MKL Q&A Forums

Professional advice
when you need it

Click Here

What We Use in China

American High School Teacher in China


Joe Synder

I live and work in China. That is probably one of the last sentences I ever expected to come out of my mouth when I graduated from college in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in education. I’m a veteran of the United States Air Force, taught social studies in an American public high school for nearly ten years, and later earned a master’s degree in education.

What am I doing in China and why am I staying longer than I initially expected?

The Long and Winding Road to China

About three years ago I went through the proverbial mid-life crisis. Both my parents had died and I went through an ugly divorce. I resigned my teaching position in search of new challenges, and, more important, because my ex-wife is a teacher at the same high school. I did some traveling, worked a few other jobs, but missed teaching. So, when I saw an ad looking for people to teach in China I responded. Less than three months later I arrived in Hong Kong, then spent a week training in Zhuhai before arriving at my final destination of Zhongshan in Guangdong Province. All of this happened very quickly. Before continuing, I should clearly state my reasons for coming to China to teach English.

No one who is well established in the teaching profession in his or her country of origin wakes up one morning and decides to come to China to teach English as a foreign language. This is true for me as well. The last three years of my life in the United States did not go well and were accompanied by a series of tragedies and unfortunate circumstances that resulted in a prolonged bout of major depression. As time healed my depression, it did not erase the fact that I missed my career and felt empty at the thought of never returning to the classroom. I must stress adamantly that I in no way advocate or encourage a certified, tenured teacher quitting his or her job to come teach English in China. My situation is not typical.

I love coffee and, back home, my morning usually consisted of a trip to Starbucks... . If I did this here, I would spend almost 20 percent of my gross income on coffee!

Resigning my teaching position made it highly unlikely that I would find another job, at least in my home state. Having a master’s degree can be a serious impediment in securing a new teaching job in my field of social studies, which is quite saturated. The difference in pay for someone like myself with 10 years of experience and a newly graduated teacher with a bachelor’s degree is roughly $10,000. If you are a school administrator on a very tight budget (i.e. every school administrator) who is forced to beg for money from voters via levy every two years, this is not a tough decision.

Most collective bargaining agreements will not allow a teacher to take less pay, requiring that one is paid to scale commensurate to his or her level of education and experience. Private schools were never a real option as the pay is frightfully low compared to public schools. I also did not coach a major sport, which can be a ticket to mobility in my profession. These are the primary reasons I decided to give teaching in China a try. I also privately speculated that the experience of living and teaching abroad for a few years could possibly make me seem a little more interesting as a candidate for a social studies teaching position in the U.S. a few years down the road as understanding and teaching the ways of the world is our job. It seemed to make about as much sense as anything else that happened over the last three years. So, I boarded a 16 hour flight from Detroit to Hong Kong and there I was.

My 37 years of life experiences in no way prepared me for when my feet actually hit the ground in China. My command of Mandarin, which consisted of nǐhǎo and xièxie , was highly inadequate, especially for a region in which people speak Cantonese. It was hot, it was crowded and after about one month I wanted to go home. However, I’m still here eight months later and have already committed to another year of teaching in China. So, how did I transition from greenhorn English teacher to confident journeyman? It wasn’t an easy or a fun process and it is still a work in progress, but it has been an interesting journey.

"Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."

I am very fortunate in that I landed at a private language school that has been in business for over 20 years and has franchise branches all over Guangdong. They took care of most things for me, which is crucial for someone brand new to China. My foreign expert certificate, visa, and accommodation were all taken care of by the school I work for. I’ve learned since arriving that my school pays nearly the minimum a foreign teacher can expect to earn in China , especially with my qualifications, but it was a good place to start. Finding a school that will help you transition to China is initially way more important than salary, as even—at the very least—you’ll make much more than the average Chinese citizen.

