Homeschooling in China: Through the Eyes of a Guinea Pig

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My mom didn’t know a lot about the blip on the radar called “homeschooling” when she embarked on the endeavor. With the amount of moving we did, it just made sense to try it. Since I was the oldest by five years, it meant that I became the guinea pig.

Turns out, at seven years old, I really became the guinea pig—for not only homeschooling but homeschooling overseas—when my family packed up me (at age 7), and my brothers (at 2 and at 6 months) and headed to China.

Yes, China.

That most definitely was not the plan.

Never the plan if mom had stuck to her “I will nevers” list.

But life has a funny way of taking those lists of things we will “never do” and bringing them right to your doorstep. You step out one day on one of those paths, look back, and wonder how on earth you got there. That’s basically how it seemed to go for mom.

Here’s how it happened from my point of view.

I looked up one day from a quiet sitting room to see my adventure-loving dad burst into the room after a men’s retreat, all aglow, and talking excitedly about teaching English in China.

My small-town-farmgirl-never-moved-from-the-state-of-Montana-till-her-twenties mom stopped rocking my brother, aghast.

After mentally glancing, shocked, down the path dad was so excitedly illuminating, she adamantly, heatedly refused.

Her top, obsessive, years-invested fear? Yes, China.

“How can you even suggest that—knowing I’m terrified of China?!” she demanded.

Well, she eventually grudgingly decided to think about it. She made a long list of her fears, and watched with a sigh as each one was methodically, mercilessly, decidedly answered over the next few weeks from the most unexpected places.

“Well . . . ok.”

And so it began.

Months later in 2001, we found ourselves boarding the first of the five-plane, two-day trip to our new home. Little did we know that we were beginning the first year of a six-year adventure in the Far East.

In the hours between teaching English at a college in a “small” (by Chinese standards) town with a population of seven million, mom unloaded the stacks of books we had hauled with us, typed out schedules, and continued to homeschool through those years, providing some stability in the whirlwind of overseas living.

Grocery store shopping in China? Takes a whole new level of effort when it requires buses and taxis, navigating crowded aisles filled with strange new foods, filling up a huge backpack, and lugging it back across the city and then up four flights of stairs to our apartment.

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See our apartment with the blue awning up there?  Felt like the summit of Mount Everest to a little girl helping to carry groceries.

From the child’s point of view, let me tell you, there is a whole new fear-level in China. Holding onto the cart was a life or death issue from what I could tell, since if you let go, you ran the risk of being swept away in a bustling sea of Chinese faces and never seen again.

Then, there were the unexpected challenges, like trying to find pants for my baby brother without the Chinese-style split bottoms for their diaper-less kids. Or trying to figure out why my toddler brother suddenly burst into tears at the dinner table. (His chicken turned out to be the spicy type in a province that is famous—infamous?—for its flaming spices.)

For me, daily life in China brought an exciting but sometimes overwhelming uncertainty, like my unforeseen rise to popularity for simply being the little western girl. In the midst of that uncertainty, homeschooling meant stability and a tie to the United States when I was homesick. I have many fond and formative memories from our less-than-normal homeschooling life overseas!

One of my favorite memories is the books. Since books in English were hard to come by, they became all the more treasured. I am fairly certain I am a certified book addict now. Year after year, we created our own, well-loved library.

Thankfully, my homeschool curriculum (Sonlight) featured a fantastic supply of historical fiction books that we collected each summer break while visiting my grandparents in Montana. Receiving Nancy Drew books, craft books, or any-kind-of-books in the mail from stateside family made my day!

Homeschooling’s flexibility led to many cultural learning opportunities. It meant that I could easily incorporate Chinese into my curriculum or adjust my schedule to become a kitchen assistant to students who wanted to introduce us to authentic Chinese meals and practice their English. (If only I could have gotten school credit for dicing massive piles of garlic, ginger, and vegetables. At least I could eventually boast some skill with the mighty Chinese cleavers!)

