Friday, 12 October 2012

Take the plunge - become an ESL teacher in China.

I was in a rut, bored, suffering from empty nest syndrome, getting close to retirement age and was in need of ‘an adventure’.  To have a ‘real’ adventure my husband and I decided to go to China and teach English.

This was totally out of character for us, we loved to travel, but even so, going to a country like China, which was basically an unknown, was seen as something rather radical. Nevertheless, we researched the possibilities and decided we would go.

We had no teaching experience or qualifications. So we attended a local TESOL college, studied for the next three months, passed our exams and were awarded our qualifications. This gave us access to work in thousands of schools and universities in China.

ESL stands for English as a Second Language. Another acronym is TESOL, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. Even though our English was very good, we knew it was going to be a totally new ball game for us.

Both my husband and I were trained public speakers, confident, had raised five children, were well read and had an excellent general knowledge base. This, along with the training and teaching manuals we received proved to be adequate resources.

To find a suitable job, we searched the internet. There are many sites these days where recruiting agents advertise teaching jobs in China. But when we did this, in 2005, it was more or less up to us to find the jobs.  However one of the websites was huge, with job boards for all the different Asian countries and we found thousands of teaching jobs advertised. Where to go was the next problem, after all, most of the names meant nothing to us; we didn't even know where these places were.

Eventually we settled on Longyan university in Fujian Province, where the weather seemed similar to our home town, and the city was not too big. We were a bit worried about getting lost in a huge city, when we couldn't speak a word of Chinese and we didn't know how much English would be spoken there.

We planned everything very carefully. We packed what we thought we might need, and with our heads full of dreams and ideas for teaching we had a goodbye party and took the jet stream to China. We planned to have four days holiday first, to get our heads around being in such a new environment.

Was it a good idea? It was a fabulous idea. Where there problems? Of course! The first major problem reared its ugly head as we left the airport having just touched down. Being super organised I had printed off the hotel’s address in Chinese. We were horrified to find that none of the taxi drivers could read Chinese! If they couldn't read Chinese there wasn't much hope of finding English speaking people. After a long, frustrating and temper raising experience with several taxi drivers, a security officer, and a help desk lady that spoke almost no English, we made it to our hotel, only to find out I had printed all the instructions in Japanese! What an idiot!
Staff from our new university collected us after our four day holiday, and took us to our new home. It was about two hours from the coast, way up in the mountains. We had to go through endless tunnels on the road. Hot, tired, and with a monumental headache I arrived at the campus.

Students were delegated to drag our bags up the six flights of stairs to our apartment. There were no elevators here, and we got very fit going up and down those stairs several times a day. We puffed up after them to find ourselves in a three bed-roomed apartment with a view over the city to the mountains.

We were left to unpack and rest, with instructions that we were to meet the other teachers at the school gate at 6pm and they would take us out to dinner.

We sat on the bed, my husband and I, and grinned at each other like school kids let out for the holidays.

‘Well, we came for an adventure, we’re going to get it,’ my husband said.

He was right. That year became a life changing experience, for us, and for the wonderful students we taught.

If you’re bored, in a rut, can free yourself for a year or so, why don’t you consider taking the plunge too? Teach English in China. It will be one of the most rewarding and exciting things you could do.

If you would like to read more about this topic and our experiences, go to

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Are there taboo subjects we don't talk about in China?

Well, yes and no.  It has always been my policy as an ESL teacher, and generally the policy of other teachers I know, not to talk about religion and politics in the classroom, and I guess to be selective in who else you chat to about these subjects privately.

When you sign a contract with a school it will probably have a clause to the effect that you will  not spread religion or do anything that could be construed as being against the government.  And I think that anytime we visit another country we hardly want to be seen as causing policital problems, not only in China.

Many contentious subjects are talked about freely amongst the Chinese.  They are not stupid and they are becoming more and more informed about what is happening in the world.  Nevertheless as foreign guests on their soil, we need to act sensibly.  So appearing to take sides on issues such as Tibet, Taiwan, communisim and the way the government runs the country in general is not a wise move.  It may be that you would talk about these things privately, but not in a public situation like a classroom, where it could be construed that we are trying to influence students policitally.

I have had instances of adult students giving opinions that made my hair stand on end!  When that happened I just said, "These are not things we talk about in the classroom, our lessons are not on these topics", and steer the conversation away.

Often students, and especially adult students will ask quite pertinent questions about politics, our views, how things are done in the West etc.  You can't avoid these subjects altogether.  They are part of our life and Chinese people are often very inquisitive about how we live our lives and how they are different.  This is different from us as teachers bringing up such subjects.  If I have been asked about religion/politics/whatever, my general response is 'I am not really supposed to talk to you about religion/politics/whatever, it's not why I am here teaching you.  But I guess I could say....." and then I went on to talk to them about those subjects but in a general way.

