The Politics of Teaching English in China

Teaching English in Chinese, Young children, China

 It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…

So what’s Charles Dicken’s got to do with teaching English in China?

Dicken’s opening paragraph to A Tale of Two Cities is analogous to my time teaching English in China because it was full of contrasts – love and hate, laughter and frustrations. And it’s not just analogous to my experience of teaching English in China, but also China itself: a country with parallel worlds.

Why did I decided to teach English in China?

I was 21, and like so many young people, I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do with my life (I still don’t really know). All I knew was that I wasn’t ready to have a 9 till 5 job and I wanted to travel. However, I couldn’t afford to travel without a source of income so I figured teaching English in China would enable me to experience living life in a foreign country, enhance my CV, and take myself completely out of my comfort zone. To be honest, the idea of teaching English in China didn’t really attract me; it was just a vehicle to get out of England. At the time, I didn’t have any friends with experience teaching English abroad so any first-hand guidance was limited, but before I could really think twice about my decision, or allow myself to talk my way out of it,  I had my Visa within weeks, and said hasta la vista.

Why China?

My mother is Irish and my father is Chinese, however, I had never been to China because when Japan invaded China in the 1940s my father’s family escaped to Malaysia where they still continue to live. And despite seeing my relatives in Malaysia on several occasions, I couldn’t shake away the affinity I seemed to possess for China. In a way I yearned to go because I felt through discovering China, I was discovering a part of myself.

Wuhu, China, lake, Anhui

How I found teaching

Surprisingly, I didn’t find teaching too overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, there were times when my stomach would unleash a whirlpool of butterflies right before a class, but adrenaline took away most of  the nerves. The most rewarding moments arrived when I had gotten to know my students and it became much more natural and comfortable to conduct a class, and when I began seeing progress in their English that also felt very satisfying. However, this doesn’t mean things were always plain sailing…

teaching english in China, College, Anhui

The Politics of teaching English in China

There are three things we don’t want you to talk about. You must not talk about Chairman Mao, you must not talk about sex, and you must not talk about Tiananmen Square.

Those were the words of the headmaster before I began teaching a class of fifty that consisted of 18-20- year olds at an engineering college. I nodded in agreement whilst a voice of oppression silently wailed at the back of my head. Had I just walked into an Orwellian classroom?

It’s easy to say I broke my pledge, but most of the time it was completely by accident… There was the time I once tried teaching the concept of a ‘miracle’ but my pupils kept giving examples like ‘The great wall of China’, and ‘The Olympics’, and whilst they are fine examples of extraordinary engineering, they were still not the answers I was looking for. They couldn’t think outside of the box. In the end, I sprouted out the words ‘Virgin Mary’ and was greeted with a class of blank expressions so I figured I needed to expand further (this is where I should have stopped). I continued by asking if they knew what ‘virgin’ meant, which of course they didn’t. So clearly forgetting the words of their headmaster, I now felt obligated to enlighten them on the ways of the world, but as soon as they heard the word ‘sex’ all hell broke loose; the girls started shrieking as though the sheer utterance of the word was enough to contaminate their minds and bodies. A teaching highlight I must say.

Tiananmen Square was a difficult topic to avoid because I was teaching in 2009, during the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. This was a demonstration led by a group of students protesting for basic human rights such as having freedom of speech and press. The protest ended with government military action and countless innocent lives taken.

As you can imagine, the 20th anniversary of such an event would not have been forgotten but the government did its best to try… and try it did. All social networking sites, or any sites that perpetuated the sharing of ideas became banned, this included Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and I couldn’t access my email account for days. Then there were all the websites that were banned on Google. Even now, you can’t type phrases like ‘Tiananmen Square’ or ‘Tank Man’ into Google in China because those pages as well as many others that are affiliated with the historical atrocity are hidden behind a great firewall. Hidden from memory.


It was a big eye opener to live for 6 months in a country that so blatantly denied truth to its people. At least in England, our government tries to be discreet about brainwashing us. No, I shouldn’t be entirely negative, it made me feel lucky that I live in a country where I can voice by opinions without facing punishment.

