If you are thinking about teaching English in China, then this self-assessment questionnaire is for you. The assessment is divided into two scales: employee desirability and psychosocial adjustment. The first scale is designed to give you a good idea about how desirable or competitive you will be in the China foreign English teacher job market. The second scale is designed to gauge how relatively easy or difficult your adjustment will be to life in China.
Answer each question as honestly as you can and then click on the tabs below to score your results and then to learn about their meaning to you as a prospective foreign English teacher in China.
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Discussion: Employee Desirability
In terms of employability in China as a foreign English teacher, this is perhaps the most important criterion. Although non-native and non-White speakers can find work with a great deal of persistence (especially if they are otherwise highly qualified and already in China), simply stated, it is not easy for them. In addition, there is a myriad of anecdotal evidence to suggest that teachers who are not White native speakers of English will be unsuccessful at competing for the most desirable positions and, in addition, will always be regarded as third-class foreign teachers in China—in the context of teaching oral English in China.
Non-White and non-native speakers who are teaching professional courses in other disciplines, e.g., a Pakistani physician who is teaching chemistry or pathology at a medical school for their foreign medical students, will generally not face discriminatory hiring practices or organizational and social devaluation (at least not openly or in the same way). For further discussion of this phenomenon in China, it is highly suggested that you read "Teaching English in China for Non-White, Non-Native Speakers."
Prospective teachers who hail from the "big five," i.e., U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, will be most sought after. Depending on the school, especially private English language schools, some will prefer North American speakers while others will favor those from England. Generally speaking, nationality won't matter very much (if at all) at public schools and universities. With the recent fad-like craze in SAT and TOEFL exam preparation courses, American applicants will have a distinct advantage at any school that is offering such programs, while candidates from England and Australia will have a hiring advantage at schools still offering IELTS exam preparation courses.
However, prospective teachers from South Africa do face some discrimination across China and will probably not be eligible for the most competitive positions. English teachers born into countries other than the big five and South Africa will face hiring discrimination.
Related to the issues of nationality and native vs. non-native speakers of English, is one of skin color. In China, foreign oral English teachers are hired as much for their appearance than anything else. One needs to "look the part" and the reality is, young, attractive, and White faces are best for business. Prospective teachers who are of Asian and Black descent will face many hiring obstacles, although many are successful in finding work if they are well qualified, persistent and, especially, if they are already in China and can appear for a personal interview.
Several years ago I was working at a key provincial university in the south of China. During the week of the May 1st national holiday (Chinese labor day), I spent a great deal of time at the beach and built up quite a dark tan (which I happen to think is attractive). When my boss saw me, after we had all returned from the week-long holiday, he became quite visibly agitated. He pulled me aside and make it abundantly clear—in no uncertain terms—that I was not to get any darker and he essentially ordered me to stay out of the sun... "or else" (my contract would not be renewed). For the following two to three weeks, I was the brunt of some rather crass and offensive "African jokes." In the context of being a foreign oral English teacher in China, it was made crystal clear to me that the tone of my skin was far more important to my continued employment at this university than my doctorate, 25 years of prior university teaching experience, or even the fact that I had consistently earned sterling teaching evaluations from my students for two years running. This is a true story.
For additional reading on the three aforementioned topics, see the section titled "Issues of Race and Nationality."
Prospective foreign English teachers who are in the 22- to 49-year old age group will have the easiest time finding jobs in China. There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence to suggest that teachers in the 18- to 21-year old age group are being denied work (Z-) visas across China. However, they can and often will find work if they are already in China and can appear for a personal interview, especially at those schools that do not require a bachelor's degree.
Prospective English teachers who are in the 50- to 54-year old age group are still readily employable in China but may lose out to younger candidates especially at private English language schools. Generally speaking, middle-aged teachers will not face any hiring obstacles at universities and may even be preferred over the younger candidates.
