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How to Handle Culture Shock as an English Teacher in China

A typical city street in China
A typical city street in China.

The stark contrast in day-to-day life between Western countries and China is vastly greater than most foreigners can possibly imagine prior to actually living and working here. No matter how well-traveled Westerners might otherwise be, unless they have previously lived in mainland China for at least three months, they will experience varying degrees of culture shock that will require at least several months to acclimate to. This article will discuss the five most predominant adjustment issues faced by all foreigners during their initial stay in China with suggestions about how to either best mentally prepare for or safeguard against them.

The Language Barrier in China

Probably the greatest adjustment required of us all, as foreign teachers, is coping with the language barrier—and it is so formidable, pervasive, and ubiquitous, that it is almost unimaginable prior to arriving in China. Despite the push for all of its citizens to learn English, the truth is—especially outside the three major international cities—the English speaking abilities of the Chinese, in general, are abysmal to non-existent. The reality is, the vast majority of Chinese students acquire just enough language skills to pass their English language certification exams and to win a better job but, after graduating from college and securing that first job, they will seldom (if ever) use one word of spoken English again for the rest of their lives. A few will land positions that require the use of English on a regular or even daily basis, such as tour guides (in major cities), translators and Chinese English teachers, but probably 80 to 90 percent will never utter another word of spoken English again after graduating from college (although those who work for international companies will need to use their reading and, possibly, writing skills on occasion). Consequently—and this is particularly true in regions and cities where foreigners are scarce—virtually everyone you encounter will not be able to communicate with you in English.

The dire consequences of this reality warrant some discussion and consideration. What this means is that until you acquire some minimal language survival skills (usually three to six months), you will not be able to do anything that you took for granted back home, without first being accompanied by an interpreter. You will not be able to go to a restaurant, order water for your apartment, shop in any store (other than a grocery, perhaps), go to the bank, change money, visit a doctor, get eyeglasses, or take a taxi, etc., without first imposing on someone else with Chinese communication skills to accompany you. If you do have to take a taxi to get to one of your school's branches, you will need to carry on your person several scrapes of paper with the destinations (to and from your apartment) written in Chinese (and not all taxi drivers are literate).

No matter what you need to take care of initially (such as purchasing a cell phone, or acquiring furnishings for your apartment, etc.), you will first have to make prior arrangements to be accompanied by someone who can speak for you. You will only be able to eat in restaurants that offer menus with photos of all their main entrees (and most don't, including many 4-star hotels), or you will have to ask a Chinese friend to write down the names of all the dishes you like (and, then, you won't be able to try anything new unless accompanied by a Chinese). The overall initial experience can be quite daunting and frustrating beyond belief, even humiliating. In a manner of speaking, you will feel very much like a dependent child who can't do anything on his or her own. You absolutely and positively need to be mentally prepared for this initial adjustment period prior to arriving in China.

Hence, it is highly recommended you attempt to acquire some "survival" Chinese language skills before you arrive here (especially if you will not be teaching in one of the three aforementioned international cities). There are numerous books available for learning Chinese via Pinyin (the representation of the corresponding sounds of the Chinese characters through the use of the Roman alphabet) and you would be well-advised to buy a good English-Chinese dictionary (with Pinyin) before you leave home (as it is extremely difficult to find an English-Chinese dictionary with anything but Chinese characters in China—which is entirely useless unless you can read Chinese characters).

A good place to start your journey would be to view some of the Chinese language resources which can be found in the guide to Living and Teaching English in China. In addition, many foreigners have reported excellent results with the "Rosetta Stone" Chinese computer language course.

Currency and Buying Power in China

Foreigners who are well-traveled will be accustomed to making currency conversions in their heads while shopping, but few will be used to an exchange rate of 1:6.95 unless they’ve traveled extensively through southeast Asia.

All foreigners initially think in terms of their own currency and, as such, are initially amazed at “how cheap” everything is in China. Consequently, a meal isn’t 30 Yuan; it’s “only $4.43.” Although this type of thinking is both typical and natural, it can also be very costly. Whereas $4.43 or £3.62 may be a relatively inexpensive sum for lunch in New York City or London, respectively, it is not considered an inexpensive lunch in most parts of China. In fact, that amount would actually exceed the daily food budget of most middle-class Chinese couples. Paying less than $5.00 for lunch in the states is a great bargain in the context of an average annual income of $37,000. On the other hand, paying $4.43 for lunch in the context of an annual income of only $12,000 is not particularly wise spending if you are relying solely on your teaching income to survive.

