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Authored by Liz Smith

The most rewarding travel moments are when you can have an experience that few others achieve.

When it comes to exploring China, visiting popular tourist sites like the Great Wall or eating Peking Duck may satisfy the bucket list, but that makes your experience just like any other tourist.

So when we visited China, we wanted to make our experience unforgettable and uncover the real China that few tourists ever get to see. We decided to teach English in China, and on reflecting back, have the following advice for those looking to achieve an immersive trip.

Uncover the Real China that Few Tourists Ever Get to See (Teach English in China)

It’s Not Length of Stay, but Befriending Locals

Most of us feel that staying longer in a destination allows you to see more than just the popular touristy spots.  While that can be true, it’s not always the case.

There have been times where we’ve stayed for months in some locations (like Bali or Thailand) and found ourselves surrounded by other travelers or digital nomads. We realized that we didn’t feel like we were learning about the authentic culture at all.

Truly one of the best ways to really gain insight into local cultures and traditions (which we find the most fascinating) is to make some local friends.  Especially with a country like China – there are so many interesting aspects to learn…it seems like everything has some kind of meaning!

Luckily in China, it’s pretty easy to make local friends as a foreigner. Chinese people really want to share their culture with other people, and they are fascinated to learn about our culture too. They love telling the stories and explaining what everything means, and it gives them a way to practice their English.

In China, it’s pretty easy to make local friends as a foreigner.

In China, it’s pretty easy to make local friends as a foreigner.

Be Both Student & Teacher in China

If you want to stay in China for more than just a few weeks and build a network of local friends, one of the best ways is to find a job teaching English in China.

We found jobs living and working on the outskirts of Guangzhou, a major Chinese city just over the border from Hong Kong in the south of China. But even though we were supposed to be the teachers in China, often times it felt like we were the students.

We were constantly asking questions like “what’s up with all the red” and “why do you have so many firecrackers over Chinese New Year?” Both our Chinese co-workers and even our students were quick to offer us explanations. It seemed the more we learned, the more we wanted to know.

Our minds were filled with so much new knowledge about Chinese culture, that it didn’t take long before we were gushing to our family back home.

A Real Cultural Exchange

The reaction of our friends and family was further intrigue. So in a way, we were taking what we learned and sharing it with others beyond China too. And isn’t that really what traveling is about? It’s not just seeing a destination, but experiencing a real cultural exchange.

One of the best aspects of teaching adults in China is that it gave me an opportunity to make friends with all of my students. We often spent classes talking about culture, traditions, and even difficult issues — comparing life in China to my life in the USA and even other countries.  It was eye-opening for my Chinese students, as well as myself.

While Josh primarily taught young kids in China, he actually had a very close bond with his Chinese co-workers and became good friends with them. They often talked about the differences in love and dating, since many of them were young professionals and at that age in life.

It was all of these things together that brought us to a much deeper understanding of China, and gave us the ability to experience the country through a whole different lens than a typical tourist.

In China, it’s pretty easy to make local friends as a foreigner.

Traveling Like a Local Because of Our Friendships

Traveling in China isn’t always easy, especially given the language barrier.  This is where having local friends was a huge benefit to us!

Our co-workers and students were always recommending different local restaurants and places to visit. I even created a special class for my students where I had them write out detailed itineraries recommending special places to visit around China, and they had to practice telling me how to visit these places along with some tips (now that’s a win-win).

Also, having our close network of local friends was a benefit because they would sometimes act as our tour guide, taking us to some amazing places that we didn’t know about.  Having them travel with us was a huge benefit because they could also translate for us, which made the experience so much more enjoyable.

The generosity of our Chinese friends seemed to be endless. Using our WeChat connection on our phones (China’s social media platform) our friends would offer to translate for us if we needed them while traveling around China.

There were definitely some times when we were traveling alone and experienced some confusion – so we could text our friends, send pictures and ask them to translate, or just give the phone to our taxi driver to talk with them!  They made our experience in China so much more enjoyable!

Traveling in China isn’t always easy, especially given the language barrier. This is where having local friends was a huge benefit to us!

Traveling in China isn’t always easy, especially given the language barrier. This is where having local friends was a huge benefit to us!

Experiencing Chinese Traditions With Locals

Few tourists get to spend Chinese New Year making dumplings from scratch in the home of a local family, but it was one of our favorite memories. Pounding the meat, rolling the dough, and stuffing / pinching closed each dumpling by hand.  It’s a family tradition, and we felt honored to be a part of it.

We even learned of a game they play, hiding things like a clove of garlic or a hot pepper in some of the dumplings. During the celebration, the family eats the dumplings together and those who bite into these special dumplings are said to have good luck the next year.

