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Living and Teaching English in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province

Contributed by MKL Team Member Alex Schofield, October 21, 2010, updated December 2, 2012

Shenzhen is the newest kid on the block when it comes to first-tier Chinese cities. Declared an SEZ (Special Economic Zone) by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, Shenzhen was selected to serve as a small-scale experiment in capitalism due to its large port and proximity to—then British-ruled—Hong Kong.

Since then the former fishing village has gone from a sleepy town with a population of 300,000 to a metropolis with 13 million inhabitants and one of China's richest cities. I have lived here since November 2009 and it's the only city I have lived in China. It is probably quite similar to Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou and suits people who like the hustle and bustle of city life and the availability of Western items and entertainment that such cities provide.

You will have no problem meeting other foreigners here as there is a large expat community and, consequently, an abundance of restaurants, bars, stores and facilities that cater to Western tastes and needs, albeit at inflated prices due to China's punitive import duties. In addition, Hong Kong is only a 20-minute train ride away.

As Shenzhen is only 30 years old, the majority of its residents are recent transplants from other parts of the country. One of the most common questions Chinese will ask of each other when meeting for the first time is "So where is your hometown?"

Living in Shenzhen

Shenzhen, China at Night
Shenzhen at Night

Shenzhen has a large expatriate community primarily located in the areas of Shekou (next to Shenzhen Bay) and Luohu (near the main Hong Kong border crossing). There is also a smattering of foreigners living in Futian and Nanshan districts.

Shenzhen is a very large city sprawling from east to west. Bao'an and Yantian districts are where most trade and manufacturing facilities are located so these will probably be of little interest to foreign teachers. I am limiting my comments in this guide to the Nanshan, Futian, Luohu and Shekou areas as they are the areas I am familiar with.

Shenzhen is crowded and quite densely populated, so traffic can be an absolute nightmare at rush hour and the metro is still being constructed. The city has a lot of nice green space to get away from it all with several nice parks (particularly Fairy Lake Botanical Gardens in Luohu).

The high percentage of recent transplants I mentioned earlier leads to two very interesting aspects of living in Shenzhen. First, there are many dialects spoken from around China as well as Cantonese (the traditional language of Guangdong Province). My girlfriend (from Hubei province) often says she cannot understand what many people are saying due to the wide array of dialects and the prevalence of many Cantonese speakers. The other aspect is the food: Many people have opened restaurants selling the food that is characteristic of their hometowns. If, for example, you like it hot and spicy, look for a Hunan or Sichuan restaurant. Love Chinese food similar to what is served in the West? Then Cantonese is your best bet.

The climate here is hot and humid like most of southern China with a short but cold winter from January through March. The period from October through December is quite cool but, for the rest of the year, expect hot and humid days with temperatures of 29 degrees Celsius (about 82 F) and above. The rainy season runs from June through September (but don't think this cools things down!).

Eating Out

As I have mentioned earlier, there are many fantastic restaurants with food originating from all over China. The problem is that you will need to know some Chinese to be able to eat in them as most only have menus in Chinese characters and no pictures. You will simply need to find places that have accessible menus by trial and error (there are quite a few around Shekou, Luohu and OCT). In addition to this, you will see many late night street BBQs and vendors selling fried rice, noodles, tofu and—my favorite—Xinjiang lamb kebab skewers. Also highly recommended are the barbecued oysters and the Xinjiang garlic bread. Given the availability of so many different cuisines and affordable restaurants, it would be impossible for you to try them all.

Hot pot is also very popular here. So sit down, dip your meat in the broth and enjoy. Regarding Western restaurants, you are spoilt for choice, but quality is a matter of trial and error and price is no indicator. You have your regular chains such as McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, Papa Johns, Ajisen Ramen (a highly recommended Japanese noodle house), Dunkin Donuts, Dairy Queen, Subway sandwiches and one Burger King outlet.

Especially in Coco Park, Luohu and Shekou, there are many good Western restaurants that serve every type of international food imaginable such as French, Indian cuisine, Brazilian BBQ, Mexican, Thai, and Italian. There are too many places to list here but my favorite two restaurants are Teppanyaki and The Kitchen. Teppanyaki has two locations (one in Shekou Sea World and a second in the Central Walk shopping mall at Hui Zhan Zhong Xin) and serves an all-you-can-eat-buffet for 150 yuan where the food is cooked to order right in front of you. My second choice, The Kitchen (locations in Coco Park and the Gou Wu Gong Yuan station) serves fantastic international food for around 70 to 120 yuan per entree and the portions are huge.

