Teaching English and Living in China
The Hidden and Unhidden Truths
|A roof in the Hidden City of Beijing.
“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 Web. Over the years, China has continued to expand 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. Perhaps few who venture into China come here with the serious intention of teaching, though that is changing due to global economic circumstances. I certainly did not come to China to seek a career as a teacher. I came to China with the same hope of leading a “different life,” as did many of the other foreign teachers I know.
Public schools and colleges now veer towards offering salaries in the average range of RMB 6000 to RMB 16000 (about US$900-US$2300, but check your favorite currency calculator for exchange rates). The vocational college I worked for in Xuchang, Henan Province offered me a salary, but I also paid 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.
China as a tourist destination has become increasingly expensive. I have traveled via every mode of transport — slow-coach buses, express sleeper buses, uncomfortable hard-seats on trains as well as the luxury of soft-sleeper berths. I have tried to stay in shared budget accommodations wherever possible, yet find that a trip to Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Shenzhen, Xian, or any place you can point on the map will cost a tidy sum (apart from youth hostels, which start at US$10+).
China has and is changing fast. It may not be a pure 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 necessarily a Master’s degree, though generally a Bachelor's degree and a certificate in TEFL or CELTA. Fundamentally, you simply need to be adept at communication and take a professional approach.
The salary levels for English teachers do offer you the chance to see more of this immense land. With airfare costs often 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 and expensive pockets of consumerism and materialism. However, the China of ancient temples, courtyards, and palaces can still be found in a few pockets. 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 2-week vacation from work.
Almost all horror stories found on job forums about teaching offer various permutations about the Chinese. But there are many other pictures as well. Pictures that do not always make it online or if they do, tend to 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. You may have to put up with smog in the big cities, 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 that continues to move through a fascinating period of transition, mingling with the warm local people, having experiences for a lifetime, learning a new language, and savoring one of the world’s greatest cuisines.
Smitha Murthy is a freelance writer and teacher who finds herself inexorably drawn to the Chinese landscape time and again.