So You Want to Teach In China? Here's the first (of seven) things you really MUST do to prepare for life abroad.

25 Mar

1. Be Realistic About Where You Are Going

"The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed." - William Gibson

China is one of the most modern countries in the world. If you are from San Francisco, Vancouver, or any place with a "Chinatown" or an established Chinese community, you probably have expectations of cute old temples, red lanterns, as well as offerings left at family and business shrines to the ancestors. You will find very little of that in your everyday life in mainland China. The Cultural Revolution and 70 years of state-sanctioned atheism has resulted in these diaspora communities being "more Chinese than China." If you are expecting all that ancient Chinese wisdom, monks in mountain temples and golden dragons type stuff you will be in for a rude shock. And doing an image search for tourism and your target area will probably turn up images like these:

I can't see your apartment from here.

Guess what?  That is not where you are going to live! Most everyone in the China that you are going to live in a relatively new high-rise apartment complex in an urban area. Keep in mind that it is only since Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s started to open up the Chinese economy that the place began to grow. So that means that the vast bulk of the buildings and infrastructure you'll be skulking around in are at most 30 years old, and more often than not are brand spanking new. The China you are going to is modern, made of concrete, and is most likely still under construction.

Oh, there it is.

And just one more thing, in case you have missed it up to this point, I want to emphasize that you are going to a CITY. A HUGE HONKING CITY, probably the largest city you have ever lived in. Just as a quick mental exercise, name any Chinese city you can think of.  I'll bet you the population of that city is over 20 million. Go check. I'll wait. The biggest cities are where the growth and economic development is, which means this is where the rich people live, and therefore this is where foreign English teachers are employed.

I have had interview candidates say things like "I would prefer a smaller town," or "I'm from a village, so I don't think I would adjust to big city bustle." 

Sorry, but the villages are on the whole populated by retired seniors, farmers, and rural laborers. They do not have much need of English lessons, and could not afford you even if they did. 

In my work around Nanjing I have been to a few "third tier" cities - these are places that, unless you are some kind of subject matter expert, I am sure you have never in your life heard of. And the population of these cities? 10 million, maybe 5 million for the "tiny" out-of-the-way underdeveloped ones. And even in these places, there are very few foreigners, and the chances of landing a job here are pretty unlikely. But put that into perspective: if you'd like to find a place to live and work in China that is off the beaten track, where you can be away from other expats and immerse yourself in the local culture, EVEN THEN you will find yourself in a city with millions and millions of people. It's big here, get used to it.

So to wrap up this point, the place you are going is likely much newer, much bigger, and with much less visible history than where you are coming from.

Once you have made this important mental adjustment, you needn't give up or despair - there are many cool things about living in the future! Far too many to go into much detail on here, and more fun for you to discover them yourself. But if you have ever imagined stepping into the urban landscape of Blade Runner, with video screens on buildings the size of football fields, there are places in many Chinese cities that put Times Square to shame. If you are a tech nerd, there are sprawling computer and electronic districts where you will find the best prices on the planet for tech gear of all sorts. If you like online shopping, Taobao is the most useful and best system with far more choice than anything you'll find in the West. And the electronic payment systems are so smooth and easy; it is almost possible to live your life here never needing actual paper money. Metro systems are cheap, extensive, and clean.

Think big! Think China! The future is here!

Coming Soon:
2. Get Your Nest Egg Ready
3. Start Preparing for Your Visa Yesterday
4. Sort Out Your IT Gear
5. Start Learning Chinese Yesterday
6. Have an IT Plan B Ready
7. Learn About Face, Guanxi, and Other Key Chinese Cultural Differences

Thomas Topham is a  20 year veteran of the ESL industry and is a contributing writer to

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