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Section I: Teaching English in China continued—Foreign Teacher Compensation

Foreign Teacher Housing

The quality of the housing provided to a school's foreign teachers is perhaps the single most important indicator of how teachers are regarded in general and will be treated throughout the duration of their contracts. For this reason, it is an issue that we have devoted a great deal of time to and it is one that foreign teachers should investigate very carefully before accepting any job offer.

Typical Middle-Class Apartment Building China Typical middle-class apartment building in China.

Typical accommodations include a basic undecorated apartment, usually 50 to 85 square meters in size (535 to 910 square feet), consisting of: a functional kitchen containing a 2-range propane gas countertop stove (China's residential properties are not equipped with conventional Western ovens), an undersized and power-inefficient refrigerator, usually a small microwave and possibly kitchen supplies and utensils in varying degrees of condition; a small bathroom consisting of a Western toilet, unenclosed sink and a shower head attached to a water heating element (your entire bathroom typically is your shower, so to speak, as the hot water heater and shower-massage head are usually not enclosed in a stall or partitioned-off by a shower curtain), and; stark, utilitarian furnishings including an old television, a minimal bedroom set comprising a small wardrobe made of pressboard and a queen- or twin-sized mattress placed on a mattress box (you are typically not provided with night tables, a reading lamb, or a clothes dresser), and; unupholstered living room furniture (usually inexpensive wooden office furniture). If air conditioning is promised in your contract addendum, you can expect to find a single wall-mounted unit in the bedroom only (central air conditioning is only available in very new office and university teaching buildings). Apartments with a second bedroom may be furnished with a small bookcase and a pressboard desk intended for use as an office.

In all but foreign expert hotels found at a few high-ranking key universities, hot water will only be available for showering: You will have to wash your hands and the dishes in cold water unless you are willing to purchase (at your own expense) free-standing water heating elements for both the bathroom and kitchen sinks. In addition, as many Chinese actually prefer to sleep on a hard surface (as they feel this is best for one's back), the bed you are provided with will most likely not consist of the typical coiled-spring mattress you are accustomed to (as is true throughout Asia) and sleeping on the inexpensive mattress commonly provided is no different than sleeping on the floor. If a firm but pliable mattress is important to you, you will need to clarify this and specify a "Western-style" or coiled-spring mattress in your contract addendum.

In addition, you need to be aware that the building codes in China do NOT require the real estate developer to include an elevator unless the building is greater than eight (8) stories high! In fact, most apartment buildings less than nine stories high do NOT have an elevator and much older buildings that were built before this code went into effect, could be taller than eight stories without one as well. When inquiring about accommodations, you should specifically ask if your building has an elevator and, if not, what floor your apartment will be on. For many of us, having to climb four to eight flights (or more) of stairs every time we return to the apartment is worth knowing about beforehand (yet, it's information that is never proffered).

Finally, inquire if the building has a backup generator for the elevator in the event of power outages and brown-outs. In cities that routinely turn off the power in a rotating fashion to conserve energy, many newer apartment buildings actually have generators that provide power to the entire building, instead of just to the elevators. When considering teaching locations, you should ask about the energy conservation practices of that city, as well as whether your building has a backup generator, and, if so, if the generator provides energy for just the elevators or the entire building. If you are going to have to live without electricity for up to 12 hours every four to six weeks or so during the summer months, this is something you should be mentally prepared for before you arrive.

Some schools include utilities (electricity, phone, and Internet) as part of the remuneration package, but many do not. If utilities are included, you should inquire about whether these, such as the phone and Internet lines, are shared across other apartments. Also be aware that what constitutes "adequate" or "standard" in China may not meet with your Western definition of these terms at all. For example, almost every school will provide air conditioning but that is often installed in one room only (usually the master bedroom), as this is common practice in China even among those who can afford to air condition the entire apartment. Many Chinese believe that breathing recycled air through the A/C is unhealthy and it would not be unusual to see the A/C running in homes, offices, and even restaurants with the windows partially ajar and the front doors wide open. From the employer's viewpoint, he has satisfactorily met the terms of the contract by providing you with a single wall-mounted air conditioner insufficient for cooling the entire apartment, but, from your perspective, this constitutes a rather serious breach in the spirit of the contract. The point is, you need to question everything that could conceivably be important to you—accept and assume nothing at face value and never just take anything for granted on the basis of what is customary in your country of origin.