2004 10 27-DeliciousDishes_Prepared_by_Students (1)

And what about sightseeing trips to places like Beijing to see the Great Wall or Forbidden City? No problem. We packed along our homework and books on the overnight train rides. Rare, if ever, was the time I wasn’t carrying around a book or craft with me on those trips.


Mom also let me use some of my English Studies time to chronicle our adventures and send long letters home to family members who were eager for news. I developed a love for narration, reading, and history, which has continued to this day.

All that to say, life isn’t always how you pictured it, as my mom found out with suddenly raising three young kids in China.

Even if your life doesn’t have the obstacles my mom faced like playing Tetris with schoolbooks and duffel bags each summer, or finding the balance between teaching Chinese students and your kids, I know you have your own share of unexpected challenges, doubts, and sleepless nights.

Is it all worth it? From this guinea pig’s point of view, without a doubt.

Thank you, Mom.

Anna Signature

P.S. Another moral to the story: Never say never. Unless you actually want it to happen.


P.P.S. For fellow book addicts out there, here is a Chinese quote for you:


Photo Credit: First graphic design by Anna Soltis;  first, second and third images courtesy of Soltis family.

41 thoughts on “Homeschooling in China: Through the Eyes of a Guinea Pig

  1. Thanks for this peek into life in China, and homeschooling from a student’s viewpoint! I once entertained the idea of teaching English abroad, but ended up in The Deep South, which, for me, was nearly a foreign country. Ha!


    • Yes, Anna is a WRITER! Just loved reading this!
      I Totally understand what you meant by The Deep South being nearly a foreign country.
      My retired husband uprooted our two teens and moved to Alabama from July 2015 to Jan 2017. So happy to be back in CA! It was a foreign land for sure—a different era.
      What state are you or were you in?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Currently in southern Arkansas, but before that, in northern Louisiana. Coming from Kansas City area, in farm country, I found not one thing that was familiar. For a long time, people could not even understand me when I spoke! 😀


    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! I haven’t really experienced the Deep South, yet, but I can imagine that would be an adventure, too! It’s amazing how many different mini-cultures there are within America!


      • There is something about where a person was born and raised that never goes away, always dictates what you are, how you think, and how you react. It takes a long time to get comfortable and I never stop “knowing” when someone else is also not from here. It’s a bit uncanny…


  2. How interesting! I’m glad you had a great experience.

    My husband and I have spent almost three years in Taiwan with our young kids– one was born here. My husband and I are wary of China since we’ve heard there’s been a recent crackdown on homeschooling.


    • Oh, wow! I bet you have good stories! One of my professors lived in Taiwan for years with his family. It sounds much freer there. China has definitely been cracking down lately, homeschooling included. I’m not sure what it would be like living there now.


  3. Both my girls are from China! Never had it on my list of places to visit, but have spent the equivalent of a month there. I know what you mean about the “small” towns and thee grocery stores. I was so scared of going the first time, but the second time was better. I even went to the fabric market by myself and all. I still smile when I think of it.


    • Aww, nice! Yeah, we definitely had to think of every outing, even crossing the street, as an adventure! It’s fun to go to Chinese global markets now, to get that taste of the unexpected when shopping.


  4. I LOVE this article!! We have made that same trek….. to China to teach English. I recognize the style of your apartment building, the spread of delicious Chinese food, and your description of shopping at the supermarket (including the part about lugging the groceries up many flights of stairs!!). Thanks for sharing your experience!!


      • Now we live in HK. We lived in jiangsu, fujian, and Guangdong. It wasn’t always easy, but looking back on our time in the mainland brings many special memories. HK is such a different experience. So many more foreigners. Very different from being one of the few laowai! Thanks for sharing your experience! 💕


      • We visited Hong Kong for a day to get our visa’s renewed! It did have a very different feel. Wow, you’ve had quite the experience over there! So neat! You should write down your stories:)


  5. This article hit home. I traveled to China this summer with my son and we spent a full month there. He is pretty fluent in mandarin Chinese * I am considering a job there teaching ESL for a year so that he can continue to immerse in the language. China Is beautiful and so are the people. I gained a new appreciation for other cultures and the Food was not at all what I expected, considering we have “chinese” food in the States the spiciness came as a shock. Can relate fully to your article.