Despite feeling frustrated about having to censor what I believe to be important truths in society and history, I still consider teaching English in China to be the single most important period of my life. It made me considerably more socially aware, and it picked me up when I felt down and uncertain about what I wanted to do in life, and although I’m still uncertain about what I want to do, it’s a different kind of uncertainty. Before China, I was uncertain because I felt I didn’t have any options, but now uncertainty has risen from seeing too many options. The experience not only made me feel more connected to my Chinese heritage, it made me confident in other areas of my life, because surely if you can go to a new country, on the other side of the world by yourself and finish what you set out to do, it makes your next challenge a little more easy to take on. For those who have ever thought about teaching English in a foreign country, just do it.

Nanjing, Nanking, China, attractions

Have you taught English abroad? Or would you like to?

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'The Politics of Teaching English in China' have 17 comments

  1. January 20, 2013 @ 1:07 am Harvard G

    What fun. Did you say where you did it, or did I miss that? Did you learn any hanzi along the way or conversational Mandarin? I’m learning both right now, and man, ce n’est pas facil.. wish I’d did it when I was a kid (to forget the suffering involved.)

    Carry on!


    • January 21, 2013 @ 6:24 pm admin

      Hello Harvard! I taught English in a small city called Wuhu in the Anhui province, approximately 3.5 hours away from Shaghai – I should probably have mentioned that in my post so maybe I will add some additional information!

      I learnt some conversational Mandarin and characters but I consider myself guilty for not trying harder. Hopefully after my degree I can dedicate more time to learning the language. Wow, fascinating to hear that you’re learning – what are your reasons for doing so if you don’t mind me asking? Indeed, I wish I had learnt it as a kid… and like you, partly to forget the suffering involved!


      • January 22, 2013 @ 7:13 am Harvard G

        Wuhu = Woohoo!

        My heritage is Taiwanese, and I speak Taiwanese (closest to Min Nan) – I avoided Mandarin for some time due to the history I associated with the language, when the Nationalists got kicked out of China in 1949 and came to Taiwan and, well, were not always pleasant.

        However, I’ve since concluded it’s unfair to associate a multi-thousand year language with the actions of a few, and I like languages – so for me, it’s a return to a cultural heritage (as it is with you) and for business purposes, as well. It’s amazing the differing treatment I’ve received from utilizing rudimentary Mandarin Chinese as opposed to operating in English.

        Are you still in freezing Europe??


        • January 22, 2013 @ 10:43 pm admin

          Haha as soon as I jumped off the coach from Shanghai to Wuhu I said ‘Woooohhhhoooooo’!

          Really glad you managed to put aside any ill feelings you may have harboured regarding Taiwan’s suppression (to euphemise) under China’s regime. As you said, we can’t hold this generation accountable for actions that happened in the past.

          I know what you mean about utilizing rudimentary Mandarin – it’s a language that seems to impress many, and even the Chinese themselves are incredibly impressed with foreigners who can string together only the most basic of sentences – it’s quite an ego boast haha!

          Yes, yes, I’m freezing my butt off. England has come to a halt over the last few days – the snow is causing quite a sensation.


  2. January 22, 2013 @ 2:17 pm Bill

    You are a fantastic writer. You’re blog is fantastic, as is your face, bum and bosoms. X


  3. January 22, 2013 @ 6:12 pm TheTuscan

    Now I’m really envying you for how well you write.
    Oh China China, it’s another planet which can be reached without a spacecraft. It would be the other side of the world even if it were one hour flight away.


    • January 22, 2013 @ 8:34 pm admin

      The Tuscan on China: ‘It would be the other side of the world even if it were a one hour flight away’ – now I’m envying you for this perfectly true thought!


  4. February 3, 2013 @ 11:57 am Cez (@CezKrol)

    You nailed it – China is a land of extremes. I’ve been teaching in China for few months and didn’t get such warning in advance because I’m working with kids. However, that’s what I’ve noticed when talking to teachers. They just won’t accept different version of events than the one supported by “the party”. Try saying something good about Tibetans and you’ll see a very strange reaction.

    Thanks for a great article and keep it up!


    • February 5, 2013 @ 7:32 pm admin

      Hi Cez! Yes, I forgot to mention the opinions held of the Tibetans – that’s another current of thought where truth is eclipsed by the status quo.