Drinking, Nightlife, and Other Recreation

There are lots of Western bars in Shenzhen centered around the four aforementioned areas of Nanshan, Futian, Luohu and Shekou. Prices tend to be around 20 to 35 yuan for a beer and 40 to 60 yuan for hard alcohol with mixers running a little less at around 30 to 50 yuan per drink. Many have good promotions such as five beers or 10 shorts for 100 yuan.

Marriage Market at LianHuaShan Park, Shenzhen, China
Anxious parents of unwed adult children post classified ads in the Sunday Marriage Market in LianHuaShan Park

The bars and clubs in Luohu are frequented by many Hong Kongese and these establishments tend to be quite expensive with some bars even enforcing a minimum tab per party, especially if you want a table. There are a few good clubs though open until around 4 a.m.: Notable places include Baby Face, Soho Bar, InClub, and Cash Club.

In Shekou, where there is high density of foreign residents, bars actively compete for Western patrons. Sea World has a lot of good places. My favorite is the Enigma Bar as it plays rock music but many clubs in this area feature live music. A lot of Chinese girls also go out to this area looking for foreign boyfriends. The bars tend to cater to an older crowd as most expats here work for international companies. Notable places include Enigma, D Club, The Terrace, Xtasea, and Sunrise.

The area known as the Overseas Chinese Town (OCT) seems to attract a bohemian, arty, and alternative crowd, and, again, most bars here offer live music. The atmosphere at these places is very relaxed with a good mix of foreigners and Chinese: good places to meet and make friends. Notable bars include Idutang (my favourite bar in Shenzhen), The OCT Loft, and Galleon Bar. The V Bar is also close, located at the Window of the World.

Coco Park and Central Walk attract the younger crowd with lots of trance and techno music. Bars in this area are very popular on Friday and Saturday nights with lots of good places and restaurants can be found within a small radius. Notable places include Viva, La Casa, Xpats, Lili Marleens, Demons, and Norway Oslo. In addition to all the above, you have many Chinese-style bars and KTV places that are too numerous to mention.

Single men will think of Shenzhen as a paradise. Many of these places are frequented by beautiful local girls who are actually looking for a foreign boyfriend. You will have no problems making other expat friends either.

In addition to what I have already mentioned, Shenzhen has an abundance of other entertainment that may be of interest to foreigners such as golf courses, international cinemas, bowling alleys, pool halls, and amusement parks (Happy Valley and Window of the World). There also nice beaches within an hour from Shenzhen. The ones I have been to are Dameisha and Xichong. Both are very nice, clean, and well managed. There are even occasional beach parties held there as well.

Shopping

Like Beijing and Shanghai, all the Western items you are used to are available in Shenzhen but you will have to pay a premium price for them.

Luohu Commercial City, Shenzhen, China
Luohu Commercial City, Shenzhen, China

In terms of groceries, there are many good supermarkets like Walmart, Carrefour, Jusco, A Best, Renrenle and, for the rich, Ole. They all stock a variety of Chinese and imported items. However, for good Western products like decent bacon, cheese, eggs, bread, pasta, coffee, etc. I would advise you to shop at Walmart, Carrefour, and Ole. Ole is brilliant but it is expensive. Of course there is an abundance of street vendors selling good local produce (especially fruit).

For clothes shoppers, Shenzhen is great. There are an abundance of shopping malls selling all the top Western brands (Levi's, Calvin Klein, etc.) but again they are expensive. In the Luohu and Dongmen areas, there are an abundance of excellent genuine quality over-produced clothes straight from the factories, and also many good quality fakes. It's a minefield and you need your keenest eye. Sometimes you will find a great quality bargain but, at other times, the clothes you find aren't worth the fabric they're made from. Of course, prices are all negotiable. There are also many excellent tailors where you can simply have clothes made to your specifications. Shekou and Luohu Commercial City are definitely the places to shop for clothes in Western sizes especially if you are 190cm (6'3") tall and weigh 115kg (255lb) like me (I am not a small man!). Most of the shops in the malls don't stock clothes my size so I am forced to go to the aforementioned areas as they have fill a real gap in the market for foreign residents.

With regard to electronics, Huaquang Bei is the place to go. This is literally the centre of China's electronics industry where all Western and Chinese brands can be found. Smartphones, PC's, laptops, software (real and fake), cameras, and memory devices, etc. can be purchased here. As is noted in the Guide, however, Western brands tend to cost as much here as they do in the U.K .and USA. You will find general stores such as Suning that sell a variety of items as well as brand-specific stores such as SONY, Samsung, and Lenovo.