In the city that I currently live in, Zhongshan, Guangdong province, the average foreign teacher makes roughly 6,000 to 9,000 renminbi. The low-end figure from above is more than double what my college graduate, Chinese teaching assistants make, but that is still only about 1,000 USD per month. I must stress that this is not enough to subsidize your life if you are leaving behind debt in your home country. Also, do not dare complain to your Chinese colleagues about your “horribly low” salary for the aforementioned reasons. Despite the salary being low by my standards, I make more than my boss, so complain to other foreigners about your salary, stay mute around your Chinese co-workers.

A nice apartment here with a Western feel (a toilet you can sit on) will cost about 1,500 yuan per month, plus another 500 for utilities and Internet and cable if you so choose. So if you are making 6,000 a month and your school does not provide you with housing, you have just spent one third of your salary. If you don’t mind eating like a typical Chinese person by cooking at home or eating in very low-end restaurants you can survive on about 750 RMB per month in food costs. However, unless you are coming from a very poor or under privileged background, it’s unlikely this will suffice for you. I usually eat oatmeal for breakfast with a cup of instant coffee at home, lunch at the mid-grade restaurant next to my school and dinner at a nicer restaurant. This pushes my food budget to about 2000 RMB a month. If you are making the low-end estimate this leaves you with about 2000 RMB a month for discretionary spending, or roughly $300 a month.

If you’re going to survive here, you best be able to ignore the differences that could frustrate you.

Be prepared to sacrifice Western creature comforts. I for one love coffee and, back home, my morning usually consisted of a trip to Starbucks or similar coffee shops. If I did this here I would spend almost 20 percent of my gross income on coffee! We have a half dozen Starbucks here as well as many supermarkets that stock Western foods I am used to, but without dipping into money from home I simply cannot afford these “luxuries” here. I will state that as a child back home my family was poor, by American standards. I was also forced to live in a similar manner during the years I spent in the military. This may have prepared me better than some to live the way I do now, counting every renminbi I have, but I had not lived this way in many years and it was a shock, initially, to return to this lifestyle. This is only a snapshot of my city and variance in cost of living will skew these numbers, but I feel the percentages of where your income will be spent would be fairly consistent.

When I arrived in Zhongshan, I was quite shocked when I was taken to our “campus”: It looked like it would fall apart if the wind speed reached 15 kilometers per hour. The classrooms were on the third floor, which looked worse than our office on the first floor, and appeared to have not been painted since Chairman Mao was calling the shots in China. I was given my schedule, which consisted of full days teaching on Saturday and Sunday and adult classes on weeknights, three times a week. So much for meeting Chinese friends I could hang out with!

Life of the Private School English Teacher in China

I found my Saturday and Sunday classes to be dreadful. Six of my eight weekend classes were teaching small children. I found their behavior to be atrocious compared to American children at a comparable age. I have found the majority of young children I teach at my private language school to be extremely spoiled and almost completely lacking in self-control. Since I have arrived I have become quite familiar with the phenomenon of “Little Emperor Syndrome” as it is referred to. There is a plethora of information on this “disorder” on the internet so it is not necessary to go into detail other than to say it creates a great deal of children with spoiled attitudes, inflated egos, and large senses of entitlement. The one-child policy creates a climate ripe for spoiling for a lot of these children. It is not uncommon for me to see parents here actually feeding their older children at restaurants while the child has both hands dedicated to an iPad game. I also see parents stare almost blissfully amused at public behaviors that would elicit swift parental consequences in the society that I am used to.

Now, this does not apply to all children here and I have met a great number of very sweet, well-behaved children. But, I’ve also met a great many of what one of my colleagues refers to as “classroom terrorists” at our private school. In my experiences I’ve found this type of behavior to seem to subside as the children get older. If I had my choice, I would teach middle school children as they are usually emotionally mature enough to effectively manage, but not yet jaded and beaten down by the extreme parental expectations and school induced pressures that my high school students often exhibit. My primary students under the age of ten are often on the borderline of being uncontrollable without a good teaching assistant. High school students are often the exact opposite as conformity and academic pressures have made them extremely apathetic. Middle school seems like a good balance for me.

