My Outlook from Teaching and Living in China
Written by guest teacher Eric L Martin
Imagine spending nine months in a school with a great working environment: There are students—despite the short amount of time—who have displayed an enormous amount of success in how they are learning and speaking English; you get to see these young faces literally grow up before your eyes, But something happens and you are abruptly removed from your school and forced to a new city to finish out your remaining three months.
While I could go into detail in how the above story unfolded—trust me I am not at all pleased, I can tell you that living and working in China has been a bit of a whirlwind. I didn’t know how I wanted to approach writing this because I could go to a myriad of directions. Instead, I’ll keep it simple and hopefully informative that will allow you to be successful if you decide to venture into becoming a Foreign English Teacher in China.
I’ve been fortunate to work and live in several different countries. While I have a degree in Communications, I have spent most of my professional career in customer service. Within the customer services field, I have always worked to learn as much as I could to be able to train and teach other adults. I remember years ago contemplating teaching English in a foreign country. So, because of my love of traveling, training, and teaching (having worked as an education assistant at a High School), I thought now would be a great time to apply.
I am well aware that there are cultural differences in each country that any person would be remiss for not realising. However, China is a completely different ball game. After your one-hundredth request for a photo and then blatantly staring and taking videos and pictures without permission, things can get cumbersome. You are a foreigner so it comes with the territory (But you can totally say no thank you).
They always tell you when living in another country that there will be a honeymoon period. This was no different. When I retrieved my bags I was greeted with great fanfare. I have to admit, it was quite endearing. There were literally 6 people who came to greet me at the airport. Meeting new people, eating lots of food, and staying at a nice hotel—all while getting a hot spa treatment, was what was shown to me to ensure that I was greatly taken care of. After all, I was a foreigner and I needed to remain happy for the duration of my stay.
That sounded a bit crazy to me — I need to remain happy whilst teaching. But what I came to witness is that there were many teachers who would leave within months (even weeks) of teaching in China. The primary reason for their leave was that they weren’t happy. As I stated earlier, my working environment was great. It was weird, but I didn’t want for anything. My headmasters and assistants were slated to take care of me. Anything that I needed, including assistance with shopping and translation, was literally at my beck and call. I never knew I could get tired of sitting in the front passenger seat, but that was what I was always offered. Oh, and having things carried for me and having doors opened for me literally threw me for a loop. It was confusing, yet I rolled with it.
Now, you are probably reading this and thinking that my whole year was fantastic. I got to travel to different cities and see very cool things including China’s Snow Town, Harbin’s Ice and Snow World (among many other popular destination spots). I was also treated to the hot spa treatment multiple times as well as partying it up with my team at KTV. I got to teach lots of cute Chinese students. And seeing how they were quick to give tight hugs and bum rush you as you enter the classroom, it can bring joy to any teacher. It is those things that I will have fond memories of. However, there is one thing that I had anticipated happening but didn’t truly place weight on its gravity: lack of community with other Expats.
I didn’t have the luxury of being part of a larger international school. They typically have several to almost half a dozen or more foreign teachers at the same location. I was the only foreign English teacher at my school in my jurisdiction. It took me seven months to find out that there were other expats in the same city. To be fair, when choosing which school to apply to or which province/city to teach in, you are weighing several options that you believe you can best contend with: salary, living cost, how much you can save, how often do you/can you travel, etc.
- Check out the list of teaching English abroad jobs
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The first step I took was to get my TEFL/TESOL certification. There were so many places online to take this certification that it was so confusing. I found a website, EnglishTeacherChina.com, that offered the certification for free. It took me longer to complete the certification online but don’t be intimidated. There are international programs that you can get hired through that will offer part of the certification online, and the other portion in person (in correlation with training) once you’ve reached China. One of those programs is called English First.
With the online certification program, Teach English In China, I was immediately set up with several local Chinese agencies who would then send my cv/resume to several schools in different provinces. The great thing about these local service agencies is that they helped me with the paperwork process. The paperwork process can seem like a lot (and expensive)—and it is. But as long as you follow the process verbatim then you should be fine. Because I wanted to keep my options open, I applied with English First to see which one best suits my personal preference. In reference to the paperwork, expect to pay quite a bit for document certification and the visa application process. Depending on where you live you will have to either use a courier service (like VisaRite-which can be very expensive) or take a trip to your nearest embassy to submit your documents.
Because I chose to not accept the position through English First, going through the local Chinese agency was my best option. Unless it’s a larger international school, being hired directly from a school can directly affect how much you can get paid. While I got hired through the school, the agency was with whom I worked with directly before I touched down in China. Two of the six people I mentioned earlier were actually my liaisons from the agency.
When it comes to working with smaller schools directly, I am speaking from experience. I was given the opportunity to interview several potential foreign English teachers. I also had to edit contracts that were given to applicants. Smaller schools are only allowed to pay you so much, but in conjunction with an agency, you’ll be paid a bit more (I got paid from my school and from the agency). If you are hired by a smaller school, then most of them will want you to make your way to China as quickly as possible. The larger ones will give you a few months of the grace period.
