Why should you get involved at your Chinese school?
Many foreigners who teach English in China view their role as “just a job.” They show up, but go straight home after work and try to skip out on office hours.
Instead, why not view this job as a cultural experience? If you invest in your school and the people there, you will have a better quality of life in China.
If the experience itself doesn’t motivate you, remember that by becoming part of the school family, your coworkers may be more inclined to help you in times of need. Your principal is also more likely to ask you to re-sign for another year! Who doesn’t love job security?
Here are a few tips for building relationships at your school.
Learn a little Mandarin
Most expats quickly learn “nǐ hǎo” and “xiè xie” when they move to China. My Chinese is pretty rough, but I’ve learned a number of phrases. When I say something to a Chinese person that is beyond what they expect of me, they have a field day!
All I have to do is greet someone with “zǎo shang hǎo” (“good morning”) or count in Mandarin, and my coworkers laugh and compliment me on my efforts. If they correct my pronunciation or try to teach me a related phrase, we’ve made a connection.
Sit with Chinese coworkers at lunch
Many schools offer their teachers a free or inexpensive lunch in the cafeteria. I have several friends who sit alone or surrounded by fellow expats during meals. They don’t want to exert the energy required to have broken conversations with Chinese people “on their own time.”
From day one, I got in the habit of eating with my Chinese coworkers. During lunches, I’ve learned Mandarin, taught English, and shared a lot of laughs from cultural misunderstandings. Even on days when I don’t talk to other people at lunch, the simple gesture of sitting with them shows I am open to relationships.
My school has clubs that meet after school, and each club meets on a different day of the week. These clubs are essentially free classes for teachers. They offer everything from tai chi, to hiking, to crafts.
My husband and coworker, Daniel, and I joined yoga club first semester. Second semester, we switched to badminton club, because badminton is as popular as ping pong in China! Through these activities, we’ve learned new skills, met people, and showed that we’re making an effort to become part of the school family.
Your school may not offer as many classes as ours, but chances are they have at least one or two after-school options. If your school does offer daily clubs, there’s no need to feel overwhelmed! You don’t have to commit to a club every day. We chose just one club per semester.
No, I’m not suggesting you buy your way into your coworkers’ hearts!
I started noticing that when the people in my office went on a trip or had a spouse make a batch of cookies, they would bring something for everyone in the office.
My husband and I decided to follow cultural expectations, so we started bringing back treats every time we went out of town. We want to show our coworkers that we take their needs and feelings into consideration.
Communicate with your fellow teachers
If you haven’t moved to China yet, you should know that new expat English teachers are assigned a “contact teacher.” This contact teacher is paid to help you with any paperwork and to communicate with your agency about your responsibilities.
I strongly recommend getting to know your contact teacher. If simply getting to know them isn’t motivation enough, keep in mind that the stronger the relationship you build, the more willing they will probably be to help you. Daniel and I are lucky, because we were both placed in the same office as our contact teacher, so it’s been easy to form a bond with her. (Shout-out to Fiona! You’re the bomb!)
Communicate with other teachers, too. Chinese people don’t always offer constructive criticism the way Westerners do, so I’ve learned to take the initiative in asking for feedback.
When your coworkers invite you to dinner, they are actively trying to initiate a relationship. You may be tempted to skip the group dinner and order McDonald’s delivery again, but consider accepting the invitation.
Chinese people typically pay for your meal if they have invited you. Not only will you get a free meal, but they’ll know exactly what to order. Every time I go to a restaurant with my Chinese friends, it’s been a high-quality dining experience and a wonderful memory.