AE 522 – Interview: A 12-Year Adventure Teaching English in China with Andrew Lawson

Learn Australian English in this interview episode of the Aussie English Podcast where I chat to Andrew Lawson about his 12-year adventure teaching English in China.

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AE 522 – Interview: Andrew’s 12-Year Adventure Teaching English in China

G’day, guys! Welcome to this episode of Aussie English! Today I have a special guest, Andrew Lawson from Queensland, Andrew you’ve just gotten back from China and you’ve been over there, I think you were telling me, I think for 12 years teaching English.

Well, eleven and a half years teaching English in Chinese universities.

So, how on Earth did that happen? How on Earth did you end up in China for more than a decade teaching English over there? That’s crazy!

Well, I had a friend who was studying Chinese in China and he said come over and teach English and my natural reaction was I can’t do that, I’ve never done anything like that! But the more I thought about it and after doing a TESOL course and some other stuff, I went and I was very, very surprised to find out I enjoyed it.

So, how easy was that to organise? You had to do a TESOL course and then was there a lot of paperwork or organization to get over to China?

Okay, now, okay. This is back in 2006. It was much easier, the restrictions weren’t so great. What they used to say is all you needed white skin and a passport from an English-speaking country, but it’s a little bit harder now. But anyway, we got over there and we were teaching in a vocational college, first off. A little Vocational College 13,000 students, right across the road, there was another university 22,000 students, so, me coming from Australia, the idea of wall to wall people.

So that was a bit of culture shock for you, was it?

A little bit. I had been warned about to expect things to be very very different. Even just apart from the language, but it did it worked out well, I had my wife there to hold my hand so I survived.

So, did she do the TESOL course as well to teach English with you too?

She didn’t do that TESOL course, my wife had a degree which… well, my wife is Dutch, but she did her degree in Australia which ok, it was done through an Australian university, which made the way possible for her and so, but the thing is she has a slight Dutch accent, but the thing is the Chinese could not understand it, could not pick it up, could not hear any difference.

I had a student recently who is Dutch and she wanted to get an Australian accent, she wanted to get lessons and I was like when I first had a lesson I was like… you barely have any accent at all! I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to help you because you speak like a native speaker, but it sounds like it’s almost American with a bit of Irish in there or something.

The thing is, I’ve always said to the students don’t worry about the British accent, the American accent, when you speak, speak clearly so people can understand you. Now the trouble coming to Australia is what Australians do to English does require a little extra understanding and that’s why you’ve got a job and I’ve got a job!

So, what were you expecting when you first prepared to go over to China, what were your expectations and how did they compare to when you actually got there and put your feet on the ground?

Well, it was obviously going to be something very new. Fortunately, unfortunately, we had trouble with the plane. We sat in the plane in Singapore airport for two hours because of mechanical problems. So, we were a little bit late, which meant we were tired. So, by the time we arrived in the city that we were going to, which was three hours from Shanghai by car, we’d been awake for about 36 plus hours and all we wanted to do was sleep so… but the thing is with us being they wanted to take us for a meal. They were free meals. So, but after a while they sort of got the idea that we just were not interested in eating. We just wanted to sleep. They took us to the apartment where we just crashed, but we were more than pleased with how they dealt with us and how they…if we had a problem they would come to the party and help which in whichever way they could. I have heard other horror stories of people going to China. It all makes a difference in where you go. The people that you go with and the people that you go to, there are some…

So, how did you organise where you were going to go, then? Did you know of which places beforehand or was it just you’ve put your hand up now we’re sending you here?

I contacted an agency which did place people in China and they came back with one place for me to go, for us to go to and we received an e-mail saying we want you there but then all of a sudden they must have had someone more qualified answer, answer their email and so, we just got pushed to the side. The agency sent us another school, which was in Yongzhou, and yes yes we want you we want you. Then we heard nothing. So, I contacted the agency again and then I was… oh sorry that’s incorrect, there was another school and they wanted us there, but then I saw my signature appear on a document that I hadn’t signed. Yeah. And so I backed out of that and I said no way. By this stage the agency was starting to get a little bit unhappy with me and then they said all I’ve got left is this and I said sounds good. That’s and that’s where we went, a place called Wuxi in Jiangsu Province, which is about 120 kilometers from Shanghai. Yeah a little city of about 6 million people.

