Section I: Teaching English in China continued—Teaching Employment
China's land mass is slightly smaller than that of the continental United States with climatic conditions ranging from subarctic in the north (e.g., Heilongjiang province) to subtropical in the south (i.e., Hainan Island and province). Which region you choose should depend heavily on your tolerance (or preference) for either very hot or frigidly cold climates. Paradoxically (and counterintuitively), the northern regions, with the most frigidly cold and arid winters, tend to have the most oppressively hot and humid summers as well.
As stated earlier in the preface, China comprises 23 provinces (including Taiwan), five autonomous regions (Guangxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Tibet and Xinjiang), four central administrative municipalities (Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai and Tianjin) and two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau). Each province and region has something of a different feel and a history of its own, with varying local customs, sensibilities, standards and social norms, and every Chinese national can readily tell you what his or her hometown and province is "famous" for—and it appears that every city in China is famous for something.
Before you start answering ads for teaching jobs in China, you should first give some thought to your preferred climate as well as the size of the city you would care to live in. Larger international cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou offer the greatest degree of diversity in Western food, other amenities and creature comforts, not to mention an active nightlife, as well as many other foreigners to communicate with while, in some smaller (especially inland rural) cities, even the omnipresent McDonald's may be hard to come by. Also keep in mind that, as a rule, the more desirable the climate and living conditions are, the more selective the school can afford to be and, thus, those without degrees and experience will not be as competitive for the best jobs or, perhaps, any job in the most sought after locations (typically in the southern and southeastern regions of China). However, this limitation can often be overcome by a physical appearance, i.e., the ability to interview in person, especially if the school is in a rush to hire.
While smaller cities in the north and west of China can afford less qualified teachers—as well as non-white, non-native speakers—an opportunity to teach English in China, they also tend to be the most provincial and xenophobic, presenting foreign teachers with some of the greatest challenges to adjustment they can possibly face.
Not surprisingly, the two provinces with the most desirable climatic conditions (Yunnan, with its "eternal spring" city of Kunming, and the sub-tropical island of Hainan province, home of the annual Miss World Beauty Pageant in Sanya with climatic conditions resembling those of South Florida) offer some of the lowest salaries for foreign teachers in the country.
Another issue you will want to keep in mind when selecting a teaching location in China has to do with the country's ubiquitous problem with air and water pollution. While it is true that every major industrial power in the world has developed at the expense of its own environment, it is also true that China's pollution problem has broken all records.
According to its Ministry of Health, cancer caused by air and water pollution is now China's leading cause of death. According to the New York Times, "Ambient air pollution alone is blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year and nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water. Only 1 percent of the country's 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union" (Kahn and Yardley, 2007).
Air quality charts derived from satellite data provided by the European Space Agency reveal that Beijing and neighboring areas of northern China have the worst levels of sulfur dioxide pollution on the planet—due to a 50 percent increase in emissions over the past 10 years. And, according to the World Bank Organization, China is home to 16 of the world's 20 cities with the worst air pollution. Finally, research conducted by the Chinese Academy on Environmental Planning reveals that 100 million people live in cities where the pollution reaches "very dangerous" levels (Watts, 2006).
A big part of the problem is that China relies heavily on coal for about two-thirds of its energy needs. It has abundant supplies of coal and already burns more of it than the United States, Europe and Japan combined. A related problem is that China's industrial technology is antiquated and grossly inefficient, and uses up to 50 percent more energy than related industries do in the West. However, even many of its newest coal-fired power plants and industrial furnaces operate inefficiently and use pollution controls considered inadequate in Western countries (Kahn & Yardley, 2007).
When considering job offers, it is also important to consider the quality of the air you will be breathing for the next 12 months. As a rule, any city in China that is known for its industrial production will also have a concomitantly poor API (air pollution index). In terms of air quality by region, the northeast of China will have considerably poorer air quality, overall, than eastern, southeastern, and coastal regions. If you are prone to respiratory infections, asthma or other pulmonary disorders, you should pay a great deal of attention to the air quality of the particular city you are considering accepting a job in. If you do accept a position in the northeast or in an otherwise polluted city in a different region, by all means bring along at least three courses of antibiotic treatment with you to China. See unit on Healthcare in China for more information.
Finally, the China Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs monitors pollution levels throughout the entire country and publishes its findings online. An English version of the site is available and It is suggested that you check the various pollution levels of any city you are unfamiliar with before accepting a position there.
