I was 20 when I decided to teach English abroad. I wanted to see the world, save some money, and do something fresh and exciting, hopefully in a continent I had never visited. I assumed for three years that I would go to Japan, being the first country I learned you could teach English in, but upon learning of Japan’s expensiveness and China’s cheapness, let alone the salary, cost of living, and potential savings of China, I decided to switch countries, and I wound up living in the Jiangsu province, famously containing Nanjing and Shanghai, in the small middle city Changzhou.
Arriving in China
For he first few days, I lived like I was neither awake nor dreaming, instead in a confused strip between the two, not quite aware of where I was or what I was feeling, but eventually I became aware of the realities of my life: I had an apartment, I had a job, and I was going to be in China for the next year, 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days.
I worked for First Leap, a training center, which initially seemed bad for a reason I must make abundantly clear: training center jobs are not teaching jobs; they are performance jobs. You do not write the lesson plans, you do not grade or mark the kids. All you do is perform the lesson plans that are written in English for you. This will be disappointing to some and relieving to others. Personally, I found it to be disappointing, hence why I tried to find a new job after 8 months, specifically in a school for a greater degree of pride and responsibility. But the work wasn’t hard, just monotonous and boring and very repetitive.
My international and Chinese colleagues were wonderful company. There were 8 international teachers (2 Brits, 3 Yanks, and 2 South Africans), and about 30-40 Chinese teachers. With “work” jobs, the ones where you don’t have much creativity or input, and you basically do what the boss says, colleagues inevitably build a camaraderie. You know the job kind of sucks, but what are you gonna do? Some people love training center jobs, but for most people it’s a job, and fortunately these jobs pay quite well, although the benefits are slim. I received standard Chinese national holidays, but only 3 days of paid leave, which is pathetic when compared to the standard 28 days of paid leave in the UK. (Sorry, Americans.) The money, however, goes much further. New workers can expect to earn £2000 a month whilst only paying £220 in rent and maybe £330 in food. The rest is for food or savings. Thus, the job is at least bearable.
I started taking the bus, which started at 1 yuan a trip before doubling during late 2019 or early 2020, then I started getting DiDis, (which are amazingly cheap Uber-style taxis that costed me only 10 yuan to and from work), and when the weather and air quality improved, I started walking for the benefits of exercise and saving a little extra money.
My older colleague once said to me “kids are kids”, which I interpreted as a good thing. I’ve always been good with kids, despite never teaching, so I never feared teaching like some people do. I was more nervous of simply liking China and overcoming homesickness, not having to worry about teaching was a relief. In short, the kids will love you. Some are trouble, sure, but most of the time, the kids love having foreign teachers, and they love talking to us. Chinese teachers in schools more or less bark orders at the kids, who then shout back what they heard. They don’t get questions, they’re not asked what they think. It’s a rather drab experience. But in a training center, it’s much more fun. They play with the teachers, they get to be independent, and it’s generally much more fun. Schools vary, as do training centers, but in my experience, when I talked to the older kids with better English about school, they usually said school made them very sleepy, they didn’t like school much, and greatly preferred First Leap. Even younger kids who were able to mime their experiences in school mostly mimed teachers shouting at them, then shouting back, usually contrasting the difference between learning English in a training center and learning Chinese in a school.
There was the lockdown, the fear, the lack of travel, and many other things you’ve certainly heard of. Because I worked during coronavirus, many schools lost the staff away on holiday and new staff to be hired. Thus, many schools tried to pouch staff already in China. Myself and all my colleagues received lucrative offers from training centers and schools all across China. Many of these options were very tempting, with some offering incredibly pay, benefits, long holidays, and wonderful locations. However, schools that had staff became very firm about keeping them, going so far as to illegally withhold their work documents as intimidation to prevent them from moving. This became particularly bad when schools paid their staff the provincial minimum to their international staff, usually 2000 yuan, which is virtually nothing. Some teachers were paid their full wage and some were paid in the middle. It depended on the wealth of the school. Some schools paid their staff full salaries but had their staff “work the days back”, usually totaling about 20 days of paid but unworked days, and these days were squished in between their normal work weeks, forcing the international staff to work 6 or 7 days a week for a few months. If you had 20 days of work back, you had to work 6 days a week for 5 full months, and if your contracted ended with any days unworked, many schools refused to give you your end of contract bonus, even if there weren’t enough days to fulfill you work back. Schools were financially desperate, so they acted illegally, and if you didn’t have enough money to fight them in the courts and hire a Chinese- and English-speaking lawyer, there was nothing you could do. The worst school to work for was a school that paid you the minimum and didn’t give you your documents. There are stories of people working on 2000 yuan per month for 5 months, and they never received their back pay and had great difficulty moving to another school.