Little, little city of about 6 million, bigger than any Australian city.

The Chinese do consider it small.

You’ve got Shanghai, which has Australia’s population and that’s one city. Now, China is a very big place, like it’s about a million square kilometers larger than Australia and….But anyway at first… well, we spent two years at that first college and we came back for six months for family reasons, but then the opportunity came to go back and we went back and we were there from 2009, February 2009 to when we finished in June 2018.

Wow. Far out! And so, what was that like the first time, you know, you’ve got there, you’ve gone to the place that you gotta be teaching at, what was it like stepping into a classroom for the first time? Is it the same as an Australian classroom full of kids, except they’re just learning English or is it completely different?

I would say, having never taught in Australia, but I would say they were a lot more naive, maybe that’s a harsh way of putting it, but they were a lot… they weren’t so much streetwise and they were very polite, very understanding and it was a pleasure to work with them.

That’s the reputation the Chinese have, at least in Australia, for me especially. Chinese students tends to be very polite, very hard working and they keep their nose down, except they have that negative stereotype of not speaking enough, you know, with their English. Is that true in China itself too, that the students tend to be a bit shyer than in Australia?

Well, the thing is in China you’ve got so many, so you will have some that are… oh I only want to listen. You’ll have others who have the courage to speak and you would be surprised at their level of English. Cause, having met well over the years quite a few Chinese students, some of them could carry on a conversation anywhere, others no matter…others think their English level was like my Chinese level and that’s non-existent.

So, how did you manage to survive in China for 12 years with no Chinese? And I’m guessing obviously this speaks to how good the English level for some Chinese people is, if you can survive for that long with no Chinese at all.

Yeah. The thing was, if you go to a supermarket, they have supermarkets basically the same, ok you have the products that you want. They have some form of scanner. The thing is, you want the product, they want your money.

You make it work.

If you go to a market where they barter, that’s a little bit harder, but knowing a few Chinese phrases like, “Tai qwi la”, “lower, lower”, you’re able to work out. And by their reaction you could work out whether you got a good deal or not, if they were sad as you were walking away you know you got a good deal. If they were smiley and happy, you know you paid too much.

You got ripped up. If they’re pointing at you and laughing you definitely paid too much.

That happened a few times too.

Far out! So what were the biggest hurdles then, if obviously language wasn’t as big of a hurdle or at least as big of an issue, were there other parts of the culture or being over there overseas that were a big hurdle or a big problem that you had to get used to? Like the food or being alone without many Australians…

The food was… there are all sorts of problems, but the food was a problem in the Jiangsu, our first city, I bought a loaf of bread and I didn’t know that in that province they like things very, very sweet. I put it the freezer and was just taking out a couple of slices to have toast that I defrosted it on a plate. Thankfully it was on a plate, because I lifted up two pieces of bread and there was a big pool of sugar underneath. I say they like things sweet yeah that’s…

You sure you weren’t in the desert, it was that the desert isle or…?

No, no…that…anyway. But in the last city we were at, Changsha, we were there for eight years, in that city it was very spicy food…

Yeah, so ’cause that’s what I’ve heard about, there’s quite a few places where they…Is it Szechuan Sauce is from…

Szechuan. Okay, that is another province, we have a friend from there who was in Changsha and they like things very spicy, but they have a different set of spices in Changsha, in Hunan, which was a province, the spices apparently came from Mexico about 160 years ago. It’s quite spicey. And according to what we have seen, the tolerance right through the younger people is getting higher that they’re taking more and more and the older people are saying, no it is just too hot.

So, I never got that. I understand, I like spicy food, but they get it to a point where you can no longer really taste the subtleties in the food because it’s too hot and it’s just no longer enjoyable, even if you can withstand the heat. It’s kind of like that just feels like I’m eating fire now.

