Teacher Kim Ooi writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated April 26, 2021
By Kim Ooi

Single English teacher in China

I’ve been teaching in China for nearly six years and in that time I’ve met a great many fellow expat teachers from all over the world.

Some are old, some are young and they come from different countries too.

But one thing that most of them have in common is this: EFL teachers who continue teaching in China for many years are usually single.

Why is this?

Are we so lacking in social skills that we can’t bond with anyone?

I personally don’t think so.

There are several reasons why expat teachers might be single. This article explores the main ones, from a man’s perspective.

1. Distance

It’s difficult to meet people from your home country if you’re working abroad, especially if you intend to make a life-long career out of TEFL.

English teachers spend the most part of every year abroad and might go home only once, or at the most twice a year.

There simply isn’t enough time to get to know someone really well if you are only home for a couple of months in a year.

Long-distance relationships do not work if you are teaching in China

Long-distance relationships don't work when you're teaching in China.

And, even if you do manage to meet someone from your home country, you would either have to cut your teaching career short and go home to marry them or they would have to leave their home country to join you overseas.

To ask someone to resign from their job, leave their family and friends and to go to an unfamiliar country where they don’t speak the language and don’t know anyone, is a big ask.

2. Language barrier

Apart from students majoring in English and a few local teachers at your school in China, you’ll be hard-pressed to find fluent English speakers in China.

Although some foreigners in China eventually become fluent in Mandarin after years of study, it’s safe to say that most English teachers are only at the level of survival Chinese.

I’ve been learning Mandarin now for over five years and am fairly independent in China.

I can take public transport, go shopping and travel without assistance. However, I can’t hold a decent conversation with a native Chinese speaker for any considerable length of time.

Although it’s easy enough to learn phrases like Wǒ ài nǐ (I love you), Nǐ hěn piàoliang (You’re gorgeous) and maybe even some pillow-talk, it’s difficult to have a relationship with someone whom you can’t hold an in-depth conversation with.

3. Money

My Mandarin teacher once told me something that I’ll never forget.

I quote: “If you want to marry a girl in China, you need to be wealthy.”

Unlike in the UK where many families live in rented accommodation, in China, if you can’t buy an apartment here, you’re seen as a loser.

Due to the huge population and scarce resources, the government has a policy of reserving the best schools in the cities for homeowners. If you rent your home, your child may have to be educated in a rural school.

If you do not have money you will not get married in China

You need to have money to marry in China.

Home ownership is also seen as the ultimate symbol of security in China. This creates a number of problems.

Firstly, even if we intend to spend decades teaching in China, most of us would one day wish to go back to our home countries.

Thus, it doesn’t make sense to buy a property in China when we have no intention of staying here forever.

Secondly, teaching abroad is meant to be an adventure and an opportunity to travel.

Being able to teach at different types of schools and in different cities every year enables you to broaden your horizons, make new friends, see new places and try new foods.

Being tied down to one city because you have your apartment and spouse there would greatly reduce your opportunities.

4. Filial piety

Due in a large part to China’s one-child policy, an only child is understandably very precious to Chinese parents who spare no effort in looking after and spoiling their children.

The children in turn, form a great attachment to their parents and see it as their duty to look after their parents in their old age.

Thus, a Chinese person would be unwilling (or culturally unable) to leave their hometown until after their parents have died.

The China one child policy affects relationships

China's one-child policy has wound up but is still having an effect on relationships.

A Chinese wife wouldn’t be willing to follow her husband to another city.

Foreign EFL teachers will have a problem if they meet a girl say from a dating site and then are unable to get a teaching post in her hometown for whatever reason.

5. Gender imbalance

Out of China’s population of 1.4 billion people, there are nearly 34 million more males than females.

The numbers speak for themselves!

It will be a lot harder to find a woman when there aren’t that many to go round in the first place.

6. Jobless women

“Why do you love me?” might be a common question that a couple might ask each other.

And what kind of answers would we be expecting when we ask that question?

Naturally, we want to be told that our partner loves us because we have a wicked sense of humor, we are responsible and hardworking husbands, we are caring, faithful or that we bring out the best in our partners.

We wouldn’t like to hear our wives say that they love us because we’re rich.

Why are so many English teachers in China single?

Money plays a role in the love game in China.

I can’t speak for others but personally, I view a marriage as an equal partnership. I want a wife who has a job and is able to contribute to the family expenses, not someone who just stays at home and lives off the fruits of my labors.

Also, if a woman marries me for my money, how do I know that she will stick around if I were to lose my job?

Chinese dating websites are full of jobless women whose sole aim is to find a rich ‘provider’ rather than a partner and a lover.

See also: What's Chinese dating like?

7. Controlling women

Quite a significant proportion of Chinese women insist on controlling the family finances after marriage.

It has been argued that they do this because they feel insecure.

They believe that if they have control of the money, the husband will be unable to leave them or to have affairs.

Chinese women want to control money in relationships

Some Chinese women want to control money in the relationship.

It would take a lot of trust on the part of a Western man to surrender his entire wealth to his wife because that leaves him very vulnerable.

If there is a quarrel for instance and the wife leaves (taking all the money with her), the man would be completely ruined.

Also, since the man is the one working hard to earn that money, he’s not likely to want to give it all away.

8. Inflexible women

Any married couple will tell you that a marriage is all about give and take. Sometimes the woman gets her way, and at other times the man does.

Some Chinese women desire a foreign husband because they may think that he’s richer or able to give them a better life in a foreign country.

But one thing they don’t seem to be prepared to do is to accept foreign customs.

The man is generally expected to move to where the woman is, buy an apartment there, be the breadwinner and surrender his earnings to his wife. But she’s not willing to move with him to where his job is.

A Chinese woman may not even be willing to travel abroad to meet her partner’s parents until after marriage.

Take-home message

From this article, it’s clear that there are significant challenges in inter-cultural marriages between Chinese people and English teachers.

Whilst there are of course many Westerners who are happily married to Chinese people, it’s not difficult to understand why there are so many English teachers in China who are single.

Why do you think so many English teachers in China are single? Have your say below.


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