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Proud, Educated, and Working Class: Teaching English in China

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Written by MKL contributor Alex Schofield, September 10, 2011

Alex Schofield

The origin of what ultimately led me on the path to coming to China occurred in late August 2008. Having told my boss that afternoon to stick his job where the sun doesn’t shine and having recently won just shy of GBP4,000 (US$6400) only four days earlier in a very stressful court case where I sued a previous employer for unpaid salary and commissions, I was looking for a break from the life I had built for myself since I graduated from University in 2006.

Like many I had bought into the Western philosophy of do well at school, get a good job, marry a beautiful girl, have kids and grow rich. I thought that if I worked all the hours God sent and effectively sold my soul to the corporate devil I would be happy and content with all the material pleasures life brings. It’s easy to think that way when you grew up in a family where you didn’t always have them.

I had been working as a headhunter for 18 months for two different companies, both of which have since been liquidated. Due to the stress of my job, working 60-hour weeks due to the decline of the market, friend and partner troubles, and the court case I was involved in, I was at the end of my tether. I had also developed, due to stress, a serious case of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), which gave me vicious stomach cramps several times a day and for which I had to take two types of muscle relaxants. I also had to take sleeping pills.

I was sitting on a train heading home after the confrontation with my boss. I was pondering my uncertain future, but I had saved around US$15,000 and I was wondering what to do when the phone rang. It was my friend Jon, who was in the process of moving to Australia. He invited me to go with him and, after that, the seeds were sown.

I have been in love with travelling ever since the summer of 2004 when, at age 18, I had embarked on a backpacking trip around continental Europe that started in Paris, incorporated working as a tour guide in Berlin, and ended in Estonia. It was the best summer of my life and here was the chance to do something similar that at least would mean a temporary respite from the UK rat race.

I didn’t end up moving to Australia but instead incorporated it in a round-the-world trip that included South Africa (Cape Town), the south of Africa (Mozambique, Tanzania and Malawi), Australia, New Zealand, and all of southeast Asia. The feeling of freedom—of having gotten away from it all—was an amazing feeling. That trip finally enabled me to convince myself that the previous track my life had been on was the wrong one. I felt so much more fulfilled as a person and the experience definitely changed me and made me realize what actually made me happy, which was experiencing new things, meeting new people and feeling that anything was possible.

Foreign English teachers who adapt best to the very challenging circumstances that living in China requires are people from the lower SES (poor and working classes)...

Whilst on the trip I pondered heavily what I was going to do in the future, and I had met several EFL teachers whilst travelling as well as having two friends from home who were then (and still are) in the industry. One is now in Spain and the other is in Vietnam. I saw it (and still see it now) as a means of enabling someone to travel and escape the problems I had back home. EFL teaching has turned into something different for me and I will discuss this later when I address the financial aspects and the issue of work-life balance.

When I was in Singapore, I got my first teaching job (with no qualifications or experience apart from my BA degree) teaching expat Korean and Japanese children in a language centre there. Unfortunately, staying there was not financially viable so I answered an advert from a UK company that was placing people to teach in China: I moved to Shenzhen in November 2009 and I am still here.

The experience with the initial recruiter was a harrowing one. We were promised that our L-visas would be converted to work visas, which never happened. We were paid considerably less than what was advertised (3500RMB a month with shared apartment!) and the benefits we were promised were not provided. It was a horrible experience and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. In a strange country where you can’t speak the language, it is a bad situation to be in. Luckily there were over 40 individuals with the same company who had the same issues and, although many understandably went home, those of us who stayed helped each other find new jobs with much better salaries and conditions. Now I have managed to carve out a life in China that is better financially and has a much better work-life balance than what I had known in the UK.

Middle Kingdom Life’s Foreign Teachers Guide mentions several times that you need to choose your first position in China very carefully and gives a very stern warning against using the services of recruiters. If you follow this advice, you have already taken the first big step in making your experience in China a successful one.

Background and Personality Needed to Make It in China as an EFL Teacher

I was born in Apartheid-era South Africa in 1985 to English parents. We were quite a poor family and my parents divorced when I was 3-years old at which point my father moved back to the UK. Due to political unrest in South Africa at the time and the impact of numerous economic sanctions that had been imposed on the country by the rest of the world, my mother moved me and my older sister to the UK in 1990. She worked for a Gulf airline and spent a lot of time in the Middle East and can still speak fluent Arabic to this day.

