First and foremost, this post does not apply to everyone. There are still many enjoyable opportunities in Mainland China that involve the English language, from both a general teaching and business training standpoint. The work I myself currently do focuses on both the English and Chinese languages, as well as business and cross cultural issues. However, from my own experience this is not the reality facing the large number of Western graduates and professionals who come to Mainland China every year looking for a new experience and hoping to jump start their careers.
This is who this post is primarily intended for, those ambitious (and often young) Westerners who are itching to realize their own “China dream.” Some first spend some time studying at Chinese universities. Others come straight to Mainland China in a professional capacity looking for work. In either case the result is often the same. In the Chinese market, a market which increasingly favors local and Chinese speaking talent, these young professionals can find it very difficult, if not impossible to find work in their field of study (e.g. business management, PR, finance). Many of these Western professionals, intent on making it in the Chinese market, will take on odd jobs to pay the bills. These part times jobs often include English teaching or training at one or more of the many small schools and training centers that populate most large Chinese cities.
Unfortunately, some of the ways in which the English language learning market has developed in Mainland China can easily create situations in which Westerners can feel stuck, unappreciated, and not moving forward. Because of this, Western graduates and professionals might want to rethink becoming an English teacher in Mainland China. I list some of the most compelling reasons below, based partly on my own experiences, and partly through conversations with other Westerners who have taught English in China.
- You might be “just a face” to your students. For many years the Chinese have focused on learning English as an effective route to career advancement. Most Chinese agree that a proper learning environment (e.g. not enough native speakers) does not exist in Mainland China, and therefore many students focus primarily on trying to find a native speaker to teach them. Not knowing any better, and primarily associating native English speakers with white faces, a white face is often the key litmus test for many Chinese looking for a English teacher or trainer (though this more often happens among parents of young students). And whether you are the “white face” or just the “Western face,” It can sometimes lead the Chinese the view you as a mere tool and prevent meaningful relationships with students from developing.
- Students expect miracles. Chinese nationals are bombarded daily with many advertisements for English learning methods and schools, which often promise miracles through little effort. For example, certain ads I have previously seen for English First, promise students the ability to “understand CNN” or “watch American TV shows without subtitles” through one month of practicing five minutes a day. These promises (or what I personally would call blatant lies) are promoted by English schools and training centers desperate to attract students. With such high hopes placed on the “miracles” Western teachers can achieve, it is therefore not surprising that Chinese students may start studying with high expectations, only to become disappointed later. This disappointment can sometimes manifest itself in unhappy parents or students who may decide to find a “more effective” teacher.
- Students usually don’t go out of their way to practice. It can be common for many Chinese students to not study much outside of class time. Whether due to work, a busy social life or shyness with regard to practicing English in public (e.g. fear of losing Face), many Chinese find it very difficult to spend a lot of time proactively studying (e.g. speaking and writing) on their own. Not only can this cause frustration for a devoted teacher, but the Chinese nationals (or their parents, in the case of a young student) may consciously or unconsciously hold the Western teacher responsible for a lack of progress. After all, the teacher is “the expert,” and an expert would have taken steps to ensure efficient and effective language learning.
- You are easily replaced. To the Chinese, who by and large do not have much experience interacting with Westerners, one Westerner often seems as good as any other with regard to teaching the English language. And while Americans, Canadians, or British are often preferred, a German, French, or other European national usually seems almost just as good. This is especially relevant when a Westerner is working for a small school or training center (as opposed to independently, or with a large school or university), as what schools are selling (and students are buying) is a Western face. Thus a teacher may be let go (or have a specific class, or one-on-one arrangement canceled) if a student complains or the school thinks it can find a better (cheaper) deal. After all, there are hundreds of other Westerners looking for work, how different can one be from the other?
- Competition drives down wages. Another potential negative aspect of so many young Western would-be teachers and trainers flooding Chinese cities looking for work, is that they usually have little to no bargaining power. After all many if not most English teachers in China are working part time or short term, and don’t have the experience or certificates that would be required to land a higher paying job at one of China’s more well know and bigger training schools or universities. Thus in China, most part time English teachers receive a fixed offer from a student, school, or training center. Also, this offer is likely to be based on the going market rate, and not on the experience of the teacher, or the value he or she can provide. And while these wages might allow an easy and carefree life in 2nd and 3rd tier cities, it can be much harder to get by on in the big city.
