There’s a common myth that having visible tattoos in China and working as a foreign teacher is a big no. The most common question I’ve heard since going east is “how can you be a teacher if you have tattoos?” The answer is quite simple: they don’t matter.
Before moving, I was clueless about whether or not I’d have to cover up my tattoos in China and to what extent. I packed dozens of shirts, cardigans, and jumpers, along with countless pairs of tights and trousers, ready to cover up. Though, I’ll admit I couldn’t help but worry about wearing so many layers in such high humidity.
Concerns Before Arriving in China
I’ve now been in China for 7 months and experienced all four seasons, and I can say my tattoos haven’t caused problems. When I arrived in Beijing to teach at the summer camp, no one told me how to dress, or to cover up my tattoos. I improvised to make sure I dressed appropriately to teach and thankfully I never faced any issues. Though this came as a relief, my real concern was my long-term placement in Shanghai.
The first thing I asked at the Orientation Day was if I needed to cover my tattoos in China. The answer I received left me none the wiser; “it depends on your school.” I spent the day wondering what this meant and worrying that I would need to arrive in a hazmat suit to properly cover every inch of me. However, looking back, I can say that this response is true; just like in Britain, it depends on your workplace.
In England I’ve worked at companies that allowed me to express myself how I like and others where I must cover up. It’s the same in China.
My Experience of Having Tattoos in China
Shanghai is a very international city. They have their own tattoo studios, and some of the younger locals even have tattoos themselves. I still get looks from people as they pass me on the street, but that just comes with being an expat in China. I’ve even had older Chinese people stop me on the metro and admire the artwork on my body.
I’ve been very lucky with my schools, because they don’t bat an eyelid over what I wear or if my tattoos are on show. They simply tell me to “dress for the weather”.
It’s always important to ask if you’re unsure, instead of just assuming. Even if you receive a vague answer like I did, test the waters and keep on asking what’s okay. Over time you’ll feel more comfortable and understand your school’s boundaries on how to dress. When I walk into my classes, my students love seeing my tattoos and piercings. I’ve even received drawings from small artists who’ve tried to recreate them on paper.
Every workplace is different, and every city is different. While tattoos are more commonplace in Shanghai, this could be different in smaller provinces and rural cities, where you could be the only person who has a tattoo for hundreds of miles.
Dispelling the Myths
I’ve heard every myth and legend about having tattoos in China, from them signalling gang status and being turned away at the airport, to facing eternal unemployment and becoming a social pariah. All of these are exactly that; myths. China isn’t backwards. In fact, it’s one of the most advanced countries in the world and you’d be surprised by how progressive it can be.
While it’s great to be comfortable and express yourself, don’t ever just assume. It’s always respectful to check with your school if you’ve covered your tattoos appropriately, especially if you’re unsure. No one can berate you for asking. Just like in Britain, the only rule to remember is: don’t have anything offensive on show! The Chinese love art, you’d be surprised by how much they can appreciate yours.
By Lily Whiting, Teacher in Shanghai, 2016-2017