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Teaching English in China Overview


Section I: Teaching English in China continued

Teaching English in China: Occupational, Sociodemographic & Psychological Aspects

Teaching English in China is no longer the thrill-seeking, uncharted adventure that it was some 30 to 40 years ago. Today—in the second decade of the 21st century and in the aftermath of the 2008 U.S. economic collapse—teaching English in China, for young White native speakers of English, is simply a guaranteed, routine, low-paying, low-status, international employment opportunity in what is one of the most challenging countries in the world to live in. The massive EFL industry in China provides more than 100,000 unskilled jobs to Western men and women every year—especially those between the ages of 22 and 55—who, for whatever reasons, either can’t find work back home or are hoping to subsidize a stint of international travel.

Troubled Young Man

The current body of information available today on the Internet—and through books and other guides—about teaching English in China is shamefully biased and unrealistic. Virtually all of the materials are written or sponsored by those who have a financial or professional interest in the industry or in China. In what amounts to the ultimate con job of the century, these vested parties will try to convince you that moving up to halfway around the world to work as an unskilled laborer for an average monthly income of USD $900 (minus taxes) and live in substandard housing in a developing country with the worst pollution, public sanitation and economic inflation problems in the world, without the benefit of health insurance, is a plan of action any reasonable and sane person would seriously consider pursuing. The cold, hard truth of the matter is, for most, moving to China—a harsh and ethnocentric developing communist country—is an act of desperation that generally arises from months of unemployment or legal problems back home. In this context, moving to mainland China to work for Coolie wages in a country with the highest rate of inflation in the world is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

With the exception of this site and a few personal blogs, it will be very difficult for you to find the truth about teaching English in China. Typical sources of misinformation and half-truths about the China EFL industry include Chinese and Western recruiters, private school managers and owners, international travel-oriented websites, China TEFL-related forums and blogs, and—especially—Western foreign teachers who consider themselves to be genuine educators yet, at the same time, are unable to teach ESL or any other subject as a licensed or certified teacher in their country of origin. Such Westerners—particularly those who must remain in China owing to strong family ties (e.g., Chinese wife who refuses to leave her family) or an absence of sufficient funds for reestablishing themselves back home—are the most adamant and vociferous about the professional legitimacy of EFL teaching in China. Of course, it is understandable that they would be.

For an external and independent account of the profoundly dehumanizing effect the EFL industry can have on its lay members, you are encouraged to take a close look at the painfully honest exposé published a few years ago in the U.K. Telegraph titled "The slavery of teaching English." While it is written to describe the EFL industry in Europe, just about everything that is revealed in that article can be applied to teaching English in China UNLESS you treat the experience as a time-limited working vacation and use the information on this website to choose your employer very carefully.

The following chapter provides the reader with an overview of what teaching English in China is like from three perspectives: occupational, sociodemographic, and psychological (intrapsychic). This material is intended to be strikingly straightforward and thought-provoking and, in the end, will provide the prospective foreign teacher with enough of a factual foundation with which to make an honest and informed decision. The goal of this chapter is to help our readers determine if moving to China to teach English makes sense for them at this point in time given their particular set of circumstances.

Occupational Aspects

The Chinese government has a love-hate relationship with the English language. On one hand, they readily (although not happily) appreciate that China's continued economic rise is dependent on it while, on the other hand, they view the English language (and Western people as well) as a threat to cultural and national purity. The reality is that outside the foreign teachers' classrooms there are no other English language speaking environments—by design—and there never will be. Chinese government and educational officials regard the English language in the same way most Western people think of life insurance: It is something that every responsible adult should have but, hopefully, you will never need to use it.

