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Teaching English and Living in China

The Hidden and Unhidden Truth

Part I

“The land of the fiery dragon. Exotic cuisine. Immersion in eastern culture. Serendipity in teacups. Cradle of ancient civilization.”

Although I am not offering a job here, the above phrases could very well be an advertisement posted by a job recruiter on one of the many ESL job boards that abound on the Internet. Over the past few years, China has expanded as a teaching destination.

After having spent close to 18 months in China teaching English in remote areas nowhere as exotic as they were proclaimed to be, I spent the better half of the Spring Festival vacation trying to understand the complex, fractured and chaotic world of the laowai (foreigner) in China.

Demand for English teachers in China has never been matched by supply. The Chinese prefer “native speakers” from a select few countries, namely the U.S., U.K., South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Discriminatory as this may be, it also means that the Chinese are leaving out a sizeable chunk of capable English-speakers who were unfortunate enough not be born in the above countries. Such is the craze for the golden-haired, blue-eyed laowai that a pizza-delivery lad of 17 who never finished High School might very well find himself teaching conversational skills to wide-eyed youngsters aspiring to enter a university. It is also unfortunate that most English teachers, especially in private institutions, find themselves to be in demand more as a walking advertisement for their school or college than serious teachers of English. Perhaps few who venture into China come here with the serious intention of teaching. I certainly didn’t. I came to China with the same hope of leading a “different life,” as did many of the other foreign teachers I know.

Promises of a wildly extravagant and affluent lifestyle in China are fast fading. Even as I write, a cursory glance at any of the online job boards shows that the average salary for foreign experts is plummeting. Employers in China are waking up to the fact that offering an exorbitant sum for a foreign teacher is eating into a large portion of their profits. The company I worked for earlier, South Ocean Education Group, ran 12 boarding schools across China. Investors had pumped millions into the venture, promising a revolution in China’s education landscape. Some foreign teachers were paid salaries as high as RMB 18,000. Clearly, there was too much money flowing out and too little coming in. Today, the private Group is a failed venture.

I wrote in a previous article on teaching English in China for that there is “no reason why you should settle for anything less than RMB 4000.” That picture has now changed and looks to fluctuate well into the future as the economy diversifies.

Public schools and colleges now veer towards offering salaries in the average range of RMB 3000 to RMB 4500. The vocational college I work for right now in Xuchang, Henan Province offers me a salary of RMB 3800. I also pay 50% of the water and electricity bills. I pay for both local and long-distance telephone calls. The college will also just pay me 2/3rds of my salary for the winter vacation. Why am I still here? The pay-off lies in the security. I know that the chances of being cheated or harassed are virtually zero. My Z visa is 100% secure and legal. Peace of mind is too cherished a prize to give up for money.

Private training centers, schools, and colleges are also rapidly scaling down the salary scale. Salaries of RMB 15,000 were a common draw two years ago. The average now seems to be around RMB 4000 to RMB 6000. Your employer might say that such a salary is good enough to lead a comfortable life in China. While that might be true if you are based in a small city or county, such a salary is not enough to travel around the country.

China as a tourist destination has become increasingly expensive. I have traveled via every mode of transport – slow-coach buses, express sleeper buses to uncomfortable hard-seats on trains to the luxury of soft-sleeper berths. I have tried to stay in shared budget accommodation wherever possible, yet find that a trip to Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Shenzhen or Xian or any place you can point on the map will cost at least RMB 2000- RMB 3000. Not exactly the plush life that recruiters and employers promise.

For More Info

The golden dragon will also swish most dreams away when one takes a look at the number of horror stories that foreign teachers post. For more information and personal experiences, check out the following ESL forum:

Part II

China has and is changing fast. It may not be the ESL Mecca but it pays to be here for a variety of reasons.

Let’s face it — the reality is that teaching conversational English is not really as difficult as say, teaching philosophy or explaining international policy or trade. By and large, many of the laowai who make it to China are not experienced teachers in their own countries. It does not mean that many of them turn out to be bad teachers. Teaching English is a skill but not necessarily a studied skill. It requires creativity, ingenuity and passion but not a Master’s degree. You simply need to be adept at communication and take a professional approach.

While the reality is that salary levels for English teachers are plummeting, the other side of the same coin is that these jobs do offer you the chance to see more of this immense land. With airfare costs almost entirely reimbursed and small payments offered for domestic travel, the money you make in China might not be enough for you to save for your child’s education, but it does allow you to travel. Maybe you will not travel in business class, but travel you certainly can.

Over the past few decades, more and more cities are turning into glitzy pockets of consumerism and materialism. However, the China of ancient temples, courtyards and palaces can still be found in a few pockets and cultural relics are still a treasured sight, be it in Anyang, Datong, Nanjing or Pingyao. It is best to see these treasures through a 6-month or 10-month jaunt, traveling at your own pace, rather than on a hurried two-week vacation from work.

Almost all the horror stories reveal pictures of the “mean, sly, cunning, conniving” Chinese. But there are other pictures too. Pictures that never make it online or if they do, they get lost — pictures of the friendly, generous Chinese, of the warmth with which you will be greeted and the adulation that most students shower on you.

Living in China is not easy. The money may not be great. You may have to put up with leaking toilets, air-conditioners that do not work, an erratic power supply, unstable heating, noisy students, poorly equipped classrooms, and no teaching materials. Yet, there is a reason to stay, to be right in the heart of a country growing through a fascinating period of transition, moving through its people, garnering experiences for a lifetime, learning a new language, and savoring one of the world’s greatest cuisines.

For More Info

Browse through these personal Websites for more information:
Tons of links and information by the Nolls as they traverse and teach through China for eleven years.
Created by an American, the site offers interesting tips on teaching English in China.
An online reference guide to a number of blogs from expatriates in China.

Smitha Murthy is a freelance writer and teacher who finds herself inexorably drawn to the Chinese landscape time and again.

Foreign English Teachers Guide For China