As an expat English teacher in China, you can expect to encounter all sorts of unusual things. For some people, making the move to live in China comes as a bit of a shock. It sometimes feels as though you have landed on another planet, not just another country.
So it’s a good idea to read up and prepare yourself before you step on that plane. Here are some of the things that you might run into. Remember that China is really big, so not all the things that happened to me will happen to you. But get a group of expats together and chances are at some point they will start chuckling over all the weirdness that makes the world of China an amazing place to get to know.
1. School weirdness
Of course, we expect other cultures to behave as we do. We expect to get all the information about a new job before we show up. In China, the chances of that happening are about nil. You will arrive at your school, and most probably walk into class the next day not having any clue about who you are teaching, how many students, what materials you are using or what you are supposed to do there. You also won’t know if you are getting a day off until the last minute, so forget planning ahead and just be spontaneous.
Don’t worry! The students will probably look at you adoringly as if you are Brad Pitt or Angelina and hang on every word that comes out of your mouth. Get used to the “rock star gaze” as you will find it everywhere you go in China. Some love it and some hate it, but it’s a fact of life for you in China as an English teacher.
Students tend to have rather odd names such as Banana, Whale and Books, and sometimes wear glasses with no lenses in them – don’t ask!
Forget everything you know about sofas, beds and furniture in general. Chinese people disdain the soft, comfy cushion. Beds are HARD, and I mean that in capital letters. Many expats go out and try to buy a soft mattress to stick on their bed – we just took all the blankets and folded them up and slept on those. It helped a bit. Chairs are hard and sofas do not come with cushions either. Get used to it. Apparently it’s good for you.
Kitchens in China are tiny. People eat out a lot and buy takeaway (remember the Chinese invented that) and don’t expect an oven – the Chinese do stir fry and steamed. They don’t bake.
Of course, this is a huge topic so I will only mention it briefly. Don’t expect the sweet and sour you get at your local Chinese eatery. Chinese cooking is NOT just Cantonese. You will possibly find something familiar (wontons are called ‘Jiaozi’, pronounced “jiao-ze”) but much of what you will find is completely alien.
Some of it is totally delicious, and some less so. Just point and smile and try things out. You will quickly learn how to ask for the things you like. And don’t be surprised that the rice is brought at the end of the meal when you are almost done.
Chopsticks will be mastered pretty quickly if you are not adept with those yet, believe me you soon will be if you don’t want to starve! Other foods like sushi are served with a disposable plastic glove, as the Chinese will never touch the food with their hands.
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Generally when you go out with friends, you don’t each order a personal dish, but rather you order a bunch of things which goes into the middle and everyone shares. (You take from the middle with your chopsticks)
Sorry but it has to be said. I will just say that it will be very different from what you know back home. Get over it. Toilet paper is a rare commodity, so most of us just get used to carrying tissues in our bags. (I don’t know what boys do.) Wipes also come in handy.
Don’t be surprised if there is only a squat, and don’t be surprised if there is no door on the cubicle. I had that one, too. Once you get into the squat thing it’s really no big deal. But if this one freaks you out maybe you are not ready for your China adventure yet.
5. Travel chaos
In a country of 1.4 billion people, travel, especially over national holidays, tends to be a bit on the frenetic side. Don’t even dream of going to visit any of the famous sites during these times. It’s just traumatic. You may find yourself trying to squeeze onto a bus or train as the doors close, or you may find you just can’t get to where you are going. Don’t panic, it’s all part of the experience.
Sometimes it’s better to just stay home over the holidays – you will probably have enough free time to travel when all the Chinese are working. Cities, and especially university campuses, tend to be deserted over National holidays. Sometimes it’s a good time to chill out and reflect on all the weirdness!
So you’ve all heard about the Great Firewall, right? So you know there is no Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Snapchat, Gmail, Google Maps and a bunch of other random websites in China. However, what you may not know is that all these have equivalent Chinese companies and websites that do the exact same thing.
The catch is that they are all in Chinese! So if your Chinese sucks (which mine does) you will need to develop all kinds of workarounds, in order to manage in your daily life and get around, and stay in touch with friends back home. Failing that, you can shell out around $65 a year to get a VPN, which may or may not work most of the time. Otherwise, you had better get cracking on your Chinese homework.
7. Chinese days off
I mentioned this briefly in the part about schools. But be warned. There is no such thing as a free lunch. What I mean is there’s no such thing as a day off. If there is a National Holiday (such as May 1st or Dragon Boat Day) you will have to “make up” the days you had off, even if it is over the weekend. For example, if Monday and Tuesday are national holidays, then the school can (and will) require you to work on the Saturday and Sunday preceding (or following) those days off. And, they will only tell you which days you need to work at the last minute, which will make getting train tickets very very tricky. As I said, planning ahead is not your strong suit in China.
At first glance, you may think that Chinese people dress just like us. Well, maybe not – and it, of course, depends whether you are in a megalopolis like Shanghai or a teeny-tiny 6 million people town in the back of beyond.
But you will see that girls (female students) often dress in tiny frocks as if they are in the fifties and even pretend to be very childish and girlie. If you are a woman, buying Chinese pants will be practically impossible, unless you are a mini-sizer, as most Chinese people have no hips and no butt whatsoever. I am a medium (European size 40) and in China, I was, distressingly, an XXL size.
I can’t say much about guys, but I can tell you that my husband frequently walked into clothing stores and was immediately greeted with the word “meiyo”, which means “we don’t have any”. And buy shoes in his size was utterly impossible. T-shirts are ok but again, I often found them to be tiny.
9. Lunch break
A bit like the Spanish siesta, between 12 and 2 pm, nobody does anything. I mean if you need to go to an office, forget it. You will sometimes see what my husband called ‘The Chinese Art of Sleeping Everywhere’, store clerks and secretaries asleep at their booths or on their keyboards. He even made a collection of these photos.
Once I went to the school office at 12.30 and there was a pull-out bed with one of the secretaries dozing on it. There is nothing you can do about it, just accept it. It’s what they do.
10. Celeb status as an English teacher
I already told you that you will feel a bit like Brad and Angelina everytime you walk out your door, particularly if you live in a small place with few foreigners. People will wave and bellow “Hello” at you and occasionally giggle and point at you. Some people find this disconcerting – we found it quite funny.
Then there are people who come up and try to practice their English on you, or just want to be your friend, simply because you are a rare species. Everyone will want to take their photo with you, even wedding couples, as they make the V sign and smile idiotically. Chinese people don’t believe in natural photography – only strange posed pictures, which they upload to “WeChat” the Chinese social network. Students also told me they loved me (both sexes) after I had taught them once! It’s all very odd.
The other thing that is a bit weird is that some foreigners feel you should acknowledge them on the street when you are passing just because both of you are outsiders, whilst others, mainly those who speak Chinese and speak lots of Chinese, will just ignore you and not even nod in recognition as you pass in the street. If you try to nod or say hello they will just look right through you since they seem to think that they are now Chinese themselves and no longer define themselves as foreigners.
Of course, these are just some of the things you might encounter in the world of China. Remember, it is a very big country!