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Teaching English in China: Enjoying the Adventure

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Written by MKL contributor Nicholas ChiassonNicholas Chiasson has been teaching EFL/ESL full time since 2007. He has taught in Russia, South Korea, and now China. He graduated in 2007 with a BA in Russian Language and Literature from the University of Delaware, and also studied Russian at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He currently works near Harbin, Heilongjiang. For questions and comments, you may reach Nick directly at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Nick Chiasson, China, 2011

With the economy in the U.S. being less than stellar these days, universities churning out ever increasing numbers of young graduates with large amounts of debt, and little in the way of job prospects, many people are thinking about teaching English in China. The website Middle Kingdom Life is a treasure trove of information for anybody who is considering it, and really you should read the entire thing. I did before moving to China.

About the Source

I’m in my late twenties, White, single, male, and American. Why does any of this matter? Because in many ways I represent the “ideal” English teacher in China. Now you will have noticed I haven’t said anything about my work experience or job qualifications. Actually, none of that has any meaning to a Chinese recruiter and your education level will have little effect on you getting a job. Let’s continue.

I graduated in 2007 with a B.A. degree in Russian. I was disappointed to find out that my asthma ruled out my plan of joining the navy, working in intelligence or communications. I had worked part-time at the University of Delaware as an English tutor, mostly with Koreans and Chinese students. My first overseas job was a 6-month teaching gig at a private school in Russia. I moved on from Russia to Korea, where I worked in middle schools. After two years in South Korea I was debt free and able to move to China. I have been here in China, since February 2010, and am currently negotiating to extend my contract at my current university until December 2012. So I’ve only been in China a total of 18 months at this time, but it does mark three-and-half years of living in Asia and four years of full time ESL/EFL work. I have no other professional experience save part-time jobs as a student.

My experiences are exclusive to working at universities. I have no experience with public primary or middle schools or the various private institutions and cram schools that exist in China. I spent my first year in Shenyang, Liaoning province. I now live outside Harbin, and work at a university with about 8,000 students.

Advantages to Living in China

The first advantage to life in China is the low cost of living. I live in the northeast, in a small town about 90 miles north of Harbin, in Heilongjiang Province. For a single man, one could easily live on 1,000RMB a month. This would not in fact be particularly difficult. Housing and all utilities are free, and the meals in the teacher cafeteria (usually called canteen for some reason) are subsidized, meaning one can eat all three meals there for 15rmb a day. Even if one has a large appetite, or just a desire to eat something different, prices are quite reasonable. Fried rice with beef and egg is a mere 7 yuan, and if you look around you can find it for even less.

The northeast, particularly Heilongjiang, is a cold, boisterous and rowdy place

People who actually want to cook can do so for almost nothing. I just made a pot of vegetable noodle soup and spent 4 yuan for all the ingredients. Should you wish to take out a group, a girlfriend, or a few students, 100RMB will usually get dinner and beer for a party of four. Compared to the $100 tab that you’d end up with in America, dining out is certainly one of the advantages to living in China.

That said, a surprising number of people find Chinese food rather tedious. I blame this on the difficulty of “finding food.” With many restaurants simply throwing a Chinese language menu at you, it can be rather daunting to order. It wasn’t until my second year in China that I felt comfortable ordering anything in Chinese. It is important for new people in China to acquire a “food friend,” a person who can help you identify the best and cleanest restaurants, and broaden your diet to include more than fried rice and the ubiquitous KFC.

In addition, large cities will feature various regional Chinese cuisines, Sichuan and Hunan cooking being particularly popular and spicy. I live in a more rural area and so must make do with the local dishes, but when I travel into Harbin I can enjoy Pizza Hut, and a real cup of coffee. Shenyang in particular is famous for Korean restaurants, in which you cook your own beef or pork over a grill at the table.

Food is an important part of life in China and social events revolve around eating and drinking. In the northeast, rampant alcohol consumption is the norm and it’s not uncommon for fist fights to break out in restaurants. The northeast, particularly Heilongjiang, is a cold, boisterous and rowdy place. That said I’ve only been physically attacked once in China, but single females may want to avoid the far northeast. Not drinking would be like admitting “I’m a wimp” but may be the best course of action for non-drinkers. Smoking is also common and, especially as an asthmatic, it can be particularly irritating for me. Almost all restaurants are smoke filled rooms.

