The basis for what would later become Middle Kingdom Life was conceived back in 2006 by a group of four members of an Internet forum for foreign teachers who decided the time was long overdue for a single comprehensive, objective, and authoritative guide on what teaching English in China is really all about.
One of the four members, the current principal author, took responsibility for writing an outline of all the topics that needed to be covered and then delegated writing assignments to each of the members based on their particular interest and expertise. Soon thereafter, the original group of contributors disbanded but the current author continued writing the Guide as a solo project in his spare time. Owing to other commitments, work on the project was suspended in the latter part of 2006 when it was about 85 percent completed.
In March 2007, another member of yet a different Internet forum for foreign teachers contacted the principal author of the Guide and urged him to finish his "work in progress." This "fifth member," Mr. Ken Hayes, contributed original drafts for several of the chapters that needed to be finished and, a few months later, the Guide—in its original form—was finally completed.
At that point, the Guide was available as both a PDF document (available for download), as well as a series of PHP pages on a CMS website platform, where it remained in obscurity for almost one year. In March through April 2008, the Foreign Teachers Guide was completely updated and expanded but, this time, was published as a series of HTML pages where it found immediate recognition. Around the same time the Guide made its new debut, a “companion blog” was initiated as well, a Wordpress blog that was intended to feature complimentary articles. In April 2009, a third component, our Question and Answer Forum, was initiated and in February of 2010, the Companion Blog and Forum were merged under one menu and registration system. Finally, in November of 2010, the entire site was redesigned so that all three components of the site, the Guide, Companion Blog, and Q&A Forums could be enjoyed under one software platform.
Today, Middle Kingdom Life’s Guide, companion articles, and other features are visited and read by thousands of prospective and current foreign teachers each month from North America, Australia, Europe, China and other parts of Asia. The Guide in its present rendition comprises well over 400 printed pages and represents the culmination of several years worth of research, writing, periodic major revisions, and daily updates. In response to numerous requests, a downloadable PDF edition of the guide was made available in May 2009 for those who don't like to read books on a computer screen or do not want to have to be online in order to use the Guide.
There are two basic underlying assumptions or biases that underscore this entire body of work.
The first can be accurately thought of as a socioeconomic or class bias: the Guide (as well as the rest of the website) is written from the perspective of two White, middle-class American professional men—a doctor of social welfare and professor in psychology and sociology, and a career educator who is the owner of a private English language school in China.
Consequently—when we consider the very limited educational roles of foreign teachers here, the comparatively meager salaries that cover basic living expenses only, and especially the absence of any proper medical and other in-kind benefits—we do not regard teaching oral English in China at an average monthly salary of USD $750 to $900 (5,000 to 6,000 yuan) as a viable career for anyone. Instead, we view it as a means to some other end, e.g., subsidized travel, Chinese language study, and, perhaps, even finding a spouse.
Nevertheless, we do appreciate that foreigners who come from very humble beginnings as well as teachers who are non-White and non-native English speakers (particularly from other Asian or developing countries) might consider their future earning potential in China—coupled with a free substandard to adequate cold-water flat—to be quite satisfactory. Related, Westerners who are struggling with major life challenges such as, for example, a prolonged period of unemployment, recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, complicated divorce, or other legal problems may regard teaching English in China as a better alternative to whatever it is they are struggling with back home (although, we argue that this is seldom the case and that what was initially planned as a short-term rebuilding period can easily turn into a life sentence of economic slavery: see our summary in Teaching English in China: An Overview).
The second bias is an educational one that underscores most of what is written in Section I: Teaching English in China. Based on a careful reading of the leading literature in second language acquisition theory and methodology and, related, the relatively low percentage of people who can use English functionally in China, our collective finding is that the compartmentalization of English language teaching into four distinct skill sets, i.e., reading, writing, speaking, and listening is mostly ineffective for achieving second language acquisition. English is taught in China in Chinese as if it were an academic subject, like math or science. The net result has been to produce an entire population of former English students who possess more knowledge about the English language than do most native speakers but, at the same time, cannot use it to communicate.