It wasn’t just the Chinese holiday traditions, it was everyday activities that allowed us to do more than just peer through a window into their culture. We went for lazy afternoons walking or biking in beautiful parks, and sat around eating Chinese BBQ — eating endless skewers of grilled meats and veggies with savory spices and seasoning while drinking beer.

We even sat one long afternoon at a tea house that floated on a lake in the middle of the countryside – a place where you will find no foreign tourist.  We learned the traditional tea ceremony, and spent the whole day sipping tea, watching the birds on the lake and learning how to play Chinese strategy table games.

And at night, we even came to enjoy the crazy times belting our hearts out at KTV, singing classic Bon Jovi songs and rocking out like karaoke stars, something we would never do back home in the States.  Maybe in some ways, Josh and I even began to turn a little Chinese ourselves.

It was everyday activities that allowed us to do more than just peer through a window into their culture.

It was everyday activities that allowed us to do more than just peer through a window into their culture.

Embed Yourself Within the Community & You Will Be Forever Changed

When we talk to people about our time in China, they are often amazed at just how much we got to experience and how much we learned in such a short time.  But that’s because we weren’t just a tourist — we found a way to actually work and be able to live like a local.

During our time in China we didn’t just hang out with other expats or digital nomads, we embedded ourselves within the community.  We made local friends, did local activities, and exchanged cultures.  And in the end, we can’t help but feel like we made an impact on their lives just as much as they impacted ours.

This kind of deeper level cultural experience is difficult for most travelers to achieve.  However, that’s what made our time in China the most rewarding of any travel experience we have had around the world.


China Amazon Guide

National Geographic China

China Amazon Guide

Lonely Planet China

China Amazon Guide

101 Coolest Things to Do in China 


Liz Smith – Founder of Peanuts or Pretzels travel blog with her husband, Josh.  As two curious and fun-loving people, they love sharing their passion for travel and strive to make trip planning easier and fun for their readers.


  1. My daughter did a student exchange in Argentina last year and echoed your thoughts about how immersive and rewarding it is in comparison to regular travel. The ability to be able to experience a local’s life is far better than a few days or weeks in a place. Our trip to China was unfortunately quite rushed and I regret not being able to experience more of the real culture. However, we did get to make dumplings with a local family just like you.

    • Fantastic Rhonda! I bet your daughter had such an incredible time in Argentina – that’s the one thing looking back which I would have loved to do in high school – a student exchange somewhere. But it’s great that teaching opportunities are available to those of us who missed it; so glad to hear she had a fabulous and immersive experience.

      Cooking classes are always a really fun way to experience the culture of a country, and make local friends – even if you’re only visiting for a short period of time which is awesome. Glad you had a great trip – hope you have the chance to head back for more time :)

    • Thanks for reading Rhonda! I’m so glad your daughter got to experience something so special & memorable. Yeah, when we first planned our time in China we just couldn’t imagine only spending a few weeks or just a month. It’s so massive, and we knew we’d barely scratch the surface. So glad you got to experience the dumpling making…YUM!!!!! :)

      Happy travels!
      – Liz Smith

  2. I can only imagine how amazing it would’ve been to experience local culture and traditions with Chinese friends ! It’s an amazing idea to live in a country for a period of time, teach English and subsequently learn so much about the country yourself. Great post !

    • Glad you enjoyed the post Medha – hope you have the chance to also!

    • Thanks for reading Medha! It was truly the experience of a lifetime – I will never think of China the same way ever again. While it may seem cliche to teach abroad, it really is the very best way to experience a destination and the culture. Many people can get a job teaching, and there’s just nothing else like it!

      Take care,

  3. Rightly said. One of the commonest things that crosses my mind about the Chinese is “what’s up with all the red?”
    WOuld love a solid answer someday:)
    Jokes apart learning or teaching new languages in a foreign land surely are a great way to meet and more importantly understand people. Hope I get one such opportunity somewhere down the line!

    • Haha great minds must think alike! I’ll have to ask Liz if she got an answer on the question about all the red!

      Glad you enjoyed the post Sreekar – I hope you have the opportunity to spend some extended time in a different country sometime soon :)

    • Hi Sreekar! So while we’ve had a few different variations of the “red” explanation, the common theme is just that it is a lucky color that brings you good fortune. It’s a cultural tradition, and China is incredibly superstitious! So red really is everywhere. Even the women traditionally wear RED WEDDING DRESSES (absolutely beautiful too). They roll out red carpet in front of a new business during the grand opening, they hang red banners with messages of good fortune over the holidays, they even hand out red envelopes full of “lucky money” for children as a gift during the Chinese New Year. Red is truly embedded in every aspect of their culture — always for good luck and fortune! :)

      Prior to living in China, I was never a fan of the color red (I’m more of a blue person). But now, I have quite a different feeling towards it – at least when I’m in China :)

      Happy travels!

