I had a relatively unorthodox life in New Zealand before I travelled to China, and the twists and turns have continued since I started living here. I was prompted in part by my studies when, after returning to university as an older student in 2006, I attended a lecture from a dissident Chinese who told us his country was undergoing “the greatest transformation the world has ever seen.” In August 2010, at the of age 42, I arrived in Hua Bei 华北 or North China: the region that includes Hebei, Tianjin, and Beijing. While a few of my experiences have been negative, most have been positive on the whole. I hope this account can be instructive to others especially with regard to the employment process.
Unable to find much security in my 20s, I was kicked around in dead-end jobs in my 30s before returning to school. Knowing things could only get better, I finished my undergraduate degree in political science and was given the opportunity to study in China full-time. The research topic for my postgraduate degree was about the changes in China’s foreign policy that have accompanied its economic development, and I came to a relatively sympathetic conclusion towards the People’s Republic. I also had the opportunity to meet senior figures in academia and government who appeared deeply committed to their fields. After several applications, I was offered a contract through a recruitment agency with a university in Tangshan, Hebei Province. I also downloaded and read the very helpful “Foreign Teacher’s Guide to Living and Working in China” and, fortuitously, an account by another teacher working in the same school I would work in.
My first contract turned out to be a very positive introduction to the country, if only for one year. I had a rent-free furnished apartment, a livable salary, and ample free time (as well as little supervision!). But, I wasn't outgoing enough for my Chinese employers, in part because I hadn’t really done this kind of thing before. When I quizzed people about what was a good foreign teacher they mentioned “interactive,” “confident,” and “has good pronunciation.” I knew that these kinds of things would determine whether I would sink or swim in this new career, and I received a wake-up call with notification that my contract would not be renewed.
By this stage my commitment to the country had deepened and—owing to a new local girlfriend—I wanted to stay in the same city. With plenty of time on my foreign residency permit (FRP), a letter of release, and a letter of recommendation, I was eventually able to do so, although this involved signing with a small language school and renting our own apartment. But the signs were already there that this new employer was not so ethical. “Just tell the employment agency that you couldn’t take the job” the boss said, because he didn't want to pay their fee. Next, they delayed my teaching start date (and pay) by one month from the contractual date because it was a quiet time of the year.
The second job in the language school placed me in public schools in a nearby city, and was an interesting experience to put it mildly! The classes were large (40-plus), the students had poor English, and although we worked with teaching assistants, they were not always cooperative. Perhaps they felt they were underpaid and that they could teach by themselves, but it was difficult to develop a supportive working relationship. I did my best, but couldn’t satisfy the school and my contract was terminated prematurely.
I had handled previous employment difficulties in my own country with some flexibility, but, this time, I had an apartment and I certainly didn't come to China to befriend local women and abandon them. Although I pulled out all the stops in trying to find other work, my reputation as a teacher had been tarnished, and I was running out of time as the employer said I had two months before my FRP would be cancelled by the public security bureau (PSB). As I began to run out of opportunities, the boss offered to extend the FRP by one month in return for a “gift”! With intense effort I was able to gain another contract with a new language school that was just opening in the city. The lesson learned from this experience was that even when changing jobs, it is important to maintain a cooperative relationship with the previous employer.
The brand-new language school was a branch of a chain school with its headquarters in another city. The process of renewing the FRP in my passport with the new employer involved some travelling and establishing formal residency in the other city, but eventually was successful. In time, I married my girlfriend, partly, so that I wouldn’t have to leave the country if I lost my job again.
This language school focused more on preparing students for going abroad and turned out to be more professional than the last one, but also highly focused on business. Students could select teachers and management seemed to play a role in deciding who did and didn’t get classes (and the number of assigned classes determined our pay). I did improve my professional skills and even took the International Language Testing System (IELTS) test myself, but the students seemed to be going to the Chinese English teachers for test-taking advice in the Chinese language(!), and I had to endure many hours in the office without classes. However I persevered, remained on a Z-visa and started the process of looking for a new job three months before the contract ended.
I tried the direct approach, but succeeded in getting an offer from a university in a nearby city through another recruitment agency. The new contract began on the same day the old one ended and while the previous employer insisted I complete the contract term, the new one needed two to three weeks to process the formalities. I negotiated a letter of release one month early in return for holding my salary for two months, but I forgot to ask for a scan of the foreign expert certificate (FEC) which is supposedly required. Also, I learned that I didn’t have six months of validity remaining in my passport beyond the one year contract, which is another formal requirement. Despite these hiccups, the foreign affairs officer successfully applied for the new FEC, and used a four-month contract term to get the FRP before I got the new passport.
It appears the new job will be a more suitable one for me, but the process of getting there hasn’t been easy. I hope to contribute more to the field of my major, but time will tell. Based on my experience, there are many opportunities for foreigners to teach in China: however there are risks. If you come looking for relationships, be aware that marriage, family and a child are very important to the average Chinese person. In the context of a surplus of newly-qualified teachers owing to massive unemployment in Western countries, the more competitive you are on paper (field-related degrees and relevant work experience), the more likely you are to get hired especially in the popular southeastern and southern areas of China.
Local school owners and university administrators believe that Westerners who come to China to teach couldn’t find better opportunities in their own countries. While many of us here do have something that drove us away from our homelands, it takes a person with a commitment to the country to survive here. Materially, I am better off now than I was in New Zealand and I continue to save money. However, my present income would pale in comparison to what I would be earning at a professional job in the West (if I could get one) and Chinese employers know this. The TEFL industry in China is unregulated, which means that just about any white, native speaker can find a job. This also means that—within the confines of our limited role here—what you get out of living and teaching in China is mostly what you make of it. For many foreign English teachers, China provides an opportunity for fixing past mistakes and finding direction in life.