11 August 2003 2003 nian 8 yue 11 hao

Editorial: Dear China-bound

With a new academic year just around the corner, there must be many people in the big five english-speaker-producing nations already packing their bags for the far-flung corners of Asia. Dear China-bound, here are my humble suggestions. Most of this is relevant for any extended stay, not just teaching english.


Some people love to talk about "culture shock". It's only to be expected that you will feel some anxiety as you adapt to an unfamiliar situation, and cultural differences are likely to be a major part of this. But even after you've settled in, you will continue to experience misunderstandings because of culture. The real hinderance is actually your own culture, because when the view through those-coloured glasses seems sensible and consistent, one usually doesn't question it. For example, there have been times when I received what I thought were suggestions, and only later after things fell apart did I realise that those suggestions were really more like instructions, chinese communication being more indirect in these cases than my home culture would be.

Where did I get this idea about chinese culture being (sometimes!) more indirect? Well, I read it in a book. One of the best ways to prepare for a trip to China is to read as much about the culture as you can find. But you have to read critically, realising that not only is chinese culture varied and quickly changing, but also that a particular author may get some things wrong or may carry a negative bias about China. The latter is something to be particularly careful about when reading internet blogs.

When you arrive in China, you will soon realise that a lot of the ideas you picked up about the country and culture, even from highly-recommended books, are too broad, inaccurate, or out of date. But it is much easier to refine your ideas from this starting point, rather than arriving with the attitude of "I'll pick it up once I get there", because you will have been exposed to some of the ways that China culture might differ from your own. Apart from a good library, places to look for books are the "travel" section of a bookstore or the "chinese" section of a bookstore specialising in foreign language learning. Be aware that culture is not synonymous with etiquette. Of course knowing the basics of etiquette will help you to make a good impression, but searching the internet will turn up quite a few tidbits of information on this topic. Information about deeper aspects of culture is more difficult to find. Teachers should also consider finding out more about classroom culture in China. Karen Chen maintains a bibliography focussed mainly on teaching in China, while Fred Gale's list is more general. Here are some books that I've read:

Fred Schneiter, Getting Along with the Chinese, (Asia 2000 Ltd, 1992)
One of the good things about this book is the attitude of the author, who from the outset rejects the idea that the chinese are "inscrutable".

If luncheon conversation with a friend in China begins to lag, an effective stimulant to getting it moving again is the question, "Did you know foreigners find Chinese ways strange?" Typically, the response is, "Really!? But, foreigners are the strange and unpredictable ones!"

Humour throughout the book makes it an entertaining read, and it's full of good advice too. The author's experience is mainly in business situations, but the lessons he has learnt are applicable to anyone planning a stay in China. For a reader with zero knowledge of China it might be difficult to pick the valuable points out of the meandering prose—so it's worth bringing it with you, and reading it again after a month here.

Linell Davis, Doing Culture, (Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, 1999)
Written as a textbook for teaching cross-cultural communication, this book draws on anthropological research as well as the author's experience as a foreign teacher in China. It presents general theories about cultural variation, and applies them to the specific examples of China and America. I rate it highly, and the chapter on adapting to a new culture also contains some good practical advice. This book may be difficult to find outside China, although specialist bookshops might stock it.
James J. Wang, Outrageous Chinese, (China Books & Periodicals, 1994
Although a lot of this would be wasted on a reader who was not a student of chinese, there is also some interesting cultural information in this thin book. You can learn about bribery, drinking games, and some exotic chinese food. The language content is reviewed here on sinosplice.com.

Once you're in China, the best way to learn about the culture is to ask people. Ask about everything. Your friends will be happy to explain, and will learn more about your culture at the same time.


In many situations you can either get by with just body language, or else there will be somebody around whose level of english is good enough to communicate with you (especially in a school). A foreigner with no knowledge of the language will of course learn to recognise a few words, but even then they probably won't be able to speak those words clearly unless they spend some time practising the four tones of Mandarin (or the x tones of y dialect). But I'm sure that if you can learn to speak a few words, then people will appreciate that you've made some effort to speak their language (this is generally the rule in most countries, with the notable exception of english-speaking nations).

Perhaps somebody who came to China with zero knowledge of the language would care to leave a comment about their experience?


It's not difficult for a native english speaker to find a job teaching english in China, even without teaching qualifications or experience. But I would caution you to think twice about the idea that being an english speaker automatically makes you an english teacher. If you can't afford the time or money to attend an ESL teaching course (such as TESOL or CELTA), then at least find a book on the subject. This will help you consider such issues as classroom interaction, student motivation, error correction, etc.

A good, clear introduction to teaching ESL is Jim Scrivener's Learning Teaching (Macmillian Education, 1994). In China, various books on linguistics, including some on teaching methodology, are published by the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press and seem to be widely available (they have chinese prefaces and english content). There is also a nice guide to Teaching in China on sinosplice.com. A search on the internet will turn up lots of lesson ideas to get you started (including my own site, Oral English Activities).

