How to teach English in China without getting burned

Hot TeacherWell, that’s the real trick, isn’t it? Han Solo spits these words out when the wizened Obi-Wan Kenobi asks if the very real chance of ‘Imperial Entanglements’ can be avoided on a journey to Aldeeran.

Han Solo: "Well, that's the real trick, isn't it?"

“Well, that’s the real trick, isn’t it?”

The phrase, ‘That’s the real trick, isn’t it?’ is also a good retort when evaluating how to get the most out of moving to China as a newbie ESL teacher. Just like Han Solo and company were able to escape the Imperials, so can you escape the pitfalls that lead many to have a bad time abroad and not make the most of their time in this exciting and fascinating nation… read along to find out how.

1. Begin with the end in mind

Why are you here? To learn Chinese? To pay down student debt while living in an exotic location? Ask yourself why you are expatriating yourself to China and tailor your job search to your expectations. For example, if you need to send money home or save money, working in a big city like Shanghai or Beijing is going to be your best option. Base salaries are high (relative to the average English teacher salary), and there are plenty of ways to supplement your income via private lessons. If you want to learn Chinese, living in a city up north that is likely to speak a neutral dialect of Mandarin is what you want. If you are all about the adventure, hiking and seeing beautiful scenery; the south of China puts you right next to the beautiful Karst topography of Guangxi and within striking distance of Thailand and Vietnam. Keep in mind that rural, picturesque cities often pay less than the dreary concrete jungle metropolitan areas.

2. Use a reputable recruiting agency

Using a reputable recruiting agency is especially important if this is your initial foray into China when your professional contacts and network will be virtually nonexistent. Using a reputable agency is a great way to avoid the pitfalls of having a sketchy employer who pays you late, gives you substandard housing or tries to get you to come on an improper visa (more on that later). Great agencies work only with employers they have vetted. English teacher recruiting is a big business and reputation is everything. Thus, you can be assured that reputable agencies will not advertise jobs that are not 100% above-board. Good ones to check out are Teaching Nomad and Footprints Recruiting.

3. Know What to Expect

Knowledge is power. Know that your basic job at an EF, Kid Castle or Wall Street English type establishment will pay 12,000-16,000 RMB (~$1,700 – $2,300 USD) per month in a tier one city. A good rule of thumb I like is to do is divide your net pay by the amount of time you will expected be at the school (not necessarily just teaching). If it is anything less than 100 RMB an hour, flee. You can do better than that in any city other than a coveted resort city like Sanya or Yangshuo where backpackers who will work for peanuts artificially lower the cost of labor. If you are a subject teacher with experience (certified in your own country), you can command as much as 30,000 RMB (~$4,300 USD) per month in a tier one city if you can land a job at an international school. Such a salary will allow you to live like royalty even in expensive cities like Shanghai.

4. Learn your alphabet

Not the ABC’s, but the letters of China’s highly nuanced visa nomenclature. You want the Z-visa, the working visa that can be converted to a residence permit that allows you to work. Not an L. Not an M. And certainly not the F. Avoid coming on anything but a Z visa. If you are caught, the penalty for ignoring this advice is deportation and a stiff fine.

Some employers have more pull (the much vaunted Guangxi) and can get an L visa converted to a residence permit that is safe to work on. I have seen this personally in Shanghai. Some employers will lie outright and fluff up and misrepresent your credentials to the Foreign Expert Bureau. As always, in a huge and varied nation like China, your mileage may vary. Be sure to use caution and common sense.

5. Get out and have fun

Branch out and don’t form cliques. Expats, especially English teachers in China, come and go frequently. The friends you have today could leave tomorrow. Don’t be a homebody, get out, have fun and explore. If you are too introverted, China will eat you alive, make you feel miserable and have you checking prices daily for flights to go back home. Also, don’t let the wonky teaching schedule get to you. Even if you don’t have work until four pm, try to wake up mildly early, go out and do things, explore your surroundings and see the city.

If you have any other tips and China hacks, please share them in the comments section!

Connor Frankhouser

Connor Frankhouser is an American expat and the world's only Dallas Cowboys fan who isn't a terrible person. He also wrote this entire bio of himself in the third person.

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