Consequently, we also believe that—despite all the rhetoric about the importance of “internationalizing China” (especially prior to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games)—there has never been (nor is there now) any real interest or intent on the part of the Chinese government to incorporate the functional use of English into the daily lives of its citizenry, i.e., to create a genuine English-speaking environment in China. If that had been the case, mainland China would have adopted English as an official second language, as did India and Hong Kong for example, and it would have mandated that all core academic courses starting with primary school be taught in English, just as the Philippines did with very impressive results. In fact, in April 2010, the Communist Regime explicitly banned the use of the English language on national television, including common acronyms such as NBA, WTO, and GDP! There is simply no mistaking the message here. (News of this order is only available in Chinese on a Chinese sports website.)
It is our belief that the English foreign language program in China was consciously thought of as just one other "thing" the country needed "to do" in order to properly prepare itself for the long awaited Games, in what China explicitly viewed as its "international debut." In the absence of any real interest in creating an English-speaking environment, China's foreign language program served the same purpose as did, for example, refurbishing the facades of all the buildings en route from Beijing's International Airport to the Olympic Stadium, temporarily treating the water so foreign visitors accustomed to drinking tap water could continue to do so in Beijing (during the duration of the Games only that is), or even sending two men to the moon just days before the Opening Ceremonies: to impress the world and thereby improve international face.
We strongly suspect that what the Chinese government really wants is for the rest of the world to learn Chinese. When you consider that more people speak Mandarin in the world today than English, especially in the context of China’s meteoric rise as a global economic power, we can easily imagine that happening.
In fact, in the aftermath of the 2008 Olympic Games, many private and public schools have already started retooling their programs to teach Chinese to foreign students. While the teaching of Chinese was virtually unheard of just a few years ago, it was recently estimated that as many as 50,000 American primary and secondary students were studying Chinese in public schools (Chmelynski, 2006). The 2008 annual report of the Institute on International Education revealed a 25 percent increase over just the previous year in the number of American students studying in China with an estimated 11,064 in total, compared to just 1,396 in 1996 (Lewin, 2008).
It has been more than 30 years since China reformed its education system in 1979 and implemented its current English foreign language program. The bottom line is that despite the relatively large number of English language learners in China, it is estimated that only .77 percent of all Chinese (one out of every 130 people) can use English functionally, as opposed to 11 and 47 percent in India and the Philippines, respectively (see Yang, 2006 and as extrapolated from NationsOnline.org, 2009). As two career educators with over 15 years of collective experience in China, we have far too much respect for the intelligence, wisdom, and determination of the Chinese people to believe for one moment that anything other than this result was ever intended.
What this all boils down to is that living in and teaching English in China are not for everyone. While some do thrive here and have lives that are considerably better now than what they had left behind, others suffer enormously from the day-to-day differences they encounter in just about every facet of life you can imagine (and can’t possibly imagine without having actually lived and worked in China). Related, while some foreign teachers report considerable job satisfaction and even find intrinsic value in what they are hired to do at private institutions and public schools throughout China, many (perhaps most) do not.
Historically, in the absence of any single comprehensive source of authoritative information, as well as English speaking social support systems in China, anonymous Internet forums for EFL teachers had served as the primary vehicle for the exchange of information, as well as virtual Western meeting places, especially for those who found themselves in areas where foreigners were relatively scarce. The problem with such forums, however, is a multifaceted one.
First, due to the anonymity of the forums' members, there is no possible way to determine and later evaluate the credibility of the source (see chapter on how to evaluate the credibility of China EFL websites). At best, what you will find yourself reading is a cacophony of well-intentioned but opposing unsubstantiated opinions on virtually all issues that have been raised for discussion, irrespective of how relatively simple and straightforward one might have initially thought the matter to be. Although the "correct" answer is often provided, only an experienced China hand would be able to identify it from the rest of the competing replies. At worst, you will exposed to deliberate misinformation, a host of wild rumors, and even insults and attacks resulting from what psychologists refer to as the online disinhibition effect (for a detailed discussion of this phenomenon see Oppressed Group Behavior Among Foreign Teachers in China in our companion blog). In fact, there are at least two China EFL forums we are personally aware of that actively support cyberstalking (spreading meritless rumors and libelous statements against individuals and schools) as well as ad hominem attacks against well-known expats in China. The overall effect can be quite daunting.
