Starting academic work in China entails becoming aware that you will enter a completely new environment, no matter how experienced a teacher and scholar you might be. Communication and organization might be difficult at first, both for the obvious reason of the language barrier (unless you happen to be fluent in Chinese beforehand) and for that of the somewhat flexible structure of Chinese universities.
First of all, if your schedule and contract allow it, try to arrive in China at least a week or so before your classes start. This will enable you not only to recover from jet lag and culture shock (if this is your first time in China/East Asia prepare to be overwhelmed at first) but to sort out basic matters such as visa confirmations, the obligatory medical visit that all foreigners must go through to work in China, but also to buy basic necessities for your apartment and acquire a Chinese SIM card. Your first weeks in China are bound to be exhausting and sometimes frustrating. Keep a positive outlook, as this is potentially very enriching experience both from the professional and human point of view. Learning to navigate your new environment is going to take less time than you think as long as you remain open-minded and proactive.
It’s extremely useful – if possible – to make connections with other foreign members of staff, who might offer precious advice and ease your transition into the world of Chinese university as well as fill you in on practical details (such as grading systems or how to proceed to make photocopies), navigate bureaucratic intricacies and help you decipher documents and compile forms if they have acquired a decent knowledge of Mandarin. The help of fellow foreigners is often of primary importance because interacting with Chinese faculty and administration is not always easy. Part of the problem comes from linguistic difficulties of course (though this is less true in English studies/foreign languages departments, obviously) yet it also stems from a struggle, in Chinese work contexts, to fully grasp that things might function in a different way outside of China.
In relation to this, it is important to keep in mind that, at least in my experience, foreign teachers in China receive very little supervision or guidance. While this might be daunting and unsettling at times, you can make it work for your benefit, since it means having almost unlimited freedom as to the content and direction you give to your courses. Face the challenge of teaching in China with an independent frame of mind.
At the same time, retain a capacity to adapt to work situations that might differ sharply from what you are used to. Typically, Chinese classes comprise large numbers of students and teaching is dispensed ex-cathedra style, with restricted interaction between the teacher and the learners. This makes student-centred teaching methods more difficult, though by no means impossible, to implement. With few exceptions, Chinese students are reluctant to speak up in class, as the result of a specific cultural view of education, rooted in Confucianism, which leads to very vertical and authoritarian teacher-learner relations. Concretely, this translates in the students worrying about making mistakes they might be penalized for or about challenging the teacher’s authority if they speak up in class. Yet, if you make your expectations clear and keep a patient and encouraging attitude, it will be possible to render the students more proactive. Differences of culture and mentality have an impact also on other aspects of the learning experience: hence, never take anything for granted and do not assume your students are necessarily familiar with concepts or working methods that would be obvious to their counterparts at their level in a Western university. From a practical point of view, when you first enter a new class, introduce yourself and give the class your brief personal history. This will help break the ice and is likely to elicit interest, especially if you are not American and thus do not have what is generally perceived as the “default state” for Westerners. Next, circulate the class list and ask your students to write their names in pinyin (Latinzed Chinese characters) as well as their English names and their e-mails. It is also necessary to locate the monitors: each class has one or two monitors, who serve as representatives for the entire group and who will help you with tasks such as ensuring everyone receives necessary information or making and distributing photocopies.
If you’re not teaching an English-based topic (and in particular a science) be aware the level of English of your students might vary sharply. Therefore, it might be a good idea to memorize some classroom expressions in Chinese. Indeed, investing some time and energy to acquire at least some basic notions of Mandarin is useful for everyone, and can potentially make your daily life easier and smoother.
Overall, get ready for a sometimes puzzling, but generally very enjoyable and stimulating experience.