I lived in Chengdu, Sichuan, China, from 2006 to 2014, teaching English at two universities there. I arrived as the city was demolishing the last of its ancient neighborhoods in its rush to “progress;” to waste so much valuable architectural and cultural heritage seemed criminal. I wandered the city and documented what remained with my camera. Learn more about the transformation of one historic area here:
After 11 years living and teaching in China, I’m calling it quits. My dog and I have a reservation on a flight from Hong Kong to Chicago on Friday, June 30. Yes, I’m returning to my home country – even with Trump in office, even with the unpredictable job market, even with all my misgivings about making the move. I’ve stayed on in China for an extra year, after mandatory retirement from my last teaching job, to give me time to reflect on what I really want from my life, and to research the international job market for teachers. It’s been a pleasant year, living in an isolated, semi-rural environment, making occasional weekend trips to Hong Kong, and working out religiously at a local gym. The end result: I’ve decided to re-invent myself. Again.
For a couple of months now I’ve felt stuck between two cultures. I’m in a no-man’s-land, neither fully in China nor in America. I’m returning to the USA with no job and no place to live. I’ve had second, and third, thoughts about spending my savings to start a new life rather than investing it in a retirement account. I vacillate between terror and optimism, thinking of the opportunities I will have in my native culture but then enumerating the things I will miss about China.
I have always taken risks. At age 50, I began a new career as a teacher, after 25 years of working in nonprofit arts organizations. I moved to a country about which I knew virtually nothing, and learned to teach as I went along. I managed to pick up a second masters degree in teaching academic English, taught at three universities, worked for the British Council as an IELTS examiner, and did occasional private tutoring. Now, I feel as if I’m getting ready to jump off a new cliff.
I’ve been planning how to make the landing as soft as possible. First, the dog and I will need a home. Then, I’ll need work. My plan is to create my own job as a freelance private tutor in English and academic writing. I will look for other teaching jobs, and have one possibility as an advisor for Chinese students studying in Chicago.
I plan to work on my writing and photography skills. I hope to be able to take courses in bookbinding and papermaking, things I have wanted to pursue for about 20 years. I am even open to office jobs, or working in the nonprofit arts field again. The possibilities for a new life are numerous, but it also be the first time in 20 years that I’ve been unemployed. At age 61 that’s a frightening prospect.
I will continue this blog, although my writing will take new directions. I haven’t lived in Chicago since the early 1980s, so adjusting to the city and the American culture will be a handful. Wish me luck.
OK, it’s actually been 11 years, but a decade sounds more impressive. I want to get my thoughts down on paper, during my last couple of months in China, and before my impending move back to the USA. Along the way, I’ll combine my experiences with some advice to would-be teachers of English abroad.
I left the USA in July 2006, but my exit had begun two years earlier, for three reasons: my dissatisfaction with the Bush administration; my inability to find a teaching job in Los Angeles after two years of searching; and the need to pay down my debts in the U.S.
The internet was the key to my entering the world of teaching. Not only could I learn about the process of becoming a teacher, but searching for a job in another country was now accessible through dedicated websites such as Dave’s ESL Cafe, Abroadchina.org, and many others. I furiously searched for information on China, eventually settling on Sichuan, and its provincial capital Chengdu, as my destination. Why? Chengdu was the jumping-off point for travel to Tibet, which I intended to visit, and I loved Sichuan food. There are worse reasons for choosing a place to live.
I arrived in China in July 2006. The demand for English teachers was high, as the country geared up for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. People were urged to learn at least basic phrases in English, and I lost count of how many times a day I heard “Hello!” shouted at my back. I stuck out like a sore thumb: a 50-year-old foreigner with grayish-white hair and a goatee sailing through a sea of black-haired people who all seemed shorter than I was. I got used to being stared at.
My starting salary at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, Chengdu, was 4,000 RMB a month, at that time worth about US $650 a month. If you teach at a university, however, you are provided with a free furnished apartment; mine also included a computer, internet, fully-equipped kitchen with dishware, and a private laundry room. I stayed in this job three years, eventually getting tired of teaching one lesson plan a week, but repeating it 7 times for all my different classes.
As a newbie teacher in China, you will have to make several decisions, which will affect what kind of job you accept. First, how serious are you about teaching as a career? In 2006 the country was still full of “casual” or “backpacker” teachers, the kind who are passing through for a year or two for a holiday or a chance to party. There were also older, mature teachers like me, some making midlife changes as I had. Whatever your motivations for coming to China, whether for evangelical religious purposes, to learn a new culture or language, or to make a life’s work of teaching abroad, you must be clear in your own mind about these, and then make at least a rudimentary plan for your teaching career. This is because, over time, your motivations will become clear to your students.
Second, what kinds of teaching jobs do you want? The typical Chinese university hires foreign teachers as Oral English instructors, to impart knowledge of conversational or general language skills. You will be treated professionally, but expectations of you are not likely to be high. You may be there to lend the school prestige, or even to help it charge more money for its classes. In my experience, I was often expected to create my own curriculum, teaching materials, and assessment methods, with no assistance from the administration. After my first couple of years, I started supplementing my salary with part-time jobs with chain schools (for-profit, intensely competitive businesses) and private lessons. By my third year in China I had paid off the balance of my credit card debt in the U.S.
Chain schools offer many teaching jobs, often for children or teenage students; I won’t mention any names since you only have to glance at the jobs listings on ESL Cafe or other sites to know what the major ones are. These schools may promise high salaries, but often demand long work hours and up to 30 or more “contact” hours per week. By contrast, a full-time university contract requires 14-16 class period per week, in my experience.
