Is teaching English in China worth it?
I would say yes, but of course, I can’t answer that for you.
If you have questions about what daily life and work is like here, what’s exciting and what’s hard, then you’re in the right place.
I have been living and teaching English in Shenzhen, China for one year and a half. In this article, you’ll find my subjective list of the pros and cons of teaching English in China.
Read on so you can better decide for yourself whether making this life decision is right for you.
Pro: There’s Super Cheap, Super Delicious Food Everywhere
One of my very favorite parts of living in China was the food. Around practically every corner there’s at least one person (if not a whole row) selling noodles or savory pancakes or something skewered for practically cents on the dollar.
When I was living in China, in fact, I frequented the jianbing (a kind of savory egg pancake) stand around the corner from my apartment so often that I became good friends with the man who ran the stand and his mother. We still talk on Wechat today!
The abundance of convenient and cheap food everywhere makes living in China tastier — and easier on the wallet.
Con: You’re Not Going to Find a Dollar Slice Everywhere
All that street food you were just drooling over is, if you hadn’t noticed, Chinese food. Which is great if you’re like me and you can’t get enough noodles and rice. But for those who want just a good old slice of pizza or a taco, the options are a little more limited — and a lot more expensive.
Now, don’t get me wrong: you’ll find Western food galore, especially in bigger cities. But the options will be more limited, and it probably won’t taste like what you’d get back home (think durian pizza and salad with sweet mayonnaise on it, for example).
Pro: The Scenery Is Beautiful
I’m from Kansas, where finding good hiking or true outdoors is something that takes a concentrated effort. Coming to Shenzhen, a seaside city, was a dream come true for me.
Even though Shenzhen is way bigger and more built-up than Kansas City, it’s full to bursting with subtropical greenery, and even the strip of plants next to the sidewalk can feel like a miniature jungle.
Furthermore, the bay runs along with the city, so you can bike along the waterfront and travel about an hour to get to a beach — a true dream for this Midwesterner.
Now, I know that this experience is specific to the city I was living in, but China has tons of beauty throughout the country, and every city I’ve been in has had lovely parks and walking paths.
Our guide to the best cities for teaching English in China can help you figure out which cities have the most wilderness and greenery, about their local flavor, and which are most suitable for you.
And if you want to know more about where I was living specifically, then you should read this guide I wrote about living and teaching in Shenzhen.
Con: Most Chinese Cities Are Smoggy
The smog, like the scenery, depends on where you are. But the things people say about China are definitely true, especially in cities like Xi’an, Beijing, Chengdu, and Tianjin.
While some people learn to live with the smog (and embrace the fashion statement of face masks), others understandably really can’t stand it.
Thankfully, not every city is smoggy! Sanya, Xiamen, and Guilin all have notably good air quality, for example.
Air quality is pretty bad in some places in China, especially in the winter, but as long as you do your research you can have a China experience full of ‘blue sky days’!
Pro: There’s Lots of (Cheap) Shopping
It’s true: the place where the majority of your clothes, electronics, and other consumer products are made is a really great place to buy said goods.
You can get high quality (and low quality) products at a fraction of the price you’d pay at home, and there’s also plenty of high-end shopping for those with more expensive tastes.
If you love shopping, you might need to put a passcode on your wallet in China to stop yourself from spiraling into a buying frenzy.
Con: There are Practically no Thrift Stores
As someone who loves thrifting, I was sad to find that it’s practically nonexistent in China due to superstition that it’s bad luck to wear other people’s clothes.
Although thrift stores and clothing swaps are becoming more popular in bigger cities, they’re definitely not the norm — and who can blame people when there’s such a preponderance of cheap new clothes?
Hong Kong and Taiwan do have thrift stores, as well as cities like Beijing and Shanghai — just be prepared to look a lot harder for them than you might have to at home.
P.S. Interested in teaching in Shanghai? Then delve into our guide to the city!
Pro: You’ll be Exposed to a New Culture
One of the best parts of living abroad, in general, is learning about the world, expanding your perspective and getting a glimpse into just how many ways there are to live. And living in China gives you a glimpse into a really different life: different language, culture, food, you name it.
