What You Need to Know About Living in China
Most English teaching jobs in China will include an apartment. Apartment costs vary depending on the school and location. If a job posting has a higher than usual rate of pay it may be due to the fact that the school does not provide housing. Usually this information is included in the job posting and one should definitely ask for clarification on these details after receiving a job offer. One should also ensure that this subject is fully addressed in the contract.
The apartments that English teachers occupy are usually located on or near a campus, and are often shared with a roommate. For the most part, English teachers find themselves in apartments which have many western world conveniences that are considered to be norms in the teacher’s homeland. Apartments usually include a bed, table set, television set, refrigerator, desk, laundry facilities, western toilet, and other staples of the western world.
The majority of schools provide some kind of flight allowance for ESL teachers; however, this often comes in the form of reimbursements or bonuses at the end of the contract and rarely covers the complete cost of the flight. Most of the time, ESL teachers are initially responsible for the cost of their own ticket to China. Some contracts will reimburse a portion of the flights after one semester and the remainder at contract completion. You should keep any of your airfare receipts in case they are required for this benefit.
Medicine is an interesting and important element in Chinese history. The Chinese have always taken a naturalist approach to their medical practices. Ancient Chinese doctors used a combination of herbal and food remedies to treat many ailments and injuries. In addition to using naturopathic medication for medical treatment, traditional Chinese medicine relies heavily on massage, acupuncture, and preventative care. Today, medicine in the People’s Republic of China is a hybrid between the traditional Chinese practices and modern medicine imported from the western world. Traditional medicine has made its way around the world and many medical professionals in the US incorporate the use of herbal remedies and other traditional Chinese medical practices in their treatment for patients.
The goals of the Chinese health care system are to provide care for all Chinese citizens, to maximize hospital beds and the time of their medical professionals, and to get the most out of the money invested into the system. With over 1.4 billion citizens living within its borders, China’s health care system works fine for the most part, but it lacks funding. Much of the health care system’s resources are devoted to large urban areas such as Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai as most of the population lives in urban settings. Getting medical attention from a health care professional when living in a rural area or small city can be slightly more challenging.
The Chinese health care system has seen signs of improvement with statistics for life expectancy and infant mortality rates catching up to other world powers. Currently, some of the major health concerns are smog, cigarette use, and STDs.
One of the most important things any English teacher should do before leaving for China is to carefully review the contract they have accepted. The amount of health care coverage an English teacher will receive varies between schools. Some schools offer on-site medical facilities and full coverage for any treatment received elsewhere, while some provide their teachers with a detailed private insurance plan. At other schools, teachers are responsible for many of their own medical expenses. If there is any confusion about medical coverage after reading a contract, be sure to ask the school to specify this information. In most cases, it is highly recommended to couple the school’s benefit plan with a private health insurance package that will cover any medical, dental, or prescription costs occurring while teaching in China.
The retirement age in China is a constant source of debate in the nation and is a sore spot for many. Currently, women working for the government or a state-run company must retire at 55 years of age, while men can work an additional five years and retire at 60. Women working a blue collar job must leave after they reach the age of 50; again, men are able to work an extra five years. As with many parts of the world, age discrimination does exist in China and older ESL teachers may experience a more difficult job search than a younger counterpart would. Again, the situation can vary across the nation with more rural areas seeing less-stringent restrictions than major urban areas.
Technology and Advancement
Throughout the nation’s history, Chinese thinkers have made valuable contributions to the world’s understanding of science, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. To this day, the Chinese are at the forefront of the world of technology and advancement.
China is a leader in the international technology industry and in many other areas including computer technology, space travel, and information technology. Juxtaposed to this is the fact that the Chinese government is one the strongest opponents against free speech on the Internet and other mediums. It may be hard for English teachers in China to access media from popular websites like Wikipedia, BBC, the New York Times, and other online news sites due to censorship. Teachers will need VPN to access sites such as Youtube, Facebook and Twitter.
Enjoying modern technologies such as high-speed Internet, cable television, and cell phones will not be an issue in urban China, yet could be problematic in rural areas.
