Teaching English in China

This is another one of those posts that’s pretty funny… in retrospect. So if you’re planning on teaching English in China, read away because this could be you.

I had decided in Beijing that I was going to get a job over the summer teaching English to make some money. I immediately sought out a job, checking a wall of postings at Village Café- the only semi-decent western restaurant near campus. There were a few jobs, so I wrote down their numbers and began calling. I wanted to teach a class of little kids, rather than tutor high schoolers for the TOFL exam (to prove their English is good enough to study abroad). I found one listing for the Wild Goose Pagoda English school, I gave them a call and the woman asked if I was free in an hour to meet with her. Sure!

A few of my friends had jobs teaching English in Beijing. It pays very well: about $20 an hour without a college degree or a TEFL certification (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). In Xi’an it’s about $10-15, but even that is better than nothing. At 3:00 I walked to the edge of campus to meet the Chinese woman, Cynthia, who would show me the Wild Goose Pagoda School. Cynthia was your typical Xi’annese girl: dressed in an ill-fitting white qipao and strappy white platform sandals straight out of the 90’s, she had her shoulder-length hair in a messy ponytail and frameless glasses on her makeup-less face.


Cynthia led me down Changan’nan lu, and we hopped on the bus to the Wild Goose Pagoda School. The school was located on the fourth floor of a hotel near a local elementary school. We hopped in the elevator and exited out into a dimly lit hallway lined with dirty classrooms. The first thing I noticed was the wreaking stench of pee, coming from the bathroom, which had probably never been cleaned. We walked down the hallway, escaping the smell, and entered into a classroom. Cynthia went over my resume, and told me that she could offer me a job, but that I would have to lie about being a student, as well as my teaching background. I taught kindergarteners how to read my sophomore year of college through the DC Reads program, but I had no background in teaching foreigners English. I agreed to lie, and we headed out the door to meet the head of the Wild Goose Pagoda School: Oscar.

Oscar was definitely not what I was expecting. A scruffy, American man in his late twenties, Oscar was your typical adventurous, outdoorsy American backpacker, who fell in love with China and made the conscious decision to live as an expat in a city that is not Shanghai or Beijing. I eventually learned that he and Cynthia were dating, of course. The three of us sat in large wicker chairs at a nearby café and talked about my future 2 month teaching career. Oscar mentioned a school where I could teach young kids, but it would require one session of free teaching before they would decide whether or not they wanted me. It was about forty-five minutes on the subway, and I would teach all day on Sunday. At the mention of the free class, Cynthia exploded into Xi’annese (a local dialect of the standard Mandarin), while Oscar argued with her in typical Mandarin. It was hard to get the gist of their conversation, but they eventually explained to me that Cynthia was afraid that the school would take my free class, and then never higher me, getting a full day of teaching for free. They said they would get a hold of the school, and try and work out a deal. Typical China.

The next day, I was to teach a class at the school as a free tester, and then they would decide if they wanted me for that Sunday. However, when the time came for me to head over to the school, I couldn’t get a hold of Oscar or Cynthia! About an hour after I was supposed to leave, Oscar called me telling me he couldn’t get in contact with the school, and that we would try again for tomorrow. The day came and went, the school proved unreliable, and I was jobless.

Two weeks later Cynthia called me asking if I could come in and meet a family to tutor a high school boy in English. I hopped on the bus, found the school, wandered past the pee-soaked bathroom, and sat in the office waiting to meet the student and his dad. I was a little early and I brought some Chinese homework to keep me busy. Cynthia, dressed in the same, white qipao, waited patiently next to me, impressed that I was learning Chinese characters in addition to the language. 2:30 came and went, and there was no student. After the family was 45 minutes late, Cynthia started frantically calling the father. Eventually, she was able to get ahold of him, and he said he would call his son. The son had apparently set up another appointment with a different language tutor, not knowing the time of our appointment. Miscommunication much? I agreed to wait an hour for him, and set to work on my homework. After about an hour and a half Cynthia and I grew anxious. Where were they? Cynthia called the father again, and long story short: it was a massive exchange of phone tag that led to me waiting for this kid for FOUR HOURS.