I didn’t have a “regular” childhood and my first years at school were hard because I was an outsider and the other children mocked me for having a thick South African accent. My mother and I (my sister lived with our grandmother as she had lived there when my mother was in the Middle East and didn’t want to leave her) lived in government provided welfare housing and we didn’t even own a TV until I was seven years old! Our situation improved when my mother met my stepfather and my brother was born in 1993 and I saw my biological father twice a week. For the first time we had a stable, settled family.

I am not telling you this because I want you to feel sorry for me and my upbringing. In hindsight (if only my foresight was as good) I wouldn’t change my upbringing for anything as it made me into a very independent and strong-willed person who is very difficult to break. I don’t go running when I encounter difficult situations and I will never let anyone walk over me. People like me and my older sister understand that if you want something in life you have to go out and take it, and not wait for people to hand things to you. I see myself as part of a dying breed in society: Proud, educated, and working class.

The reality is, the foreign English teachers who adapt best to the very challenging circumstances that living in China requires are people from the lower SES (poor and working classes) who have fairly few material expectations and are not used to living a middle-class life in the West, as well as those who have backbones made out of steel. As said in the MKL Guide, if you need someone to pat you on the back, give you regular praise, and tell you are doing a good job, you need to understand you will not get this in an EFL position in China. If it is enough for you to take pride in your position as a role model and a confidant, and you have enough self-esteem to not need someone to guide you and mentor you, you will find it much easier to succeed.

I have found that my internal drive and resilience have helped me a lot since I have been here. I know why I am here and I simply couldn’t care less about what anybody else thinks about me as a person or what I do. I find my personal satisfaction in the relationships I have with my students and their parents, and the fact that I know I am affecting their lives in a positive way. If others don’t recognize it or appreciate it, well, I simply don’t care.

Financial Aspects of Living in ChinaAs of this writing, 100 RMB is equal to USD$15.65 and GBP 9.81. An average China EFL university teacher's salary of 5,000 yuan comes to USD$782.69 and GBP 490.51 per month.

I agree with the Guide that teaching EFL in China is not a viable career move but it can certainly make a lot of sense depending on your current situation. Right now the UK is going through it’s worse economic period in decades. Current graduate unemployment is at around 12% and the number of 18- to 25-year olds classified as NEETs (Not in Employment, Education or Training) is rising every year (see Price, 2011 for August 2011 figures).

Even for degreed and educated young adults, life is difficult. Not only is the employment market difficult but the rising costs of fuel, utility bills, and the government's tax measures have contributed to the fact that the UK—especially for those without rich parents to get them a foot on the ladder—is a difficult place to make a start in life. It is very hard to buy a home because of banks severely tightening their lending criteria and many industries seem to have decided that training graduates does not provide results quickly enough so they want more experienced employees with proven track records.

China is a very challenging place to live and when it gets on top of you I guarantee you will want to find solace in whatever comforts of home are available, even if doing so costs you an arm and a leg.

Bearing all of this in mind, no wonder people are looking to get out. Even if you are lucky enough to land a position in the UK, it is very difficult to save any money after you have paid your rent, student loan repayment, council tax, ridiculously-sized utility bills and food bill. It is very hard to save any of your income.

After working at a few private schools, I moved into full time freelance teacher as of January 2011, meaning I do all my work on a private basis in my students' homes. For this I charge between 200-300RMB per hour. It took a long time of living in China before I managed to be in a position to become self-employed. It becomes possible after you have lived in China for a while as you gain knowledge of all the well-paid part time positions that are not generally advertised. (Please see my article on Freelance Teaching in China for more information.) My income fluctuates but is generally around 16,000 yuan a month for a 17-hour workweek. During the summer and winter vacations I generally work flat out for a few weeks at an intensive English language program and also teach my private students at the same time, earning a large sum of money very quickly so I can go on vacation for the rest of the holiday.

These are the main Pros and Cons of my situation:

Pros

  • I earn a good salary for working less than half of a regular Western workweek. This in turn has given me much more free time and a better work-life balance. I save around 5 to 6000RMB a month, much more than I could in the UK.
  • I really enjoy my work and working privately means I have a much better relationship with my students. I know I am doing a good job because if I wasn’t, the parents would simply tell me not to return. I feel genuine warmth and appreciation from both my students and their parents.
  • I can take a holiday whenever I like.
  • I have nobody telling me what to do and I am generally a person who doesn’t like authority.
  • I can teach whatever I want using whatever materials I want. I am only constrained by myself, not organisational requirements.
  • I work at a time that suits me, namely late afternoon and early evening. I am not a morning person and am a bit of a night owl.
  • Because the relationship is directly between me and my students and there is no middleman involved (school, language centre, agent, etc.) the relationship is much purer and easier to manage, with less opportunity for miscommunication.

