A guide to being a foreign teacher & Chinese culture tips

Once you’ve finally settled into your new surroundings, you may not have much time to stop and think about the fact that you’re now actually living in China! Let's get to grips with being a foreigner here.

As with anywhere new you visit, there’s bound to be a transition period with both your emotions and your physical being. Allow time for your mind and habits to adjust, and you’ll soon begin to wonder why you even worried in the first place.

📸 Handling ‘fame’

Everyone has probably thought, at some point in their lives - what would it be like to be a celebrity? Welcome to China – where your wish has come true!

Many schools and Chinese locals may not have seen or been in the company of, a Westerner before. Imagine seeing someone on TV all the time, and then finally being confronted with them – how would you react? Some people may love the attention, but others may not. Whatever your feelings, immerse yourself in it and you’ll learn more than you could have ever imagined.

Being ‘well-known’ will allow you to be invited to places you couldn’t read about in guidebooks; paths off the beaten track, dumpling making in a local village kitchen, or to dragon dances at the local high school. Take advantage of everyone’s generous offers to help you find things, explore things, and make things you wouldn’t know how to on your own. The picture-taking will most likely become annoying and repetitive, but remember that taking a photo lasts 5 seconds, and your new experiences and friendships will likely last a lifetime.

🤝 Work Etiquette

China is inevitably going to be the opposite of what you’re used to back home. From its culture to its everyday sounds, to its climate to its grandeur. It will take time to become accustomed to its unfamiliar and often perplexing way of life. The first noticeable difference may be at work.

Your new colleagues will be friendly and welcoming, and you’ll most likely be assigned ‘a buddy’ whose sole job is to ensure you are safe and feel welcome in your new environment. Often, this is an English teacher who feels confident in conversing with a native English-speaker. On the other hand, you may find that many of the other English teachers ignore you completely. This is because they are probably quite shy in speaking the language of your mother tongue, in case they slip up. Be understanding, and realize that if the situation were reversed, you would almost certainly be the same.

Your working hours are sure to be shorter than what you’re used to back home. The Chinese somehow think that foreign teachers like to lay in the mornings, so your day will most probably start later than the usual 9 am. This shows their consideration in accommodating your needs; something which will be prevalent in any school or institution you work in.

Compared to many Western countries, China has a significantly higher number of public holidays. Due to this, you may not be allowed to take any annual leave outside of these times. Often, you may not be able to take Christmas, Thanksgiving or Easter holidays off for example, but one day may be allowed, specifically for you.

🥡🥟 Food and Table Manners

Chinese food is varied, flavorsome and cheap. You can eat a significant amount more for a fraction of the price back home.

Your colleagues or superiors may request your presence at both lunches and dinners. Say. Yes. If not, this can be extremely offensive! Dining out with locals is an excellent way to get to know each other better, for you to immerse yourself in the culture, and to try new foods you probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

Eating out in a group in China often involves sitting in a private room around a large, circular table. In the middle will be an enormous Lazy Susan – a glass, circular plate that spins so food can easily be passed from one side of the table to another. The person who invited you for dinner automatically becomes the ‘head’ of the meal, so they will most likely order ample dishes for the whole table to share. As a guest, you’re usually required to make the initial move and choose what you want to try first.

Throughout the meal, ganbei will be sporadically shouted across the table to you, which means – take a shot! Multiple people will come and tap glasses with you and require you to take yet another shot. Quick tip – make sure your glass is always only a quarter full, so you don’t end up on the floor!

Once the meal is over, the ‘head’ of the table will pay for the bill. Ensure you express your thanks and your enjoyment of the food, and you’ll be sure to be invited time after time.

🐲 Social Customs

There are a few golden rules that will help you fit into your new life in China.

👟 Always take your shoes off before you enter someone’s house

To help you remember, do the same in your home. Leave your shoes at the door and have slippers or slip-on shoes for when you’re inside.