ESL teachers living in most Chinese cities will have a fairly easy time finding American groceries. Some large supermarket chains carry familiar American products and brands. Wal-Mart in China is also known for carrying a wide range of both American and Chinese food products.
Cities, such as Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai pride themselves on being world-class destinations; therefore, finding an American restaurant is a fairly easy task. China is home to many popular American chain restaurants. However, American fast food chains have found that being successful in the Chinese market means incorporating local cuisine into their menus. McDonald’s built their first restaurant on Chinese soil in the early ’90s. Today, there are over 600 McDonald’s locations in over 100 cities. Other popular American fast food diners have also taken their share of the Chinese market. English teachers working in China can be reminded of home by visiting Chinese versions of KFC, Pizza Hut and other popular American restaurants. In addition to recognizable brands, there are plenty of independent restaurants that offer their patrons common American dishes. Bear in mind that, as in most Asian countries, eating American food will be far more expensive than eating the varied local cuisine.
During the last half of the 20th Century, the Chinese substantially upgraded their transportation system. After World War II, many Chinese viewed the lack of transportation in their country as an inconvenience for getting around, as well as impacting the transportation of goods both domestically and abroad. Today, commuters have many options to travel both short distances within a city and long distances across China’s expansive countryside.
The transportation system in the People’s Republic of China has recently undergone a massive overhaul with many cities updating and adding full subway and rail systems. Beijing alone invested $22 billion into traffic issues to prepare for the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Many people find that getting a taxi to take them around town is safe and convenient. ESL teachers will find that most cities, towns, and even villages have some form of taxi service. Riding a taxi in China is very similar to taking one in America; however, there are very few taxi drivers that know how to speak English. If an English teacher is not prepared, they could have a difficult time getting to their destination and may even end up in the wrong place. It is recommended that teachers carry a business card with their work and home address in Chinese, or have a local write down a destination.
Train and Subway
With concerns over air pollution, China, like many other nations, is encouraging the use of public transportation. The first subway system in China was built in Beijing in 1969. Today, most large urban areas in China feature an underground train system. Teachers can ride the subway in Beijing, Changchun, Chengdu, Chongqing, Dalian, Foshan, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Nanjing, Shanghai, Shenyang, Shenzhen, Tianjin, and Wuhan. In addition to the subway, many cities in China offer commuters the option of taking light rail trains to get around the city and many others are currently expanding their urban rail systems.
Since 2008, commuters in China have been able to travel at lightning-fast speeds on the Beijing-Tianjin High-Speed Railway. This high-speed train system allows passengers to travel 186 miles/h, hitting speeds of 218 miles/h if needed. The high-tech train system reduced the time it takes to get from Beijing to Tianjin from 70 to 30 minutes.
The train is still one of the cheapest ways to travel across China. There are four different options for train riders when traveling a long distance.
Hard Seat – Buying a hard seat ticket is the cheapest way to travel across China. Unfortunately, it is also the most popular. The seats are often very uncomfortable and extremely crowded (there are generally more people than seats, so riders may have to stand throughout the trip). It is highly recommended to spend a couple of extra yuan and upgrade from a hard seat ticket when traveling a long distance.
Soft Seat– As the title suggests, the main reason to buy a soft seat ticket is because the seat has a better cushion and is more comfortable than its discounted counterpart. There are usually plenty of seats in these train cars and it is still a fairly inexpensive ticket.
Hard Sleeper – For longer trips, English teachers need to think about where they are going to sleep and a hard sleeper ticket is the cheapest long commute fare. The hard sleeper cart has no door and includes six very small beds with little padding. There is a ‘traditional’ Chinese toilet on each train car and commuters can purchase a ticket for a relatively cheap price.
Soft Sleeper – For those wanting to travel in comfort, the soft sleeper may be the best option. Each compartment on this part of the train offers a door for privacy. The space is much less crowded than hard sleepers. There are four bunks in a room and the beds have more padding and are larger. Commuters will often have access to a western-style toilet with this ticket.
The railway system can take ESL teachers from one end of China to the other, but it can also take travelers out of the country. The Chinese railway is connected to foreign railway systems in North Korea, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, and the Chinese-ruled Hong Kong.
