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Am I trapped in China after a decade of teaching?


By John Taylor

After more than a decade of teaching English in China, am I trapped here as an oral English teacher? If I were to return home to England, would I be "dirt poor"? The best way for me to answer this is to chart my 13-year journey here so that readers may better understand the complex set of factors that define my current situation.

I left school with few qualifications in the late 70s, but after a while I joined the R.A.F as a fire-fighter with the future ambition of joining the local fire brigade afterwards. This failed to happen, so after some time I returned to education in the late 1980s under a Conservative Party School Organisation Plan for the recently created unemployed masses. This was used to control inflation, principally because it was free and I was still young enough to feel youthful. As a most enthusiastic and mature student who saw the value of education, I went through two years of further education, three years of university for a BA (Hons) and, lastly, one year of post-graduate teacher training, state funded.

I finally graduated as a college lecturer in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately though, 1995 was the worst time to seek out a teaching job in higher education, especially for teachers in the fields of history and politics. After failing to secure a teaching position and, just about flat broke, the only option was to take the first job available. It was at a call-centre, alongside many other out-of-work-teachers.

I thought my break came in 1999 when Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) offered to send me to China for two years. It was volunteer work but it paid a small amount and included housing. I thought it would be a welcomed adventure and, at least, it would enhance my curriculum vitae. Those two years were challenging to say the least: The college I was sent to, although in a city in central China, had third-world status as it was a teacher training college for teachers from the countryside. It was poor, disorganised, and situated in one of the poorer agricultural provinces of China that had no experience with foreigners, which remains a problem to this day for many parts of China. VSO proved to be inept at handling this situation: What I mean is, VSO did not have a realistic plan of overall development and it failed to understand the nature of China and its education and political systems.

For example, VSO was concerned that the "leaders" of the college were happy, though this was never explained why. In fact, the "leaders" were only happy if the students were happy; the students were only happy if they passed every exam and weren’t put under any pressure. What proved to be true is that if a VSO volunteer tried to buck this system, dissatisfaction from students went right up the line to VSO and the volunteer was perceived negatively. It was impossible for VSO volunteers to actually improve China’s third world education system, and I felt that all that was provided was an underpaid teacher for free to a college in China with no provable or measurable improvements. China’s distrust of foreigners interacting with its education system is an ongoing issue in China and hasn’t changed since my VSO days. Overseas English teachers are, as this website suggests, excluded not only from the education system but from political and social life as well, which manifests itself as a constant bias against foreigners.

I returned to the UK but had to stay at my sister’s in North Wales on my return, as I had no home to return to. To get to China I had to give up my job and my home in Manchester. On my return, trying to secure a job in North Wales was hopeless and staying at my sister’s didn’t help. She too had problems apparently. Even an official from the job centre suggested I return to China, at least for a while, as the job situation was still dire in Britain.

I returned to China the following September and, at that time, decided to devise a much better plan to eventually return home. This I did, and it wasn’t easy. One year later I returned to the northwest of England, without much money. However, try as I might, I could not get a decent enough job. I managed only to obtain several entry-level office jobs in two years, each progressively worse than the last. I despaired.

I decided to return to China in 2004, marry my Chinese girlfriend—who is also a teacher—and make a go of it: After all, how bad could things be? Isn’t it just a question of effort? Since then, we’ve bought an apartment, bought a new car, and we have a small amount of money in the bank, but of course, and here’s the clincher, it would be worth peanuts in the UK. We had to work hard for our money and save every penny. Both my wife and I have extra jobs, particularly on the weekends.

Am I trapped in China? I have no home in Britain anymore; I could not expect to be employed in the UK, and my life is entwined in my Chinese hometown. I don’t have any other relatives and, after more than ten years in China, I’ve lost contact with any friends I may have had in Britain. Though my wife and I get by in China, we’d have a very uncertain, possibly dire, future in the UK, though I often catch myself daydreaming of retiring back to the UK. Returning has become just a distant dream.

I would agree with people such as "Refugee" on this website who have argued that trying to stay long term in China, especially as an oral English teacher, is like "trying to stay afloat in a pool of quicksand": It’s psychologically stressful; it’s physically demanding, and; you feel at times like you are drowning. I’ve seen a lot of overseas teachers return home early swearing never to return, succumbing to drink or drugs, philandering, suffering depression, becoming unusually aggressive, defensive or withdrawn etc. Admittedly, it doesn’t happen often, but, occasionally, some overseas teachers commit suicide. China, despite its pretensions, is far from what can be described as developed.

