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What's it Like Living and Teaching English in China?

What’s it Like Living and Teaching English in China?

Teaching English in China gives you the opportunity to save money and gain valuable work experience while exploring 6000 years of Chinese culture in a way few others can. Whether you’re exploring the Great Wall, sipping green tea, or shopping in Shanghai you will experience stories to last a lifetime.


Sprawling urban landscape in China

Here you will learn what it’s like living in China, one of the world’s largest ESL markets, from housing, to transportation, to food, etiquette, and culture.

What’s it like living in China?

China is one of the largest countries in the world by area, and is the most populous. Its history dates back over 6,000 years. The yin of Imperial structures, calligraphy, Tai Chi, the Great Wall, and green tea is balanced by the yang of bright, bustling cities and the production of much of the world’s electronics. China has a lot of great sites to offer, explore the Forbidden City, landscapes like the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River, or the volcanic dishes of Sichuan.


Overlooking Huangpu River in Shanghai, China

Technology and Advancement

China is a leader in international technology industries such as computer technology, space travel, and information technology. Juxtaposed to this is the fact that the Chinese government is a strong opponent of free speech on the Internet and other media. It may be hard to access popular websites like Wikipedia, BBC, the New York Times, as well as social media like YouTube or Facebook.

Enjoying modern technologies such as high-speed Internet, cable television, and cell phones will not be an issue in urban China, yet could be problematic in rural areas.

Apartments in China

Most English teaching jobs in China will include an apartment. Apartment costs vary depending on the school and location. Contracts that do not include housing may compensate with higher salaries. This information is usually included in the job posting, but be sure to clarify these details after receiving a job offer to ensure that this is fully addressed in the contract.

A teacher’s apartment is typically located on or near a campus, and often shared with a roommate. For the most part, English teachers will find western amenities such as a bed, table set, tv, refrigerator, desk, laundry facilities, and toilet.


Beautiful gardens in a rural area of China

Most schools provide an allowance for partial flight costs; however, teachers often must pay the initial cost. The school will then reimburse them or provide a bonus at the end of the contract. You should keep any of your airfare receipts in case they are required for this benefit.

Healthcare in China

Medicine is an interesting and important element in Chinese history. The Chinese have always used a combination of herbal and food remedies as well as massage, acupuncture, and preventative care to treat many ailments and injuries. Today, medicine in China is a hybrid between the traditional Chinese practices and modern medicine imported from the western world.

Much of the healthcare system’s resources are devoted to large urban areas such as Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai. Getting professional medical attention when living in a rural area or small city can be slightly more challenging.

The amount of healthcare coverage an English teacher receives varies between schools. If there is any confusion about medical coverage after reading a contract, be sure to ask the school to specify this information. In most cases, it is highly recommended to couple the school’s benefit plan with private health insurance to cover any medical, dental, or prescription costs.

Retirement Age

Retirement age is a constant source of debate in China. Currently, women working for the government or a state-run company must retire at 55 years of age, while men can retire at 60. Women working a blue-collar job must retire at 50; while men can work an extra five years. As a result, older ESL teachers may experience a more difficult job search than a younger teacher would. However, the situation can vary across the nation with rural areas seeing less stringent restrictions than major urban areas.

Transportation in China


Trains are a popular mode of transportation in China


Many people find taxis safe and convenient. Most cities, towns, and even villages have a taxi service. however, there are very few taxi drivers that know how to speak English. It is recommended that teachers carry a business card with their work and home address in Chinese, or have a local write down their destination.

Train and Subway

With concerns over air pollution, China is encouraging the use of public transportation. Most urban areas have subway systems. The train is one of the cheapest ways to travel across China and to other countries. There are four ticket options:

  • Hard Seat: The cheapest and most popular way to travel. Unfortunately, it is often very uncomfortable and crowded: not recommended for long trips.
  • Soft Seat: The soft seat is more comfortable than its discounted counterpart. There are usually plenty of seats and it is still inexpensive.
  • Hard Sleeper: For longer trips, you will need to think about sleeping options. A hard sleeper ticket is the cheapest long commute fare. The compartment has no door and includes six very small beds with little padding. There is a traditional Chinese toilet on each train car.
  • Soft Sleeper: If you want to travel in comfort, the soft sleeper is the best option. Each compartment has a door for privacy. There are four bunks in a room with larger, padded beds. Commuters will often have access to a western-style toilet.