Cost of Living

Shenzhen is comparable to other first-tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou when it comes to cost of living. Housing is rarely provided by schools but salaries tend to be higher to compensate for this, and some places do provide an allowance (but this often does not cover the full cost of rent). Of course, if you are willing to eat mainly in local restaurants and from street vendors you will often pay less than 15 yuan for a good meal. But there is a lot of temptation in Shenzhen (lots of places to spend your money) and eating regularly in the Western restaurants (even a low-end restaurant like Pizza Hut) will set you back anywhere from 50 to 150 yuan per meal. To save money, you have to be disciplined. Life here can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be be based on your particular lifestyle choices.

The following is a breakdown of what I spend per month. Prices are quoted in renminbi (as of this writing, 100 yuan = 9.49 British pounds or 15.03 U.S. dollars).

  • Rent (master en suite bedroom in 3-bedroom shared apartment): 2000 yuan
  • Phone: 200
  • Transportation card: 300
  • Living costs (food, entertainment etc): 4300
  • Mandarin lessons: 80RMB per hour, usually two hours per week for approximately 640 a month
  • Utility bills: My share comes to approximately 200 per month
  • Total: Approximately 7640 per month.

At approximately 725 pounds ($1148) that I spend every month, my lifestyle is comfortable but far from extravagant. Obviously, the same apartment I share with two roommates would run three times what I pay or 6,000 per month for single occupancy.

Transportation and Travel

Shenzhen has an excellent bus system that runs all over the city, with most lines stopping at around 11 p.m. Announcements are in both English and Chinese. Getting to know the bus network takes word of mouth and a lot of trial and error. Most routes cost 2 to 4 yuan. Of course traffic is very bad during rush hours and the buses are very crowded during these times so it can be frustrating if you want to take a bus between 7 to 9 a.m. or 5 to 7 p.m.

Tengway Pavillion, Nanchang
Scenic View From Shekou, Shenzhen, China

A metro network (subway system) has been operating now for six years with brand new high-speed trains. Fares cost 2 to 11 yuan depending on distance travelled. As of the end of 2011 there are five fully operating lines that run from 6.30AM to around 11.15AM.They reach most parts of the city that foreigners would be interested in. The metro in the most cases the most convenient way to travel around Shenzhen. The local government is also planning to construct three new lines but they are no scheduled to operate until around 2015 at the earliest The trains are fast, clean, and on time. To go to Hong Kong, use the Futian Kou An station border crossing as it is the fastest way.

Taxis are abundant and cost 10 yuan flagfall (first 2 kilometers) and then increase in increments of 0.6 yuan per 250m after this. Between 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. the prices for both rates increase by 30 percent. There is very little room for negotiation here as drivers will always use the meter. The drivers seem honest and usually go the fastest way to the destination and will even change routes to avoid traffic and construction holdups.

The airport is located in Bao'an district, the fourth largest in China, with regular daily flights to every major city throughout the country.To get there by Metro go to the Airport East station at the end of the Luobao Line (green line one) For those who prefer to travel by train, the long distance train station is located in Luohu, near Commercial City and at the polar opposite end of Metro Line One to the airport.

I recommend the purchase of a Shenzhen Tong card, it is a stored value card similar to the Octopus Card in Hong Kong or the cards available in Beijing or Shanghai. They give 20% discounts on bus fares and 5% discount on metro fares.They cost 100RMB, consisting of a 25RMB deposit and 75RMB credit. It will soon pay for itself. You can buy one at any metro station and top-up it’s value at either a ticket machine in the station or at certain convenience stores.

Healthcare

I have to admit that the only time I have ever been to a Chinese hospital was to have my physical exam. The hospital for this purpose is at Futian in the Huanggang area and is an excellent facility with English-speaking doctors and is sparkling clean. It is certainly up to Western standards. As for the others, I know there are expat facilities available in Shekou and Luohu (with expat Western doctors) and a teaching hospital in Futian.

Teaching Opportunities in Shenzhen

I have to stress here that I have only ever taught in the private sector and in this area there are positions in private kindergartens, language centers, schools, and corporate training places numbering in the thousands. Many are not authorized by SAFEA to hire foreign teachers but they do anyway. There are also many public schools and Shenzhen University also hires foreign teachers. There are also several branches of the franchise language centres (Wall Street English, EF English First, etc.) that will hire all-year round as and when people are needed. There are also several international schools, mostly based in Shekou and Futian such as Shenzhen American International School, Green Oasis, Sino-Canadian International School and Shekou International School. As usual these places require teaching certification but the packages are excellent around the 20,000 yuan mark, plus a housing allowance. They offer American, British, and Canadian curricula and often teach toward the international baccalaureate qualification.

