I would like to thank everyone for their contributions to this highly informative discussion thus far. The question of financial freedom in China (or anywhere else for that matter) is, obviously, a very complicated and multifaceted one.
In my closing post on the thread “Returning Home Dirt Poor
,” I tried to address the question of China EFL employment from a two-pronged perspective: 1) current income feasibility and, much more important; 2) long-term career positioning and future income-earning capacity. I believe that this second point is at the heart of this matter.
The 20s and 30s, the two decades referred to as "young adulthood," are one’s career development and positioning years. Hypothetically speaking, if someone spends 15 years teaching oral English in China, say from age 25 to 40, what, then, is he prepared to do other than teach English in southeast Asia? The question of entrapment in this case is not just financial, per se, but vocational/logistical.
Compare this scenario to one in which, for example, a young certified teacher with a master’s degree in chemistry teaches at Canadian-curriculum international schools in China and the Middle East and then returns to British Columbia at age 40 with a bundle of savings. Now his situation is entirely different than that of the lay EFL teacher. Our certified Canadian teacher can now apply for any appropriate position he cares to in Canada with the benefit of 15 years of relevant and fully applicable
professional experience. In addition to that, he has a big bundle of money to fall back on, money he managed to save by earning highly competitive salaries in areas of the world that were considerably less expensive to live in than Canada.
The first question, above, of current income feasibility as a China EFL teacher is much more difficult to discuss because the factors influencing and impinging upon one’s perceptions of financial health (or lack thereof) and, particularly, feeling trapped in China are, clearly, far more subjective (psychological) than objective (financial). In this context, quality of life issues (one’s feelings about the physical environment, public hygiene, social mores and norms, language barrier, etc.) are especially relevant to this discussion.
Why are corporate executives from companies like Nike and BMW awarded significant bonuses when they are transferred to mainland China? Because despite the fact that their six-figure incomes will go a lot further in China than back in, say, Pensacola, Florida or Hamburg, Germany, the companies fear they will lose their senior managers to the harshness of day to day life in China without that added financial incentive to stay. This is not a concern they would have if these employees had been transferred instead to San Diego, California or Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Whether we are talking about Western people in China or Western people back in their own respective countries, the clearest road to financial freedom is (successful) business ownership, especially businesses than can be managed by individuals other than the owner. The problem with a private practice in psychotherapy or freelance teaching in China (completely aside from the fact that, in both examples, one has no choice but to work illegally and, thus, “dodge between the raindrops”) is that, although far more lucrative than a salaried teaching position, one has to earn the income "with his own hands" and remain in China to do it. Get sick, go on vacation, or move to another location and the income stops. This is a very different scenario than owning a bar or school (or a franchise of such) in which other people can run these businesses for the owner.
I agree with Dr. Lucy and John Taylor that there is ever growing anti-foreign sentiment in China. Right now it seems to be mostly limited to Americans but, obviously, as was the case with the Boxer Rebellion, all Western people will eventually be targeted, especially when China's economy takes a turn for the worst (and it has already begun, watch out). In the last month alone, I have received two independent reports from American teachers of harassment and I have another unconfirmed report of two foreign teachers having been beaten by their students at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou last year. When I was practicing in Guangzhou, I worked with a young American man (EFL teacher) who was routinely bullied and harassed by the local Chinese (other young men), although he seemed to be targeted more when he was in public with his Chinese wife.
Nevertheless, as more and more factories close (that is, as more American companies win back bids they had previously lost to China), as more and more Chinese become unemployed and disenchanted, the "rich" foreigners in their neighborhoods, particularly the ones married to "their women," will become convenient targets of their displaced frustration and anger.
While I had never personally been the victim of intimidation or bullying, during the entire seven year period that I lived and worked in China, I could never quite get over the audacity, oppressiveness, and sheer stupidity of both the degree and scope of Han chauvinism that surrounded me. In this context, I do agree with Refugee and Dr. Lucy that the Chinese do not truly want to learn from us. We are in China to be exploited, pure and simple.
At the end of the day, financial success in China is a race of who can exploit whom first.