Our only agenda for writing this guide was to fill the void left by anonymous China EFL forums and recruitment websites: namely, to provide prospective foreign teachers with a single comprehensive source of balanced, well-documented, and objective information about living and teaching in China in which the authors are named and can easily be evaluated for credibility, integrity, and potential sources of bias.
While we extensively research and heavily document all of our findings and conclusions (with over 11 pages of references), obviously, many of these are based on personal and professional interpretations, which are directly influenced by the authors’ backgrounds, education, values, and experiences, both at home and abroad. While some of the conclusions we draw could very well be challenged by others based solely on the fact that their personal experiences have differed—such that one’s “individual mileage may vary”—the reality is that we have no vested interest in any particular outcome other than imparting knowledge. We gain nothing tangible, either way, from a prospective foreign teacher’s future decision to either move to China to teach English or not. We have made the Guide available on the Internet as a public service to protect the interests and enhance the social welfare of those who are currently thinking about moving to and teaching English in China.
In what will be a rather surprising finding to many, based on numerous responses from our readers, it appears that the majority of readers who do plow through most of the Guide actually end up affirming their original thought to teach in China rather than rejecting it. The reality is that knowing what to expect, even if some of it is unpleasant, is far better for the purpose of making a decision than not knowing at all or, far worse, receiving ambiguous or conflictual information. Readers who have maintained contact with us after moving to China have let us know how they felt better prepared to deal more effectively with situations as they arose because they expected them. Conversely, we honestly believe that those who ultimately abandon their plans to teach English in China, as a result of having read this guide, have probably made the right decision as it is highly unlikely their experience in China would have been a very rewarding one. We derive equal satisfaction from both outcomes.
We go through great pains to present both sides of the story to achieve the most accurate picture of what living and teaching in China are truly all about and, in fact, every word that is published here has been first proofread and approved for its sociocultural and educational accuracy by Mr. Allan Kuang, a Chinese national and assistant professor of English.
This Guide addresses the occupational, psychosocial, and cross-cultural aspects of living and teaching in China from a Western perspective and is not intended to instruct prospective and current foreign teachers about the mechanics or "how-to's" of teaching English as a foreign language. There are a plethora of four and eight-week TEFL training programs devoted to doing just that, as well as numerous EFL/ESL websites that provide useful tips, games and exercises such as UsingEnglish.com, among many others.
However, if you are unfamiliar with the field of teaching English as a foreign language in China, there are two sections in this guide you will find very useful. The first is a 5-page primer on China TEFL that is intended to orient those without experience to second language acquisition theory and specific linguistic difficulties faced by Chinese EFL students, with a final page devoted to the psychology of EFL student motivation in China. The second section is a special chapter titled "What Do Foreign Teachers Actually Teach," which discusses the typical curricula found at most private foreign language schools as well as public universities.
Finally, we made the deliberate decision not to pretentiously "bulk up" the Guide with volumes of virtually irrelevant Chinese laws and regulations simply because they address subject matter that might have a bearing on the regulation of foreigners in China. Anyone who has lived in China for even a short period of time knows that the law serves a very different function in China than it does in our respective Western countries. Every province and even municipality is entirely free to interpret and operationalize the law in a manner its leaders feel will best serve the needs of their residents and the Party, i.e., a particular practice in one province may not be found in another and what is true today might not be tomorrow, even though, technically, all of China is bound by the same law. Having just written this, we do include highly-selective and limited references to particular sections of Chinese law throughout the Guide for the purpose of better informing our conclusions. For a more detailed discussion and understanding of our views regarding Chinese law and foreigners, it is recommended that you read our blog article SAFEA, Foreign Teachers, and Chinese Boxes.