I would recommend being an overseas English teacher in China for a period of six months, one year at the very most, and this is principally to get what you can out of the experience with an enhanced resume. The average 10,000 yuan per month is sufficient only for holiday spends, coupled with the free accommodation, which can possibly include a free work visa. Teaching English in China is really only about amusing the students, which is tolerable for six to ten months, no longer. The students' educational level and English competency is shockingly low in China. You’ll be invited to one or two banquets, which are interesting at first. You’ll be treated like a welcomed guest for a while. After about a year, the novelty of your presence will wear off and they’ll be looking for a new, more exciting foreigner to amuse them. China has problems with professionalism and management skills, especially in the field of education.

There is talk recently of scrapping the CET-4 and CET-6 (college English tests for non-English majors), which were considered important English exams, though this may not happen immediately. Although overseas teachers don’t, as a rule, teach for (or to) these exams, I feel it will impact on the need for overseas English teachers. There is now general agreement that English teaching has failed in China, as one only has to look at Chinese people with a functional English literacy rate of less than one percent.

In 1999, overseas teachers were primarily provided by organisations such as the VSO, the Peace Corp, and an assortment of volunteer and religious organisations, etc., especially outside the few big cities. This was slowly phased out as China increased its wealth. Therefore, colleges, universities, and even middle schools became responsible for directly recruiting and hiring their own overseas teachers. Most failed to learn anything from their previous experience with overseas teachers, because overseas teachers have always been isolated from the education system.: China's educational institutions failed to respond to this challenge.

The deal they offered, and continue to offer, is only suitable for Western people who are only really interested in passing through China. The deal offered, that is, in or around 5,000 renminbi per month (for 10 months a year), with little or no medical coverage and a free (usually substandard) apartment is not going to attract fully qualified Western teachers who are prepared to develop a teaching career in China. Consider, for example, if a Western teacher commits to China, what about a pension when he retires, which should (but doesn't) include a visa to stay in China to enjoy his retirement? Most people in China, it seems, believe that foreigners are millionaires or extraordinarily rich in their home countries and have access to a generous pension. Colleges and universities found that they had to recruit an ever increasing number of overseas teachers every year, if not every term. Recruitment has slowly been handed over to recruitment agencies, which many have proved to be unscrupulous in pursuit of financial gain only.

Many college and universities are now employing ever more non-native speakers of English from the Philippines, India, etc. This has only served to drive down salaries and conditions and contributes to the de-professionalization of overseas teachers. Many of the Western people employed are not teachers, have never taught, and will probably never teach again.

Postscript Two: Day-to-day Stress in China

Almost all Chinese people live in an apartment block. In an apartment block, the quality of your life depends on who lives above you. For example, my wife and I bought a nice apartment just on the outskirt of the city. We bought an empty shell and decorated it nicely. After about six months we noticed a small amount of water running down our wall in the kitchen from the apartment above.

The leak wasn’t fixed until two years later. What happened in the two years? Initially, my wife informed the family above us about the leak and the damage it was causing to our wall and paintwork. The man of the house worked for a local government office and he then used his influence at work to send some workers to fix the leak. This is because he was always trying to do things on the cheap, which is why there was a leak in the first place: he failed to pay to have his bathroom waterproofed properly. The workers he sent round had no skills or experience to deal with this problem. The leak persisted. We had to complain again. Again, he’d send round the same workers. The leak persisted and he’d send the same workers around again. What was needed, as we suspected, was that he’d have to dig up the bathroom floor and re-waterproof the bathroom floor properly. He didn’t want to do this, as this was expensive: actually the cost turned out to be less than 2,000 renminbi. I got very angry, but my wife, fearing disaster, asked me to not to say anything and that she would deal with the problem. I agreed.

Two years later (my wife had a sabbatical for year), after trying all she could to deal with the problem, she was left crying on the floor feeling utterly depressed. There was nobody to help us, as this is the nature of China. I personally had two years of frustration built up watching water run down the wall of our new apartment, and the sight of my wife crying didn’t help. I went upstairs and shouted at him; I mean I really shouted rage at him and his wife and his child. To be frank, I terrified them. Fifteen minutes later, in a state of panic, he agreed to fix the leak. He fixed the leak two days later.


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