My adult class at night turned out to be a godsend for me when I first arrived in Zhongshan. It consisted of about six guys who spoke a very high level of English and only came to the School to practice with a native speaker. We started to spend some time together outside class, going fishing, they often invited me over for dinner, and we went on some day trips. Initially I was a little worried that I was only a “novelty” friend as a foreigner and I think that was the case with a few of my students but a couple of us did get to be good friends. It was really nice to meet some people I could hang out with as there are few foreigners in Zhongshan and, unfortunately, the ones who are here are not always the kind of people I would generally spend time with back home. The reality is that we do not all come here for the same reasons.

In Search of a Peer Group

I have become a little guarded when meeting other foreigners here for several reasons. As an American it is not uncommon to experience some anti-American sentiment from other foreigners, especially Europeans. I have no desire to debate the actions of my government with people from other countries I have just met. Even if I do not support certain American policies I do not feel it is right to state this with others who I barely know, but this often seems to be the first topic of conversation they want to engage in. I almost never mention the fact that I spent a combined ten years in the American military, four in the active duty Air Force and another six in the Ohio Air National Guard because I know their often extreme hatred of American foreign policy.

Even with those I consider my friends today, we’ve had some moments that were uncomfortable. Case in point: A friend I was having dinner with a few months ago proceeded to go on an extended anti-American diatribe during our meal. I finally just put my chopsticks down and said: “You do realize I am an American, right?” I don’t take it personally but at the same time it is uncomfortable. I am an American but I am not the American government. The way I have been addressed sometimes seemed to be aiming at blaming me personally for the actions of my government. Apparently some feel the guy teaching English in China has directly contributed to U.S. foreign policy decisions. Sadly, I am not this well connected and do not have President Obama on speed dial.

Others I have met seem to be in China simply for drinking and meeting women. It’s not really possible to have conversations about teaching with these people, as the job is simply a way to support their lifestyle while here. They were never teachers before and probably never will be again after they leave China. There is certainly an element here that is very involved in partying and I guess that is okay for them, but it is just not where I am in life at this moment.

Having taught in American schools for nearly a decade, I had learned the most important people in the schools are the secretaries and custodians. A principal will not change a light bulb or take a message for you. This also applies to the schools here as your TAs and schedulers are the most important people in your professional life. They are the ones you need to keep happy. So, I made an effort to get to know all of my TAs and where they were from, bought them small birthday gifts and went to KTV with them every time they asked me. Even though I pretty much despise KTV, they love it and I swear it is like heroin for them. I also made an effort to learn the language, and they genuinely respected the fact that I didn’t chase women, didn’t hit on them, and respected them as professionals also. Almost all the TAs I have worked with are very dedicated, extremely hard working, and well educated.

I would be lying a little if I said I didn’t have some ulterior motives in befriending most of the staff at the school. I did parlay my popularity into creating a better schedule for myself in the next term. I managed to get a schedule that was much more suited to me in that I have no students under the age of thirteen. I do however spend two days at government schools, which is a unique but rewarding challenge. Most private schools here will basically subcontract you out to the government schools; this is something I knew nothing about before I came here.

Differences in Educational Culture

Joe Synder

Nothing really prepared me for my first day at the government middle school. I spent 40 minutes trying to teach English to several classes of 50 students who had an English level that was roughly equivalent to that of an American three-year-old. Most of the students are well-behaved but a few are not. I have found applying my philosophy of “you can always loosen up, but you can never get tougher” to work quite well here. I have no reservations about chewing a class out or raising my voice in a class that is not behaving. The first class I did this to seemed shocked and a little frightened but I believe it may have gained me a little respect. I believe they are used to foreign teachers being dancing monkeys and that’s just not my style. School is not always fun: it can be fun but ultimately my job is to teach and theirs is to learn. If we can have fun together learning that’s great, but it’s not a necessity.