Well in Szechuan province they have one spice that just numbs the mouth.

Not even nothing hot it just numbs the mouth.

Well, I don’t see the point of it. This friend who is from Sichuan Province we went to a restaurant one time and this is in China and heading over the restaurant was authentic Japanese curry, in English. You ask how I survive. Yeah I read the signs. One of the… well the menu was in English and Chinese and one was crazy hot curry.

And you were like ‘oh, alright, challenge accepted!’.

I’m not silly! Okay, she had to have a go. She got to the stage, no this is too hot,.

And that was before it came out.

….which was very nice, but we were back there a week later and she had exactly the same dish, she wanted to make sure it was too hot.

I prefer it not to be too spicy, but a lot of times over there in the average restaurant, in your mum and dad restaurant, it was too spicy for me.

So, did you have to give them a special like…can you guys just, you know, drop it down, the white man spice, you know, like a little bit less than normal for us?

A lot less than normal. We learned certain restaurants to go to and certain meals to have. Now, there was one that was from Szechuan, I think the Americans call it Kungpao chicken. Gong bao di jing was what it was and “Yi dian dian”, okay “just a little.”

“A little bit, a little bit.”

But, by going to the same places over and over, they got used to how you wanted it and a lot of times they would tell you what you were going to order. One of the first dishes in China that I really liked was a fried egg and fried egg and tomato.

Really? Ok.

Altogether, and I’ve never had that before, and oh… well, in our first, in Jiangsu Province they would throw sugar in with it to make it sweeter, as I said, they like everything sweet, but it was interesting like all over China there’s eight separate cuisines. Another place we were at in Jongzhou in Hunan Province, it is a very salty taste. I like salty things and so, I quite liked it, but my wife didn’t like that quite so much.

So, yeah you have to move around the country, do you? Until you find somewhere the cuisine was acceptable.

Now, you go to where you find the restaurants are acceptable so, you can have the same dishes, but it’s how they… how they serve them up, just how they cook them because they each have their own way of serving the same food.

Far out! So, did you get to meet many other Westerner iover there whilst you were there, or where they few and far between? How was it socializing.

Okay. We got to meet quite a few… We all came under the banner of foreigners. Get to meet quite a few foreigners, but from many different countries.

Okay, we’ve got, because of our time in China, we’ve got many German friends now, American friends. We’ve got friends from many different countries. Some people you meet, you’re happy that you’ve met them other people….Ok, it takes all types.

Were they all there doing the same thing too or did they have other sort of jobs that were bringing them over to China?

Now, in our first city I met a couple. They came from Brisbane, he was born in Germany, grew up in Brisbane, she was born in Hong Kong, grew up in Brisbane. They they met at Queensland University when they were studying. He was, he had a PhD in material science and he was working with one of the companies there. There’s quite a few, especially where the industry has gone, there’s a lot of foreigners in China, like there was over 200 thousand English teachers.

Holy moly!

You have to remember the size of the country, the size of the population. One point one billion. That’s a lot of people in anyone’s language.

That’s crazy. So, what’s it like too, because it’s I know China is about the size of Australia, right?

2 million square kilometers larger.

Yeah. Okay so, it’s bigger than Australia, but it’s much more homogenous, right? With regards to land where people can live. They’re spread out across the entire country, right? Whereas Australia tends to be around the Eastern coast, a little bit in the North and a little bit in the West South. So, is that… can you just go driving for literally days and days and it’s just city, after city, after city of people?

Basically, if you go, say I arrive in Shanghai and go up the coast, you’ll see city, after city, after city, like where we were in Wuxi, half an hour away from there by slow train, there was Suzhou, which has the name of being the Venice of China. There was about seven million people and there’s a couple of other smaller towns on the way, Kunshan, that still had a couple of million and then you go to Shanghai.

Did it feel like that, though? Like, if you were in Shanghai and you walked outside or even in some of these smaller cities, did it feel as sort of populated as the rest of the world expects or is there actually quite a bit of space, more than you’d think?