I was so angry and had never felt more disrespected in my life. I’m not some teacher that sits around all day from 9-5, I’m a student who made a special trip all the way to the school to sit there for four hours with no pay. I was fuming, but apparently the father apologized and offered to take Cynthia and I out to dinner (it never happened). To make it up to me, Cynthia took me to a little hole in the wall place to get fish for dinner. We sat at a dirty table next to a chef who was snoring loudly, and drank Bing Fengs (Xi’an’s local orange soda) while we waited for our fish. The fish was definitely very good, but left me craving the amazing fish that my friends and I would get at a restaurant near campus in Beijing. I thought back to how eating fish with heads and skin used to freak me out, and laughed

After our meal Cynthia asked if I wanted to get ice cream. I’d finished almost all my homework during my four-hour imprisonment at the school, so I agreed. We walked a few blocks over to the Wild Goose Pagoda and surrounding plaza. It was an especially hot and sunny day and there were people everywhere. It was impossible to get through without ruining someone’s picture. After following Cynthia through the crowd we came to our destination: KFC.


Cynthia and I found the only table available in the restaurant, and thankfully it was by a window and away from the chaos and noise inside. Cynthia treated me to a strawberry sundae and we sat and chatted. She gushed about her relationships with Oscar, saying all of her friends were jealous of her for dating a foreign boy. She also let it slip that teaching English in China is not a very lucrative career. Cynthia desperately wanted to go to America and meet Oscar’s family but Oscar barely had enough money for his own ticket, let alone hers (his family has to buy his ticket home year after year).

After we finished our ice cream Cynthia walked me to the bus stop and I made my way home. She promised to call if another job opened up… She never called

The week before I left for the Silk Road trip, I was walking back to the hotel/dorm with Gabe and Cheng. Since Gabe and I were in the more advanced Chinese class, we decided we were going to mainly speak in Chinese for the night. We had maocai for dinner, went and bought some chuar, and then walked back through campus together, chatting in Chinese. As we were walking back a young Chinese man in a grey suit stopped me and complimented me on my Chinese. He asked me if I was interested in teaching English and, without thinking about the limited time I had left, said yes. I told him I would be out of town that next week, but I was available for the two weeks after that. We exchanged numbers and he told me he’d call with details.

Eric, or should I say the “English Teacher head hunter”, called me two days later as I was on the train to Gansu. I could barely hear him as we were going through tunnel after tunnel through the mountains. He said he had found a family with a 17 year-old boy looking for a spoken English tutor from America. He wanted four or five two-hour sessions and I agreed. I told him we could arrange something the week I got back. Little did I know what I was in for.

The Sunday I returned from Shanghai I was exhausted and unprepared for my giant capstone project and Chinese final and dreading my tutoring appointment. It was arranged for us to meet in the lobby of my hotel-dorm and as I was getting ready I received a phone call. “Richelle, we’re here waiting for you downstairs”, I looked at the clock “you’re twenty minutes early!” I exclaimed. But I was told to rush downstairs because the parents were waiting for me. With an exasperated sigh I grabbed my purse and ran downstairs.

Waiting for me in the lobby was my seventeen-year-old student, Edward, his parents and Eric. I introduced myself in Chinese, and then proceeded to give Edward an English lesson while his parents observed. I started off by asking the boy to introduce himself and he launched into a typical memorized paragraph: “Hello, my name is Edward. I go to blank school. I am seventeen years old. I am interested in physics and medicine.” Etc. etc. etc. I eventually stopped him. “What do you like about physics?”, I asked. Blank expression. Edward wasn’t used to people asking him questions in English.

I spent two hours tutoring Edward that night, and another two later that week at a café on Shida Lu. His mom came to this one too, chatting with Eric and watching me teach her son. She and her husband didn’t speak any English, but she liked to watch the lessons anyway. One thing that I noticed about his mother was that she was very good at getting the lessons to run over, and when I say run over, I mean half an hour to forty-five minutes over. After every lesson, her son would have to come over and show her what he learned, and then he would be shy and mumble. Then Eric would give him tips on enunciation and volume because apparently “Americans are confident and talk loud”. This would go on for a good half hour at least… you get the picture.

With my limited time schedule, I had informed Eric that I wouldn’t have time to go all the way to the family’s apartment, seeing as it was on the opposite side of Xi’an from me. But of course, Eric called me and guilt triped me into taking the subway to North Xi’an for my third lesson. “It’ll only take 20 minutes to get there” he promised me. That was a complete lie. It took us almost an hour to get there on the subway, and another fifteen minutes of walking just to get to the apartment. Edward and his family lived in a very nice gated apartment complex with parks and playgrounds- pretty fancy for Xi’an.

