Stacy Dahl university teacher in China

Updated May 03, 2020
By Stacy Dahl

Working in China

Reminiscing about my time in China, I find it difficult to believe that it’s been almost three years since I first arrived.

Sometimes, it feels like I’ve been here forever. Other times, it feels like I arrived just yesterday.

There are many challenges you’ll encounter in your first year working in China. This can include homesickness, the language barrier and adjusting to new customs.

Figuring out how to survive 6,000 miles from home while facing these challenges was my obstacle.

So, I’d like to share my experience with you – specifically the things I did that helped me during my first year working in China as a teacher.

I hope you can learn from my experience.

1. I visited expat hangouts

In my first month in China, I spent many nights at a bar called Talking, a popular hangout for expats in Nanjing.

It was there that I met people from England, Russia, Canada, Ethiopia, and many other countries from around the world.

It was the perfect place for those who wanted to grab a beer after work and socialize (like me!).

Expat bar in China

Find an expat bar to meet other foreigners and help you settle in.

Most cities in China, especially the more developed ones, have their own version of Talking.

If you find yours, it wouldn’t hurt to pay a visit and get to know the expats who live in your city. They’ll have plenty of great recommendations and advice.

2. I got to know my coworkers and students

In my first year, I worked at a language training center filled with foreign teachers who recently graduated from college.

This made for a fun atmosphere with many social events inside and outside of the school.

Every weekend, there were parties, dinners, and different events that gave me the opportunity to socialize with coworkers.

I also got to know my Chinese coworkers. It’s another way to make friends as well as learn about Chinese culture.

In China, your social life is what you make it. Whether or not I chose to take those opportunities was completely up to me.

My students were between the ages of 3 and 12. I quickly became fond of them all, and by the end of the year, I loved them all!

Working with kids in China

My proud little students in Nanjing.

Teaching kids in Nanjing China

My students dressed as chefs!

The reactions you get from students who are excited to see you is a feeling that is priceless.

On the workdays that seem long, your students can make it all worth it.

3. I joined WeChat groups

In my opinion, WeChat – China's version of WhatsApp – is the main app you will want to download.

It's great for connecting with people, whether it be personally or professionally, as well as paying for things (WeChat Pay).

I can’t even count on one hand the number of times I’ve used regular texting on my cell phone.

Use WeChat when you work in China

WeChat is indispensable in China.

Many of the groups on WeChat have a theme for people with common interests. I’ve joined groups about board games, trivia, food and practicing Chinese.

Joining these groups is a fun way to connect with people who have common interests.

There are several other useful apps that will make your first year go a little smoother, including a VPN app so you can keep using Facebook, Instagram and Google.

All the major Western websites and apps are blocked when using Wi-Fi in China, unless you have a VPN.

4. I traveled locally and to other provinces

Having the unique opportunity to teach in China gives you the chance to travel to some amazing cities and provinces.

In just two years, I traveled to 11 different provinces throughout China.

Make the most of vacation time. As a worker, you’ll get time off during Chinese New Year as well as some other uniquely Chinese holidays, including one called Tomb Sweeping Day!

If you work at a university or international school, it’s even better since you have a long break for winter and summer holidays.

If you are working in China make sure you do some travel

When you're working in China, make sure you squeeze in some touristy things!

I also got to explore lots of cool local places.

From the more popular restaurants to hole-in-the-wall places, there is much to see and do in the city in which you live.

For example, the city I live in is considered second tier in China.

While it's nothing like Shanghai, there are still plenty of things to do, from go-karting to nightclubs to horseback riding.

In smaller cities you’ll also get to experience a more ‘authentic’ experience – and have more opportunities to practice speaking Chinese!

5. I took up new hobbies

Working in China can be undeniably challenging at times.

However, because it forces you to get out of your comfort zone, you'll have the opportunity to try uniquely different hobbies and discover new things about yourself.

I took up a range of hobbies including painting, yoga and Mandarin classes. I probably wouldn’t have done this back home.

This was one of the best decisions I made in my first year working in China.

In my free time, I also did a lot of blogging and writing which unexpectedly helped me discover my love for writing.

6. I pampered myself

We all need the occasional day where we treat ourselves, right?

In China, there are plenty of ways to unwind and de-stress. For me, this means going to a spa, having a massage or visiting a hot spring.

I’ve tried a number of different spa treatments in China, and for the most part, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them.

It’s nice to forget about the real world every so often.

Chinese massage beds

Pamper yourself in China with a relaxing massage.

If you’re a guy, be careful when you ask for a massage in China. Depending on the establishment, you may end up with a ‘special’ kind of treatment!

Pampering yourself doesn’t necessarily mean spending money. If you’re on a tight budget, you can always find ways of relaxing in your own apartment.

Sometimes it's the simple (and free) things in life, like listening to nice music or meditating, that are the most nourishing.

7. I stayed connected to loved ones

Although you may be thousands of miles from home, it doesn’t mean you have to feel as though you’re estranged from loved ones.

Staying connected via Skype, FaceTime or a simple phone call can make you feel closer to home.

Since I sometimes have VPN issues in China, I had a few family members download WeChat to make it easier for me to talk to them.

Whatever platform you choose to use, I guarantee it will help you feel just a bit closer to home.

8. I took some time for myself

As important as it is to socialize with new friends and co-workers, it’s equally important to take time for yourself if it’s needed.

In my first year working in China there were several occasions where I put myself into social situations that involved going out for dancing and drinks.

Looking back, it wasn’t what I really wanted at the time. What I truly needed was time alone, yet I ended up doing the opposite.

Sitting by a pond in Nanjing China

It's OK to take some time out for yourself in China.

It's really important to do the things that make you feel happy rather than trying to impress or suit others.

Enjoy your unique experience

No two people’s experience in China will be exactly the same.

In fact, each experience will be unique to the person’s personality and preferences.

As you embark on your journey of heading to China for work, I hope you can use my recommendations as a guide.

Make your first year in China a special one, and remember to have fun!

Have you been working in China? Do you have any advice to survive your first year? Comment below.


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