During my fourth year in China I began to move up the ladder, into more demanding teaching positions. At Sichuan University I coordinated Going Abroad classes for government-sponsored Chinese Visiting Scholars who prepared to go to the UK or USA; these were my favorite classes, since the teachers were adults with Ph.D.s, and extremely active and personable in class. I also began to move into a different branch of English teaching, English for Academic Purposes (EAP), largely at the prompting of one of my colleagues. Teaching EAP is quite demanding, with a steep learning curve, leading me to enroll in a specialized M.A. program by distance learning through the University of Nottingham. I began to teach academic writing, study skills, research skills, and presentation skills, all of which require specialized knowledge.
For a couple of years I greatly enhanced my income by becoming an IELTS (International English Language Testing System) Examiner for the British Council in China. The money was good while it lasted, and China is the world’s largest market for IELTS and IELTS-related materials and preparation classes.
The top step in my career was to enter the world of foreign or joint-venture university campuses in China. These are where good salaries are paid, amounting to U.S or U.K.-level wages. There are also international school or IB (International Baccalaureate) schools, which can combine elementary and high school grades, with comparable salries. Today there are many American, British, and Australian universities with cooperative programs, or their own campuses, in China. In general, you will need an M.A. and teaching experience to land these jobs.
The last step in my China teaching career was to turn 60, which is the country’s mandatory retirement age. You can still find jobs after 60, but it becomes much more difficult. This was when I had to leave my highly-paid job at Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, and accept a less-prestigious job at one-fourth the salary. If you’re a “mature” teacher in your 50s or 60s, and this is aconcern, there are online sources giving advice on age limits for foreign workers in different countries.
The English teaching landscape is changing in China. In the last couple of years, visa rules have become stricter. More cities now require a certificate of no criminal conduct, either from your home country’s government or from the police in a Chinese city you have worked in. Many teaching positions now require at least a B.A.; upper-tier jobs require an M.A. Age limits are changing; provinces that granted work visas to age 65 have now lowered the age to 60. You will also see job advertisements that include age limits such as 50 or 55. Salaries and working hours are changing; I was recently offered a teaching job at 8,000 RMB a month, but it required 24 class periods a week, an exhausting schedule when you have never taught more than 16 periods.
As I mentioned above, apart from top-tier school salaries, teacher salaries in China are notoriously low. See Low salaries leave expat teachers bottom of class (China Daily, July 23, 2015) for reference at http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2015-07/23/content_21384900.htm.
Do I have any regrets? Perhaps only that I didn’t start younger. I have the feeling that there was a lot of territory left unexplored, now that I am considering leaving China to resume my career in the USA. However, there are many more unexplored worlds ahead of me. What will I do now? Become an online tutor; get paid to write lesson plans or study guides; become a teacher trainer, and pass on the gift of teaching abroad and learning about new cultures.
Some parting words of advice to new teachers going abroad:
Do your homework: research schools, cities, countries. Read message boards for comments from other teachers. Take these comments with a grain of salt; often it’s the disgruntled teachers who post; happy teachers stay quiet.
Get qualified: Earn a TESOL, TEFL, CELTA, or other teaching certificate, preferably one with 120 hours of study, through a reputable university or training organization. Quickie online certificates are often frowned upon.
Consider going for your M.A.: TESOL, Applied Linguistics, Teaching English for Academic Purposes; other fields if you plan to teach a subject other than English.
School ranking is very important in China; I was fortunate to work at three top-ranked, first-tier universities, which gave me a leg up when applying for other jobs in China.
When accepting a job abroad, be sure to ask for names and addresses of current or former teachers, as references. The school should also email you photos of the teacher apartments, and send you a sample contract, with all benefits spelled out.
My first class, Chengdu, 2006
On my occasional trips to Hong Kong, I find that the city by day is all sharp corners, rushing traffic, commercialism, and faceless shopping malls. The city softens and changes its personality at night, when it becomes a clash of colors, neon signs, food smells, clamoring crowds, and suddenly-quiet and dark streets. The city becomes more intimate, enclosed; its hidden spaces – storefront restaurants, dimly-lit stairways leading to mysterious spaces above, lighted upper floors – revealing themselves.
On a recent overnight trip, I explored the night streets of the Jordan area, in the Kowloon peninsula, an area abounding in restaurants and the touristy Night Market. Nathan Road, with its tall buildings and double-decker buses, slices through the area, lined with shops and hotels. Side streets branch off to either side, lined with small markets, food stalls, massage parlors, and restaurants offering a dizzying array of cuisines. Near to the Night Market is an entire street of restaurants serving spicy crab and other seafood, seating areas spilling out onto the sidewalks.
I’d had my first Hong Kong dim sum meal earlier in the day, grabbed a half sandwich from Pret a Manger in the afternoon, and was now hungry for dinner. I wasn’t adventurous enough to order a platter of spicy crab (market price), so decided on a plate of fried noodles with shrimp, and steamed clams in brown sauce. My table was on the sidewalk, and I aimed my camera into the crowd and snapped away at random into the nighttime scene, hoping for some interesting results.
The Night Market was far too crowded to explore, so I headed into the side streets and away from the crowds. Architecturally and culturally, Hong Kong is different from mainland China; it’s more cosmopolitan and more westernized, with English spoken as much as Cantonese or Chinese. I photographed night restaurants and shops, and enjoyed the mystery of streets that alternated light and dark. Wandering at night requires you to peer into shadows and to be more alert to changes in atmosphere and mood.
I became tired after a while, so I headed back to Nathan Road and then south to Tsim Sha Tsui, where my hotel was, instead of taking the crowded metro. Back at my hotel, I contemplated my adventures, and began to plan my next nighttime walk.
Vintage survivor, Queens Road Central, Hong Kong