If this sounds like a bit of you, read more about our Best of the Rest Teaching Destinations.

At dusk two cyclists pass an old wall in China

4. Charades doesn’t really work in China – but pictures do!

Given that you won’t be fluent in Mandarin in just a matter of weeks (or months and even years, perhaps) you may be tempted to use hand-gestures during your first few weeks in China just to get by, ordering food or whatnot. And then you’ll discover that this just won’t work. Even the simple gesture of brining a hand to your mouth to ask for a drink can be met with dumbfounded blank stares. It’s crazy! Until you do get the hand of ‘Chinese hand gesture for basic stuff’, do know that Google translate does a surprisingly wicked job of translating simple sentences. We even found that the speaking option worked remarkably well in more remote locations, where locals aren’t used to communicating with westerners. Whatever the case may be, just be prepared: dictionaries, menu pictures and translation apps can be absolute lifesavers at first, most especially if you’ve scored a job in a city where English is not widely spoken.

5. You’ll need to be more assertive (than usual)

Chinese are often seen as blunt and direct but, in reality, they are simply assertive in a culture that literally demands it. If you want to fit in and, more importantly, not taken for a ride, you’ll better be ready to step up to the challenge. You may be asked to work even if you’re sick, you may be fobbed off a simple request if you don’t insist enough (when am I getting my flight refunded, boss?) and you may be taken advantage of if you don’t stand up for yourself and the rights you know you have. All of this doesn’t necessarily happen for malicious reasons, mind you, but as we love to say “In a country of 1.4 billion people, you better learn to speak up’. If you happen to be from a very large family, you’ll know exactly what we mean – yes, yes, mother loves all dearly but fact is only the fastest and loudest get what they want. Be confident and assertive in your teaching job and you will enjoy a better working experience overall. Respect is paramount in Chinese culture (so never lack it towards your boss or colleagues) but you will earn your own fair share when you’re not seen as a shrinking violet.

6. Know what to pack – and what to buy in China

Whilst you’ll find a lot of suitable alternatives to the usual toiletries you use at home (like moisturiser, deodorant and SPF cream) do know that these are among the most expensive items to buy here, so come well-stocked, especially if you’re partial to a particular brand. You can research your fave products online to see what they cost (and if they’re even available) in China before compiling a list of what to take. Likewise for casual clothing attire – Chinese stores may well stock all sorts of sizes but they are specifically aimed at Chinese bodies (short stature, slim, straight, few curves) so if you’re somewhat hourglass or even remotely curvy (ladies) or exceptionally tall with big feet (gentlemen) you will have issues buying things like jeans, shoes and well-fitted jackets here. Bring your favourites along, enough to last you until your first visit home.

Cardboard boxes used for moving personal goods

7. Your dating game might need to change – a lot

Let’s get a bit (randomly) personal, shall we? Most ESL teachers head to China alone and even though ‘dating’ may not be the first thing on their mind, it will soon be. Because, to be brutally honest, if the single-life sucks at home, it sucks tenfold when you’re a brand-new expat in a foreign city with no friends. There, might as well rip that band-aid off swiftly. Now, try as you may, you’ll find the local dating game to be a little disconcerting at first. By and large, Chinese are a traditional lot and although even the youngest generation may seem all hip and on-trend, they do view the dating game a little differently than most Westerners do. By and large, Chinese date to find a wife or husband and that’s why you may find a local suitor asking all sorts of seemingly inappropriate questions, even on first date. Yep, you may just snort your coffee when asked if you envisage yourself living permanently in China and having children just half an hour into a first date but, fact is, they’re just being pragmatic and (back to point #5) assertive with their wishes. The key here is to hone in your interests on people who’ve had extensive experiences abroad as they tend to be less traditional, more open minded and definitely closer to your own wavelength. At the end of the day, this is what brings expats together abroad, even if they wouldn’t necessarily be friends anywhere else in the world. Shared experiences and a similar outlook on life is essential when finding a potential partner abroad and it is perhaps truer for expats in China than almost anywhere else. Choose wisely and you’ll finding yourself snorting less coffee on first dates.

8. Don’t get so caught up in your expat life that you forget what brought you to China in the first place

We often urge all prospective ESL teachers to make a list of the reasons they want to move to China in the first place. Being such a unique destination, most reasons revolve around not only the distinctive culture of the country but also its location – so central in Asia that it facilitates extensive travel through the regions. The reason you should do this is that it often becomes secondary (and even tertiary) once you’re settled into your teaching life. Before you know it, you’ll be scooting about at breakneck speed, leading an exciting life and being totally focused on your job, your students and your newly-made friends. So much so, that you may actually ‘forget’ what brought you to China in the first place! So grab that list and pin it on your brand-new fridge in your brand-new apartment, and make a conscious effort to fulfil what were your initial goals – whether it be to learn Mandarin or visit every single one of China’s provinces (and neighbourhood countries). You’ll be surprised how easy it is to fall into a lovely routine here but teaching English in China is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that will be over before you even realise what’s happened – so take advantage of your extra savings, your time and your independence and just do the stuff you set out before you even moved here.

9. Familiarise yourself with your ‘new home city’ before you even arrive

Getting your first taste of expat-life in China can start before you even arrive. We can’t recommend this highly enough: research as much as you can, as early as you can, and you’ll feel somewhat ‘at home’ from the moment you get off the plane. You’ll be prepared for the traffic, the bus or metro system, you’ll know how everything works (mostly) and how much things should cost. You’ll know which supermarkets stock Western goodies and which cafes make the best espressos. You’ll have hopefully read countless expat blogs and forums on the most common issues expats face in your city of choice and will be in a much better position to face this new life chapter of yours. It is often said that the best experiences in life are spontaneous but, when it comes to moving to China for the foreseeable future to teach English, that simply won’t work. Luckily, expat blogs, FB pages and forums abound so get in there as soon as possible and we bet your transition into life in China will be a much smoother one.

Chinese Bullet trains lined up a train station

10. You will face some trying times but patience and flexibility will see you have the experience of a lifetime

We rate patience and flexibility as the two most important requirements when contemplating moving to China – despite the government insisting that you should also hold a Bachelor’s Degree and ESL qualification (see Am I Eligible? for more details on the technicalities). A light-hearted sense of humour also wouldn’t hurt, truth be told. It also helps to leave all preconceptions behind at the check-in counter for no matter what you’ve ever heard or read about China, you can trust the reality to be insanely different. This is an exciting, fascinating and at times even staggering country to experience and your teaching experience here has the potential to change your life and the way you see the world, on general. Yes, it can really be that transcendent, as long as you arrive with an open mind and an open heart. And who knows? If this is your first stint of teaching ESL abroad, it may just change the course of your life.

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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