What it’s really like to teach English in China

Teach English China

Teaching English abroad is a great way to see the world and make money at the same time. Caitlin Cosby spent a semester teaching English for grades 7-9 in Fuling, which is part Chongqing. In this interview Caitlin shares her experience as an English teacher in China, her advice for anyone thinking of teaching English abroad, and last but not least, her amazing photos!

Why did you decide you wanted to teach in China?

This time, last year, I was volunteering on a sheep farm in Norway and I had plans to travel around Europe for the rest of the spring and summer. After that, I had no clue what I wanted to do, but I did know that I wanted to keep traveling. Several of my friends have taught English in Asia, Europe, and Latin America and they highly recommended the experience. They said it was an incredible way to travel, because not only does it cut expenses, you get to engage with the community in a whole new way. So, in between lamb births on this Norwegian farm, I started looking at TEFL job postings online. As for why I chose China? I wanted to go somewhere completely new and different. The other side of the world seemed like a good place to start.

Teach English China
Wulong Karst

Can you take us through the basic logistics of how everything works, like applying to a program, getting a visa, living arrangements, etc.?

There are lots of sites that post TEFL jobs from different countries and companies; I found this particular job posting on ESLstarter.com. I applied for the job with the agreement that, if accepted, I would get my TEFL certification ASAP. After being interviewed and getting my certification, I was connected with a liason for the Chinese program (Sichuan Education Association for International Exchange) and they guided me through the process of visa applications, background and health checks, travel insurance, and packing for my trip. They provided me with support before, during, and after my trip and I am forever thankful for their help! The school I worked for organized my living arrangements and I lived on school grounds. They were very generous with the housing and made sure I had everything that I needed! Sure, my kitchen was a hot plate, the AC was touch-and-go, and my roommates were geckos, but my commute was 2 minutes, I had a western toilet, and IT WAS FREE. Fair trade.

Making friends was the easiest part of going to China! Talking with them was a little trickier…

What has been the hardest part of teaching English?

Communication! I rarely had a translator in the classroom. Luckily for me, my kids were really smart. Over time, I learned to use simple sentences when speaking, I incorporated more pictures into my PowerPoints, and everyone in the classroom was able to strengthen their charades skills.

Teach English China

Was it hard to make friends?

Making friends was the easiest part of going to China! Talking with them was a little trickier… Luckily, there’s this popular messaging app in China called WeChat (it’s like WhatsApp but with better emojis) and that ended up being a lifesaver. There’s a built-in translator, so we could sit next to each other and text in our respective languages (just like kids-these-days do anyways) and broach some deeper subjects.

Teach English China

What is it like to suddenly go 8,000 miles away from home?

Crazy in a good and bad way! I got to experience things I never could have even fathomed a year ago (i.e. being chased by yaks in Tibetan grasslands) and eat food so spicy that my taste buds still have nightmares, but I did miss celebrating the holidays with friends and family. Thank goodness for FaceTime.


What are some of your favorite moments of the experience?

  • My first week in Fuling, the teachers took me out for Hot Pot (a Chongqing favorite- think spicy cheese-less fondue). I ate lotus root (love!), intestine (like), and esophagus (never again). After dinner, we went to a K-TV, which takes karaoke to the next level, and I learned that “My Heart Will Go On” is a universally appreciated song.
  • Watching the entire student body of School 14 practice a dance routine to Kesha’s “Die Young” at 3 PM. Every day. With pom poms.
  • Doing Secret Santa with some fellow western teachers at an AirBnB in Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu. We played with a hovering minion toy for about 2 hours.
  • Anytime I ordered food successfully in Chinese.

What advice do you have for someone thinking about teaching English in China?

Do it! And if you do, always carry tissues (for the bathrooms).

Teach English China

Your Instagram is filled with amazing photos across China—what are some of your favorite places?

Thanks! China is pretty spectacular. Wulong Karst was one of my favorite trips. Imagine hiking through a green canyon surrounded by ancient misty mountains and towering cliffs… And then you stumble upon a huge dinosaur Transformer. Plot twist.

Tagong in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of China is also a hidden treasure. Some friends and I went hiking there during the Golden Week (a national holiday during the first week of October). We did a tent stay with a nomadic family, ate fresh yak yogurt, visited a monastery, and spent hours staring at the night sky. I have never seen so many stars!

Shanghai was my favorite city. There’s a fairly large international community and the live music scene was fantastic!

Teach English China

Have you been learning Chinese? Is there a big language barrier?

The language barrier was definitely noticeable. Very few adults spoke English where I lived, so tasks like taking a taxi, going grocery shopping, or ordering food were pretty intimidating to me. Thankfully, Yangtze Normal University provided us with Chinese lessons. Chinese is a beautiful language, but it’s also complicated and pretty unforgiving. Pronunciation is extremely important and even the smallest mistake in your tone can result in blank stares from the people around you.

The one phrase I perfected: “Ting bu dong!” (I don’t understand!)

Teach English China

China is always in the news these days, often because of political fights. What has living there as a teacher taught you about the country and how the US and China can get along in the future?

While living in China, I was rarely able or inclined to discuss politics. It’s a sensitive topic that’s difficult to explore when you don’t speak the same language. That being said, I have high hopes for Sino-US relations. Our trade industries rely heavily on each other and (hopefully) that will continue to provide incentive to have a strong relationship. But while relations may be tense between our governments, I’m not-at-all worried about relations between citizens. Chinese people were typically intrigued by my nationality, not put off by it. I felt welcomed by my students and colleagues and they are so clever and silly and compassionate that it is hard to not have hope for the future when it involves such incredible people.

Teach English China
What are the best resources for someone considering teaching English abroad?

If you’re thinking about teaching abroad, a really good idea would be to e-mail the program you’re applying to and ask to be put in contact with someone who is currently teaching there. It was really helpful because I was able to ask specific questions and hear about their experiences first hand. As far as online resources are concerned, gooverseas.com has a lot of helpful information about traveling and working abroad. It’s not exclusive to teaching, though they do have helpful information on teaching abroad. There are also some pretty great blogs out there that can give you an inside-look at teaching English abroad. You should check out wanderlindsloves.com and taylorjamesexplores.com. These two are friends from China and they write about their teaching experiences, as well as some of the awesome weekend trips they take around Asia. Also, if you’re planning on teaching/traveling in China, travelchinaguide.com is your BEST FRIEND!

What’s next for Caitlin Cosby?

Your guess is as good as mine! I’d love to explore more of China/Asia/The World, but for the time being, I’m heading back to NYC. If anyone knows where I can find some good Chongqing Hot Pot in the city, please let me know!

Keep up with Caitlin on Instagram!

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  1. says: Sasha Wilson

    I love these fearless young people who move about the world with awe and curiosity! Even though American political leadership is at best a horror show for now, Americans like Caitlin are the antidote. People who meet her know that Americans are not anything like our “elected” leaders, and I’m sure this gives them hope!

    1. says: Alex

      I definitely agree Sasha! It’s great to see people like Caitlin going abroad and making an impact while doing great things! And it’s always important to remember that politics doesn’t have to define people to people interactions and friendships.

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