I won't attempt to mislead you here: You must exercise extreme caution as experiences range from great to awful. You should have no poblem finding a position but you should follow the MKL Guide's advice regarding choosing a position to the letter. I personally work for a Hong Kong owned private kindergarten that treats me well and has always paid on time. Housing is not usually included in the package and there is enormous variation regarding paid holidays, medical benefits, transportation provisions, etc. not to mention salary. You are advised to look at many different places before accepting an offer. The trend seems to be to offer a high salary but very little in the way of other benefits. For a detailed discussion of this phenomenon, please see the following link on the MKL Q&A Forum: Higher Salaries with No Benefits in Shenzhen.

Salary is highly variable and falls within the 8,000 to 16,000 per month range with 20 to 25 hours of face-to-face teaching being the norm. I personally receive a salary of 12,000 per month for a 25-hour workweek that consists of around 10 hours of teaching with the rest constituting support work like helping with other classes such as science and computing, outdoor activities, and the like. I am very sorry that I am not able to offer information about the salaries at public schools and universities as I have no experience working at these places.

Most language centres appear to pay by the hour at a standard rate of 150 to 250 yuan per hour. I never accept less than 200 per hour for part-time work and have no problem getting this. Opportunities for moonlighting are plentiful on evenings and weekends. If you can get a corporate training job or are qualified to teach Business English, then of course the pay will be higher. For full time employment at private language schools and kindergartens, there is no reason to accept less than 10,000 per month in my opinion.

Private tutoring jobs are readily available. Get some business cards printed and off you go. Standard pay is again 150 to 300 per hour and, as just stated, there is no reason to accept less than 200 per hour. I work solely as a private tutor teaching my students in their homes, I have done this since February 2011 as I became rather disillusioned with the EFL industry. To read further on this topic,please feel free to have a look at my article “freelance teaching in China”

Editor's note: For the reader's convenience, I've appended the contact information and link to Shenzhen University below. In addition to the Shenzhen's main university, Jinan University maintains a satellite college there: Shenzhen Tourism College of Jinan University.

  • Shenzhen University
    Contact person: Ms. Zhu, International Office
    Tel: (86) 13392180678
    Fax: 86-755-2653-4940
    Email: zhujx@szu.edu.cn
    Nanhai Ave 3688, Shenzhen , Guangdong , P.R.China, 518060

Opportunities Other Than Teaching

As discussed in the section of the MKL Guide “Outside Work and Other Careers” it is possible to transition into another career other than teaching but it is very difficult to do so and expats who accomplish this are usually qualified for these positions well before they ever came here.

In Shenzhen there are many foreign owned business, usually bars and restaurants. Good examples of successful ones are McCawleys, La Casa and Xpats in the Coco Park/ Central Walk area. However, there is an abundance of casual part-time work available that can provide useful extra income. Examples of which include:

  • Modelling (for the photogenic!)
  • Coaching child sports teams (football and basketball especially are popular)
  • Copyediting and proofreading
  • Security (a few bars hire foreign door staff)
  • So called “rent a white guy” where you basically show up and provide a company with face, usually by posing as an employee or contact of a company.
  • Writing articles for English language press
  • Voice recording and transcribing
  • Performers such as musicians. Many bars and hotels have resident house bands that usually play well-known cover versions and also host their own shows. There are also positions for foreign DJ’s and those with experience in the promotion and marketing of bars and events. There are also occasional events such as magic shows and stand-up comedy, but these tend to be more prevalent in Hong Kong.
  • Translation (French and Russian are particularly popular)

To find these positions simply look regularly in the classifieds section of www.szstuff.com, www.shenzhenparty.com and the Shenzhen section of www.echinacities.com.

There are some foreigners making a full-time living from the types of opportunities mentioned above, but for most it simply provides some extra discretionary income.

Summary

If you are a city person who loves the hustle and bustle of urban life and needs the creature comforts of home, then Shenzhen may be a good choice.

One of the city's biggest draws is its proximity to Hong Kong, an amazing place by any standards. Shenzhen has an excellent employment market with many opportunities for making money. For me personally, I like bars, Western restaurants, and need places where I can live a Western lifestyle. I also like to hang out with other expats as it creates a good support network. So for me Shenzhen is a good place to live. If you are the opposite and prefer a quiet life, then maybe you would be better off elsewhere. Shenzhen is the embodiment of modern China: If you are looking for a more authentic, traditional China experience, then you may be disappointed. All in all, I very much like living here and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future.




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