Consequently, the job task of the foreign English teacher in China is de-professionalized, i.e., we are, at best, teaching assistants. Westerners are hired to facilitate the practice of students’ listening and speaking skills and that’s about it. The more technical and mechanical aspects of the English language are delegated almost exclusively to the Chinese teachers. Some foreigners with a minimum of a master’s degree in a related field may find themselves teaching other skill sets, e.g., writing and reading as well as courses other than oral English, e.g., literature and sociolinguistics, but those teaching assignments are relatively rare among foreign teachers within China’s educational system and the pay differential between bachelor and master's degreed teachers is negligible. The truth is that foreign teachers with master's degrees in either linguistics or TESOL do not seek employment in mainland China: They limit their job search to schools in Hong Kong, Macau, Western international schools, and Middle Eastern countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Saudi Arabia (where teaching salaries and benefits are considerably better than what teachers can earn back home).

Related to the fact that foreigners are hired almost exclusively as unskilled laborers, teaching English as a foreign language in China is very tiring work. Especially given our very limited roles here, it's not particularly difficult work, but it is emotionally draining and physically exhausting to have to be constantly aware of the rate of one's speech and the use of one's vocabulary (and not just when in class but also when speaking with your foreign affairs officer, your supervisor and/or school owner, most of your Chinese colleagues and virtually all acquaintances, not to mention one's Chinese girlfriend or wife). Experienced teachers of subjects other than EFL only have to be aware of what they are saying (i.e., the content). When you teach English, you must be constantly aware of not only what you are saying but how you are saying it (remaining forever conscious of the need to reduce one's rate of speech and level of vocabulary).

We invite you to try a little experiment. Take a local newspaper and find a relatively easy story to read. Now imagine you have to both read and explain that story to someone with extremely poor (or barely existent) English language skills. Take just 15 minutes reading that story out loud at an unnaturally slow pace and make certain that you carefully and slowly explain that passage, being no less careful to concurrently find alternate ways of explaining words you take for granted (i.e., vocabulary words at the primary school level of education in the West). Now multiply that effort and strain by 80 times (approximating a workload of 20 hours per week). Only you can decide for yourself if this is something you could manage to do week after week and month after month without feeling demoralized and becoming discouraged. You will need an inordinate amount of patience (the patience of Job really), and you will need to stay focused on your primary reason for being in China so as to avoid becoming frustrated, bored, and agitated.

It is highly unlikely that real educators with advanced degrees and bona fide teaching experience, i.e., those who can successfully compete for legitimate EFL and other teaching positions in international schools, Hong Kong, and Macau will find the work tolerable for more than a brief period of time. Teaching oral English in China is not a career and it was never intended to be: It is simply a job and a means to an end. However, depending on your reasons for moving to China at this time and, also, on your prior work history and the phase of life you are in, a steady-paying job that can provide you with free housing, less monthly bills to worry about, and some spending money in your pocket may more than meet your current needs, irrespective of intrinsic job satisfaction. In addition, the aspect of vocational satisfaction will be a relatively minor consideration for those who are simply (and appropriately) using an EFL job as a way of subsidizing a short-term trip to China, i.e., as a paid working vacation (and many do).

Sociodemographic Aspects

Based on the results of several hundred Foreign Teacher Satisfaction Questionnaires, on the average, those who report the greatest degree of personal satisfaction with their decision to teach English in China are those who are either recent college graduates—that is, ones who are looking for some cultural diversity and travel experience before returning home to pursue their "real" careers—or retirees: those who have finished their careers, have some money saved and are simply looking to stretch their pensions (by spending Western-earned dollars in an Asian country). Those who report the greatest degree of dissatisfaction appear to be older (30 to 50), mid-career people, who had marginal careers or led unsatisfactory lives in their countries of origin, who—more or less—chose China by default as a geographic cure for their personal and occupational troubles.