- Students will expect you to conform to their schedule. When taking work from a small school or training center, some students may prefer to hold lessons at home, at a public location, or sometimes at the training center itself. In all cases, these locations are almost always arranged for maximum convenience for the student, and if a teacher accepts a given student, its common that the teacher be required to compute up to 30-60 minutes (if not longer) one way, just for one or two hours of work. In addition, general practice is that a student can cancel for any reason (to 12-24 hours prior to the lesson) without having to compensate the teacher.
- Lack of job satisfaction. While the above factors are largely due to market factors and not to the Chinese having any ill will towards Westerners, the result can still leave Westerners trying to grow and develop in China with a sour taste in their mouths. Whether due to low wages, students that don’t improve, or a hectic schedule, teaching English in China can just feel like a bad experience all around, depending on one’s individual situation.
- It will not move you forward professionally. Lastly, as this article is written mainly with aspiring Western professionals in mind, it’s important to remember that teaching English in Mainland China will almost certainly not move you closer to your professional goals; mainly it will only allow you to survive in China for a time. In addition, most small schools are almost unilaterally unable to legally employ foreigners (any signed contract in these cases is fake), and working with such an illegal institution can not only not provide job genuine job references, but foreign teachers could find themselves at the mercy of the Chinese authorities, if discovered.
What to Do if You Want to Work in China
The fact of the matter is that the number of Westerners interested in China is steadily increasing, while the number of available opportunities is shrinking rapidly. In my experience there are currently almost no available opportunities for untried and untested Western professionals in the Mainland Chinese market. Therefore, if you are a Westerner who wants to not only experience China, but also to grow and develop in Mainland China professionally, I would suggest a different path.
- Go home and get some experience. Unlike in years past, there are very few legitimate opportunities for Westerners in China who have little to no work experience. Therefore its likely best to return to your home country and acquire at least a few years of experience in a given industry. If it’s an industry growing quickly in China, all the better. The booming (relatively) Chinese market still seems to need experienced professionals in a number of industries and local resources (e.g. universities and the Mainland Chinese talent pool) are still having a hard time picking up the slack.
- Start studying Chinese. From the standpoint of a Western professional, not being able to speak, read, or write Chinese is a big disadvantage in Mainland China, and this disadvantage is likely to become more pronounced over time. While it’s true many current Western business people in China arn’t required to speak Chinese, the younger generation has already begun being subjected to a different standard. In addition, much of the internal communication that takes place in China-based organizations (especially Chinese firms) is not only in spoken Chinese, but in written Chinese as well. With no Chinese abilities inexperienced Western talent might be considered too much of a bother to bring on-board.
- Start networking. Build your network on LinkedIn and other professional networking sites so that when the right opportunity presents itself, you will not only be ready, but you will be connected to the people that can help you grab onto it. I myself found several of my more rewarding China jobs through contacts on LinkedIn, and strongly recommend forming a strong China-focused network (though this doesn’t include sending out invitations blindly). After all, if no one knows who you are, how can they give you a job in Mainland China?
Thanks for reading!
Do you have any questions or comments about teaching English in Mainland China? Do you have any experiences you can share regarding searching for jobs in Mainland China? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.
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Should I remind that “teaching” is a “profession” and that there are “trainings “and “degrees” all over the world in universities “even in china in Normal U” to “learn” this “profession” especially in foreign language teaching. Speaking the language doesn’t mean you are able to teach it. You may give “conversation” class just for oral accent and idioms (which is quite useful).
I totally agree with this article. If you are not a trained professor of English “as a foreign language”, giving class of conversation is just a way to be in a foreign country (china) and have a cross-cultural experience ONLY.
Sees Emily’s comments.
After a short cross-cultural experience, say one year, go back home, get experience in your field of expertise, learn Chinese (if not done yet) and try to come back to china if it is your expectation.
I would argue that teaching English can be a great way to get some experience living in China. It’s an excellent way to pay the bills while you learn Mandarin and search for more interesting opportunities. If someone can maintain a positive attitude while teaching English to unwilling and uncaring students, they will have developed life skills that benefit them in whatever endeavors they undertake in the future. For me, teaching English was a crucial “training ground” that allowed me to see the problems in my field (secondary education) and begin developing solutions.
