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One of the most intriguing things about teaching ESL online is that you can experience Chinese culture without leaving your home. But like any cross-cultural experience, there are bound to be some misunderstandings. To help you navigate the unfamiliar or just plain confusing situations, here are some cultural differences between China and the West that you may encounter in your online ESL classroom.

Chinese classroom winter

Ever wonder why your students are wearing their jackets inside? Surely the families aren’t foregoing heat to pay for their children’s English lessons, right? The answer actually has nothing to do with finances.

Central heating is generally unavailable in apartment and office buildings in the southern parts of China, including Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hunan province. This is because Chinese heating policy from the 1950s1 dictated which areas could have central heating. Since northern China has colder winters, areas north of the Huai River-Qin Mountains can warm their apartments. Those south of the line have to shiver through the winter, though temperatures usually don’t go below freezing.

You may already be familiar with the phrase “saving face.” It’s an expression we use in English to describe actions taken to avoid public humiliation. Maybe you make excuses for your friend so that his parents don’t get angry at him. Or you indirectly suggest a better idea to your boss because everyone in the meeting is rolling their eyes at his irrational plans.

The concept of face is common among Asian cultures; however, it is much more complex and nuanced than merely avoiding embarrassing situations. The social importance of face is quite complicated, but an important aspect of Chinese culture. If you have ever conducted business with an Asian partner, then you most likely encountered this concept. It may be one of the most challenging cultural differences between China and the West to understand.

To briefly summarize (and oversimplify), you can both gain and lose face through your actions. If you do something well and get praised for it, that’s one way to gain face. Losing your temper and shouting at someone will cause you to lose face. For those desiring a deeper understanding of this concept, China Mike, a China travel resource site, provides an in-depth and example-rich explanation. 2

In the context of the online ESL classroom, it can help to explain why students are hesitant to speak in English or offer answers. It goes beyond shyness, but an unwillingness to make a mistake in front of their peers.

Focus on education
We’ve written before about the pressure students feel to do well in school. But just to reiterate, education is a top priority in Chinese culture. These views stem from Confucian writings3, which saw learning as a central tenant to developing both the self and society. In modern times, education is seen as the primary vehicle to achieve a good job, family, and financial success. Entrance into top universities in China is extremely competitive and almost exclusively based on students’ GaoKao (college entrance exam) scores.

As a result, students of all ages spend a significant amount of time in school and after-school classes. They often take extra tutoring in core subjects: Chinese, math, and English. Some may also take extracurricular classes in art, music or dance. Online ESL classes are only a small part of the average 17 hours per week4 a Chinese student spends studying outside of the compulsory school system.

Maybe you’ve read about it in an online ESL teaching Facebook group, or perhaps you’ve witnessed it yourself. The teacher is conducting the class, and the student makes a mistake. In comes a parent shouting, scolding their child, maybe even hitting them.

Fortunately, such situations are uncommon. Corporal punishment in schools has been banned in China since the 1980s. The latest generation of parents5 seems to be less inclined to use physical punishment to discipline their children. However, the methods used to enforce good behavior probably look a lot different in China compared to a Western household. What is seen as abuse from an American perspective is not necessarily viewed that way to all Chinese families.

These cases are never easy to navigate, and it can seem unethical to let such behavior continue. You may alert your tutor support of what you saw, but keep in mind that neither you nor the ESL company has any authority over parents’ choices in discipline.

Pay with phone

Debit or credit? The store associate asks you as you hand over your card. In China, the question is more likely to be WeChat or AliPay?6 Mobile payments are commonplace in China. Instead of reaching for their wallets, the Chinese reach for their smartphones. Both the value and number of mobile payment transactions have increased every year. Paying with WeChat Pay or AliPay is accessible across the country,7 even in rural areas. People can use their phones for a variety of purchases, such as buying train tickets, paying for restaurant take away, or paying the electricity bill. WeChat Pay can even be used to make investments. Users simply connect their bank card to the payment app and then can make payment both in stores or online. When it comes time to pay for something, they scan a QR code.

This can be another fun cultural learning moment. You may discover that your students have little idea of what a bank is, while you learn that their parents tap their phone to pay for groceries or new clothes. Around Chinese New Year, you might ask your students how they received their hongbao (red pocket money). Their relatives or friends may have sent a virtual envelope using a mobile payment app!

Concepts about body image
The class topic is adjectives, and you’ve asked your students to describe their parents. “My mom is fat!” they respond cheerfully, while you glance over at the mother just off camera, aghast.