In China one will usually adapt a minimalist life style. For some this is upsetting, but I find having only a few possessions greatly simplifies cleaning the apartment. Most furnishings should be provided by the employer and so there is really very little that one needs to buy. Obviously those with children or married couples may find this lifestyle difficult or impossible, but it’s quite easy for a bachelor’s existence like mine. I do however own an X-box 360 game console, purchased here, which I use to kill time during the long harsh winters.

I don’t watch TV and was raised in a strict no-TV house, which means I actually enjoy the lack of American TV. I do have Internet, but no VPN, and so I miss out on Facebook and some blogs I used to read. If one is a die-hard Internet fan, he or she should definitely consider a VPN or proxy server in America.

Books in English can be difficult to get, but since I mainly read classics, I’m able to find enough to read in the foreign language section of larger bookshops. Some people have used Amazon, and many other people use eBook readers. Obviously eBooks are as easy to get in China as anywhere else.

About Chinese Women

I thought it would be appropriate to mention the situation with women here in China. I’m a straight male and can only speak in broad generalities but I’d like to say a few things. First many, many men seem to suffer from the belief that Asian women are just looking for White guys. And they are. But that’s it. They are “just looking.” We’re very different-looking to them and many men seem to think this—simply being stared at behavior—is a sign that the woman is interested in you. In reality, she can’t even talk to you, and wouldn’t if she could.

Suihua University, Main Gate

Women who are truly interested in foreigners, at least in a larger city like Harbin or Shenyang, usually know where to go to meet foreign men, if that is their goal. Also some freelance prostitutes will pass themselves off as “regular girls,” which can be confusing when that nice girl you’ve met at a local bar says “300 yuan, okay?” These clubs usually have a reputation for that sort of thing.

Don’t date your students. Many of the other students will object to the idea, particularly male students. As has been mentioned, the gender imbalance has created a very passive-aggressive Han Chinese male just looking to have another reason to hate White men. If you do date a student, keep it a secret.

I do not believe the men who tell tales of seducing dozens of raven haired beauties and neither should you. In fact, many of the foreigners I met seem to date foreign women exclusively. The situation with women in this country does not qualify as an advantage nor should any sane person move to China to meet women. If you were not picking them up at the club in the States, you probably are not going to be doing it here.

The work week is very short. I teach 20 academic hours and receive about two months paid vacation a year. For people with many hobbies, all this free time is a wonderful thing. People often fill the time by picking up Chinese lessons or a sport. That said, boredom and loneliness are serious side effects of having this much free time. I was able to travel around China this summer and see much more of the country then many Chinese people ever will. China is large and the travel opportunities are endless.

Last, I am using my degree. There are three Russian teachers from across the Amur River who work at my university teaching Russian. I get to speak Russian daily and the students respect the fact that I can “do more than just speak my own language.” Obviously this is a very personalized advantage but I mention it because each region of China may work better for a certain kind of person. A nature lover may want to work in Sichuan, whereas a writer might enjoy the laid back Province of Yunnan. Shanghai is almost another country compared to the rest of China. Try to choose a location that gives you what you want and also meets your needs if possible.

Disadvantages to Living in China

China is louder and dirtier than anywhere I’ve ever been except Cambodia. This is annoying and there is very little to do about it. The polluted air means that dust and dirt are always blowing through your screens should you decide to air out the house. Garbage will sit next to a store for days. Occasionally you will be eating outside and see a man urinating on a wall 10 feet away. If you start to think about the germs and statistics about tuberculosis in China, you’d probably become an obsessive hand washer or wear gloves.

Interestingly enough, unlike the Japanese who responded with a hyper-polite culture to deal with over-crowding, the Chinese have gone the other way. Pretty much anybody you don’t know is not really a person. So rather than using head phones, people just play music from their phone on the bus so everyone can hear them. Although Chinese will deny this and become hostile when asked why they display such contempt to strangers, their cultural thinking of family-clan-village-outsiders (referent in- vs. out-groups) is clear in their everyday behavior.

Don’t think your successful classes, hard work, or any extra-curricular activities you volunteer for will be appreciated by the majority of your coworkers or administrators

Since so much of Chinese guanxi revolves around knowing the right people, you—as an outsider—are doomed because you don’t know people. The obvious corruption this cultural pattern has created is a source of annoyance and is resented by both foreigners and low-ranking Chinese alike.

