Sure, few among us grew up imagining that at any point in our futures we would expatriate to China to teach our native language. There is mixed sentiment on the topic of teaching English in China, but there does not seem to be any rational justification for viewing the job through a grey lens, as taking a position as an English teacher is not only an extremely valuable role for the students and the overall Chinese society, but an education role is also a proverbial foot in the door for all native English speakers who seek a broad scope of opportunity.
Can an English Teacher in China Actually Create Value?
Attempt for a moment to remove yourself from your past experience and future prospects to empathize with Chinese students. This author was, and many who read this essay were, born and raised in America. A country with a population one-fourth of China’s contained within nearly the same land area that still suffers from a relatively competitive job market. Thus, for Americans, the prospects of remaining in or becoming a member of the middle or upper classes is somewhat of a pipe-dream for many. Fortunately, being working class or lower-middle class in America or in much of the Western world is not so bad. For a Chinese, however, the situation is quite different.
Just imagine the level of competition that exists in such a highly populated market. It might be easy for a Westerner to consider only slightly these stresses that Chinese face unless it is understood that there is far less of a welfare state to buttress one’s livelihood in China. Most Chinese students are only children, with many carrying significant responsibility; often, the hopes, dreams, and well-being of their families depend on the financial success of a single child. Additionally, beyond personal and familial financial concerns, the social pressure pushing young Chinese to become middle class is quite intense. A man, for example, may not have any prospects of marriage unless he can afford to purchase a home for his bride; this tough situation is not even considering the gender disparity in China, in which there are considerably fewer females in the millennial generation. These pressures frequently render the average student a ball of stress that bends over their desk six or seven days weekly to push themselves to be at the top of their class, all for a glimmer of hope that their efforts will result in a stable family life, with some semblance of affluence at best.
From the moment a Chinese student begins middle school they begin learning the English language. Some learn the alphabet and basic words from primary school. English language learning is compulsory. Most students who graduate with an undergraduate degree have logged roughly ten years of English language learning in total. Do not be deceived by this time investment, as the curriculum is merely a bizarre throwback to a limited education system that existed decades ago. Most students only learn grammar, basic syntax, fundamental formal vocabulary, and exercise some writing skills. Listening and speaking skills are usually completely absent from the curriculum. However, communicating through email is not sufficient in the modern world; thus, students who aim to study abroad or advance their careers by including English proficiency to their resumes must have an opportunity to develop verbal skills. Moreover, they must also learn how English speakers actually speak, rather than the robotic style that they learned from Chinese text books.
“How are you?”
“Fine, thank you. And you?”
Does this exchange seem a bit antiquated and awkward? That is because it is, yet this is exactly how a Chinese might greet you because their text books teach this. So what? Sure, this sample exchange is an innocuous and PG-rated example of the awkwardness that a Chinese student’s English language understanding might present. A whole book of awkward examples of so-called, “Chinglish” expressions that one might encounter could be written, and many would be cause for blushing. The point is Chinese students need help. If they are to study in foreign countries, work for foreign companies, or simply deal with foreigners to any extent, they need to know how to effectively communicate in a normal colloquial manner. English is the global language of trade and of the academy. Native English speakers are thus blessed to have been brought up with the language and are now given the opportunity to help others acquire the language skills needed for success.
A competent and diligent ESL teacher could make a major impact for a student’s future prospects. While teaching colloquial English to Chinese may seem painfully rudimentary, remember that so it is with many jobs. The difference for English teachers in China is that their seemingly rudimentary work is actually able to produce major results for their client-students. The impact for the student could be the difference between landing a life-changing job in America due to their confidence and aptitude during the interview process or failing to do well while studying abroad, making few local friends, only to return to China wearing the shame of failure and all the trappings that go with being an unemployed recent graduate from a foreign university (often called a haigui – sea turtle, or a haidai – seaweed).
Teaching English in China is Just a Foot in the Door of Greater Opportunity
After teaching English in China for some time, one’s experience offers several different career prospects. The most common can be classified into the following groups: education, entrepreneurship, corporate, academia, as well as entertainment and advertisement. Teaching English might just be a job, but it is a good job in an incredibly dynamic environment. Just like the undergraduate college experience all English teachers in China had to go through in order to qualify for the job, teaching English in China is only as valuable as what one puts into it. While teaching one can build a social network, learn the Chinese language, and gain other valuable social and cultural knowledge that will open doors that were probably unforeseen prior to being present in the Chinese market.
