MKL Q&A Forums

Professional advice
when you need it

Click Here

What We Use in China


Section I: Teaching English in China continued

What To Expect Your First Week or Two After Arriving in China

Depending on your point of departure, you will very likely have spent up to 24 hours in flight over a two-day period. You will be tired and your internal clock will be up to 15 hours behind Beijing time. Most school owners and administrators understand that their newly arrived teachers will be exhausted and somewhat disoriented from the long trip and will allow them at least a few days to get settled in and acclimated to their new surroundings before pressing them into service. Those who will be teaching at a university should plan on arriving at the school a good week to two before classes begin as there is no flexibility in regard to when you need to start teaching and you will definitely need some time to get adjusted.

... you can expect to feel terribly frustrated by the language barrier, as well as the absence of familiar foods and other items.

The vast majority of employers will make some sort of arrangement for picking you up at the airport. Public schools and universities will mostly likely send someone from the foreign affairs office to meet you, while private schools will generally assign a trusted foreigner to that task. If the school informs you ahead of time that no plans will be made to meet you at the airport, that’s probably a sign of the type of negative regard and treatment you can expect in the future and you should be very concerned.

The school will be eager to have you sign the contract as soon as possible and, in some cases, the teacher will be brought directly from the airport to the main office for this purpose. It is generally unwise to sign the contract before examining the apartment you have been assigned to. If you discover major problems with the accommodations after you have signed the contract, you have absolutely nothing to negotiate with at that point and you will be stuck for the duration of your employment (see the chapter on problems with school-provided housing for more information).

All foreigners in China need to register their presence with the local PSB (public security bureau) within 48 hours upon arrival: The school will assign someone with functional English language skills to accompany and assist you with that task. Sometime also during your first day or two in China, someone will have to accompany you to the school’s local bank branch so you can open up a new savings account for the purpose of getting paid every month. You will probably also need to convert your foreign currency into renminbi as well, for you will have to live on whatever monies you brought from home until your first pay period, which is typically not until four to six weeks after arrival.

Usually within the first three or four days after checking in, you will also be escorted to the local hospital responsible for processing physical examinations for foreigners (required of any foreigner who will be residing in China for more than six consecutive months). You will need several passport-size photos for this purpose (and a few more for the residency permit and foreign expert certificate), so the school will typically stop at the nearest Kodak photo store en route to the hospital. While the school generally pays for the cost of the physical exam and all other official documents, they typically expect the teachers to pay for their own photos, but this is not a major expense (50 to 70 yuan should cover the cost of all the photos you will need). Be prepared for a shock when visiting a Chinese hospital for the first time as it will be quite different from anything you are accustomed to back home (see chapter on the healthcare system in China for more information).

If you read and followed this guide's advice prior to accepting a job offer, the apartment you are assigned by the school should not be a total surprise, i.e., at the very least it should be clean and ready to be occupied regardless of what other limitations it may have (assuming you made a point of mentioning this as a condition of employment). However, even if your school has made an earnest attempt at providing you with all the "necessary" furnishings and kitchen supplies, as stipulated in your contract, you will most likely find at least some of them to be inadequate and will still need to supplement (or upgrade) what you have been provided with. For example, it is unlikely you will find night tables or a reading lamp in the bedroom, there may not be any mirrors in the entire apartment (including the bathroom), blinds and curtains will either be absent or damaged, and schools will typically furnish you with either a small wardrobe or a clothes dresser but not both, so you may not have enough storage space for your personal belongings, especially if you over-packed. Finally, much of the cookware and kitchen utensils will probably be very old and even unusable. The microwave oven, if provided, will probably need a good scrubbing (and even that may not salvage it) and you’ll need to thoroughly wash out the inside of your old, undersized, and power-guzzling refrigerator before stocking it with any food.

If you did your homework and exercised due diligence before accepting the job offer, the mattress you are provided with should contain coiled-springs and be suitable for a good night’s sleep (but this will not be the case unless you specifically requested a “Western-style mattress” as a condition of employment). However, the bedding that typically awaits you can be most accurately thought of as a “starter set” and you will definitely need to supplement that with better quality merchandise. The bathroom, aside from possibly not having a mirror, will also most likely not have a medicine cabinet, or anything else for storing toiletries, and you will not be provided with any bath or hand towels. The point is you will definitely need to plan on spending your very first day or two in China going shopping for necessities and the school should be willing to assign a bilingual teacher or student to assist you for at least the first few days.

Unless your mobile phone from home is GSM compliant (uses SIM cards) and supports 900MHz or 1800MHz frequency bands (is either tri- or quad-band), you should add a new cell phone to your initial shopping list. Even in third-tier cities, you will have a wide selection of phones to choose from, ranging in price from 300 yuan ($43.80) for basic models to 5,000 yuan ($730) for top of the line smartphones from Motorola and Nokia that do everything but wash the dishes. Aside from the fact that everyone in China has a cell phone (to the point where its prevalent role in China's current-day society qualifies as a national compulsion if not addiction), you will most definitely need one to survive. In the event the driver of the taxi you jump into is illiterate (and cannot read the address you just handed him) or you find yourself needing to ask a store clerk where they keep the instant coffee, using that cell phone to call a Chinese colleague is the only hope you have of making yourself understood. After purchasing your new phone, you will also need to be accompanied to the nearest branch of China Mobile where you will choose your new telephone number from a list of available numbers, buy a new SIM card for 150 yuan ($22.00), and then select from a wide choice of usage and billing plans. You will want to make certain you do this before turning over your passport to the school for your residency permit because you will need your passport to open a new account with China Mobile (as well as for opening up a savings account and changing currency). See the section on mobile phones in the chapter on technology in China for more information.