However, foreign teachers over the age of 54 will face hiring discrimination (ageism) at private English language schools and even at some universities. Some provinces are enforcing the "60-year old age restriction," while most do not. Even in provinces that enforce age restrictions, the guideline is easily bypassed if the school really wants the teacher and has sufficient guanxi (relationships) with the proper authorities. In some cases, teachers—who are well into their sixties and even seventies—will be hired as part-time teachers (as a matter of record) but will receive a full-time salary. In such instances, the teachers will have to make private arrangements for their residency permits. Those who are married to Chinese nationals or own property in China will generally not have any difficulty finding a way to legally stay in the country.
Primarily for display or cosmetic purposes (in the context of teaching oral English), the higher the degree, the more competitive the foreign teacher will be when seeking employment in China.
This is not to suggest that foreigners with less than a bachelor's degree cannot find employment as English teachers in China: They can, especially (if not exclusively) at private English language schools. However, it is far less challenging and costly to the school to process the paperwork for those who meet the minimum guidelines set forth by the SAFEA (a bachelor's degree and two years of related work experience).
As most private schools only prefer—as opposed to require—a bachelor's degree, it is terribly unwise to apply to schools with fake, life experience, or "Photoshopped" degrees. If you obtain a position under false pretenses with a school that requires a degree, you face deportation (at the very least) if you are found out. There are still enough private English schools in China willing to hire English teachers without degrees, so this option should never be deployed. More and more schools and universities in China are discovering the plethora of online international agencies offering background checks and many will quietly check your credentials after you have been hired.
In regard to teachers with master's and doctoral degrees, there is something of a Catch-22 or paradox involved in regard to employment. Upon initial hiring, these oral English teachers are the most competitive but a great deal of anecdotal evidence suggests that they also face the greatest challenges in terms of contract renewals because they were typically brought in at a higher salary and better package than their less educated counterparts. In China, the better your conditions are when you are hired (relative to others), the harder it is to maintain them over time. At the very least, there will be renewed attempts at extracting more and more work out of you over each successive year. For a thorough discussion of this phenomenon, see the unit on contract renewal.
Depending on the position being sought, holding a degree in education, linguistics, or a related field can be a big hiring advantage, especially at the university level and particularly if the teacher is being asked to teach classes other than oral English, e.g., reading, writing, and Western literature. Subsequently, and as a rule, field-related degrees carry less weight at private English language schools as they offer no practical advantage in regard to teaching oral English unless they also coincide with actual teaching experience (see below).
Candidates with teaching experience will always be more competitive in China than those who have never taught before, although this advantage varies considerably in weight depending on both the nature of the experience and the position being sought.
Most private English language schools are far more concerned with a candidate's ability to adjust to life in China than they are with actual credentials. A 55-year old university professor with 20 years of teaching experience in the MBA program at Harvard University—who has never travelled abroad—will be, overall, less desirable to a private English language school than a 28-year old gregarious, amicable, and pretty EFL teacher with four years of successful teaching experience at a similar school in China. So although teaching experience is important, what is more important is that the experience is applicable and relevant to the job being sought. If you are an experienced educator but the experience is incongruent with the position you are applying for, you will need to address this in your cover letter.
Primary/Secondary School Certification
Holding certification or licensure as a primary or secondary school teacher in one's native country is a big hiring advantage in regard to private English language schools and, more so, in terms of employment eligibility at international schools in China where the salaries are often comparable to and even better than what one can earn back home.
Aside from actually having successfully taught in China, prospective English teachers with a proven track record in their native countries will certainly be more competitive when applying for jobs—all other things equal. As the Chinese are credential hounds, holding state or national certification as a primary or secondary school teacher is impressive to them and settles the question as to the legitimacy of your degrees, the appropriateness of your background, and your ability to teach.
All other things equal, TEFL certification can be very helpful when applying for one's first position in China, especially in the absence of any prior teaching experience and particularly for those who don't possess a bachelor's degree. Aside from its hiring value, prospective English teachers who do not have any prior teaching experience will benefit greatly from the orientation to EFL teaching that these typically four-week programs offer. However, the hiring advantage of a TEFL certificate diminishes rapidly if one has teaching experience or an advanced degree: In such an instance, the absence of it won't matter and possessing it will only provide a very small (and unnecessary) hiring advantage.