Cons

  • I have to work illegally on L- and F-visas as I have no sponsoring employer. Three employers in China promised me a work visa and all reneged on that promise, so I feel I have no choice. Although, in reality, I feel there is little chance of getting caught as I do not teach in my own home. Still, it is illegal and obviously not ideal. I do not recommend this course of action for others. Basically, I have had to grow eyes in the back of my head.
  • The workload is not stable and my income routinely fluctuates from month to month.
  • The times I can actually work are limited by the school day. Realistically I have to work all my hours between 5 to 8:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and all day Saturday and Sunday. However, I do not work on Sundays as it’s the only day my girlfriend has off from work.
  • The commuting from house to house is a real pain, but it has been made easier by the recent completion of Shenzhen’s metro system.
  • All my holidays, as well as any sick days I take, are unpaid.
  • I have to buy my own medical insurance, although I am of the understanding that many teachers do this anyway as the insurance provided by the schools is often inadequate.

I am very comfortable with my financial situation in China as I know very few 26-year old people who can save over 500 pounds or US$800 a month. I have a good lifestyle that I would say was on par with many middle-class people. The only problem is that it costs the better part of 10,000RMB per month to live the kind of life I have now grown accustomed to. My girlfriend (who has a good job) and I regularly eat at Western restaurants and enjoy evenings out, go regularly to health spas, and go to Hong Kong and Macau every couple of months for a weekend.

One of the best things about living in Shenzhen is its proximity to Hong Kong, where most Western goods are considerably cheaper owing to the lack of sky-high import duties and any sales tax. I go there monthly at present and take an extra backpack so I can buy products such as Western brand toiletries, wine, chocolate, and over-the-counter medicines. All of the electrical items I have bought since I have been in China have also been purchased there such as my laptop, iPhone, a speaker system, and printer.

Here is an approximate breakdown of what I spend per month. My lifestyle is definitely Western but certainly not luxurious.

  • Rent: 2000RMB for master en-suite bedroom in 3-bedroom 115sqm shared apartment, fully furnished and managed with swimming pool and gym in the complex. The total rent for the whole apartment is 5600RMB and I share it with two Chinese flatmates.
  • Mandarin Lessons: I have a two-hour class every week with a private tutor at 80RMB per hour. This totals around 640RMB a month.
  • Mobile Phone: 150RMB a month contract with China Unicom.
  • Transportation Card: around 350RMB a month. I hardly ever take taxis as Shenzhen’s bus and metro system are certainly developed at world standards.
  • Food, Entertainment etc: around 1200 a week totaling 5160RMB per month. I am a light drinker and light smoker, but I love eating out and hardly ever cook at home. This is where a lot of my cash goes.
  • Utility Bills: Around 300RMB a month. Like most places in South China our apartment is not heated.

I total that to be around 8,600RMB per month. I could spend a lot less if I made significant changes in lifestyle and I could easily spend a lot more. Once I add in occasional clothes shopping and other items, I think I spend around 10,000 RMB a month.

As you see, it isn’t cheap to live in a first-tier Chinese city, especially in Shenzhen or, even more so, Shanghai. To be able to live a good lifestyle and save some money, you need to be able to earn plenty, and this isn’t always possible right away.

Living in a First-Tier City

My favorite quote is from Oscar Wilde: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it”. This can adequately sum up living in a first-tier city in China simply because the metropolises of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and, to a certain extent Chengdu, have all the comforts of home, but at a very high price.

A regular lifestyle of Western grocery shopping, hanging out several nights a week in expat bars, regular impulse purchases of Western electronics and clothes, etc. will clean you out in no time. It is certainly true that salaries in first-tier cities are much higher than in the rest of the country. The average in Shenzhen is around 12,000RMB a month (and it’s possible to get more, although many earn less) and it’s more than that in Beijing and Shanghai. In these cities, however, it is difficult to get housing included in the package, especially if you work for a private school. What housing is provided is often in undesirable locations and from what I have seen, not great quality. This is all simply due to cost.