Like the train, the bus is an inexpensive way to travel within the city or across China. Buses travel to many remote locations and smaller towns inaccessible by train and tend to fill up more slowly, making it much easier to get a bus ticket and to find a seat.


The bicycle is the most popular form of transportation in China. The streets and roadways are loaded with cyclists making their way to work, shopping, or just out for a leisurely ride. During peak hours there are often crowds of cyclists.

Air Travel

If time is an issue and money is not a concern, traveling by plane is a fast and comfortable alternative to land travel. Most areas of China are accessible by plane. Many airports are small and only offer domestic flights, but some do offer international flights as well.

Motor Vehicles

In recent years, automobiles have become more popular and accessible for many in China. In addition to purchasing more cars, the Chinese are also buying motorcycles and scooters.

Getting a Chinese Driver’s License

There is no set protocol in place for converting an American driver’s license into a Chinese one. However, for around 300CNY (around $45USD), you can take the driver’s test. If understanding the Chinese language is a concern, bring someone to translate for you. Remember to bring your passport, your current driver’s license, and a cash payment.

Before taking the exam, applicants will need to fill out an application form and have a basic eye exam. Teachers can take the test in one of nine languages, including English. A score of 90 percent or better is a pass. If the test is passed, a Chinese driver’s license will arrive within a couple of weeks. If the test is failed, a rewrite is included with the fee as long as it is taken within ten days of the original test.

Etiquette Tips for Teachers in China

Proper etiquette is very important in Chinese culture. Below are some of the prominent customs, which may vary by region.

General Etiquette

  • It’s considered improper to discuss religion.
  • Always be early or on time. Being late could harm a business contact or a friendship.
  • It’s extremely rude to discuss business during a meal.
  • The most common greeting in China is a handshake, but some still prefer the traditional bow. It is important to pay attention to a person’s greeting and respond with the same gesture.
  • Avoid touching anyone in public.
  • It’s considered rude and unnecessary to gesture while speaking.

Business Etiquette

  • It’s nearly impossible to do business without making an appointment. Be sure to plan business meetings in advance.
  • Don’t be alarmed if it takes a long time to get feedback after a proposal. The Chinese like to take their time and carefully evaluate their decisions, especially when it comes to business.
  • Many Chinese people do not do business with people they don’t know. Develop as many contacts as possible and tap into their network of connections.
  • A person’s rank in a company carries a lot of weight, so be mindful of who is in the room and what each person’s role is within a company.
  • In the workplace, men are expected to wear subtle-colored suits while women are expected to dress conservatively and avoid high-heels.

Eating Etiquette

  • Being invited to dinner at someone’s home is considered a great honor. Avoid turning down the invitation at all costs.
  • Always remove any outdoor footwear before entering a Chinese home.
  • Be sure to try all food offered; not tasting something is considered impolite. No one will be offended if you don’t finish your food. A Chinese host simply expects guests to at least try everything.
  • Never take the last portion of something, no matter how good it tastes. Simply leave it on the table.
  • When eating meat, bones are placed in a designated dish, or simply left on the table.
  • Food is served in dishes placed in the middle of the table for all to share. Don’t fill your plate with samples. Take one item at a time.

Chopstick Etiquette

  • The most important rule of dining in China is to always use chopsticks when at someone’s home or when dining in public. If you are unsure of how to use chopsticks, be sure to practice before you arrive in China.
  • Be sure to put the chopsticks down on the table on a regular basis and always set them down when talking or drinking.
  • Only use chopsticks for eating; do not play with them in any fashion.
  • While eating rice with chopsticks it is normal and expected for diners to hold their bowl close to their face to avoid making a mess.
  • Never stab food with chopsticks. This is a sign of hostility and is extremely insulting.

A Trip for Your Taste Buds: Eating in China


China’s vast selection of delicacies and food attracts travelers from around the world

Chinese cuisine is one of the most popular foreign foods worldwide, but much of the food is simply an Americanized adaptation. Chinese food can be separated into eight regional categories which each have their own style, ingredients, and flavor.

Some of China’s more popular dishes include:

  • Peking Duck: One of China’s most famous dishes, it consists of duck glazed with maltose syrup and served with Chinese-style pancakes and vegetables.
  • Wonton: Wontons can be found in various dishes in traditional Chinese cookbooks. A wonton is a dumpling that is filled with shrimp, pork, and other ingredients.
  • Chinese steamed eggs: Like an American omelet, eggs are mixed with various ingredients. Instead of frying the eggs, this dish is steamed.
  • Kung Pao Chicken: Kung Pao Chicken is considered a delicacy in China. Marinated chicken is mixed with various oils, spices, peppercorn and chilies.

