Living in China: What It's REALLY Like

Living in China: What It’s REALLY Like

China has long been a popular destination for TEFL teachers, particularly newbies without much experience. With a cheap cost of living, endless job opportunities, and fantastic choices for travel, China sounds like an ideal choice, but it isn’t for everyone. To find out if China is the teaching destination for you, read this honest, first-hand account of what it’s really like to live and work in China.

What Kind of Person You Are – The Psychographics

Whether or not you’ll hack it in China mostly comes down to the type of person you are. If you are a quiet wallflower or a scaredy-cat on the roads who jumps at the first honk of a horn… then maybe China isn’t for you. Living and working in China really does demand a certain type of personality.

You need to be brave and willing to try new things, particularly concerning food – vegetarians, vegans, and fussy eaters don’t dine easily in China! You’ll also need to have a positive, open attitude and have the ability to laugh in awkward situations. Life in China requires a good sense of humour – you need to be able to take it on the chin if people are coming up to you on the street to point and say “Foreigner!”

What Kind of Person You Are – The Demographics

Aside from personality, your ability to really get on in China often depends on things you can’t control – your gender, age and skin colour. While you can’t change these things about yourself, having an awareness of what is going to be a barrier or benefit to you can at least help you see why you’re being treated as you are, and approach it with the right attitude.

Older people tend to get treated more respectfully than younger people, and men are often taken more seriously than women. However, if you find yourself in an undervalued demographic, don’t let it hold you back. If you do your job well and work hard, a young female teacher can earn just as much respect as an older male teacher.

Out on the street, Chinese people are interested in people who look different to them, and the more different you are, the more attention you’ll get. Blondes and redheads get bothered a lot more than brunettes, and teachers with dark skin get a lot of attention, too. If you let the attention get to you then it’ll drive you nuts – try to see the funny side and laugh it off. It’s all part of the adventure, and sometimes it’s fun to be treated like a celebrity!

Want to know more about what to expect? Your First Time in China: How to Avoid Culture Shock

Accept That You’re Going to Get Sick

Food in China is amazing, and there are so many unusual things to try. Even if your stomach is made of iron, you won’t survive a stint in China without getting sick at least once or twice. Food can be unclean, too oily, too spicy, or just too different to what you’re used to. The initial few weeks after arriving tend to be tumultuous for your digestive system, but for most people it usually calms down a bit when you get used to the cuisine.

You can avoid getting sick too often with a few simple steps. Eating at home rather than eating out is a good way to control what is going into your body – the only trouble is resisting when going out for dinner is so super cheap and delicious. Also, avoid ‘dirty noodle stalls’ that pop up late at night on the side of the street. These are fine for the locals, but you’ll need to wait until your system gets used to the new germs. And go easy on the spicy sauce!


China is not always an easy place to get by, but if you survive it, the payoff is worth it. This is a country made for adventurers – cheap and easy travel makes going away for the weekend a frequent occurrence. There are some truly delicious dishes out there, and in such a garrulous culture, dining out with local friends will be one of your greatest joys here. Weigh up the pros and cons and see if China is the place for you.

Do you have what it takes for this adventure? Check out Jobs in China.

Want to know more about living and working abroad? Click here.

About the Author

Celia Jenkins is a veteran teacher and freelance writer. She has taught in several countries in Asia, including Japan where she currently lives.