Before you go:
- Decide what it is you actually want to do in China
Wandering around “The Middle Kingdom” can be a hell of a lot of fun. If you’re going for a short-term holiday, figure out what you most want to see and do some TripAdvisor or LonelyPlanet research to help you build an itinerary for the time you’ll have. Ask others who have been about their experiences too. One piece of advice is not to try to “do” all of China in a short space of time: it’s better to stay in one area or province and get to know it well than to dash across the gargantuan landmass expending your energy, money and time whilst being unable to appreciate it fully.
If you’re not just going for a brief backpackers’ holiday or a study exchange, teaching English is probably the place you’re going to start. Given China’s recent explosive growth and presence on the global market, millions upon millions of Chinese are scrambling to learn English to make them more competitive than their peers. But typical English classes in a Chinese school are often pretty shabby, particularly the oral/listening aspect, due to a lack of native speakers available for conversation practice. Unfortunately right now this seems to be the only profession upon which you can easily find your feet in China, but it’s a surefire place to start even if teaching isn’t your thing.
- Where do you want to teach?
There are a number of options, including but not limited to summer schools, extra-curricular clubs, au-pairing, foreign languages schools and educational companies. These can be found and organised through agencies online, through your university or via extensive searching on job offers forums on expat websites. Think about: what ages and levels of students you’d be willing to teach, if you want a long-term contract, and how much immersion into Chinese culture you desire. For example, those not quite ready to push the boat out would feel more comfortable with a short-term summer school contract with plenty of other foreign teachers, whilst those wanting to learn Chinese and become a fully-fledged seasoned expat might fare better living in a Chinese family as an au-pair at first, which gives you a more comprehensive experience of Chinese life.
- Are you qualified?
Related to the above, you need to find out if the position you’re applying for requires any qualifications. Thanks to China’s huge demand for foreign teachers, it’s fairly easy to land a teaching job without any TEFL or TESOL qualifications, but these are usually for the short-term and lower paid jobs. If you are searching for something more stable and legit, try taking an online TEFL course; often these are provided by the agencies offering teaching placements in China and will have to be completed in advance. If you really can’t wait, ask about the possibility of getting the qualification once you’re there, but remember this will probably not be valid for teaching in other countries.
- Choose a city!
China is vast. Perhaps you already have some knowledge of it and know exactly which areas you want to see. Or maybe you’re happy to let your company place you anywhere they need teachers. China is all too often lumped as one big entity, when in fact its provinces are as disparate and abundant in cultures as separate countries themselves, so try to do some research before you go. Consider also the weather and the time of year you’ll be going: northern China can be bloody freezing at winter time, and the south can get unbearably stifling and humid in the summer. Another big factor could be pollution levels, and this merits serious consideration (even among locals) if you’re in a big city for the long haul, as it may lead to discomfort, illness and lethargy for some. Don’t like spicy food? Avoid Sichuan. Not a fan of seafood? Evade Dalian. Hate rice? Stay away altogether.
- How long are you going for?
This may already be decided for you in the length of placement you choose or the duration of your course or vacation, in which case visa considerations will be easier. Something more open-ended however could lead to further opportunities later on, and you never know how much you could end up loving the experience. A lot of people who come to China, even just to teach for a while, end up coming back in a rush or staying on longer than they originally intended. It’s a country that can bewitch you in more ways than you can imagine.
As a tourist, finding short-term accommodation is lemon squeezy. There are tons of hotels catering for all budgets in all towns and cities, most of which can’t be found or booked online, so don’t worry too much about reserving in advance as this can limit your options. If you’re a really Nervous Nora you can take a look on any hostel website and there will be a handful you can pre-book to put your worrisome mind at rest. Moreover the ones you find on here will tend to cater to Westerners so they may provide a source of home comfort.
