Should you teach English in China?

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12 Things to Note Before You Take the Plunge

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So . . . you’re fascinated by China’s inscrutable culture.  You’re drawn to see its numerous historic sites.  You love Chinese food and want to sample the culture’s local cuisine.  You’re plagued by troubles at home and just want to escape somewhere . . . ANYWHERE.  If these statements apply to you, you may be tempted to pack up your bags and hop on a plane bound for the Middle Kingdom to live permanently as an English teacher.

When voicing such a desire – you may elicit a range of reactions, from puzzlement to downright concern for your health and well-being.  What about the pollution?  But you don’t speak Chinese!  Don’t they arrest you over there for logging onto Facebook?  Those who are more world-aware may present you with some choice horror stories they’ve run across on such websites as The TEFL Blacklist (to be discussed in a future post).

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Two morons boarding a flight in China

Despite such admonitions – the fictionalized example below will probably be the most typical scenario you will land in if you jump into teaching in China without having done much prior research on your chosen position. We’ve written this example for the purpose of clearing up misconceptions about what teaching English in China is like for most foreigners.

It’s 6 o’clock in the morning and Gus has just arrived at Tian Jia Bing Experimental Secondary School in Luoyang, Hunan Province, China.  Upon arriving at school he has 1 hour to collect his wits and lesson materials before facing his first bursting at the seams, hot and stifling but spookily quiet and well-behaved class of 40 students.  After grinding through 50 minutes of an admittedly dry but good-hearted effort at teaching his students (most of whom make a good show of working diligently but are inwardly apathetic) he moves along briskly to his next more or less identical class.  Rinse and repeat through 5 more classes and a lengthy lunch break in the middle of the day until it’s time to turn in at around 3 in the afternoon. He returns to his spacious if fairly Spartan school-provided accommodation for some well-deserved R&R.

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Some of my students in Ningbo

This sort of routine exemplifies most of his days until he gets a public holiday at the same time as everyone else in China, at which time he usually elects to leave the country since most of the places to go in the Middle Kingdom are swamped with tourists.  On weekends he ventures out of the school compound to travel locally, sample some local restaurants and even play basketball with his students.

Such is the life of the average English teacher in China.

Having said that, we must point out that the example above is the experience of the AVERAGE foreign teacher in China, which is not very different from the experience of a local Chinese English teacher.  But considering the number of private language schools (estimated at 50,000 in 2013) and the vastness of China itself (slightly larger than the United States in land area and with a population of 1.3 billion), there is inevitably a huge range in the quality of the experience you may undergo should you choose to move to China to teach.

My desk at the school I worked at in Fuzhou
My desk at the school I worked at in Fuzhou

This is why it’s important to DO YOUR RESEARCH before you embark upon such an adventure.

If you don’t do your research you’ll most likely land in a position like the example above.  On the other hand, you might also land in a poorly managed disaster of a school filled with unruly students and disinterested teachers in a run down, smoke-stack forest neighborhood on the outskirts of an industrial wasteland masquerading as a city.

Doing your research here consists of having ACCURATE EXPECTATIONS of what DAILY LIFE AND TEACHING is like in China – as well as going about FINDING A TEACHING JOB in China in the right way.

To address the first matter of having accurate expectations – we’ve compiled a list of important things to note about daily life and teaching in China before considering a permanent move to the country.

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DAILY LIFE AND TEACHING IN CHINA

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CHINESE STUDENTS ARE A TEACHER’S DREAM

Coming from someone who has experience teaching in several countries, including the United States, Chinese kids are in many respects ideal students.  As a given, one can expect most Chinese students to work diligently and show respect for teachers.  This is one of the foundations of Confucianism after all and the word for teacher in Mandarin literally means “old master.”

However, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the idea to allow my students some time to be creative, whether it be drawing or writing a story.  I prepare the lesson, excited to present what I expect to be a treat for my students, a welcome break from the usual vocab and grammar drilling, only to be met in the class itself with stares ranging from incomprehension to anxiety to disbelief.  Chinese students are simply not accustomed to such activities.  I am then required to narrow down the parameters of my assignment, give concrete examples, basically make the task less open-ended, more task and goal oriented before my students are able to complete the activity.

It must be said that in the realms of creativity, critical thinking and ethical judgment, Chinese students tend to have less aptitude.  You can by all means attempt to get your students to delve into such things if you wish but don’t expect them to be offering pointed critiques of the latest official pronouncement from Beijing or writing iconoclastic analyses of traditional Chinese culture on the first day of class.