      Hope you’re enjoying teaching the little kids – they’re sooo adorable aren’t they?!


  5. February 16, 2013 @ 9:30 am EarthDrifter

    I’m teaching in the middle east now. There are only three things you can’t talk about in China, not too bad, here the list seems endless so I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t worry about it, try to go by common sense, and if I slip and catch myself in time, I just play dumb and change the subject. 🙂


    • February 17, 2013 @ 12:16 am admin

      Haha well, they said three things, but in reality it really meant 300 things! But don’t you find it frustrating that you have to monitor what you say? It really opened my eyes up.

      Oh I would love to read some of your ‘slip up’ stories! I had plenty of those in China – I must have said ‘How many brothers and sisters do you have?’ about 50 times! Duuuuurrrrrr.


      • February 22, 2013 @ 7:33 pm EarthDrifter

        I have all male classes, the society is segregated :- ( . Separate male and female campuses. I’m not supposed to talk about dating or even ex-girlfriends. Religion is also a part of all existence, so, I have to avoid that one daily. I just go around it. I’d love to write about some of the experiences but right now I just don’t feel it’s an option unfortunately, just can’t be writing about the R word. One time we were talking about how pathetic war is and I started saying: “Aliens are probably looking down at us shaking their heads at how ridiculous a species us earthlings are.” Woops, slip up, had to change the subjects, aliens, what, what the heck was I talking about…


  6. October 13, 2013 @ 3:03 pm Joas

    Hi, just discovered this post (and your blog, sorry for that) but I share the same feeling. Currently teaching English in China, have been here for three months and my feelings for China and Chinese people are changing everyday. Well actually a couple of times a day. These contrasts and contradictions! But that is the part that makes it so interesting to live here. And although they contradict themselves as well, have met the nicest people.
    And one more thing: thank you for writing that teaching itself wasn’t all that special (all the time). I was starting to think I was the only one that finds teaching English here just ok. (Of course with the exception of the great and funny moments in class)
    great blog.. 🙂


    • October 13, 2013 @ 9:55 pm admin

      Hi Joas! I’m really happy to hear that reading this post made you feel like you’re not the only one who has felt frustrated, shocked and tired whilst teaching English in China!

      But despite the roller-coaster of emotions, I hope you’re really embracing your life in China, like many things, you make it what it is. When I look back at my time there I feel like I could have submerged myself further by mixing more with Chinese people, learning the language better, going to more events or travelling more. But no matter what, I always look back with warm memories, it really was an unforgettable period of my life! All the students were so kind and affectionate…. ahhh now I’m reminiscing about China and wishing I was there again!

      I’ll definitely catch up with your blog, and thanks for sharing your thoughts!


  7. December 8, 2013 @ 7:26 am Margaret Amoabeng

    I want to teach English in china but I am not a degree holder.


  8. May 4, 2014 @ 8:12 pm Workers of the World #10

    […] The Politics of Teaching English in China The same teacher as above quickly learned that Chairman Mao, sex, and Tiananmen Square are some of the off-limits topics in China. […]


  9. October 1, 2014 @ 2:50 am Charlie

    This was a super interesting read, both in terms of your own heritage and your experience in China – thanks for sharing it. I taught abroad for pretty much the same reason as you, though my driving force was my boyfriend who had already applied for teaching work abroad and asked me if I wanted to come along. We applied to China, Korea and Taiwan though had a preference for Taiwan. We took the first job that offered us a position together – in Taiwan. We had an offer from a school in China 3 days after we arrived in Taiwan.

    Taiwan is very different to China, though my teaching experiences were full of the same contracts as yours – love and hate, laughter and frustrations. My experience with the country however, was great. They are a much more open minded society (all relative, they aren’t as far forward as multi-cultural societies like the UK but that’s because they’ve not had as much contact with different cultures etc) and Taiwan is full of kind-hearted, welcoming people. We also didn’t have topics that we couldn’t talk about, though some would be ‘frowned upon,’ the Taiwanese are more covert about those kind of things.

    Anyway, great account. And where in China did you teach?


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