If you want to chase the bucks in a first-tier city you must also understand that foreigners are abundant and the competition for good jobs is high. Of course, there are many more opportunities as well, so, in my opinion, it balances out. To save money you must get a good paying job, ideally take on some very well-paid private work on the side, and then keep your expenditure to a reasonable level. Just bear in mind it is very difficult to exercise restraint when you are living in Shanghai and your friends call you inviting you to go out to the French Concession. If you go to a restaurant, out for a few beers, and a taxi home, you can kiss 500RMB goodbye.

The big problem here is that China is a very challenging place to live and when it gets on top of you I guarantee you will want to find solace in whatever comforts of home are available, even if doing so costs you an arm and a leg.

My Future Plans

Alex and Faye

So far in my story I have not mentioned my fiancée Faye. I met her in January 2010 just two months after I arrived in China: It’s the one area in my life that has been a complete success. My mind is definitely made up that this is the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with. She is loyal, intelligent, and supportive to the point where I wonder what I have done to deserve somebody like this.

She is highly Westernized and speaks fluent English, as English was her major at university. I could write a book telling you about her virtues but this isn’t the purpose here.

Faye and I have had a very serious discussion regarding what we want out of life and where we see ourselves going. We have agreed to put off having children for around five years, until enough time that we are financially stable and a child would not cause strain. She is almost 24 (I am 26) and I am well aware that it is perfectly normal for many Chinese girls to want to get married and have children around that time in their lives. Nevertheless, I felt it was best to be honest with her and tell her I was not yet ready for that. She was very accepting of this and agreed.

I have also told Faye that I do not see my long term future in China and will want to move abroad sometime in the next two to five years. I have the ambition to set up my own business as I do not ever want to have a boss again. I want to keep the freedom that I have grown accustomed to, although, of course, I realize setting up my own company will be very hard work.

I know many expats constantly talk about the dreams they have and they always talk in the future tense about the great things they will do one day. I know, however, that I am a determined person and people have constantly been telling me I can’t do things and that it's impossible, but I strive to prove people wrong. I also feel that Faye’s employment prospects in the UK will be good as she speaks excellent English and has over three years' experience in the foreign trade business selling electronic products all over the world. More and more Western companies are doing business with China so I think somebody like Faye will be a great asset. She is very likable, adaptable, and a great saleswoman.

Another reason I want to move away from China is that I would rather die than have my own kids educated in their education system. It is corrupt, unimaginative, and there is no way I am going to have my children subjected to communist political indoctrination and Chinese ideals of conformity and collectivism. The UK has excellent free healthcare and education systems that—although not perfect by any means—are light years ahead of China’s. Like anyone, I want what’s best for my children and, in all likelihood, I wouldn’t be able to afford an international school.

Closing Remarks

My life in China has often been just like a neverending rollercoaster ride. The idea that I am trying to get across is that certain types of people at particular stages in the life cycle can adapt very well to life in China and can make a life for themselves that is often better than what they had back home. I put myself in this category, although it hasn’t been without trials and tribulations and a lot of adaptation and adjustment on my part.

Life in China is simply not for everyone. If you are thinking about coming here, then you need to honestly reflect upon yourself and your current situation, weigh that up against all the information you have available about what living and working in China are like (reading through this entire Guide is really a must for that purpose) and then you can make an honest decision. I made every mistake possible when I first came here. I had no money so I had no exit route; I was unqualified with no experience and I had not done adequate research. I simply jumped in the water head first and hoped the pool was deep.

Making a good life for yourself is possible in China, especially if your expectations are low to begin with, you don't arrive here with big dreams of making it rich as an oral English teacher, and you know first-hand how to live very simply (and are okay with that). However, I would like to close with what I consider to be excellent advice from the Guide: advice that I agree with wholeheartedly and live by on a day-to-day basis:

Just make certain that you are using the Chinese for your purposes instead of allowing the Chinese to exploit and abuse you for their purposes: In regard to oral English language teaching in mainland China, rarely is there a middle ground. (From Overview of Teaching English in China)

Notes

Price, A. (2011). UK Unemployment. HRM Guide: Human Resource Management. Retrieved on September 10, 2011 from http://www.hrmguide.co.uk/jobmarket/unemployment.htm

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Editor's note: Are you a Western expat or foreign teacher in China and have something you'd like to share with others? Contact This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it with your proposal for a story that will be published in Middle Kingdom Life, the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and expats in China.


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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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