Applying Conjointly with Spouse/Significant Other
Whether applying to a private English school or a university, doing so conjointly with a spouse or significant other will provide a distinct advantage strictly from a business perspective. Getting two teachers for the cost of one apartment is a proposition that most Chinese employers simply cannot pass up.
However, having just written this, it should also be pointed out that a joint application can conceivably work against the teachers if the person doing the hiring is a Westerner. Many Western directors of studies and school managers are reluctant to hire couples because they fear that if there is a problem with one, they will potentially find themselves in the very unpleasant position of having to replace two teachers instead of the one. Nevertheless, most Chinese employers seem to overlook this potential problem and will jump at the opportunity. Barring certain private schools that employ Western managers, applying as a couple will usually provide a big hiring advantage.
Discussion: Psychosocial Adjustment
Current Financial Situation
Adjusting to life in China is not easy for a Westerner. Virtually every facet of life as we know it is different. Simply stated, those who feel that they have financial options are less likely to feel trapped if they find themselves in unpleasant circumstances. This is not to suggest that those who have money in the bank are more likely to run: However, psychologically speaking, it is far easier to accept and adjust to unpleasant or demanding circumstances when one perceives doing so as a personal choice.
In addition, unless the teacher is young, has just finished school, and is faced with paying off all sorts of school loans, the accumulation of assets and savings among older candidates suggests a greater degree of prior psychosocial adaptation and this will be highly associated with an easier adjustment to life in China.
Related to the issue of personal choice, as just discussed in the last paragraph, one's motivation for seeking employment in China at this point in time will be highly associated with the ability to adjust to all the demands that will be made of you. Teachers who feel they have a gun to their heads will be the most resentful and embittered, and will face the greatest adjustment challenges.
Restated, those who are here by what they perceive as a "forced choice" due to a failing economy, unemployment or a mismanaged life back home, will experience the greatest degrees of anomie, depression, anxiety and frustration. Conversely, teachers who know they have made a personal choice and are either moving here to experience a short-term adventure or as a long-term commitment based on career preference or to reduce cost-of-living expenses in retirement, will have the easiest time adjusting to life in China.
International Travel Experience
History is one of the best predictors of future behavior. Teachers who have extensive international travel experience, especially (but not only) with Asian countries, will more likely than not find adjusting to a radically different culture easier than those who have never even ventured outside their own neighborhoods. In addition, it is a factor that many schools do consider when making hiring decisions, which is why those who have already proven themselves as English teachers in China are always more competitive than those who have never been here.
Although there is no way to predict with 100 percent certainty how anyone will adjust to China once here as a full time resident, a history of international travel experience will be highly associated with a greater ability to face the challenges and demands of a very difficult culture as it, at the very least, strongly suggests a demonstrated interest in exploring new cultures and people (even if that travel experience is limited to having stayed at the Beijing Hilton for two nights, five years ago).
Response to Disappointment over Broken Promises
Contracts do not have the same meaning in China as they do in our respective native Western countries. Contracts in the West are considered sacrosanct: We take them literally and we trust that both parties will honor all the stipulations they have agreed to. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case in China.
Very shortly after commencing employment, it would not be at all unusual for your boss or FAO (foreign affairs officer) to present you with a teaching schedule—or some other previously unmentioned set of demands—that exceeds and clearly violates what you had agreed to. Your ability to adapt to these changes and to quickly learn what you should and should not respond to (as well as how to respond) will make all the difference in your ability to adjust to your new life in China.
The Chinese understand that verbal agreements have even less meaning in China than they do in the West and that written contracts are often little more than a mutual starting point for ongoing and impromptu negotiations throughout the duration of the relationship. They both expect and accept these changes and don't perceive these as evidence of deception or exploitation at all. We, on the other hand, become frustrated and angered by them and perceive them as evidence of bad faith.
