Written by MKL contributor Cynthia ShepherdCynthia is a regular contributor to our Q&A forums. After her last very informative and helpful post on the topic Returning Home Dirt Poor, I invited her to write an article for MKL describing what she and her husband see as the advantages and disadvantages of teaching oral English in China and, despite the perceived disadvantages, why she and her husband have decided to stay—at least for the time being.
Special thanks to Cyndi Shepherd for her extremely informative and well-written contribution.
Early in our marriage we decided that we were not destined for the stereotypical lifestyle of our Midwestern upbringing and dreamed of traveling the world. However, at that time, our life was still a bit too chaotic to turn our dream into reality. In October 2008 we began exploring our travel options. At this time we were living a somewhat conventional lifestyle. I had a job that I loved, but didn’t pay well; my husband was doing menial work hoping to boost his resume and land something in his field. We discovered that even if we managed to save enough money to afford any type of vacation, e.g., two weeks in Ireland, a trip to New Zealand, etc., we wouldn’t be able to get the time off from work.
During college we had both heard about programs for teaching English in Japan. We felt that this “teach English to see the world option” would not only afford us the opportunity to travel but also to experience a new culture and learn a new language, while providing us with a source of ongoing income. So our research began with random Internet searches to acquire the information we needed to weigh the pros and cons of teaching English overseas.
We had read that the ESL market in Japan was flooded and that schools there could now afford to be choosy about hiring teachers. Horror stories on the Internet about fraudulent South Korean English language schools and their poor working conditions and long hours intimidated us. Most European countries preferred British English native speakers to Americans. In the end, choosing China over other places was not primarily based on a focused or longstanding interest in the country itself as it was eventually finding a recruitment agency that—by all accounts—appeared legitimate and provided contract details that were agreeable to us.
Ultimately, the agency was able to place us at a university together (some recruitment agencies can’t guarantee conjoint employment for married couples). Our 10-month contract stipulates rent-free housing, which includes utilities and internet, 18 hours of face-to-face teaching per week, monthly salary and annual travel allowances for both of us, round-trip airfare to and from our home region, and time off for all Chinese holidays during which we are free to travel as we please.
Where do I start? There are many advantages to the life we are currently living, but I can honesty say that recognizing them as advantages took some time. That is to say, we had to move through the culture shock process before we began to see how great things could be here.
Now, I don’t want to sound like an advertisement for a recruiting agency or anything, (that’s not my purpose with this article) but truly, how many people have the option to work 18 hours per week and earn enough to live on? At my previous job I worked a minimum of 40 hours per week, salaried; I wasn’t financially compensated for my extra time. Under our current contracts, we each spend 18 hours or less in the classroom. As with any new job there was a learning curve and when we started we spent a great deal more time with lesson planning than we do now. It took us a while to figure out what works, what doesn’t, how much homework to assign, how much homework we want to read and correct, how to write a final exam, etc., but now that we’ve been here for several semesters, our time expenditure outside the classroom is quite minimal and takes little advanced planning.
Fewer required work hours allows us more free time to enjoy and cultivate personal interests. I enjoy writing and hope to someday publish a novel. Recently I have been able to spend eight or nine hours per day writing as the mood strikes. Among other things, my husband uses his free time to research and educate himself about sustainable agriculture in the hopes of applying this new-found knowledge whenever we return to the United States. Removing ourselves from the fast-paced, structured life we had back home has helped us to stop and reevaluate who we are, what we want, and how we wish to accomplish our goals.
Along with fewer weekly work hours, additionally, we benefit from more vacation time than we had in the States. Beyond the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year and summer holiday breaks, we enjoy time off (usually a three- or four-day weekend) for various festivals through out the year. During shorter festivals, group trips with friends to local sites for a day or weekend trip are a fun way to break up the monotony of daily life. We spent our first Spring Festival vacation in the northern China city of Harbin and visited the annual International Snow and Ice Festival. The next year we flew to Thailand and spent 11 days on the beach. Our first summer here we did volunteer work in rural China with a group of students from our school and later toured the ancient capital city, Xi’an. There are amazing things to see and experience in China and many of them can be done much more cheaply and conveniently than, say, a weekend trip in America.