For me, being in China was exciting because interactions and chores that would be mundane at home were made suddenly exciting: here I am navigating a foreign supermarket, figuring out what everything is! Here I am buying potato chips in Mandarin, counting out RMB! Here I am washing my dishes before eating as is Guangdong custom, cutting in line because everyone else does, living here and learning how to be.
The acculturation can be exhausting — physically and emotionally — but it’s endlessly exciting, and in my opinion completely worth it.
Con: The New Culture can Be Confusing and Downright Frustrating
Chinese culture will probably be different from what you’re used to in a number of ways big and small: people smoke cigarettes everywhere, many people spit in the street or hold their babies over trash cans to use the bathroom, and you’ll often need to use squat toilets with no hand soap and sometimes no toilet paper (yuck).
Additionally, the language barrier can be exhausting.
If you’ve ever visited a place where the language is different than your own, you know that it can be frustrating trying to navigate without being able to communicate the way you’re used to. And if you do speak Mandarin, you might get language exhaustion from communicating in another language so much.
Thankfully, though, as an English teacher, you’ll spend at least some portion of your days speaking English, and most midsize and large cities have sizeable expat communities that you can fall back on when you want a taste of home.
Pro: Everything’s Convenient (For the Most Part)
One of my favorite parts of being in China was how much I could do on my phone: you can pay for things using Wechat or Alipay (the two most prominent apps) almost anywhere, you can call a cab, order food and items, and even book appointments and pay bills on your phone.
You can even use your phone to pay your fare on public transportation!
That means that you don’t have to carry a bulky wallet — just your phone will get you almost everywhere. It’s a small thing, but it does make life easier.
Con: The Convenience Can Be Isolating
In a world where you can do everything through your phone or other screens, it can get too easy to hole up in your apartment instead of venturing out and interacting with people.
As long as you don’t use your phone as a crutch, though, you’ll love how high-tech, streamlined, and easy Chine life can be.
Pro: You Can Get a Job Without a Bachelor’s Degree
The Chinese ESL industry is seriously booming right now, so almost anyone can find a job — whether or not it’s legal. Our guide to the requirements for getting a job in China goes further into what employers are looking for, but for the most part, almost anyone can find a job here.
Schools, training centers, companies, and individual families all want English teachers, so if you put yourself out there and seem professional you can absolutely find work. All it takes is a little bravery and luck!
If you do decide to work without a bachelor’s degree, though, pay attention to this next part because it’s important.
Con: ESL Teachers Without the Right Visa Can Face Punishment
Nonnative English speakers, teachers who don’t have a bachelor’s degree, and anyone else who doesn’t have a proper work visa can get in trouble and possibly be deported for working illegally. If you decide to undergo that risk, you must be careful and be prepared to face the consequences — or work in a country that has more lax visa requirements.
Refer to our guide to teaching English in China with no experience for advice on getting jobs as a newbie teacher.
Pro: Public Transportation in China Is Fantastic
Whether you’re traveling around one city or between different cities, you’ll find that the public transportation here is seriously amazing.
In terms of cross-country travel, the older trains are slower and a little dirtier but they’re super cheap, and the bullet trains are clean and ridiculously fast.
In terms of travel within cities, most mid-size cities have at least one subway line, and big cities have comprehensive and inexpensive subway and bus systems.
Even taxis are much cheaper here than in the states, for example, so you can get almost everywhere you want to go without breaking the bank.
Con: It’s Hard to Get a Chinese Driver’s License
If you plan on living in China for awhile and just really want to drive, you’ll find that getting a driver’s license is a bit of a process — not to mention a license plate. International driver’s licenses don’t apply in China, so you need to get a Chinese driver’s license.
It’s not that hard to get one if you already have a license back home, but you may need to bring a translator or figure out a way to translate the written exam depending on where you take the test.
The real challenge is getting a license plate. In bigger cities license plates can cost thousands of dollars, and there’s often a lottery, auction, or waitlist for them because the number of license plates distributed is limited to help cut down on congestion and pollution.
Because public transportation is so good you’d be just as well to go without a driver’s license, but if you do decide to get one I’d just recommend getting a Chinese friend to help you through the process.