Most foreigners begin thinking in terms of yuan, instead of their own country’s currency, in about one to two years’ time—as well you should because you’re being paid in renminbi, not Western currency. To check for the latest currency exchange rate, you can navigate to your favorite currency conversion website.

Another thing you’ll need to keep in mind when shopping is that bargaining over price is a required and necessary skill in China. Although it is not possible to bargain inside a department store, street vendors expect it and starting prices are often 50 to 100% higher because of it. You should never pay the initial asking price from any street vendor or small, privately-owned business. Bargaining is a survival skill in China and it is something you will have to grow accustomed to unless you are more comfortable with routinely overpaying for most everything you buy.

Differences in Food in China

“Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore” is what you’ll think to yourself when you first venture out looking for something to eat and drink in China. Most foreigners love Chinese food and ate it regularly (if not frequently) in their home countries. However, be advised that the Chinese food you had grown accustomed to back home, is not the same in China. At anyplace other than 4- and 5-star hotels, the overall quality of ingredients is considerably poorer, selections are almost entirely different (i.e., unfamiliar), presentation is rarely considered and dishes will be brought to the table in a random manner: usually vegetables first, followed several minutes later each by entrées, appetizers and then soup, in that order. If you ordered dessert (such as steamed buns), you can expect that to be served first. Your “napkin” is literally a roll of cheap toilet paper, usually enclosed inside a plastic dispenser and all but 4- to 5-star hotels will expect you to eat with chopsticks.

Many foreigners evaluate their cities on how authentic the Western food is. With the exception of Western restaurant chains (which can only be found in Beijing and Shanghai), Western food in China is most accurately described as Chinese Western food (i.e., a Chinese version of Western food, and even at Western chains the quality may not be the same). It is very difficult to find a decent steak in mainland China because the Chinese are not big beef eaters and, consequently, beef cattle are raised and fed very differently than they are in the West (or even Japan for that matter).

Some foreigners, for a "taste of home," are forced to resort to the three common fast-food chains that can now be found almost everywhere in China: McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pizza Hut, and the prices appear to be comparable to or a little less than what one would pay in the West.

Foreigners may also find culinary refuge inside of 4- and 5-star hotels, most of which offer all-you-can-eat lunch and dinner buffets starting at around 48 yuan and going as high as 225 yuan at a place like the Sheraton (with the average price for a dinner buffet, at a 5-star hotel, running between 68 to 110 yuan, depending on location). The foods at these restaurants typically offer a nice cross-selection of Western and Chinese food (and Chinese food that is much closer to what we had grown accustomed to) as well as Brazilian barbeque (i.e., barbequed cuts of roast beef, brisket of beef, pork loin and others that are sliced to order right onto your plate), not to mention a sushi/sashimi bar.

Whatever Happened to Pancakes, Bacon, and Eggs?

Finally, the Chinese concept of breakfast is very different than our own. A typical Chinese breakfast consists of low-fat milk or, more commonly, a yogurt drink and either rice porridge, some type of bread or a "baozi" (a steamed bun usually containing a green vegetable), depending on location. Unless you are close to an upper-scale hotel, you won't find a restaurant serving anything that even approaches a Western breakfast. In addition, although coffee drinking is becoming vogue in China (especially among the younger generation and those who could be categorized as Chinese yuppies), it is one (maybe the only) food item that is actually exorbitantly priced when compared to Western standards. A single non-refillable cup of coffee, in restaurants that actually serve it, is typically 18 to 22 yuan (almost USD $3.25). The cup of coffee is served with a container holding plenty of sugar packets but usually only one non-dairy creamer (or the equivalent of Coffee Mate). If you ask for a second creamer, you will be charged an extra two yuan for it and Equal (the artificial sweetener Aspartame) will only be served at 5-star hotels (and, outside of the three major cities, is not sold in local supermarkets). In great part, these prices are influenced by the impact and incredible success of Starbucks, not just abroad but in Beijing and Shanghai as well. However, one can readily find a local streetside "café wu" (coffee house) in most cities where a whole pot of locally grown coffee will run you one to three yuan per person.

