The Importance of Respecting “Face” as a Foreign Teacher in China

The Importance of Respecting “Face” as a Foreign Teacher in China
Jul 04, 2024 By ShanghaiCityGirl ,

Although I’ve been teaching in China for almost three years and learned a lot about workplace culture here, there’s still one thing that gets me into trouble on a regular basis. I’m brutally honest and tend to “say it as it is.” Unfortunately, this is not a trait that is in high demand in Chinese education institutions. Here I bring you a little lesson on the importance of respecting “face” as a foreign teacher in China.

pay day anxiety 

All the way back in 2013, Taiwanese singer Yoga Lin Youjia perfectly encapsulated the issue of “face” in his song Lie. Its most popular line was “rén jiān bù chāi,” an abbreviation of the longer sentence rén shēn jiān nán bú yào chāi chuān. This roughly translates as: “Life is so hard, don’t hurt me with truth.”

When it comes to working as a foreign teacher it China, it seems there are many people you can hurt with the truth.

Dealing with parents

For most schools, the most important thing is that parents like their teachers. And if you want Chinese parents to like you, the number-one rule is never to cause them to “lose face” by telling them the truth about their kids’ shortcomings.

I got into trouble at my previous job after flagging in the monthly report that some of our kindergarten kids had “additional needs.” Apparently this innocuous comment had seriously insulted all the parents even though I mentioned no kids by name.

While navigating the nuances of “face” is notoriously tricky for foreigners, even some more Westernized Chinese people get confused from time to time. A Chinese teacher I know who went to university in the US was equally baffled about why she was not allowed to give real feedback to Chinese parents. Even though she is Chinese and knows all about the concept of saving face, she believes parents would only benefit from knowing the truth about their child’s progress. She was told by the school not to “hurt” the parents, however. Because: “rén jiān bù chāi.”

Dealing with colleagues

It isn’t just the parents who will not appreciate your honesty. Your Chinese colleagues may also resent your attempts to point out problems in order to make changes for the better. When I was trying to teach the students at a high school I worked at some basic manners like saying “please” and “excuse me,” I discovered another teacher had written a long report about my efforts, saying I was shaming and humiliating the children.

One of my European colleagues suffered similar wrath when he dared to address a hygiene issue. After noticing the state of the school toilets, he suggested the teachers provide a few practical pointers on how to use a Western toilet correctly. We’ve all seen the shoe prints on the toilet seats, right? After all, the majority of these students will be going to Western universities soon, so a little bit of face loss now could save them a whole lot further down the line.

However, the majority of the Chinese staff reacted with utter disgust at this suggestion. Apparently my colleague had crossed the line. Although he did not call out the kids directly, the Chinese staff felt offended on their behalf.

But this is China!

Yes, life can be hard, but to me, it seems obvious that acknowledging mistakes and shortcomings is the best way to learn. One would hope that in the long run it would make life easier. But the concept of protecting face in China is just something I have learned to accept. According to a well-known Chinese saying, “A person needs face just as a tree needs its bark.”

Just now, as I was writing this article, my friend texted me from the US saying she had just received back a parcel she sent me last year. She asked if I could go to the post office and ask for an explanation. I told her TIC (This is China) and that I would not be going to confront the post office staff for obvious reasons. What happened to the parcel over the past year will have to remain a mystery, but maybe that’s for the best. Perhaps life really is too hard and the truth would just hurt.

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Keywords: foreign teachers in China foreign teacher in China


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While we're expected to smile at Chinese staff and parents and give nothing but compliments, foreign teachers (that I know of, at least) are regularly getting slapped, kicked, pinched, groped, punched and pushed by students, some who call out 'you're s**t', 'you are SB' and/or f**k you!' during class. They feel they can do what they want because the local teacher who is supposed to be helping has mysteriously gone AWOL, is asleep at their desk or is taking students out the room to do Chinese or maths homework. FTs are, for the most part, used as models to attract more students but are actually treated as glorified babysitters services and not real teachers. I've heard so many instances of local staff/teachers never communicating to us about problems in the classroom but turning meetings into b***h sessions where they complain constantly about the foreign staff. I've seen local teachers literally grab students by the arm and throw them out of their chairs and yet, FTs can be reported for being angry and raising their voices at a rowdy class. In too many cases, FTs are treated with contempt by staff and derision by the students, and rarely seen as actual people with feelings who deserve to be treated with basic dignity. I understand the concept of giving face, since I've lived in China for 16 years, but it also needs to work both ways. So many foreigners left China during the pandemic and never returned, and now I can see why.

Jul 19, 2024 10:21 Report Abuse


China looks amazing I cant wait to visit.

Jul 15, 2024 17:06 Report Abuse


if you are a foreigner, there are always some secret talks about you behind your back????

Jul 12, 2024 15:07 Report Abuse


if you are a foreigner in china, you will always be the focus for gossip.

Jul 12, 2024 19:06 Report Abuse


am in Pakistan and I have 18 years experience in selling and marketing and recruitment

Jul 14, 2024 19:24 Report Abuse


am in Pakistan and I have 18 years experience in selling and marketing and recruitment

Jul 14, 2024 19:25 Report Abuse


It's their 5000 years of history & TIC.

Jul 08, 2024 17:32 Report Abuse


I am in Pakistan and I have 18 years experience in selling and marketing and recruitment

Jul 14, 2024 19:22 Report Abuse


No, that's not part of Chinese culture. That's just people being immoral and you not standing up for common sense or yourself.

Jul 06, 2024 15:51 Report Abuse


SheikhWaqasahmed(0) (0) I am in Pakistan and I have 18 years experience in selling and marketing and recruitment

Jul 14, 2024 19:23 Report Abuse