China is not turning a blind eye to its rather serious pollution problem. In March 2004, President Hu Jintao first endorsed the idea of fostering a "scientific concept of development," a slogan intended to suggest that in pursuing growth China should pay more attention to such issues as the environment and the depletion of natural resources (Economist, 2005). And there is every indication that this message was far more than just political rhetoric. China has implemented numerous changes in law and administrative policies intended to clean up its environment. Just over the past few months, for example, China placed a ban on the use of thin plastic bags in January 2008 and, a month later, imposed a heavy carbon emissions tax on industries that fail to comply with new environmental protection regulations. In fact, the country is spending billions of dollars (USD) per year to address the problem of air and water pollution in response to the concern of it citizenry.
A recent poll revealed that more than 10 percent of all Chinese list environmental concerns as the nation's number one issue (as opposed to only 4 percent of all Americans who list the environment as a primary concern). Air and water pollution is the fourth highest concern among the Chinese after health care, employment, and the income-gap. According to the poll, the Chinese rank environmental concerns higher than corruption, social security, housing prices, and the cost of education (Mongabay.com, 2008). The point is, improving the environment is not an issue the Chinese are taking lightly.
Not unlike the Mason-Dixon Line that invisibly divides the north from the south in the United States—with people of each region having their own identity as either a northerner or a southerner—China also has its own such line of division generally defined to be the Qinling Mountains and Huai River (Huai He): also agriculturally referred to as the wheat/rice (i.e., north/south) division.
Like the United States, northern and southern Chinese harbor both negative and positive stereotypes of one another, e.g., northerners are taller and bigger and have lighter skin, while southerners are shorter and smaller and have darker skin. Skin color, as is true across Asia, is a major concern to the Chinese and most Chinese women carry parasols with them throughout the summer months to prevent tanning. For primarily this reason, in the warmer coastal regions of China, most Chinese will not go to the beach before 4:30 to 5:00 p.m., or until the sun begins to set. And even within major cities, you will find "northern vs. southern" stereotypes, e.g., Beijing northerners are more cultured and sophisticated than their southern counterparts, etc.
The standardized form of spoken Chinese and the official language of the People's Republic of China, as well as the Republic of China (Taiwan), is Standard Mandarin (Putonghua or Guo2 Yu3), based on the Beijing dialect. However, there are between six to 12 main regional groups of Chinese (depending on which classification schema you read), with Mandarin, by far, being the most prevalent (spoken by approximately 836 million people). In descending order of prevalence, the other major groups are Wu (77 million), Cantonese (or Yue4 Yu3 at 71 million), and Min (60 million; Kane, 2006, p. 136; See map of linguistic groupings below).
To further complicate matters, virtually every province outside of the northeast has its own unique dialect (e.g., in the way people from the state of Georgia will speak English differently than those from New York), as well as its own language, e.g., Shanghai Hua4, Anhui Hua, and Hainan Hua, etc. (the last of which has nine tones: two more than Cantonese and five more than standard Putonghua). Thus it is accurate, although probably not politically correct, to think of every region as bilingual. The differences between the language groups are primarily spoken: the written forms are predominantly the same, and often you will observe Cantonese-speaking natives of Guangdong province and Hong Kong using a pen and paper to communicate with Mandarin-speaking Chinese.
For those who are planning to formally study Putonghua in China, the general consensus is that it is best to study in Beijing or the northeast of China, e.g., Shenyang, where standard Beijing dialect is spoken. While it is true that Standard Mandarin is taught at all universities across China—often by faculty who hail from many different provinces—the essential advantage to studying Putonghua in the northeast of China is that you will be immersed in the standard dialect after you leave the classroom instead of being surrounded by a non-standard dialect and, far worse, a second regional language altogether.
By way of a personal example, and as an illustration of the effects of regional differences in language, I had lived and worked in Hainan province for four years and acquired a vocabulary sufficient enough with which to communicate basic needs. I was able to converse comfortably with taxi drivers and waitresses, for example, and no one ever had any difficulty understanding my Putonghua until I moved to Guangzhou (Guangdong province) that is. Now, I must repeat myself numerous times and if the person is a native of Guangdong, it is very likely they will never understand me at all (those born in the north and northeast do, however). I must have unconsciously acquired something of a Hainanese dialect to my speech, just enough to render me unintelligible to those who primarily speak Cantonese. And a former girlfriend of mine, who was born and raised in Anhui province, often had the same problem in Hainan that I do in Guangzhou. If another Chinese was born in Hainan province and was not well educated, she would have enormous difficulty communicating with that person to the point where I would often tease her about whether she could really speak Chinese at all! In such instances, my dialect (originally acquired in the northeast of China) was often easier for the Hainanese to understand.