Maybe you’ve taught students in America. You might babysit on weekends. Or you hang out with your younger cousins a lot.
All of these experiences are useful when preparing to teach in China. However, there are certain aspects of Chinese children that are always surprising.
Chinese students differ from American students in many ways.
You will pick up on these differences as time goes on, but here are a few things that I found most startling when I started teaching kids in China.
1. Students wear the same thing every day
At most Chinese schools, students wear formal attire on Mondays. Throughout the rest of the week, they wear the exact same thing every day—usually, blue and white track suits.
I was surprised to find that public school students wore uniforms. I was even more taken aback once I caught on to the fact that these students didn’t own multiple track suits. They wore their only suit every single day, often including Saturdays and Sundays.
I don’t think most students owned many more articles of clothing, especially in the low-income area where I lived and taught.
Students do everything in these uniforms. They eat, go to gym class, and hang out at home in these clothes.
If your students start to look dirty or smell funny, don’t be alarmed. Most Chinese people don’t have dryers. As a result, there’s no time for parents to wash their kids’ only uniforms and hang them up to fully dry before morning.
2. They put high expectations on themselves
Chinese parents and teachers place a lot of pressure on children to perform well. Not only do they want kids to excel in classes, but they also want them to excel in other areas.
For this reason, you might notice students either arriving to school an hour early to take dance lessons or stay an hour late to practice gymnastics routines. Or both!
Many students take their elders’ high expectations on themselves and do their best to perform well in multiple fields.
It was important to me that my students learn in my classes and respect me. However, because I knew their lives were so stressful, I worked hard to make my classes fun learning experiences. I tried to provide a lighthearted moment in kids’ days.
3. They slap butts
Working in a primary school, students were not shy about slapping my butt. I saw them do this to each other all the time, but I was shocked when they did it to me. Did they not respect me?
When I asked my contact teacher about this issue, she told me it’s normal for young kids to do so. For this reason, most Chinese teachers would not stop a kid from slapping my backside when they witnessed it happening. Teachers who were more aware of Western cultures stepped in to stop children, though.
You can choose how you handle this situation if you teach primary school. I let it slide in the hallways, but on the rare occasion that a student hit me during class, I scolded them. Some foreign teachers wouldn’t stand for it in any context.
4. They crowd you
A huge difference between Chinese and Western cultures is the concept of personal space. Chinese people typically don’t pay attention to personal space. If someone stands close to you on the subway or hovers behind you in line for food, it’s not considered rude.
This cultural difference leads to children crowding you.
On the plus side, whenever I entered a room, students would yell, “Laura!” and crowd around me, hugging me.
On the down side, it took me a long time to get from my office to a classroom, because students followed me. Sometimes they would even grab my clothes as I passed by. In between class periods, students gathered around my desk and stared at my computer.
Feel free to set certain boundaries, especially about your desk area. I was lenient about students hanging around my desk because I didn’t want to offend anyone.
However, one student used the crowded atmosphere to her advantage and stole money from my purse. She knew I would be too distracted by all the other children. I wish I had set boundaries sooner.