Since the Chinese have no real concept of the truth, the most convenient thing is always said. The answer “I don’t know” is never used. To admit ignorance is actually a vice and so student and staff alike prefer to make up bizarre stories or just stare at you stoically, waiting for the annoying foreigner to go away. The Chinese function in their day-to-day lives by passing the buck, which means that the lowest person on the totem pole is the one who typically gets punished. Foreign affair officers (FAOs) are usually young section chiefs who serve as the university’s jack of all trades. He or she will be abused by pretty much the entire staff of higher-ups and also have to deal with “those crazy foreigners.” This is why your FAO is usually in a bad mood. She is blamed for everything that goes wrong with you. Your water cooler doesn’t work? When an elderly teacher fell down the stairs, the FAO actually asked her, “Do you know how much trouble you make for me?”

Although I have lived in Russia and Korea before, I find the bizarre double speak employed in China to be unique. In Korea, foreigners were not able to influence the scores the Korean students received, but we were told this up front. In China, we must give grades, in a certain format, but those grades change. I always pass all my students as failing them makes trouble for them, for me, for the administration, and everyone else. Since the point of failing students is so they bribe you to pass them, it gets rather comical. I had a student bring me 12 cans of beer and then say “Did I get an A?” I explained that I don’t take bribes, and second of all, 12 cans of Chinese beer is like tipping a waiter a quarter.

As others have mentioned, the staff universally hates foreign teachers. Yes there are exceptions but I have yet to have more than two conversations with ANY Chinese-English teacher at this university. In addition, the Japanese teacher and Russian teachers say the same thing. I do not know why the teachers refuse to have anything to do with us, but it’s certainly there and the meaning is clear. A side effect of not being a part of things is always being informed of critical information at the last possible minute. I was late for class this semester because I found out when my first class was just 14 hours before it was supposed to begin. I received the textbooks for this class the following day. Although we have a Golden Week holiday in October (Chinese National Day), nobody will tell us how long it is. Obviously I can’t plan a trip since nobody will tell me when I’m off and when I have to get back.

In her very informative personal story, Cynthia Shepherd wrote, “In China we don’t know whom to trust or when someone is telling us the truth.” This dilemma can be addressed with the following rule of thumb: Trust no one. The Chinese only tell the truth when it works in their favor. I have seen enough Chinese people cheated by their countrymen to know that cheating, lying, fraud, corruption, nepotism, and total amorality are the norm in this country. Although most people would accuse me of cultural insensitivity for that last sentence, I’d like to quote translator Lin Wusun: “The material wellbeing of most of its (China’s) people has more or less been satisfied. What they need now is some kind of spiritual, political, and intellectual satisfaction” (Lin, 2010, p. 12). A quick review of Chinese bridge blogs like chinasmack.com would be enough to show that the average Chinese person is aware of the very corrupt nature of their society. There are calls for reform from every stratum of society.

Is Teaching English in China a Good Idea?

I think the important thing to do before you move to China is ask yourself “What do I want?” If you’re coming here to make money, you won’t. I make around 10,000USD a year. That’s half the average waiter’s salary in the States. Sure, if you’re young you can pay off some student loans and if you’re semi–retired anyway, give it a try. But don’t come here looking to get rich.

Don’t come here thinking you are God’s gift to Chinese women. Sure maybe you will meet one, fall in love, and get married. But you’ll have to stay in China, since no normal Chinese girl wants to leave her parents. If your Chinese woman wants to leave China, and keeps saying “I love America” odds are she’s marrying your passport, not you.

Don’t come here thinking your education degree, or TEFL, or Ph.D. makes any difference to the corrupt administration that takes bribes, and sells teaching positions to recent graduates. People are still surprised that I could actually speak Russian. In the words of one staff member “I thought you made that up like all the other things foreign teachers say.” Don’t think your successful classes, hard work, or any extra-curricular activities you volunteer for will be appreciated by the majority of your coworkers or administrators. In fact, don’t even expect your coworkers to talk to you.

When Western people fall into any one of the three traps I’ve described above (seeking money, women, or vocational satisfaction) they tend to become seriously depressed, and often turn to alcohol abuse, prostitution, or other self-destructive habits. The happiest people in China seem to be couples or those with a strong interest in China, be it language, culture, food, or nature.