  4. That sounds like a great way to experience the Chinese culture. We only went on a tour and did the main site Great wall, Xian, etc Making dumplings from scratch with a local family sure would have been a great experience.

    • Absolutely Cindy :) If you have the opportunity to visit again in the future, teaching English could be a great way to get to know the country a bit deeper :)

    • Thanks for reading Cindy! If you ever have the opportunity to go back to China, definitely look into teaching or doing some kind of program that will allow you to stray from the touristy areas and experience more of the culture — it is truly a rewarding experience!

      All the best!

  5. What a remarkable way to experience China. I’m seriously considering teaching English there next year and looking for good options. I completely agree on the value of immersion into a new culture. I did a staff exchange program last year with the Norwegian Peace Corps and like you said, it’s an extremely rewarding experience!

    • The company Liz and Josh used to find their teaching job is if you’re looking to do the same too.

      Oh wow, a staff exchange program with the Norwegian Peace Corps sounds like it would have been an incredible experience. More power to you!

  6. Living as an expat in another country is a great experience indeed. You have the time to learn a lot about the country and its cultures. I might move to Malaysia in Jan for a new job. I hope I get my first experience as an expat.

    • Absolutely Gokul – a job opportunity in Malaysia sounds exciting! Wishing you the best of luck :)

  7. I have often wondered if it doesn’t get lonely teaching English in a foreign country. Obviously not. The experience of making dumplings with a local family and sitting at a floating tea house sounds unforgettable.

    • Definitely not lonely – there are always so many people around, and from my own experiences, I’ve found everyone is just as interested in learning about you and your culture as you are of theirs. You make friends pretty quickly which is great :)

    • Thanks for the comment Linda!

      Yeah, actually a lot of people worry if they would feel lonely. I was lucky to have my husband there; however, we both made SO many friends that it would have been okay to be there alone. Most of our friends were in China on their own, and it seemed like they had far more of an exciting social life than these two old married people did (haha). But seriously, we made more friends from both China and many other countries around the world than we ever would have imagined. And even more than a year after leaving China, we still stay in contact with most of them.


  8. China is such a great place to visit. However, I think the food, culture and customs are better understood if you have local friends who are willing to explain, show and teach you about them.

    Locals always know about hidden gems and other places that tourist don’t know about which can help give you a much better experience, especially in a large country such as China.

    • Absolutely Simon – and the great thing about something like a placement teaching is that it fast tracks the process of making local friends :)

    • Simon – that is SO true! That’s why teaching in China was so amazing for us, because we were able to quickly make so many local friends who could explain things to us and help us along the way. No mere traveler would be able to have the same experience.

      Happy travels to you!

  9. It’s always good to meet the locals and teaching sounds like a great way to do it. Is it important to know a bit of the local language for that? I used to teach English as a foreign language in France and it did help to communicate!

    • Absolutely Susan :) It definitely helps knowing a little bit of the local language, as you said, for communication, but I’ve found that when you’re thrown in the deep end you pick up the language pretty quickly, at least what you need to know to get by :)

  10. It looks like Liz had a wonderful time there. I think she is right in that if you really want to get to know a country, you have to connect with the locals. It looks like the teaching job gave them just that opportunity, and they came away with a valuable life experience.

    • Absolutely, they’ve been raving about their experience in China, and now I can’t wait to plan something similar too :D!

    • Thanks for reading Dave!

      Honestly, we never expected it to have such a big impact on our lives. We have such a new perspective on things, even if we may not agree. So we feel like it helps make us better leaders and change-makers for the world too. And as teachers, I truly believe we had a lasting impact on our students too.


  11. So glad that you are making a lot of local friends in China! Isn’t it fun to experience how they celebrate the holidays? You learned so much about the history, culture, and food!

    • Glad you enjoyed the post Cat! It’s definitely fun having local friends to celebrate the holidays with – a great way to immerse yourself in a new culture!

  12. Great post! I think that getting the local perspective is so important. I think my favorite experiencing Chinese traditions with locals because you really do see things with an amazing perspective. Plus, a local will always take you under their wing.

    • Glad you enjoyed it Paige! Agree that a local perspective is so important, and it can really change your experience, giving you a much deeper understanding, and view of a destination.

      I’ve found that no matter where you are, there always seem to be friendly locals around happy to offer a deeper insight into their community and culture for interested travelers :)

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