A major explanation for these aforementioned findings in the sociodemographic distribution of teacher satisfaction lies in the fact that living and working in China require a considerable degree of highly challenging cognitive and emotional adjustments in virtually every area of life one can imagine. Thus, for example, a recent college graduate, who is simply taking a year off before commencing graduate school, can more easily tolerate the demands being made of him knowing very well that his life will be restored to "normal" in a relatively brief period of time. Related, a retiree—who has already enjoyed a relatively successful career back home—can easily rationalize that the social and psychological demands being made of him are quite fair in exchange for not having to count pennies in the way he might have if he had tried to retire in his country of origin. Conversely, those who are here by forced choice will necessarily struggle the most with the radical differences in food, personal and public hygiene, medical care, and China's complex, and (at times) contradictory and challenging sociopolitical structure, to name but a few. Those who are—in effect—economically trapped here, will necessarily experience the greatest degree of anomie with resultant and alternating states of clinical depression, anxiety and rage, unless it is somehow true that their lives, in China, are nevertheless still better here than what they had fled from back home (and it often takes at least two or three years to acquire that level of adaptation, acceptance and relative comfort).

Psychological Aspects

If you are young (early to mid-20s) and are seeking either a short-term personal adventure or a working vacation or are old enough to retire with some money in the bank (without strong family ties and other obligations back home) then moving to China to teach English for a limited period of time can make a great deal of sense. On the other hand, if you are between the ages of 30 and 50 (or otherwise unable to financially retire back home) and are thinking about teaching English in China as a way of escaping personal problems or a prolonged period of unemployment, then you are the most likely to experience employer exploitation, difficulties with psychosocial adjustment and demoralization, and considerable dissatisfaction. Finally, if you are an academician seeking a six-month to one-year sabbatical, you should be limiting your job searches to international schools and Project 211 universities only.

Two Young Foreign Teachers in China Shenyang, October 2003. Both young men started teaching English around the same time at the same school. One decided he could no longer tolerate the school or his life in China and fled home just six months into his one-year contract. The other is still there and will probably never leave.

The reality is most foreign “teachers” in China are unqualified, never taught one day in their lives prior to moving here, and are only in China because they perceived it as their last choice. Despite the fact that this is the norm for a sizable majority of foreign teachers in China, this is neither a healthy nor sound reason for uprooting your life and exposing yourself to what will be some very harsh and challenging adjustment demands.

The Chinese understand that foreigners move to China to teach English for a variety of reasons and that those reasons vary considerably depending on the teacher's age, background, and phase of life. Our Chinese employers are not stupid: They fully appreciate that the vast majority of Westerners—especially those who are not professional educators and should either be starting their careers or firmly entrenched in them back home, with strong concomitant social and family ties (typically those between the ages of 30 to 50)—are teaching English in China year after year for an average of USD $730 to $900 per month because they couldn't (and can't) find anything more lucrative to do in their native countries. Desperate immigrants with minimal job skills are never warmly received anywhere in the world and are commonly exploited as much as possible: China is no exception. If you do decide that moving here to teach English is your best option at this time, please do not come here thinking that you will be deeply appreciated and warmly received simply because you had to travel up to halfway around the world to do so. (Although you would never know this by reading websites written or sponsored by recruiters, job advertisers and a whole new breed of China wannabe EFL job advertisers and recruiters who are encouraging just about everybody and anybody to join in on the fun.)

Affluent Chinese families start making plans to send their children to study abroad in the United States, England, and other European countries from the moment their children are born. They know that despite the financial crisis of September 2008, the United States and other Western countries offer their children the best chance they have at a fair, productive, and financially satisfying life. While Asian perceptions of just how easy it is to be successful in the West are obviously distorted and, perhaps, based more on what had been true in the past than today, these types of romanticized images of Western life are nevertheless ubiquitous in China.

If you are qualified and experienced or otherwise had what is perceived here as a successful life back home, the Chinese will repeatedly cross-examine you, with a look of total disbelief, about why you would possibly give all that up to move to their incredibly challenging developing country (especially when you consider how many Chinese are aspiring and conspiring to obtain visas to our Western countries). While Western economic refugees do entertain each other with overly rehearsed stories about how they are in China to perfect their Chinese language skills, start a business, or save souls, the Chinese are not buying into them because they know better: No one abandons a successful life in a highly developed country to face the myriad of difficulties that await the underpaid and underappreciated foreign English teacher in China. No one.