Like the train, the bus is an inexpensive way to travel within the city or to other destinations across China. When ESL teachers travel long distances they will find advantages to buying a bus ticket instead of a train ticket. The bus will travel to many remote locations and smaller towns inaccessible by train. More often than not, a train will fill up much quicker than a bus. For this reason, it is much easier to get a bus ticket and to find a place to sit. The price to travel on a bus is usually comparable to that of the train; occasionally, it can be cheaper.
Other Modes of Transportation
Other modes of transportation that are available for ESL teachers include:
The bicycle is the most popular form of transportation in China. The streets and roadways are loaded with cyclists making their way to work, shopping, or just out for a leisurely ride. During peak hours there are often crowds of cyclists. Most bicycles in China are fairly simple; they usually do not have multiple gears or other common American features. ESL teachers in China will need to get used to riding a bike in a massive crowd of cyclists if they wish to use it as a form of transportation.
Given that China is such a large country, long-distance trains and buses are crowded and usually have extensive routes. If time is an issue and money is not a concern, an ESL teacher can travel to most areas of China via airplane. There are over 500 airports in China, all of varying sizes and each offering different services. Many of these airports are small and only offer domestic flights, but some do offer international flights.
In recent years, automobiles have become more popular and accessible for many in China. In addition to purchasing more cars, the Chinese are also buying more motorcycles and scooters as is very evident on the streets of urban areas. With the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese government devoted much of its resources towards upgrading the nation’s 2 million miles of roadway. Work is also being done to convert old dirt-topped roads into more modern, paved roads. This improvement in China’s road system has meant that more companies are transporting their goods via large trucks and transports. In the past, this process was done mostly with rail.
Chinese Driver’s License
China is not part of the International Convention on Driving Licenses so there is no set protocol in place for converting an American driver’s license into a Chinese version. English teachers wanting to drive will need to get a Chinese driver’s license by writing a test (if a driver has had their license for less than three years they will need to perform a driving test as well). For around ¥300, ESL teachers can take the computer-based driver’s test (test-takers must be at least 18 years old). If understanding the Chinese language is a concern, teachers should bring someone to translate written information. Also necessary is a passport, the foreign driver’s license that needs to be replaced, and a cash payment. Before taking the exam, applicants will need to fill out an application form and have a basic eye examination. Teachers can take the test in one of nine languages, including English. A score of 90 percent or better is a pass. If the test is passed, a Chinese driver’s license will arrive within a couple of weeks. If the test is failed, a rewrite is included with the fee as long as it is taken within ten days of the original test.
Etiquette in China
Proper etiquette is something the Chinese hold in high regard and is ingrained in their culture. Below are some of the more prominent customs, which may vary by region
- For many years, tipping was considered rude in China, but recently that attitude has shifted and many younger people will leave a small amount of money after receiving excellent service.
- Wearing jeans is okay in a casual setting but during business, men are expected to wear subtle-colored suits while women are expected to dress conservatively and avoid high-heels.
- It is considered improper to discuss religion.
- It doesn’t matter if it is a business meeting or a casual get-together; always be early or on time. The Chinese frown upon tardiness which could harm a business contact or a friendship.
- It is extremely rude to discuss business during a meal.
- The most common form of greeting in China is to shake hands, but some still prefer to greet with the traditional bow or nod of the head. It is important to pay attention to a person’s greeting and respond with the same gesture.
- Avoid touching anyone in public.
- It is considered rude and unnecessary to gesture while speaking.
- It is nearly impossible to do business without making an appointment. Be sure to plan any form of a business meeting in advance.
- Don’t be alarmed if it takes a long time to get feedback after a business proposal. The Chinese like to take their time and carefully evaluate their decisions, especially those having to do with business.
- Many Chinese business people are not interested in doing business with someone they do not know. Try to develop as many contacts as possible and tap into their network of connections.
- A person’s rank in a company carries a lot of weight, so be mindful of who is in the room and what each person’s role is within a company.
- Despite the Internet age, many Chinese will only meet face-to-face to discuss any form of business.
- If invited to dinner at someone’s home, it is considered a very great honor. Turning down such an invitation should be avoided at all costs.
