The truth about teaching and living in China

First things first, I am in no way an expert in teaching abroad, that’s for certain. I wanted a change, and a change is what I got. But, I didn’t just wake up one day and think, “I know, I’ll go and teach in China, laters!” No, I sat down with Matt and we spent hours going back and forth between agencies, countries and trying to decide what it was that was making us want to leave London that we didn’t want to jump straight back into in another country.

Teaching has always been in the back of mind as being something that I might like to do or at least try, but I have this tiny fear of standing in front of people and talking. I freeze, I stutter and I break into a cold sweat, real nice! So, if you’re like me and you want a new challenge and you fancy teaching abroad, you probably have a billion questions going around in your head.

One thing to note is that my experience could be totally different to the one you end up having. My time in China has not been the completely life changing and positive experience I thought it was going to be, but it’s been an experience, that’s for sure!


What’s a TEFL and do I need one?

Most places in China require a TEFL, some ask for certain types of TEFL (there are so many different ones), so make sure you do your research into what people are asking for. Some schools ask for a certain amount of hours or that you have some classroom time. I completed my first TEFL in 2011 with i-to-i TEFL and it cost around £359 and it included one weekend of classroom learning and 120 hours of online studying. In 2016 we both completed an online TEFL that we found on a discount website and it cost around £50 and it was so rubbish, it was badly designed with grammar mistakes. If I had only done the cheap TEFL I don’t think I would have felt prepared at all, so taking the cheap option isn’t always the best option. However, the company we used accepted the cheap TEFL as it met the minimum hours of studying and it was with an accredited company.

How do you decide where to live and teach?

Write a list of things that you love to do and that you want to continue doing when you’re in China. For us, it was hiking and exploring the great outdoors, that’s why we chose Sichuan. Sichuan is over on the west side of China, close to the foothills of the Himalayas, and there are tons of incredible national parks and mountains for us to explore and we have done just that! If you like home comforts and being able to get a western culture fix every now and again then this part of China is probably not for you, maybe look at one of the bigger cities with more expats over on the East Coast.

If you’re wanting to go out and teach with your partner, like us, do your research. We wanted to live together, we most certainly didn’t want to be in a culture completely different to what we were used to and be a two hour train journey apart. There are some countries that will only allow you to live with your partner if you’re married. Some schools are really strict about hiring couples, just in case one half of the couple hates it and wants to leave – the school will not only lose one teacher they will lose two, because you’re both not going to stay if one of you hates it. I personally see being with a partner as a more positive thing, you have someone to help you on those “bad days”, where all you want to do is go home. It’s good to have a support system here as it’s a huge culture shock, especially where we’re living!


Do I need to go through an agency?

We chose to go through an agency for the security of it all. Some people buy a ticket to China or wherever and start looking for work out there, by going into schools and universities and asking around. I personally didn’t fancy doing this, it was too risky – what if i couldn’t find anything? What if the school tried to take advantage of me because I didn’t know how things worked out there and I couldn’t speak the language? So many “what ifs”, so I asked some friends that I knew who were teaching out in Asia, how they did it. They gave me the name of one agency that they used, ESL Starter, so we got in contact with them. They are the middle man between you and the school/university. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you ideally want. We wanted to live together, we didn’t care what age or level we taught and we knew we wanted to be somewhere we could travel at the weekends and at holidays. They put us in touch with a contact at SEAIE in Sichuan and before we knew it, we were having interviews and filling out forms for our visa.

Don’t get me wrong, even though you are using an agency to help you it isn’t without its stresses, that’s for sure! There were hidden costs we weren’t told about (I’ll explain in the next point) and the whole process of applying for your visa is nothing short of being a huge pain in your ass. We were told information last minute and sent important documentation far too close to the deadline. It was a week before we were leaving and we still hadn’t received our visa, it was a close call, but it all worked out in the end! I can imagine it would be even more stressful trying to organise it all on your own. Since living in China for 10 months it’s clear to see by the way things work here that nowhere has the same organisation and communication skills, and urgency like in the west, you will have to get used to that.

How much will it cost to move to China and will I save?

One of the reasons we chose this position and the agency was because there were no upfront fees, or so we thought. Upon filling in an application form we had to pay a £200 deposit each as a security to the agency in China, as previously some people had been accepted as a foreign teacher and just not shown up. I totally get that, but we were not told this beforehand. We did actually get this payment back the second day we were in China, which was great as it gave us some cash for our first week or two in China.

On top of this we were also told that we were required to get a medical, not just a note from your doctor to say you were nice and healthy, they wanted a full blown medical examination, ECG and all! I managed to get mine for £180, but Matt had to go private and ended up paying £375. Even though we would get up to £200 refunded when we arrived in China, this was a lot to pay up front. Everyone applying for a Z visa (the visa required if you’re working) is required to get a medical and you should expect to have to go through it all again when you get to China.

