Ah, China! The land of opportunities! The entrepreneur’s paradise! The destination spot of the poor and the weary….rats! wait!…..that’s the USA. Okay, wrong communi……I mean feudali…..I mean….oh, you know what I mean!.. one of those ‘…ist’ political term. The country under discussion here is the massive one, the sleeping giant, as they say, that rests on the Asian continent (I can still say Asian, right? It is politically correct, right!?); that mythical and mystical one that lures and beckons all the foreign teachers (well, more like back-packers turned teachers), seeking a source of income to support the habit of drinking, partying, and…..well, back-packing.

China! That’s the one!

As an English/ ESF/EFL instructor, living and working abroad for many years, I have been asked many times if teaching EFL is lucrative, and being in China for a while, I have been asked about the possibilities of earning a ‘’good paycheck’’ here as an ESL teacher. The question never fails to take me by surprise, as it points clearly to the underlying objective of the enquirer’s actions. As a blanket statement, I will say this: if you are approaching any job or vocation in life with the primary purpose of ”making money,” then you are up for a long and arduous road. Passion and a love for what you are doing is what will always sustain you, whether or not you amass a fortune.

And more specifically, if you, like a gazillion others, are looking to travel to China to find that pot of gold, I will save you the associated heartache and the exploitation that is sure to come your way. My very succinct suggestion is, don’t. We don’t even see rainbows here, as the elevated API precludes that!

Yes, I know, you’ve combed through the listings on Dave’s Café and the multitude of neophytic EFL job sites in search of your dream job, and you have found many jobs that (seemingly) fit your criteria. Don’t be fooled, that dream job in actuality can very well turn out to be your worst nightmare, simply because you are so smitten by the prospects of all the wonderful things promised you – especially the paycheck – that you neglect to do your homework (which many people subconsciously avoid because they have no desire for the truth).

To save you from yourself, and usher you in the direction of somber reality (yea, I know, I’m a wet blanket), I will provide you a few pitfalls that have waylaid many before you (even those not approaching it with dollar signs in their eyes!), as they too failed to do their homework.

When reading or negotiating a Chinese job ad or contract, keep in mind that there are some specific language usage and phrasing that is carefully crafted to trip and ensnare the unsuspecting foreigner. I know, you thought that it was their lack of English skills, but it isn’t, it is one of the classic Chinese negotiating tactic – to create a contract that will hold up in neither an English court, due to its lack of cogency and clarity, nor the Chinese court – the English version will not be used in any arbitration anyway, the contract will specifically state that “only the Chinese version is applicable if there is any dispute!”

Ah, I have your attention, now! Good, I will demystify the employment process for you by providing here some common phrases you will encounter in ads and contracts, and I will decode them to reveal to you their real, contextual meanings:

  1. 1. Pay rate is 15, 000 – 19,000RMB, or you may see: Pay is 20,000RMB. This high salary is designed to lure you. What they really mean is that if you are willing to participate in slave labour, by working night and day for 6 -7 days (60+ hours), then your pay will be 20,000RMB, overtime included. Be mindful, however, that if you miss one single class, or one hour, or even a few minutes, there will be heavy deductions from that ‘princely’ sum.

And the 15,000 – 19,000 pay range means that your basic pay is 15,000 for perhaps 40 hours, and only when you work overtime will you see that higher salary.

  1. Apartment provided – beware, that this could very well mean that it is (1) shared accommodations (2) you will be in a very depressed apartment building which is actually under construction. It is more than likely the cheapest apartment that can be found in the most remote area, which will require you to travel long distances to the job site. That being said, if it is a university, they do have on-campus housing, which is decent and will cut out the travelling.
  2. We have various centers – This is typically used to lure teachers into thinking that they will have an option in where their jobsite is located. Not necessarily true! It typically means that there are classes scheduled in the various centres and that more than likely you are travelling the length and breadth of the city, a few times during the day, to cover those classes. And if you are the new kid on the block, then guess which shift you are getting? That’s right, the shit shift – or to use a term I coined specifically for this context, the ping-pong shift.

Not only can this constant travelling be extremely exhausting (climbing up and down long subway stairs, fighting your way into the tightly-packed subways), but it is also costly given the new increased subway rates in Beijing. Moreover, this exciting travel experience will soon lose its gloss and will become a very stressful engagement when you are trying to get to the classes on time (remember that being minutes late will affect the old paycheck!). The bus is a cheaper alternative, however, traffic can be a bear!

  1. Probation period is 3 months – it is customary for your contract to include a probationary period. No problem there. Be aware that Chinese Labour Laws that govern the hiring of foreign teachers, do not allow for probationary period beyond 1 month, but do foreigners know this? No. So, it is more the rule than the exception that companies extend the probation to 3 months, and even after.

Employers do this because (1) they know that you don’t know the difference, and (2) they can save money by paying you a lesser amount during your probationary period. They will find reasons to extend your probationary period so as not to pay your full agreed salary.

On the flip side of that, there are a few decent companies, who offer a probationary period of 60 – 90 days on full salary, and their intention is to give both parties time to see if the work relationship will work. How do you find those treasured companies? Simple: if the company you are negotiating with is giving you a reduced pay during your probation, then……you know the deal!

  1. Visa and FEC provided – beginning 2016, Chinese Foreign Labour Laws changed to stipulate that employers cannot hire non-native English speakers to teach English, unless their degree is from an English-speaking country. Period. What this means is that under those circumstance (non-native speakers and holding degrees from a non-English country) the employers will not be able to obtain (legally) a Z visa (work visa) or a Foreign Expert Certificate (FEC) for you.

Do I need to spell out the significance of this? Simply put, employers will lure you with the promise of a hefty salary and a work visa, but then only after you arrive in China, will they explain that they cannot get this for you because of your deficits in the above mentioned department. You will then be stuck with the issue of finding your own way to obtain this visa (a very costly, stressful, and impossible undertaking. I say impossible because you can only obtain a tourist or business visa, not a work visa).

And about that sizeable salary? Well, you just didn’t ask the right questions in the interview. That’s also contingent upon having native English status. Bummer!

The company will then tell you that they will go ahead and hire you, but on a lesser pay scale (and…. there it is! The old bait and switch!).

Additionally, due to your nascent, compromised self-worth and your fear of having no job due to your ”illegal” status (and the fact that you are stranded in a strange country, where you do not speak the language) you will now (gratefully) accept the modicum that the employer throws your way.

Welcome to China! You are now indoctrinated in the Hall of Shame in the ESL industry. Congratulations! You have just opened yourself up to all kinds of exploitation and slave labour.

Flashback! Remember that China has a very long and deeply entrenched history of feudalism…….old habits die hard! Hey, don’t kill the messenger, I’m just saying!