The truth is, no matter how bad your current set of circumstances are, your day-to-day life in China will be generally more challenging and frustrating than what you are hoping to escape from—owing to vast differences in cultural and social norms—especially for the initial year or two. In addition, there are typically less support systems available to you here than wherever you hail from. If you must move to China for emergency employment, then you need to carefully and honestly assess what your chances are of being able to emotionally survive the ordeal.

Your personal coping skills, particularly the ability to overcome and master frustration and significant challenges, will make a crucial difference in determining whether you can make the necessary adjustments. If your relationships with others (employers, coworkers, significant others, etc.) were tumultuous back home, you cannot expect them to miraculously improve in China. In fact, due to the stark cultural differences in areas that will initially and adversely affect your mental status and overall state of well-being, what you should expect is to be deluged by an emotional storm of frustration, resentment, bitterness, confusion, depression and intermittent rage.

Reflect in all honesty how others regard you. If you are generally considered to be flexible, good-natured, easy to get along with, and someone who has adequate interpersonal skills, you can expect to adjust reasonably well to China over time. If, on the other hand, you are viewed as immature, temperamental, unpredictable, moody, demanding and difficult, you will most likely have an extremely difficult time in the Middle Kingdom.

If you can move to China with your eyes wide-open and with full understanding and acceptance of the realities you will face as a foreign English teacher, you will have a better chance of adjusting over time to the myriad of challenges you will be confronted with. You will need to remain extremely flexible, grow a thick skin, suppress your anger, and keep an open mind at all times. If your response to unhygienic social practices and ubiquitous rudeness and selfishness proves to be one characterized by righteous indignation underscored by Eurocentric moral, legal, religious, or ethical superiority—with an inclination towards "correcting" perceived “wrongs” that, in many instances, have been culturally ingrained over a period of several millennia—you can count on being absolutely and thoroughly miserable during your stay in China. Conversely, a positive, open-minded, and patient attitude, as well as maintaining a clear and resolute understanding of your purpose for being in China, will make all the difference in increasing the probability that you will ultimately find your way here.

In fact, despite the remarkable challenges they have faced and the profound changes required of them, quite a few middle-aged foreign men who moved to China as unqualified teachers to escape unemployment and homelessness have been able to hammer out existences that are actually more rewarding than what they had known back home.

Summary Regarding Suitability of Teaching English in China

A. Who Should Consider Teaching English in China?

  1. White, English native-speaking people who a licensed physician would describe as being in very good to excellent health.
  2. Recent college graduates looking for a short-term adventure (six months to one year) or as a way of subsidizing Chinese language study for no more than two years.
  3. Retirees looking to stretch their Western pension dollars with savings in the bank. Such individuals often teach in China for one semester and then return home for the second semester. In all cases, they have a home, savings, and retirement income to return to.

    Recent anecdotal evidence indicates that an increasing number of cities and provinces are enforcing the 60-year old age limit and that Z-visas are becoming more difficult for older teachers to obtain. Nevertheless, those willing to live and work in less desirable regions of the country (typically the north and northwest) should still be able to find a position as an oral English teacher.

B. Who Should Be Considerably Cautious About Teaching English in China?

  1. Those who are in poor to average health, especially those with a history of respiratory illnesses and other bacterial or viral infections, air-borne allergies, cancers, cardiovascular disease, and any medical condition that might require future surgery should stay out of mainland China.
  2. Older young-adults (30 to 39) and middle-aged people (40 to 60) are typically either beginning a career that they have recently finished preparing for or should be firmly established in the middle of their careers, respectively. Such individuals who, for whatever reasons, find themselves in trouble or at the crossroads of their lives should avoid moving to China to teach oral English. No matter what kind of difficulties you may find yourself in, fleeing to mainland China to teach English often eliminates the possibility of ever returning home again.

