Sitting on a plane headed for Shanghai in September 2011 the same thought ran through my head over and over… “Am I totally insane?”. This was quickly followed by another thought, “Well if I don’t like it I will just turn around and come back.” Fortunately for me and my husband we DID like it, something that is proved by the fact that nearly 3 years later we are still there, teaching EFL at a University in China.
Where do you want to work?
For anyone considering this move there are a number of things to be considered carefully. I will try to outline some of the things you might want to weigh up before you embark on an Asian adventure.
Firstly be aware that China is big, very very big. I know we all know this but getting a grasp of the vastness is really hard even when you live there, and it is almost impossible to understand this before you arrive. Therefore, it is advisable to get acquainted with the map and the location at least of the main big cities when looking for a job.
There are of course many different options available, depending on where you fancy living and what kind of school you want to pick, and honestly once you start looking at job advertisements you will be running to Google maps to find where the places are. More importantly, ask yourself if you want to live in a rural place (i.e. few foreigners, more isolated, few “Western comforts” and a more “authentic Chinese experience”) or whether you prefer to be in a big city where you can get Pizza Hut and Haagen Dasz ice cream. Another important factor which cannot be over stressed is the climate. There were many locations I immediately discounted simply because I hate the cold. Be advised that there are cities which are considered to be in the South of China, and where public buildings will not be heated in winter, but which have below zero temperatures and get snow! This is because the Chinese define “south” as “south of the Yangtze river” and this is something you should take into account.
Another thing you need to think about is what kind of place you prefer to teach in as there are countless jobs available, ranging from kindergarten up to University. You may want to teach more hours per week, (a typical training school job would be 25 plus teaching hours, and maybe some office hours too), whereas a Public University would be considerably less hours of work, more likely in the region of 14 and very few if any prep or meeting hours, but of course the salary would be less. Most schools and universities provide free furnished accommodation, and help you to get settled in. However, some private training schools only offer a stipend and help you find your own rented place.
A further point is that if you teach in an isolated town or rural area, you may not find many other expatiates to hang out with. Some people get on with this just fine, whereas others may find themselves going stir crazy after a few weeks or months. Many expats choose to head for the big cities such as Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou so that there will be after work entertainment, bars, clubs and places where they can be with other foreigners. If you choose a more isolated, rural environment you are going to have to work on your language skills pretty hard because most locals will know little if any English at all.
Which brings me to a very important point – learning Chinese. It is essential to realize that if you do take the plunge and head off for a Middle Kingdom adventure it is wise to do a bit of homework beforehand. Chinese language and culture is very very different. People behave differently, they dress differently and they of course talk Chinese. They even speak different varieties of Chinese in different regions, which can be exciting, fascinating but also a bit daunting. Even the finest of linguists who have already mastered French, German or Spanish can come up against a brick wall when trying to make progress in Chinese. Even though schools advertise “free Chinese lessons” you may find that this is rather exaggerated, and even if you are studying full time it is hard to get past the beginners stage. If you are working you will not be able to learn full time, and even after a couple of years you will still be talking like a toddler. So if this doesn’t faze you and you are up for the challenge of being basically illiterate and dependent on Chinese friends to go to the hair salon and the bank then go ahead! It is of course easy to find Chinese friends who will help you with everything you need in everyday life – I found that in a short time I had a huge “fan club” of students and fellow teachers who were happy to accompany me to the store, the bank, the post office etc and assist me with anything I needed.
