The Nanfang / Blog

In Praise of…Teaching English in China

Posted: 04/2/2014 10:05 am

While the Chinese word for teacher “老师” (laoshi) is an antiquated term full of respectful connotations, the word for foreign teacher “外教” (waijiao) is a recent addition to the language. This little piece of linguistic apartheid says much about what website Middle Kingdom Life (MKL) called the “de-professionalised” status most expats have when they come to China to teach.

Such blogs as Beijing Kids, Chinasmack, and Shards of China have all discussed the problem of unqualified foreigners working as English teachers due to poor quality control. So lax is the regulation and so great the demand for white faces to teach English that it emerged last year that two foreigners linked to child sex scandals in their home countries had been teaching in China for years.

Those are extreme examples, yet beg the question why so many people travel so far to take such an oft-criticised job? Firstly, in being relatively low on status and pay and relatively high on work/life balance, it is the opposite of more traditional careers and involves advantages that they don’t.

The opposite of investment banking

Because the pressure to excel tends not to be high, the amount of free time provided enables foreign teachers to pursue hobbies and side projects with the kind of dedication that wouldn’t be possible for people with more demanding jobs.

Plenty of foreign teachers have done interesting, worthwhile things such as travel and voluntary work, one prime example is Guangzhou’s own Albert Wolfe. Plenty of others have used the time to learn valuable skills like Mandarin that have boosted their employability and led to successful careers, not to mention giving them more stories to tell than a person who had a more conventional career trajectory.

But all this talk about self-improvement takes away from something even more fundamental – job satisfaction. Although decidedly falling down on the negative side of the fence, MKL acknowledges that the job can be hugely rewarding. “Those who have a healthy degree of self-esteem to begin with — and do not require recognition and approval from their superiors — are able to find enormous satisfaction from the appreciation of their students and so they stay year after year,” one of the site’s editors writes.

For me, keeping in touch with students, some of whom I haven’t seen since 2007, has been the most helpful way of learning about China and the unique path it is on. For New Yorker correspondent Peter Hessler, it provided the bulk of the material for his second book, “Oracle Bones.”

The dead-end question

Since moving to China I have come to dislike the Eagles song “Hotel California.” This is partly because of its ubiquitousness and partly because the line “You can never leave” is an unwanted reminder of the situation of so many expats, particularly teachers.

Investment bankers do have to work hard, but once they’ve established themselves, the pay does increase and the hours do decrease. The lack of room for career advancement and sparsity of opportunities to lay down roots is a worrying thing for English teachers in the middle kingdom.

But school teachers and career advisers often neglect to mention that some people just weren’t meant to have a normal life. As Scottish academic Alastair MacIntosh wrote in his memoir/polemic “Soil and Soul,” the mainstream manufactures people as a monoculture. “It turns us out like cloned rows of apple trees on pesticide-manicured fields. The mainstream ‘trains’ people by pruning. It forces growth in standardised ways. The song that we sing from within the mainstream is thereby not our own song,” hymns Macintosh.

The song I find captures the spirit of people coming to China to teach English in a much more pleasing way is that sung by Tex Ritter for the 1956 Western “The Searchers.” I particularly like the way it begins by asking “What makes a man to wander? What makes a man to roam?” then declines to answer its own questions, simply howling “ride away” in the chorus.

Why it’s right for some people

One of the tools that education is supposed to provide is the knowledge that there are myriad ways of finding meaning and identity in the world. Even some career teachers may find teaching English in China to be right for them as it simply involves teaching. It is very rare for a foreign teacher in China to have to deal with parents nights or office politics, as there are few office hours and extremely high turnover anyway.

This blog post “How to Find Your Dream Job” offers a viewpoint that the English teacher-bashers might find repulsive but many English teachers might relate to. “You won’t get promoted, which is a good thing. Promotion means more responsibility, more out-of-work stress. It also means more money, but you’ll end up spending most of that on travel, junk food (you’ll have less and less free time to prepare real food), medicine for when you get ill from junk food or increased stress, and entertainment and drugs to numb the emptiness that defines how you earn your food tokens,” argues Dan Bartlett.

And lastly, as one English teacher stated on a Shenzhen forum in 2011, if you disrespect teachers all that much, there’s a period of China’s history in which you would have fit right in.


