Teaching in China is not just about teaching. It’s about all the experiences you’ll have outside the classroom too.
One of these experiences is soaking up the Chinese culture.
As one of the world’s oldest cultures, it’s one of the most complex – steeped in history while clashing with modern advances at the same time.
The Chinese culture you’ll experience will also depend on the province you’re in, or even the city or town. No two places are the same.
Some foreigners who go to China are reluctant to step out of their comfort zone. They’ll seek out Western food places, avoid interacting with the locals and return home with a narrow view of the country.
In my opinion, there’s not much point heading to China if you’re going to stay in your own little bubble.
So how do you immerse yourself in Chinese culture then? Here are five ways you can do it.
1. Be adventurous with food
Food is a huge part of Chinese culture. It brings families and friends together, both at home and at restaurants.
The kind of food eaten in China often surprises foreigners when they first arrive. It’s nothing like the typical Chinese food served in Western countries.
Lemon chicken in batter, spring rolls and special fried rice cannot be found in mainland China. This style of food comes from the Hong Kong area, adapted for the Western palate.
Don’t worry though, the ‘real’ Chinese food is equally, if not more, delicious.
Experience Chinese culture by eating the local food.
My advice to you is to try as much as you can, within reason.
What do I mean by ‘within reason’? Well, if the thought of eating things like turtle meat or pig brains makes you feel a bit squeamish, then maybe don’t order that.
But do try to step out of your comfort zone. After all, you may never come back to China again.
If you don’t like something, order something else. Food in China is pretty cheap.
The province you teach in will greatly influence the kind of food that’s available. Most provinces (and the areas within each province) have their own specialties.
Generally speaking, in northern China, such as Beijing, carbohydrate is king. This area is well-known for its delicious noodles, bread and dumplings.
In the south, for example in Guangzhou, you’ll experience sweeter food and a host of rice dishes.
Food is a big part of Chinese culture.
Cities along the east coast (like Qingdao) are big on seafood, while in the west (such as Chongqing) spicy food is the norm.
No matter where you end up in China, try to be adventurous with food and you’ll immerse yourself in Chinese culture pretty quickly.
2. Learn some Mandarin
As a TEFL teacher in China, you’re not expected to be able to speak Mandarin.
In fact, most schools prefer that you don’t have any knowledge of Mandarin at all. That’s because they want students to only use English with you.
If you do happen to know some of the local language, try not to let your students know as it will only make them lazier!
Outside the school ground, however, life will be much easier if you know how to say a few simple expressions in Mandarin.
Learning Mandarin will get you involved in Chinese culture.
Take advantage of the Mandarin lessons which may be offered at your school (check your teaching contract to see if this is included).
The quality of lessons can vary greatly between schools. In smaller institutions, lessons are often taught by younger teachers with no prior experience in teaching Mandarin to foreigners.
Be patient and don’t expect to become fluent in one semester!
Whether or not language lessons are included in your teaching contract, you’ll learn everyday Chinese on the street.
Within days of arriving in China you probably would have already eaten at a restaurant, bought groceries at a supermarket and taken a ride on public transport or in a taxi.
Practising in these real-life situations is the best thing you can do. By having genuine conversations, you’ll learn a lot about China and be well on your way to having a deeper appreciation of Chinese culture.
Practising your Chinese skills will hold you in good stead.
Make sure you download a Chinese dictionary app, like Pleco, on your phone.
It’s particularly handy when you’re in a restaurant that doesn’t have any pictures in the menu. Simply use your phone’s camera to decipher the Chinese characters.
(Want to find out about some more cool apps? I’ve written a blog on apps that are helpful for China.)
3. Travel as much as you can
Many foreign teachers in China enjoy a four-day work week in the public school system.
In addition, classes aren’t held on Chinese public holidays, and there’s extended time off between semesters.
This means there are plenty of opportunities for travel.
China’s transport network, in particular its high-speed rail, is world-class. You can easily get from city to city, even with a big suitcase.
Travel around your city and beyond, to experience as much of China as you can (pictured: Dalian Beach).
The bullet trains are clean and efficient, and are the transport mode of choice for most Chinese people wanting to travel long distances.
Compared to many Western countries, flying domestically in China isn’t cheap so unless you have the money it’s better to take the train.
If you do happen to travel domestically in China during vacation periods, allow plenty of time to wait in long queues.
You’ll probably experience Chinese people trying to jump the queue – just another facet of Chinese culture!
If you can, plan ahead. Apps like China Train Booking can help.
4. Get to know the locals
Some people say the best way to get immersed in a foreign culture is to get to know the locals.
I think they’re right!
Whether it’s dancing to traditional music with strangers in the park, drinking ‘baijiu’ (Chinese liquor) in bars or simply chatting to the street food vendors, you’ll be sure to make new friends in no time.
Chinese people are generally friendly and inquisitive. They’ll be keen to find out things about you, like where you’re from, your age and maybe even your salary!
Getting to know the locals is a great way of learning about Chinese culture.
Parents, teachers and senior students will want to invite you somewhere and treat you to a meal, at their expense.
My advice is to accept as many invitations as possible, even last-minute ones (late invites are a unique quirk of Chinese culture).
I’ve found it’s one of the best ways of getting in tune with the locals, exploring cool places and learning more about China.
Taking your relationships to a deeper level does require time and effort though, just like they do in your own country. You’ll also need to factor in the language barrier.
Some TEFL teachers actually find it hard to make friends in China due to things like Chinese people being workaholics, and the concept of ‘face’.
In many respects, Chinese people and the culture are very different to what you’re used to. So don’t panic if you occasionally get a little homesick in China.
Bouts of homesickness and loneliness in China are normal and experienced by a number of ESL teachers (you can read up on ways to avoid loneliness in China here).
5. Learn a traditional Chinese skill or sport
This one might require a bit of research and asking around, but it’s worth it.
I’ve learned Tai Chi in China, as well as had a go at Chinese calligraphy. You could do the same in a structured setting (like paid tutoring) or in a casual setting with friends.
Learning a traditional Chinese skill will open up your eyes to a new aspect of Chinese culture. Plus, you’ll improve your Mandarin skills as you learn new terms and expressions relating to what you’re learning.
Learn Tai Chi to immerse yourself in Chinese culture.
Chinese people also love to sing. There are karaoke bars across the country – you can find these wherever you see a ‘KTV’ sign.
Certain sports are immensely popular in China, in particular table tennis and badminton. In the school grounds you’ll see plenty of kids playing these sports.
It doesn’t hurt to join in or ask for some tips – Chinese people are keen to demonstrate their skill.
After the game, you might be asked to go out for a meal. This is a good opportunity to try some Chinese food and meet some new people!
Getting involved is key
So there you have it – five ways to immerse yourself in Chinese culture.
Whether you try one or try them all, the key is to get involved in life in China and do things you wouldn’t normally do.
Return to your home country with no regrets!
Are there any other ways to soak up Chinese Culture? What do you recommend?