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Living and Teaching English in Tangshan, Hebei

Contributed by MKL Team Member Joshua Davis, March 7, 2009

Tangshan will either be a very rewarding or a profoundly lonely place to live depending on what a Westerner is looking for from their experiences in China. I have been living in Tangshan for a bit over a year now and plan to relocate in the summer. I had originally planned to stay for only one semester and then one semester turned into two, and now I have just started my third. For me, personally, it has been an experience that has provided keen insight into the Chinese mindset. If you have any questions about what I've written, please feel free to post them directly to the site's readers forum.

Living in Tangshan, Hebei Province

Tangshan Earthquake Memorial Site Tangshan Earthquake Memorial Site

Approximately two-and-a-half hours to the southeast of Beijing and about an hour-and-a-half east of Tianjin, Tangshan is heralded by the locals as the next mega-city in China. There are big plans underway by the powers that be to make Tangshan the future commercial center of Hebei province. With this in mind, it should be noted that this will be a great leap forward for the city as Tangshan was the site of a 1976 earthquake that measured 7.8 on the Richter scale, a natural disaster that completely flattened the city. Evidence of this earthquake can still be seen throughout the city as even a casual glance reveals that most of the city’s buildings are no more than three to six stories tall.

Foreigners in this city soon grow accustomed to a more traditional Chinese way of life: Most of the locals are in bed by 11:00 p.m. and are up by seven, the latest. Also, despite the abundance of street markets, it is difficult to find food past 8:30 (besides McDonald's and KFC) as all the supermarkets have closed, the street vendors have packed it in for the night, and all the restaurants have stopped serving food for the evening.

As a young man, I have found that nightlife is far different from what I am used to. There are numerous KTVs, but very few bars or clubs. Also, if you plan to date outside of university English majors, be prepared for a challenge as most of the local residents will not be able to speak any English aside from the all too familiar "Hello!" Also, I am almost positive there are less than 250 Westerners in this city and a good portion of those are Russian or eastern European factory workers who, in my experience, do not speak much English. As a result, keep in mind that if you are coming as a teacher, expect that life can be rather isolating as a foreigner. There are a number of foreign English teachers in the city, but a prospective teacher should probably take a more strategic approach to meeting them: Spend time at the very few expat spots there are and do not be shy about approaching them if and when you see other foreigners.

A situation like this does, however, have certain advantages which, again, can be appreciated depending on what you came for. I came to China to gain a greater understanding of Chinese culture and to learn Chinese, and, after being here for only a year, I feel that I have gained a very in-depth view of Chinese culture and can speak Chinese now almost fluently. The prospective foreigner in this city should be prepared to invest time in developing at least a basic understanding of Chinese as it may be difficult to buy food or take a taxi otherwise. Also, due to the city’s proximity to Beijing and Tianjin, it is still feasible for young people to enjoy an active night life. Despite the shortcomings of Tangshan’s own nightlife, most of the foreign teachers who are older than I—in their 40s or 50s—seem to enjoy life here quite well as it is mostly relaxed and not too fast paced.

In terms of climate, mid-Atlantic Americans will find themselves right at home here with hot summers, cold winters, and brief springs and autumns. However, coal is a very profitable resource in Tangshan and, as a result, expect the air to be hazy and be prepared for dust to accumulate quickly inside your apartment.

Westerners in this city may have a difficult time getting used to certain things about the environment here. There is no Carrefour or Wal-Mart, although there is a Taiwanese mega-store that sells a limited supply of foreign food and alcohol. I've heard that Carrefour and Wal-Mart are coming within the next year or two, but I don’t know of a firm date or where they’ll be located. Foreigners can find a few different Western-style places scattered throughout the city. Apparently there are a few different mom and pop pizza shops that I’ve heard rumors of and there is also a Pizza Hut in the city's main shopping center. KFC and McDonald’s maintain a presence here, along with a couple of different American style steak restaurants (one of which actually made a damn fine steak). You can also find Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese food, and there are several halal (see sidebar) restaurants for Muslims.

