Teaching English in China – Debunking the Myths

Conduct a Google search on “teaching English in China” and what you will find is over 54 million results listing websites primarily from China job recruiters, TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) certification schools, EFL forums, and “cultural exchange programs,” i.e., glorified recruitment agencies, all of which stand to gain a great deal from convincing Westerners that moving to China to teach oral English is an opportunity and adventure of a lifetime. While it is generally true that an EFL teaching position can be a good way to subsidize one’s travel expenses to exotic locations around the world, it is entirely disingenuous of anyone to suggest to you that doing so makes sense as a new and permanent mid-career move.
 
This article will debunk some of the most common myths you will read about teaching English in China and will argue that doing so should only be considered by a very limited number of people who meet the criteria outlined below. It is written by an American psychoanalyst who has been working in China since 2003 as a mental health consultant and professor of psychology.
 
Myth #1:   All Chinese Desperately Want to Learn English and Will Use It in Their Daily Lives
 
China’s educational system was completely overhauled in 1979 to realize the goals of the Chinese Communist Party’s 1978 reform movement, adopted at the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee, in what is commonly referred to as the Four Modernizations. These Four Modernizations were in the fields of 1) agriculture, 2) industry, 3) technology, and 4) defense and were specifically intended to make China a great and self-reliant economic power by the early 21st century (Wertz, 1998).
 
Nowhere among these four broad fields will you find English as a foreign language or any of the humanities  for that matter. The truth is that English as a foreign language has very low status as an academic discipline in China. It is essentially assigned as a compulsory course of study to incoming freshmen who scored too poorly on the national college admission test (Gao Kao) to receive their requested major in a more lucrative field.

Unless the students have definite plans–as well as considerable funding–to study abroad one day, hope to work for an international company, or intend to marry a foreigner, they will never use even one word of English for the remainder of their lives after graduating from college. In fact, in a land of 1.3 billion people, Chinese, not English, is the most commonly spoken language in the world today. Many of us who have lived and worked in China for years have come to the realization that what the Chinese really want is for the rest of the world to learn Chinese–and that wish might come to pass one day as the Middle Kingdom continues its unbridled rise as an economic world power.
 
Foreign English teachers are recruited as competitively as they are to fulfill a highly resented and bitterly contested national requirement promulgated by the Ministry of Education that mandates exposure to a native speaker for all students of foreign languages. Aside from public schools and universities, the proliferation of private language schools–where the greatest abuses and exploitation of foreigners occur–has created an insatiable demand for white faces in the classroom to attract new students and command higher tuition fees well above what can be charged for classes with their Chinese English teachers only.
 
What you need to keep in mind is that because the teaching and learning of English in China is devalued by China’s academic leaders and administrators, the role of the foreign English teacher is de-professionalized: It is limited to facilitating the students’ speaking and listening skills, with very few exceptions. Whether a foreign teacher holds a PhD in linguistics with a specialty in second language acquisition methodology or is a recent college graduate with little or no relevant work experience, in the vast majority of cases, each will be assigned to teach precisely the same classes with a salary differential of no more than 700 yuan ($102.00) per month.
 
Myth #2:   A Foreign Teacher Can Live Very Comfortably on the Salary Provided and Can Even Save Money
 
The average salary of a foreign English teacher in China–outside of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou–is in the range of 4,000 to 6,000 yuan per month ($584 to $876, respectively) for 14 to 20 hours of face-to-face teaching per week (Mavrides, 2009). Although it is true that this salary represents up to 70 percent more than the current national per capita income of 1,800 yuan (Economy Watch, 2009), that doesn’t mean very much unless you are willing to live as if you were Chinese.
 
While it is possible to save up to one-third of your typical salary of 5,000 yuan per month, you will have to live quite frugally to do so, which means completely forgoing all Western foods and amenities, and carefully restricting your use of utilities, especially air conditioning. For example, a single can of Campbell’s Cream of Chicken Soup sells for $3.21 (22 yuan) at a local Western grocery store in Guangzhou and that comparative price ratio of 2 to 1 is fairly constant across all imported goods in China, if you are even lucky enough to find them at all (and you won’t outside of China’s three aforementioned international cities).   In addition, Western brand name appliances and personal electronics will generally cost as much in China as they do back home, sometimes slightly more, and you will often be buying very sophisticated clones, i.e., counterfeit products that will not last nearly as long as the genuine articles do.
 
The reality is that any Westerner who lived a middle-class existence back home will just barely subsist on the typical salary afforded to most foreign oral English teachers in China. Even if you are self-depriving enough to save some money, those savings will rapidly disappear if you decide to travel or if you become seriously ill (real health insurance is not provided, only accidental injury insurance is). Most foreign English teachers in China moonlight and they don’t do so because they can’t get enough of it.

Aside from salary concerns, you also need to be aware that the “free” housing provided to foreign English teachers varies considerably in size and quality, and is most commonly typical today of what the Chinese working poor live in, i.e., small (580 to 900 square feet), old, and rundown units in eight-story buildings without elevators, and with hot water available only for showering. You will have to grow accustomed to washing your hands, as well as the dishes, in cold water unless you decide to purchase water heating units for the bathroom and kitchen sinks at your own expense, and you can plan on getting a lot of exercise especially if your apartment is on the eighth floor.
 
Myth #3: Teaching English in China is Fun, Easy, and Personally Rewarding

The reality is that teaching English in China is extremely tiring and challenging work, and, for the most part, it is a thankless job. While students who believe they will use English one day will have already acquired reasonable speaking and listening skills, most of your students will not be able to understand you at all unless you speak very slowly and use simple vocabulary. Unfortunately, this is not only true of your students but will also be the case when trying to communicate with your colleagues, administrators, and just about anyone else you will have contact with in China unless, of course, that other person is also a foreigner.

It is highly unlikely that anyone other than a career EFL/ESL teacher will find the work to be personally or professionally rewarding, nor will anyone but an educator with a master’s degree and state teaching certification be able to make a real living at it–and only then by teaching at an international school, a joint-venture program, or a Western university with a branch in China.

Myth #4: Every Native Speaker Can and Should Teach English in China

There are four groups of Westerners for whom teaching English in China can make sense: 1) recent college graduates who would like to study Chinese or gain some travel experience before returning home to resume their real careers; 2) active senior citizens in very good health looking for a short-term adventure (four to six months); 3) retired persons seeking to stretch their Western pensions in an Asian country and, as previously mentioned; 4) career EFL teachers who will either be working as school and program directors, or in venues only available to fully credentialed and licensed educators.

For anyone else, especially middle-aged and mid-career individuals without considerable means, moving to China to teach English will most likely render you an economic prisoner of the Asian EFL system: You will be stuck spending the rest of your life teaching English as a foreign language with no savings, moving from position to position, perhaps country to country, in the hope of finding greener pastures and forever cursing the day you  decided to teach English in China.

Notes

Economy Watch (2009). China Income, China National Income. EconomyWatch.com. Retrieved July 3, 2009 from http://www.economywatch.com/world_economy/china/income.html.

Mavrides, Gregory (2009). Foreign Teachers’ Guide to Living and Teaching in China. Middle Kingdom Life. ISBN No. 978-0-578-02423-3

Wertz, Richard R. (2009). Chinese History. China and the Four Modernizations, 1979-82. Retrieved July 3, 2009 from http://www.ibiblio.org/chinesehistory/contents/01his/c05s03.html.