Pro: People Are Very Friendly
Note that I’m speaking from personal experience here, and some expats I’ve talked to felt a lot more isolated in China than I did. But in my time in China, people were incredibly generous, friendly and welcoming — so much so that a solo camping trip I planned turned into non-stop group hangouts and even a couple lasting friendships!
People generally appreciate foreigners taking even the smallest steps toward understanding Chinese culture, so learning even a few phrases will endear you to people and show that you’re interested in learning more about the culture.
Con: People Are Everywhere
In a country of 1.4 billion people, it can be hard to find solitude, even in rural places and the countryside. Most expat teachers end up in bigger cities where everything’s crowded: streets, subways, restaurants, you name it.
I loved the constant hum of Shenzhen when I was there, but if you need lots of peace and quiet, I’d recommend learning how to find peace in a crowd — or setting your sights on somewhere a little less densely populated.
Pro: There Are Tons of Expats
In every big citiy and many mid-size cities, there are healthy expat populations, which means plenty of opportunities to communicate in English, make friends easily and commiserate about teaching ESL.
Lots of expats also bring amenities you might have back home: Western food, Western bars, even English open mics, book clubs, and more.
These communities can be a huge comfort, especially when you first arrive in China because they give you comfort and a built-in community in a strange new place.
Con: It Can Be Hard to Break Into Chinese Society
Lots of expats in China complain that all their friends are expats and they have trouble making Chinese friends. This is especially common among people who don’t speak Mandarin or who are nervous about breaking out of their comfort zone.
You probably will need to speak some Mandarin to make real Chinese friends, and you may not feel totally comfortable in Chinese groups if you only stay in China for a year or two.
But having the confidence to try new things on your own, approach people, and live with a little discomfort will help you make more friends and ultimately have a more fulfilling time in China.
And once you have a few Chinese friends, your Mandarin will start improving more and more! There’s really no better way to learn.
Pro: Teaching Can Be Really Fulfilling
No matter what kind of teacher you are, you’ll hopefully forge a good bond with your students.
Whether they’re cute kids, intrepid middle schoolers, or motivated adults, you’ll find that being their English teacher creates a special bond between you. And seeing your students’ English ability improve is incredibly satisfying!
Con: …But It Can Also Be Extremely Frustrating
Some schools are well-equipped and know exactly what to do with foreign teachers, but others are underequipped, understaffed, and unprepared to help a teacher who doesn’t speak Chinese feel at home in the school.
Knowing what to expect from Chinese schools can help you adjust better to classroom life — this article about the Chinese education system has some good insight on that.
Be sure to do your research and if possible talk to some foreign teachers who work at your school or have found work through your recruiter before you leave for China so you don’t get blindsided as to what situation you’re in.
And if you do find yourself in a situation that’s less than optimal, remember that you’re still making a difference in children’s lives and that you’re never locked in anywhere.
This article breaking down the nitty-gritty of teaching English in China has more information about the pros and cons of teaching here.
It can help you figure out what your teaching experience might be like based on where in the country you teach, what kind of school you go to, and more.
Pro: Teaching Abroad Will Change Your Life
Seriously. I can’t emphasize enough how gratifying, eye-opening, and really wonderful it is to see the world, help people learn, and become acquainted with a culture in a way that living and working in a place allows.
There will be hard times, sure, as there are with anything worthwhile, but you’ll ultimately grow from them even if it doesn’t seem to be the case at the time.
And the good times will be so good. If you decide to teach abroad, I can promise that it’ll be an experience you carry with you forever.
Is Teaching English in China Worth It?
Teaching English in China is a really big decision, and it’s definitely not for everyone! You should be prepared to live in a culture that’s different from your own in ways small and large, ready to embrace different people, food, language and culture.
If you go into your teaching experience with that mindset, you’ll have an incredibly rewarding time. If you’re not interested in learning about a different culture, though, and you really just want to make a few bucks, then you’re probably better off finding a job at home.
In the end, if you decide to teach English in China you’ll find that it’s incredibly rewarding — and that there’s no way to exit an experience like this without opening your eyes to just how varied and magnificent the world is.