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Section I: Teaching English in China continued

Outside Work and Other Careers

Most foreign English teachers in China engage in some form of outside employment, primarily as a necessity for saving some money or subsidizing travel. However, keep in mind that many schools, perhaps even most, explicitly and contractually prohibit their employees from moonlighting. In some cases, especially at public schools and universities, this seems to be nothing more than a pro-forma stipulation that is never enforced while, at others, teachers caught engaging in part-time contract work for other schools are promptly terminated. You will need to "feel out" the other teachers for what the currently tolerated situation is at your school or university. Even schools that strictly forbid outside teaching engagements, will often allow their teachers to work part-time in other endeavors outside of teaching just as long as the school is informed. It really depends entirely on the school and, in a few cases—especially at schools that pay lower than others—you will be explicitly told up front that is perfectly acceptable for you to find outside, part-time work.

Other foreigners initially move to China to work as English teachers with aspirations of eventually transitioning into some other career or way of earning money entirely. While this is certainly not impossible, it is also not as easy as many have deluded themselves into believing. This chapter will discuss alternative types of outside employment for foreign English teachers in China, as well as explore what is required to make the transition from teaching English into an entirely different career.

Other Types of Work for English Teachers in China

Although contract teaching is the most readily available form of outside work, it is certainly not the only type of outside work that is available to foreign teachers. Many FTs are involved in proofreading, copyediting and revising Chinese to English (i.e., Chinglish) translations and this type of work usually just falls into your lap in the beginning, so to speak. Others have actively searched for translation companies on the Internet and have actively solicited work by sending them their résumés and samples of completed projects. The pay is not great, especially in the beginning while you are getting yourself accustomed to Chinglish conventions, mangled syntax, and originally-intended meanings that are so well encrypted, even Bishop John Wilkins (the father of cryptology) would be stumped, but those who have been doing it for awhile can generally earn at least 100 yuan per hour by charging rates of .12 to .15 yuan per English word and it is very convenient work because you can do it from the comfort of your apartment. It is difficult to break into steady copyediting work with established companies unless you have an advanced degree, but many with bachelor's degrees eventually can over time, especially if they have experience with this type of work back home.

As a foreign teacher, at some point during your stint in China, you will undoubtedly be approached to work as an extra on a film or in a commercial. The fees for doing so are often well below what a professional Chinese actor would earn for the same work and, usually, the individual procuring you is taking a very large cut of the original funds that have been made available for the purpose of hiring foreign extras. The person in direct touch with you is almost invariably acting as an agent for a production company and, so—theoretically speaking—you do have some room to negotiate. However and unfortunately, most foreigners seem more than willing to spend an entire day on a movie set for little or no money so the offer is usually a "take it or leave it" one. Generally speaking, the hourly rates for acting as an extra in a film or commercial are less than what you could earn working as a part-time contract teacher (i.e., less than 100 yuan per hour), although these "deals" are typically presented to the "stupid" foreigner on the basis of how much actual camera time is involved. Recently, one such foreigner boasted to me, with remarkable pride and bravado, how he earned an amazing 200 yuan an hour (based on a total of 600 yuan) performing as the principal actor on a TV commercial: He was picked up in front of his apartment at 6:30 in the morning and was finally dropped off at home at 10:30 at night BUT he was served a free lunch at a 5-star hotel and only had to be on the set for three hours—hence the calculation of "200 per hour." If this sounds good to you, you too will invariably have the opportunity to make a lot of money for some Chinese production company at similar rates of pay.

In addition to part-time contract work and "starring in" Chinese commercials and films, you will often be approached by colleagues and even your neighbors to teach their children English. Doing so involves a lot more time and energy but the financial rewards will be greater. Bear in mind that Chinese college students typically earn at least 20 yuan per hour working as private tutors over the summer, so you should not consider charging anything less than 30 to 35 yuan per student and, depending on your education and experience, perhaps more. The Chinese understand that if you are tutoring their children privately (that is, one-to-one), they will have to pay more for that privilege. Your hourly rate should not come to less than 150 yuan irrespective of how many students are in your class.

Providing Free English Lessons as a Friend

Some parents will hope to bypass the cost of tuition altogether by befriending you. You will be invited out to dinner and you will be lavished with flattery—then, at some point either that evening or soon thereafter, you will be invited to their homes to practice English with their child (or, for your convenience, the child will be brought to you). If you have something more to offer than just your good looks and the fact that you can speak English natively (and even if you don't), you can safely wager that you will be approached several times throughout your stay in China by parents who are hoping to give their child whatever advantage they can—preferably without having to pay for it. We can't tell you how many times parents and college students will simply just pull up a chair and start practicing English with you, while you are eating and after having spent the whole day teaching, without giving it a second thought.

This same ploy is also used by attractive young Chinese women who will initially appear interested in you romantically when all they really want is free English lessons. They may approach you while you are dining outside or will give you their telephone number during some chance encounter. Typically, after the first date (and sometimes not even that long), they will show up at your apartment with an English language textbook in hand—and that's usually when you'll know that they are interested in something other than a boyfriend (although, in all fairness, this type of exploitation occurs in Western countries as well. Nevertheless, this type of ruse is much more common in China than it is back in our respective countries, so you should be mentally prepared for it).

It is entirely up to you to set firm limits and establish very clear boundaries or you will be run into the ground if you allow it. It never ceases to amaze me how many people no longer require my services (whether that be in the form of copy editing, website development, psychotherapy, and the like) once they learn they will actually be expected to pay for them.