I spent the afternoon tutoring Edward in is room, which was a pretty entertaining process. I asked him to talk about an American movie with me, and he said he really liked “Aveger”, which I took to be The Avengers. We then launched into a huge discussion about the definition of avenge versus revenge. It wasn’t until I had him describe the premise of the movie to me that I realized he was actually talking about Avatar. Whoops.


For our final lesson, we were supposed to meet at a café on campus, but yet again, his mom pulled the strings and had me coming to the apartment. Apparently Edward wanted to show me his high school. My capstone was due that weekend and I really didn’t have two hours to waste on transportation, but I couldn’t really say no. So I hopped on the subway and Eric and I made our way to North Xi’an. Edward made it to the metro and proceeded to walk with me to his high school, literally one block from his apartment complex. I was expecting a normal high school with a little campus- nope. His high school was a gated complex with 10,000 students! Most students were boarding students but he just happened to live nearby.

As we walked around the outside of his campus Edward taught me about school life in China. They had class six days a week from 6am to 10pm. It was against the rules to leave the campus during the week; they could only leave on Sundays. Even on Sundays there were very strict rules. Apparently they weren’t even allowed to go to the movie theater across the street! They also weren’t allowed to date either. Honestly, Chinese high school sounds awful. Even college doesn’t sound very appealing. 10 pm curfews and six people to a room with no refrigerators or air conditioning and only two desks. In Xi’an there is no hot water in the dorm buildings so they must go across campus to shower in the “shower building”. There also is no hot water in the rooms, hence the “hot water palace” where students fill up their large hot water thermoses to bring back to their rooms.


After wandering around the campus, Edward and I walked back to his apartment, where his mom had a bowl of crab apples waiting for us. I tried to be polite but they were SO GOOD I could not stop eating them. His mom loved it, and encouraged me to eat more… so I did. Eric encouraged Edward and I to talk about some of the major differences between America and China, and Edward, surprisingly enough, brought up the subject of guns. I then explained to him the history of the 2nd amendment and why we should historically be allowed to have guns (don’t get me started on what I actually think about America’s gun laws). After I finished talking, Edward told me he thought it was a great thing that Americans have guns because “If I had a gun, I would stand up to my government too”. WHAT. I almost had a panic attack. He continued, “If I lived in America I would want a gun to protect myself and other people”. “So do you think I should have a gun?”, I asked. “Yeah!” he exclaimed. “You should definitely carry one around with you in America to protect yourself. Everyone should have guns because bad people can have guns”. Okay then. I’m just glad his mom doesn’t speak English or she probably would have killed him.

Crab apples in bowl

Note: If any of you are worried about this getting traced back to the Chinese government I’ve changed everyone’s English names, which are not their legal names anyway, and there is no record of me ever having taught in China. Come to think of it… I don’t even know the name of the company that I was supposedly working for…

After we chatted in English about guns, Edward’s mom invited us all out for dinner. I was very pressed for time with my capstone and my Chinese final, but in China if someone invites you out to dinner you don’t say no, so I went. We walked across the street to the mall and entered a fancy Chinese restaurant. We all sat down and I could tell they were nervous about what kind of food I would like. I told them that I loved all Chinese food, would eat anything and assured them that yes, I do in fact love spicy food. The group of us all ordered fresh squeezed watermelon juice, which was absolutely amazing, along with many traditional Xi’anesse dishes. Before we started eating, Edward’s mom asked for some serving chopsticks, which I thought was interesting. She then proceeded to spoon food onto everyone’s plates before picking up her chopsticks. Afterwards we all took turns with the serving chopsticks. I thought this was a little strange, seeing as most people in China eat from the family style dishes with their own chopsticks (part of the reason we were always getting each other sick). I must’ve made some sort of comment about how I’d never used serving chopsticks before unless someone was sick, and my Chinese companions were extremely surprised! Apparently they had been using the serving chopsticks for my benefit! I assured them that the serving chopsticks were not necessary and all three breathed a sigh of relief and the dinner became much less awkward.

After dinner we took a bunch of photos, said our goodbyes and I headed back to campus. It was a long subway ride home, and while I was in somewhat of a rush to get back and start writing my capstone, I was a little sad to be leaving my gun-loving, Avatar watching 17 year old friend. While the whole tutoring experience was kind of a mess, and a little bit stressful, I think Edward taught me much more than I taught him.



About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

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