If you are the type of individual who is going to stand on ceremony and obsess about or repeatedly hammer a point because of the "principle of the thing," you will most likely be extremely miserable during your stay in China. As a case in point, I am personally familiar with an unqualified foreign teacher in China who could not get past the fact that he had been denied travel reimbursement after it had been promised to him. He was so disturbed by this "lie" that he was unable to appreciate that while it was true that the travel reimbursement had been withdrawn, he had simultaneously received an unexpected 300 yuan per month increase in salary (and this system of giving with the right hand while taking back with the left is extremely common in China). So although he was actually financially ahead in the exchange, he could not stop obsessing about how he had been "cheated" and "lied" to (in part, he had deluded himself into viewing the sudden salary increase as an entitlement for what he perceived as "excellent work" instead of what it really was—a circuitous way of making good on the travel reimbursement). He eventually lost his job due to intermittent episodes of explosive rage.
Of course, we are not suggesting that foreign English teachers should allow themselves to be abused or exploited by their employers: to the contrary. However, being able to focus on the larger picture (i.e., not losing the forest through the trees) and knowing when and how to draw the line is a fine art in China and those who are particularly characterologically unyielding will most likely never acquire those skills (or even consider them to be worthwhile).
History of Alcohol and Drug Abuse
People who have a history of chronic drug and alcohol abuse are typically those who have had varying degrees of difficulty managing their emotional lives. They have used drugs and alcohol to self-medicate and, by so doing, have deprived themselves of the opportunity to adapt to life's challenges in a healthier, more productive manner (assuming the innate ability was present to begin with).
If you have a propensity towards alcohol and drug abuse, you can thoroughly expect that behavior to rapidly worsen in China. I have personally witnessed many former heavy or problematic drinkers quickly deteriorate into chronic alcoholics in China. Most become unemployable and even homeless. If you have a problem with drugs and alcohol, my best and heartfelt advice is that you immediately abandon your plans to move to China for the sake of both your emotional and physical well being.
Your ability to engage and enjoy people from various backgrounds and of different beliefs is one of the strongest predictors of successful adjustment to your new life in China. Not only will you be surrounded, if not crowded, by millions of Chinese in your city, but also by other foreigners from all walks of life who have led very different lives than your own. If you are an open-minded, gregarious and friendly person, those characteristics will serve you very well in China as a foreign English teacher: both socially and vocationally.
If, on the other hand, you are the kind of person who "doesn't like to be bothered" by others, especially those who are quite different from yourself, and you actually prefer to be alone, your adjustment to your new life in China will be considerably more difficult—perhaps even painful.
Especially in those parts of China where Western people are relatively scarce, you will necessarily be the center of attention. Passersby will stare at you in awe and then suddenly shout HELLO! Strangers will approach you while you are eating to practice what few words of English they know. When travelling about—or while at the beach or park—locals will queue up to have their pictures taken with you as if you are a celebrity. While waiting on line at the supermarket, locals will carefully inspect everything inside your basket and may even leave the line in a mad dash to pick up one or more of the same items. And in a country of 1.3 billion people, occupying an area that is slightly smaller than that of the continental United States, privacy and personal space are at a premium.
If this sounds like something that is going to drive you crazy, then you might want to reconsider your decision to move to China as an oral English teacher.
Importance of Television
One of the things you will notice immediately as a new arrival in China is the relative dearth of English language programming on television. There is one station in particular, CCTV9, that broadcasts primarily in English and several other stations may include some English programming during the afternoon and evening hours, but your choices will be grossly limited. You certainly won't have 50 cable stations in English to choose from as you do back home.
Reflect in all honesty about how this is going to affect your overall mental status. If watching television is an important part of your daily routine and constitutes the vast majority of your entertainment, you are going to have a very difficult time adjusting to life in China.
There are a few possibilities in regard to satellite television but these are primarily available only to English teachers who are working in the south and southeast of China and can access the Agila II satellite which carries, among others, broadcasting from Dream TV in the Philippines (satellite access in the north and northwest is limited mostly to Chinese language programming, which won't help you).
If watching English language programming on television is important to you, then you will need to check on the status of satellite accessibility in the city you are thinking about teaching in. Be advised that no public university will allow a teacher to install a satellite dish anywhere on or in the foreign expert building and that many privately-owned buildings off-campus will not permit installation on the roof (but you will be allowed to install it on your balcony if you have one, assuming you have the proper unimpeded exposure: usually southeasterly).
