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Dealing With Culture Shock While Teaching English in China
Written By: Amanda Barrows | Updated: June 29, 2023
Written By: Amanda Barrows
Updated: June 29, 2023
Culture shock: for me, it’s a theme all too common in my experience abroad. Having lived in the Americas, Europe and now Asia, there’s been plenty of adjustment to undertake. Adjustment to life from one continent to another, I supposed that culture shock was to be expected. Moving from South Korea to China? I didn’t expect to experience any culture shock, but I was mistaken.
By way of introduction, in speaking of the culture of Korea and of China, I am not an expert on the topic, and do not want to be regarded, judged or perceived as such. This article is merely derived from my personal experiences living in Korea (Seoul and in Yuchon near the DMZ) as well as my limited experience in Suzhou, China. I don’t speak for the whole of China or for other foreigners.
VIEWPOINTS: Living in Korea and elsewhere in the world, I heard so many viewpoints regarding China. The rest of the world has conflicting ideas and certain perceptions regarding China, and upon leaving South Korea, I felt ready to discover the REAL China. What is this land of diverse peoples, intricate language, sprawling landscapes and epic dynasties?
My culture shock started with some differences I started to notice in daily life. Culture shock for me happened in comparing my Korea life to that of China. There were moments when colleagues needed to remind me, “You aren’t in South Korea anymore…”
In Korea, I have heard the Chinese referred to as “rude” and “having no manners”. Here, in China, people say, “Korea is antiquated and with its bows and intricate rules regarding respect, hasn’t moved on from the past. The cultural rules seem stifling.” On either side, there is definitely love-hate relationship that most seem to acknowledge.
I feel that some of these opinions derive from not only history and politics, but also cultural differences in mannerisms and showing respect. I used to think that a hierarchy was less powerful or existed to a lesser extent in China. This is not always the case. A social hierarchy–especially in the work place–does exist, yet it’s more subtle and I have found it more difficult to navigate.
In Korea, I grew to appreciate bowing and the differences in addressing those of higher working station. It was 100% clear to me what the working relationship would be and the expectations regarding respect. The workplace was a tightly-knit community and worked like a well-oiled machine. I hold no illusions: it wasn’t perfect, but still…
The Three T's
In China, it is best to avoid the 3 “Ts” in daily life. These are none other than: Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan. This will help you to avoid any cultural faux pas or getting into an argument which may not be appropriate to have in certain settings.
I learned this lesson for myself within my first month in China. I can remember the incident like it was yesterday. I was having dinner with a friend in the Suzhou city center. He had showed me the old city and canals by night and it had been a fun time. We were chatting about the US, China, places to visit etc. and it was an overall pleasant conversation.
Then, somehow, Taiwan slipped out without me even giving it a second thought: “Taiwan…blablabla…the country..blablabla” Then, I saw it. That tell-tale gaze that tells me I have committed a faux pas…
My friend immediately retorted: “Taiwan is a Chinese province”
… Somehow, NOT a conversation I want to be having with a new friend of week 3 in China. We quickly changed the topic to something more suitable and less politically charged.
For me, The Taiwan issue is a matter of perspective. From a geo-political perspective, Taiwan is recognized as an autonomous nation. Politically, Taiwan has separated itself, but culturally and historically, Taiwan has been a part of China…I do acknowledge that there is a known history of tension and conflict between the US, Taiwan and China, and I’m NOT about to get in the middle of things. On this side of the world, I will keep my political two-sense to myself. I can agree to disagree and will always respect and consider the opinions of others. Here I am a guest and respect is key.
Since this day, I have never forgotten the important of avoiding certain topics. Politically charged topics are generally not appropriate for general conversation in China and the 3 “Ts” are prime examples. There is no debate here. If a topic doesn’t feel comfortable, it’s better to drop it and leave it alone.
In November 2017, I was sick for 2 weeks. Once, with a cold where I could hardly walk and another time with an innocuous cough and sniffles. During that time, I have come to know a certain truth regarding training centers in China. At certain centers, management sometimes mismanages things. Teachers are sometimes scheduled for classes without being told they are teaching and the contract is often tested. At times, one may not get what one is entitled to have unless one moves forward and is assertive.
With sickness, I have learned to always advocate for myself. Although my employers feel like my family in China, work is work and I have learned that company policy and work has priority over health for some members of the training center community. Sick days aren’t so much a thing—even for Chinese nationals—so I have learned to be my best advocate when I am ill and to always provide a doctor’s note.
I also learned to ALWAYS translate labels and to ask about side effects. Unbeknownst to me, the cold medicine here, in addition to curing cold symptoms, often acts as a sleep aid. Taking this kind of medicine before work is a nightmare of vertigo, dizziness and overall nausea. I don’t recommend it!
I was shocked by my experience being sick in China, as I had never had so much backlash being sick in South Korea. Rather than being forced to work while sick (in South Korea), I would be sent home. During my time in China, this was not the case. I had to learn to fend for myself. Working in a company environment, I had to be my best advocate.
Teaching: "Smile, You're on Camera!"
Another aspect of teaching in China that surprised me is that everything is filmed. My classes, office… everything is on CCTV camera for safety reasons. I think that this is a great feature which allows for transparency, but was taken aback to see grandparents charging into my classroom after seeing his/her grandchild not singing a class song.
There is safety with CCTV, but there are also extremes. Some parents sit on the edge of their seat watching the class screen in the school lobby. Thus, I must always make sure that my body language is positive to avoid anything being misconstrued. As an educator, these things go without saying, but, especially at first, I felt a bit on edge and shocked knowing that every second of class time was under scrutiny.
This article is the embodiment of my experience with culture shock while moving from South Korea to China. Culture shock is random, subtle and sometimes is difficult to navigate. It also looks different for different people. A new environment brings new challenges which often arrive unexpectedly. For me the shock happened while comparing my life in South Korea to my life in China.
With this being said, despite my initial struggles, I have adjusted to life in China. I have found cultural adjustment to be a journey in respect, awareness and learning. I have learned to experience each country without judgement and to avoid comparisons along the way. The transition from one country to another—even on the same continent—can be difficult. More from one country within Asia to another was my most difficult of experiences.
A new continent is a clean slate, but somehow the lines between my life in South Korea and China were bore semblance, yet we're completely different. A new start should bring new perspective. While it is tempting to reminisce on past experiences and compare cultures, it has proven more healthy for me to stay grounded in my China life and the make a clean transition.
Upon graduating from College in 2014, Amanda received her TEFL certification from International TEFL Academy and began teaching English in France. A few years later, and a Fulbright grant under her belt, she went on to teach English in South Korea, and then Suzhou, China, where she became one of our 2018 Alumni Content & Writing Ambassadors.
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