- Always remove any outdoor footwear before entering a Chinese home.
- During a meal be sure to try all food offered; not tasting something is considered impolite.
- Never take the last portion of something, no matter how good it tastes. Simply leave it on the table.
- When eating meat, do not leave the bones on the plate. Bones are placed in a designated dish, or simply left on the table.
- Food is served in dishes placed in the middle of the table for all to share and is eaten one item at a time. Filling one’s plate with samples of all the dishes at once is considered rude.
- The host will make the first toast and will be the person to sample each dish first.
- No one will be offended if a guest does not finish their food. A Chinese host simply expects their guests to at least try everything.
- The most important rule of dining in China is to always use chopsticks when at someone’s home or when dining in public. If an ESL teacher is unsure of how to use chopsticks, they should practice before they arrive in China.
- Be sure to put the chopsticks down on the table on a regular basis and always set them down when talking or drinking.
- Only use chopsticks for eating; do not play with them in any fashion.
- While eating rice with chopsticks it is normal and expected for diners to hold their bowl close to their face to avoid making a mess.
- Never stab food with chopsticks. This is a sign of hostility and is extremely insulting.
The Chinese language is often thought of as a language family because it combines many local dialects with commonly used Mandarin as its base. In many areas of China, local versions of the Chinese language are used, and Cantonese is spoken in Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau. Variations of the modern Chinese language have been found in use since the Zhu Dynasty. It is estimated that one-fifth of the global population speaks Chinese.
Like China, the characters of the Chinese language have undergone a series of historical changes. During the mid-20th century, the Chinese government worked to simplify their writing. This involved eliminating many of the strokes from the ancient characters. This provided the Chinese with more user-friendly fonts that were easier to write, read, and memorize. Both simplified and traditional Chinese handwriting is in use today, and like many aspects of language, its usage varies from city to city. Researching and gaining a basic understanding of the Chinese written language could be an advantage to teaching English in China. It may offer insight into how writing skills can be transferred from Chinese to English.
It is fairly easy to find Chinese language lessons in most American urban regions. Learning Chinese is worthwhile for an English teacher before they begin an ESL career in the People’s Republic of China.
Eating in China
Chinese cuisine is one of the most popular foreign foods worldwide, but much of the food is simply an Americanized adaptation. Chinese food can be separated into eight regional categories which each have their own style, ingredients, and flavor. The traditional categories are Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan, and Zhejiang, but this list could easily be expanded.
The use of chopsticks separates a Chinese dining experience from dining in other parts of the world. According to Chinese tradition, forks and knives are viewed as weapons while chopsticks are meant for only eating food. Chopsticks have played a large role in how Chinese food is actually prepared. Food is often cut into small pieces and rice is meant to be sticky, allowing diners to have an easier time using chopsticks to eat. Thus, English teachers should familiarize themselves with the use of chopsticks.
Meals are usually served with rice, while communal dishes are placed in the middle of the table for everyone to help themselves.
After living in China for some time, most English teachers will realize that there is little beef in traditional dishes, with most meals featuring pork. The preference for pork over beef is due in part to the cost of raising pigs compared to cattle. In addition, the Chinese also incorporate chicken, duck, fish, goose, and sheep into their dishes. The local resources available in an area will largely determine which meats are featured in meals.
Many Chinese choose not to drink anything with their meals, believing that it could do harm to their digestive system. Some choose to drink hot tea as an alternative drink. Following the local culinary traditions will help ESL teachers fit in and truly experience the Chinese culture.
Some of China’s more popular dishes include:
Peking Duck – One of China’s most famous dishes, ducks are raised to provide the meat specifically for this dish, also known as Beijing Duck. Multiple steps are performed to prepare the meat, including separating the fat. Eventually, the meat is glazed with maltose syrup. Traditionally, Peking Duck is carved in front of restaurant patrons and the meal begins by diners first eating the duck’s skin, then the meat, served with Chinese-style pancakes and vegetables.
Wonton – Wontons can be found in various dishes in traditional Chinese cookbooks. Typically a wonton is a dumpling that is filled with shrimp, pork, and other ingredients. Popular ways to serve wonton are by frying it or boiling it into a Wonton Soup.