Hi Daniel, thanks for commenting.
Just as there are some very good reasons to reconsider teaching English in China, there are of course also reasons why teaching English might be a good idea. Aside from providing a valuable cultural experience, it can indeed prove useful to professionals such as yourself working in, or planning to work in the education field.
However, for Westerners planning to work in other fields in China, I would argue that teaching English (especially in small schools or on a one-n-one basis) provides next to no added value, in terms of experience you can present to China-based employers. Most big companies are becoming increasingly strict in terms of what types of Western talent they hire, if any. And they usually don’t even care about Chinese language skills or time spent among native Chinese – its all about industry experience, especially in bigger companies.
The main reason I wrote this article was because I felt that while the benefits of teaching English in China were more obvious, the potential downsides were not as clear to Westerners who had never been to China. There is a set phrase in Chinese I’m rather fond of, 灯不拨不亮，理不辨不明 (The untrimmed lamp will remain dim, and logic which is not discussed remains unclear). Everyone is different and has different goals, and only by understanding the various reason to, or not to teach English in China, can each person make the decision most suitable for themselves. Your comments help in this regard so thanks!
The one thing to avoid is a “white monkey” where you are expected to act like an idiot and play games with the “students”. The school and students will have no respect for you! Colleges and universities are the places you want to work if you are serious about teaching.
I can attest to the quality of some of the English taught in China. Our company, Tembua, provides conference interpreting services and many Chinese refuse the equipment, saying they know English. Later during the day, however, they may return complaining in English we can barely understand, that the conference presenters speak such poor English they can’t be understood! I agree with roseinshenzhen that no one without training and experience should be able to get a teaching job.
Patricia, thanks for commenting. The new rules proposed by the Chinese government are certainly a move in the right direction in terms of ensuring a higher quality of English language teaching in China. However for all practical purposes they may be difficult or even impossible to enforce. Many small schools are off the books and as it is common in my experience for teachers to give lessons off-site. I am really not sure how the Chinese government would go about checking up on these schools and teachers.
I would agree with the point made, certainly. However, I would add that it can be a great educational experience for someone. After completing my undergraduate studies in Asian Studies and History, I was hired to teach in a rural area of China and absolutely loved it. Like in the article, a person is limited in how much they can grow professionally while teaching in China. As a result of the lack of opportunities as far as my professionally development went, I was only able to stay for a year and a half before reaching the highest position in the company I was allowed. The classes and students did leave a lot to be desired, but like with most employment opportunities, it is what you make of it. I now work for a Chinese education company with branches in the USA, as a cultural liaison with American high schools. Even with having studied Chinese for two years before living there, and having a foundation level of knowledge about Chinese culture/history/education, I would never have been hired to my current position without my experience living and teaching in China and the cultural immersion.
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Emily, glad to get your comment.
You make very good points that Chinese English in China can provide a great learning experience, and that through it Westerners can gain invaluable language and cross cultural experience.
I would never tell someone to “not teach English” if that was what they really wanted to do, or if they wanted to teach English to learn more about China. However, I hope my article can help those Westerners that feel like they “have to teach English” in China in order to get by. There are, after all many different ways to make it in China.
I totally agree with the article, in fact there was period of time when I was doing “teaching” job in China. Nobody even bother to check my english proficiency, my “partners” often could not speak any english at all. No interview, nothing, just got the job because I am a 老外. Previously mentioned “partners” didn’t really care what I was doing during the lessons. I am european, however english is not my native language and I think I am not really qualified to teach english(I don’t have any certificate). I just wanted to add that is not only english teacher job, but most of part-time jobs I have done in China were “face jobs”. Its really making me bonkers, because kinda feel like I’m here just to look nice and I’m not useful at all. Unfortunately, I’m still a student, so I guess I would still agree to do some “face jobs”, as some extra money is always nice. Really hope that everything will change after graduation…
Thanks for commenting Johnny.
“Face jobs” as you call them still seem to be pretty common in parts of China that are less developed, though there are still plenty of people in the big cities looking to make a sale by presenting a “white face.” I personally feel this is more due to a lack of information on the part of the Chinese consumer, and that as the market continues to develop, less Chinese people will be falling for these “tricks.”
