Highlighted Articles

From the Outside In – 10 Tips to Help You Adapt to Chinese Culture

November 3, 2020


Cultural integration in China may be the Holy Grail for many expats who head over to teach, live, and experience the country for a while. Although not impossible, reaching for ultimate integration is a highly challenging task and, if anything, it may just happen after years (if not decades) in the country.

Adapting to the local culture as a foreigner may be a more realistic aim, especially if you’re heading to China to teach for the very first time. Give yourself some time to adjust to the culture-shock, follow Western International School of Shanghai’s ten tips to help you adapt to Chinese culture, and you’re guaranteed to be on the right path.

1. Learn a little about Chinese culture and history before you even arrive

Alright, cram-studying China’s entire cultural history before you arrive might be impossible. After all, this is the longest-living culture in the world! Yet what you can do and what helps expats better assimilate in China is getting a general overview of how the country has evolved over the last few centuries. Knowing how China got to where it’s at now means you’ll understand the country’s sensitive subjects (leave the Free Tibet T-shirt at home, please), and that will help you behave in a more culturally appropriate way. Moreover, learning about China beforehand will help blunt that dreaded culture-shock!

2. Leave your preconceived notions about China at home and pack only an open mind

It’s fair to say that everything you think you know about China has been influenced by foreign media. To this end, the most important thing you shouldn’t forget to pack is an open mind. Nothing about this beautiful country and its immensely hospitable people has ever been rightly depicted abroad, so take that as the single most invaluable tip.

The very best way to integrate into Chinese culture, as an expat, is to know the real story.

3. Learn (at least some) of the language

Taking Mandarin lessons is the most important “first step” to finding your place in Chinese culture, and this is one thing you can start doing before you even travel. Linguistic fluency takes many (many) years, yet even just getting a grasp of the basics (like appropriate greetings) will go a long way to helping you assimilate in your new home. Being able to chit-chat in Mandarin and the local dialect of wherever you happen to be (there are thousands!) will earn you respect from colleagues and locals you meet, and this will, in turn, help you with the next tip.

If you’re bringing children over, international Schools in China will ensure that they learn Mandarin as part of their curriculum too, allowing them to really fit in and make friends across cultural lines.

4. Understand the Chinese culture of “saving face”

Showing up a colleague and even your boss in front of others may be acceptable in some countries, but it certainly isn’t in China. Saving face and protecting one’s reputation is critical in the local culture. Once you understand this, you’ll be able to navigate your way through social and work situations much better. For example, a teacher who wants to resign because they just don’t get along with their colleagues may simply cite ‘personal reasons’ for leaving. The fastest way to ruin any relationship with local Chinese is to embarrass or criticize them in any way, especially in public.

5. Find your voice: assertiveness and confidence are key

China is no place for a wallflower, and if there’s ever a teaching destination that downright demands assertiveness, this would have to be it. To outsiders, Chinese locals may come off as blunt or rude, but in reality, they live in a fast-paced world that requires very little fluffing about. So get with the program, be ready to stand up for yourself when the need arises (with your employer or landlord, for example), and don’t let anyone walk all over you or be a pushover.

Respectful assertiveness (back to #4) is the name of the game and, if you can find that much-coveted balance, you’ll do just fine in China.

6. Show respect to elders

Respecting your elders is immensely important in the local culture. You’ll soon discover that, in China, the polite form of you (nín) is even used within the family unit – not only for older aunties and grandparents but also among siblings of varying ages. Usually, titles are preferred to first names so, when in doubt, always ask a local friend how you should refer to people before you’re even introduced to them.

Oh! That brings us to our next point…

7. Make local friends and don’t get stuck in an expat bubble

It’s far too easy to get stuck in an expat bubble in China, a country whose culture can be overwhelmingly foreign for so many expats. But fight that urge and immerse yourself in local social groups instead, and you’ll benefit from endless rewards. Your first local contacts will undoubtedly be work colleagues, and this is an amazing chance to make new friends immediately. Understand the ‘give and take’ of Chinese social etiquette (they invite you out for a restaurant meal, so why not cook them a dish from your country at home?), and you may just cement some of the most rewarding and valuable friendships of all.

8. Hugs and kisses are frowned upon – keep your hands to yourself!

In local Chinese culture, public displays of affection aren’t often seen even among couples, let alone friends. Don’t embarrass your new local friends by giving them a hug or kiss on the cheek! Once friendships are cemented, of course, the Chinese can be just as affectionate as other cultures, but you do need to let them call the shots on this one.