Shopping in Tangshan is convenient and can range greatly in price from, for example, 10 RMB to a few hundred RMB for a shirt and, especially in the markets, consumers should be ready to bargain.

Model of Future Tangshan, Hebei A model of what city planners hope to achieve within the next 5 to 10 years, complete with a modern subway/monorail system and a more eco-friendly city structure layout.

Medical care as I can see it is sufficient in Tangshan and, not long after I began teaching here, I had my appendix removed. The surgery itself was of high quality; however, the aftercare was not anything compared to what you would expect in the West. I was essentially left in a room with no air conditioning with two other people for two days and had my bandages changed once a day. On the third day, I decided to leave against medical advice to remain for a full week and spent most of my time at a friend’s apartment lying down on the couch. The local remedy for sickness is unlike what I, as an American, am used to: In Tangshan (and everywhere else I’ve been in China), when people get sick they don’t take some cold medicine and rest. Instead they go to the hospital and pay for an IV drip to get rid of the fever and, aside from this remedy (which has been used on me twice since I’ve been here), the only other method I’ve seen is to take traditional Chinese medicines.

Renting off-campus accommodations is not something I’ve had experience with since I’ve always simply lived in my school-provided dorm. The dorm I am provided with has a double-sized bed, bathroom and shower combination (with Western toilet), kitchen, and living room with a TV. Furniture is also provided with the above and, so far, every other Westerner’s apartment that I’ve seen has had the same amenities as mine. My understanding, however, is that an off-campus apartment similar to the one I just described would cost around 800 RMB per month, depending on the precise location.

Transportation in Tangshan is readily available via bus or taxi. Bus fare is one yuan and many people can also be seen riding bicycles around town. Also, due to the growing prosperity due to the profitability of coal in this city, it’s not uncommon for people to be seen driving around in Mercedes, BMWs, and Land Rover cars. Buses, however, stop running after 9:00 PM but, after that hour, it usually isn’t too difficult to find a taxi. Taxis start at five yuan with fares based on distance only, compared with 10 in Beijing and 11 in Shanghai.

My personal experience is that foreigners in Tangshan are treated with a sort of special status, probably because there are so few of us here. Walking down the street, people often stare at me or look at me from out of a bus window. Occasionally, people will yell “hello!” and laugh when I say it back. Conversing with local shop owners will often bring a compliment about the quality of my Chinese language abilities and on only very few occasions have I ever encountered hostility or resentment towards me as a foreigner. Even then, it was expressed quietly and I’m sure it was just assumed that I wouldn’t be able to understand. However, beware that if you are not White, particularly if you are a Black African, expect to encounter a degree of racism among the local populace here in Tangshan. I have several African friends and nearly every time we go out together, we encounter some sort of racist behavior. For example, one time someone refused to get into an elevator with us and, another time, a girl ran up to my friend and actually touched his face to see if his skin was real.

Teaching Opportunities in Tangshan

I first came to Tangshan in February of 2008 and, not long after I arrived, I realized that—like most other second-tier cities in China—the average salary in Tangshan ranges between 4,000 and 6,000 RMB per month. Based not only on my school but several others I am aware of in the area, 4,000 yuan is what a foreign English teacher should expect for teaching 16 to 20 45-minute periods per week. Also, every year, I receive a 1,100 RMB domestic travel allowance (for the Spring Festival), 5,000 RMB per semester (or 10,000 a year) for a plane ticket, and up to 1,000 RMB worth of free medical coverage in addition to medical insurance.

As for my role here as a foreign English teacher, my only real purpose is to encourage the students to speak and improve their oral English as they already possess basic English language skills. Since I’ve arrived, I’ve also decided to make it my mission to encourage them to think more objectively and openly and be more confident about connecting with foreigners because I think that these things will better prepare them to be able to communicate with foreigners in the future.

Jianshe Road in Tangshan, Hebei Main thoroughfare Jianshe Road, Tangshan, Hebei.

