Hello prospective traveler! So you’re thinking about teaching in China. Naturally, you’re looking for insights and information that will help you anticipate, navigate, and hopefully celebrate this unique country.
The funny thing is, even after living in China for years, you can still wake up not knowing what to expect. That was the case for me. It is truly one of the most unpredictable and exciting places on Earth. The best preparation you can do in order to enjoy your teaching experience in China is to prepare your mind.
One thing to note is that traveling to China is less about what to bring and more about what to leave behind. Specifically preconceived notions, biases, and expectations. So read my five lessons below before you take the leap, then relax, open your mind, and have fun!
It has never been so good
It’s perfectly understandable if you don’t know much about Chinese history since Westerners really don't learn about Chinese history growing up. But it’s safe to say that up until the last decade or two, life for most of the billion Chinese citizens has been tough. With different work policies for appropriate hours and wages, as well as different national priorities, it’s safe to say that the people of China are used to a harder life by Western standards.
Yet with all this, China is moving into its finest hour. As the world’s oldest continuous civilization, it’s been modernizing at lightning speed over the last three decades. So if it’s China’s antiquity that interests you there is still plenty of relics of an ancient civilization, but owing to its rapid innovation, you’ll find that there’s never been a better time to visit China.
“Rude” means something different for everyone
As with any culture, social norms and ideas of what “common courtesy” are vary. For Westerners, social status has always been a part of any culture and for us, manners and formalities play a very important part in this.
China’s norms are different. If you have an open mind and appreciate the differences, you might not be bothered by the fact that people don't typically say please and thank you, talk loudly on cell phones in public places, and often cut in front of you in a queue.
Build relationships that matter
In China, relationships are extremely important. By that I mean building relationship capital, or guanxi, with co-workers, associates, and friends is critical and at the heart of Chinese culture. Without cultivating relationships, you won’t get anything done.
Taking the opportunity to get to know your co-workers is an important step in Chinese culture. When you talk with them, try to talk about other stuff first. Find ways that you can do them a favor and show them generosity and you can expect the same in return. Think of it as "I scratch your back, you scratch mine.”
You don’t live in the center of the universe
Trying to explain cheese to a person who isn’t used to eating it will likely garner some up-turned noses.
Cheese, especially the stinky blue stuff, is my favorite food to eat. But I know for the majority of the people on Earth, it is an unfathomable thing to eat. It’s all a matter of perspective and familiarity and opening your mind to new things. Reorienting yourself while abroad is a good strategy and will serve you well when you see a head served on the same plate as the most unbelievably delicious roast duck,or a large plate of silkworm larvae fried to a golden crisp.
You don’t know Chinese food
Americanized Chinese food is nothing like the real thing. China is as diverse in its cuisine as it is geographically. It is arguably the most diverse cuisine on the planet. And when you taste the real thing done right, you will be dreaming of those authentic dishes for the rest of your life. Go explore and don't be intimidated by a lack of English on menus. You can do everything by pointing at the plates of fellow diners.
It would take countless lifetimes to fully grasp the essence of China, but true adventurers and experience junkies will find the experience thrilling. China has it all. It will test you, but if you manage your expectations and open your mind, it will reward you like no other place can.