Growing up, you were likely taught that it’s rude to comment on people’s age or physical appearance. But in Chinese culture, it is more common to talk directly about looks, even to the person themselves. “Fat” isn’t necessarily a negative adjective either; it’s just another descriptor like “tall,” “short,” or “small.” Being bigger can even be a positive comment because it’s a sign that your family is wealthy enough to eat well.

Part of learning a language is learning the cultural aspects as well, though. During this type of lesson you can explain to students that in English speaking countries, it isn’t polite to call someone “fat” directly.

Beijing Bikini
You’re teaching a class and then behind your student leisurely rolls in Dad. With his shirt rolled up. Does Dad have a six-pack? Probably not. Wait, why are you looking?! Yes, people have the right to dress as they want in their own home but…he does know the camera is on, right?

The term “Beijing Bikini” has nothing to do with women or swimming or showing off one’s physique. It’s a term that was invented a few years ago by non-Chinese to describe the common practice of men of all ages walking around with their bellies exposed during the summer. It’s simply a way to keep cool during the hot summer months. Despite the moniker, this practice can be seen throughout China, both in the home and in public. So, yes, the father probably does know the camera is on but doesn’t think anything is wrong with baring his stomach in front of his child’s tutor.

However, if such exposure makes you uncomfortable, you are certainly within your rights to discuss the issue with your company’s tutor support team and request the father to remain shirted or offscreen during your weekly lessons.

Importance of holidays
When I was working in Malaysia, my fellow Teaching Assistants hosted a Presidents’ Day-themed English camp. The camp was a success, and everyone had a great time practicing English. In the following weeks, my friends told us that their students all loved the activities and “couldn’t wait to celebrate Presidents’ Day next year.” Of course, we all laughed, because who in the United States really celebrates Presidents Day?

I tell this story to show that Chinese holidays have greater or lesser significance just as they do in our home countries. Chinese New Year is by far the most widely celebrated and anticipated holiday of the year. Mid-Autumn Festival is popular as well, and younger students seem to always look forward to Children’s Day. However traditional holidays like the Qingming Festival or Dragon Boat Festival may not be as widely celebrated. While the Dragon Boat Festival is an ancient tradition, it has only recently been made into a national holiday in modern China. So, families may not have yet established traditions to celebrate.

Similarly, birthdays are not always momentous and highly anticipated occasions for Chinese children. Birthdays are most important for infants and the elderly. Their families may celebrate with a cake and present, but in general, it is not as significant of a day as it is for someone from the West.

The cultural differences between China and the West could be discussed for hours, but here I have included topics relevant to Chinese culture and the ESL classroom. For those who are interested in exploring more about Chinese culture (without taking a plane), there is the webcomic series Tiny Eyes Comics, who looks at cultural differences and similarities in a humorous way. The artist draws from her own experience, and you get a glimpse into Chinese relationships and daily lives.

What cultural differences have you encountered in your online class with Chinese students? How did you react, or what did you learn from your experience? Let us know in the comments below!

You may also want to read Thoughts on Education Contrasting Eastern and Western Approaches.

Citations for Cultural Differences Between China and the West in the Online ESL Classroom

1 Kelly, Ned. “Explainer: Why Beijing Gets Central Heating Yet the South Is Left in the Cold.” That’s Online. December 12, 2018. Accessed July 08, 2019.

2 “The Cult of Face in China: What It Is and How to Deal with It.” China Mike. Accessed July 08, 2019.

3 Tan, Charlene. “Confucianism and Education.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education. September 18, 2018. Accessed July 08, 2019.

4 Hong’e, Mo. “Chinese Students Lead World in After-school Tutorial Time.” China News Service Website – Headlines, Stories, Photos and Videos. March 2, 2018. Accessed July 08, 2019.

5 Huang, Lanlan. “I’m Fine with Spanking, and so Are Most Chinese Parents.” Global Times. January 4, 2018. Accessed July 08, 2019.

6 Baiyu, Gao. “Chart of the Day: China’s Mobile Payment Transaction Volume Hits $41.51 Trillion in 2018.” Caixin Global – Latest China News & Headlines. March 22, 2019. Accessed July 08, 2019.

7 Shen, Alice. “China Is Leapfrogging Credit Cards and Going Straight to Mobile Payments.” South China Morning Post. February 27, 2018. Accessed July 08, 2019.

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