I know the government schools pay a lot of money to my school for my presence and I feel they should get their money’s worth. I feel I have an even greater responsibility as almost none of the Chinese English teachers at the middle school speak passable English. So my English is the only properly spoken English they might ever hear. Putting me in these classes for 40 minutes at a time, for one class every other week, is like putting a band-aid on a sucking chest wound but I still need to approach it as a professional. It’s also good for my own mental health and well-being to know I am doing the best I can with the limited time and resources that I have. I teach over 800 different children at this middle school. If I inspire or make a difference in only 5 percent of these children, that’s 40 kids. That makes me sleep well at night.

While teaching in Chinese government schools can be frustrating, it has given me a lot of insight into the differences between our countries’ educational systems. My comments are based only on observations and not an in-depth study, but I’ll briefly describe what I’ve seen over the last few months.

It seems to me that Chinese education uses a lot of rote memorization and repetition in its practice. From what I’ve seen, the teacher is front and center most of the time. The remaining time is spent working quietly and alone; group work is almost non-existent. My older students, who have a good command of English, tell me their teachers give them hours of homework each night that is never graded, only checked as to whether it looks completed. This is in sharp contrast to the educational philosophy I practiced in the United States.

As a teacher back home I would say I spent less than half of my time actually standing and delivering. The majority of my classroom time was spent in group work and projects involving higher level thought. As a history teacher I knew anyone could learn facts and dates. Understanding and being able to decipher why history happened the way it did was more important than memorizing the exact times that it happened. This doesn’t seem to be the case here, as the memorization of what are presented as facts seems to be the most important thing. As a Western teacher working in China, I have had many “great ideas” for the classroom that completely bombed on me here even though they worked beautifully in the States. Also, I have had to adjust my methods to what Chinese parents feel comfortable with as, at my private school, they are paying the bills. I try to mix my Western teaching methods with the reality of what is expected here. It is a work in progress.

One frustrating thing about teaching here is the completely unrealistic expectations from parents and the Chinese English teachers. Parents at my private school constantly feel the need to complain about what is going on in the classroom. If I had one RMB for every time I heard the following I could probably retire: He doesn’t use the book enough, he uses the book too much, he plays too many games, he isn’t fun enough, he doesn’t talk to my child only the others, and so on and so on. I am sorry to put things this bluntly but if you are under the impression that one or two hours with me once a week is going to make your child fluent in English you are an idiot.

To make it worse parents will not talk to you, even through your TA, because confronting people here is not in their culture. So, the child complains to the parent, the parent goes to the girl at the front desk, the front desk girl goes to my boss, my boss goes to my TA and my TA comes to me with the complaint. I have gotten to the point that I pretty much refuse to listen to this anymore. I will even joke with my trusted TAs as to whose parent is angry today. I told my boss that any parent is welcome attend my class at anytime with no advance notice. I only requested that no more than three parents attend at a time. No one has ever taken me up on this yet the complaints still pour in.

In the public school I teach 20 different 40 minute classes and work with 10 different Chinese English teachers. The two who actually speak fluent English pretty much respect what I am doing, let me do my thing, and are quite pleasant to me. The others like to complain, but at least do it to my face. There is really no way to get to know my students with the limited time and class sizes I have. In addition the classes are separated by ability, there is no inclusion here that I have seen. Most teachers want me to give a completely individualized lesson to their class and this is simply not possible for me. I certainly vary my approach and delivery based on each class but I don’t have time to make 20 separate PowerPoint presentations and lesson plans. Sometimes I get a little agitated, okay a lot agitated, as a Chinese English teacher who barely can speak English tells me how to teach her class.

I hate to admit this but I sometimes pretend to not understand the advice the Chinese English teachers are trying to give me even on the occasions I do understand them. It can just be a little too much to deal with some days. On a humorous note, there is one Chinese English teacher who is probably in her mid-fifties who stands in the very center of the class the entire 40 minutes I am in her classroom. She never changes her facial expression, which could be described as a mixture of disgust and anger. Occasionally she opens the corner of her mouth and says things in Chinese under her breath. It used to bother me but now it just makes me chuckle a little. I keep saying one week I am going to just walk in and say “hello sexy, how are you today?” or something equally awkward to her just to see the reaction I would get.