Foreigners who will be teaching in the three international cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou will be able to find Western department and grocery stores selling familiar items, such as a variety of cheeses, chopped meat, bacon, and Campbell soup, etc., but these “luxury” items will come at premium prices. Foreign teachers who make regular trips to these stores, such as the Friendship Store and Oliver’s, report spending upwards of 1,000 yuan ($147) per month.

Last Minute Scheduling Changes and Appointments

One of the biggest irritants and most common complaints among foreign English teachers in China, is the lack of "proper" notification of schedule changes, meetings, holidays and even dinner invitations, among others.

Changes in scheduling are almost invariably announced at the very last minute and it would not be unusual for you to receive a call at 3:00 p.m. asking you if you are “free” for dinner that evening at 6:00 p.m. This is a countrywide system of notification and is not exclusive to foreign teachers: Chinese employees receive the same treatment. It is not intended to insult you or to suggest that your time is not valuable, even though it most definitely feels that way.

From a Western perspective, it seems that even the most mundane occurrences—such as upcoming holidays and rescheduled work days—are treated like domestic top secrets. Due to the rather complex nature of Chinese government and organizational bureaucracy, this is an ingrained part of the culture and nothing you can say or do is going to have any influence. Complaining repeatedly about how you expect to be given advance notice is not going to change a system that has cultural antecedents dating back some 4,000 years, so it is best that you simply remain flexible and, by all means, do not personalize it.

Western Colleagues in China

Most foreign teachers, unless they have traveled extensively, will have very limited experience with Western people outside their own countries. Particularly in the case of American teachers—when you consider than less than 25% of all Americans even possess a passport—their stay in China will probably be the first time they have ever had the opportunity to meet people from England, Australia, New Zealand, and even South Africa, to name but a few of the major countries that are represented in China among foreign teachers.

China attracts a rather "interesting" array of foreigners and it is a place that allows (even encourages) Westerners to reinvent themselves into anything their imaginations can conjure up.  If you visit bars that are heavily frequented by foreign teachers, I guarantee that you will meet more alleged former millionaires and Fortune 500 Company executives than you could have ever possibly imagined. Virtually no one you meet is in China for the purpose of teaching English as a second language: They are just doing that temporarily until they can get a feel for the business landscape and reel in their high rolling investors. And if you are an American, you can count on some rather pervasive anti-American sentiment being expressed in your direction, usually disguised in the form of humor, but sometimes not.

In addition, most foreigners who have been in China for more than a year will boast about all the "high-level" government officials they have at their disposal and how they are either personally exempt from whatever usual inconveniences are faced by everyone else or how they are the sole Western beneficiaries of special favors or privileges in their particular city or even province. You can take all of that with a grain of salt as well.

What all of this means is that you need to choose your teaching positions and new acquaintances very carefully, so that you can optimize your chances of being surrounded by at least a few Western peers: chronologically, emotionally, intellectually, and educationally. A 58-year old retired attorney I had met several years ago decided to work for the business department of a large private training center that hired mostly unqualified 22- to 28-year olds.  He soon found himself socially isolated and was often the brunt of petty backstabbing and childish games of one-upmanship. It was so unpleasant for him, he gladly paid the 10,000 yuan ($1,478) breach of contract penalty so that he could leave and go to work for a graduate department of a major university at a 50% reduction in salary.


Adjusting to your new environment in China does take some time, as well as a great deal of emotional and mental effort. Many foreign teachers, especially those who had some relatively healthy coping skills to begin with, do acclimate to the myriad of vast differences over time—and, in fact, many do report actually preferring several aspects of Chinese culture to their own. By making a wise and careful choice in your first teaching position and with just a little bit of language preparation, your first year in China can be a very rewarding and satisfying one.

More by the Author
How to Choose Your First Job Teaching English in China
Teaching English in China: Do You Really Need a Degree and Work Visa?
Keeping Face in China
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