So you've made the decision to teach English in China! Now, where in China do you want to go? Sure, you've probably considered Beijing or Shanghai, but have you looked at Guangzhou? What about Xi'an? What about Tianjin? Ningbo? Hohot? Nanjing?
Moving to Beijing or Shanghai is the equivalent of going to New York in the USA, London in the UK or Sydney in Australia. They're world-cities and while they are great for some people, China offers so many other options! Here are some factors to consider when decided where you want to live and work.
The tier system in China is a unique practice that can be a little confusing or strange to foreigners. In short, cities are grouped together by population size, economy and other factors. The higher a tier, the bigger a city. Knowing the tier of the cities you're interested in can give you an idea of how they compare at a glance at a few different factors. High tier cities, for example, will likely have a larger foreign population than low-tier cities, as well as an overall higher education rate. It's not a definitive rating, but it's a good start.
China is a huge country and with that comes a variety of climates. China itself uses the Qin mountains and Huai River to divide the country based on whether housing should have central heating. South of the line may still have cold snaps in the winter (and be much colder indoors) but will be very hot in the summer. North of the line is much colder in the winter (though at least, there indoor heating!), but has milder summers as well. Precipitation can also vary wildly, depending on the location, due in part to the mountain ranges that dot China.
On top of the weather, no Chinese city is pollution free year-round, but some locations are better — or worse — than others. There are precautions you can take in any city, and China is working really hard to bring down their pollution, but if you have asthma or other health concerns, it's worth looking into air quality.
The salary will be lower in smaller cities, but so will the cost of everything else — and those cities still have to compete with larger cities for teachers so the salaries might not even be that much lower in the first place, making savings even greater. If one of your goals for teaching in China involves saving or spending money (like travelling), a smaller city may help your finances grow more quickly.
Generally speaking, the bigger a city, the bigger the expat and/or English-speaking community. Sure, it's easier to make friends with people who share a language, but it's also important to consider the other impacts of that. If the foreign community isn't large enough to support businesses that cater to them, you may not be able to find imported groceries, international restaurants or western style bars.
If the idea of this makes you uneasy, make sure to find a city with a large and diverse foreign population. Conversely, smaller cities provide more opportunities to learn and use Chinese, though, of course, you still have to take the initiative.
While even “small” Chinese cities have unique personalities, airports, and sites to see; Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong are still the main transport hubs. International flights for visits home are probably going to go through one of these cities—if going to the city via train and then getting to the airport isn't a better option in the first place.
Moving to China can feel daunting, but don't worry. If you're still not sure where you want to go, or where you want to live, we're here to help! After you submit an application, a recruiter can give you a call and help you find the perfect place!