Generally, just as American students naturally think critically but need training in studying and working diligently – Chinese students naturally study and work diligently but need training in critical thinking.

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THE TYPE OF SCHOOL YOU WORK FOR WILL MAKE OR BREAK YOUR EXPERIENCE

As you might expect there are many different types of schools to choose from if you’re looking for teaching opportunities in China.  They will require a range of prior experience or qualifications and the type of students you will work with will vary.  I will be writing a separate post in the near future on the ins and outs of actually finding a teaching job, in which I’ll go into what the various types of schools are and what the experience of working for them is like.

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But for now, suffice it to say that you should choose the school you work for carefully, based on both the quality of the school and on the experience you’re likely to have while working there.  Some questions you should get answered are,

How much will I be paid in relation to the local cost of living?

Will there be many other foreigners working in the same school?

What’s the school’s location like (major city or rural area)?

What’s the age range of the students and what sort of background do they come from?

Will the school handle my visa paperwork for me?

If the answers to such questions are not forthcoming or obvious, you may want to consider a different school.

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BE PREPARED FOR CULTURE SHOCK

We sometimes think that this issue, like many other concerns about China in general, can be overblown.  But it is undeniable that in many respects there is a massive gulf between Chinese and Western culture.

First, in terms of standards of acceptable public behavior, Chinese and Western people have very different ideas.  In China, it is perfectly acceptable to hawk and spit loudly (almost boastfully).  China also has the highest population of smokers (350 million) and they are not shy about indulging their habit – so expect to be sharing in the dubious pleasure of second hand tobacco.  Such behavior was once acceptable both indoors and outdoors, but this is changing.  It is now less common to see people spitting or smoking indoors, particularly in shopping malls and public transit stations.  At the same time, in many office buildings, cafes, bars, restaurants and the bathrooms of all buildings (if you’re a man), you can expect to be choking on someone else’s cigarette smoke.

These are the behaviors that are most likely to cause offense to most Westerners, but they are by no means the only examples.

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Guilin

YOU WILL BE SINGLED OUT AS A FOREIGNER

About 600,000 foreigners live in China.  Despite this, when paired against China’s overall population of 1.6 billion, it is a very small minority indeed and most Chinese people rarely encounter a foreign face in their daily life.  Members of the older generation who grew up at a time when China was closed to the outside world may have never encountered a non-Chinese person in their lives.

Outside of major cities like Shanghai and Beijing, expect to be noticed and attract stares at the very least – and in the most extreme cases you will be pointed at and sneakily photographed.  You can expect to hear people saying “waiguoren” and “laowai” (the common Mandarin terms for foreigner) whenever you appear in public and even strangers approaching you to take a selfie or strike up a conversation in English.

For the first few weeks or months upon your arrival in China you might find the novelty of such special treatment entertaining – but after a few months it becomes quite irritating.

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LANGUAGE BARRIER – NOT AS INSURMOUNTABLE AS YOU THINK

It goes without saying that for English speakers, the Chinese language can seem like quite the formidable obstacle to traveling in China.  Not only are there all those baffling, sing-song tones but a patchwork of mutually unintelligible dialects to wade through as well, some of which have more tones than Mandarin (such as Cantonese).  And then there’s the written language, which with its thick forest of complicated ideographs (some of which require upwards of 30 strokes to execute in writing) is about as far removed from the Roman alphabet as one can hope for.

The language barrier will certainly be there, no doubt about it, but it may not present as difficult a challenge as you might expect, and there are numerous techniques one can use to work around not speaking Chinese.

First, not only major cities but even second and some third tier cities will have extensive signage in English, particularly in airports, train stations, many long distance bus stations and on the streets themselves in the names of roads and public buildings.  In cafes and many restaurants you can count on having menus with pictures available for pointing out what you would like to order.  Printing your crucial destinations in written Chinese beforehand will help a lot in directing taxis.

And perhaps most importantly, Chinese people are generally patient and accommodating of foreigners not being able to speak their language, Chinese is a tough language to learn after all, as the Chinese themselves are well aware.

While the Great Language Barrier of Chinese will present you with many obstacles during your stay in China, it’s best to keep a silver lining in mind, namely that you have a great opportunity to study one of the world’s most widely spoken and crucial languages.

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PUBLIC TRANSIT IN CHINA – THE JOYS AND AGONIES

In the last 30 or so years, China has seen a transportation boom with hundreds of new rail lines (including the world’s highest rail line from Sichuan to Tibet), a booming airline industry and miles of new highways built all over the country, not to mention the efficient public bus systems that exist in almost all cities.

