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Jul 1st, 2019 by David O Connor

Newcomers – 10 Things You MUST Know Before Moving to China

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

Heading abroad to teach ESL can challenge even the most experienced adventurers, yet moving to China is a whole other kettle of green tea. Trying to navigate your way in such a fascinating but drastically different culture can seem overwhelming, at first.

Whilst it’s true that your best course of action may be to simply dive right in and learn as you go – as most of us have done – getting a heads-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 when moving to China

You can easily circumvent the Great Firewall of China by installing a solid VPN on all your devices. Make sure you do this before you even arrive. The list of prominent websites China blocks is extensive and dodging restrictions will help you deal with the initial culture-shock.

To be clear: this isn’t just about having the freedom to scroll through social media. After the excitement of moving to China has worn off, you may get homesick and feel socially isolated for a while. A VPN will help you keep those important social connections alive with your friends and family back home.

Make sure the VPN you use is one that’s proven to work in China.

2. Getting sucked into expat life is way too easy -fight the urge to get stuck into that bubble

The ex-pat bubble is alive and well in every major TEFL destination in China. It’s easy to see why foreigners band together, and there’s surely nothing wrong with that. Yet if you consciously skirt anything ‘local’, you’ll be doing yourself (and China) a great disservice.

Our tips? Take Mandarin or Cantonese lessons and have as many immersive experiences as you can. Day-trips to nearby destinations are always fun in a group but, now and then, explore alone. Dedicate yourself fully to your surroundings and the locals you meet, and you’ll enjoy many rewarding experiences.

Practice your new language skills and you’ll find another world opening up to you. This is something most ex-pats never experience, even after a few years.

You could also 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.

China and its ancient cultures are astonishing, but to absorb it all, you need to be open to new experiences that burst you out of your usual bubble.

The key to finding that moving to China happiness is finding a healthy balance between these first two points. Keep in touch with friends and family, but immerse yourself in your new life too.

3. Smaller cities offer a more culturally immersive experience

It’s a lot harder to resist the expat bubble in Tier 1 cities like Shanghai and Beijing. It’s not impossible to enjoy more immersive experiences in megacities, but it’s undeniably easier in smaller ones.

You’ll still come across plenty of expats in cities like Kunming, Nanjing and Dalian, but these 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’ll probably want to use hand gestures to communicate with locals when you first move to China. And then you’ll discover that this just won’t work!

Even the simple gesture of bringing a hand to your mouth (to ask for a drink) results in dumbfounded blank stares. It’s crazy! Until you get the hand of ‘Chinese hand gesture for basic stuff’, know that Google Translate does a wicked job of translating simple sentences into Mandarin.

We even found that the speaking option worked remarkably well in more remote locations, where locals aren’t used to communicating with Westerners at all.

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 smaller Chinese city.

5. You must be more assertive (than usual)

Many consider the Chinese blunt and direct but, in reality, they are simply assertive in a culture that literally demands it. If you want to fit in and not taken for a ride, you’d better be ready to step up to the challenge.

Sometimes, your employer will ask you to work even if you’re sick, or brush off a request if you’re not persistent enough. If you don’t know your rights or how to stand up for yourself, you may find people walking all over you in China.

All of this doesn’t 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 are from an extensive family, you may know exactly what we mean. Yes, mother loves all dearly, but 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

If you’re partial to a particular brand of product, you’ll want to pack a stock-pile to take to China. The country places huge import taxes on foreign items, especially on things like moisturisers, deodorant and SPF creams. It’s wise to 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! Stores stock many sizes yet they’re all aimed at Chinese bodies. That usually means they’re made for a shorter, slimmer, straighter and less curvy body-type. If you’re a somewhat curvy or exceptionally tall person with enormous feet, you will have issues buying jeans, shoes and well-fitted jackets here.

Bring your favourites along and 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? If you’re an English teacher moving to China alone, dating will eventually be something you’ll consider. Because, let’s face it: if the single-life sucks at home, it sucks tenfold when you’re a brand-new ex-pat in a foreign city with no friends. Ouch.

Now, try as you may, you’ll find the local dating game to be a little disconcerting at first. Broadly speaking, Chinese are a traditional lot and, although youngsters may seem all hip and on-trend, they view the dating game a little differently than most Westerners do. Chinese mostly date to find a wife or husband, and that’s why you may find a local suitor asking many seemingly inappropriate questions, even on a 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. In reality, 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. They are usually less traditional, more open-minded and definitely much nearer to your own wavelength.

This is essentially what brings expats together abroad, even if they wouldn’t always be friends anywhere else in the world. Shared experiences and a similar outlook on life are essential when finding a potential partner abroad, and it is perhaps truer in China than almost anywhere else in the world.

Choose wisely and you’ll find 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 that enticed them to move to China. Being such a unique destination, most reasons revolve around not only the distinctive culture but also its location.

Many teachers move to China specifically because they wish to explore more of Asia. The problem? The fast-paced life in China makes many people neglect their initial plans.

Once you’re settled into your teaching life, you’ll be scooting about at breakneck speed, leading an exciting life and being totally focused on your job. So much so, that you may actually ‘forget’ what brought you to China in the first place!

Grab that list and pin it on your brand-new fridge, in your brand-new apartment, and attempt to fulfil your initial goals – whether it be to learn Mandarin, travel to Thailand or visit every single one of China’s provinces.

It’s way too easy to fall into a lovely routine, we get that, but moving to 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 do the stuff you set out to achieve.

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.

This way, you’ll know what to expect. Learn all about the bus or metro system, how much things cost, where you should shop and where you should live. If you do some research, you’ll already know which markets stock Western goodies and which cafes make the best espressos.

It is often said that the best experiences in life are spontaneous but, when it comes to moving to China to teach English, that simply won’t work. Luckily, ex-pat blogs, FB pages and forums abound, so get stuck into it as soon as possible.

We bet your transition to 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

You must hold a Bachelor Degree and an ESL certificate to teach English in China (see Am I Eligible?) yet we think that patience and flexibility are also pivotal requirements. A light-hearted sense of humour also wouldn’t hurt, truth be told and it also helps to leave all preconceptions behind at the check-in counter.

No matter what you’ve ever heard or read about China, you can trust the reality to be insanely different.

BONUS #11 – Moving to China means you’ll learn how to count to 10 using only ONE hand!

No joke.

BONUS # 12 - So many things will be MUCH BETTER than you ever dreamed

The food in China is so outstanding that it’s reason enough to move here, especially if you’re an adventurous foodie. So too is the lightning-speed at which things get delivered to your home. Seriously! Order something online and it’ll get to you in mere HOURS.

Scared off by the mayhem of the traffic? You’ll get used to it so swiftly that you’ll even consider buying an e-bike, as most expats do.

China is an exciting, fascinating and even bewildering country and your teaching experience has the potential to change your life and the way you see the world. 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, moving to China may just change the course of your life!


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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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