⋯ By David O Connor ⋯
The Best Advice You Need to Hear Before Moving to China to Teach
Scour the interwebs for 101 ‘insider tips’ on how to best negotiate a big move to China as a TEFL teacher and don’t be surprised if you come up with more questions than answers. Don’t worry, it’s happened to all of us.
Gathering every bit of useful advice is a utopian dream many of us never managed to achieve – the main incentive for compiling this guide of honest advice about moving to China. We may have learned through trial and error but that doesn’t mean you have to. Sometimes, a head’s up is all you need to make the whole ordeal easier.
You should note that your introduction to life in China will be a unique experience and will likely be influenced more by your chosen Chinese city destination and teaching job than anything else. That first impression really counts, as do the initial contacts you’ll make here, both professionally and personally.
Having said that, there are a lot of experiences, hurdles and regrets we all shared, initially. Here’s some advice we hope you’ll find useful.
1. Come to China for a visit before moving here, permanently
Ok fair enough this may not be in everyone’s budget or timeline, but a trip to taste the culture and get a feel for where you plan to spend the next 12-24 months would be ideal.
Robert Louis Stevenson once penned one of the most iconic quotes of all time – “There are no foreign lands – it is only the traveller who is foreign” – and if there’s one country that perfectly embodies this ideal, it would have to be China.
There’s a lot of ‘newness’ to contend with when you move to China and having had at least one visit under your belt is your ideal situation. We know it’s easier said than done, especially if you’ve already signed a teaching contract and are now busy saving like your life depended on it. Yet taking a short recon trip to your intended destination will pay off in the long run.
Spend at least 10 days in your chosen city exploring, researching and getting your bearings and it just won’t be all that foreign to you when you do make the big move. This is especially useful if you haven’t yet found a job and simply want to scour a potential ‘home’. You may have always dreamt about living in Beijing, for example, but a short trip will either reinforce that or make you change your mind.
2. You could never save ‘too much’
Your ESL teaching contract may well be lucrative yet given you could go at least a month or two without seeing a single yuan, you’ll want to have a decent safety-net in the bank, in the range of USD 5,000. To see where that money will be spent, have a read of Teaching in China – How much will it cost? blog where we detail all the pre and post-move costs.
The main reason we urge potential teachers to come with a healthy nest-egg is because we know how stressful the initial transition is, on all sorts of levels – stressing about money is the one headache you can foresee and can really do without.
Trust us on this: you’ll be stressing over a multitude of things but anxiously waiting for the first pay-check is totally unnecessary. You’ll no doubt get all (or most) of that money back, two-fold and more, so do yourself a favour and come prepared.
3. Consider staying in a serviced apartment or cheap hotel for the first two weeks
Many teaching contracts include living arrangements which can certainly make your initial settling-in period much easier. Even more will often offer the first week or two complimentary accommodation on your arrival and help find adequate finding a suitable apartment. Yet if your contract doesn’t, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to find a suitable apartment before you’ve even arrived; book a serviced apartment or cheap hotel and leave your thorough search for when you are actually here.
You can certainly gather recommended real-estate contacts from local expat forums and try to get an idea of what’s available and for how much, but you’d be crazy to commit to an apartment before you have a chance to look at it. Moreover, make sure everything works as it should before handing over your deposit.
Another option is to wait and find on-the-ground advice from established expats you meet. Alternatively, you can join WeChat expat groups, some even deal exclusively with finding an apartment or a shared apartment if you so wish.
4. When looking for a place to live, always opt for the shortest commute
Commuting is annoying enough in the quietest of cities but it can be a downright nightmare in a ginormous Chinese metropolis or even a medium-sized one. No matter how ‘gorgeous’ an apartment you’ll find, trust that you’ll resent if soon enough if it means you’ll need to commute for longer than one hour, one-way.
For many, even 30 minutes is the limit and in an ideal scenario you should go by the ‘30-5 rule’: either 30 minutes on foot or 5 minutes by bus. This is the ideal commuting time and it will enhance your work life balance no end. Getting home early and having a longer sleep in the morning…. Winning!
5. Know what to pack and what to safely leave behind
Everyone who’s planning to move to China will invariably search for an ‘ideal’ packing list for their chosen destination and although there are so many out there, most can’t take into account your own personal musts.
By and large, we always advise people to pack what they know they can’t leave without (in terms of brand-names) as well as what makes them happy. Sometimes a childhood teddy bear that makes you think of home and smile is worth packing. Men ought to definitely pack enough shoes if they have very large feet and women may want to take their designers clothes.
In the largest cities there is all the big western brands such as H&M and Zara, but the smaller cities less so and Chinese fashion may not be your cup of tea.”: Check out China By Teaching’s Newcomer’s Guide for more useful tips on what you should bring along.