Quick summary, and money
I write a lot about work because it is what you’ll spend most of your time doing, so it’s good to have a thorough understanding of your working reality. But, China is still fun, and it’s a beautiful country. As coronavirus winds down, people have more chance to travel, which you should absolutely do if you move to China. You should also try the abundant, delicious, and scarily cheap food. There are countless amazing restaurant across China, some offering meals as cheap as £2 to £20, and lower and higher, but within that normal range, you’ll be able to enjoy some of the best food you can imagine. Some things are much more expensive in China than the West. A litre of fresh milk in China will cost at least £1.20, but in the UK 2 litres of milk will only cost £1, and there are higher quality brands of Chinese fresh milk that will cost £3.50 for just one litre, so some things can be jarringly expensive, but they are generally rare since China is usually a very cheap country.
Friends and loneliness
You can also enjoy the countless foreign bars and restaurants that even tier 3 cities have. You’ll be amazed by how many foreigners don’t live in the big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, etc. People from every continent live throughout China, be they students, employees, business owners, or whatever. You’ll never be alone in China if you live in a city. You can find international clothing brands and restaurants selling familiar services and products, though of course you can still buy the cheaper Chinese brands and knockoffs. The shopping centers (malls) are gigantic in China, and you can find anything and everything you want.
They can be very hit and miss. My apartment was disgustingly dusty (so dusty in the beginning that I was coughing myself to sleep every night before one day finally getting out of bed at 2am and cleaning the place with a small rag and not finishing till 0430am), and my apartment had a roach problem throughout summer, forcing me to use plenty of boxes to squish small disgusting insects, and use lots of boiling water to kill them. But I lived in an apartment building with lots of foreigners and restaurants and a minimarket right beside me, so living was easy. Work was only a 20-30 minute walk, and there were numerous restaurants and markets and shops along the way, so I could easily pick things up if I needed. If I could do my first year again, I would find a better apartment. I would have liked somewhere closer to work and bigger, cheaper, and clean before I moved in. Because I was jetlagged and nervous, I was too blind to see the literal tape on the windows or the dust covering the apartment, although annoyingly my Chinese colleagues helping me move in didn’t see it either, so maybe it’s no one’s fault, but I would get something bigger than a studio apartment for only a 10%/20% increase in price, and I’d get it scrubbed perfectly clean before moving in, and hire a cleaner once a month, and find somewhere in a more interesting part of town. But this is the sort of thing you learn for your second year. Everyone’s first year is a bit rough.
Changzhou under construction
The process of switching schools and using the materials and technology. The sheer vindictiveness and pathetic illegality of the school’s behaviour was childish and embarrassing. Because the virus stopped me working for 6 weeks, I was given 18 days of work back to squeeze into the rest of my contract, forcing me to work 6/7 days a week for months, and I hated this, leaving me utterly exhausted for months. It didn’t help that the resources were cheap and outdated, and the computers were old and terrible, using Microsoft Word as far back as 2007 and 2003, which was shockingly miserly. The old lesson plans were full of grammatical and spelling mistakes, but the company was rolling out new lesson plans in an entirely new formula throughout my year, which were much better, even if the lesson were an extra 10 minutes longer.
Achieving what I set out to do: save money. Like many young grads, I have university debt, so I needed to save money, and China is the best place to do so. You can easily save 60%-70% of your wage if you don’t make silly purchases and don’t go drinking 3 night a weeks. If you’re earning 17000 yuan a month, you can spend 2000 on rent and 3000 on food and 2000 on extras (phone bill, a monthly trip to a neighbouring city, or something fun), and you can easily save a huge portion of your salary. And in your second year, when you hopefully get a pay rise or find a better job that’ll pay you a good few thousand yuan more, you’ll really start living and saving money. To save money, ask a Chinese friend to send money to your home bank account via Alipay. Your foreign Alipay account can’t do this. You can send 10000 home whilst only paying 1% in conversion rate fees, 50 yuan in transfer fees, and 50 yuan as a gift to your friend. PayPal takes 10%.
China is a brilliant fascinating country with lots to offer, and you’ll have a great time if you come here. Some people are worried about the politics of China, or
being treated differently for their nationality or race, but these issues do not greatly impact people throughout their time in China. In China, you don’t want to deal with politics as much as the locals don’t. As long as you never badmouth the Chinese government or Chinese people, you will never have any issues, but China does have a race issue, so if you are black or Indian or Middle Eastern or basically not white, you will get treated a little worse than white people, wherever you’re from (although you will have issues if you are from African, even if you’re a blond-haired blue-eyed South African) but you will still have fun in China. You’ll meet Chinese people who are truly not racist and can speak some English, and you’ll find plenty of foreigners to hang out with, and the food and money are great. Probably the best thing about China is hanging out with all the foreigners you typically wouldn’t be able to meet in your home country. One of my best ever experience was enjoying a meal with me, an Englishman, a Scot, a Yank, a Canadian, a South African, an Austrian, an Australian, and a Chinese. 8 people, 8 different nationalities, absolutely amazing
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