Living in China and Teaching English: the Untold Story

In 2006 Suz deMello’s marriage was falling apart and her brother had just lost a brutal battle with cancer. She “wanted to die.” But instead of ending her life, she changed it, moving overseas to Europe and Thailand. Within four months of leaving the US, she was waking up in her little apartment in Thailand and feeling “pretty good about my life.”

Although she had been a trial attorney for 20 years, when she eventually returned to the US she could not find a job. When cash started getting low she took her last bit of money, went to Thailand and earned a certification to teach English. With her CELTA in hand, she moved to China. The experience, as she told me in an email “was one of the best and worst of my life.” As part of The Delicious Day’s ongoing series of people who found ways to live and work abroad, I had to hear more.

Here is a bit of what Suz had to say:


How was living in China?

In a nutshell–very difficult for an American used to material comforts and convenience. China is not communist. It is a totalitarian capitalist society where workers are routinely abused. People think of China as having a system of “godless Communism” and that is not the case.

First, religion is alive and well. One of my co-workers wore a cross. Every Buddhist temple I went to was busy. Second, it is not “one for all and all for one.” Employers’ attitudes are that you are lucky to have a job. No unions, and contracts are not respected.

The apartment my employer put me in was absolutely filthy. The Chinese do not have the same cleanliness standards as almost all other places I’ve traveled. For example, the Thais are immaculate. The Chinese are not. I spent hours and hours and hours trying to clean the place they gave me. It was a nightmare.

The first shower I took flooded the bathroom. The floor in the bathroom was supposed to be canted so the water would drain, but the floor wasn’t canted correctly and the drain was clogged. When I pulled up the drain cover to clean it a flock of moths flew right in my face. I swear it was right out of Stephen King.

Everything in the kitchen was warped. There was writing on the walls no bothered to clean up or paint over. The entire kitchen was covered in chicken grease. Nothing was installed right. I could never adjust to the lack of cleanliness. I could not find anyone to clean it. The apartment was huge and luxurious by Chinese standards, but it was so dirty.

What recommendations do you have for someone looking to go to China to teach English?

First: be strong and adaptable. As for finding a job, I don’t know any companies I would recommend. ESLcafe.com is one of the most well-known websites for finding teaching jobs. A simple Google search will yield you tons of companies looking for English teachers. I do not think there are enough English speakers on this planet to teach the number of Chinese people who want to learn English from a native speaker.

There are also plenty of US engineers, lawyers and others working in China. But the easiest way to work there is teaching English.

Suz deMello at a park in China.

Suz deMello at a park in China.

By the way, if you have created a passive income source you can live wherever you want, whenever you want. Most governments, when they are looking at expats who want to stay for an extended period of time, are just concerned with whether or not you are going to be a drain on society. If you can prove income you can typically live wherever you want.

How long were you living in China?

I broke my contract, which did not make me happy. I like to keep my promises, but my employers had broken their word to me so many times. With that job I had to fight for personal leave. I had a fight with the accounting office every month over my salary. They were nickel and diming me to death. I finally felt I had enough when the hot water in my apartment went out and they couldn’t get it fixed for several days.

How did you get along in regards to language?

With great difficulty. I think Mandarin is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. There are 1500 characters and each one can be modified by four tones. There are approximately 6000 sounds in Mandarin and the differences between them are extremely subtle. By comparison, the English language has 26 characters and 47 sounds.

What is the cost of living in China?

It is very, very good. The cost of living is great in Thailand as well. My apartment in Thailand was about 125 dollars a month. It was not sumptuous, but it was nice. I had bought into the American system of a big house and lots of cars but, I know from living overseas that I don’t want or like a big house. I am perfectly happy with a one bedroom place.  

What are the major cultural differences between US and Chinese work environments?

There were numerous, very strange cultural differences. Here, we respect workers. They may be resisted by US employers but the fact is that a contract is a contract in the US. That is not the case in China.

Socially China is back in the 50s. Middle-class kids live at home until they finish college and they are not expected to work until then — no flipping burgers or pouring coffee.

The middle class developing in China is very, very interesting because of the one child policy. This one child gets all of the attention of the aunts, uncles and cousins. What I noticed in dealing with my co-workers who were products of this system is that China is quickly becoming a nation of spoiled brats with an incredible sense of entitlement.

The ban on more than one child is only applied to the majority Han ethnic group, which comprise about three-quarters of the population. The rural poor are not bound by that. In my English classes about a quarter of the kids had a sibling.

School in China is really hard on kids. There is a lot of emphasis on memorization. They would have kindergarten kids memorize reams of information. They would give me a book and want me to get them to recite it so the parents could hear them speaking English words.

Once in a meeting I referred to my female co-workers as women. I was told later that was a huge gaffe, implying that they are not chaste. “Girls” are females who have not had sex. “Women” are females who have had sex.

How did you socialize?

I was introduced to a Chinese woman who spoke English. But I did a lot of socializing with expats. You get lucky in finding them. I was standing at a bus stop once and a woman walked up to me, grabbed my shoulder and turned me around. I saw that she had green eyes and realized she was an expat. She was very social and introduced me to a lot of expats.

