What is it like teaching English in China?
Smack dab in the middle of the Middle Kingdom lies the city of Chengdu, an often overlooked (and incredibly underrated) destination to have your own teaching English in China experiences. While it’s 13 million people are certainly impressive, I found myself more drawn towards its furry residents. That’s right: Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, is also home to 80% of China’s panda population (certainly living up to its street cred as the Land of Abundance).
In between bee-bopping to the bamboo, slurping noodles, and staring at the local women (they’re known to be the most beautiful in China!), you can find plenty of jobs in Chengdu for foreigners — especially foreign teachers. Ready to teach in the heart of China? Here’s everything you need to know to teach in China’s secret city: Chengdu.
INSIDER ADVICE ON LIFE FOR TEACHERS IN CHINA
Surf the Chinese Web
Many of your favorite social media sites — like Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter — AND Google are all blocked in China. Wondering how to survive life without your precious memes? Download a virtual private network (VPN) before you travel on your devices. This strategy is highly recommended, as once you’re under the blanket of China’s Firewall, it’s way more tricky to negotiate it! Popular service providers include:
If you want to go ultra-Chinese while you teach in China, consider trading in your old standby social media sites for the locals’ versions — Weibo for Twitter and Renren for Facebook (brush up on your Mandarin first or you might get confused). When it comes to browsing, you’ll learn to love the local search engine, Baidu.com. Lucky for you, its maps functionality is comprehensive — the perfect default for getting un-lost a lot easier.
Arm Yourself with Apps
Love online shopping? Taobao.com is every young person’s most trafficked bookmark — that is, when they aren’t texting their friends photos, gifs, video chats, and stickers on their beloved WeChat. More than phone numbers or a social media platform, WeChat is the app that the Chinese simply can’t live without. It won’t be long til your new pengyou (friends) will be asking for your WeChat ID.
Pro tip: Friends and family back home can use WeChat too — it makes keeping in touch easier for those tricky moments when your VPN backfires.
DD is China’s answer to Uber/Lyft, allowing you to hop in another’s personal car quickly and conveniently; however, your Mandarin needs to be up to scratch to give this a go!
For the coupon-loving traveler, Enjoy is China’s version of Groupon — filling your weekends between classes with major bargains. Relax after all of those grammar lessons and sample a real treat of afternoon tea on urban rooftop terraces from 100 RMB with a voucher in hand.
Pro tip: if someone serves you tea or refills your cup, double-tap your first two fingers on the table nearby to indicate “Thank you.”
Know the Lingo AKA Mandarin
While we don’t expect you to waltz off the plane fluent in 5000+ Chinese characters, it is helpful to understand some simple phrases before you teach English in Chengdu. Casual greetings such as “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Please,” “Sorry,” and “Thank you” can go a long way to making you feel more at home and to the locals appreciating your efforts.
A little nervous about all of those tones? Sign up to Premier TEFL’s free online China Tour and learn those phrases before you go – join today’s tour.
Most hotels and upmarket restaurants in Chengdu have western style loos. *Phew* says you! But head out of the city towards smaller local areas, including schools or places less frequented by tourists, and the challenge of the squat toilet is waiting for you.
Now, plenty of teachers in China have tamed the toilet beast before, and we’re confident you will too! Rest assured that, once mastered, you’ll never give it a second thought (and might even feel a bit smug to be honest). The trick is not to slightly stoop or make half an effort — #getlow as you squat directly above that swanky hole in the ground.
Pro tip: Keep a pack of tissues and and alcohol hand gel on you at all times for an extra feeling of restroom comfort.
EATING & DRINKING
Schools provide all meals on work days, meaning you’ll only need to feed yourself on the weekends. Convenience stores, like WoWo and FamilyMart are on every corner, where you can pick up essential supplies. Markets are easy to come by, as are late night kebabs (chuan), and corner snack shops.
Eating out is inexpensive and a great way to discover new dishes, flavor combinations, and levels of Chinese culture. Say “ZaiJian!” (goodbye!) to pan-Asian stir-fries and cold buffet rangoons. It’s your lucky day, as Sichuan province is known nationally for wokking up some of the best Chinese cuisine.
To be honest — your real job in Chengdu (besides brightening the minds of ESL students as a teacher in China) should be to try as many local foods as possible. Don’t even think about leaving without sampling hot pot, mapo tofu, twice cooked pork, and the original kung pao chicken.
Eating Out with Friends/Coworkers/Students
Unlike foreign lands, if you’re faced with a dining setting like the photo below… the plate is used for the bones or discarded parts of your dish. It’s not considered rude to place these byproducts proudly on your plate.
