Tips for China?
January 11, 2012 8:51 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to China for a year to teach English. Any advice?

I'm going to be living in the city of Guangzhou for a year, teaching english at a private school. I have most of the details down - I'm getting a TEFL certification before I go, no problems with my visa, I'm getting a VPN for my internet there, my lodging is free and provided my my school, I have a contract which seems fair, and so on. I'm going with CIEE, an american study abroad-type company, so I'll have a good support network once I'm there.

I'm looking for general advice, though, from people who have spent time in China, especially people who tried to get by on minimal Chinese (I'm trying to teach myself the basics before I go) or people who did similar programs. How did you adjust to the culture? What did you wish you had known before you went?

I'm generally good at adapting to new surroundings, and I've studied abroad in Japan for a semester, so I have some basic getting-by-in-a-foreign-land skills. Still, I've never been to China before and I'm a little nervous. Any advice?
posted by Rinku to Travel & Transportation around Guangzhou, China (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Try to get in touch with a foreign teacher who is currently at your school and ask them for advice. Also, ask about the condition of the apartments -- they can vary wildly.
posted by bardic at 8:58 PM on January 11, 2012

Read the book Coming Home Crazy: An Alphabet of China Essays, by Bill Holm. It's full of information about an American who taught in China for a year, and a good read as well.
posted by exphysicist345 at 9:09 PM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've spoken with folks who've done this. Here are the two big things they said:

*Have your own financial safety net. In some countries, when the boss simply gives you a shrug and a weak smile come payday, there's really no recourse. You want to make sure you're able to come home if something messed up happens.

*Understand that concepts of "cheating" and "academic honesty" over there aren't the same as they are in Western countries. In many Chinese schools, it's perfectly natural and reasonable for kids to watch the smartest kids in class and just copy what they do, and they don't even think of it as cheating. I'm not saying you should go along with it, but ask your hosts about their policies and keep any emotional reaction to such behavior in check. Some schools will take it seriously. Others won't. Don't be the guy/gal who flipped out over "no big deal."

I haven't heard anyone relay horror stories or say they regret having gone over. Most are glad when it's done and happy to be back, but they don't seem to wish they hadn't done it, either. Good luck to you.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:16 PM on January 11, 2012

I spent almost two years in Beijing, teaching English, with limited Chinese. So many things you simply cannot prepare for - and it was 14 years ago, of course China has changed a lot in 14 years, but in many ways a 5,000 year old culture doesn't really change.

In no particular order:
- Be prepared to miss things you didn't expect to miss. For me, english bookstores were something I missed dearly, and really enjoy hanging around bookstores now!
- Be prepared to get sick (upset stomach / the runs / mild food poisoning), I brought a container of Ciproflaxin broad-spectrum antibiotic (you'll need an Rx for this) but it works wonders
- Ask around to find a good Chinese teacher / tutor, and work through a curriculum. It is easy to find very well-qualified teachers in just about any locale, for not much money.
- You will meet the most interesting expatriate folks from around the world. However due to the barrier of the language, it tends to herd the expats together. I made it a point to get outside that 'circle' and interact directly with as many 'native' folks as you can. As you are only there for a year, it will go by quickly. Of course you will have your set of expat friends from different places, and enjoy a bit of 'home' (say during the holidays like Christmas), but make the most of the opportunity to experience China first-hand.
- As far as preparation goes, in Guangzhou it will be highly likely you can find a majority of the things you may need, of course there will be things you won't be able to find anywhere. And since HK is so close by (something like 175km) that will also be an option
- Don't be surprised to feel 'suffocated', a kind of isolation, but it really helps to have 'local friends' that you can build relationships with. Qualitatively different, of course I was the laowai with a life back in the US, but nonetheless it takes on a different character. I have kept in touch with many (about 10) friends from my days in China, and only 1 expat friend, in the intervening 14 years.
- You adjust to the strangeness by having a great attitude. In blistering 100F heat with 90% humidity, stuck in traffic, and I see a taxi driver get out right in front of me, turn backwards, and take a leak in public. Out walking my golden retriever, a person comes up and asks me 'how much does the dog cost'? (I brought the dog with me.) Eating Korean food while debating Marxist economics with a Japanese graduate student - priceless.
- I can say that I came back a different person, because those immersive experiences cannot not have an effect on you, and I am a better person as a result.
posted by scooterdog at 9:21 PM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

One random lesson I've learned in my years of teaching abroad: don't pack much! You're going to want to bring a whole ton of stuff back with you when you're finished your time there, and you'll run out of luggage space quickly. I shipped two boxes home from Vietnam, and I think they're both lost/stolen :( Meanwhile, both my suitcases I flew with arrived intact.

Oh, and bring a couple small special items to save for days when you're particularly homesick. For me, when I moved to Africa, this was a couple cans of Starbucks Doubleshot. Drinking one of those on bad days was a silly, but quite effective way of lifting your mood. For you, this might be a food/candy item, or a new, unread issue of a local magazine, or even better: Get your family and friends to hand write you letters/drawings that you save, and only read one when you're really missing home, or lonely.

I'm sure I'll think of more random tips... I'll post more later.
posted by hasna at 9:39 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I taught in S.Korea pre-internet and I loved loved English language bookstores. I also spent time with many other expats on saturday was a good break from the broken conversations I had all week (me: I'll see you tues at two, other person: ok, thurs at three! etc) You will learn to love the food and miss it when you return but breakfasts are hard. Traditional north american holidays are hard (I worked til 9 xmas eve). Make the most of traveling locally while you can, especially if you are not sure when you will be back in that part of the world. Definitely try to learn the language, I only learned numbers, food and basic questions, my time definitely would have been easier with a better grasp of the language.
ok, I see you've already been in Asia. Well, take my slightly longer haul advice with a grain of salt then!

