My TEFL Experience in China | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

My TEFL Experience in China

Travel writer Laura Mosley writes about the highs and lows of her TEFL experience in China

With English becoming an increasingly popular language across the world and a lingua franca for business and global communications, the demand to speak it is high. So naturally, TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) has taken off too. With a multitude of programs online; the 120-hour course offers the chance for native speakers to equip themselves with the skills to teach the language and then jet off across the world in pursuit of adventure – getting paid to do it in the process. Yet rather than spending my summer training at the confines of my laptop, I opted to fly halfway across the world to China for an experience I’ll never forget.

I decided to complete my TEFL through Gotoco, an enterprise aimed specifically at university students. They’ve visited the university before to advertise their scheme and this is where they first caught my eye. The sign-up process is quick and simple, offering a wealth of information for an inexperienced traveller such as myself. They organise the placement and offer guidance regarding obtaining a VISA and booking flights. They also put me in touch with other students on my placement through a messaging app called WeChat, giving me the chance to get to know people beforehand – we even organised a trip to Shanghai before the TEFL program started!

The largest costs involved in the program were the flights and visa. My visa cost me around £181, including the price of doing it through an agency. My flights just surpassed £900 and included two stopovers each way; an absolute killer. However, my misfortune was due to booking last minute and you can get much cheaper flights if you book as soon as possible.

I arrived in Shanghai on the 22nd July to an excruciating forty-degree heat (the hottest it had ever been in Shanghai since records began), spending four nights there before getting a train to Hangzhou on the 26th July. I was picked up from the train station and delivered to a beautifully air-conditioned hotel and met my host family the next day. The program took place at Echo English in Hangzhou and lasted three weeks before I flew back on the 21st August, however, some of the other volunteers continued their Asian adventure, travelling to places such as Beijing, Hong Kong and Vietnam.

What living with a host family is like

Much like moving into a flat of strangers in first year, it can be hard to get to grips with a new set of people. The major difference with this, however, is that you have both a language barrier and cultural differences to cope with too. One of the most common questions I’ve been asked is “How did you manage to live with a host family? I wouldn’t be able to do it.” But it’s not as hard as you think. The family are very welcoming, after all, they’ve chosen to have a guest in their house and therefore treat you with great respect. Due to the vastness of Hangzhou (its population is larger than that of London), most families inhabit small-scale apartments, so there is the risk of you getting under each other’s feet. However, I was still provided with my own room with a double bed, so I always had the chance to relax and have some alone time when I needed to.

The language barrier was a difficulty since in my instance only the mother of the family could speak English. Therefore, I always needed to communicate through her if I wanted to speak to other non-English speakers within the family. Some volunteers had the luck of being placed in an entire English-speaking family, but I was far more limited.

All the host families had young children who were learning English so many evenings were spent interacting with them. In my family, there was a five-year old whose English name was ‘Happy’ and a one-year-old named LeLe. Both were adorable and provided me with many good photo moments. However, living with young children can be difficult as they often tire quickly which means days out can be cut short. Thankfully, I spent a lot of time with the other volunteers and made a few Chinese friends of my own so I still managed to fit a lot of sightseeing in.

The Classroom

One thing I quickly learned is that Chinese admin is not quite the same as in the West. We were provided with three days training (in addition to our online training), and then thrown into a classroom with the expectation to teach children English for three weeks. There was a lot of thinking on my feet and coming up with ideas last minute as I had to navigate myself around a classroom of 8-10-year-olds, some barely grasping “How are you” and others being so fluent they could play a game of Chess in English. This age group is quite challenging, to say the least: one student spent the three weeks sleeping at his desk, occasionally opening his eyes to murmur a response to a question, whilst others spent time attacking each other with paper aeroplanes. The teaching itself was enjoyable but there were times when the class were so uncontrollable I had to sit on a chair in the corner, whilst the Chinese co-teacher yelled at them in their native language until they would eventually calm down (if I was lucky). It was discovered amongst the volunteers that Peppa Pig was a great soothing agent (Peppa is an A-list celebrity out in China) when a game of musical chairs got too rowdy. But the children were great fun and I had my favourites who I’ll miss.

China Highlights

- One of the first things you’ll notice out in China is how cheap everything is, and consequently, how expensive everything is in the UK. A ride on the bus is 2RMB (around 23p) and a ride on the metro is about twice as much, which makes London prices seem staggering. A meal out, if you choose the right place to go, can be as cheap as 16RMB (around £1.88), which makes me think that a bowl of noodles from Wagamama is surely a fraud.
- China is full of both the traditional and contemporary – most cities offer a selection of temples and traditional gardens, whilst in the backdrop, you’ll be able to see modern skyscrapers. My favourites included West Lake, famous for its beauty and historic relics, as well as Leifeng Padoga and Longjing village, a tea plantation, renowned across China and even the world.

- A highlight of the trip was walking along The Bund of Shanghai at night. With all the buildings lit up and an assortment of people across the world visiting, it provided an atmosphere unlike no other I have experienced, and no, I’m not talking about the smog. This also was the destination which made me feel like a low-key celebrity. My travel partners and I were often asked for photos, although admittedly my blonde-haired friends Emma and Dan were favoured. One guy even asked for a photo with each member of the group individually, selfie stick in hand, he later proceeded to show us a photo album on his phone consisting of six-hundred selfies he’d taken with white and black-skinned travellers. He’d even made a compilation video complete with backing music to demonstrate just how much he loved this hobby of his.



- China is well-known for its censorship and consequently, you need to have a VPN when travelling in order to access social media such as Facebook and Instagram. I’d downloaded two prior to arrival in China, however free VPNs are banned and therefore neither of them worked. It’s easy to download paid VPNs (I recommend ExpressVPN) through the Apple store, yet my status as an Android user came back to bite me. Google is banned and therefore I had no way of using an app store. Two weeks later I realised you could download VPNs through the Amazon app store, however, despite this, the internet was often poor and my Western privilege of great internet connection really became apparent.
- Up until arriving in Hangzhou, I’d somewhat managed to maintain a pescatarian diet, however, when moving in with my host family and letting my British awkwardness control my life again, I realised I’d have to become a meat-eater. In China, it’s common to eat rice for just about every meal, I’m not joking. But, on reflection, I’m glad I abandoned my vegetarianism for the trip as I got to try everything from duck head to chicken feet, to jellyfish.

- Summer is really not the best time to visit China if you’re not a fan of the warmer climate. The coldest it reached throughout my stay was around 27 degrees and the cardigans I’d brought with me ‘just in case’ were left in a screwed-up heap in the bottom of my suitcase. An airconditioned shop was a luxury and at its hottest, sweat was physically dripping off my face and transforming my clothes into one giant sweat patch.


7th October 2017 at 9:00 am

Images from

Laura Mosley