9. Skip the Western restaurant chains and eat like a local instead

Not only will this save you some pretty pennies, but it’ll also show you how outstanding real Chinese cuisine is. Not sure how to choose a hole in the wall on your next lunch out in town? Ask that new local friend to show you their favorite haunt, enjoy what is bound to be an awesome meal and, to show your appreciation, pay for their meal. That’s a 3-in-1 win!

10. Find your own local family!

Marrying a Chinese local to better assimilate into the culture may be a bit drastic, we admit, yet accepting that invitation to visit a new friend’s family would be just perfect. Many big-city dwellers come from small rural villages, and they often return home on special holidays, like Chinese New Year. It isn’t uncommon for a new foreign friend to be invited to come along, and this is one invite you’ll never want to turn down. The unique experience will likely be an absolute highlight for you and, who knows, you may gain a new local family of your own. Moving to China and trying to integrate into the local culture may seem like an impossible task to foreigners. But it needn’t be! Simply follow some tried-and-true tips from those who’ve come before you, and you’ll soon feel right at home.

This article was submitted by Western International School in Shanghai. Check out more about this school by clicking on the following links: https://www.wiss.cn/welcome/work-at-wiss/ https://www.wiss.cn/welcome/our-team/post=8128&action=edit

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Highlighted Articles

Making Friends Outside of Your International School is…

August 30, 2020


…HARD!

I don’t know about you, but I think making friends outside of your school community can be one of your biggest challenges when you live abroad.

International teachers hanging out in a bar

If you are an outgoing person, maybe it is a bit easier. However, if you are on an introverted side and also don’t know the local language, then you are up against a steep hill.

Either way, you could say that it is just safer and more comfortable to be friends with your colleagues at your international school. You usually have a lot in common with your colleagues as they also like adventure, share your love for traveling, and have the same vacation calendar as you.

But to get the most out of your international school teaching experience, the elusive goal of many international school teachers is to make some local friends, too.

Lonely expat on the street

If you don’t know the local language yet, then you are limited to the locals that are able to speak English (or your home language). Normally, these locals already have other foreigner friends and most likely have traveled internationally or had even lived abroad. These locals are easy to find as friends because you have a lot in common. For example, you probably have many places to go visit and hang out together in the city. If you are lucky, these locals are even available to do some traveling with you during your vacations.

To meet locals who don’t speak English and have a very tight-knit group of friends, let’s say, is a different story. To befriend the locals is typically easier if you have a partner or spouse that is also a local. If that is the case, then you have “a ticket in” to those exclusive groups of friends. Having these kinds of local friends really can give you the “VIP level” on the experience of the city and country that you are living in. These locals know what and where things are happening. International school teachers without these types of friends typically miss out on a number of cultural events and are left without a deep insight into the local lifestyle.

Expat friends talking

One of the ultimate events in your friendship with a local is to be invited over to their house, even better – for a meal. It can be that you invite a local to your house for dinner multiple times before finally, the stars align and they invite you back to their place. If you are at your international school for only two years, that might not be enough time for this to happen. Building this kind of relationship usually takes longer than that.

What is your experience with making friends in your host city/country? Logon to ISC and share what you know by submitting some comments on your school’s profile page.

When using the keyword search feature (premium membership required), we found 143 comments about friends. Read below a few that are connected to making friends outside of your international school.

Comments about Making Friends

“Leysin is a small mountain village and as a result, the community is limited. There is a definite LAS bubble and most of the staff spend time outside of work with each other. It is rare to meet and become friends with people outside of the school community unless you have worked here for many years. It isn’t easy being single here, but the lifestyle is worth it if you love the outdoors and the mountains. It is a quiet village and a great place to live if you don’t like the city.” – Leysin American School (113 total comments)

“I find my Albanian friends quite generous: they always fight to pay the bill in a coffee shop but also for lunch. It is a local tradition though, and keep in mind that, if you want to keep your friends close to you, next time will be your turn. It is important to understand quickly these cultural habits as it will allow you to make good friends. One thing that it is generally badly perceived is to be stingy in friendship.” – Albanian College Durres (111 total comments)

“The locals are very friendly and accommodating. We recently went on a one-day trip with a local tour company. As the only foreigners, we didn’t have much company at the beginning but we found out the locals on the trip actually spoke a very good level of English. By the end of the day, we made friends with many of them!” – Khartoum International Community School (153 total comments)

“Lots of people learning English in Saigon and they will all want to practice with you. Learning some Vietnamese helps with bonding and making local friends but generally, a lot of people speak or are learning to speak English.” – Renaissance International School Saigon (52 total comments)

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The Journey to School

The Journey to School: Tarsus American College (Turkey)

January 30, 2019


The journey to work is indeed an important one.  The journey though is not so clear for international school teachers when they are looking for jobs at schools in cities/countries at which they have never been.  So let’s share what we know!