If you teach at a university, your class will probably be called Oral English. If you teach anywhere else, I'm not sure what your class will be called but you should probably teach mainly oral english anyway, because that's usually the area that chinese students need to work on. If you can find good teaching resources to bring to China then by all means do so, because the resources available for teaching oral english here are usually not very good for actually encouraging the students to speak.


Until you are more familiar with your new cultural surroundings, it is better to err on the side of caution and think carefully about the things you want to say, in order to avoid giving the wrong impression (namely that you are an arrogant, blunt, impatient foreigner). There may have been foreigners before you who gave this impression, but if you can distinguish yourself from them then you will probably find that your chinese hosts soon become friendlier and more flexible. Avoid losing your temper. Don't complain about rules and requirements just because they differ from your own country—everybody in your institution has probably been following those same rules for years. And think twice before voicing a criticism of anything. Even if your criticism is not directed at any particular person, it may be interpreted as a general dissatisfaction with China. Most chinese are proud of their country, and may be sensitive to these kinds of negative sentiments. Your students will judge you too. One of my students once told me the impression they had was that "Todd loves China". I took this as a great compliment.


One thing you will probably not receive but wish you had is a handbook telling you how everything works at your school or company. To find out this information you have to ask, because it's unlikely that anybody will think to tell you in advance. Ask about everything, even things you think you understand. For example, if you're responsible for paying your own phone bill then ask where, when and how you have to pay. I didn't do this, because I assumed that a bill would arrive in the mail. Instead, my phone got disconnected due to nonpayment.

If you want to continue using medication that you are familiar with, then bring it with you (I haven't been able to find Panadol here, for example). High factor suncream may also be expensive and hard to find. And don't forget to bring some photos of your family!

Another source of advice for those considering a trip to China is Brainysmurf's Five Must-Needs.

The only thing left to say is: welcome to China!

Interesting. If anyone comes to a small country town, larger than a village but not a city, keep your mind OPEN!
matt [homepage]
12.08.2003 , 12:21

I have to disagree with what you say about rules and regulations. Because if you have a contract and you understand it, you know exactly where you stand. They will always try and set more rules on you than actually officially apply. Most of the people here will go along with what they are cajoled into doing (ie obey stupid rules) I stood up for myself when I got here. I said FUCK YOU, I have to obey chinese law but the school rules they made up for me don't apply beyond doing my job properly, They even tried to get me to sit in the teachers office from 8 till 5. I just showed em the contract (that they also had a copy of...twats) where it stated I have 16 classes of 50 minutes per week for 3000yuan per month. We had one night where they got all the big cheeses or 'leaders' of the school together to try and gang up on me, and I basically told em whats what, just refering to my 'he tong'/contract. And in the end I won on all points.

Don't FUCK with the Aussie!
matt [homepage]
13.08.2003 , 14:26

It was one of thoses spur of the moment things and I ended up in BJ in Dec 89 - so soon after THAT incident. No idea of the place, language, culture but a fantastic introduction to local streetlife that would be hard to beat (thankyou dear Dr Bruce)! Found learning the language a constant frustration, partly because I couldn't find materials/teachers that could get through my thick skull. Eventually worked out how to buy food and stuff at markets and get around town, but the inability to really communicate with people was very draining. Didn't help to fall in lurve with totally the wrongest person, nor did drinking and smoking faaar too much!
After a decade, I've decided all that's out of my system and I'm ready to start over. Next Autumn all going well Attitude is important (hello?? Matt???) and a tad more humility than most of we Westerners are used to. But from what I've seen, chinese still don't know how to teach foreign beginners. Best to learn some basics before getting there, I reckon.
Ian [homepage]
16.08.2003 , 16:57

Ian. You obviously have no idea what the sitch is like in my school. Attitude is important that I know, I have lived in switzerland for a long time before, and studied other cultures at tertiary levels for numerous semesters, so I know about adaption. But when they say they want to keep your passport for filing (dumbass me gave it up to them) then when you want it back they wont give it...One starts to feel a little anxious. Let me see what else, thats right; I was following advice from the business that introduced me to the school. DONT TAKE ANY SHIT! dont be cajoled into doing extra work and dont let them set extra rules on you. CONTRACT IS CONTRACT.

Its nothing to do with attitude. Maybe that came across in my last comment on the last of my comments, but that is not the attitude adopted in such situations.

Don't be so quick next time!

btw. I hope you enjoy your stay this time better than last time. :p
20.08.2003 , 21:02

The university with whom I have been corresponding has told me that it will not sign a contract until I arrive in China! Furthermore, the IEO has told me that it does not know the procedure for applying for the visa other than my sending the provincial government's letter of invitation and my visa pictures to my local Chinese consulate in the U.S.. Is this scary or what?

I am keeping an open mind but the idea of traveling to the other side of the world with no contract is a little unsettling.
03.06.2004 , 17:23

Thad: yeah, it's unsettling, but it's standard practice. I had the same experience organising my visa, and I tried to look at it as just a formality. The important thing is that you're coming on a "Z" (work) visa. Some schools tell their teachers to come on an "L" (tourist) visa and promise that they will fix up the paperwork once the teacher arrives, but this is often an indication that they are not licensed to hire foreign teachers in the first place.
03.06.2004 , 18:51

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