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Teaching English in China: How to Prepare, What to Expect

In 1989 the Chinese ESL work market unlocked with Deng Xiao Ping’s “Open Door Policy.” Today, practically anyone can get a job, even unqualified foreigners, though certification and a college degree are increasingly a requirement due to the quantity of teachers who have taken advantage of this route. Previous teachers, qualified and otherwise, influence the way Chinese employers perceive you. And unfortunately some Chinese employers have learned the art of misrepresenting, to put it mildly, a job.

Know What You Want Before Signing a Contract

The best way to gain a reputable, well-fitting post is to know what you want before signing a work contract. China is a vast country, with extreme variations in people, population numbers, development, and pay scales. If you cannot bear the chill of winter do not apply for a lucrative post in Hai Lar; conversely, if you’re from Nevada you might enjoy the bleak open spaces of Xin Jiang. Traditionally, the Chinese divide their country into the noodle eating north, “bei fang,” and the rice munching south, “nan fang.” Foreigners predominate in the south because it is more developed and the climate is less severe, but this also means competition for posts is higher and salaries reflect this reality. China’s coveted “Spring City,” Kunming, for example, pays university instructors less than some remote posts for middle school teachers in Xin Jiang. Make lists of your financial, physical, geographical, and future goals. Read prolifically about China; then begin your job search.

Do Your Research

With the advent of the Web finding work in China has become quick and easy. But like Internet dating it can be risky because you are basically getting whatever the other person wants you to perceive. Once you have located a post of interest, run a search on it in an ESL chat room such as or Ask the school or university to give you the email addresses of current foreign teachers. Send them your questions and concerns. Finally, ask the employer detailed questions and note the response, not only the content but speed of reply, organization, and fluency. Study their pictures and websites.

Read that Contract Carefully

It is standard procedure to sign a contract in China. Read it carefully before you sign. If you break your agreement and leave, your employer will discreetly blacklist you in that province. Universities fine up to $500 for breaking contracts. Study salaries and terms by looking extensively at job listings. Be prepared to negotiate before signing anything; know the market rates. Private schools are particularly prone to salary fluctuations. For example, an ESL instructor with a master’s degree and teaching experience deserves more than a greenhorn with a TESOL certificate, but the Chinese will hire both at the same salary if they can.

Before arrival make sure all your documents are safely scanned on a disk. Food and clothing are easily purchased here but ESL resources are nonexistent. International media mail is slow but reliable and cheap. Study the new flight restrictions.

Be a Respectful and Generous Guest

Because foreign teachers rarely speak Chinese a foreign liaison will help you with adapting to basic survival issues: buying staples, using a cell phone, hooking up to the Internet, etc. He or she is not paid extra to do this; hence, it is a good idea to thank this person publicly after you have settled in. Traditionally, holding a banquet is proper Chinese etiquette to show appreciation. Your employer will also host lavish dinners for staff as well. If you refuse an invitation you will be perceived as discontented or ill bred.

Most Chinese do not view foreign teachers as entirely “real,” because they are transient, working for a year or less and leaving. They also know foreign teachers are paid a much higher salary and given special perks. The importance of inviting your colleagues out to eat cannot be over emphasized; it will both reduce resentment and portray you as a member of the community rather than as a spoiled foreigner. Learning Chinese will also bring you both cultural understanding and approval. Token participation in bureaucratic events, sports meetings, teacher’s meetings, and official holiday festivities will earn you untold regards by your Chinese colleagues. They are required to waste many hours in official functions.

Do as the Chinese Do

It is best to choose your battles wisely. Complaining too much will label you as malcontent, but ignoring hazy issues signals that you are easily manipulated. Weigh your complaints carefully: teaching overtime requires extra pay in a timely fashion, but teaching the boss’s child isn’t reasonable. Extract yourself politely by pleading previous engagements; blatant refusals are considered quite rude. Remember, Chinese work ethics are not Western. Bosses routinely expect employees to do many things to advance their own career and whims. If you plan to stay at a post long-term you may be solicited for editorial, secretarial, and private tutoring services. If you are willing, negotiate a deal that gives you some money and your boss some face: “I’d be glad to do this for you for only XX Yuan instead of full price because you have made my life so comfortable here.”

Your success in China, just as in the West, depends upon several simple requirements: knowing yourself, defining your goals and expectations, researching the work environment, and following cultural norms. Negotiating, however, is an art, and the Chinese are famous for their prowess, so bone up with self-help books. Finally, keep in mind that the charm of Chinese culture and the Chinese people, with their innate dignity, humor, stamina, and quickness of mind, will enrich your life despite any hardship you may endure along the way.

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