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Guanxi - Connections | Teaching English in China

Eastern Opportunities: An Introduction to Living and Working in China

Daniel Allen

To live in China for any length of time usually requires a sizeable amount of perseverance and flexibility. That doesn't mean you won't be rewarded with some great experiences, relationships, and possibly financial gain, but with the percentage of Chinese expats returning home early as high as 70%, it's obvious that enduring the daily rigors of life in the capital (and more so beyond) can be quite demanding.

For most people the hardest part about living in China is the language, which can be a formidable barrier when it comes to communicating on any level. However, if you're prepared to put in a little time, money, and effort, it is fairly easy to pick up enough Chinese to make everyday life a lot easier, and consequently give you a far more enjoyable and meaningful China experience. Being able to speak at least some Chinese will also seriously improve your chances of finding a decent job.

It is true that most Chinese do not expect a (laowai) foreigner to speak any Chinese, so even a couple of phrasebook sentences can go a long way to breaking the ice - it also sends a well-received message of respect. Even with only a few Chinese classes, those who live in China long enough usually pick up enough essential Chinese to go shopping, take a taxi, order food, book a hotel room etc. etc. In fact, Beijing has its own peculiar brand of Chinese, so street-smart Mandarin in the capital cannot be learned in the classroom!

China's economy ranks third in the world after the European Union and the US, and foreign trade now accounts for a third of China's GDP. The per capita income is still around US$2000 per year, although a typical college graduate earns about US$500 per month.

Compared to the US and Europe this may seem like a pittance, but when you consider a packet of cigarettes in China typically costs around 30 cents and a bottle of beer even less, these figures are put into the right perspective.

Only a few years ago the vast majority of expat workers in China were university English teachers. While the education sector still accounts for a large percentage of the expat workforce, China's booming economy is now throwing up a wide range of other opportunities for earning a reasonable wage, and for picking up valuable skills along the way. If you're diligent, patient, and have a good sense of humor, working in China will give you the kind of cross-cultural experience that looks good on a resume, and is no longer viewed as simply a working holiday.

Dave's Cafe China Jobs Board.

Guanxi - who you know

In China, the old adage "it's not what you know, but who you know", certainly rings true. Business in the Middle Kingdom is heavily influenced by guanxi - the Chinese notion of relationships - and cultivating personal contacts is often the best way of finding a job. However, even if you don't have this kind of connection, the internet is a valuable alternative.

Multinational companies advertise heavily on (English), while Chinese companies tend to use (English and Chinese). It's also worth checking out the classified ads in English language magazines such as City Weekend and That's Beijing, as well as sites like Craig's List and Such listings are more likely to be part-time or contract work. Having a professional resume in both Chinese and English is often a big help.

Foreign-Invested Enterprises (FIEs), as international firms are called in China, employ about 85% of the non-teaching expat workforce. About 40% of the jobs are in sales and marketing; 20% in engineering; 10% in management, including accounting and finance; and IT jobs make up about 5%. The best-paying jobs require at least conversational Mandarin - those that require fluency tend to pay as much as US$30,000 more than the same job without the language requirement. Even if your Chinese is only intermediate level, it can still be a big plus point in the eyes of a prospective employer.

Only a few years ago most non-teaching expats worked for foreign firms, but a growing number are now being hired by local firms, even State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs). For both local and overseas companies based in China, the ideal expatriate worker has a mix of hard skills, soft skills, and language skills. Particularly desirable hard skills include technical skills (including both IT and complex manufacturing processes), financial skills (including CPA credentials and expertise with GAAP), international marketing skills, and legal skills, especially lawyers familiar with international trade laws.

Having the right hard skills and credentials may secure you an interview, but soft skills like flexibility, maturity, people skills, and cross-cultural competency are what will help you get a job offer, especially sales and marketing jobs that entail regular communication with Chinese customers. Companies know that the average expat isn't going to stick it out in China forever, so expect to be grilled long and hard about your intentions.

Teaching English in China

English teaching jobs or university teaching jobs tend to be filled via e-mail and telephone contacts with the school directly or through an agency - Chinese cyberspace is littered with ads for English teachers, with varying remuneration packages and contract lengths. Most schools who hire teachers on a full-time basis will help them get working (Z) visas, and a lot provide free accommodation and return air fare.

Some Chinese schools require previous teaching experience and a teaching qualification such as TEFL or TESOL, and some will accept complete novices, although the former can usually expect to get paid more. Pay at schools outside major Chinese cities is usually around RMB 2000 per month (approx US$300) less than in places like Beijing and Shanghai, although the cost of living is considerably less.

Most university teaching positions require a TEFL/TESOL qualification, some teaching experience and sometimes a Masters' degree. Until a few years ago English teachers primarily worked in colleges, but quite a few high schools and middle schools are now hiring foreigners as teachers now. There are also a growing number of private language schools such as Wall Street, Oxford English, and English First (EF) offering jobs. Dave's ESL Cafe is a great starting point for a web search of private school openings.

Teaching at an international school in China is a good choice for those who already have professional teaching credentials. These schools are run according to standards in the native country, and while pay may be local, it is usually on the high side of local. International schools usually pay for their teachers' housing, so they often prefer to hire couples.

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