Transitioning from English Teaching to Other Careers in China

Many idealistic young foreigners come to China with hopes of using their time as English teachers to eventually segue into other areas of employment. Indeed, with China’s rapid economic growth featuring so highly in the Western press, it is only to be expected that many come to China with champagne wishes and caviar dreams. At times it appears that China—at least in the larger cities of Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou—has returned to the pre-Revolutionary days with large semi-permanent foreign communities engaged in all types of business and commerce. While the days of the British Shanghailanders and their conglomerate rule of city politics and commerce are long gone, there are many opportunities seemingly awaiting those just willing to reach out and grasp them.

Danny's Bagel and Italian Restaurant, Guangzhou, China American-owned Danny's Bagel and Italian Restaurant since 1997, Guangzhou, China

Foreigners planning to transition from English teaching into other areas of work should heed a fair warning: It is not impossible to do so and many foreign teachers have successfully changed careers, but this appears to be mostly (if not entirely) based on skill sets, experiences, training, and connections gained prior to their arrival in China rather than upon experiences gained in-country. While employers appreciate globally-conscious and multilingual employees, with experience in China and a working knowledge of Chinese greatly appreciated, teaching oral English in China often functions like a black hole on a résumé. Many employers in China pay significantly higher salaries to their foreign employees and thus value their employees’ contributions to their company or industry in their home country far more than the experience gained while living in China. Stated directly, teachers who successfully manage to transition into other careers such as in finance, trade, or international business with large Chinese or foreign companies were already qualified for these positions prior to their arrival in China.

For foreign teachers eager to make the leap into other—perhaps more lucrative—ways of earning money, there are several time-honored methods for doing so in China. Many teachers, who have made a sufficient number of local contacts and gained the necessary experience, decide to open their own private English language schools (see our four-part series "Opening a School in China" in the companion blog). This endeavor offers experienced teachers and managers a potentially fulfilling and challenging experience as an entrepreneur in China, an experience that is built upon the skills and networks gained primarily as an English teacher.

A second time-tested approach to earning money other than by teaching is to open a restaurant, bar, or coffee shop. For those with the necessary skills, both social and entrepreneurial, and an understanding of the local market, this can be a very rewarding experience. However, as in other countries, the food and beverage service industries are notoriously fickle and harsh. A popular bar one year can be completely forgotten once a new establishment catches the fancy of the local movers and shakers. In almost any second-tier city and above, one can find foreign entrepreneurs in these niches, serving up a taste of home for the foreign community and providing a small sample of globalization in China. If you are considering such an endeavor, as is true for opening up an English language school, you need to be particularly careful about whom you choose as your Chinese partner, making certain that roles, responsibilities, and all expectations are clearly stated in writing and completely understood.

Any foreign teacher wishing to apply for employment with established firms in China will do well to prepare a résumé that clearly documents his or her qualifying experience that was gained back home. If the only remaining gap is Chinese language ability, then using English teaching to support overseas study could be effective. Furthermore, for those whose business contacts in China already include hiring personnel, such a plan could work especially if the manager is willing to hold the position. In the absence of such prearrangements, those teaching in China for extended periods of time would do well to consider engaging in part-time work that is directly related to the field one is hoping to transition into. Many non-government organizations (NGOs) operate in China and need potential part-time employees or volunteers who are already locally based. An effective way of securing such positions is to contact large enterprises with corporate social responsibility outreach or volunteer programs, as well as many foreign country-specific business associations such as the American or the European Union Chamber of Commerce. Another option is to conduct organized research for either a local or foreign university that would require contacting company and political elites, which serves as a very effective way of establishing a network of contacts that can later be used to transition into a new career. Finally, if all else fails, returning home and seeking work with an interesting firm with growing operations in China is an excellent way to build the necessary experience. It may be indirect but it is often the best way forward.

On the whole, many companies in China hire foreigners. However, the best positions are in higher-level management, engineering, technology, or research leadership and are usually given to trusted domestic employees already known to the home office. Other companies can and do hire foreigners already living in China but often at the same wage rates as local employees. To begin a job search, consult online job-search sites for China that do not specialize in English teaching. This can be followed up with targeted searches of interesting firms that often post their opportunities online and in English.

Finally, many Western academicians, overrepresented by those approaching retirement age, move to China and accept an initial position teaching oral English with the intention of simply doing that temporarily until a more suitable academic teaching position becomes available. This is actually an ineffective and even self-defeating approach. Chinese universities in need of real Western faculty who can teach professional courses in the English language are most interested in recruiting directly from the West or, at the very least, from the limited pool of academicians in China who are already teaching in their respective fields. A Chinese dean of an international school, who typically has studied abroad, is not going to be impressed, for example, with a former tenured professor of biochemistry who is currently teaching oral English at some low-ranking university in a second-tier city. The mentality among Chinese academic administrators is that “if he were any good, he’d still be teaching in his field.” If you are a career academician and your goal is to teach in your own discipline, do not first move to China to teach English, especially (but not only) at a private language school, as doing so will significantly impede your chances of later finding something more suitable. Even after only one year of teaching oral English in China, any interest expressed in your application for a teaching position in your own field will be primarily motivated by the hope of saving money, i.e., you will be offered the same salary and workload you knew as an English teacher.


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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.

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