If you will not be working in Beijing or Shanghai, you can expect to feel terribly frustrated, perhaps overwhelmed, by the language barrier, as well as the absence of familiar foods and other items we take for granted back home. Even if you ate Chinese food regularly, you will most likely not recognize anything that you will find in local restaurants and the vast majority of these establishments do not provide English translations or pictures of items inside the menu (including most 4-star hotels), so you will need to be accompanied by an “old foreign hand” or a Chinese who can order for you. If you do happen to find a dish you like, you will have to ask your Chinese friend to write down the name of that dish on a piece of paper so you can order it again on your own. In fact, until you acquire some survival Chinese language skills (usually three to six months), you will have to get used to carrying around several such pieces of paper that will not only include the names of your favorite dishes but the address of your apartment as well as the locations of the school’s various branches (if that applies).

If you will be working for a private school, after being given a few days to settle in and acclimate to your new environment, you will probably be required to sit in on other teachers’ classes or even attend a formal orientation and training seminar before you actually commence your own classes. In a few cases this “training period” is paid for but in most instances it is not. The school just treats it as an expectation in exchange for the housing you are provided with. If you will be working for a public school or university, and you are lucky, someone from your department may drop off the textbooks for the classes you will be teaching, assuming textbooks are even assigned. At the university level, most foreign teachers are simply expected to design their own curriculum and you will have total latitude regarding what you actually do inside the classroom each week.

You can expect the first week or two to be relatively difficult, even disconcerting, for several reasons. First, you will be struggling with the difference in time zones and will probably have difficulty sleeping straight through the night for several days until your internal clock finally resets itself. Second, you will have an awful lot of running around to do in order to get the apartment looking the way you want it to and, aside from personal errands for kitchenware, bathroom supplies, and other household furnishings, there are several legal and administrative tasks you will have to complete shortly after you arrive in China. Unfortunately, and as you can easily imagine, all this necessary running around after having just traveled from up to halfway around the world results in a pervasive state of fatigue that will require at least a couple of weeks to completely shake off.

Aside from the oppressive language barrier, you can expect to feel initially overwhelmed by the drastic differences in the physical environment, climate, air quality, and unavailability of familiar (comfort) foods and other items. Aside from all of that, it will take some time to get used to China's money, as well as the exchange rate, and everything will appear “so cheap” at first—until you start thinking in terms of renminbi instead of your own country’s currency (as you should, because you are being paid a comparatively reduced salary based on China's relatively low cost of living). Unless you come from very humble beginnings, you will also need some time to acclimate to the (most likely) Spartan furnishings and comparatively poor overall quality of your apartment (equivalent today to what only the Chinese working poor live in), and may even feel demoralized by it for quite some time. For example, it is highly unlikely you will have hot water in the apartment except for the shower (that is, the bathroom sink faucet will not be connected to the hot water heater that supplies the shower head), so you will have to grow accustomed to washing your hands and doing the dishes in cold water. Finally, and in contrast to what you might expect, unless you will be working for a university that has a foreign expert building or are assigned to an apartment building that houses all or most of a private school's foreign teachers, it is very likely you could be in China for days, maybe weeks, without ever having met another foreign teacher at the school. The overall effect can be quite socially isolating.

Finally, even if you are relatively young and healthy, you should expect to contract a moderate to severe upper respiratory infection during your first month in China, especially (but not only) if you will be living in the northern and northwestern provinces (and this is just as true for southern Chinese who travel to these upper regions for visits during the Spring Festival). This is due to the high prevalence of new strains of bacteria and viruses you will be encountering for the first time in your life and no less so to the significant difference in public hygiene. By all means, you need to quickly acquire the habit of thoroughly washing your hands the moment you return to your apartment and every time you handle money. It is highly recommended that you bring along three to four courses of a broad spectrum antibiotic from home.

While many of the aforementioned points do come across as disturbing and even discouraging, most foreign teachers—after this initial and difficult period of adjustment—will segue into the first stage of cross-cultural adjustment known as the “honeymoon period” during which time they will feel excited and even fascinated by their new home. Enjoy that period for as long as you can because it doesn’t last for more than a month or two, after which time you will most likely begin to feel angry and disgusted, and will tend to withdrew. However, that phase too will pass if you give it enough time and had previously made the effort to build a preliminary social support system (see our chapter on culture shock for more information).


About Us

Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

Read More


Link Partners

Website administrators are invited to partner-up with MKL. Our link directory supports text links or banners and features thumbnail photos of your home page.

Add Link