The Ups and Downs of Teaching English in China
Dec 23, 2010 Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) 5006 Views
To teach or not to teach
If you've ever considered moving to another country, a popular choice to make money while your there is to become an English teacher. I've been teaching English in China for around 6 months now, and I can tell you there are definitely a lot of good things about living and working in China and also a lot of bad.
This list is about the ups and downs that my friends and I have encountered. Understanding what to expect with a job like this will help you decide if it's the type of job that you'd enjoy and knowing what you'll encounter can make all the difference in your mental attitude once you arrive.
Low hours - Most contracts have you working around 20 in class hours a week and will usually cost you only 3-4 hours in lesson planning time.
Relatively high pay - In most Chinese cities (excluding Beijing and Shanghai) you could easily live off of 2000-3000 RMB in a month rather comfortably and most contracts pay around 5000-8000 RMB. You'll have enough money to eat at restaurants for every meal, go out to extravagant parties a few times a week, buy lots of clothes, and treat yourself to things like Chinese massages often while still being able to save a couple thousand RMB a month on the higher contracts.
Free apartment - All decent contracts come with a free fully furnished western-ish apartment or pay enough money as a bonus "apartment fee" to rent a good apartment on your own. Reasonable apartment bonus's are around 1100-1700 a month.
Rock-star status - As a foreigner you'll have no trouble meeting new Chinese friends, especially if you speak a bit of the language. People will also treat you as a bit of a rockstar. They'll say hi to you on the streets, ask permission to take pictures with you, come to your table to cheers you at dinner, offer you loads of free beer at the clubs, invite you to their houses to celebrate things, you'll get invited to all sorts of parties and generally people will be overly friendly towards you.
Inexpensiveness - Things are really really cheap. You can get an hour massage for $8, a beer for 30 cents, a taxi ride across town for $5 etc. Having said this though, you still get ripped off on most things for being a foreigner.
Adventure - Let's face it, living for a year in another country is a big adventure especially if you haven't traveled much before. Every day will feel a little more interesting than it did back home, especially at first. You'll see things you never imagined seeing and experience things you've never imagined experiencing.
Freedom - China has a lot of freedom, which sounds strange being a communist government. What I mean is little personal freedoms, in the sense you can carry beer on the street, you can bring drinks into a restaurant, you can dance up on the bar if you feel like it, you can walk into a store and buy a single battery out of a pack of 20 if you want, you can bargain for things, and generally the police don't bother with you (as a foreigner).
Personal growth - In China you'll have to step out of your comfort zone a bunch, and get used to a bunch of difficult or just play different new things. You'll definitely learn a lot and probably gain a lot of valuable personal gains like increased independence and confidence. You'll also gain expanded perspectives, learn about life, open up a new world of possibilities, and a whole array of other valuable things.
Meeting new people - It's been really great to meet people from all over the world while here in China. I now have friends in Australia, all over the UK, America, South Africa and the Philippines. It's great to learn from so many people who have such different perspectives of the world and also have someone to visit in future travels. Oh and this is not to mention all the new friends I have scattered around China.
Amazing travel - China is a massive country and with such a long history it has a wide array of amazing places to visit. From the great wall to the terracotta warriors to the various temples around you can get a completely different experience all over the country. China also has some of the world's most beautiful natural scenery to lay your eyes on. From the stunning landscape of Yangshou to the mountains of Tibet, China really is a place to experience the amazing-ness of travel.
Chinese management - From what I've heard from other teachers, ever single school has bad management. There's a bunch of bullshit, they'll try to change things on your contract, they'll lie a little to get you to the school, and they generally won't respect you. The entire time however putting up a façade that they appreciate you so much and that your happiness is of the utmost importance. Chinese management tends to do whatever possible to save a buck, even if the consequences of those actions cost them greatly in the future from staff quitting or other kinds of setbacks. Having said this though, all the staff below the top managers are generally wonderful people.
Demanding position - While the hours are low you still have to consider the lesson preparation time before every single class. And the job isn't incredibly difficult I still find it to be a lot more demanding then I first expected. As a teacher you'll most likely be teaching kids of different ages and you will have to become a performer. You have to act interesting and goofy and entertaining, all the while maintaining discipline and ensuring the kids actually learn the material. You have to always speak loudly and clearly, have loads of patience, and find ways to deal with the few kids who are completely out of control. You have to try to make the kids happy, the school happy and the parents happy. Often in these positions you're also severely punished (financially) for taking sick days. With my current contract if I miss even a single class I lose 500rmb of my perfect attendance bonus, and 200 rmb for that class if no other teacher can make it up. It can be pretty difficult to be the energetic entertaining people pleaser while suffering from an illness but you just have to push through class after class if you don't want to lose your months pay.