Climate in China

China’s climate varies greatly depending on the region, ranging from deserts, to fertile grasslands, to snow-capped mountains. Northern China has hot summers and frigid winters, while the central area is more temperate, and the south has very hot summers and warm winters. Be sure to research the weather in the region of any offered position. See the list below for cities and climate zones:

  • Cold-temperate zone: Jiamusi, Harbin, and Qiqihar.
  • Temperate zone: Hohhot, Shenyang, Dunhuang.
  • Warm-temperate zone: Jinan, Taiyuan, Xian, Luoyang, and Zhengzhou.
  • Subtropical zone: Guangzhou, Jiujiang, Zhenjiang, Yichang, and Wuxi.
  • Tropical zone: Guangdong, Yunnan, and Macau.

Tourists enjoy exploring the Forbidden City during the warm summers in China

Our Job Placement Service Helps You Find a Job

Available exclusively to Oxford Seminars TESOL/TESL/TEFL Certification graduates at no additional cost, our Job Placement Service provides assistance with finding teaching jobs at ESL schools in China and around the world. We have formed partnerships with language schools worldwide that are searching for certified ESL teachers. Our Job Placement Advisors provide timely job placement assistance to help make your experiences abroad as rewarding as possible.

Discover what it’s like to live and teach English in China by attending a free information session near you, or download our free course guide!


    • B. Gain
    • October 4, 2016

    Although the article has many great points, there are some facts that are being stated as a blanket statement that become false depending upon location or circumstance. Overall, you can accept the information as a general rule for China. I have lived in China for four years, in three different regions of the country. I have also traveled throughout this marvelous country extensively.

    1) Enjoying modern technologies such as high speed Internet, cable television, and cell phones will not be an issue in urban China, yet could be problematic in rural areas: It is true that technology is more advanced in urban areas. But, compared to places like America, it has a long way to go. “High speed internet” is a relative term. Prepare for long buffering times, internet lags, and disconnect. Cable TV is widely available. But, unless you know the local language, it is not much fun to watch. Out of 200+ channels I have, only one is all English (CCTV News). And, occasionally I can find an older English film. Overall, the TV programming are China-Japanese war films, Asian dramas with similar themes, and silly talent shows. If you are looking for Hollywood style programming, you need to find a torrents site. One final note about technology, Google is not accepted here. Think about all of your apps that are Google based. They will need a VPN for operation. So, your choices become limited to Chinese apps that are in the Chinese language.

    2) A teacher’s apartment is typically located on or near a campus, and are often shared with a roommate: I will agree with Mr. McCabe about housing. Schools do typically have above average housing provided with all the amenities listed. I have yet to find an ESL teacher required to have a roommate though. Even when there are multiple ESL teachers working at the same school, a single accommodation is usually available. If you live on campus, be prepared for some rules that might limit your freedoms. Curfews, overnight guests, closed gates on holidays, and other rules can seem like they are limiting your freedoms as a westerner. Make sure you know the rules and have them in writing.

    3) The airfare reimbursement statements in the article are correct. I always recommend that in your second contract, you change the wording from “flight reimbursement” to “end of contract bonus”. It seems like a simple thing. But, employers can play tricks with you. By making it a contract bonus, specified with the bonus amount to be paid, there is no confusion as to the total. This is usually acceptable to an employer after your first contract is completed. I always renegotiate my contract for this change.

    4) Healthcare is CHEAP in China. And, the quality is pretty good. But, I always recommend that a person get international health care insurance to cover major issues that might occur. Your insurance from the school is primarily used for incidents that occur while you are working.

    Example: September 2016 was not a good month for me. I was hit by a car while riding my e-bike. Fortunately it was not as dramatic and serious as it sounds. I escaped with a major abrasion on my leg and a fractured foot. The cost was only 400 rmb total for the emergency room visit, x-rays, and a foot cast. That is less than $100 USD. But, it was a reminder to me that insurance is really necessary to have. My school does not cover this because it was during my free time. And, if the accident had been much worse, I would have had to come up with all the money myself.