Some of the school text books talk about Bible stories, and Christmas and Easter are becoming big deals there, so those opportunities open themselves.  And when it has been appropriate I have often talked about democracy in general terms, most of the world works on that basis.  Where to draw the line is where we seem to be dictating our ideas, or criticising the way the Chinese government works.

One last thought on Taboo subjects...have you been into an airport lately? Have you seen the signs by the check-in desks?  If you mention the word 'bomb', boy you are in trouble.  Even in jest, we are told we should not use any words that may suggest a bomb or similar.  I guess every country has its little 'taboos'.

And one thing is for sure, once you have lived there for a while you get to know that whether you like their methods or not, the government is doing its best to keep its people fed and employed, and thats a lot more than many countries are doing these days.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Do I need to speak Chinese to go to China as a teacher?

No you don't.   When you go to a school as an ESL teacher, there will be other English teachers, and even if they are not foreigners they will be Chinese English teachers with good spoken English.  So you will have some others you can communicate with.  They will help you out with translators if necessary.  Many of the older students will be happy to act as interpreters.  We made many good friends of university students, they visited us in our apartment, and helped us endlessly with shopping etc.  They consider it an honour to help out.

It will be much easier if you can say a few basic words.  Also learn how to count to at least 100.  You will need this for shopping.  You are probably better to get a good phrase book, and a good Chinese English dictionary.  If you buy a dictionary make sure it has the Chinese characters as well as the Pinyin, the word written in English, plus the English word.  

Many schools provide lessons in Mandarin for teachers, and others will be happy to teach you the basics.  But it is a very difficult language to learn.  After a while you will gain confidence and be able to do many things on your own, getting buses and taxis, shopping etc.  For complicated things like banking or government offices take a translator, it will be much easier.

On the whole though, I found that after a while I got very confident, and with very basic Chinese language skills and lots of sign and body language I did very well.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Accommodation. Living at the school.

Our first apartment within a university campus.  Ours was right up the top, way up 104 steps.

Many jobs offer you accommodation on the site of the school.  This is usually free and they should give you a fully furnished flat ready for you to move in with your clothes.  I have had good and bad experiences with this, but the problem is you usually don't know until you get there. Whatever you get be prepared for the fact that this is not Australia, USA or England.  Some apartments are very nice, but sometimes it can be a bit like glorified camping.

Check out the heating and cooling facilities.  You will have a western toilet, although it is possible there will be no western toilets in the school area for you to use during teaching time.  Be prepared for some lightning visits home or using the students toilets if you have a Woolworths bladder.

If you can get pictures of your accommodation before you go that's good.  You can check it out.  Whatever you get, you can bet your boots it is up stairs, and probably with  no elevator.  Be prepared to lug bags, groceries, school bags and books up a million stairs over the time you are there.  If there are other foreign teachers you will probably all be together in a block of apartments.  That's good, you have company.  If no others live on site, you will be on your own for weekends, holidays, days off, nights and any other 'out of school' time.

There is a common saying amongst foreign teachers...."This is China!".  Be prepared for what  you have been told to expect, and also be prepared for surprises.  Treat the whole thing as a game, a life changing experience and you will be fine.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Visa requirements. Do it right!

To go to China you MUST have a visa, and you must keep to the rules.  There are two main ways of getting a visa.

1.  The proper way is to apply for a job, and the school will send you all the paper work for you to get the Z Visa, (the only teaching visa) in your home country before you leave.

However, this doesn't seem to happen all the time.  Often the process is rushed at the end and they don't have time to get you the paperwork before you leave.  The other way is...

2.  Enter China on a visitors visa, and once you have signed the contract with the school, you start teaching and they arrange the Z visa then.  You get the visitors visa from your home country, these are mostly a 30 day entry only.  You are not allowed to work on a visitors visa, but this does seem to happen sometimes for the first week or so while the Z visa application is being arranged.

There is quite a bit of red tape involved, and there is no way of getting round this, you just need to go with the flow.  Sometimes the schools can be quite slow getting this done.  If you are in a big school with a Foreign Teaching Department, they usually have it all sorted.  If it is a very small school, it may take a while.  I think it is wise for you to make this your priority, it is your responsibility to make sure your visa is correct.  It is possible that you can be sent home for working on a visitors visa.  I have always found the PBS (Police) to be reasonable and helpful.  

Who can help you?

1.  The school you are dealing with prior to your departure.

2.  The Chinese embassy in your city.

3.  Check visa websites etc.

4.  Travel agencies have some  knowledge of visas, but not always very extensive.

5.  Try this Hong Kong email address, I emailed them and got satisfactory replies within 2 working days.

6. If you go to Hong Kong, (often no visa required) agents there at  travel agencies can do this for you, but they usually charge an arm and a leg.