If you’re in the city it is wall to wall people. If you are a country, ok, then you’ve got space. But, the cities because of the industry and everything else, have caused a lot of pollution. They’re trying to deal with that now and it’s not as simple as it would seem. Part of the problem would be the Chinese mindset. Ok, someone else will pick it up and this has caused a problem. The air pollution in the city that we were in, occasionally got up to like 200 on this level was dangerous and ocasionally got up to 240.

And what do you do in those cases? You just recommended not to go outside or you have to wear a mask or…?

Well, some people wore masks. I was doing a little bit of bike riding then, I would go out early morning. If you pick your times you can do a lot of things. But there were other cities like Beijing. I’ve heard it’s got up to about 700 on bad days.

Far out!

So, that’s crazy I just can’t imagine that amount of people. Hopefully I want to go to China one day because there’s just so many sort of cultural things and historical things that I’d love to see and food that I’d like to try, but I can’t imagine the pollution side of things where it’s all consuming, right? Especially in these big cities where you can’t it’s not like you can avoid it, right?

In the cities, ok, the cities are growing because people are moving in to the cities. It happens everywhere.

Yeah, exactly.

Ok, building like the farmers aren’t making enough on the land so, they’ll move in and go into the building industry and so, the cities are growing. But the thing is, with that, with the industry and all the rest you have the pollution. These are problems that they have to deal with.

I wonder, are they going to put a lot more into public transport to try and bring that pollution down? because I know they’re trying to…. I think in some cities they have a rule where certain number plates can drive one day and then the next can drive the next day, right?

In Beijing. So, the rich make sure they have…

Two cars!

There is a lot of public transport, buses and all the rest. The larger cities now have subways. The city we were in has just put in its first couple of subway lines with about four or five more lines to go in, which made it quite easy. The buses were very cheap, one fare, whether you go one stop or go to the end of the terminal…


So, the buses only cost about 40 cents.

I wish they’d bring that here. It would be nice, it’s more like 15 dollars to get the train from Geelong to Melbourne and back. It’s crazy. So, bringing it back to teaching English, as Chinese students, especially Chinese students who are in China, would you have any advice, any specific advice for them if they’re potentially listening to this episode what can they do to better learn English?

Ok, one thing they have to do is practice English, read English books, not books written by Chinese translated into English, read books written by English writers.

Is that a common thing over there where they take English books or, sorry, Chinese books that have been translated into English and they read those instead of books that have been written by English speakers?

Most of the textbooks are written by Chinese. There is a book that is a real problem.

So, what does that what does that lead to? Is it just mainly poor grammar or small errors that are just common for English learners because they are not learning it from an English speaker who’s written it?

Well, in the early days, the English teachers, the Chinese English teachers, hadn’t experienced speaking English themselves, a lot of them. So, that did a lot of harm to the pronunciation. Now, the damage that has been done in grammar, like they all learn a lot of grammar, but the thing is it’s, it’s like looking at a street map, but you still don’t know the way.

Yeah, exaclty.

I’ve corrected quite a number of papers and they’ve been written from anyone from students to deans and professors and most of the problems are the same, like some of the scientific papers I’ve read, I haven’t understood the science, but I didn’t have to, the mistakes prepositions, articles, A, AN and THE and tenses, they would be over 90 percent of all the written problems.

Wow. Does it carry over from written into speaking as well or do they tend to do better or worse with speaking?

When we speak, a lot gets hidden. When we put things together and the same over there. People will… see when they are taught English, they’re taught for different subjects, reading, writing, listening and speaking. Whereas we have them as one subject And ahis is one of the things that I believe makes it harder for them because, when they’re all together, ok, this relates to that.


But I had some students in my last college and I got them to read a passage and I thought oh… they’re pronouncing it very well! Then I made the mistake of asking ‘what does that mean?’. I don’t know. They had no idea what it meant, but they were able to parrot the words.

