Don't teach English in ChinaFirst 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

    English First Deceptive Advertisement
    This advertisement, and others like it, promises amazing results through only five minutes of practice a day.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Follow the China Culture Corner to receive regular updates by email!