TEACHING IN CHINA, YOU ASK?
KEN WHITE SAYS:
Having been in China for six years I am often asked about teaching
The first point to make is that if you don't like teaching in Australia
then you won't like teaching here. In addition you should ask yourself
Why do I want to go to China? If you want to come to China to experience
life in a developing country, fine. If you have some other agenda,
say to experience socialism or to help the people of the third world,
I'd say stay at home.
Abbot and Costello would love it here.
Sure life in a different culture and environment is good to experience,
and if you prepare well in advance China can be a great adventure.
However, don't have any illusions. China is not a socialist country,
it is a capitalist country where the rich pay few taxes, where there
is no free education, no free medical care or really any form of
social welfare and no trade unions. In fact going on strike is against
the law. Abbot and Costello would love it here.
Indeed, many children in China can't afford to go to school as
everyone has to pay fees. When it is left to a few Vietnam vets
and ex Maoists to pay for kids to go to school through the "Hope"
project in Guanxi province, some questions need to be asked.
The chardonnay socialist
No one is going to appreciate the "good Samaritan" or
"chardonnay socialist" type coming and telling Chinese
how to run China. People who are not all that supportive of the
present system will give you short shrift if you try to get involved
with their problems. After all, China had westerners telling it
what to do for a couple of hundred years and when they left they
left a mess.
I'm reminded of a good friend of mine who used to berate me for
my left wing views but get him on the question of Tibet or Taiwan
and he echoed what many in the west would call the party line. In
fact it's the Chinese line Show me a Han Chinese on the mainland
who thinks there is the slightest case for Tibetan or Taiwanese
independence and you've shown me someone who doesn't exist.
Where do I want to teach in China?
Some people want to go to places where they will never see a westerner,
where they can mingle with the locals, learn Chinese and in the
words of Somerset Maugham "go native". Frankly, I've seen
people with good Chinese who have been to China before who just
can't hack it.
No matter how prepared you are very few can withstand the trials
of a totally Chinese environment. I've seen people who want to go
to work in places where every Chinese is hell bent on getting out.
There is a reason for this.
Culture shock is something that hits everyone at some time. Usually,
whether you are in Shanghai with 30,000 other foreigners or in Heihe
on the Black Dragon River, bordering Siberia, culture shock usually
sets in after a month. The euphoria of finally being in China gives
way to a sense of "What am I doing here?" No matter where,
you will experience culture shock and it will keep coming back.
One never gets used to people just spitting on the streets or in
restaurants and it doesn't matter where you are in Zhongdian Yunnan
province or in Wangfujing street, Beijing people from all walks
of life spit. Nor are you ever going to get used to the fact that
people assume traffic lights are purely discretionary. No one takes
any notice. People walk against red lights and motorists go through
My advice is find a place away from the big cities. On a teacher's
salary you are not going to be able to cut the mustard in Shanghai
or Beijing anyway. Head for a medium sized city, one that has uniquely
Chinese scenery, like Guilin or Kunming or somewhere rich in history
like Xian. Not that these places are cheap, just cheaper. Also in
these places while there are a number of foreigners you will find
it relatively easy to make Chinese friends. Preparing by reading
widely before you go and realising that in many ways you can learn
a lot from China will help you cope.
Who am I going to work for?
In my opinion the best organisation to go through is "Australian
Volunteers International" in Fitzroy, Victoria and the person
to see there is Glenda Lasslett. Tell her I sent you.
Presumably you want to go to China to, among other things, see
the country and the places AVI puts you in usually give you that
opportunity. While your salary will be low you will have three months
paid holiday on top of Chinese public holidays. Also should you
experience problems with officialdom, and you will, AVI have the
connections to sort them out.
While I count myself lucky to have friends in the Public Security
Bureau in Yangshuo, Guanxi province, the PSB is not always helpful.