Far out! Because they I think that’s sort of the Asian stereotype, from an Australian point of view, is that they are incredibly good with rote learning, WITH practicing things till they get it right with regards to preparing for Maths exams, English exams, Chemistry exams. But when it comes to improvisation on the spot and spontaneous speech or spontaneous use of the language, which is hard for anyone, right? But I found that that tends to be one of the things and not because it’s their fault, but because it’s I think less emphasized by teachers.

As you’re talking, I was also helping prepare students for the provincial speech competition and they… well, they were sending me the speeches and most of these were written by teachers, not the students. Most of them I thought were utter rubbish.

And what, do they get them to just remember them word for word?

Basically. I had a teacher tell me, like after I’d said this is utter rubbish.. ”oh the judges are Chinese so, they won’t notice.”You can make it that what it was like.

And that’s the hardest thing, right? And this was always the thing at my school. They would always be those students who learnt how to solve the problems, but didn’t understand how they did it so, they would learn to be able to answer math questions. I was probably one of them, but I if you ask me why those relationships were there or ask me to interpret it or expand on it, I never could because I never practiced it and so I try to emphasize how important it is to improvise and learn to improvise by using the language all the time. Did you did you come into contact with people who had problem with confidence too? And were there any sort of pieces of advice you gave to students who had trouble summoning up the confidence to speak?

Yeah, there were students… actually I saw a movie, it was the King’s Speech. I don’t know if you have seen.

Yeah I have, it’s good.

Where he had problems speaking and you look at how he was helped and you can relate a lot of that across. I would tell them, ok, just take a couple of deep breaths, doesn’t matter doesn’t matter if you’re standing in front of a crowd. Just take a couple of deep breaths, the crowd will wonder what you’re doing, that’s their problem and ok just calm down, because the thing is if you get nervous, you start to breathe more shallow and so, then it makes it harder to pronounce the words. By taking deep breaths and slowing down, don’t rush because one of the things they kept on telling me…oh if you’re a good speaker you can speak fast…but speaking fast doesn’t make a good speaker, and anyway by speaking more slowly while just taking your time and one point at a time, you say what you want to say and that helps to overcome. I also had to teach on how to do presentations and things like this and it’s all tied up together.

Far out! So, coming back to Australia, did you experience any reverse culture shock after you were, obviously, away for years?

When I say I was away for years while working in universities does have the advantage you have long holidays.

So, you were back and forth.

And so, we were able to come home twice a year. For those 12 years, we were able to come home twice a year. So, that enabled us to minimize any, any bad reverse culture shock.

Were there things that you picked up, though? Where you were like ”oh…I never realized Australians or Westerners have this kind of behavior”, like did anything, I don’t know, come up as as strange after you’d spent time in another country for so long?

I was at a friend’s place, a German friend, in Wuxi, we were back visiting and he had satellite TV and he switched over to an ABC, Australian Broadcaster, when I heard this journalist and I thought…Strewth! That was little bit of a shock, but…when you come back and you hear a lot of the broad English, broad Australian that is spoken and oh yeah, oh yeah I used to say that.

Did you miss that? Do you miss that having that just around you? Because that was one thing when I went to Indonesia and I’ve been to France, I remember the distinct… of the first most exciting things I notice is the ambient sound in the country is different, the way in which you hear speech in the background being mumbled or like just that sound is very different and so, did that, was that a big shock when you were sort of back be like ”ok, there’s Aussies around again, I know this sound in the background.”

I didn’t miss the sound so much because I was speaking in English the whole time, I was speaking with educated people. What I missed was blue sky, and blue ocean, and if they had a cloud free day the sky was a very insipid blue very, very light blue, not that rich color that we have, well, that I’m used to here.

Specially In Queensland, up North, right? It’s probably bluer than it is for me.

I’m looking between the curtains and not a cloud in the sky.

It’s grey outside here there’s nothing.

Where we were in Changsha it was grey virtually the whole time and sometimes if it was mixed up with a rainstorm it got to the stage where you only had say a couple hundred metres visibility.


A couple of times it was quite bad. I remember going across across the river and there were bridges about every kilometre and some days you couldn’t see the bridges on the other side on either side of you.


So it was thick sometimes.

