You’ve just signed your contract to teach in China. Brilliant!
So…. What happens next?
It depends on who you ask, but as a former teacher in China I can let you in on a few little secrets.
I’ll start by telling you some of the best things to do before you leave, what you need to do when you arrive, as well as some things to keep in mind as you settle in.
If you’re still in the planning phase – like still figuring out where in China you’d like to teach – I suggest you read these tips first.
Ok, let’s get into it.
What to do before you leave for China
1. Check who’s meeting you at the airport (and have a back-up plan)
I’m not sure what you’re like when you travel, but I get a little nervous, especially when I’m going to places where English isn’t the first language.
A mistake I’ve made a few times is flying into an overseas airport late in the day. I mean, really late, and the only transport option you’ve got is a dodgy private taxi.
To avoid this, try to get a flight that arrives early. That way, you’re also covered if there’s a flight delay.
Most importantly though, check and double-check who is going to meet you at the airport. Is it someone from the school? A senior student? Or will the school’s driver be there to pick you up?
And, how will you recognise them – will they have a sign or will you need to make contact with them when you touch down? And if you do need to make contact, is that on WeChat, email, phone or something else?
Have a back-up plan ready, too. I remember I missed my connecting domestic flight in Shanghai and had to find my school’s contact details so I could call them. Otherwise, they would have been waiting for me at the other end for a whole day!
Luckily, because the airline I flew with was the same for both the international and domestic leg of my journey (and the connection delay was their fault), they put me up in a nearby airport hotel for the night.
2. Get your phone and laptop sorted before you go
A rookie error some teachers make is just bringing their devices with them without giving it any more thought.
Make sure you download all the relevant China apps before you go.
Apps like WeChat (to pay for everyday things) and Didi (China’s version of Uber) will be lifesavers while you’re in China, and you’ll also want a VPN app so you can access sites like Google Translate and Maps.
Same goes for your laptop. Bring a sturdy laptop that has a big enough screen for you to plan your lessons as well as use for leisure time. I wouldn’t recommend a tiny little notebook.
Sometimes the internet connection may not be great where you’re teaching (particularly in China’s public sector like primary schools). So, have a think about anything you could pre-download onto your laptop for those awkward situations in the classroom where you’re left to think on your feet.
I started each of my classes with some music playing in the background, while students made their way into the classroom and I marked the roll. I had my entire collection of iTunes music downloaded so I didn’t have to rely on the internet if there were any issues with streaming.
I also used songs and music in some final exams that I set, so in terms of technology I was confident that the exams could proceed without hiccup.
What to do when you arrive in China
3. Get all the regulatory stuff out of the way
Your school will help you with all the stuff you need to do when you first arrive when it comes to regulations.
The two most important things are getting you registered to live in China, and getting your medical tests out of the way.
You might have to do a medical check before you leave your country as well as after you arrive in China. Don’t fight it – just do it! The Chinese government takes it really seriously and so should you.
If, morally, you’re against providing all your medical details (including your blood) to China, then perhaps teaching in China isn’t for you.
The purpose of the tests is to make sure you’re physically well enough to work in China, and check you don’t have something (like HIV) they think you could help spread.
4. Ask someone to write your address in Chinese
The minute you arrive at your teacher accommodation, get someone to write the address in Chinese for you. Whether this is your school contact person, a fellow teacher who’s been living there a while, or even a neighbour, it’s crucial you do this.
Why? Because unless you know how to speak Mandarin (most people going to China don’t), you’ll have absolutely no way of knowing how to get back to your apartment if you happen to get lost.
Take a photo of your address (so you can keep it on your phone), and slip the original paper into your wallet or purse. That way, even if your phone unwittingly dies you’ll be able to get back to your new home.
In time, you’ll learn how to say your school, or even your full address, in Chinese. But you can worry about that later!
Note: teacher housing will be part of your contract when teaching in the public sector. If you want to teach in a language training center, however, you’ll need to be in close contact with the center on how best to arrange this. Some of the rent will need to be paid upfront, so make sure your bank account is full to the brim when you arrive.
What else to expect
5. Find out how to do the essential things
What’s a teacher’s favourite day of the month? Pay day!
To get paid in China, you’ll need a Chinese bank account. There are no exceptions, unless you’re getting paid peanuts on an internship program, or they pay you cash, like I experienced (that’s another story).
Your school contact person will be able to help with this. You could also ask for help on how to use WeChat Pay or Alipay, which Chinese people use to pay for practically everything.
It’s important you know how to get around in China, whether that’s by train, bus, DiDi or by foot. I decided to buy a bike when I was in China – money well spent!
In each city across China, transport works a little differently. Make sure you find out how to use it.
For example, can you pre-purchase a transport card? How do you do that? Where does the bus actually go? What’s the latest service?
Have a think about anything else you’ll need help with due to the language barrier. Do you want to join a local gym? Would you like to sign up to the rewards program at the local supermarket?
Whatever it is, reach out to your school and they’ll be able to help. They’re fully aware that you have zero Mandarin language skills.
6. Try to be flexible as change happens around you
Although you’ll have the time of your life teaching in China, the country itself is not for the faint-hearted.
Things will change at the last minute (like your lessons), students might stalk you on WeChat, construction may be happening all around your apartment – you get my drift, things run differently in China!
Just try to go with the flow. And always keep in the back of your mind that China is not a Western country, so don’t plan on changing that.
Amongst all the chaos and hustle and bustle that China brings, you’ll have solace knowing that your apartment is your little ‘Zen’ place. On your time off, use the downtime to do things you like doing, even if that’s just chatting to friends back home on WhatsApp.
Balance your Zen time with getting out and about. China is an amazing country full of places to visit.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the most famous sights like The Great Wall and the Terracotta Army, but what about the beautiful scenery of Yangshuo or, if you like the cold, Harbin’s spectacular Ice Festival?
Get out of your comfort zone if you can, and on the days where things get too much, just think, “It’s China”.
Are you ready to go?
Whether you’re still in the planning phase, about to sign a contract or about to jump on a plane, I hope you’ve learned something from my advice.
If there is only one thing you take away, it’s to rely on your school contact person. And I mean, really rely on them – squeeze every last bit of helpful information out of them as you can!
Have a great time teaching in China.
Mike Cairnduff founded Hello Teacher after working in China as a teacher. He has traveled extensively across the country, has a keen interest in Chinese culture and loves getting stuck into a bowl full of dumplings.