Why I Stay

I love my job but it’s not the main reason I am staying in China. I love the people, I love the culture, and—as a former history teacher—I love the 5000 years of it that they have. When I first arrived here, it seemed like the most foreign place in the world I could have come to. The soundtrack of my life seemed to be people hocking and spitting, horns blaring, and people screaming into cell phones. People pushed me, they stared at me, they cut in front of me in lines… all behaviors that could get you shot in a large American city. How did I deal with all of this? For the most part, I simply did not deal with it.

If you’re going to come here, realize that you should not bring your culture with you. If you’re going to survive here, you best be able to ignore the differences that could frustrate you. I love to read about Chinese culture and history, or any culture or history for that matter. Realize the old man that cuts in front of you may have this behavior burned into his brain. These people are only 50 years removed from a famine that killed 30-40 million people and being first may have been the difference between life and death, eating or starving. Be aware that the old guy spitting may have been taught his whole life that this was actually a healthy thing to do to get toxins out of his body. Be aware that some people truly are just jerks… just like back home.

I have learned to tolerate these things, which should not be confused with acceptance. I do not know what the long-term effects of living here will be on my psyche. I still have days where I get “China rage” and even the smallest things irritate me to no end. I could probably write a 10,000 word essay on my experiences with Bank of China and money transfers. Sometimes I see things and just think how stupid are you? Case in point: Several months ago a woman was trying to get into the underground garage to which the entrance is directly below my kitchen window. She could not get the gate to open and proceeded to honk the horn in her car continuously for ten minutes, seemingly having no other recourse for her dilemma. Lack of problem solving ability is a major problem here to say the least.

Strange and gross things aside, I’ve found most people to be extremely friendly and not afraid to invite this strange-looking, hairy man into their home for a meal. How many American families will do this? If there have been any ulterior motives for this I have not seen them. Perhaps I am not so perceptive, but they usually seem genuine. An important note to make is that I live in the wealthiest district of a very wealthy city. There is a lot of money here and it is not uncommon for me to see Porches and Lamborghinis on the streets here as I walk to work. Wealth usually walks hand-in-hand with education and a more cosmopolitan lifestyle. Perhaps these people are just curious to chat with a foreigner. Perhaps it is somewhat chic for them to invite a foreigner to their home. I am not really sure, but they don’t ask anything from me, and the food is usually good so I try not to over-think it.

The importance of family here is very refreshing. It is very typical to have three generations living in one dwelling and the concept of a nursing home is almost unthinkable to Chinese people. If I had to identify one thing that Chinese society does better than my own, it’s how they take care of their families and the elderly. If you can put aside the many differences, you’ll find a lot of similarities and possibly make some great friends.

My circle of expat friends here is small but very strong, and similar to the friendships I had in the military. I have managed to find about four people who are very dedicated teachers and don’t hang out in bars or have contests to see how many Chinese women they can conquer. I have met a few foreigners here I stay away from for the aforementioned behaviors. I try to behave knowing I am being watched, because I am. I love my country very much, so much that I never want the United States to look bad because of my behavior.

So, how long will I stay in China? I’m not sure as I only came here for one year initially but I have already accepted a new job starting in the fall. I will be working for a private international high school as an English teacher and perhaps if the need arises, I could jump to the Social Studies department. This is a possibility as all classes are conducted in English. The pay is double what I am making now, and the school has a very Western philosophy of education, which feels like a good fit for me. I have great friends, and I’m very happy doing the job I love even if it comes with some sacrifices and daily annoyances.

I’m going to stay a while.

Editor's note: You must be logged in to post a comment. Only constructive and well-written comments will be published.

You must be logged into your account to post a comment.


About Us

Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

Read More


Link Partners

Website administrators are invited to partner-up with MKL. Our link directory supports text links or banners and features thumbnail photos of your home page.

Add Link