Much like back home, dining out is a social event. In China, food is almost always served from large, shareable plates that rotate on a giant lazy susan in the middle of your party. It’s great! Use your chopsticks to fill your bowl and politely place any inedible parts on the plate to the side. If you need to, rest your spoon in the groove beside the top of your chopstick holder.
Pro Tip: If you’re eating a shared dish that comes with a dipping sauce. It’s proper etiquette to only dunk once… so don’t dip into the sauce, take a bite and then re-dip!*
*Actually, this is just a general life tip.
Spicy & Sweet
If you love spicy food, then you’ll relish Sichuan-style hot pot, the traditional dish of the locality. With this delicacy, it’s not as important to understand the contents as it is to taste everything. You can order ingredients a la carte to suit your table, such as tofu, pork, yam, and lotus root. We recommend a combination of vegetables, proteins, and noodles. If you’re not into bull intestines or throat, then it’s easy to skip it!
China’s sweet desserts are a must-try; you’ll find a wide selection in all restaurants. I felt a bit bad tucking into this little guy, but he was divine…
Desserts aren’t commonly eaten in China by the locals, but the adorable bakeries and occasional red bean bun (doushabao) never hurt anybody.
Beer is the most common drink served with dinner, while wine is not so common. A large bottle is often shared between two or three, serving small glasses per person. The beer is very much to accompany the food as opposed to get you ready to party.
Chinese tea is world-famous and available EVERYWHERE. Making your tea of choice special is pretty easy. Fancy some floral infusions? Then the Chinese will hit you up with some actual jasmine flowers. Word.
Fear not coffee lovers, freshly brewed coffee is in high demand. Supply is plentiful and you won’t be disappointed. For super-
fans you’ll get your hand on Starbucks with ease, but it’s gonna cost you. And…they can spell too!
TIPS ON YOUR JOB — TEACHING ENGLISH IN CHENGDU
A Chat with Teaching Interns
I was able to meet with a few teaching interns in Chengdu and they sent me packing with a lot of ideas and advice for future ESL teachers in China. I asked them:
What type of person makes for the happiest teacher?
- Open-minded and those ready for a challenge.
- Those who are ready to make new friends.
- To be out of their comfort zone and to relish that.
- Positive people who see the silver lining if things aren’t as they imagined.
- Those that are accepting – of China, their placement and everything that goes with it.
- Problem solvers.
It’s clear to me that the best teachers are adaptable, flexible, and open to the adventures that China holds for them. Pandas or not.
Zach – Premier TEFL teaching intern
Placement schools for Premier TEFL programs are around Chengdu city and the surrounding areas. Expect to receive a semester curriculum to follow at your schools at the minimum. In certain cases, some schools even offer pre-made lesson plans.
We recommend all teachers give students a needs analysis on your class in their first week of teaching to determine what they’re keen to learn and areas you can see need improvement. This could be as simple as greetings, for example. Spending time sculpting lesson plans to suit your students’ interests, degree subjects, or desires for using English will not be ill spent. Using the Premier TEFL classroom activity ebook can help keep things fresh too.
Accommodations while Teaching English in Chengdu
A bus journey from your school to the city center could cost as little as 35 RMB. Often, school accommodation in university placements or colleges is on campus; for kindergarten, primary, and secondary schools, your accommodation may be a short walk away. Talk about convenient!
When You’re Not Working…
Giant Panda Base & Research Center:
Entrance fee: 58 RMB (for locals or foreigners)
You’ll easily spend a half day or more wandering around this famous tourist attraction. From the newborn nursery, to yearling’s enclosure, and adult Giant Pandas, you will have lots to see (and snap photos of). When you’re bored of black and white, check out the neighboring red pandas (which in Mandarin are actually called “small pandas”) and the world’s friendliest peacocks. Vital research is conducted at the Base to try to help discover ways to aid this endangered species procreate more easily. More power to that!
Once you’re panda’d out, take a rest (I clocked up 10,000 steps in a few hours) and a snack break by Swan Lake to flick through your cute panda snaps.
Keep in mind that baby pandas are not born year-round; depending on the time of your jobs in Chengdu, you might not get to witness an adorable baby panda sneeze.
Pro tip: Pssst. There’s a treat in a seat waiting for you at the Base’s public restrooms. The Western style toilets are of a Japanese design, meaning you’ll have a heated throne with an electronic command panel at your fingertips for massage, bidet, and spray functions.
Entrance fee: 40 RMB
Okay, so this might not be every English teacher’s cup of tea, but there are no dinos in Ireland so I was pretty excited by this museum. It’s a bit of a trek, at two hours from Chengdu city center, but if you have any childhood memories of queuing up to see Jurassic Park (I remember waiting in line in the car park of the cinema it was so long) then you can’t help but get excited.