Rude people - While I've said before I've met some wonderful Chinese people, there also quite the rude bunch in general. They'll walk up to you with their friends point at you in your face, say a bunch of things to their friends in Chinese and then laugh at you. They'll spit on the floor in buses and restaurants. They'll blow their nose using just their fingers on the street. They'll honk at you like crazy even if you have the right away. They'll stare at you like no tomorrow, and they'll push you out of the way to get on the bus or to get to the front of the lineup. Oh and they'll also tell you your fat or you have a big nose without expecting it to cause any offence.
Weird food - Sure experiencing another cultures food is one of the nice things about travelling. But they eat some crazy stuff here in china. In Chinese culture it's very important not to waste so this has translated into Chinese people eating literally every part of the animal, and they'll also eat any animal with its back to the sun. After eating intestines, cheeks, blood clumps and other internal organs I stopped asking what the food in front of me was. If you go to a big dinner such as a hot pot with friends where you all share what is ordered you can get some really good food, but if you go to the type of restaurant where you order your own food the selection is usually pretty limited. You should expect to eat either rice or noodles at nearly every meal. While you can usually find either a McDonald's or a KFC wherever you are other western food is very hard to find and usually tastes nothing like its western counterpart. In the city I'm currently in my meal choices are street meat with veggies, rice with meat/veggies, noodles with meat/veggies, soup with noodles meat/veggies or KFC. I miss western food so much.
Language Barrier - If you're going to live in another country with so few English speakers like china learning the language is essential. But even after putting in hours of study you'll still have a lot of hard times and frustrations trying to communicate with the locals. Ordering food on a Chinese menu is very difficult until you've learned hundreds of Chinese characters, making friends with people who speak no English is hard, and buying things can involve a whole lot of charades and blank stares. Finding a device that lets you translate whole sentences on the fly is definitely recommended.
Pollution - This one doesn't need much of an explanation, in the cities the skies are full of smog, and the rivers are full of garbage. People also litter everywhere.
The Driving - Driving in china is absolutely crazy, people do the craziest most dangerous things constantly and for no reason. People go through red lights whenever its convenient, drive on the wrong side of the road, they never stop at intersections, and generally the driving is just stupid. The thing that bothers me the most is the constant never ending honking. Instead of signals or common sense people just use their horns instead. A car can be driving alone at night down a street and he'll still use his horn often just to warn any possible people of his existence. They also use it at the most unnecessary times. To give you an example, you can be crossing a tiny little side street, where you have the right away, where any car coming down the sidestreet would have to stop before turning onto the main street, and where the street is so short the car coming doesn't even need to slow down for you, and he'll still blare his horn at you. For absolutely no reason.
Racism - Chinese people are often seen as racist. In my experience I've heard a lot of negative comments about black people. They also don't hold back because of their outspoken honesty, if your dark skinned and they think it makes you look like a monkey they'll tell you.
Reserved people - One thing that bothers me a lot about Chinese people is how traditional so many of them are. Especially in the smaller towns people are often very close minded, and very set in their ways. Some still believe it's crazy to have sex before marriage, and standing out from the crowd is seen as a bad thing. Generally it's very difficult to find a fun, exciting, adventurous or spontaneous Chinese person. Although in my 6 months there I have found 2... they do exist!
Should you do it?
Well there you have it - my list of the good things and bad thing about teaching English here in China. I'm sure there's a few things in both categories I missed but this should give you a good idea of what to expect. I'll admit there are days when all I talk about is how much I like China, and other days where all I do is bitch about China with other foreigners. If you're considering a job teaching English overseas and the list of bad things doesn't make you cringe too much I absolutely recommend giving it a shot... Living in another country has been an incredible experience, and to me the good definitely outweighs the bad.
If you're a stubborn person who can't easily adapt to new things, different ways of doing things, and strange people, then teaching in China is not for you... but if you're the type who wants to break out of the ordinary, experience a wacky but interesting culture, expose yourself to a bunch of new things, and have an adventure of a lifetime, teaching will be the perfect way to do it. Stay tuned for my next article about practical tips for getting a job and enjoying your time teaching English in China.