Teaching in China (and Why I Hate Air Pollution): An Interview with Teacher Mitch

Teaching in China is something I’ve always been curious about. Before Luke and I accepted our teaching jobs in Taiwan, we’d also been made an offer from a school in China. At the time we simply chose the opportunity that came up first, but that’s always left me wondering what teaching in China would actually be like.

Mitchell Labiak, aka The Ambling Bristolian, is an up-and-coming amatuer vlogger and a really awesome friend of mine who is out teaching in China. He just recorded a video about his experiences teaching in China (definitely watch it even if you’re in the slight bit curious what life in China is like). 

After watching his vlog, I chatted with Mitch about teaching in China, air pollution and cultural stereotypes.

Hey Mitch, tell us a bit about how you ended up teaching in China?

I wound up teaching in China because a) I love travelling and b) I’ve taught in other foreign countries before: Spain and Oman. When I was travelling around Europe with my girlfriend, we had this vague plan that, when we ran out of money in Europe, we would teach in “South East Asia.” Of course, “South East Asia” is a huge and ambiguous place, both geographically and culturally, so we had no idea where to start.

In Poland, we bumped into a guy who had taught in Hangzhou (where we live and work now) for five years. This guy was an absolute hero and a great fountain of knowledge. From him, we got ourselves some contacts and we started emailing people. We haggled for our teaching positions (with regards to pay, hours and accommodation) which I’m told is fairly common for teaching positions in China. We moved here in September 2015 and we’ve been teaching ever since.

Mitch Labiak teaching in China interview - Charlie on Travel 3

How has your experience teaching in China compared to teaching in other countries?

Well, there were several things that I was prepared for and several things that I definitely was not prepared for…

The air pollution, right?

Air pollution is impossible to ignore. Today I kept all of the windows and doors in my classroom closed as often as I could for as long as I could. It was a warm day and even the accrued body odour of six groups of forty to forty-five teenagers did not make me want to give my room some fresh air. Actually, that’s not true. I would have loved some fresh air. Though the air outside was far from fresh.

There are different ways of measuring air pollution levels, but one of the most common is by the measure of PM 2.5. In Hangzhou, air pollution levels today maxed out at just shy of 300. To put that into perspective, a good day is anything under 50, a bad day in London might see levels reach 100, and anything over 200 is deemed “very unhealthy” by the AQICN.

Air pollution factors into everything that a person does in China and some pretty radical steps are being made to tackle the air pollution problem. It may seem strange to mention it in an article about teaching, but if you plan on breathing when you teach in China then it’s something worth considering. This is especially true in my school where the open plan design that allows for breeziness also means that you are almost constantly exposed to the polluted air.

What about the concept of “face”? When teaching in Taiwan it was something that was mentioned a lot and I imagine it might be similar in China?

I try to avoid stereotypes and cultural generalisations as much as possible. However, the notion of “face” is absolutely crucial to an introduction to Chinese culture, and it’s especially relevant to teaching. In fact, some sociolinguists and psychologists go as far as to claim the idea of “saving one’s face” or “not wanting to lose face” only has meaning in English because we borrowed the notion from China.

For the purposes of teaching, all you need to know about face is that some students can be very proud. My classrooms are rarely unruly. They are certainly much more well behaved than I’d expect a room full of forty to forty-five teeangers to be. Still, I’ve had several students who refuse to leave a class when I’ve told them to.

And when I say refuse to leave, I mean they simply refuse. They don’t shout, they don’t kick up a fuss, and they don’t argue. They would sit there, with their arms crossed, in a furious and silent protest. This shocked me quite a bit. It’s something I’ve never seen in classrooms in any other country or, if I have, I’ve not seen it frequently.

Face doesn’t manifest itself in the same way in every classroom, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you should treat Chinese students any differently to students from other countries, but it’s something to be aware of. I would have been very grateful if someone had explained the concept to me before I started teaching here!

Did you say forty to forty-five students!? Is that how big the classes are in China?

Yes. Yes, I did. In China, that’s pretty standard. On some days, my lessons feel more like lectures (with everybody diligently taking notes without me asking them too) but I try to resist treating my teenagers too much like they’re at university.

