Ten reasons to teach English in China
The British Council is recruiting people from the UK now to become English Language Assistants (ELAs) in China next academic year! There are plenty of reasons why you should apply. Former assistant Phoebe Blagg lists her top ten...
1. It’s good for your career
I applied for the ELA programme in China because I wanted to try teaching, to travel and see whether I could handle living in a challenging country. I had a hunch it could lead somewhere interesting. Although I enjoyed the experience, it turned out that teaching’s not for me, but my hunch was right: I’m now working as Political Visits Officer at the British Embassy in Beijing. Skills that I picked up from teaching – the ability to think on my feet, tailor my communication style for different audiences and hide my nerves when speaking in front of large groups of people – are transferable to almost any working environment and have been essential in my job. Coincidentally (or perhaps not!) there are a few other former ELAs at the embassy, as well. Besides government work, there are, if you look for them, opportunities in the arts, media and business.
2. The students are fun
The students are, for the most part, enthusiastic, entertaining and appreciative. It is, however, a bit of a myth that Chinese students are really well behaved. In fact, a lot of them view their ‘foreign teacher class’ as a chance to relax and take a break from the pressure of their other classes, but this is no bad thing, as it means you can play games and generally have a bit fun.
3. China is completely different and diverse
To say that Chinese culture is different from Western culture is an understatement. China is a huge, geographically, ethnically and culturally diverse country, whose history (as you’ll frequently hear from students and colleagues) spans more than 5,000 years. The historic sites are impressive and fascinating, but some of the best places in which to soak up the culture are local parks, where you’ll see Tai-Chi, ballroom dancing, bird cages hung in trees, and people doing a bit of casual karaoke or singing revolutionary ‘red’ songs.
4. Living in China is like living in time-lapse mode
Before living in China, I was of course aware of the country’s incredible transformation, but what I found surprising is how much you notice the world around you changing. There’s a strange feeling that history is speeding up, as buildings seem to pop up over night, subway lines open and the whole feeling of a city shifts.
5. You actually get to live abroad and are not a tourist
Before moving to China I’d done a fair amount of travelling, but had never actually lived abroad. It wasn’t like I expected. It’s not always as exciting and with less going on to distract you, it can be easy to get homesick sometimes. For me it was the small things, like stopping to chat with my neighbours and joining the local gym that made me feel part of the community and this was ultimately far more interesting and gratifying than travelling.
6. You can make friends with local people
It’s fair to say that the first two weeks of induction training in Beijing is a bit like Freshers’ Week. This, depending on your capacity for drinking and karaoke, is either quite fun or a bit tiring. One thing is certain though, you’ll leave Beijing with a network of friends all over China and once you start teaching and bond over the shared experiences of the bizarre and/or frustrating situations thrown up in the classroom, you quickly form very close friendships with the other ELAs. Making friends with Chinese people takes more effort, but isn’t difficult if you’re proactive about making the most of opportunities to meet people.
7. There’s always someone who looks after you
One of the main differences between teaching on the British Council scheme and finding a job independently in China is that, as a Language Assistant, you are guaranteed a certain level of support. In practice, this varies from school to school, but at a minimum, each ELA is assigned a mentor teacher. My mentor teacher was lovely and went out of her way to help me settle in and to offer me advice on lesson planning and dealing with difficult classes throughout the year.
8. The food is phenomenal
I wasn’t hugely keen on Chinese food before I moved here and was pleasantly surprised to discover that authentic Chinese food is worlds apart from the soggy spring rolls and greasy chow mein I’d had in the UK. Every province in China has its own distinct style of cooking, so the variety of cuisine is unbelievable and there is something for everybody, regardless of whether you’re an adventurous eater or prefer simple but tasty meat and vegetable dishes.
9. The travel opportunities are awesome
With more than 1.3 billion people, China’s transport network is, by necessity, pretty efficient. It’s got high-speed trains or slower sleeper trains for those on a budget, cheap flights and minibuses for hire. Whatever you’re looking for – mountains, desert, temples, ice sculpture festivals, rice terraces, beaches, iconic architecture – China has it all, and more. Admittedly, travelling during Spring Festival can be a bit of a nightmare, with decent train tickets selling out almost as soon as they go on sale, but it’s the challenge that makes it an adventure.
10. You acquire impressive language skills – more easily than people think
Speaking, or even trying to understand Chinese is often synonymous with the impossible, but once you’re living here, you’ll learn the reality is very different. As long as you’re willing to put in some work, take lessons, and make an effort to practice what you learn with your colleagues and friends, you can pick up quite a lot in a short time. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t perpetuate the myth: As long as everyone back home thinks learning Mandarin is incredibly difficult, they’ll all continue to be impressed!