If you’re teaching or volunteering, accommodation is usually arranged by the company or agency, or at least they can give you some assistance in finding a convenient abode; but make sure this is clearly dealt with before you venture off so that you’re not homeless on arrival. A lot of schools have apartments or rooms on-site which you can rent out for a minimal fee with other teachers, but don’t expect a whole lot in terms of comfort or quality. An easy option to live in comfort (and often luxury) for free is as an au-pair, where you’ll also be fed, but this sometimes can compromise your freedom and an independent lifestyle as you won’t be cooking for yourself and will be expected to assimilate with the family. When it comes to affordable accommodation, China does not have reliable lettings companies or landlords, so launching into a lone house-hunt straight away is not recommended.
- Sort out a visa
Perhaps the least enthralling aspect of the whole undertaking is organising your visa. China requires foreigners to hold a visa even for a short holiday, for which an easily obtainable Tourist (L) visa with a 3 month limit will suit you fine. Anything else; DO NOT LEAVE TO THE LAST MINUTE. If you’re lucky enough to get a visa service from the company or agency, this should not be a problem, but sometimes you will have to go to the London/Manchester/Edinburgh office to arrange it yourself. Give it at least a good month and a half before your departure date, and make sure you have proof of a return flight and an invitation letter. There are many online resources to help you prepare your documents (check out the China Visa Service Centre’s website www.visaforchina.org), and sometimes getting the visa you need is luck of the draw, but one thing they don’t tell you is how inefficient they are and how long the waiting times can be. Don’t panic if you can’t get the right visa at first; you can get it extended in many Chinese towns and cities or go to Hong Kong for a new one. Some people just throw in the gauntlet and pay extra for a visa processing service to shoulder the burden, which is a commendable and often more successful option.
- Learn some Chinese
Not an obligation, since you can technically get by without it in the megacities, but it definitely helps if you want to be taken seriously! They’ll think you’re ultimately cool anyway, but the Chinese are incredibly wowed even if you can just utter a few words at them. If you can take a few classes before you head out then great; if not then pick up a phrasebook and audiotape and get cramming. You’ll pick bits up fast once you’re out there, but make the transition smoother on yourself.
- Check out the expat scene
Once you’re settled on a location, get hold of some other foreigners who will also be in the area through your company, Facebook, or most reliably through the expat websites, which are usually the websites of local Western magazines. These will tell you of upcoming events, job offers, nightlife, meetings and a plethora of outdoor activities you can engage in to meet new people and create a home away from home. Again this is not necessary, particularly if you want to bravely throw yourself into the whole Chinese immersion thing and be a true zhongguolaowai.
- Get a VPN
China is a fantastic place to live and it’s doubtful you’ll have any regrets, but there is a great spanner in the works: a Great Firewall-shaped spanner. Like most Westerners, you’ll probably want access to websites and apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube and Amnesty International, so you’ll have to download VPN or proxy software onto your devices. There are few clumsy free ones, but a better option is to just cough up about $7 a month for something speedier and more user-friendly.
... appropriately! Remember the climate, your length of stay, and what you’re likely to miss. As we all well know, most products are Made in China so don’t worry too much about forgetting mundane things as you can pick them up cheaply here. Most important are items of sentimental value, medication, a way to contact home and things you can’t get out here like Marmite. Oh, and adapter plugs. If you are going to teach, some games and resources are a good idea, or your favourite childhood books (Roald Dahl anyone?). Some kids are even willing buy Sterling notes off you for more than their actual worth. Gifts, particularly of the consumable variety, are also appreciated if you will be living with a family. Use your common sense and tetris skills and it’ll be a breeze.
Averting a quarter-life crisis, or perhaps in the midst of one, Sally Jensen (22) snuck away to Chengdu, China after studying French at uni. She now works there as an English au pair for reasons she still does not quite comprehend. Half-Peruvian and half-sane, she likes to write drivel at www.whatsallychengdid.blogspot.com and hopes to one day find a real job of some description. Sporadic tweets (@squouse) and rarer Instagrams (@squousej) are both subject to availability.