Surprising Cultural Differences you’ll Encounter Teaching ESL in China

Surprising Cultural Differences you’ll Encounter Teaching ESL in China

Moving to China to teach ESL is incredibly exciting. You stay awake for weeks leading up to the day of your flight, imagining all the things you’ll see and do. And then it finally arrives and it’s just as good and amazing and frustrating and strange as you imagined. Because it is and it will be. China is a different country. I know that sounds obvious, but it’s also the truth. It’s a different country, and you’ll find more differences there than what they like to eat. To help prepare you for some of those differences, here are some of the biggest things that I noticed while teaching ESL there.

The Education System

In Western countries, our education system is fairly relaxed. It’s based on a centuries-old model and if a student doesn’t do well, it’s generally accepted that it’s because of the school, the system, or because their talents lie in other areas. But in China, education is deadly serious. There are lots of reasons for this. There are a lot of people in China, which means that when it comes to job hunting time, there’s a lot of competition. The people who get hired are the ones with the most qualifications. That means that you’ll encounter adults who have years of university and schooling under their belt and lots of knowledge in their heads.

This applies to the children as well. Children in China have long days at school, and then do classes afterwards. They take language classes, computing classes, drawing classes and singing classes. They learn to program and put together machines and play several musical instruments. Ask a Chinese student what games they played that day and they won’t have an answer because they didn’t play at all. They studied. And when they got home from their classes, they had hours of homework to complete. I’ve talked to ten-year-olds who returned home from their after-school classes at eight at night and then had three hours of homework to do. And when you teach, you’ll probably teach three-year-olds who are working hard to learn their second language. At the same age, most western children are still struggling with their first.

This cultural difference is not right or wrong. It’s simply necessary in the very different world that is China. But it’s also often a shock for western teachers who are in China for the very first time.

Women in China

For female ESL teachers coming from a western country, moving to China can be a shock. In western countries, women are legally given the same rights as men. That’s not to say that there’s no inequality, but there’s the expectation of it. But China is different. It’s not unusual for job advertisements in China to say ‘No Women allowed’ or to describe the behavioural qualities women must have if they apply for the job. This is changing of course, with the government bringing in reforms and taking steps to outlaw discrimination. However, this has been a big part of Chinese culture for a long time, and change takes time. That’s why you’ll probably see signs of this kind of discrimination while you’re living in the country.

Marriage in China

It’s fairly unusual to see a Chinese woman over 25 who isn’t married. And when you do, it’s very likely that she won’t tell you her age no matter how much you ask. Marrying young and starting a family almost straight away is still fairly normal in China. That means that if you’re a woman teaching in China, you’ll be asked all the time why you aren’t married. And if you’re a man, it’s important that you be aware of this cultural difference. If you’re in your early twenties, dating isn’t just for fun, it’s a serious search for a partner. And if you aren’t aware of this, you could break a lot of hearts.


In western countries, we’re usually taught not to stare at people who are ‘different’. This is drummed into us from an early age. We’re taught that it’s the height of rudeness. But in China, they literally don’t have this social inhibition. For an ESL teacher, this often means you will be stared at. All the time. And without shame. At first, this can feel intrusive and rude. But if you come to accept the cultural difference, that the perception of rudeness is nothing more than a social norm that Chinese people don’t share, you’ll slowly learn to ignore the stares.

Spitting and Other Things

It seems like everyone who returns from a trip to China talks talk about how the locals spit in the street. And people who haven’t been there don’t really believe that it’s true. But it is. It is absolutely true. In some of the larger cities, this behaviour is much reduced. But if you’re staying in a smaller city or one that sees fewer tourists, it’s likely that you’ll hear this less than welcome sound fairly often. And see the results of it on the sidewalk constantly. The best I can recommend is that you try to pretend not to see or hear it. As cultural differences go, this is a big one, and probably one of the hardest to get used to.


China will surprise you a lot, and there are some cultural differences that you just won’t get used to. Try to have an open mind and remember, culture shock is completely natural, and teaching is one of the most rewarding jobs out there.


Related: Will You Get Culture Shock?


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About the Author

I’m an ESL teacher and a dedicated traveller. I’ve taught in Fuzhou, China and Hanoi and much prefer smaller cities to the larger options. When I’m not on the road, I live in Perth, Australia.  I write about education, ESL teaching specifically, and you can view more examples of my work at