No two teachers are the same, no two classes are the same, and so there are many ways of making your enormous classes feel intimate. It’s about accepting limitations. In classes of twenty, you can go to great lengths to ensure that everybody understands what’s going on. In classes of over forty, you have to accept that some children will catch up in their own time. Chinese students can be very independent in this sense.

Do you consider your students in China to be independent and creative thinkers?

Yes, absolutely. Unfortunately, the idea that Chinese students aren’t independent thinkers is a stubbornly persistent stereotype. For me, this stereotype is challenged, daily, by students in my class who ask and answer some very difficult questions. Is multiculturalism a good thing? What should wealthy nations do to help other nations? How do you feel about yourself when your realise the sheer size of the universe? My students have given many fascinating and creative answers to these questions. This is something that I’ve found no matter where I teach.

If you only had one word to describe your experience of teaching in China, what would you say?

If I had to define my experience of the Chinese schooling system with a single word, it would be “routine”. Yes, of course, all schooling systems depend on routine. Though my school seem to take the idea of routine to a whole new level. What do I mean by this?

Everyday, at exactly 9:40am, all of the students go outside and exercise. During this exercise, they dance to Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger. Everyday. Twice. Consecutively. Why? I have no idea, but this is just one of the many routines that the children are required to adhere to in my school. I talk about some others at length in my video.

Mitch Labiak teaching in China interview - Charlie on Travel

How different is the reality of teaching in China compared to your expectations before you went out there?

I tried not to have any expectations really, and that’s something which I’ve trained myself to do from teaching in other countries. However, that said, I was definitely naive about the amount of Chinese I’d need to learn. I really expected everybody’s English to be a lot better than it is, which is my fault really. If you’re an English speaking traveller, it can be quite easy to just assume that everyone will speak English. But that assumption is not fair or correct, especially in China. Some of my students don’t understand any English whatsoever.

In Spain, I bridged this gap with some basic Spanish that I’d just picked up without really trying too hard. In China, learning even basic Chinese requires some serious, bookish studying. There are ways to get beyond the language barrier without Chinese. Where there’s a will to teach, there’s a way to teach. Still, learning at least some Chinese before I moved here would have been beneficial.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking about teaching in China?

On the one hand, I’d say “do it.” China is huge and there’s enough variation here for everybody to find their own little niche. On the other hand, even with all the variation across China, there are some elements of teaching in this country that remain constant.

The Great Firewall of China makes YouTube a difficult (but not impossible) classroom resource to use. Class sizes are big across most schools in China. Air pollution is everywhere. As a result, teaching in China is not for everybody. Still, until you come here, how are you meant to know whether you like it or not?

So I’d err on the just going for it! That’s always been my attitude towards teaching abroad. I’d never thought I’d teach in the Middle East for a whole year, but I did and I’m glad I did. I told that little voice inside my head to shut up and I just went for it. China is changing so fast that it’s hard to keep up. And the only way to know what’s going on is to get over here and see it all for yourself.

The students in my class, and in classrooms across China, will grow up to become the politicians, businessmen, journalists, inventors, scientists, artists, engineers, and citizens who will be forced to tackle China’s problems and continue its successes. China will be a major player in the future of the world, more so than it is already, and if we want that future to be a good one then we should make sure that those students are well educated. If that’s not a good enough reason to teach in China, then I don’t know what is!


If you want to throw some more questions at Mitch about his experiences teaching in China in the comments below, he’d love to answer them. Don’t forget to follow Mitch’s YouTube channel where he vlogs about Chinese, British, and World politics.

Did you enjoy this interview? For more interviews on expat life and teaching abroad, check out my Teaching in Taiwan interview series.

Charlie Marchant

Charlie is a long-term traveller from the UK who writes about simple ways to travel sustainably, including how to become a house sitter and slow traveller, eating local and vegetarian, and making responsible travel choices.

7 thoughts to “Teaching in China (and Why I Hate Air Pollution): An Interview with Teacher Mitch”

  1. This is a great piece and made for interesting reading, thank you.

    Apparently, much research has shown that exercise improves attention and concentration in all ages. This has been evident in research when comparing scores on standardized academic achievement test in education.