PRD People: Albert Wolfe, Laowai Chinese founder, blogger and author

Posted: 02/26/2014 10:00 am

When Albert Wolfe first came to China in 2005, there weren’t many resources with which a foreigner could learn Chinese and few people were blogging about it. Now Wolfe, 32, runs Laowai Chinese, one of the most respected Mandarin education blogs around. This is one of many interesting and rewarding side projects he is able to work on while employed as a teacher at Peizheng College in Guangzhou’s Huadu District.

Albert Wolfe, image courtesy of Baidu

Wolfe came to Guangzhou in 2007 after spending a year in Nanchang followed by a year in Kunming. Since coming to the Pearl River Delta he has published a non-fiction book, written a novel and written several dozen songs in both English and Chinese, some of which have been played on local radio.

Tackling China and Chinese

After taking a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature, Wolfe got his TESOL certificate and chose to come to China. “I wanted to learn Chinese. There was something alluring about the Chinese language,” he told The Nanfang. Wolfe added that he found the Chinese graduate students he knew to be very friendly and gave two main reasons why he wanted to tackle this language:

“Number one, (with Chinese) I could communicate with a huge amount of people. Number two, Chinese has a reputation for being so hard, I just wanted to see if I could do it,” said Wolfe.

When he arrived, there was one particular source of dissatisfaction – a shortage of resources with which to learn the language. “Learning to read from scratch, there were things my friends and I couldn’t find an explanation for.”

This frustration was part of the reason why he founded Laowai Chinese. “I put it out there for other people to benefit from,” Wolfe explained.

The blog has proved popular, useful and opened doors both socially and professionally for Wolfe. He has taught beginner Chinese classes for foreign teachers at his college which employs 65 (yes, 65!) foreign teachers.

Plus, Wolfe’s first book Chinese 24/7: Everyday Strategies for Speaking and Learning Mandarin, published in 2009, was made possible by the blog. Just a few months after he founded the blog at the beginning of his second year in China, a publisher approached him asking him to write the book.

Writing books and songs for publication

This was not to be Wolfe’s last book. Writing has inadvertently become a big part of his China experience. “I never thought I’d be a writer. I didn’t come to China with that in mind, just something I got into as a result of being here,” he told The Nanfang.

After Chinese 24/7 was published by Stone Bridge Press, Wolfe joined a writer’s group with two colleagues at the college in which they would write something and meet every week to read it out. After the first chapter of a sci-fi novel that Wolfe was writing went down well, he decided to persist with it. The work that Wolfe read out at these weekly gatherings became “Faceless,” a novel Wolfe says portrays “The worst case scenario for social networks.”

Wolfe’s next book has the working title of “The Great China Quest.” It is about a trip across China made with colleague Adrian Winter in 2010 without flying and with 15 Scavenger Hunt challenges to complete. Here is a brief description from the website:

With only the starting and ending points decided, and a time limit of just 30 days (July 29 to August 27, 2010), The Great China Quest is the story of our journey to cover the 2,000 miles from Urumqi to Guangzhou (without flying) while attempting to tackle 15 scavenger-hunt challenges that our Chinese students have dared us to complete (see The Rules).

“That’ll be a really fun book,” Wolfe told The Nanfang. As well as the story itself which is compelling enough, it is full of side anecdotes about the two men’s combined 15 years in China. Some of the best China books about what life is actually like here are memoirs (think “Mr. China,” “River Town,” etc. rather than more scholarly works).

Aside from the books, Wolfe has also used his spare time in China to get into the habit of making music. He has published two albums of English songs and two albums of Chinese songs for free on his website. His Chinese songs have been played on local radio. The comments are overwhelmingly positive but with characteristic self-deprecation Wolfe told The Nanfang: “People tend not to complain when a product is free.”

A teacher at heart

In spite of all the time he spends on these activities, he describes them all as nothing more than just hobbies. “I really feel like a teacher at heart,” he said.

To Wolfe, his job at Peizheng College is an “excellent” gig for people who have a large number of side projects. He describes the college as being “special” and having a “very supportive faculty.”

He teaches English, music and Chinese at the college and writes intelligently about the process on his blog. As many other Laowais have learned, language-teaching and language-learning are highly conducive to each other.

Having said that, the hobbies are a huge part of what keeps him at Peizheng College, where he is staying indefinitely. “The ones who stay are the ones who find some meaning here.” Indeed.

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