How NOT to find a job
After asking yourself where you want to work and in what kind of school, it is tempting to reply to the many postings made by the myriad recruiters who pop up as soon as you google “EFL and China”. However this can be a very risky business. I am not saying that all recruiters are untrustworthy but given the many jobs out there, it is not necessary or advisable to go through one. You can simply mail schools directly. There are lots of stories on the Internet of people trusting disreputable companies and ending up in schools they didn’t want to be at, unable to leave. I would recommend thoroughly checking out any school or agent before signing anything. For most schools in China you just need to be a Native English speaker and to have a BA. Some schools demand teaching experience, especially in the more popular locations, but many do not. If you are energetic, open and enthusiastic you will find a job quite easily. Some websites that I have found useful are Dave’s ESL cafe (http://www.eslcafe.com/), and the wonderful www.raoulschinasaloon.com where you will also find support and you can even post a contract and get feedback. On www.echinacities.com you can find lots of information about the different regions of the country and most big cities have an expat forum, for example Shanghai has http://shanghaiist.com/ , Beijing has http://www.thebeijinger.com/ and Kunming has www.gokunming.com. Find the forum for your prospective city and get signed up there, and then you can ask people what it’s like to live there before you go. Another really important thing to do is to ask your prospective school to give you names and emails of past teachers so that you can ask them all your concerns and get reliable answers. If a school doesn’t provide this information that would be a red flag. You can even chat to people at your school online and get a good idea about what to expect. If you still decide to go with an agent, be very wary and make sure they give you ALL the information about your prospective school, including contact information up front. If they refuse, you should question this. You are making a contract with the school so you should be able to contact them directly and ask any question you want, concerning the exact terms of your contract, how many hours TOTAL you will be working, what exactly is included in your apartment, where it is located in relation to the school and the city, how to get around etc. Don’t leave any stone unturned. You should find out if your apartment has heating/ac, what is included in it, who pays the utility bills and who takes care of maintenance. Many apartments belonging to public Universities for example come complete with microwave, washing machine, TV, fridge and bed linen. The good schools will take good care of you, give you assistance in your daily life and all the things you will need help with for your smooth transition to life in China. Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions. Again, the expat forums are a great source of information about what to bring and what is best purchased after arrival. No sense in bringing too many things with you. Also ask the school about classroom conditions – is there a computer? How many students are in a class? How much paperwork is required of you? Some of the more useful sites to find jobs are http://seriousteachers.com/ and http://www.horizoneslchina.com/. All of these will give you information about different areas of the country.
How do I teach in China?
Of course this will depend a lot on the type of school you have chosen. But mostly all the schools want is for someone to help students to speak and to give them a chance to hear an authentic Native Speaker which in many cases they have never had before. Usually they have another Chinese English teacher to do grammar, reading etc and your job is just to get them talking. You can use songs, games, discussions, anything you like and they will love you just because you are a foreigner. Most classrooms will have computers and overhead projectors so you can show short video clips and Power points to get them talking. Often you find you are also a source of information about your culture, festivals, TV and sports stars and students will be delighted to spend time with you outside of class too. In fact students will be happy to help you out with anything in your daily life that is hard because you don’t know Chinese, will want to invite you home to their family and even invite you out to restaurants and parties. They are usually very welcoming towards foreigners and you may find yourself to be something of a celebrity particularly if you live in a smaller town.
How do I get a VISA?
Any reputable school which is licensed to hire foreign teachers should process all the paperwork to get a work visa as soon as you have signed a contract and sent in all your copies of your documents (CV, Diploma). It may take them some time but if they say they can’t do it then maybe they are not supposed to employ you and you should steer clear. Once that has happened they will send you a “Letter of Invitation” by registered mail and with that you will go to your local Chinese Embassy and get a visa allowing you to enter China. Two weeks after arrival you will have a health check and exchange the entry visa for a Z work visa and you are good to go. Don’t on any account go to a company or school that assures you that they will convert your TOURIST visa to a work visa because that is illegal. Believe me you do NOT want to be working in China illegally. Just look for another school – there are plenty of legit ones out there.
On arrival in China most schools will send someone from their “International Office” to collect you from the airport, introduce you to the school and show you around. From then on you are pretty much on your own. It may seem a bit intimidating but with a bit of luck there will be other newbies at the school or other experienced teachers who will show you the ropes. Pretty soon you will be hanging out with multicultural groups of teachers, students and having a great time. And don’t forget, China is REALLY big so you will have lots of exciting places to explore. SO if you are in any way an adventurous soul who is not looking forward to a 9-5 job in a cubicle, this may be the job for you!
By Ruth Sheffer XMUT Xiamen, Fujian Province
Images by Ruth Sheffer
If you have any questions for Ruth or also have experience teaching English in China and would like to add some additional advice for prospective teachers please leave your reply in the comments section at the bottom of the page.