Utilities can run you anywhere from 250 to 1500 RMB per month, depending on the size of your apartment, location and usage, so it is important to verify this from the beginning. Most schools provide shared Internet access (one low-speed, i.e., 512 kb/s, ADSL line, routed across several apartments) or will reimburse you (either partially or in full) after you install ADSL in your apartment. Some schools offer the use of a computer (typically one that is old and running the Chinese version of Windows 2003 or XP) but most foreigners seem to prefer bringing along their own laptop from home. (See the unit on Technology, later in this guide, for more information.)

Finally, you might want to check with another teacher about what the school's policy is on overnight guests. Several years ago, foreign affairs offices strictly prohibited their foreign teachers from having overnight guests of the opposite sex, especially in campus housing provided by public schools and universities—and, in many cases, curfews were even imposed as well. As China has become more Westernized, this policy has fallen into disfavor, especially in international and most second-tier cities. However, moral concerns about overnight guests of the opposite sex are still raised in many regions throughout the country, particularly (but not exclusively) in the more remote areas where traditional Confucian thinking is still embraced. In addition, most schools—including private English language schools—discourage foreign teachers from having long-term house guests, ostensibly for insurance and other liability reasons. If you foresee this being a problem for you, it would be best to clarify the school's current policy on overnight and long-term guests with another teacher before you sign the contract.

Understanding the Poor Quality of the Housing Provided

Poor Housing Provided by GuanYa (Guan Ya) School in Shenyang, China "Kitchen" and "bedroom" of a "deluxe" apartment provided to foreign couples only by GuanYa, one of the largest private schools and employers of foreign teachers in Shenyang. After teachers vacate their apartments, the remaining ones scavenge for whatever supplies they need as the school never repairs or replaces anything.

The reality is that—in the majority of cases—most newcomers, unless they come from very humble beginnings or are used to living in military barracks, will require a considerable adjustment period to the housing they are provided with during which time they will desperately struggle with feeling demoralized. In response to any objections raised by the teacher upon first gazing at the relatively poor quality of the housing provided, the public school's administrators or private school owner will often try to console the dismayed teacher with absurd and surprisingly ethno-defacing platitudes such as "This is China" or "We are still a developing country."

The truth of the matter is that, in the vast majority of cases, the quality of housing provided to foreign teachers is significantly inferior to anything lived in by China's current middle-class and, most certainly, no self-respecting Chinese professor would ever allow himself to be found dead in the type of housing typically afforded to oral English teachers who, in their native countries, may have also been Western faculty who had previously held similar ranks with comparable levels of education.

So why, then, is the overall quality of the school-provided housing so poor in the majority of cases? There are several reasons for this, but the principal ones are that foreigners who are hired solely to facilitate the speaking and listening skills of their students are generally not professionally respected or well-regarded and, second, the ubiquitous feeling among owners and public school administrators is that the teacher already has it too good in terms of his "high salary." Thus very rigid lines are drawn in the sand about what the school is willing and not willing to further provide in the context of the foreigner being viewed as either a superfluous foreign hand needed to fulfill a highly resented national foreign language requirement or a very costly business expense.

The prevailing (but unspoken) mentality is "The contract says we will provide you with a bed and we did. If you are unhappy with the mattress, then buy a new one—we're certainly paying you enough" or "If you need a mirror in your bathroom, then ask one of your students to take you shopping," i.e., We have done more than enough for you given what you have been hired to do, so stop complaining and be grateful that you're being paid as much as you are simply for speaking English natively. For more information about this phenomenon, it is suggested you read the units titled "No Respect," "Well... at least they don't call me 'boy'" and "Housing Problems." To understand how these dynamics get played out during contract renewal, please take a look at that unit as well.

For all the aforementioned reasons, most old-hands in China choose to live off-campus and will negotiate a separate housing allowance as part of their remuneration package. Most private schools and even a few government universities will consider this option—typically for those who have been at the school for awhile or, at the very least, are already in China. This option would not, generally speaking, be available to unknown entities applying from abroad, and this is one of the primary reasons you need to choose your first position in China very carefully.


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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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