What to Know about Clothing as an ESL Teacher in China
The teaching profession in China is perceived as one with a high level of respect and dignity. A teacher (in Chinese, 老师 or Lǎoshī), is viewed by parents, students, administrators, and the society at large as someone who is professional and responsible. So, ESL teachers should dress according to these expectations.
That said, every school will establish its own dress code for teachers, based not solely on culture, but also on other aspects.
ESL Teachers Can Dress Casually (mostly)
China has a variety of schools where foreign ESL teachers are employed. These include:
- Public schools
- Private schools
- Training centers
- International schools
- Colleges or universities
If you are a teacher who prefers to dress more casually, you’re in luck. Generally speaking, the dress code at most schools will be casual to business casual. Still, there are some caveats to note.
In most situations, it’s best to wear a collared and non-sleeveless top. Some schools provide their teachers with polo shirts displaying their school logo. If you work for a school that does, you will likely be expected to wear it to work.
Be mindful of images and messages that are printed on your clothes. This is especially important when it comes to politics, religion, profanity, and sex. While the messages may be acceptable in your own country, it’s wise to be respectful of Chinese culture and norms. Besides showing respect, you also want your students, parents, and school administrators to respect you, too.
When thinking about what to wear, also think about your comfort. As a teacher, you will likely be animated. You want to wear clothing that allows you to move around comfortably. You’ll be on your feet a lot when you are teaching, so wear shoes that are both comfortable and sensible for the season (for example, lighter shoes in the summer, boots in the winter). Avoid wearing flip flops or sandals to class.
There are times when teachers will be required to dress more formally, such as business luncheons or ceremonial functions. It’s a smart idea to have some formal attire handy for such occasions.
Teachers working with adult learners, particularly business professionals, will need to dress more smartly. A dress shirt and trousers for men, and a blouse and skirt, dress, or suit for women, are acceptable. These teachers typically work for training centers that cater to corporate clientele.
Think about China's Seasons and Climates
Depending on the region, China can be very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. As well, many homes, schools, and other buildings lack air conditioning and heating to regulate indoor temperatures during summer and winter months. Thus, it’s not uncommon to see people wearing light clothing in the summer, and winter jackets indoors during the winter.
Make sure you have some light clothing for the summer months. For winter, you’ll need a good winter jacket, warm sweaters, and possibly some long johns or thermal pants for northern China where it can get very cold.
You will also need a light jacket for the autumn and spring months, when temperatures are typically mild, and sometimes the weather can be rainy.
Other Things to Consider
Your hair should be well-groomed and at an appropriate length. You can dye your hair but be careful not to be too outrageous with your color choices.
Excessive facial hair is usually considered unacceptable. It’s best to be clean shaven, but if you do prefer to have facial hair, make sure it is well-groomed and trimmed.
Until recently, tattoos were taboo in China. Attitudes about tattoos have been gradually changing. Tattoos tend to be less of a concern in urban centers where people are more accustomed to seeing them. As you move out of urban areas, people tend to be more conservative, and tattoos still perceived negatively. Facial and neck tattoos will not be acceptable, and you may need to cover any tattoos on your arms. Visible tattoos on teachers at school are generally unacceptable, and some schools may let you know that.
If you have tattoos that cannot be covered, inform the school where you’ll be working, so there are no disappointments when you arrive to China.
China is still conservative in many respects, and when it comes to jewelry on men, this is still the case. It’s almost certainly going to be the case that schools prefer men not to wear any earrings or piercings. It might indeed be a school policy to disallow it.
Excessive jewelry and piercings are not appropriate for female teachers. To be safe, stick to modest jewelry.
Head coverings such as hats should not be worn in the classroom. If you have religious needs to have a head covering, it is best to clarify this with the school where you will be teaching beforehand.
If you are living and working in a Tier 1 city such as Beijing or Shanghai, you’ll be able to find most sizes of clothing in China. However, it may be harder to find extra-large sized clothing or footwear. If you wear extra-large sized clothing or footwear, it’s best to carry some with you to China, in case you find it difficult to find these once you are there.
Dress a Little Better than You're Expected
Though Chinese schools are fairly easygoing about how their foreign teachers are dressed, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the school, your students, and parents aren’t forming an impression of you based on your appearance. In cultures like Chinese, many things are left unsaid, so don’t assume that no news is good news. It’s always best to keep yourself looking clean, well-groomed, and smart, even when you’re dressed casually.