What's it like teaching English in China

Updated: May 7, 2020


Meet ND McCray, a 45-year old writer and educator from Houston, Texas. For over two years she taught English at a language learning center in Beijing, China. We spoke with her via email about her life in Beijing and the reverse culture shock upon her return.


Why did you make the move abroad initially?

ND: I loved traveling even as a kid. From Houston we would drive to see family in New Orleans, Napoleonville, Raceland, and Dallas, all the time. But I joined the military right after high school and that fueled my desire to travel even more. I’ve been to over 40 states, including Alaska; spent time in Haiti and was stationed in Japan for three years, so I knew I’d leave the country again at some point. 


Why did you choose Beijing, China?

ND: I chose China because it’s different and exciting all at the same time. I also knew traveling in Asia would be cheap. I’ve been to Shanghai, Tokyo, Macau, Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guilin, all very inexpensive trips. Beijing is the second largest city in China. It's has a rich culture, the quality of life is good. But even with a population of over 18 million people, it’s still very traditional; like old world meets new world. I like that mix of culture.


Did you always want to be a teacher? And what was it like teaching English in Beijing? 

ND: I always knew I had a desire to teach. For years I’d volunteer with at-risk youth programs, after-school programs but writing was always my first love. So, I pursued that for years, even got degrees in journalism and communication. 


Teaching ESL, teaching period has to be one of the most rewarding careers you can ever take on. There's a learning curve for sure!


First off, in order to teach English in China, you need to be a native English speaker from either the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, South Africa, or New Zealand. You also need to have a bachelor’s degree and complete a 120-hour TEFL or ESL certification.


Teaching experience isn't necessary, but it helps. We worked long hours including weekends. But what I miss the most since returning to the U.S., is my students. Building rapport with kindergarten, elementary and middle school students is tough stateside; imagine in another country where English is their second language. 


Despite the language barrier, some of my best memories include connections with those very same students. From the five-year old’s who would light up whenever I’d walk into the classroom to the fifth and sixth graders who would say things like “You’re a cool teacher,” made the experience all the more sweeter. 


How did culture shock affect you as a black expat in Beijing?

ND: I don’t think you ever truly get used to having your photo taken without your permission. Or the constant stares and sometimes pointing. It can be hard for a lot of black expats.


That said, I’m curious by nature so I arrived with a Lonely Planet Beijing guidebook in hand and was off exploring the city by myself within my first two days in country. I think it really helped me by having an open mind and no expectations on how it would be to teach in a country where I didn’t speak the language.

Did you have a set contract in Beijing?

ND: I did. Initially I signed on for 15 months. But maybe six months in, I knew I wanted to stay longer. Four to five years I was thinking. But what’s the saying? “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” Two years into my plan some family things happened back home, so I pivoted and returned stateside to be that support for them.


How have you dealt with the reverse culture shock?

ND: I’m better now. I’ve been back well over a year so still adjusting in a way. Last year I did seek therapy. That helped tremendously. I just needed to talk someone who didn’t know me, and I could be free to explore all the feelings I was feeling upon my return. I had a bit of sadness for sure. And acceptance.

I mean Beijing was home for over two years. I’d gotten use to the Chinese way of life. I knew the streets, the hutongs, and walked them all the time. All hours of the night. I knew my favorite noodle and fried rice spots; favorite Malaysian and Indian restaurants. I knew what clubs on what night had a good DJ. Who had to best roasted sweet potato cart on the street close to my job. I knew what bus to take to what temple. I knew where to check for a live show. I had a routine of going to parks, temples, and museums on my days off.


What has being back stateside taught you?

Being back in Texas after about five years away (I lived in St. Louis prior to Beijing) taught me that's it okay to pivot. That it's okay to not be in control of every damn thing!


In that, I’m now allowing the Universe to guide me. If something doesn’t come to me, through the door of opportunity the first time with a relative amount of ease, comfort; I let it go. I no longer push. I no longer hold on to shit like I use to. 


Where can the people find you online?

ND: I can be found on Instagram @acdjzfnd as well as www.ndmccray.com.