6. Sort out all your banking options before you move to China
You probably already know that half the internet is basically blocked off in China (the Great Firewall is alive and kicking) so you’ll need a paid VPN installed on all your devices (most of free versions are slow or have unreliable connectivity) to access everything from Facebook to your online banking.
The latter is a particularly important topic to discuss.
Once you arrive in China, you’ll need to open a local bank account so your teaching wages can be deposited directly by your employer. Opening up a bank account can be a frustrating and laborious process, so ask your employer for help to ease the process. Any good employer will offer this as an onboarding feature.
You’ll be able to access funds from your home bank account at any ATM but you’re going to have issues transferring your savings from your Chinese bank account to your home bank, if you’re not well set-up. Unless you still have bills to pay regularly back home (which is never a good idea), you can just wait until you go home for a visit – you’re allowed to take USD 5,000 in cash out of the country when you travel.
Whilst at it, have a read of this handy guide to taking your hard-earned money out of China, paying attention to the Chinese banks that are affiliated with Western Union. Since, to you, all Chinese banks are created equal, you may as well opt for one that facilitates overseas transfers.
Now that we have a few logistical titbits of advice out of the way, we thought we’d concentrate on more intangible topics. These are, in fact, the ones that matter most.
7. Those preconceived assumptions? Yeah…you can definitely leave them behind
You’ll no doubt be arriving in China with a bunch of preconceived notions. It’s not your fault, really, our country’s mass-media is renowned for painting a picture of foreign nations that sometimes veer so far from the truth, it’s almost comical. No, you’re going to get arrested for looking sideways at a man in uniform and no, nobody hates your guts just because you’re from country X.
The Chinese, just between us, are a very friendly lot with a wicked sense of humour. Professionally, they do operate in a league of their own: they are superb negotiators and are renowned for pushing the envelope, as far as work is concerned. You’ll no doubt be asked to work on days you aren’t meant to, longer hours than was agreed upon and even come in if you’re dreadfully sick – it’s up to you to develop a loud voice and steely disposition so you can stand up for yourself.
But none of it is meant to be taken personally and, if anything, living and working in China will be an enormous learning curve for you. You’ll learn to be more assertive but will also learn to be flexible and fair: there’s room for compromise in a Chinese workplace.
What we do suggest is that you are stepping into a different world in many respects and their idea of what employees are expected to do is completely at odds of what’s expected in the western world. In China, employers like to ask and workers find is hard to say no. You’ll see Chinese colleagues working weekends and working beyond their contracted hours.
No one is expects you to work like your Chinese colleagues; however, sometimes a bit of solidarity with your co-workers (especially if the task can be complete faster with your help) will go a long way to building close relationship with your Chinese peers.
8. Stop thinking of China as one single, homogenous country
Ask anyone who’s spent a decent amount of time in China and they’ll tell you that, somewhere along the line, they’ve stopped thinking of it as one single country. Not only is China absolutely huge but regional differences are so numerous that even neighbouring provinces can be totally distinctive.
On the one hand, this makes travelling in China incredibly rewarding as visiting different provinces is almost like travelling to a whole other country, where you’ll find the people, food and landscapes to be wildly different.
On the other hand, this means that moving to a different city to teach in China is almost like starting over from scratch. A fantastic option if you, like us, get totally addicted to living here but perhaps something you may not want to do too often.
China is an incredible place to live and work, whether you’re just starting out as a TEFL teacher or already have some experience behind you. Want to move to China and work as a teacher? China By Teaching offer the expert advice along with access to your ideal teaching job.
9. The Corona Virus has changed how you’ll plan for China
The Corona Virus (CoVid-19) has turned the world upside down and no more so if you plan on working and applying for a teaching job in China. Do your research!
At the time of publishing, most schools are still closed and a ban on all foreigners entering China, irrespective of their visas, is in place. Nobody expects this to last forever, but a date to open the borders once again is still unknown. Once it does open you need to check the latest coronavirus travel restrictions and how it will affect your journey and arrival. Research as to whether you will be required to do 14 days quarantine.
If so, will your school reimburse those costs?
Does your new school have a plan in place to manage your onboarding in a post pandemic China?
For more information about China By Teaching, read our guide to Getting the Right Teaching Visa for China and our 8 Tips to Know Before Teaching in China and, if you’d love some help from a bunch of experienced teachers who’ve navigated this complex web before just Submit Your CV and let us help you.
About David O Connor
David is China by Teaching’s chief contributor. When not offering sage advice about teaching in China, David is a headmaster of a Bilingual kindergarten in Beijing. David is a lover of craft beers, book clubs and super long road trips.
About China by Teaching
China By Teaching is the brainchild of a group of expat teachers living and working in China, who arrived with an abundance of enthusiasm and a willingness to learn everything there was to know about teaching in this enigmatic country. Nowadays, we’re in the fortunate position of being able to offer guidance and support to those who wish to follow our path, one that wasn’t all that easy to navigate.
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- 2 Amazing Years Teaching English in China
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