    5) I love traveling in China, especially by train. Taxis are a crap shoot. I usually have a great time with them. Occassionally you get one who is trying to tweek an extra few yuan out of you. I have had taxi drivers refuse to pick up the foreigner. I have had friends not negotiate properly and be charged huge sums. But, overall, the taxis are good.

    Trains are wonderful for an adventure. Usually they start off clean, if you get them at the beginning of the line. By the end of the line, expect a garbage pit. Especially on the slow trains. Sleepers are the best for long distances. Unless you like cramped spaces, try to pay for a lower or middle bed. The upper beds can be confining. Since we foreigners are rich (by Chinese standards), I try to pay for the extra comforts, such as business class or first class on high speed trains.

    Mr. McCabe has a great piece of advice while traveling. You should always pick up business cards of hotels and other places you will frequent while traveling. A translation app is very useful too. I like planning trips, so I often have a translated information paper with places I want to visit, key phrases, and names of places. It is amazing how tones work in the Chinese language. Often you think you are saying the city’s name properly, but you are not. I wanted to go to Suzhou once. I found myself on a bus going to Xuzhou instead. They sound very similar.

    6) Unless you are going to live in China for years and years, forget about the driver’s license. It is far too costly to operate a car here. And, if you get into an accident, you are at fault regardless. And motorcycles are nearly impossible to get licenses for. The rules have recently changed requiring agents and other hoops to jump through. Just stick to e-bikes. No paperwork or anything else required. Just buy one and drive. One note: some cities no longer allow e-bikes to be used “legally”. The province of Guangzhou is one suck location. Although you see them being used, they can easily be confiscated by the police with some fines.

    7) Etiquette: I nearly fell out of my chair laughing so hard when I red this portion of Mr. McCabe’s article. I swear that he just copied and pasted this section from an old website. I was in stitches laughing about the time element ones he posted. There is normal time and then there is Chinese time. Chinese time runs at least 15-30 minutes past any stated time. And, flexibility in time is always best. Last minute announcements and changes are expected. For example, there is a holiday coming up and you want to do some traveling. Expect to be notified of the OFFICIAL days you get off work about two or three days in advance.

    I will offer this advice in contrast to Mr. McCabe’s advice, take his with a grain of salt downed with a warm beer. These points of interests may have been valid just 5-10 years ago…but things change quickly regarding culture and traditions in China. I will offer this one piece of advice…become a follower, versus a leader. Wait to see what your hosts offer. You will make mistakes along the way, which in turn provides great conversations and a few laughs with your Chinese counterparts. Nothing more. Very few things are considered overly offensive in China today.

    Mr. McCabe does a good job providing the traditional views of living in China. Similar articles can be found everywhere in China. Most articles are often outdated in modern China. Urban lifestyle is much more accepting of our western ways. Rural areas try to cling to old traditions by the elders of the community. Overall, China is rapidly changing. In just four years, I have seen so many changes to their customs, traditions, and culture. It amazes me that many of the things that made China unique and special, are being exchanged with western traditions, or completely thrown away.

    Let me give you an example. Weddings are becoming so expensive today. A Chinese woman would change her wedding dress at least three times. She would begin her wedding day in a traditional Hans styled red dress that is very ornate. At the reception ceremony with the guests, she would change into a western white wedding dress. For the final toasting and farewell to guests, she would change into a simple red dress. In many weddings I have gone to, one dress has been discarded to save money. Guess which dress is not being purchased by some brides? The traditional Hans dress is being excluded.

    During Spring Festival, I was looking forward to Dragon and Drum dances. I was looking for the pageantry of the season, often depicted as Chinese customs. With the corruption campaign occurring against governments, many of these things have disappeared. Skies filled with floating lanterns are not existent today. Fireworks in many communities are banned, although come midnight on Chinese New Year, it sounds like a war breaks out.

    My recommendation to anyone interested in China…come make the experience yourself. Accept what is given, leave behind any preconceived notions, and enjoy each day as another blessing. The temples may all be new or recently renovated. But, they still have the tenants of the faith. Finding old Chinese architecture and old towns may be replaced with new buildings and modern amenities, but you can find old China in some places. China is what you make of it. If you come here looking for a China of long ago, you will be disappointed. If you come here with few aspirations to what China is today, you just might find New China is as interesting as Old China is in the history books. I am living in history now, as China transforms before my eyes. Sure, I get to experience old China occasionally when I stumble upon it. What is more amazing to me is that I can say I was living history as China made their way through their development.

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