Before I made my way to China I knew I was part of a network of four schools, but when I got to my city, that reality quickly diminished. Things weren’t all as they seemed. Teaching English was absolutely the easiest part of my stay. I loved how my teaching style changed with each month as well as knowing what works immediately. It went from teaching little kids to learn how to say words properly through memorisation to actually helping them develop a sense of what words meant and their context. I was teaching grammar to 5-year-olds even when I didn’t have to. My advice when coming to teach is to gather as much information about games to teach. Many parents want their students to be happy while they are learning. Otherwise, they will complain. Parents can pull a lot of weight in how their children are learning. They will try to assert how they want you to teach.
I was only required to teach 120 hours a month. Don’t let that number fool you, it’s not a lot when you break it all down. I would spend an average of 20 hours a day by myself. The degree of feeling lonely only deepened as the weeks went by. It was knowing that I would be taking international trips that kept me sane. My recommendation is to find a hobby like learning Chinese or find someone to tutor on the side if you are allowed to. Not everyone will have the same experience I had. But what I hope to do is give you as much information to be prepared.
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First, never settle for the first thing you see. It is not to say that you won’t circle back around, but keep your options open. This includes knowing if the program/school you’ve agreed to teach at will observe many of the Chinese holidays (read that contract thoroughly). My contract stated that I would be given a winter/summer holiday of 15 days each. However, because my school observed most of the holidays, I had one month off during the winter and summer holidays. While that was great for travel purposes, I didn’t get paid for those months. I found this out within the first month of me working at the school.
Second, always assume things aren’t right. You must double (even triple) check everything. Make sure you have a clear line of communication. You need to keep your best interest at heart. Ask as many questions as possible. There is no such thing as too many questions. One way to help with communication is to download translation apps (like Microsoft Translator). As I stated earlier, because you are the guest, your happiness is their priority. So that means if you have concerns, don’t be afraid to voice them. In addition, —even before you leave for China and whilst teaching, make sure you get everything in writing. If it’s not in writing, it doesn’t exist. Third, China is very strict about how foreigners come to teach. If you don’t have the proper working visa documents, you and the company that you work for can be in a world of trouble—trust me when I tell you I was caught in the crossfire of two incidents.
Fourth, immediately find an expat community in your area. There are tens of thousands of expats living and teaching English in China. For the longest, I didn’t think there were any around me. I was mistaken. Finding a crew will bode well for your psyche. Fifth, China is relatively safe. But that doesn’t mean you should relax; keep your identification on you at all times. Sixth, the process for setting up your banking and cellphone can be long and arduous. Be sure to have someone with you (this includes looking for an apartment). You will be able to pay for a full year’s worth of phone data, so make sure you get that option. And make sure you retain all of your documents including a Chinese identification card you’ll receive once your passport has a residency stamp inside.
Lastly, while a lot of things may be made in China, there are a lot of times you are probably going to have to search online for things because it may not be sold locally. A very popular app called ToaBoa will do you wonders. You will find many items from America (or other countries) that you can have shipped to you.
The amazing thing about China is regardless of where you live, your apartment will be fully furnished. If you have to bring some things from home, then I would say only bring the minimum (like medication). You can actually get many items in China at a low cost.
If there are several things that I have taken away from my experience is the true nature of the family community. There is a strong nucleus of the family. Whilst teaching you won’t just interact with mom and dad; the grandparents will be present as well. I loved getting to meet and hang out with the families of the people I work with. Although I didn’t speak Chinese, they treated me like I was family.
One of the misconceptions about China is that they are all living in poor conditions. While that can be true for some, that’s not true for all. People believe that just because China is a communist country that people must be living in fear. But that is the total opposite. Many people that I have spoken with are living their best life. The government wants to ensure that everyone is taken care of. One of my favourite sights to see is watching the elderly receiving free check-ups at the local malls. They have no want for things because everything is at their disposal.
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There is also a level of self-sustaining ability that I have yet to see anywhere else in my travels. Where I did my teaching, they used open spaces to create gardens of fruits and vegetables. Kindergartens that I would teach at would literally eat food grown in their own open fields. They have no want for food because it’s always available.
There is one more thing I wanted to add for those who are people of colour. Some schools believe that a person of fairer skin (particularly of European descent) will be a better fit for their child’s learning ability. If you apply and you feel you have the necessary experience but you are rejected, that could be the reason why. I’ve heard with my own ears of conversations pertaining to this. I am stating this because it could come up in conversation with any agencies you apply to. Don’t be discouraged though. It’s not a widespread issue and there are plenty of schools willing to have you on their team.
I hope that you found this small bit of information helpful in your journey to China. As long as you follow the laws then you will be completely fine. At times it can take its toll because you are away from those close to you, but finding a community will help for the long haul.
Thanks for reading,
Eric L Martin
P.S. The Chinese are a creature of habit. They will replay the same songs even if you are in the car. In my first week, I had to ask my driver to switch songs that he had been replaying for almost two days straight. Also, pack loads Pepto Bismol or Imodium. Trust me, they will save your life. Also, you will need a VPN to use popular social media apps. The most popular is the Express VPN. Usually about $99 a year.