Since its first appearance on the Internet back in March of 2007, we have received hundreds of reader survey responses and private e-mails from readers eager to share their views and feedback with us. In fact, most of the revisions and additions to the Guide since its inception can be credited to several extremely helpful constructive criticisms. For example, changes in the Guide's navigational system and organizational structure, as well as the addition of several new sections and entire chapters, e.g., "What To Expect After You Arrive" are the direct result of reader feedback and suggestions.
The overwhelming consensus seems to be that the Guide is a particularly valuable and important resource for anyone thinking about living and teaching in China. The Guide is now cited by name and recommended by numerous university departments, government agencies, TEFL programs, countless travel and EFL-related websites, and even several Western-owned private English language schools in China (including Disney English). Virtually every directory listing of educational resources in China on the Internet contains a link to our Guide.
Criticism of our work over the years has been highly subjective and limited to a handful of foreign men who are either married to Chinese women or heavily invested in the China EFL industry (occasionally both). In every instance, the men have felt personally offended or vocationally challenged (as oral English teachers in China) and, most commonly, have written anonymous complaints hoping to challenge the integrity or validity of the material in question. In a couple of other related instances, the principal author has been publicly criticized (as well as misquoted from private correspondence) for not allowing those with personal objections to vent their arguments on this website and for refusing to publicly engage in debates over such topics as what constitutes a real English teacher.
We do recognize, repeatedly throughout the Guide, that some foreign English teachers are satisfied with their positions in China and are, in fact, making a real difference in the lives of their students, especially in those instances where the students have a real future need to use English, e.g., have plans to study abroad or are determined to work at the front-desk of a 5-star hotel. In those relatively few and isolated instances, the foreign English teacher is of enormous importance and value because he or she constitutes the students' entire "English language environment," i.e., in the vast majority of cases, there wouldn't be any opportunity to practice English at all if not for that foreign teacher.
Nevertheless, and generally speaking, we firmly stand behind our educational indictment of the English foreign language program in China and, particularly, its grossly limited use of credentialed Western educators. In light of the fact that only a few of our students will actually need to use English in their daily lives one day (as, in part, evidenced by estimates of China's aforementioned low English user rate), we still maintain that the greatest contribution made by foreign teachers to the people of China has little to do with teaching oral English per se (see, for example, "So Why Do Some of Us Stay?"). While we do appreciate that this position (not to mention the entire Guide) will antagonize a few with high personal and professional stakes in China's EFL industry, we believe our conclusions are justified by what empirical evidence there is.
In what has been more of an ongoing request than a criticism, several female readers have commented about how it would be nice if the eight chapters on Dating, Sex, and Relationships included information specific to Western women. It has also been recently suggested to us that our chapter on what to pack or bring from home could use a "woman's touch." We don't deny these minor deficiences and hope to receive contributions from female readers in the future that would allow us to include or refer to issues that might be specific to women. However, and aside from these two notable exceptions, it appears that all other topics successfully cut across whatever lines may exist in regard to gender as well as nationality and social class.
Despite the isolated criticism mentioned above, we sincerely believe we are accomplishing what we initially set out to do back in 2006: to provide a balanced and honest overview of what living and teaching in China are really all about with the goal of protecting the best interests of prospective foreign teachers. We know that people are using the Guide with which to make life-altering decisions and that is a responsibility we take very seriously.
With so much at stake, we go to great lengths to clearly explain and justify the reasoning behind the points we make and the conclusions we draw. We leave it to our readers to evaluate the relative integrity and credibility of other competing sources of information. Towards that goal we urge you to read our chapter on How to Evaluate the Credibility of China EFL Websites, especially if you are just beginning your exploration into the possibility of moving to and teaching English in China.
In addition, we’ve created a Reader's Question and Answer Forum for anyone who has a question or a comment for us. Finally, we’ve also added a brief reader survey which we encourage you to take after having spent some time with the guide. It is through your comments, suggestions and feedback that the guide continues to develop everyday.
Best of luck to you in your life’s journey.
Gregory Mavrides, PhD
April 29th, 2007