Most foreign teachers, immediately upon arrival, purchase a DVD player and buy inexpensive DVDs from the abundance of street vendors and local stores that sell them throughout China. If this sounds like a viable alternative to you, then you should be fine.
Some people are very picky when it comes to their food. They maintain a regular diet of foods that they like to eat and that's that. They are extremely reticent to try anything new and do their very best to eat only those foods that are both familiar and comforting to them. Such people are going to have an enormously difficult time adjusting to their daily lives in China.
Even among those of us who thoroughly enjoyed Chinese food back home, the adjustment to Chinese food in China requires a great deal of time and progressive experimentation. The reality is dishes in China are quite different from what we had grown accustomed to and, in most cases, virtually no consideration is ever paid to presentation or food service: dishes are simply brought to the table in whatever order they happen to have finished cooking first. What this usually means is that vegetable dishes will reach the table before the entrees do and it is not unusual to receive your soup as dessert. No matter how hard you try to explain to the waitress that you want your appetizer or soup served first, you'll still get it whenever it's ready—usually just at the point you have finished eating. And once you've ordered something, you are responsible for paying for it in China even if that means having to wait an hour before finally receiving it (this very thing has happened to me on more than one occasion). Good customer service, which we take for granted back home, is still one of those entities that is currently "developing"... along with the rest of the country.
If you are a finicky eater, then you should most definitely make plans to do your own cooking. With some ingenuity and persistence, you should be able to replicate most of what you are accustomed to eating back home with the one notable exception of good steak and chop meat. Outside the three international cities (Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou) it is virtually impossible to find anything that resembles a real steak barring, perhaps, at a 5-star hotel.
Beef is simply not very popular in China and beef cattle are raised and fed quite differently than they are in the United States and Australia, for example. If good steaks and hamburger meat are important to you, unless you will be teaching in one of the three aforementioned cities, you are going to feel very disappointed and homesick in that regard. And if and when you do find good imported beef, you can expect to pay a small fortune for it.
Internet access in China is another one of those "hit or miss" propositions. Although the Chinese represent the largest growing number of Internet users in the world, the technology has failed to catch up to the high demand. As a rule, Internet access within China is more than adequate but inter-networking with servers outside of China is still quite limited (although there has been much improvement over the last five years). The reality is that fast and reliable Internet access to servers in the West is not something you can automatically count on. As a general rule, the more rural or isolated your location is, the poorer your Internet access will be.
If having fast (i.e., > 1mb/sec) and reliable Internet access is very important to you, you must verify what the situation is like with another teacher in the same building you will be living in. If losing access to your e-mail and favorite websites for unspecified periods of time is something that is going to drive you up a wall, then this is something you either need to be mentally prepared for, before you arrive, or you will need to seek another teaching location altogether.
Reaction to Change and Absence of Proper Planning
Life in China is highly unpredictable. Some Westerners thrive on that and it remains one of the biggest reasons they stay in China year after year: They love the "action" and the "excitement." Others feel overwhelmed and perpetually angered by the fact that very little seems to remain constant over time.
Your friends will tell you all about what their experiences were with, for example, getting a driver's license and when you apply, you will be given an entirely different set of requirements to follow or will simply be told that foreigners aren't allowed to apply for a driver's license, even though you know five people in the same city who have one (including one guy who acquired his as recently as four days earlier).
For months you will pay your credit card bill at the same bank and then, out of the blue and all of a sudden, you will be told by the same teller that you can no longer pay as you had been doing all along. The more you push for an explanation, the more absurd, juvenile, and surrealistic the answers become.
You will grow accustomed to buying a favorite item at the same store for two years only to find one day that the item has mysteriously vanished from the shelves forever and no one will be able to offer you an explanation.
Your school owner or FAO will call you at 8:40 in the morning, just as you are about to leave your apartment, to advise that your 9 o'clock class has been cancelled and Chinese friends will call you at 3:30 p.m. to ask if you are "free" to attend dinner with them later that evening.
This is life in China. You will either fall in love with it and use it to your advantage or forever hate it.
If you are the kind of person who absolutely needs routine and well-planned scheduling in order to feel content, you will find living in China to be terribly disruptive. You can expect to feel frustrated, bewildered, and angry a good part of the time.