Taking Up a Career in the Chinese Education Industry
General English teaching in China is a reasonably good job. The pay is two to four times that of the local salary, and the compensation is similar to some entry level jobs that a liberal arts major can find in their home country. It is also notable that the cost of living in most Chinese cities is significantly lower than in Western cities. However, for those who want to achieve more in the education industry, an entry-level English teaching job is just the beginning. One can gain more credentials or focus on a niche market in China to obtain an even more satisfying job. The following are just examples of what is possible after just a year or more teaching general English, and all of these positions offer significantly better compensation than that of entry-level English teachers, with more responsibility and potentially more satisfaction.
- IETLS or TOEFL Teacher
- IETLS Examiner
- VIP English Teacher
- IB-Certified High School Teacher
- Curriculum Developer
- School Administrator
- Human Resources Professional
- Education Program Marketer
For those who would like to take risks with their career and financial future for gain and freedom, what better place to start a business than in a booming economy with one-fifth of the world’s population? From luxury goods imports, such a wine imports, to tech-startups in Shanghai and Shenzhen, expats have been raking in returns and suffering loses, as they always do, but in a market that presents special challenges and opportunities that their home countries do not. Good luck.
Corporate Advantages: Law, C-Suite, and Marketing
China has become a top trading partner with all developed countries, and its production and trade have been arguably the largest factors for global productivity growth over the last two decades. This trend is not ceasing. Following from this fact, any ability one has to understand the language, business culture, and sociopolitical realities in China, can render this aptitude into market advantages. The legal industry, such as for mergers and acquisitions, the marketing industry for global brands, and even c-suite leadership in general calls upon regularly the experience and insights of those deeply familiar with China. Of course, to have an impact in these areas requires immense study and effort, as well as years of ladder climbing, but living in China as a ESL teacher is a pain-free and risk-free first step.
Sinology, International Relations, and Niches in Academia
For those seeking to pursue a career in academia with a concentration on international relations, or something more esoteric, like sinology, having in-person experience in China would be significant. Even if solely for the purpose of building one’s network, real-world experience always informs and helps to retain study to a better degree than study alone. Furthermore, one can easily teach in China for some time while also learning the language prior to taking more rigorous training at a Chinese institute of higher-learning. The time spent teaching English in China prior pursuing an academic career can be well-allocated to sharpening one’s focus with regard to areas of interest and opportunities available, and also to the creation of a social and scholarly network that might be necessary for future endeavors.
Entertainment and Advertising: Acting and Modeling
Whether as a side-job or a career pursuit, there are various and curious jobs available for those extroverts who can tolerate being in front of a camera or a crowd. China’s entertainment and advertisement industries are peppered with foreign influence, and in some sectors they are saturated with it. Many teachers in cities where the entertainment industry is big, such as Beijing, can spend their weekends earning extra cash by being extras in films or by advertising products. For most, teaching English in China is their primary job, and acting, modeling, etc., is merely something to do for the experience. For the more outgoing, ambitious, and aesthetically-pleasing, a few gigs snowball into a fulfilling career. The business development offices of Opportunity in China have made connections in these industries, and while Opportunity in China does not recruit in the Entertainment and Advertising industries, contact us and we can point you in the right direction.
A Word of Advice to Readers
It is true that teaching English in China is easy work, easy money, and provides a comfortable life. However, to ensure that you enjoy your experience, especially during those trying first few months, do choose wisely the city and school that you will be stuck with for a year. If you aim for a simple life in China, that is a laudable goal, but do be sure to choose the right type of school and location. Teaching at an English training school in Beijing, for example, might be too large a challenge for someone who is more laid back and accepting of the simpler things in life. For those who want to grow their career, be cognizant of your location and the type of institution you are working for. If you want to grow your career outside of the education sector, do not allow the pleas for support from your colleagues to log extra hours or your greed for extra cash get in the way; it is easy to be a workaholic in China. In essence, location, location, location, and be bold while also diligent in the pursuit of what you want for your future.