Chinese steamed eggs – Similar to an American omelet, eggs are mixed with various ingredients. Instead of frying the eggs, this dish is steamed.
Kung Pao Chicken – Kung Pao Chicken is considered a delicacy in China. Marinated chicken is mixed with various oils, spices, peppercorn and chilies.
Many historians claim that the most popular drink in the world, second only to water, was invented in China. Tea is steeped in China’s history as much as any former dynasty or the Great Wall. It’s hard to separate the truth from legend; there are many different tales about how tea was invented. Some estimate that there are as many as 1,000 different variations of tea within China’s borders. The Chinese have not only used tea as a beverage, but throughout its history, tea was also utilized for its medicinal effects when combined with various herbs. With tea being such a staple of the Chinese diet, many English teachers will find the wide selection of tea available to be another attractive element of teaching English in China.
When seeking medical treatment for a common ailment, such as a cold or a fever, English teachers may be offered medicinal tea as an option.
Climate in China
China is one of the world’s largest countries and features a wide range of climate zones. If an ESL teacher was to travel through China, they would see deserts, fertile grasslands, and mountains.
The northern region of China has hot summers and cold winters. The middle area receives temperate weather with hot summers and cold winters. The southern part of China has very hot summers and warm winters. Given that the weather in China is so diverse, prospective ESL teachers should research the weather in the region of any offered position.
Cold-temperate zone – Known for having some of the cooler temperatures in China, this climate zone features four seasons. Cities in this zone include Jiamusi, Harbin, and Qiqihar.
Temperate zone – ESL teachers living in this region of China will experience moderate winter and summer seasons. Cities in this zone include Hohhot, Shenyang, Dunhuang, and Urumqi.
Warm-temperate zone – Located along the Yellow River, this climate zone has heavier rainfall from August to October and usually has warm temperatures throughout the year. Cities in this zone include Jinan, Taiyuan, Xian, Luoyang, and Zhengzhou.
Subtropical zone – Generally humid, this climate zone has summers that are wet and hot, and winters that are mild and dry. Cities in this zone include Guangzhou, Jiujiang, Zhenjiang, Yichang, and Wuxi.
Tropical zone – There is little sway in temperature in this climate zone. Temperatures are warm in the winter and hot in the summer. This area of China has a higher rate of typhoons than other regions. Cities in this zone include Guangdong, Yunnan, and Macau.
Plateau climate zone – Known for having comfortable temperatures, this region of China features mild summer and winter seasons. Cities in this zone include Shigatse, Lhasa, and Shannan.
China is all too familiar with natural disasters and the damage caused to both human lives and material things. In 2008, China was hit by one of the deadliest earthquakes of all time: the Great Sichuan Earthquake. It is estimated that over 61,000 people were killed and countless more were injured or made homeless.
In addition to being highly prone to earthquakes, some of the world’s largest and most deadliest droughts and floods have happened on Chinese soil. Historically the Chinese have experienced earthquakes, flooding (especially along the Yellow River), landslides, heat waves, and other natural disasters. Because of the high population density, these types of events often have more fatalities than in other regions of the world.
ESL teachers should also be aware of the infamous Chinese monsoon season, which runs from April to October. During this time, flooding, severe rainstorms, and landslides increase in number. It is important that English teachers spend some time researching the history of natural disasters in a Chinese region before moving there. Additionally, while teaching in China, be sure to regularly check and respect the warnings of locals, weather warnings, and forecasts.
Traditional Chinese holidays are based around the lunar calendar and often have unique celebratory customs. It is important for ESL teachers in China to take note of holidays because businesses and transit could be closed or operate with reduced hours.
Last day of the lunar year – Chinese New Year Eve (chuxi) A holiday that is meant for getting together with family and loved ones. In addition to a family feast (usually of fish), celebrators spend time cleaning their homes before the dinner begins.
First day of a lunar year – Chinese New Year (xinnián) Known all around the world as a time of celebration and superstition. In addition to featuring some of the best fireworks displays in the world, the Chinese New Year is a time of hope for a prosperous new year and of thanks for wealth and family.