Outstanding article and great insight!
Thanks very much Globe Trekking!
I think the key part is “After all many if not most English teachers in China are working part time or short term, and don’t have the experience or certificates that would be required to land a higher paying job at one of China’s more well know and bigger training schools or universities.”
I mean, really, someone with no degree, no certification, and no experience shouldn’t be able to get ANY job in teaching, so they’re lucky to get what they get. And I know a lot of people like this, even people who can barely speak English passing themselves off as professionals! It’s a job that pays, and yes, you will likely get mistreated. People who are smart will use the time and money to get those degrees and certifications. A CELTA is a brutal course, and not inexpensive, but employers recognize the name and effort behind it. I earned my masters commuting to Singapore once a month, or you can do it distance online. And if you have a dream to do something in China, just do it! No one here will stop you if you want to write, sell, invent, do art, whatever. Get out there and hustle. As Lisa said, you’ll probably be one of the first.
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Thanks for commenting roseinshenzhen.
I think not having English certifications is only part of the problem (if a young professional does in fact want to pursue a career teaching English). So many non-Chinese professionals are eager to fly over to the Chinese market right after graduation, and its a lack experience that holds them back. From what I hear and have read, China is not lacking in the entry level positions, so much as the experienced manager and executive categories. So there ends up being a big mismatch.
So young Western professionals should of course make sure they have the right degree and the proper certifications, but I cannot over-emphasize the need to have the PROPER EXPERIENCE. That’s a big thing standing in front of young Westerners and their “China Dream.”
I agree with the points made in the article and experienced most of it. However, it’s important to remember that each person’s situation will vary and reflect the level of development of their hosts and his or her individual creativity. If one wants to brave experiencing the mainland to simply see what happens, I suggest that more success may be achievable if one enters the mainland with “ABSOLUTELY NO EXPECTATIONS.” Their experience may not be successful but it may help each to discover a career path and to acquire the needed motivation and determination to become what they want to become at home.
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Icydor, glad to hear from you again. “No expectations” will likely work fine for people that want to simply learn about China firsthand.
However, for young professionals (or any professionals for that matter), the clock is often ticking. Too much time between jobs (those acceptable by one’s next employer), or experience in a field other than what you are aiming for can derail someone someone’s dream career before they get started.
Therefore in this article I’ve tried first and foremost to help other Westerners develop a set of realistic expectations.
Very interesting article! The points you put forward seem to match with what I have found. After all, why would a Chinese firm want to employ a non-chinese speaker in an entry level job when they could just recruit from a large local pool of graduates? I plan to do another year of language study in China before returning to the UK to start a grad job primarily because I enjoy learning the language and perhaps an opportunity will arise in the future. I’d be interested to hear your views on which industries you think will be booming in China over the next 10 years?
Thanks for commenting Michael.
It’s really a shame because right when it seems like more Westerners are traveling to China than ever before, the market suddenly starts to shift and jobs now are much harder to come by for young non-Chinese professionals. And while this might seem obvious from an objective perspective, many of these Western professionals grew up to an extent on books about other Westerners realizing their China dream by basically just showing up. So it takes a mental adjustment.
In terms of industries to watch out for in China, I’d say tech first of all, though I’m partially biased from my current job. I’d also say to look out for industries that are common in rich developed countries like the USA, such as retail, travel, luxury, etc.
Thanks for the comments Sean – Looking forward to reading more of your articles!
I got a job I never expected to get in China. The economy fell apart in Europe. As I spoke Mandarin and I knew the spanish horse was the same as the Chinese horse of the Tang Dynasty, I got a sponsor and went to China with three spanish horses to sell. Little did I know every week end all the chinese were coming to see the crazy american sleeping with the horses to take care of them. I thought they were coming to see the horses. It turned out to be very necessary that I was with the horses 24 hours a day.. My reputation grew so much that the biggest company in China found me and hired me to start their equestrian club in Jiang Su. I worked for them until I was 65 and forced to retire by Chinese law. I still consult for them but can’t legally work for them due to my age. It was a wonderful experience with millions of stories one would never expect from buying x ray machines and getting it into China to flying horses on passenger planes. Lisa , an American living in Spain and working in China
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