One of our members, who works at the Tarsus American College (Mersin, Turkey), described the way she gets to work as follows:

The road to Tarsus American College (Turkey)

Tarsus is a city near the Mediterranean near the larger cities of Mersin and Adana. The school is located in the old part of the town means rich Roman and Biblical historical sites, that include an old Roman road, the Well of St. Paul, mosques, a bazaar, crumbling Roman Baths, Cleopatra’s Gate and a nearby waterfall.

I’m originally from a small town in the state of Iowa in the Midwest USA, so while Tarsus is not a major city, it is larger than where I grew up, but smaller than the capital cities I worked in before coming to Turkey.

My commute to work is a five-minute walk from my school furnished apartment located near campus. Most local teachers live off campus, in the nearby towns of Adana or Mersin and take school buses each morning and afternoon. Most international faculty live on or near campus.

Living on or near campus means teachers can use the school’s, fitness equipment or join others to play tennis on the outdoor courts while walkers and joggers can find flat paths or stroll through parks in the city.

Tarsus American College is a bilingual school that follows the Turkish Ministry of Education and the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. International teachers work in English, Science, and Math Departments or International University Counseling and Administration.

The school is located near a number of shops and bakeries, so In the morning, I don’t have to walk far to find a warm simit at a nearby bakeries or bring in office treats such as a box of cezerye, a Turkish dessert made from caramelized carrots, shredded coconut, and roasted walnuts, hazelnuts or pistachios. Following are more photos of food that can be found near campus.

On the way home from school I usually pick up fresh produce oranges, lemons, mandarins and grapefruit. Pomegranate season means I eat delicious pomegranates every day.

A few new drinks I’ve grown to love while living in Tarsus.

Şalgam Suyu, is fermented turnip juice, it can be spicy and draink alone, or enjoyed with rakka on a night out.

Cinnamon topped salep is made from a flour of ground tubers of wild orchids, and is a warm alternative to coffee or tea.

Baklava is commonly known as the Turkish dessert, but there are many more treats to try. Turkish Künefe is served with the same sweet syrup, but has cheese inside a crispy shredded wheat type outer coating and covered in pistachios.

On the weekends, I can find a traditional Turkish breakfast served with tea and Turkish coffee, break, cheeses, olives, butter, honey, jam, and eggs.

Hummus is served hot and is a full meal, not just an appetizer when served with bread, tomatoes, and pickled vegetables. Most restaurants allow diners to choose from traditional covered in olive oil, or served with beef.

A common meal here is the Turkish kebab and the best kebab in my opinion comes with decision salads.

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This Journey to School article was submitted to us by guest author, Ellen Johnston.

What to know more what it is like to visit and live in Turkey?  Out of a total of 25 international schools we have listed in Turkey, 17 have had comments submitted on them. Here are just a few:

Bilkent Laboratory & International School (135 comments)
Enka Schools (Istanbul) (45 Comments)
Istanbul International Community School (54 Comments)
MEF International School Istanbul (156 Comments)
MEF International School Izmir (58 Comments)
Robert College of Istanbul (47 Comments)
Tarsus American College (47 Comments)

So what is your journey to the international school you work at?  Earn one year free of premium membership to our website if you participate in this blog series – ‘The Journey to School’.  Email us here if you are interested.

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Discussion Topics

The International Educator Expat Experience: Where Are You From?

November 9, 2017


This seemingly simple question is profoundly deep. It is not simply about geography. It is who you are, as an individual—your values, your priorities and so much more. If you have been in international education for long, chances are that you struggle to answer this question, or preface your response with, “originally….”

As I began contemplating the question, I began considering, “How do I know who I am?” So being a slave to technology, I turned to Google. The very first result that popped up, was, “Find a therapist.” Really?! No! Perhaps a different approach is more useful.