15th day of the first lunar month – Lantern Festival (yuánxiojié) Another one of China’s well known holidays. The Chinese watch parades featuring beautifully constructed traditional lanterns and the celebrators dance.
Second day of the second lunar month – Zhonghe Festival (zhonghéjié) Also known as Blue Dragon Festival, this is a time to celebrate the dragon. It was believed that the dragon carried many powers, including the ability to produce rain for the farmers’ fields.
Third day of the third lunar month – Shangsi Festival (sh ngsìjié) Also known as Traditional Chinese Women’s Day. This holiday is unique in that women are given the day off work with pay, while in many cases men need to remain at work.
104 days after the winter solstice – Qing Ming Jie (qongmíngjié) Celebrated for the first time as an official holiday in 2008, Qing Ming Jie means ‘Tomb Sweeping Day’. During this time, the Chinese remember their ancestors who have passed away and go to their graves to offer sacrifices such as food, tea, and wine.
Fifth day of the fifth lunar month – Duanwu Festival (duonwojié) The most popular thing to do during the Duanwu Festival is to watch the various dragon boat races which happen across the country. After watching the race, many Chinese sit down to a traditional meal of Zongzi, which is a rice-based dumpling filled with red beans.
Sixth day of the sixth lunar month – Bathing and Basking Festival (xosh ijié) Traditionally the Chinese place clothes and books outside under the sun.
Seventh day of the seventh lunar month – Night of Sevens (qi xi) Similar to America’s Valentine’s Day, this is a time for couples to have a night together. The Chinese holiday is based on an ancient story of a young couple separated by the stars. According to the Chinese legend, the stars aligned to bring the pair together for one night on the Night of Sevens.
15th day of the seventh lunar month – Spirit Festival (zhongyuánjié) This festival has some similarities to Halloween. According to legend, the gates of hell open to let lost spirits wander the earth for a night to get food and drink. Many Chinese burn pretend money for good luck.
15th day of the eighth lunar month – Mid-Autumn Festival (zhongqiojié) This is a time to get together with friends and family and celebrate under the moon. The holiday was first held for the Chinese to celebrate a successful harvest. Today the celebrators burn incense and eat traditional moon cakes (a Chinese dessert associated with the holiday).
Ninth day of the ninth lunar month – Double Ninth Festival (chóngyángjié) Traditionally, this is a day where the Chinese would climb mountains and remember the dead. In today’s world many communities use this holiday to celebrate and volunteer with the elderly.
15th day of the tenth lunar month – Water Lantern Festival (xiayuanjie) This holiday begins when the sun sets. At sundown, people place glowing lanterns afloat in streams and rivers in remembrance of the dead.
When the solar latitude is 270 degrees – Winter Solstice Festival (dongzhì) This winter holiday is another occasion for the Chinese to gather with family and friends and celebrate. Traditional foods for this holiday include Tangyuan (a food made from rich flour), balls of rice, and dumplings.
Eighth day of the 12th lunar month – Laba Festival (l bojié) Similar to most traditional Chinese holidays, Laba Festival is based within the Buddhist faith. According to Buddhist beliefs, Buddha gained enlightenment on this day.
Public Holidays in China
January 1st – New Year – A holiday given to the Chinese during the western world’s New Year’s celebrations
Chinese New Year – (see above)
Qing Ming Festival – (see above)
May 1st – Labor Day – A day designed for celebrating the achievements of workers and at the same time awarding them with a day off from their jobs.
Dragon Boat Festival – (see the Duanwu Festival above)
Mid-Autumn Festival – (see above )
October 1st – National Day – Chinese citizens from all across the country take this day to celebrate their national pride.
Holidays for Some People in the People’s Republic of China
May 4th – Youth Day – A day designated for recognizing the work that young workers do in China. Workers between the ages of 14 and 24 get this day (sometimes a half-day) off from work.
June 1st – Children’s Day – School does not run on Children’s Day and many communities offer free activities during this celebration. In 2008, Children’s Day was used as a day to remember and mourn the young ones lost during the tragic Great Sichuan Earthquake which occurred in 2008.
August 1st – Army Day – Any personnel of the Chinese military are given this day off as a tribute for their work and service.