    • I’m glad you were able to relate to it! I think immersion is definitely the way to go to learn a language well! Sounds like a great opportunity. Yes, Chinese food here is quite different! Good in its own way, but not the same! I can’t say I miss the burning red pepper spice in Changsha, but there are other things I miss about the food there! I think it also depends on what province you are in.


  6. As a Homeschool Mom ( Redding,Ca) with two teens, I so enjoyed reading this! What an adventure! Love your descriptive and very organized unfolding of this adventure! I am so glad that you and your family have enjoyed the experiences there! Blessings, Robin Overstreet


  7. Anna, I LOVED your article! I remember so many of these stories and many more. I thought your parents were absolutely insane when they moved to China but I know it afforded you many amazing experiences. So maybe they weren’t quite as crazy as I thought they were. I’m still on the fence about that though. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Goodness I love it love it love it! Having been homeschooled in China myself when 9 in a “small” City. To homeschooling my own children in that same small but much bigger than before City. I love this story it makes me homesick for China!


  9. My husband, 2 year old daughter (at the time), and I lived in the Hunan province of China for 2 years in the 1990’s. Your experiences brought me back there. Thanks for sharing.


  10. Hi Anna, this is possibly a long shot, but we currently homeschool in Australia. We will be moving to China as English teachers in August this year and would love to know if you are aware of any homeschool meetups or co-ops in China. I understand that you went there as a child, but I was hoping you may have contacts.


    • You’ll probably want to research it more, but I’ve told my husband that moving to China is not an option for us at this point since I’ve heard they’ve cracking down on outlawing homeschooling due to it encouraging capitalistic tendencies.


    • What part of China will you be going to? When I lived in Changsha, I remember my brothers and I being the only homeschoolers in the area, so we were not involved with any meetups or co-ops. Our last year there I found out about a foreign homeschooling family about 30 minutes away who we sometimes visited with. The Chinese were not at all familiar with homeschooling and seemed surprised whenever I told them “I do school at home.” Unfortunately, I have heard that China recently cracked down on homeschooling and outlawed it. :/ I am not sure what that means for foreign teachers. Here is the section on the HSLDA page: . I’ll ask the international team at HSLDA to see if they know more details.


      • Hello! I used to work for HSLD with Will Estrada and Jeremiah Lorrig back in 2006-2008. I have been living in the capital of China since July of 2017 and I can confirm that living here has been increasingly difficult for foreigners in general. There has been a government campaign in the past nine months to weed out the number of foreigners in the three major cities in this country by enforcing vague laws or changing them randomly so as to be able to arrest and deport them for violations of these laws. They were actually offering local police officers rewards for the number of foreigners they arrested so they could meet a specific number of foreigners removed from China before the end of the year (2018). And they have been cracking down on all forms of education here in this country. They have literally closed hundreds of kindergartens, and they are looking carefully at what kinds of materials people are using to teach children.

        Getting a long term or working visa is getting more and more complicated and illusive. You have to be very careful to follow all their instructions and jump through every hoop they ask of you and register with the police station every time you leave and re-enter the country.

        I could say a lot more, but this is a reply section, so I’m trying not to take up too much space. Sorry! Since moving here, I have felt like we live in the mouth of the sleepy dragon. Most of the time, things are great and I feel free to do what I want to do. But every once in a while, the dragon wakes up and starts breathing fire. And that can be a bit scary. But I know “Our Heavenly Father” has a reason for my family being here. And the Chinese people here are lovely and we’ve made many friends and had an amazing culture experience.


    • Here is what a coworker said: “Education in China is 9 years compulsory. A few months ago someone emailed me citing that I was mistaken on nationality, that the compulsory education does not concern foreigners. Article 4 of the education mandate does only cite nationals as obligated to receive compulsory education. That being said, expatriates may find it easier to homeschool than nationals but I am hard-pressed to say whether it is legal or not and would require further research.”

      All that to say, I think it will be difficult to find co-ops, and my guess would be that if there are any, they would be undercover. 😦


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