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Teaching English in China: Work and Live in an Ideal Location

Lake in China.
Relaxing in a peaceful location in China.

China is an enormously diverse country. Each and every region, province, and city has its own unique cuisine, climate, community, and culture. Once you've decided to begin a career teaching English in China, your next thought will likely concern the ideal location to make your move. In this guide, we'll walk you through the necessary steps to choose a location for your new life, while providing information on finding a job and house hunting in China. Everyone has to ask the what, where, when, why, and how questions when searching for a job abroad, and we're here to help answer them for you.

Let's get started!

What?

What should you look for in a location? Of course, this all depends on what you are seeking during your time in China. If you really want to live like a local, get to know the culture, and learn some Mandarin language, then you may want to choose a smaller town. If you want to have plenty of amenities, a comfortable living space, and all of the excellent shopping that you have in your home country, then you would probably prefer to live in a larger city like Shanghai, Hong Kong, or Beijing.

What should you expect from China? You can expect that China will be wonderfully different from any other place you've visited. You'll find spectacular architecture, varied landscapes, and an abundance of history. You'll encounter friendly, honest, and inquisitive people wherever you go, and you'll likely make many friends along the way. However, you can also expect to see some things to which you're not accustomed. Children are sometimes urged by their parents to use the sidewalks as toilets, oil is sometimes collected from dumpsters and reused in food, and some people have a tendency to spit in the streets. These, and many other aspects of life in China, may surprise you at first, but they ultimately add to the eye-opening experience of living abroad.

Peaceful bridge in China in park.
Whatever you may see that might shock you, places such as these should put everything in spiritual and aesthetic context. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.

For more about what appear to us as unusual customs in China, check out our article: "Living in China: Quirks of The Culture."

What should I bring with me? Luckily, pretty much everything is made in China, meaning that you can purchase almost anything you need in the country. Keep in mind that although many electronics and gadgets are made in China, they are often more expensive to buy there than in Europe or North America. If you need a new iPod, pick one up in your home country before you leave. You may also want to bring along some comfort food that you can't get in certain parts of China. Understandably, many North American snacks can be hard to find in the Far East.

Where?

Where should I live? This is really the ultimate question that we're trying to answer in this guide, and it's a very challenging one because tastes will vary from person to person. So, let's break the topic down into smaller, more manageable parts:

Where can you find the best food, restaurants and shopping? As we said earlier, the most amenities and best services will be found in the major cities. However, keep in mind that Chinese centers aren't like cities to which you're accustomed. They're more congested, more chaotic, and generally more polluted. Even if you love metropolitan life, you may consider choosing a smaller town in China. In our experience, Shanghai and Hong Kong are the best big cities for amenities.

Where is the cleanest air? This is a huge concern for many people moving to China. Many of us have seen the atrocious AQI (Air Quality Index) that permeates huge cities such as Beijing and Chengdu. If you want clean(er) air, there are two things you should consider:

1. Head West. There are generally fewer people, less industry, and less pollution in the far west of China.

2. Choose a small city by the sea. Larger cities tend to be much more polluted, and the nearer you are to the sea, the more trade winds are likely to blow away unhealthy pollutants. Haiku, Zhoashan, and Fuzhou are three Chinese cities offering good air quality and many teaching jobs.

Air pollution in China
Air pollution can be an issue in China.

Where is the cost of living the lowest? Generally, small villages and towns will have the lowest cost of living, because not only are goods and services cheaper, but there are also less temptations to spend. If you walk by a Starbucks on the way to school every day in a big city, you may just be tempted to spend $6 on a caramel macciato.

Where is the climate the warmest? Of course, the south has the most pleasurable climate! Some great, tropical places to teach down south include Hong Kong, Zhanjiang, and magnificent Hainan Island. Keep in mind that these desirable climates are often the most sought after and it may therefore be harder to find a job.

Where are the fewest people? If you want to escape the congested crowds of Chinese cities, head west. There are some stunning cities in the Yunnan Province of southwestern China including Kunming, Tengchong, and Gengma. Also, consider Hangzhou in the Jiangsu Province, as it has a dazzling lake and great outdoor areas that never seem to be too crowded (outside of public holidays).

Some More Great Cities in China to Consider

Hong Kong: Loads of higher-paying teaching jobs, great amenities, a beautiful city with good nightlife, and relatively clean air.

Hong Kong skyline
A view of the spectacular skyline of Hong Kong.

Yangzhou: A small-ish city of 5 million (by Chinese standards), with friendly people and a wonderfully traditional Chinese feel. The city also offers cheap accommodations and great, reliable schools (consider Shane English School).

Shanghai: One of our favorite cities in China. Set right along the famous bund, Shanghai offers everything you could expect from a Chinese city, and then some. There are great, high-paying jobs available, but the cost of living is also higher than in most other cities in the country. The city is a highly sought after location, so schools will often be picky in their recruitment of teachers (teaching degree, CELTA certificates, and experience may be required).

Skyline of Shanghai at night
A view of the spectacular skyline of Shanghai.

Hainan Island: China's tropical paradise in the deep south. This little palm-fringed island is an ideal place for many who seek a relaxing and warm teaching contract. Almost any teacher looking for jobs in China would jump at the chance to teach in Hainan, so don't get your hopes too high as it's hard to land a job here. If you get lucky, you can teach in a tropical utopia!

