Given that private tutoring has received increasing attention in research as a global educational phenomenon with significant implications for educational practices, it has become necessary for TESOL researchers and practitioners to become aware of its impact on language learning and pedagogy. This study investigated the learning experience and reflections of 14 Chinese learners who had received English private tutoring (EPT) during their secondary education in Hong Kong. Each participant completed a background questionnaire and participated in a one‐to‐one semistructured interview. The analysis revealed participants' ambivalent and paradoxical attitudes toward EPT. Although they considered EPT indispensable for secondary education, they did not regard it as an effective way to increase their English proficiency because of its excessive focus on examination skills instead of the use of English as a language of global communication. The findings were interpreted with reference to contextual conditions where learning for assessment and competitions prevail. This study sheds light on the world of shadow education that exists beyond the boundaries of mainstream classroom settings. Further research on shadow TESOL practices is needed to help researchers and practitioners in TESOL appreciate the unintended consequences of educational changes and their profound impact on learning as mediated by sociocultural conditions. Copyright © 2014 TESOL International Association.