Before we moved to China, we purged many of our material possessions for the entirely practical reason of not wanting to pay storage fees for an undetermined period of time. Our 400-something square foot university-provided apartment is provisioned with furniture, cooking utensils, and appliances. It isn’t the worst place we’ve lived and it isn’t the best but it is extremely efficient and functional for our needs. We have no dishwasher, but it doesn’t matter because we only have six small plates and six bowls. It’s all we need and even when all the dishes are dirty, it still only takes 10 minutes to wash them all.
This apartment doesn’t have a built-in closet or a dresser. All our clothes are stored in a moveable wardrobe that is half the size of any of the closets in previous apartments. Interesting to us, a fraction of the clothes that we thought we needed in the U.S. is more than adequate for our daily needs here. Even the fact that our apartment is on the 6th floor of a building without an elevator is not a big deal, as healthy, able-bodied individuals should have no difficulty climbing six flights of stairs. Living here with so little and having gradually learned not to want the things we used to miss have helped us to carefully identify and distinguish our wants from our needs and, frankly, it feels great and is incredibly freeing.
Along with our simplified accommodations, we are also free from the burden of vehicle ownership and maintenance, which most know to be a huge, albeit necessary, financial drain. In the U.S., the annual cost for owning and maintaining our two vehicles was the equivalent of one month’s rent. Unfortunately, the highly inadequate public transportation system left us few options for traveling to and from work and running errands. On our university campus, nearly everything we need or want can be found within a mile radius. The classrooms, post office, bank, grocery store, farmer’s market, restaurants, electronics stores, coffee shops, and entertainment are all no more than a 15 minute walk from our apartment building. We haven’t even bothered to buy a bicycle.
Many people choose teaching as a way to positively affect the world through the lives of others. Teaching English in China has given us the chance to directly affect the world through cross-cultural exchange. Amongst our students there are a few who were/are noticeably unhappy with their education and future prospects in China. As our friendships with these students developed and we were able to speak more candidly about the state of things in China, America, and the rest of the world in general, we have had the opportunity to learn from each other and develop a better understanding of how and why the world works. For us, these friendships have given unique insight into Eastern culture, while they are able to explore and question different ways of thinking without fear of reprisal.
Once again, where do I start? There are little annoyances to living and working in China and then there are the instances that cause us to question our personal values and morals and make us wonder how long we’ll stay here. I’ll begin with the former.
It is loud, dirty, and crowded in China. There’s no nice way to spin it. As I mentioned, we’re from the Midwest: We’ve never lived in NYC or LA, and so it’s entirely possible that we’re more sensitive to the noise and crowds than “city people” but, honestly, it’s just ridiculous here. There is a constant barrage of noise from every direction as soon as we leave the apartment or open the windows. The traffic is loud, unregulated exhaust systems, horns blaring, bus drivers who refuse to shift gears and cause the engines to rev loudly on a straight stretch, you name it and I can’t ignore it and block it out the way Chinese people do. Everyone here has a cell phone and most people we’ve encountered don’t seem to have a volume control. I just want to tell them, “It’s not a can on a string: you don’t need to yell into the phone.” Additionally, when eating in a restaurant, the culture here seems to be the opposite of what Westerners are accustomed to. Whereas we expect people to speak so only their table can hear, Chinese people yell to be heard above the din and as the restaurant fills, the din increases.
Everything here is filthy: the streets, classrooms, bathrooms, restaurant kitchens; people throw garbage on the ground and spit everywhere. I have had students spit on the classroom floor while I’m giving a lecture. The air quality is poor and there is constant smog and smoke: a clear blue sky is a rarity here. I can see the dirt that settles on everything inside my closed apartment and outside on the plants; I can’t begin to imagine what my lungs must look like. We have been congested pretty much the entire time we've been in China.