They can make your life easy or difficult and while your local Chinese
hosts may be none too happy with your treatment by the PSB there
is little they can do. AVI will at least try, and in my experience
succeed. When an enterprising customs officer decides that the leather
jacket or laser printer you had posted in contravenes regulations
and demands you pay duty AVI will intervene and in my case very
successfully. Chinese institutions can't or won't help on their
own and private schools even western private schools won't be interested
as it's not their responsibility.
A University or School
If you intend to take a job with a Chinese university or school
without the backing of AVI be very careful. Try and find someone
who has worked there before .Make sure you get paid (seriously).
There have been cases where schools claim some where down the track
that they have "run out of money". Find out about the
accommodation and facilities and especially find out where the institution
Working for Chinese run private institutions is hazardous and unless
you have excellent references about the school is to be avoided.
Remember contracts in China work one way, their way. As far as you
are concerned they are generally not worth the paper they are written
on .This goes for foreign providers as well. There are some exceptions.
American Education Services (Future school) is centered in Dalian
but is expanding rapidly and English First which is world wide are
two exceptions. Not that their contracts are fantastic but they
will honor them and in the case of AES it is my experience if the
contract can be interpreted two ways then they will find in the
case of the employee and then go and change the contract so that
the problem can't arise in the future.
Just because a school or university is jointly run by a reputable
foreign institution, for example La Trobe University, Australia
or Newcastle on Tyne or Princeton makes no difference They all have
joint venture partners who may be colleges or business ventures
or sometimes a combination of both and they invariably see that
the more they give in salary , facilities, allowances and resources
to the students, the less profit they make The big P word is what
not only motivates the Chinese partners but their foreign joint
Another thing to check is the institution's insurance policy. Don't
assume you won't get sick. AVI has, in the past, had the best but
I've heard it has deteriorated.
Western managed schools vary. Insurance with AES stops, I believe,
if you leave the city in which you are employed. For example if
you leave Dalian for a weekend to go to Dandong and have an accident
you are not covered. In addition many have a clause which states
that they will not cover you for sickness in the first three months
of a contract.
Chinese universities will usually provide basic health care including
hospital cover, but if you are teaching in the back blocks and need
an operation or hospitalisation they will send you to the hospital
in their city or town. The hospital may not be very hygienic and
the standard of care may be poor, for example, meals may not be
provided. There may be no one who speaks English, rooms aren't cleaned
and you may have running water for only two hours per day, so the
toilets don't flush. Remember insurance companies exist to make
money so they will always insist that you seek treatment first locally
and this may be at best very basic. Check the policy to make sure
that in an emergency they will cover you to go to Beijing or Shanghai
where the standard of care is much better.
In my experience they will be loath to send you to Hong Kong. It
is expensive but has the best care.
Which system do I recommend?
Teaching in every type of school has advantages and disadvantages.
Teaching for a Western company will mean you probably work weekends
and while you have two days off each week it is unlikely that these
will be consecutive. Also you usually have certain Chinese public
holidays free but these are unpaid and while you are entitled to
10 days annual leave again it is unpaid.
You are likely to be teaching children of the upper middle class.
Their parents expect a lot from their children. In a one child society
these parents don't want to be told if their child has learning
difficulties. Usually they refuse to believe it. They will blame
you and they will complain usually anonymously. If you are dealing
with Chinese management they will usually side with the parents.
Further, many of the students especially teenagers don't want to
be there .They are usually at the top of their normal Chinese class
anyway as they have had a number of years in English school. They
have a huge workload.
Sometimes they have private tuition in Chinese, Maths and Music
and may take more than one English class. They are made to go by
their parents and would rather be anywhere else. No one wants to
be told this. You are there to give parents what they want. Also
Chinese parents and managers have a different idea of how to learn
than westerners. Again you are expected to give the parents what
they want. Chinese staff will report you if you are late for work
.Chinese parents are paying and they expect you to be in class the
The advantages are you get paid and on time and classes are small
by Chinese standards. If you wish to stay on with the company after
your initial contract there are chances for advancement and you
are usually fairly well resourced.
Fifty in a class!
With a Chinese University or school class sizes can be 50 or over.
Check before you accept the position. The school may be poorly resourced.