Because of the relative ease my students have speaking, I try to increase the time that they spend talking and generally find that I don’t need to spend more than one to two hours every week planning my lessons. Every week, I have eight one-and-a-half hour classes, resulting in a total of 16 hours of face-to-face teaching. One of the advantages of teaching in such a situation is that I am provided full autonomy by the university's English department to choose the subject matter and only receive checkups from the department once a semester to make sure that I am in fact showing up to class on time. One of the disadvantages of my situation (though this does not necessarily apply to all schools here) is that I report both to the English department as the supervisor of my professional responsibilities and also to the Foreign Affairs department as the guardian of my health and well-being in China. Sometimes this leads to a problem of too much bureaucracy since the two departments almost never communicate with each other and, on rare occasions, the Foreign Affairs department will try to tell me how to do my job. A flipside to the autonomy I mentioned above is the complete lack of structure beyond what I create for my classes. When I arrived, I was not given a book for the class, any teaching materials, or even suggestions. I was not given a curriculum, but instead was just told to make a list of subjects that I plan to talk about. This can create a sort of “sink or swim” scenario for teachers who prefer to be specifically informed about what is expected of them instead of having to determine that for themselves.

Payment in my university is usually on time but, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure because I never really take notice of when payday is. My contract says that I am to be paid on the fifth of every month, but a salary of 4,000 RMB is more than enough to live quite comfortably in this city, so I’ve simply never really thought about my salary with too much concern. My boss will always remind me to come in and sign off on my salary and I am sure there have been times when it has been late but, as I said, it is not an object of concern for me. I am sure, however, that if I pressed the issue with my university, they would make sure to pay me promptly every month.

The main reason it is so easy for me to live in this city on my monthly salary of 4,000 RMB is because I don't need to spend very much on food which—along with taxi fares—is by far my biggest expense. In the morning, buying food from a street vendor costs 1.50 yuan. Lunch from one of the street vendors will usually run another three. Dinner will usually range between seven to 15 yuan. Without going into actual calculations, it’s easy to see, based on this example, that even if I’m going out every weekend, I can still save money because food is so cheap and I don’t have to pay anything for housing.

There are a few private schools in the city that offer more money in exchange for more teaching hours. I know of one school chain that starts their teachers here at 4,000 per month and, after three months, bumps them up to 6,000 with another raise after a year of employment. Another private school I know of has a set, standard salary of 5,000 RMB per month. At these schools, though, teachers are expected to teach between 24 and 30 hours per week and while I get 40 days off in the winter and almost two months in the summer, they get only 18 days in the winter. I’m not entirely sure what their summer holiday is like but, recently, one of franchise teachers told me that the summer is one of their busiest times and so it’s possible that they don’t get any time off at all during the summer.

Aside from public and private schools, there are plenty of private tutoring opportunities in Tangshan if a person is willing to look for them. I have found that the best way to find these opportunities is to become good friends with a person who is well connected, can speak English, and has an interest in foreigners. These criteria may sound difficult to fulfill but as the upper-middle class in Tangshan is rapidly growing, it is actually not as hard as it sounds. I have a friend here in Tangshan who did exactly that and told me he charges 100 RMB per hour and will usually make an extra 3,000 RMB per month on top of his standard salary of 4,000 yuan. Store owners, landlords, and businesspeople of any type will become your best friends and developing a sound and sturdy relationship with them will prove invaluable to overcoming obstacles in China’s red tape ridden bureaucracy (see article on mianzi for a more detailed look at relations in China).

Universities and Colleges in Tangshan That Hire Foreign English Teachers, March 2009

For your convenience, I've added links below to the two most well-known universities in Tangshan that hire foreign teachers. There are, of course, other universities but, as there is no local phone book or comprehensive listing, it is impossible to come up with an exhaustive list.

The problem is that most schools in Tangshan that hire foreign English teachers do not actually advertise but, instead, use the services of a consulting firm. I found my current job by using a consulting company as did a good friend of mine who teaches at a foreign language high school. There are also numerous primary schools for French, German, Japanese or Russian teachers.

Career educators who can teach subjects other than foreign languages might consider applying to the Hebei Polytechnic University or the North China Coal Medical University and will likely earn a much higher salary than the standard 4,000 RMB per month.


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