There are so many people here and they are always packed together. Riding the bus can be a nightmare. I personally don’t like to be touched. I like being touched by strangers even less: however, on the bus this is unavoidable. Buses in China allow complete strangers to become intimately acquainted with each other’s personal grooming habits. At 6’0”, my husband often hits his head on doorways here, however when we ride the bus he is grateful to be above the level of most peoples’ armpits and mouths, but I am not so fortunate. Everywhere is just plain crowded. Even the university campus is overcrowded. The students here live six to a dorm room, though they’ve told us that some campuses have eight to a room so they feel lucky.
The food here is incredibly boring. When we first arrived we were so excited to try all the new foods. We’re not picky eaters and we do enjoy new things, but after living here almost two years we are simply tired of eating the same things. It seems like every dish is basically pork, peppers, onions, and spices cooked in too much oil. All of the food starts to look and taste the same after awhile. We do cook at home and are fortunate to have a toaster oven in our apartment, but sometimes I just want a lunchmeat sandwich with cheese and mustard. We occasionally go into the city, eat at a Western restaurant, and restock our Western provisions at the imported grocery, but this is incredibly expensive and it would be extremely easy to spend our entire salary trying to maintain the eating habits we had in America.
In China, one cannot and will not get a straight answer out of anyone… ever. This lack of accountability, even for small things, is infuriating. We have learned to survive this by simply not asking the question why if possible. This lack of accountability is staggering and if one thinks too hard about how a society can function thusly, one will literally lose one’s mind. The lack of accountability segues directly to the biggest disadvantage to living and working in China, the thing I mentioned before about how we at times question our personal values and morals: Cheating is ubiquitous in China.
Cheating and lying are everywhere but we, as teachers, have become intimately acquainted with just how far the cheating and lying go. The best way I can illustrate my point is with the following story.
My husband and I, along with other foreign English teachers, each teach four sections of oral English to English majors at our school. To begin with, this is a "BS" class in that it is taught to students who did so poorly on their university entrance exam that they got stuck in a “pointless” major. Oral English is about getting the students to speak English, based on the ridiculous and unfounded belief that talking with a native speaker for 90 minutes per week will help the students improve their verbal language skills. There is no curriculum or expectations provided to us by the school, so we’re pretty free to do whatever we want. The way we run our class would be what most Americans would call an “easy A.” We expect the students to come to class and try to converse in their groups about any topic they find interesting and we spend time with each group during the course of the class period. Knowing full well that 93% of them don’t want to be there, as long as they make some minimal effort, we will give them a passing grade of 60 percent.
Last semester after turning in his final grades, my husband had 35 out of 132 students fail his oral English class because they simply did not attend or, if they did attend, didn’t once open their mouths. The liaison teacher called and instructed that they need to be given a second chance at a final exam or it will be embarrassing and expensive if they have to wait until next year to repeat the class. I literally argued with her for 20 minutes about how they didn’t even try during their first chance, i.e., every week of the semester when they should have been attending class, so why should they get a second chance? Then I pointed out that university students are adults and they need to be taught that there are consequences for their actions. Her answer to this was to giggle uncontrollably on the phone and say that though she agreed with me it was the school’s policy and Chinese culture that they be given a second chance. When I asked her if in the future we should just pass everyone to save ourselves the hassle of having to prepare additional material for lazy students who seem to have no respect for anyone or anything, her response was to offer that a Chinese teacher could give them the make-up exam so we wouldn’t have to.
The moral question for us is, do we make things easy on ourselves and basically play the Chinese game and not expect anything of the students, knowing full well no one will be hurt by this ridiculousness OR do we hold our ground in regards to the importance we place on education and fight a losing battle against the administration? We know full well that they change our grades and there’s nothing we can do about it. We know the students know that the school will back them up, because the appearance of having 100% of enrolled students graduate is more important in China than having any of the graduates actually qualified to do any job they subsequently are hired for. In all honesty, even after being here for two years, we are still sitting on the fence in regard to this question.
