Teaching English in China: The March of the Volunteers

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Teaching Location: Nanjing, China
Type of Teaching Job: High School
Student Age Group: Teens
Monthly Salary: 16,500 RMB (~$2,400 USD)
Monthly Rent: 0
Living Arrangement: 1-bedroom apartment
Monthly Savings: 10,000 RMB (~$1,500 USD)
Contract Bonuses: 8,000 RMB (~1,200 USD) for airfare, 3,500 RMB (~$500 USD per month for 2 summer holiday months)

Teaching English in China - Blog Story by Rob Burton

⋯ By Dr. Rob Burton ⋯

“What then is freedom? The power to live as one wishes.”
– Marcus Tulles Cicero

Marcus hits the nail on the head concerning my experience of living in China. It’s one of those strange contradictions that we love about living in the Middle Kingdom that for all the bad stuff we read about Communism the reality for us expats is somewhat different.

Advantages of Teaching English in China

Anonymity and Freedom

Here we have the freedom to be who we want. Didn’t like yourself back home? Hell, you can make up your own biography and tell the story of your life to every other barfly you meet. Be the man or woman you really want to be. We are anonymous; no one knows who you are or where you came from. And to be frank no one really cares – most friendships are here today – gone tomorrow, sort of affairs.

Most of us in China have an edited past we trot out in conversations. Things we really don’t want our new found pals to find out about us. Those things that set us on the road to China – and keep us here. Failed marriages, failed businesses, failed careers, failed personalities. On the other hand, we can then start to impress our new found best buddies with the tales of our travelling – fiction or non-fiction – who cares? If it’s a good story it’s worth repeating – continually.

Let me tell you about the wonderful times I have had wandering around lonely as a cloud through S.E. Asia with only bar girls as company. Or the great money I was making in Korea. Or that time in Cambodia when… recounted a hundred times to the similar faces, in similar bars all doing similar things to maintain our sanities.

Sports Day in Nanjing
Sports Day

Less Surveillance and More Freedom Away from Work

There are many other freedoms I enjoy too. The UK has one of the largest totals of CCTV cameras in the world. The British Security Industry Association (BSIA) estimates there are between 4-5.9 million cameras. In the UK I am constantly being surveilled. This is for my own safety I am informed.

In China, I can go about my legal business without being constantly filmed and analyzed. This is, in my view, a joy. There’s a sort of weightlessness that goes along with this freedom – it can make one feel a little giddy at times. The positive side of CCTV in China is that all road junctions seem to be monitored. So in the case of an accident, there is film. But still I remain giddy – the iron cage of rationality has not imprisoned me yet.

Freedom and Flexibility at Work

At work, I am not being constantly micro-managed. I am allowed to get on with my teaching with little interference. We all know that our teaching practice gets fed back to the managers and parents through the spies in the classroom. I for one have never managed to find out who my classroom snake in the grass is but whoever it is they seem to be happy enough with what I do. So I enjoy my teaching and get to be creative at work and genuinely feel that I am helping my students get to the foreign universities they dream about.

The consequence of the freedoms I enjoy in China is a lack of stress in my day-to-day life. I can do what I want, where I want to and how I want to without having to constantly look over my shoulder or worry that my ‘performance’ targets are not being met. For me that is a massive plus in my life. Of course that ‘freedom’ does not give me the right to break Chinese law. Let me quote my namesake Robert Burton (1621) here – ‘When they are at Rome, they do there as they see done.’

Students in China
Prospective new students having the treat of having to listen to me doing something fun having been asked at the last minute

Disadvantages of Teaching English in China

Miscommunication and Management

Of course China is not without its idiosyncrasies. Many of the things that expats hate tend to be things that are culturally different to the ways we like to think things should get done. I am a sociologist so perhaps I am a little bit more patient as I recognize that often we do get a bit too ethnocentric about the way life is lived here.

One of the things that irritates even me, Dr. Laid Back, is that last minute management thing when you are told, ‘Oh Dr. Rob there’s a meeting tomorrow do you have a PPT for it?’ ‘What? You just told me, how can I possibly have a PPT ready?’ – ‘Oh Sorry.’ Or your phone rings at 7:48 am ‘Dr. Rob, you have a class, where are you?’ ‘I’m in bed, my first class is this afternoon.’ ‘No Dr. Rob we changed your timetable, you have a class now. Class A Room 3.’ ‘But no one told me.’ – ‘ Oh Sorry.’

Yet the Chinese teachers suffer the same problems, for less money, I was told it’s a management thing whereby they expect employees to jump to their slightest whim to show commitment to the employer. I still don’t get it though and it’s annoying.

Some Teachers’ Attitudes

This forments within many expats a resentment that allows them to witter on about ‘Oh we didn’t do it like this in my last school’ or just simply ignore last minute requests from the people who pay them. It’s as if we are so much better and worth more than our Chinese teacher colleagues who have very little say in how their employer treats them.

It annoys me that some expat ‘teachers’ (I am using the word ‘teacher’ advisedly here because some of the people I have met in schools are plainly not teachers) think that they can swan up to class, fill their 45 minutes with something or other they might have put together at the last minute, and swan off down to the local bar for another evening of telling each other the same stories they have told each other a hundred times.

My desk in Nanjing
My desk

Occasional Racism

That sort of attitude breeds a casual racism where we can start to blame the Chinese for all the things that go wrong with our easy life. How often do we hear – ‘Oh the bloody Chinese, they haven’t got a bloody clue, bloody idiots.’ I will freely admit I have fallen into the same trap myself – it’s so easy to push the blame somewhere else, mindlessly disregarding that this is their country and their systems. We are the visitors; we are the aliens, the immigrants, and the refugees if you will. It is WE who are different – not them. We are the Laowais.

This is my fifth year here and I am not yet tired of the Middle Kingdom. I will be here for many years, my adventure is not ending – I will continue to live as I wish.

Happy New Year.

Contact Dr. Rob Burton

Twitter: @Trebornotrub

YouTube Channel: Visions of China

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Lily Svensson
6 years ago

Thanks for the insight! There really is something appealing about starting over in a new place. Has air quality been a concern for you, or is that a stereotype? It’s one thing that gives me pause.

6 years ago

Hi Lily. In the last five years here in Nanjing the air has been pretty good. Yes that have been some days when it has been atrocious but not that many. Of course Nanjing doesn’t suffer poor air in the same way as Beijing or Shanghai or some of the more northern industrial cities have. The local government has been working to make the air cleaner for example they have banned the use of fireworks. Which were used every day not just special occasions. So yes sometimes air quality is bad and you might have to wear a mask. But… Read more »

6 years ago

I teach “in” China without really “going” to China! I do this online with VIPKID and Magic Ears! If you are interested, you can use my links to find out more!
For VIPKID: https://www.vipkidteachers.com/activity/popup?refereeId=1262883&refersourceid=a01
For Magic Ears: https://t.mmears.com?referralCode=T135650
I find this an excellent opportunity to learn about the culture and get experience with Chinese kids! And–maybe someday I’ll actually move there!
I’ll be happy to discuss these opportunities with anyone interested!

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