Culture Shock – Cultural differences when teaching online

Culture Shock (noun): the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

Going into online teaching, it never even crossed my mind that I’d experience any kind of culture shock. For one, I’d already spent a year in South Korea so I thought I had a good idea of East Asian culture and secondly, we don’t even have to leave our homes. How can we experience any kind of culture shock when we don’t have to leave the country? While it’s definitely not as extreme as moving to a completely unfamiliar country there are still some cultural differences I wish I’d known about!

Potty Club

The coveted club of the online teaching world. The first time your student takes you on a journey to their bathroom, pulls down their trousers and proceeds to do their business, all while continuing their conversation with you, can be quite shocking! They aren’t trying to be rude or offend you though, it just isn’t a big deal over there. It doesn’t seem to be as popular anymore but some children still wear ‘split pants’. These are pants with a hole in the bum so kids can just squat and drop wherever they may be! (Google ‘China split plants’ if you don’t believe me!)

Naked Dads (and other family members)

The first time a granddad in nothing but his underpants strolled across the screen I was quite take aback, but it turns out it’s a pretty common occurrence! It is not unusual for homes in China to have no air conditioning or heating so when temperatures can reach up to 40 degrees Celsius (105 F) in summer and drop below freezing in winter, it shouldn’t really be surprising people want to strip off when they get home. Conversely, in winter you’ll probably see students wrapped up in their winter coats during lessons!


This was probably the hardest difference for me to deal with. To most of us in the West, the way some Chinese parents chose to discipline their children can be hard to handle. I’ll never forget the first time my sweet little seven year old got swiped around the back of the head for laughing too hard. I try to show parents and students that it’s ok to make mistakes and have fun in class. I find once parents realise this they step back a little bit, both in terms of discipline and feeding answers to their kids.

Lost in Translation

Communication can be tricky at times! There’s the obvious language barrier but also differences in the way things are said. Directness can often be mistaken for rudeness. A common example is, when contacting IT for help they’ll often respond with ‘What do you want?’ or ‘What is your problem?’ which could come across as pretty rude, but really they are just asking what you would like help with. I’ve found the key to successful communication with IT and CS is:

  • be polite – don’t be rude to them. Even if something has happened you don’t agree with, it’s very rarely that specific CS or IT persons fault, so please don’t take your problem out on them!
  • keep it simple – short, simple sentences are the way to go. The longer the sentence, the more likely it will translate poorly.
  • don’t jump to conclusions – if something seems rude or unhelpful at first, take a second to think about whether they might mean something else.
  • deal with one issue at a time – don’t send CS a long list of problems, go through one at a time, again keeping message short and sweet to avoid confusion.
  • if you’re really getting nowhere leave the conversation and try again with another staff member later.

Saving Face

In the most basic terms ‘saving face’ means to avoid being disgraced or humiliated. This goes some way to explain why you often hear parents whispering answers to their children, or helping them in tests they’re trying to save face. Saving face means it can often be difficult for people to admit their mistakes. Admitting to a mistake would involve ‘losing face’. It’s important to consider this when speaking to parents, students and DaDa employees. Correct student (and parent) mistakes carefully, speak politely to employees and avoid making direct accusations. The whole concept of ‘face’ is quite a tricky one for me and it’s definitely worthy of a post of its own, so if you want to know more I recommend checking out this article on Trip Savvy  

 Academic Pressure

These kids are worked HARD! My student told me a ‘joke’ the other day:

“Children in England get 2 pieces of homework a night, they go home and cry “I have so much homework today”. Children in Japan get 5 pieces of homework a night, they go home and complain “I have so much homework today”. Children in China get 10 pieces of homework a night, they go home and shout with joy “I have so little homework today”. “

The sad thing is this is so true! I ask my students about their day every lesson, and they always say how much homework and extra classes they have. Even their weekends are full with 3-4 extra curricular lessons a day. I ask ‘did you get to relax or read or watch TV today?’ and the answer is almost always no! So bear this in mind when your student comes to class sleepy or in a bad mood, or if they didn’t do the homework you set them. These kids are under so much pressure, and before you judge the parents, it’s worth giving this article a read. There is so much competition in the academic world and most parents just want to give their children a fighting chance to succeed!

The World is a Classroom

Your students will take you to all kinds of weird and wonderful places with them! If your student pops up in an unusual location, don’t panic, just do what you can. I’ve taught students in restaurants, at an amusement park, on a bus, in an underwear store, in a car, in a treehouse in Thailand, in shopping centres and my personal favourite, on the back of a motorcycle! Obviously you can’t teach the courseware in some of these scenarios, instead, use their surroundings and get them to talk about where they are, what they can see, who they’re with and what they’re doing! Sometimes these lessons can turn out the most fun!

Have I missed anything? I’d love to hear more about the cultural differences you’ve experienced while teaching online, or abroad! Leave a comment below 😀

Think you can handle these differences and want to start teaching? I’m happy to help you through the process! If you use my link (it’s free) I can mentor you through the application process and in those first few weeks of teaching so you don’t have to go through the culture shock alone!


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