Also figure out banking. How will you get paid? How will you deal with your finances?
posted by bquarters at 9:54 PM on January 11, 2012

Totally seconding letters. Again, I was there pre-internet so it's a different world but I loved having letters from my friends and I would definitely read them over and over.
posted by bquarters at 9:55 PM on January 11, 2012

I've been living in China for about 8 years,and taught English full-time for the first two.

There are a lot of things that you really have to experience first-hand to understand. I think my best piece of advice would be to have an open-minded, go-with-the-flow attitude. Especially with administration, schedules, and organization, things are much different than in the West. You often will have no idea what's going on and things will be changed around at the last minute. People will ask you to do things just because you are a foreigner. I've seen so many foreigners get constantly annoyed and even depressed because they are constantly fighting what they don't understand.

In order to have a smooth year, I recommend that you make an effort to be open, make friends with locals. TRy not to only hang around with other foreigners. When you get frustrated, try to understand the reasons behind the frustrations, and ask your Chinese friends- it can be an opportunity to learn something about Chinese culture.

Regarding language- it should be relatively easy to live in Guangzhou with no Chinese skills (it won't be especially convenient though). When I first came to China I knew no Chinese, and was able to get around. However, I did learn survival Chinese my first year and recommend you do too. Knowing a few basic sentences makes a HUGE difference.

Feel free to memail me with other questions!
posted by bearette at 9:59 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I taught in Wuhan about twelve years ago, and it was honestly one of the hardest years of my life. It was also, in retrospect, the best year, and I'd do it again 100 out of 100 times.

Definitely read Coming Home Crazy. It's out of date in some ways, but it really captures the feel of the place. His concept of "crazy" is perfect, and he uses one day to illustrate two types of people(arguably Anglo Saxon English teachers). The one day, the bank won't change money, with reason given. There's no hot water, and the electricity goes out. The bus doesn't come, and no taxis will stop. One laowai will throw up their hands and want to go home where everything works like its supposed to. The other one, the crazy one, just gets on with thesau, because things happen, and it's still going to be a pretty damn good day.

You will need to be able to roll with things. Things will go wrong. You will have problems from time to time. That doesnt mean the world is ending. If you can adjust, you'll be fine.

Remember that different doesn't mean wrong. There will be things radically different from how they were back home. They are different, not wrong. The foreigners I knew who had the most difficulty were the ones who were the most judgmental about cultural differences. Some things you will love ( I loved the custom of one person paying the bill at meals, knowing that someone else would get the check next time, since divvying up the bill is unseemly), and things you don't. Accept, and let go.

Be gracious and accepting. Try new things, even if they seem horrific. Donkey tastes awesome. Chodofu not so much.

Learn as much of the language as you can. You're not a tourist, so try to take part in the culture as much as you can. I wish I'd learned more, but even the little I did made life douch easier for me, and those around me as well. It also made things a lot more interesting and fun.

When you do start to feel down, or alone, get the hell out of your apartment. I sulked through a bad long distance breakup, and wasted too much of my time hiding from the world. If you get down, get outside. Explore your city, and when you have a chance, get out of your city and explore the country. I've seen more of China than I have my own home, and I'm grateful to have had the chance. (Guilin/Yangshuo, Xian, Kunming, Nanjing, Beijing are just the start. Enjoy)

Remember that you are really there because you have a job. You are expected to do your job and make your boss happy. If you happen to find yourself, hey, that's awesome. Don't make other people suffer through your vision quest.

Have an absolutely wonderful time. I'm sorry if I sound so forbidding, but a lot of the 'don't do this' stuff is stuff I did, and I still feel rotten for it. You have an amazing opportunity ahead of you. Enjoy it to the fullest, and feel free to memail me if you have any questions before you go or even while you're there.

Oh, and being close to HK will be great, but HK is a lot more expensive than China, an your salary won't likely go that far there. Most likely, you'll be able to live quite well in China, but you won't be able to save up much for after, as the cost of living is low, and salaries tend to match that. I made roughly $200 a month and lived like a king in central China. The coast tends to be more expensive, and salaries tend to be higher to match.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:35 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Save money so you can spend a month or two travelling the country after. It's great. I particularly liked the area around Kunming (although not Kunming so much) like Dali, and Lijiang, and also enjoyed Yangshuo and Guilin further East.
posted by backwards guitar at 4:17 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Learn the vocabulary of food. You need to eat every day, and menus are never translated properly, if at all. In smaller towns with cheaper restaurants, you won't have pictures to go by either.

Even learning the characters for the different meats (牛-beef, 羊-mutton, 鸡-chicken, 鸭-duck, 驴-donkey, 鱼-fish, 蛙-frog, 鱿鱼-squid, 豆腐-tofu, etc) or vegetables (白菜-chinese cabbage, 韭菜-chinese baby leek/garlic chive thing, 土豆-potato, 蕃茄-tomato, 黄瓜-cucumber, 茄子-eggplant, 辣椒-chilli, etc) will help immensely.
posted by flippant at 7:25 AM on March 19, 2012

Oh, and 猪-pork
posted by flippant at 7:26 AM on March 19, 2012

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