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.