Zigong museum is world-renowned and has one of the globe’s largest fully constructed and displayed dinosaur fossils. It’s compact so you might only need an hour or two here before moving on to the next land before time.
A DIY City Tour
Entrance fee: Free
While you can join guided tours, one of the best ways to get better acquainted with your new home is to get lost on your own. See getting around! I stayed downtown near Tianfu Square, where the Science and Technology Museum is based and you’ll find the Mao Zedong statue overlooking the city. This was a great location right next to the Metro.
Jinli Street (Wide and Narrow Alley)
Entrance Fee: Free
This three-alley set of “ancient” streets are lined with all kinds of souvenir shops and small eateries — a foodie’s dream. Every kind of snack stall and local food or drink is available in abundance.
Just after sunset or evening time is a great time to go, as all the illuminations from lanterns give extra ambience to the place. I walked from Tianfu Square in about 20 minutes and it was a very easy route. For those teachers who prefer a ride, get off the Metro at Wu Hou Ci Station.
Wuhou Temple is located directly next door and this area is close to the Tibetan Quarter of the city. You’ll easily spot it by some of the faces, prayer flags, and typical Tibetan clothing styles around.
Entrance fee: Free
I felt so relaxed after my visit. There were so many side streets to investigate, ancient buildings to muse, and praying locals to observe. Together, each cast a sense of calmness throughout the whole area. The positively invigorating smell of incense and presence of monks made me feel like I was REALLY in China — old China.
The next best thing to time travel, have a walk around, drink gallons of floral infused tea, visit shopping stalls, and take plenty of photos. I loved it. If you visit on a Saturday morning, you might be lucky to catch a ceremony the monks give.
Traditional Foot Massage
Cost: around 100 RMB
Been standing on your feet all day reminding students the difference between “piece” and “peace?” This is the ultimate retreat from the street relaxing activity. You’ll feel refreshed and ready to tackle your next lesson plan. At a fraction of the cost of massage prices back home, who can resist?
Some techniques feel like Thai massage and are all connected to medicinal healing by connecting with important pressure points on your feet. Don’t be surprised if you get some neck and leg massage – bonus! All washed down with some fresh jasmine tea.
Honeycomb Capsule Hotel
Cost: ~70 RMB
For teachers placed outside Chengdu, weekends are a popular time to visit the city. To make a night of it, you can simply book a night in a “capsule” in the downtown area and enjoy super cheap accommodation for the night…while feeling like an astronaut (bucket list – check!). This Japanese style of efficient accommodation is a must-try.
Entrance Fee: Free
Even ESL teachers need to have a night out on the town every once in awhile. This fashionable niteclub is where to hit if you want to dance the night away. As a foreigner, you’ll get a wristband giving you free drinks all night.
There is a special bar under the DJ box with bottles of Absolut Vodka and mixers (try the green one) – all completely gratis! You simply help yourself. Pouring your own drinks can be a recipe for disaster though, so approach with caution or at least a pinch of sense! If vodka isn’t your thing, then there’s a fully stocked bar to choose from at the other end of the club.
Other pubs to look out for: Blues Live House, Helen’s, and McElroy’s Irish Bar.
Pro tip: Learn more must-do’s in Chengdu here.
Start with the Metro by Tianfu Square and travel the stops, all signs and trains are in English so it’s easy peasy. For all handbags and luggage there is an x-ray to place them through for security, if you’re carrying water give it separately to the guard to be scanned.
Metro line 1 gives easy access with a quick change onto line 4 to the famous Wide & Narrow Alley consisting of 3 alley ways with shopping stalls and snacks one stop away and at the next stop you’ll find Wenshu Monastery (you could easily spend all afternoon wandering around here drinking tea, eating bowls of noodles and souvenir shopping).
Hire a Mobike from 10 RMB and cycle the city streets (carefully!). I didn’t see too many helmets around.
Les pieds…walk! I find walking is the only way to really see things (my Samsung health app was having a field day all week long!). Jokes aside, you really get to see in every window and every side street, so it’s the sure way to find hidden gems.
There are plenty of taxis but very few speak English, so it’s a tough cookie to crack on your own unless you have the destination written down in Mandarin. However, taxis are really cheap (typically 20-30 RMB per trip) and, you’re unlikely to get charged extra as a foreigner, unlike some other countries.
Other tried and true taxi hack methods include…
- Take a picture of an online map of where you want to go
- Use the Baidu.com translator to ask a Chinese person to write a location on a piece of paper
- Note: You could totally memorize the Chinese words if you get the pronunciation right
So stick your hand out and flag one down!
There you have it!
We know you may not have been convinced that Chengdu jobs are for you from the gitgo, but stories from my teaching English in China experiences have inspired you, right?! From the Sichuan pepper to the four walled classroom, the only thing missing from China’s heartland is you.