In China we don’t know whom to trust or when someone is telling us the truth. We’ve come to understand that the best way to function here is to not make waves, not ask for anything, and pretty much not be seen or heard if possible. We are given little direction from the English department and are actively excluded from teacher meetings and department activities that pertain to the quality of education at this school. We anticipate that when the time comes for us to leave China, it will be because we are no longer willing or able to tolerate this aspect of the society here.
When we first made the decision to come to China we also decided that we would stay in China for at least two years to give us a chance to really become accustomed to life here. As I write this, I can honestly say that our resolve about staying in China has wavered on several occasions. Last fall, when our second school year started, we started to think that staying here was a mistake: The students were even less responsive than the previous year, learning the language was becoming more and more frustrating, and we weren’t on the best of terms with one of the other foreign teachers at our school. We began to update our resumes and look online for jobs that would bring us back to the States.
At the end of semester we took an 11-day trip to Thailand where we were able to relax and get some clarity. We literally weighted the pros and cons of staying in China verses leaving and looked at the reasons we were unhappy.
A big part of why we’re unsatisfied here is the work. The job of teaching ESL to Chinese college students is pointless and unrewarding at best. When we get together with the other foreign teachers all we do is complain about the administration, the students, and our classes; it gets old.
The other big reason we have been unhappy in China is that we’ve found it difficult to pursue the hobbies we enjoyed back home. During our adjustment or culture shock process, it was very easy to say that it is impossible to do the same activities that we enjoyed in the States. Now that we’ve here for almost two years, we’ve been able to modify our hobbies to fit our life in China and make the most of the limited resources.
For example, in the U.S. I loved to bake incessantly but in China things like chocolate chips are expensive, can only be purchased at the imported foods grocery, and I only have access to a toaster oven. I can still bake, but not to the extreme. I have had to find fulfillment from the things that are available to me and not lament that which I don’t have. The biggest obstacle to our happiness in this regard was our own outlook. When we started actively changing our attitudes, seeking out that which we enjoy doing and avoiding (as much as possible) that which aggravates us, we realized that our lives here are actually quite satisfying.
Ultimately, we do recognize that the requirements and desires of our lives are quite different from those of most other people we’ve met, whether they are Americans in the U.S. or foreigners in China. Most of our friends and family have financial obligations (student loans, mortgage payments) and caretaking responsibilities (children, parents) that would make it unfeasible, if not impossible, for them to consider undertaking the life-altering decision of moving to a very foreign country. In truth, most of our family members still don’t understand our desire to have undertaken such a challenging experience.
Many foreigners whom we’ve met here are young, single, and fresh out of college. We have observed through the other foreign teachers the difficulty of coming here with no support system. We’ve had the incredible benefit of having each other to lean on through the worst, most depressive, and harrowing of times here. Though before we came to China we already had what I consider to be a strong and stable relationship, sharing this experience has brought us closer together and has infinitely improved our patience with each other. Conversely, we both agree that living, working, and simply being with the same person 24/7 for two straight years would tear apart an already troubled relationship.
Living in China has given us something that no one we know has experienced: the ability to learn about ourselves free of consequence or judgment. Here, life for us is very simple. We go to class on time and keep the students entertained for our contracted 18 hours per week and get paid for it. In our free time we are able to read, write, eat, walk, explore, sing, sew, and play games to the point of boredom if we so choose. Our salaries cover our student loans and our minimal living expenses with money remaining, so we have been able to save a bit for the future.
We’ve learned that there are so few things that we truly need for survival and happiness that we can focus on living in the now rather than worrying about later. Our family and friends back home don’t know what life is like here and to the Chinese we’ll always be “laowai” (old outsiders) so we don’t worry about how others view our lifestyle or whether we’re “keeping up with the Joneses.”
In short, we have decided to stay in China despite the disadvantages because living here has given us the opportunity to explore ourselves independently of our own formerly preconceived ideas [about ourselves and life in general] and THAT is a prospect too good to walk away from.