I struggled with how to best respond to your questions and concerns for I think the most thorough and informative response could easily take up another volume the size of the Foreign Teachers Guide
. In the interest of time and brevity, I will share some of my most pressing thoughts only.
This coming Monday will make exactly five weeks since I first arrived in Abu Dhabi, the capital emirate of the United Arab Emirates—and what a fascinating time it is to be living in the Middle East. Now that I am living in an economically-developed country again, I'm wondering why I decided to remain in mainland China for as long as I did. I didn't realize, for example, how much I had missed being able to wash my hands with soap and hot water and then dry them with paper toweling when needing to use a public bathroom. That's the kind of thing you take for granted when you are living in a developed country that now feels like a luxury after having lost it for such a long period of time.
During the summer of 2003, when I first decided to move to China, there weren’t any credible online resources available to me like Middle Kingdom Life. The only information available at that time was from anonymous China EFL forums, TEFL websites, and—worst of all—Chinese and Western recruiters and franchise chain schools. As it turned out, none of that information was very truthful or reality-oriented. It was all just a bunch of self-serving advertising crap. For this reason, Middle Kingdom Life will continue to be maintained and updated in the future.
Based on both my personal and professional experience in China, I have concluded that Western people have no long-term place in the People’s Republic of China—in any capacity
. The Chinese need us but they really don't want us here other than to close business deals that favor them, sign checks, and make them rich. No matter how long one remains in China, he or she will always be an outsider.
Compared to all other developed and developing countries (and even a few third-world countries), China is an incredibly unhealthy place to live. In the 87 months in total that I lived in mainland China, I suffered 30 distinct and severe upper-respiratory infections. Just a few months before leaving China, my wife contracted H. Pylori, the bacterium responsible for gastric ulcers. The doctors informed her that she most likely contracted it from eating contaminated barbecued intestines at these street-side food stalls.
There is a reason large companies like Nike and BMW pay their managers “combat pay” when sending them to this country for a year or two at a time. Rarely do Western employees ask to work in the Middle Kingdom and assignment to mainland China is often used as a punishment, an alternative to termination. It is estimated that up to 50 percent of all Western employees sent to mainland China leave the country earlier than originally planned.1
Obviously, the EFL industry in China is a joke—on every level
. College freshmen who score very poorly on the national college entrance exam are assigned English as a consolation major. The teaching of English as a foreign language in China is an unregulated money-making enterprise that primarily attracts the most unqualified and unsavory people in the world.
There are only a handful of professional (those licensed or certified in their countries of origin) Western educators teaching English in China—on a long-term basis that is. They may come to China for a summer or two as Christian missionaries or to volunteer in some rural region for a few weeks. New MA degree graduates in TESOL or linguistics, who are also certified as teachers back home, may work for a while at an international school in the PRC earning decent money, teaching Western-approved curricula, before heading off to Hong Kong, the Middle East, or some other Western(ized) country where they can grow professionally and earn a good living.
Notwithstanding the occasional volunteer or the newly licensed teacher who starts his journey as an itinerant educator in the PRC, no one who is qualified to do anything else remains in mainland China teaching oral English for the entirety of their careers at meager salaries of $900 to $1200 per month in the context of the world’s fastest growing rate of inflation that places the cost of milk, eggs, and bread higher in China than in New York City or San Francisco. Living in mainland China is no longer the bargain that it was even five years ago.
I would not have been able to report this to you five weeks ago but I now know what it means to live in a foreign country that truly values the contributions of its foreign experts.
It seems to me that every time it was discovered that I was an American professor, life became more complicated or expensive (or both) for me in mainland China. Instead of being appreciated for the sacrifices I was making as an American doctor living and working in a developing country as challenging as China, my presence was typically perceived as a potential annoyance and an opportunity to exploit and cheat the foreigner. While I was teaching at Hainan University, it was brought to my attention by my students how one of the associate professors in the College of Tourism used to routinely explain and brag to them about how easy it was for him to cheat the "stupid foreigners."
Setting aside the sentiment of my students and patients, there was never any real appreciation on the part of my employers or the government for my contributions. They always seemed to act as if they were somehow doing me a big favor by allowing me to work in substandard conditions for peanuts. From a psychoanalytic perspective, this is referred to as a grandiose self-defense and it defines the psychic life of the pathological narcissist.
No matter how much work I agreed to do for my Chinese employers, it was never enough for them: If we agreed to eight periods per week of teaching, they would figure out how to get 10 periods. The reality was that given the salaries I was working for, even six periods per week should have been viewed as a very generous gift on my part. This complete lack of appreciation, this "never enough" mentality, is probably the main reason I finally decided to leave China after so many years.
Aside from all that, I am relieved to be living in a country again where labels and brand names actually mean something. Everything in China—except the language and the culture—appears to be fake. In a little over seven years, I needed to buy five motherboards, close to a dozen hard disk drives, three different DVD drives, and two sets of RAM.
I am living in a country again where God is worshiped instead of money and my work is genuinely appreciated. The Emiratis know that their oil supplies will not last forever so--quite unlike the Chinese--they are extremely grateful to Western expats perceived as important to the further development of their country. In what is a 180-degree turnaround, Western doctors and professors are treated like VIPs in Abu Dhabi instead of sources to be exploited.
I certainly do not miss all the lying and cheating, absurd arrogance, resentment and jealousy, piracy (while having to pay full prices), and ubiquitously unsanitary conditions (e.g., public spitting and urination) I encountered for over seven years while living and working in mainland China. Not at all.
For anyone thinking about moving to China to teach oral English: If you must come, make sure you
are going to benefit from the experience. Use
China for your own advantage, don’t allow them to use, abuse, and exploit you. A TEFL job in China is great for subsidizing language study or a working vacation but just make sure it is time-limited and that you have a clear and specific exit plan
If you are moving here to escape prolonged unemployment or because of legal problems, I urge you not to. Do anything and everything you can to avoid doing so. If you are completely out of other options, then come with a realistic mindset and most certainly do expect to be exploited and abused, especially (but not only) if you are relatively unqualified. By all means, make certain your Chinese employers believe you have money in the bank and either family or a home to return to in your native country.
-----------------------------------1Farrar, Lara (2009, October 30). 50% of new expats leave China early. China Daily. Retrieved November 4, 2009 from http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/metro/2009 ... 873247.htm