    It also improves cognitive flexibility when switching between intellectual tasks, maintaining speed and accuracy.

    Dr. Karen Postal Ph.d., Abbpp-cn. and others, explain that excercise stimulates new brain cells and binds them together.

    ‘In addition to stimulating new brain cells, exercise also increases BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) which leads directly to brain cells binding to one another. Synapses, or connections between cells become more dense. We think better because our capacity to make connections is literally improved. BDNF stimulated connections are an important factor in creating long term memories’.

    Everything seems to function better when we go full circle, even our brain!

    All the best to Mitch on his journey, I’ll be sure to follow.

    1. Hello Sharon,

      Thanks for your comment! What you said about exercise helping with cognitive function makes a lot of sense. It actually reminds me of a interesting video on watched on SciShow (one of my personal favourite YouTube channels) about a shortsightedness epidemic. Many more children from this generation are short sighted when compared with the previous generation.

      And the solution to this problem, some scientists believe, could be exercise. Interestingly, one the studies that they mentioned in the video was performed in Hangzhou. So perhaps more regular exercise in schools is the way forward. My school could be on to something here :)

      And thanks for subscribing to my channel. If I could personally thank every one of my subscribers, then I would (y)

  2. Hey! Great read, as I was really interested in the experiences with the pollution. Do you find it to be a difficult factor? Is it bearable on most days? I’m just really worried about teaching in a place where I’ll feel like I can’t breathe all the time. My fiancée and I are looking at moving to Shanghai. I think the benefit to moving there is the cheaper cost of living and the ability to save a lot more money than we could teaching in Europe.

    On the other hand, although the pay is lower in Europe, it’s cleaner!! We’ve been considering Spain or France (and would love Switzerland although there are rarely positions).

    If you had to choose between China or one of the above countries, which would you choose? Why?
    Which was your favorite country to teach in? Why?

    1. Hey Brianna,

      That’s an interesting question. To be honest, the air pollution isn’t something that you notice in the sense that you feel immediately sick or anything. It’s more the fact that you are aware of how bad it is for your health — and there’s a slight smell and taste in the air as well (although that could be a placebo).

      The air pollution can get quite bad in Shanghai but, interestingly, it’s worse in Hangzhou (where I used to live… or rather, where I lived when I made that video). This is because Shanghai is a seaport, so the breeze blows all the dirty air inland and towards Hangzhou. A lot of people in Hangzhou like to say that we get Shanghai’s secondhand smoke, which is sadly quite true!

      Day to day, it’s not something you’ll notice and it should never be a reason not to move to China. It’s more something to be aware of. I downloaded an air pollution monitor for my laptop from this site.

      http://aqicn.org/city/hangzhou/

      If it gets over 200, I think twice about how long I’m going to be outside (even with a mask).

      Air pollution is particularly dangerous to older and younger people, so that’s something to bear in mind if you want to in Shanghai with younger or older family members. It’s also worth pointing out that air pollution is often a lot worse in the winter. Once the winter is over, the worst pollution is over.

      One more thing, air pollution is worse in certain parts of China than it is in others. Places like Hainan and Xiamen are famous for their clean(er) air, though sadly this is becoming less and less true. Hong Kong’s air is much cleaner than China’s (because there are less coal factories) but it can still get pretty bad.

      If you want more information, I made a full video on air pollution on my channel:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SnLdB7XbWY

      Thanks for reading the article! I hope everything goes well in Shanghai. It’s a gorgeous ciy and I’ve been there a couple times myself :)

  3. What a fantastic interview with Mitch, I thought his vlog was very cool too, some brilliant insights for prospective English teachers to take into account when deciding to ply their trade in China. I especially enjoyed the tackling of stereotypes which definitely do exist, and which can obviously affect your decision to become in a teacher in China. Regarding the pollution, yes I suppose that comes with the territory, but definitely gets better the more you move away from the major cities, and there are many, many English teaching job opportunities in the less built up cities too. It is a huge country, with lots to discover, and as Mitch says, they are and will continue to be a major player in the world. So what better way to contribute to the future of the world, than to make a positive contribution to the children of China? Safe travels, and thanks again for a great read Mitch.

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