This will present you with a blessing and a curse.  On the one hand, the convenience and affordability of travel in China may be second to none in terms of the miles you can cover for relatively cheap.  On the other hand, that same convenience and affordability means those same brand spanking new planes, trains and automobiles will be packed with travelers, not only but especially during peak travel seasons like National Week in October and the Spring Festival.  Take your commute to work into consideration when you apartment hunt.  Having to huff it to your classes early in the morning on a sweaty, stifling , overcrowded bus mired in a swamp of traffic is no picnic.

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RESTAURANTS/DINING – THE BEAUTIES AND HORRORS

Many Westerners have heard about China’s food safety record, which is, shall we say, not the greatest.  Without going into the nitty gritty details of what has occurred in the past in terms of food safety breaches, they mostly come down to Chinese food producers and restaurant owners choosing to cut corners rather than put the safety of their consumers and customers first.  The Chinese government has been taking this very seriously, and penalties for breaching the law are quite severe, ranging from hefty fines and long prison terms to even execution. Thus, when dining in China it’s probably best to use your common sense.  If the restaurant’s kitchen looks filthy, the food probably is as well and if no one else is eating from that one street food stall, you probably shouldn’t either.

Having said that, China is a culinary adventure waiting to happen.  There is a world of diversity in Chinese cuisine, to which we will undoubtedly devote many, many posts in the future.  Every region of the country has its own distinctive cooking tradition and wherever you choose to live you will still be able to sample them all – finding Sichuan style restaurants in Shanghai and Shanghai style restaurants in Sichuan, for example, is no problem.  If you only know American Chinese food, traveling to China to encounter the real thing will shock and delight.

Nonetheless, even the most die-hard Chinese full-immersion culture junkie will start hankering for a good old burger and fries after a while and there’s little to fear on that score.  You can find KFC, McDonalds and other popular Western fast food chains dotted over most major cities and even several minor towns.  You’ll only find more refined restaurants, like authentic Italian or Indian establishments, in the more cosmopolitan major cities, like Shanghai.

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YOU MUST HAVE THE PATIENCE OF A WILLOW TREE AND THE ASSERTIVENESS OF A TIGER

Life in China is not always for the faint of heart.  Westerners often construe the Chinese as calm, placid, courteous and shy masters of indirection with a strong communitarian spirit  – and while this may be the case within families and among friends, among strangers Chinese people can be astonishingly cold, inconsiderate and frank about their own desires at the expense of others.  Do not expect motorists or the ubiquitous e-bike drivers to respect your rights as a pedestrian and expect to see the occasional person jump the queue at the train station or fast food restaurant.

It’s important to be both PATIENT in your daily life in China but also ASSERTIVE.  For example, if someone jumps the queue in front of you, exhibit patience by not blowing up at them along with assertiveness by politely pointing out to them what they’ve done, using your Chinese skills or body language if you must.  Patience also comes into play when dealing with government bureaucrats (expect long, inexplicable delays) as well as assertiveness when there is no queue to be seen at the local breakfast bun cart and you have to shoulder through a crowd waving your wad of change in the air and shouting your order over the din of a dozen other people competing with you for the same buns.

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CONVERSATIONAL NO NO’s

If you’re stridently political, you may be disappointed.  China is a police state, but not in the way you think

This is a question I often get asked by those with little exposure to China beyond what they hear about on CNN or read about in the New York Times.  Is China a police state and if so, does it feel like one?  The answer to both those questions, from my perspective, is a qualified yes, qualified because my first impression upon arriving in China was of the lack of a highly noticeable police presence in daily, public life.

Compared to the United States, where one can regularly see beefy, heavily armed cops roaming around in armored cars – you may go days in China without seeing a single law enforcement officer, and the ones you do see are often the opposite of intimidating.  They are frequently unarmed, dressed in tattered ill- fitting uniforms and not particularly physically imposing.  In fact, here in Xiamen, you can often see them riding two to a motorbike, laughing jovially with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths.

But having spent some time in China and having had more interaction with Chinese people, I feel that China is a police state, but more of a psychological police state, where people self-censor conversations out of fear.  One often hears that there are three T’s in China which are conversational no-go’s (and absolutely never to be raised for discussion in the classroom) – Tibet, Tiananmen and Taiwan.  One cannot discuss these and other issues online in China, the government will censor your post on Weibo (the equivalent of Twitter) for example, and will monitor your account.  You yourself could be monitored physically if you continue to flaunt the law – the end result being prison. Un-politically correct speech and behavior in China can create obstacles when you need a favor from a Communist party member, losing you job, housing or educational opportunities, since corruption is still pervasive.