Why I Stay

Well first of all the rate of change in China is amazing. People tell stories of 10 years ago and how nobody had a car in the whole town. I still see donkeys pulling carts and I saw a Bentley parked outside an apartment building. Life in China is always fascinating if not a little frightening. I feel like I’m seeing an important moment in history, the time when China modernizes and moves onto the world stage. After the events of September 11, I think my generation in America has been justifiably pessimistic. It’s interesting to see these patriotic, angry nationalist youth. Disagreeing with them and providing them with another viewpoint is something no one else will do during their four years here.

Learning Chinese is another important reason to stay here. Obviously there is nowhere better than China to learn Chinese, and the northeastern Mandarin dialect is quite standard. Anybody who is young and plans to be here more than two years should really make an effort to learn the language. It’s difficult, yes, but it will reward you in daily life. You’ll eat better. You’ll get girlfriends.

Even if I return to the U.S. someday, I think that my time in China has allowed me to see the world in a new light. Many of my stereotypes about China have been destroyed: others completely justified. As we enter this age of “China Ascending,” I hope my experiences will aid me in whatever future direction my life will take, be it career or academic.

China is, more than anything else, an adventure. It is a place that is truly unique, frustrating, fascinating, dirty and disgusting, scenic and beautiful, and unlike anywhere else in the world. For young single Western people like me, that alone makes all that we have to endure worth it—at least for the time being.

Notes

Lin, Wusun (2010). Getting to Know Confucius: A New Translation of the Analects. Beijing: Foreign Language Press

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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.


Comments  

 
# Authority ManBobo 2011-09-17 19:12
Good article, I'm sure it will help someone. There is also a lot that I disagree with wholeheartedly with.

One is

Quote:
I do not believe the men who tell tales of seducing dozens of raven haired beauties and neither should you.


You obviously have no 'game'. When you say lots of girls are looking, that is your foot in the door. Because you can't pass the interview doesn't mean others can't. Really, I and plenty other fellows can sincerely disagree with you on this point.

There are a few other things you said such as 'trust noone' and 'never being one of them' that is just too pessimistic. Honestly is sounds like you are introverted, and that is not a problem with others.

You have only taught at a university, and been to two cities. I suggest you diversify, travel more, and open up. The folks the 'look at you' should be approached and talked to. Staff hate foreign teachers? That is just total nonsense from my experience. Complete nonsense.

Good article, however many of my experiences have been very different than yours. Readers: keep that in mind.
 
 
# RE: Authority ManDr. Greg 2011-09-17 22:33
You seem quick to dismiss the conclusions drawn by the author based on his personal experiences as “nonsense” solely because they don’t jive with your own. I am in possession of over 800 completed Foreign Teacher Satisfaction Questionnaires that suggest Nick’s experiences with foreign affairs officers and Chinese colleagues are not atypical. The vast majority of foreign English teachers in China are very dissatisfied with their school’s administration.

The situation with Chinese women is a very complex one and it’s a topic that’s virtually impossible to discuss openly and honestly without stepping on someone’s toes or offending someone’s sensibilities. One man’s “raven haired beauty” is quite possibly a woman to be ignored or avoided by others and I knew of several Western men in Guangzhou who only dated Western women by deliberate choice.

Over the course of my 7-year stint in China, I treated several very attractive Chinese women with excellent English language skills who wanted absolutely nothing to do with Western men… believe it or not. Those who see themselves as very competitive for the most desirable Chinese men have little to no interest in dating Western men, and, if they did, it would not be men who can offer them little more than a foreign English teacher’s salary. From their perspective, life will be a lot easier with a good man from the same culture who can speak the same native language. With record breaking unemployment and poverty rates in both the US and the UK, Western men have lost a great deal of the former appeal they had even eight years ago.

Generally speaking, Western men in China under the age of 30 are rather limited in dating options *unless* they were highly competitive for girls back home, are particularly wealthy, or they are attracted to women who believe (whether this belief is real or imagined) that they are not competitive for the best Chinese men.

Western men who have the real dating advantage in China are middle-aged men who--owing to Chinese stereotypes and marital norms--are of great interest to Chinese women aged 30 and above who, for whatever reasons, don’t feel Chinese men represent their best marital choices, e.g., they are no longer virgins, they are not considered particularly pretty by Chinese men (although Western men would disagree), they are divorced (with or without a child), or they were born and raised in the countryside to relatively poor parents.

Yes, one’s individual mileage can vary in China (based on dozens of variables including expectations and standards) but I would argue--based on considerably more than just personal experience--that the author's observations and interpretations are both reliable and valid. Of course, that does not mean they will apply in every case.
 

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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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