Guangzhou: There are more teaching opportunities here than you can count. It's a busy city but you can probably take your pick of a few dozen jobs and end up with pretty good pay.

Dalian: A major city and seaport in the south of Liaoning Province of northern China, Dalian is a beautiful ocean-side metropolis with clean air and an expat community. There are many teaching jobs to be found and they pay pretty well, but the cost of living is also higher than in some other locations. Do beware of the chilly winters!

When?

The time is now! There are literally hundreds of teaching jobs posted in China every day. Today is the day that you should choose your ideal city (or at least your ideal living conditions) and start applying for jobs. In our experience, an aspiring teacher can find a job in China within 48 hours of starting the job search! If you are looking for jobs in a popular city like Shanghai or Hong Kong, it may take a bit more time, but it is still very easy to find work.

Most teaching contracts are a minimum of 1 year-long, so there's no reason to wait for the ideal season. If you've chosen a city in the far north, you'll likely have to brave a winter anyways, so start your job-hunt today (even though it may be cold).
Winter in the north
Winters can be harsh in the many regions of north.

Summer in the south
Summers are quite comfortable in the many regions of the south. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.

Why?

Immersion: By teaching in China, you grant yourself the opportunity to live in another country, completely foreign and delightfully unique. China holds on to many of its ancient traditions and as a teacher, you will soon become deeply immersed in the compelling culture and subcultures. You'll have Chinese friends, you'll eat in Chinese restaurants, and drink at Chinese bars. You'll learn national and local Chinese customs and the Mandarin language. You'll be in the thick of it all, so you'll absorb everything involved from daily life to special celebrations.

Immserion in Chinese life
Immersion China. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.

History: Some Chinese cities are very large, busy, and modern, but they almost always have an old quarter where you can walk along cobblestone streets and gaze up at ancient temples and sculptures.

History in China
Life and history are intertwined in the ancient streets. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.

Food: The food in China is delectable and very diverse by region. When you make friends with your Chinese colleagues, you'll get the opportunity to try things you never thought you'd eat. Imagine leaving the country with a taste for sheep's stomach or a craving for congealed duck's blood. You may be amazed at what you enjoy!

Some food in China
Some traditional food from the south of China. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.

People: Perhaps the best reason to relocate to China are the people. In our experience, Chinese people are unusually warm and welcoming. They are curious but always kind. We found that even after 14 months of living and traveling around the massive country, we came away with nothing but good experiences with the locals.

Freindly local
The friendly smile of a welcoming local.

Freindly local
Smiling, friendly, and curious children. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.

How?

Now that you've decided what you're looking for in your new home, where you want to live, when you're going to go ,and why it's the right choice for you, it's time to take steps towards moving to China and finding a job in a city that suits you best.

How do I get started? After reading this guide and doing a bit of research, you'll probably have a few cities in mind that where might wish teach. Now comes the fun part. Go online and search through the job boards at Transitions AbroadDave's ESL Cafe, and Tefl.net. Post your resume, send private messages, and wait for the offers to start rolling in. Be wary of the latter two sites as there may be "spammy" postings on them, but all ESL teachers worldwide should be used to performing as much research as possible about recruiters and employers during the course of any job search and acceptance.

How do I find an apartment in my chosen city? If you are hired by a reputable school, they should be able to help you find an apartment. Some schools in China work with a rental agency or realty office and they will have someone to take you around and look at places. The agent will usually charge about a half-month's rent for his or her services.

You can try to find a place online on sites like Sublet.com, but there are limited listings and they are usually more expensive than just showing up and looking for a place.

How much will I spend per month? As mentioned earlier, this will entirely depend on which city you choose to live in. Generally, the higher the cost of living, the higher the pay will be, but it doesn't always even out. In our experience in the mid-sized city of Yangzhou, we were paid about $1,500 per month each, and we spent around $1,200 per month total. Because our school paid for our accommodations, health insurance, and flights to and from China, we were able to save about $21,000 in 1 year. Not a bad savings plan! Such savings may not have been possible in more expensive cities like Dalian or Chengdu.

Chinese money

How do I find a good job in the city of my choice? If you're really set on one particular city, you may want to find a recruiter (easily found on Dave's ESL Cafe). A recruiter can help you find a school in the city of your choice. If the recruiter is legitimate, you shouldn't have to pay for the service. Generally the schools will pay the recruiter a finder's fee.

Now (It's Up to You)

If you're reading this article, you may be on the fence about teaching English in China, or you've already started searching for jobs but may not be sure where you'd like to live. Hopefully we've offered you a few ideas and choices regarding where and what to look for in a new hometown, and what to expect when moving to China. Teaching English is one of the more rewarding and popular jobs abroad, and China is a unique place to experience a very different and diverse culture.

 Related Topics
Teaching English in China
Top Jobs Teaching English in China
Living in China: Articles and the Best Expatriate Resources
 More by Nick and Dariece of Goats On The Road
Teaching English in China: Our Life in Yangzhou

Goats on the road Nick and Dariece are the couple behind Goats On The Road, a website designed to inspire others to live a financially sustainable, location independent lifestyle. Masters at making money abroad and turning their travels into a way of life, they've been on the road since 2008 and have explored some of the least visited places on earth, finding adventure wherever they go. Follow them on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and YouTube.
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