However while your pay is low, you get paid during holidays. Also
the students usually want to be there and are eager to learn.
With a foreign based joint venture university your students often
come from rich backgrounds. Sometimes they will expect and are often
guaranteed that after two years their English will be at a level
to enable them to study in Australia. Often with the "bums
on seats" mentality of the Chinese partners and sometimes the
foreign institutions, students are enrolled at beginner level and
have no chance to reach a sufficient level to enable them to study
abroad. The easiest person to blame in this instance is the teacher.
You generally get a higher salary but if you wish to extend your
contract you are usually required to take leave without pay during
the long summer break, about two months.
Also in all cases check how many minutes there are in a teaching
hour. Contracts tend to be very vague in this regard. A teaching
hour in China usually means 45 or 50 minutes but your contract may
say 20 hours of teaching and you can find yourself teaching 26 classes.
Returning a favour
In China everything works on "guanxi" (connections).
If someone does something for you then you are expected to return
the favour at a later date. Where guanxi stops and corruption begins
is a moot point.
For example if a Public Security official makes your visa extension
easy to get he will expect you to give his child free English lessons.
You may wonder why the best student in your class at a Chinese
university doesn't get selected for further study. You may find
out the reason, but you probably won't. In one case I was told,
"...she had a bad attitude, always questioning her teacher..."
and in another "...she is a bad girl, she has a boyfriend."
You may wonder why a very poor student is given the opportunity
for further study. Her father may be an important official.
Be aware that in all situations especially in Chinese institutions
you will be spied on. While this is changing, students, often the
class monitor will be required to report on you to higher authorities
without your knowledge. Anything you say as the parlance goes can
be used against you.
One Chinese friend confronted the school when he found his eight
year old was responsible for snitching on her classmates.
My mum had an answer for informers.
Still, I remember my role in year seven at St Joseph's College,
Geelong, of reporting to the head prefect the names of any boys
who were naughty on the bus. Until my mother found out about it.
Mum didn't tolerate informers.
Chinese friends of mine tell me the situation will change. As China
develops, the status of women and minorities will improve. They
believe democracy is inevitable. Although I often don't follow what
I preach, it is best to avoid such topics as sex and politics. Religion,
not so much. The Tiananmen "massacre" or "incident",
depending on your point of view is a very touchy subject as is Falun
Basically bring your luggage with you but leave your baggage behind.
Go with an open mind and you'll have a good time.
If you've already read Phil's 'Just another little murder',
I suggest your plane trip should take in:
Jan Wong was a former red guard and is now a Canadian journalist.
Her books are excellent. Start with "Red China Blues".
Avoid books such as "Wild Swans" and other bleeding
heart stuff. Learn something of Chinese history and culture.
Dont forget to ask about the accommodation. Most universities
and some private providers arrange it for you. Ask how far it is
from the school, what facilities are available, do I have to share,
does the school have a maintenance officer , do facilities such
as gas, water, electricity cut off without notice. For example Dalian
is very short of water. In the middle of your shower the water can
cut off for 24 hours. Ask if there is a curfew, does the building
lock up at a certain time.
Again at the Railway Institute in Dalian where Latrobe has connections
through the IEN consortium, the foreign residence building at last
check locks at 10pm. I mean it is padlocked you can't get in and
you can't get out. This is very unsafe in a country prone to building
If the school only provides an allowance, check to see that it
is sufficient .Whilst 1500RMB about 320$Aud a month is reasonable
in some cities, in Beijing or Shanghai it is plainly inadequate.
Also ask if the school has a housing officer to help you find accommodation.
It is a daunting task to approach a Chinese real estate agent on
you own even if you speak the language.
Ask about a maintenance person or do you have to rely on the good
will of your landlord to get things fixed. Chinese landlords have
never been too concerned about their tenants' welfare.
Finally ask if you are responsible for the first month's rent or
a bond or both. Contracts tend to be very vague about this and people
have turned up only to be told that they are responsible. If it
doesn't say anything about it in the contract the usual response
is that it goes without saying.