International educator

Geert Hofstede, a well-known Dutch social psychologist, has spent much of his career investigating how culture is defined, how individuals fit into them and how the cultures we are exposed to affect us. His conclusion is that “Culture is not biological… [it] is learned.” (Hofstede)

International education epitomizes a unique culture of adventure, open-mindedness, adaptability and flexibility. This article focuses on how to capitalize on these traits to become even better educators and more well-rounded individuals.

“No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.” Mahatma Gandhi. From the perspective of international educators, we understand that culture is not static, and that interaction, assimilation and accommodation keep the culture relevant and alive. Working in international education, we have opportunities to learn about and embrace the best of the cultures where we live and work. This gives rise to three questions: How can we harness these experiences to make us better teachers—better individuals? If we embrace new culture, does it fundamentally change who we are? Does assimilation of new cultural values, traditions, perspectives, etc., diminish the culture and geography of where we were born and raised?

International educator

How can we harness these experiences to make us better teachers—better individuals? Novelist and teacher, John Barnes advises, “… to learn a culture, you have to learn how to like what it likes, [not] go looking for something that you like.” Many of us as well as our students, both international and local, bring particular biases and stereotypes. By sharing our own experiences and asking our students to do the same, we can begin to build a new culture in our classrooms where diversity is something to be treasured. By creating a climate of curiosity rather than judgement, we are giving ourselves and our students, a gift that will enrich our lives.

Does the culture in which we live, fundamentally change who we are? In a word, yes—if we allow it. Is that a good thing? I would argue that there is most certainly a change, with tremendous potential to be a good thing. One of the most significant mistakes we could make is to close ourselves off from the culture that surrounds us. Be proactive. Learn the language. Learn about the traditions, the holidays, the beliefs, the food. Perhaps the change will affect our values and priorities, or perhaps we will find that the values and priorities of your host culture closely match our own.

International educator

Does assimilation of new cultural values, traditions, perspectives, etc., diminish the culture and geography of where we were born and raised? Absolutely not. International schools, by design, seek to highlight the diversity of the community. There will always be a part of us that will retain those characteristics, but it is the synthesis of all of our experiences that make us who we are. This synthesis is precisely why, for international educators, the question, “Where are you from?” creates a flurry of images and ideas, and rarely has a simple answer.

Think about your own experience. If you were to make a list of customs, foods, traditions, etc., that you miss from your home country and other countries where you have lived, which list would be longest? Does it change? We do “an ordinary job in extraordinary places.” (Sweat) Embrace the possibilities.

This article was submitted by guest author: John Brown.

(John has held both administrative and teaching positions for over 25 years, with the last ten being in international education. He is a well respected presenter at regional, national and international education and technology conferences as well as a consultant, who has helped set standards in teacher training and assessment, use of technology in the classroom, curriculum development and effective management practices. A graduate of Tarleton State University in Texas, USA, with graduate studies at North Texas State University and Texas Wesleyan School of Law, he is currently teaching IB Psychology and language acquisition and is the CAS Coordinator at an international school in Portugal. His current projects include development of an online tutoring system for Spanish, consulting on development of a National Language Policy for the United States, and research into the effects of early language learning on brain development. You can contact John at jbb0906@gmail.com.)

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Photo Contests

Best Xmas Photo in Host Country: And the Winners of This Photo Contest Are…

December 21, 2016


We’re happy to announce the winners of our Eighth Photo Contest (What Does Christmas Look Like in Your Host Country?).

First Place: Almaty, Kazakhstan

“While going to my local mall, I found they put in an ice skating rink!  How cool is that?!”

photo contest

Congratulations (this member wanted their entry to be anonymous)!

Prize awarded: Premium membership for TWO YEARS on our website!

Second Place: Qingdao, China

“This shot was taken inside the beautifully-decorated lobby of a hotel near Marina City.

photo contest

Congratulations K. Kelly (a former international teacher)!

Prize awarded: Premium membership for ONE YEAR on our website!

Third Place: Guangzhou, China

The people of Guangzhou are curious participants in Christmas.  Many young Chinese would dress in festive clothing and go to Sacred Heart Cathedral to take selfies and pictures during Mass and then leave after a few minutes. Just down the road was a market for buying everything associated with a commercial Christmas.

photo contest

Congratulations Steve Landvatter (an international teacher working in China).

Prize awarded: Premium membership for SIX MONTHS on our website!

Thanks to everyone who participated!  We have awarded everyone else ONE WEEK of premium membership for participating in this photo contest.

Stay tuned for our next photo contest which should happen sometime during the next 2-3 months. Check out our previous Photo Contests here.

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