    Whether you are dealing with chronic unemployment, divorce, alcoholism, drug addiction, or even legal problems, find any way you can to address and resolve those problems at home or you risk becoming a vocational and financial prisoner of the Asian EFL industry. Such Western men (with no significant assets or social support system to fall back on) will very likely have no other choice but to grow old and die in mainland China (or Thailand).

    Middle-aged Western men who find themselves teaching oral English in mainland China by forced choice will typically and eventually marry a Chinese woman and may try to learn some Chinese. They will work several English teaching jobs to save some money, teaching as many as 30 hours per week, and may even eventually be able to buy their own apartment. They will spend the rest of their lives calling China their home as they will never be able to support themselves in their countries of origin again. Some will try to start their own private English language schools (together with their Chinese wives) or may try to open a bar or restaurant (see Outside Work and Other Careers).

    While a few do manage to eventually find happiness and build a life for themselves that is, in many respects, more satisfying than what they had left behind (see, for example, How China Saved My Life), the majority typically struggle throughout the entire duration of their stay here and often suffer an exacerbation of former problems (see Portrait of a Foreign English Teacher in China).
  3. Single Western women at any age will struggle enormously with severe social isolation in China and should think four times about moving to mainland China for any reason. Even if you are young, thin, and gorgeous, you'll be competing with literally thousands of cute Chinese girls (who wear a size 0) for any Western man you might just happen to be interested in. Finding a Chinese man who would even consider dating a Western woman and can speak English well enough to build a relationship with will be a challenge outside of Beijing and Shanghai, assuming you are even attracted to Asian men.
  4. Non-native and non-White teachers need to be extremely cautious about teaching English in China. Such foreigners will have enormous difficulties finding such work to begin with and are typically treated as fourth-class teachers particularly, but not exclusively, at private language schools. While a few appear to be impervious to China's ubiquitous preference for White, native English-speaking teachers or are able to eventually overcome it with persistence and a thick skin, you need to ask yourself if this is the type of environment you really want to put yourself in. For more information, you should read our feature blog article Teaching English in China for Non-White, Non-Native Speakers (pay particularly close attention to the readers' comments).

    Non-White and non-native speakers who are truly interested in becoming EFL/ESL teachers are strongly advised to seek the necessary education and credentials so that they may seek employment in regions that are in need of fully qualified teachers.
  5. Certified teachers and those with advanced degrees (M.A., PhD, etc.) should never consider teaching English in China at either public universities or private language schools as a career move. Certified teachers should seek employment at international schools only and Western academicians (PhDs) should only consider teaching in mainland China if offered a teaching position in their respective fields and only then while on sabbatical. Western academicians on sabbatical in mainland China should agree to no more than six to eight 50-minute periods per week of face-to-face teaching and the school must provide a Chinese teaching assistant who can enter grades online and complete other administrative tasks.
  6. If you are a licensed professional in your country of origin, e.g., psychologist, nurse, lawyer, etc. do NOT consider teaching English in China as a way of eventually transitioning into your field after you arrive. Oral English teaching in China creates a vocational black hole that you may never recover from and makes you uncompetitive for positions in China that you might otherwise have been competitive for while working in your field back home.

* * *

Here is the bottom-line in a nutshell and we urge you to take heed: If you are allowed to do something in another part of the world, especially in a developing country, that you are entirely unqualified for in your Western country of origin, it probably isn't worth doing—certainly not from a professional and financial perspective. If, on the other hand, you are seeking to use oral English teaching in mainland China as a means to an end, e.g., to subsidize Chinese language study, as a six-month working vacation, or to meet and spend time with a potential spouse, then doing so can make a great deal of sense. 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.

Real English language teachers, i.e., those who have master's degrees in TESOL, English, or linguistics, and, perhaps, are certified teachers back home, are not teaching oral English in mainland China's public and private schools: If they had some need or desire to have a "China experience" then they are either teaching at international schools or in Hong Kong where the salaries and living conditions are based on Western standards and professional satisfaction can be reasonably expected.


About Us

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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