7. It is possible to enter on a business visa, but this is not a teaching visa and is a 'back door'.

8. If you have the proper paper work you can go to the Immigration Department in Wan Chau on Hong Kong Island.  If you are there before 10 am you can usually get your visa after 3pm the same day.  The cost is about 400- 500 RMB, not expensive. This is an official visa, and you can enter China with no worries.  Here is the address:

HK Immigration Department at Immigration Tower, 7 Gloucester Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong (Tel (852)28246111, Fax (852) 28777711)

You need to go to the 7th floor.  It is a busy place and you must have all your paperwork with you.  You need several copies of your passport photo, (get about a dozen, you need them all the time) information about your school and job, official invitation from the school, there are several things you must have.  Your school will get you this paperwork.

9.  There are visa agents in several cities in China.  You can google this information.  Their charges are very high, and again, it is sometimes a back door entry. 

My advice is to do it correctly, and then you won't have any worries at all.  Anything connected with government red tape, do it right.

One last thing, the visas take up one page of your passport.  If you are going for a year or so, make sure your passport has plenty of spare pages.  If you travel in and out or if you need to get other visa's during your stay, you can use quite a few pages.  If you run out of pages, you need to get another passport, a time consuming and sometimes frustrating business. 

China Chris.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Where to go? What city should I choose? Why?

There are several matters you should consider about where to go.
1.  Weather.

 China is freezing in the winter and humid and hot in the summer. Most of the country has adequate heating and cooling, air conditioners are standard for hotels and most apartments.   North China is very cold for several months, snow and ice the norm.  The south is much warmer, but also hotter during the summer months.

2. Size of city.

Do you want to go somewhere big or small?  Big cities, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou have 10 to 20 million people.  These are BIG cities, but they are also much more modern than many of the smaller ones.  Of course work is more plentiful in the larger cities, but they are also more choosy about who they recruit.  Not everyone wants to go to smaller cities so it can be easier to get work in a smaller place.  English is more widely spoken in large cities.

3. Do you know someone in China?

If this is your first time there, consider going with a friend, or when you are negotiating with your school make sure there are other teachers you can pal up with for company.  Get an email address from the school and email another teacher there to be sure there is a foreigner you can sometimes hang out with.  Loneliness can be a problem otherwise.  I had one school where I was told there were 3 foreigners...and it was true, and I never spent any time with them socially, the three comprised one married couple and one young single man.  It was fine at school, but I had no social contact with any of them.

4.  Are small cities ok?  Yes, they are.  Maybe they are not as modern, but China is modernising so fast, that the smaller cities can be more appealing.  If there is a larger city within an  hour or two by train or bus, then these can be your weekends away.  Travel and accommodation is so cheap you can go away for weekends often.  There is not so much English spoken in smaller cities.

5.  Earthquakes.

One of the things I seriously considered was earthquakes.  Along the Eastern seaboard, there are few earthquakes.  The western part of China is much shakier.  Research earthquakes in the region  you might go to.

6.  Getting extra work.  Probably any city over 500,000 will give  you quite a few options for extra work.  They will have language schools looking for part timers, giving you the opportunity to do some evening or weekend work if you want.  It can be a good top up for the bank account.

7. Do I need a car?

NO!  The public transport system is wonderful.  They move millions of people a day from anywhere to anywhere.  So don't consider such things as buying a car etc.

8.  Is there an expats group in the city you are choosing?

Most cities have expat groups, just google and see what you can find.  These can be wonderful sources of information and friends.   Check out the one for  Shanghai here  

Should I shouldn't I?

The idea of going to China to teach came like a bolt out of the blue.  I didn't really even know you could do it, until a friend of mine talked to me about it.  She was thinking of doing a TESOL course to get a qualification, but instead I got the bug, encouraged my husband, and we both got fully accredited TESOL qualifications, applied for a job and got it without any problem.  We really knew very little about the country, so it was all totally new, and really nothing prepares you for the huge cultural changes you encounter when you go.

If you are thinking of going, or even just thinking of getting some qualifications, come on board, put up a post and maybe I can be of help to you.

If you have been overseas teaching, and you have some encouragement, information, tips or other experiences you would like to share, then come on board.

Over the next few weeks I will build this into a blog with much of the information you will  need, such things as travel in China, accommodation in a school or separate, shopping, visa's, getting a job, using recruitment agencies, personal safety in China etc.  It will give you a good overview of teaching life.  I will also include links that might be useful for you.  If you have any queries, come on board and I will try and help you out.

If you want the experience of a lifetime, give it a go.