Through the agency we would get a return flight paid for upon completion of our contract, our flight to China cost us around £500 and on top of that we paid for our visa which was £75 (we had to pay more to get an express visa because they sent the visa documents too late to have the normal service). Once we were out there we would be getting paid around £700 – £750 a month (which is more than enough to live on in Sichuan). We didn’t really have anything saved, we knew that we would have to wait about one month before we were paid. All we really needed was enough money to survive on for a month, and with around £400 being paid back to us when we arrived, we managed to travel and live in our first month in China just fine.


Will I get lonely?

I think it’s safe to say that I would definitely have felt lonely without Matt, but just to make things clear I am an independent women and I’m more than happy living and travelling on my own, I’ve done it before. It’s different here though, especially in Sichuan. No one really speaks or understands English, even if you find someone who can speak a little English it’s just too hard to have a normal conversation. A lot of the time they just ask rehearsed questions, they don’t listen to your answers and they are extremely clingy and immature. If you forget their English name, oh I don’t know because you have over 200 of your students’ English names to remember, it’s game over, they are so upset with you. You can forget having any sort of banter, sarcasm is lost here. I know it’s their culture and I should accept it, but not being able to be yourself and joke around makes it hard to form meanngful relationships here.  Luckily I had Matt here with me and this experience has definitely brought us closer together.

You have lots of time off, so it’s easy to sit around and feel sorry for yourself and get bored, so if you’re heading out on your own, make sure you fill your time doing things that interest you. We travel in our spare time, I work on my blog, play ping pong and Matt plays football. Most of the time there will be other foreign teachers at your school too, and if you come through an agency like us, you’ll spend your first week with other newbie teachers. Visiting them on the weekends can be a great way to spend your time and a chance to speak some English.



What happens if I’ve never taught before?

You learn a lot about yourself, that’s what! I have literally never taught anyone before, not knowingly anyway. When I was heading to China I had to keep reminding myself that I was going to teach and not just travel around like I normally I do. Luckily for me, I was heading out to China with someone who has trained as a teacher, a PE teacher, but a teacher none the less. My biggest fear was that I would have unruly students who wouldn’t respect me. I would be teaching university students, students who were not much younger than myself, would they even take me seriously as their teacher? Turns out all my fears were so silly, maybe not so silly if I was teaching in the UK – but I was teaching in China and the students here are like little angels who do exactly what you ask, most of the time. Over the last 10 months I have never had one student disrespect me or refuse to do what I ask. Yeah, I’ve had students who haven’t done their homework but most of the time it’s because their English is so bad they have misunderstood. After the first week of teaching I started to feel a lot more comfortable and it’s just like any first week in a job, you just want to do a good job and for the people to like you.


Will I enjoy teaching?

It’s true what they say about teaching – you definitely get out of it, what you put in! For the most part I have enjoyed teaching, but as I have mentioned in a previous blog post I have not found it as rewarding as I thought I would.

Most of the students have been taught English from a young age by a Chinese teacher and have learnt what we call ‘Chinglish’ – phrases and sentences spoken in English which are influenced by Chinese vocabulary and grammar. The trouble is that they are that age where teaching them to rectify their mistakes that they have been taught is a little redundant, you could say that they’re stuck in their ways. I think I personally would have enjoyed teaching secondary school aged children. The younger students that I have met in the street have so much more confidence and are more eager to learn another language. My students I have now have so many other things going on in their lives, university life here is much more stressful than what we experience in the UK.

Every now and again though, you have that breakthrough lesson where you can see the students using phrases or new vocabulary that you have taught them and you can see them becoming so much more confident and it really is the best feeling in the world. I have one boy Zak, who at the beginning of the semester sat right at the back of the classroom and could barely string a sentence together, but after spending more time with him and encouranging him, he now sits right at the front and if I ever ask for volunteers to speak, he’s always the first to put his hand up. It’s moments like this I can see why so many people love teaching. But, like any job, teaching has its highs and lows, just make sure you are prepared for each lesson and you will find your class is much more enjoyable.



Teaching in China is not for everyone

I have tried to be as honest as I can with this post. Teaching in China is not for everyone, but as long as you put everything into it, you embrace being in another country and not resent it, and you fill your time with fun things, you’ll have an amazing time. We have met some incredibly lovely people, we have massively stepped out of our comfort zone, and we’ve travelled to some truly stunning places. If you’re on the fence about teaching in China, I say do it!! You can always come home if you hate it, but at least you gave it a go!


Some useful links

Leave a Reply