The Stigma of Being an Expat Teacher in China

As another Teachers’ Day rolls around, one expat teacher in Shanghai reflects on her chosen profession, and what it means in the Middle Kingdom…

Teachers’ Day in China is amazing. You’re showered with bouquets of flowers, Starbucks gift cards and countless tubes of whitening hand cream. You receive heartfelt cards from current and former students thanking you for being their teacher.

Some schools even roll out the red carpet and have photographers take pictures of each teacher, handing them flowers as they walk in.

However, when you’re away from the classroom spotlight and the paparazzi flashes fade, your sense of pride seems to fade along with it.

When asked what they do for a living, many teachers sheepishly respond, especially when surrounded by expats working in other fields.

While good schools in China now demand higher qualifications, and expectations from both administration and parents are greater than ever, it seems that teachers here bear a sense of guilt for what some consider taking the ‘easy route.’  

I recently interviewed at a top-tier international school, and of course I prepared meticulously, anticipating questions about my experience and accomplishments at my previous and current schools.

But the one question I didn’t prepare for was the most basic question of all, “Why did you become a teacher?”

I was so thrown off by it, trying my best to contain the existential crisis going on in my head as I answered the rest of the questions. I did very poorly.

It wasn’t the first time I had thought about why I became a teacher, but it was the first time I took the question so seriously.

Maybe it was all the self-reflection I had done in the past three years because my precious international summer holidays to the beautiful beaches of Thailand and the overstimulating five-story arcades in Japan were taken away.

For many expat teachers, including myself, the choice to be a teacher was made because of the vacation time, the decent pay, having good medical insurance and the opportunity to experience living in a foreign country.

My love for teaching was developed later on, but I didn’t really think about why. 

If you’re lucky enough to work at a school where the curriculum and administrators allow plenty of room for creativity, this kind of setting gives you the opportunity to explore your own interests, think outside the box, hone your strengths and to share them with others.

At the same time, you’re also met with many challenging situations that make you grow. These challenges come in varying levels of difficulty, from choosing the most appropriate font to resisting the urge to curse out a narcissistic colleague.

You also get to meet and draw inspiration from an assortment of people who are talented in many different ways, such as musicians, artists, writers, and even that colleague who makes incredible resources that they try to sell to you instead of just sharing. 

So why is there a stigma to being a teacher as an expat in China?

It probably comes from a long history of 白猴子 (white monkey) jobs, such as getting paid to pose as the foreign executive of a local company, or being hired by an English training center when your only qualification is your delectably white skin.

But ever since China’s crackdown on for-profit private tutoring of school subjects in 2021, as well as increased immigration security, this species of expats is dwindling in numbers; securing a good teaching job in China is not nearly as easy, and the job itself can be very stressful.


In schools across the world, teachers are constantly experiencing burnout from the sheer amount of tasks there are to accomplish each day. Symptoms include impaired concentration, headaches, irritability and being unable to perform even the most basic tasks.

It’s hard to experience burnout from something you’re not passionate about, so it’s often the teachers who care most and take on more than they can handle and are left with very little energy to pursue other passions and hobbies.

On occasion, you might also face the wrath of tiger moms if their child does not excel in all areas and therefore brings shame to the family.

In China, expat teachers justify the burnout because of all the benefits, including not having to go through active shooter simulation drills. (That’s high up there, I bet.)

In many other countries, teachers are given less respect and paid very little, while China is consistently on the lists of countries that pay expat teachers the highest salaries. However, this sometimes creates a sense of bitterness amongst holier-than-thou expats who pursue other careers but don’t get paid as much.

When people learn that you’re a teacher, you’re often praised for your patience for dealing with children all day, as if that’s all there is to the job. But in all honesty, dealing with the students might be the best part of the job.

Their raw emotions are infectious and it’s wonderful to be able to clearly see the fruits of your labor when they get excited to learn something new and when they figure something out.

When they trust you enough to tell you about their problems  which can range from arguing over whose idea is better or showing you the bruises from when their parent lost their temper – it feels good to know that you can make a positive impact on someone’s life, even when they are tiny humans. 

Now that Teachers’ Day is over, I hope that every teacher continues to celebrate the joy of being one, but to also take the time to think of themselves outside of being a teacher.

Spend quality time with your family and friends, explore the things you love, try something new, fail at something and be okay with it, learn more about yourself and appreciate your accomplishments. (Maybe even write an article about the respect and appreciation that teachers deserve.)

Whether you’re planning to be an educator until you retire or it’s a temporary career until you move on to the next thing, take pride in what you do and enjoy having the softest, whitest hands.

Sona has been working in the field of education in Hong Kong and Shanghai for the past 15 years. After school hours, she is an illustrator (the one in this article is by her) and currently finding herself as a writer.

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