­🤷 Don’t be surprised when people spit on the street

This is more common in Asia than in Western culture, where it is seen as unhygienic. One of the most common sounds you’ll hear is the hoock sound of someone preparing their phlegm, to then spit out. Why not give it a go yourself?! 😊

🚬 Smoking indoors is accepted

For many years now, smoking indoors has been a no-no in Western societies. It has, in turn, affected businesses and the way people socialize. In China, restaurants and bars are still brimming with people - locals and foreigners - because the laws on where you can smoke are much laxer. You can smoke anywhere you like, in most cases, so if you don’t like passively smoking whilst trying to enjoy your dinner, be sure to sit in a non-smoking area.

🥢 Use chopsticks

When in China, use chopsticks. You won’t often find a knife and fork in restaurants unless you seek out a Western eatery. There’s a story that goes, the higher up you hold your chopsticks, the higher your status in society. We’re still yet to prove this theory, but practice does make perfect – so get used to them!

Don’t expect to queue 🚶🚶🚶

As China is the most populated country in the world, you can imagine that a queuing system probably doesn’t work. You may have been waiting for the bus for 20 minutes with no one to be seen, then the bus arrives, and 60 people run out from what seems like nowhere and jump on the bus before you. Don’t expect to wait in a line, as it’s every person for themselves. Practice your running skills and you’ll fit in excellently!

👩‍⚕️ 🩺 The Chinese medical check

So, you’ve found your job, you’ve applied for it, and now you need a medical check in your home country before you can actually obtain a visa. Once that’s all done, you’re on your way. So, what to expect when you get there?

Upon arrival in China, you’ll need to go through a very thorough (and what feels… unnecessary) health check… even though you may have just had one at home.

It differs from your home country’s medical in the fact that there are whole hospitals dedicated to foreigner’s health checks! At home, you may be used to a blood pressure test, a step on the scales, and possibly even an x-ray. In China, you may potentially feel like a lab rat being tested on for everything under the sun!

It begins… with being told not to eat at least 10 hours before the appointment, and then the completion of some forms. You’ll need to take your passport along with you, as well as 4 passport-sized photos. When you arrive at the hospital, you’ll have your documentation checked and must sign some waiver forms. You’ll also need to pay for the medical check, which often your employer will reimburse you for.

Don’t be afraid of the little English that is spoken. You’ll be instructed to hand documents over or room numbers will be shouted at you, but only in simple terms, as much of China doesn’t speak English – that’s why you’re there after all, right? 😊

There are usually around 8 rooms, or stations, that you’ll need to go to – a blood test, an ECG to check your heart, a urine sample, an ultrasound (?!) an x-ray, blood pressure and more. It’s often over in less than an hour as the doctors are so used to performing these checks. Once you’ve been round to every room, you’re free to go. You’ll just need to tell the hospital where to send your results.

👷 Safety first

A question many people have when moving to China is, will I be safe? As a matter of fact, the crime rates in major cities in China tend to be much lower than in cities such as New York, LA or London. Catcalling on the street or harassment is virtually unheard of, and although you may be a local celebrity, people will most likely be quite afraid to approach you, as you would with an actual celebrity!

There is a high police and CCTV presence in most places throughout China, and one of the first things to do upon arriving in your city is to register with the local police station. This is so that they know you’re there, and if you need any help it will be readily available.

If any crime were to occur, it may be pickpocketing or petty theft. But as with anywhere in the world, keep your belongings safe and don’t show off your expensive goods.

🚊 Transportation

How you choose to get around China is totally up to you. However, be aware that roads are much wider than they are in the West, and you should abide by the rules of pushing the button and waiting to cross. There are zebra crossings, but no one will stop for you, and there are bikes, but cycling lanes are uncommon, so it is as your own risk!

One option might be to get a small motorbike, but ensure you wear a helmet and avoid driving it in the frequent torrential downpours.

Public transport is extremely good in most localities in China; from buses to bullet trains and from motorbike taxis to standard taxis. It is reasonably priced and usually readily available. Just be sure to learn how to pronounce where you’re going correctly!