The people who got around the best were the foreign men. The local Chinese women are all over white men because they think they are their ticket out. The guys over there would hook up with some beautiful English-speaking Chinese girl, who would do everything for them.

What are the qualifications needed to teach English in China?

I do not think many. I worked with one guy who I don’t think had a college degree, but he had a great personality and got along with everyone. But a lot of expats would come and leave within six weeks. Their complaints mostly fell into two categories: bad living situations or lazy Chinese teachers. I experienced these also. My co-workers tried to get me to teach more than I was supposed to. I had a specific schedule and they lied to me to convince me that I had been ordered to teach more classes.

What are the salary ranges for teaching English in China?

I was getting about 1000 dollars a month and a place to live. It was enough to live very comfortably while also maintaining my condo in Sacramento.

What kept you there?

I signed a contract. I came back to the US in February because I had a month off for the Chinese New Year. I was telling people what it was like there and they were like, “Why are you going back?” Because I had a contract, I went back though I was extremely unhappy there.

Do you think there are other expats in China teaching English that are doing really well?

The guys do great. I met a really nice woman who studied Mandarin in college and she got along fine.

In the end, was it worth it?

Oh yeah. I wish I would have left in February and gone to Europe where I wanted to be. But I learned so much. I learned that I was never going back to China. [Laughing] The talk around the US is that China is going to take us over. But until they can deliver clean water to every home they have a ways to go. Even Thailand is a more developed country than China.

What advice do you have for expats thinking about teaching English in China?

I would not go to a small city. I would stick to the big cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong, places where more English speakers live. There was not a single doctor in my city who spoke English. The standard of care is not what it is in Thailand or the US.

How did you handle health insurance in China?

I did not have it. What I was basically told was, “don’t get sick.”

Do you consider China a safe place for expats to live?

I felt personally safe. No one would dare attack a foreigner. They would get their parts chopped off. But someone stole my camera and my handbag. People are really poor, so there’s a lot of theft.

Did you like teaching English?

Teaching toddlers is an adventure, especially spoiled toddlers. The kids are very physical. I don’t know how many times I got slapped on the butt. One kid slammed a chair into my shins. Another double punched me in the kidneys. One grabbed my boob.

There were aspects I really liked. It was really fun when I found a lesson that really resonated with the kids. But the school was not honest with me and there is a lot of manipulation from others, which I found intolerable.

How much did your CELTA certification cost?

I paid about 2500 to International House in Thailand but that also covered room and board. With most programs the room and board aren’t integrated, but I loved not having to think about where I was going to live and what I was going to eat. The CELTA program is very intense.

In the email you sent me you said it was the best and worst experiences of your life.

It was one of the best because I learned so much. The worst part was the total utter inconvenience and annoyance. Any place can be annoying but in China, multiply that by tenfold. Because of the lack of clean water in the home, you have to arrange for water deliveries or boil water, even for washing fruit.

Babies and toddlers don’t always wear diapers and just have slits in their pants. If they need to go they will squat on the street and let it go. People hawk and spit everywhere. I do not want to come off as if I am crazily clean, but that place was filthy. The air pollution, noise pollution and the rudeness are unbelievable.

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Suz deMello is an award-winning, best-selling erotic romance novelist. Learn more.

 



5 thoughts on “Living in China and Teaching English: the Untold Story

  1. Thanks for your article. I lived in China for a few months about 13 years ago and I have to say that your article brought back a lot of memories. I am a bit shocked that conditions are pretty much the same. I try to reflect on the trips to the great wall, the forbidden city and the likes as opposed to the daily filth, stench and chaos that I encountered. It sounds like you were a big fan of Thailand. So what is next for you?

  2. First and foremost, stop TRYING to apply western standards where they don’t belong. Cleanliness is a relative issue and I am very sorry but I just lived 2 years in Thailand and it is a HUGE GARBAGE DUMP… that country is filthy to the rims. Schools are discussing, bathrooms are never cleaned and roadside trash is a cancer for the nation since they burn everything then the resulting chemical soup goes into irrigation canals and in the food they grow… Now about China, if you expect the western standards in Asia, then don’t bother going. Life is Asia is not about our standards, how clean your kitchen is or how bony the chicken is… Life is Asia is what you make it. I am in Borneo now. It is way cleaner that Thailand. But again, you go to people’s house, dogs, chickens, cats all share the space with people specially in rural areas. Markets are wide open, food is great, love the people and we are not here to judge them… only to teach them a language! As far as agencies goes, mine in Thailand was the total worst, boss got arrested for immigration frauds… so YES, beware, I am working in Borneo now, awesome place!

  3. You said nbody would dare attack a foreigner. I lived in china for some time and foreigners are not as well protected as they appear to be. Research the Darren Russell case. He was an American murdered in china. Also, fist fights between foreigners and locals aren’t that common, but not unheard of either. If a foreigner does get into a physical conflict with a local, other locals nearby will come from all directions and attack the foreigner. I heard stories of foreigners seriously hurt this way. One foreigner got put into a wheelchair for defending himself against a wallet thief.

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