It’s not that you can’t discuss the three T’s and such topics as China’s lack of democracy at all, it’s just that China has its own set of narratives regarding these issues, from which it is not permissible to stray in ordinary conversation without causing offense.  Since the government tightly controls information, many are unaware of counter-narratives from Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the West, others who are aware censor themselves.

A smoggy day in Jinan
A smoggy day in Jinan

POLLUTION

The pollution in China is indeed no joke.  You can expect year round haze in Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing.  Smog inundates even clean air cities like Xiamen in the winter months.  The tap water is undrinkable and considering the litter that piles the roads particularly in rural areas and the factory smoke stacks that dot the food producing countryside, it’s no surprise that soil contamination is also a major problem.  Pollution in China has sadly become a fact of life.  Take into consideration the pollution level of a city before you commit to moving there if this is a major issue for you.  One bright spot is that as China’s economy slows so will pollution levels.  Another is that the pollution has become a favorite source for black humor among locals.  One brewery in Beijing, for example, gives out free pints on particularly smoggy days.

Anna at KTV
Anna at KTV

SOCIAL/RECREATIONAL STUFF

The availability of bars, nightclubs, gyms, parks and other recreational areas obviously varies from place to place.  Shanghai, Beijing and other large metropolises will of course have everything you could ever want in terms of fun.  Second tier cities will have the basics but not the world class variety found in the cultural capitals – while small towns and rural areas will have nothing save the occasional KTV establishment.  In such locales, your only option is to buy a crate of watery Qingdao beer or baijiu and make the best effort you can to get drunk on the nearest curb.  Cheers!

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YOU’ll FEEL LIKE A KING AND A PAUPER

Depending on where you work, you can expect to earn a salary that is high compared to the average salary of the city you’ve chosen in China.  University jobs tend to pay the least because they have a great deal of benefits (such as free accommodation and a lot of time off).  Training center jobs are the in middle, since they may not offer you free housing.  International school positions are at the high end of the scale – you can expect to earn a salary comparable to what you would earn as a teacher in your home country – this could be as much as twice what you would earn at a university or training center.

Needless to say, while the salary you will be offered is generous locally (you will be able to eat, drink and travel within China easily without having to worry about spending too much money), the salary may not exchange well with your home country’s currency.  Take this into consideration if you have student loans or other bills to pay because these will take a hefty chunk out of your paycheck every month.  International school positions are the exception.

Despite the fact that foreign teachers in China usually earn respectable salaries – they are usually NOT looked upon favorably by locals.  This may come as a shock to any foreign teachers reading this who are currently working in China, who may consider themselves enviable demigods within their expat bubble, constantly complimented and fawned over by Chinese men and women alike.

But what Chinese say to foreigners is often quite different from what they think and say among themselves. I’ve heard many Chinese refer to foreign teachers as “losers” – viewing them for the most part as less than reputable individuals – at the very least unserious backpackers who understand little about China and at the very worst downright failures who couldn’t hack it in their own countries and so landed in China.  International school teachers are usually exempt from this categorization.  In any case, if you do elect to move to China as a teacher, keep this in mind but don’t let it get you down – they’re bound to change their minds once they get to know you.

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And so we return to the question posed in the title of this post – SHOULD YOU TEACH ENGLISH IN CHINA?

For those of us who stay for years, China offers something great that overwhelms whatever is admittedly agonizing.  For me, it’s the chance to work with great students, sample a millennia old cuisine, travel through one of the largest countries in the world for cheap and learn a fascinating and useful language.  I also get to see a country in transition firsthand, where attitudes and lifestyles are changing incredibly rapidly. Not to mention Anna, who’s pretty swell as well I suppose.

If any of what appeals to me about living and working in China also appeals to you, and you have a positive enough outlook to be able to focus on the good at the expense of the bad – then by all means pick up that Mandarin phrase book and jump on that China Eastern flight!  If you’re ever in Xiamen, Fujian, shoot us an email at AdventuresfromAmoy@gmail.com.  We’ll meet you for lunch over some won ton peanut soup and noodles.

The modern, creativity enhancing office at York Language School in Fuzhou - eat your heart out Google
The modern, creativity enhancing office at York Language School in Fuzhou – eat your heart out Google

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