And that’s something I think that would shock me, but is there anything you miss now from China? Is there anything that we could adopt as a country or a culture from China that would enrich things over here?

Oh there are many things over there that I’d like to see here, but I don’t think Australia could afford it. What I mostly miss is people, you know, my friends, but some technological things, they have the fast train there. Now, when we first arrived to go from Wuxi to Shanghai, would take three hours by slow train, 120 kilometers. Now, it takes about 30, on the fastest train with the least stops, takes about 35 minutes.

Wow. Okay.

Where we were in Changsha, we were on the train line that would go from Guangzhou to Wuhan. Now, that’s a thousand kilometers, Brisbane to Sydney, basicly. The train would do that in three and a half hours.

Jesus! That’s insane!

The thing is they have that population to… the population too to keep something like that.

I was about to say, we’d just never… we could sustain that, but every ticket would be probably more than our flight to China, right? Like it would be thousands upon thousands of dollars.

The cost over there was, well…to go from down to Shenzhen, which is right next door to Hong Kong, would cost 50 dollars on the fast train, a hundred dollars first class. But it was like sitting in a plane because it was all sealed and the chairs were comfortable and it was truly a very comfortable ride. But I saw a program on ABC some years ago, they were looking at the Chinese system and going from Brisbane to Melbourne or something Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne would cost about, well…this was years ago, cost about 8 billion dollars then.

Good luck.

One of the ways they are able to enhance the speed is by having the train tracks as straight as possible. So, not end.

That’s crazy.

So, yeah we have certainly a large enough country for it, but we don’t have the population for it and well… it’s not likely, like you’re talking about the size of China, I was amazed at how much water there was, like we were thousand kilometers from the coast in my last cit, now the river going through that was a tributary of the Yangzte and but it was a tributary, but it would be say, I don’t know the Arrow River, but the Brisbane River, I do, and it would be at least three times as wide as the Brisbane River.

Far out. So, I think the Yarra river is tiny, usually, like you know tens of metres across. It’s not very big.

The Brisbane River would be say… maybe half a kilometer. Maybe three or four hundred yards, but this was, It was…there were islands in the middle. Yeah and I was very surprised to learn that first bridge across this particular river wasn’t until 1970.

Holy Moly.

So, before it was all barges and and because of the area we were from was near Mao Zedong’s hometown, they used to talk about him swimming across the river.

Alright, so last question: if you had your class in front of you now from China, what advice would you give them for coming to Australia? For preparing for whether it’s for our language or our culture, are there any quick tips that you’d give them?

Quick Tips. No, but the thing I would say is work on your English, work on…well, from being back, I know that a lot of people have problems understanding Australians and so, this would necessitate getting hold of some Australian dialogue, you know, where you hear the ”G’day!”, and all the rest of it, and, okay, learn to understand and learn… most languages do crush words in together.


But I believe Australian…well, it’s no real difference, but understanding Australian because you have so much opposition, because you’ve got American English on one side, British English on the other, American and both of those branches of English have a lot of sub areas, subdialects under them.

That’s it, slang, pronunciation differences, expressions, it’s crazy.

This is basically what I’ve been doing with my ESL work since I’ve been back. I’ve been helping students who well….not students, but clients who have already been through the education system, but in the workplace and need help understanding what the man on the street is saying or what their work colleagues are saying and speaking about because there are so many idioms, so much slang, it’s truly hard for them.

Oh, brilliant! Andrew Lawson, thank you so much for joining me today and if anyone wants to get in contact with you for potential lessons or just to say G’day, how can they do that?

The easiest way, first off, would be through the email address: then we could work out a way of contacting. One thing I did get from China was using their media WeChat. In Chinese, it’s called Weixin, and that was an easy way, that’s like WhatsApp or something like that, but it was a little bit more advanced and, but if you want any information on Australia or, sorry, China i’d only be too happy to help.

Yeah. No worries! I’ll definitely include that information in the transcript. Andrew, thank you so much for your time today, I really appreciate it.

Thank you, my pleasure. Hopefully, it’s helpful to some.

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