This isn’t going to be one of those “Why I left China after two long years and everyone is going to miss me” pieces. I left China for a bunch of personal reasons not related to China, decisions that I later (somewhat) ended up regretting. But let’s not get into all that. Laowai leave or stay for a whole host of reasons, and since China inflates all our egos, we tend to think our departure theatens the foundational future of the country.
What this column is about is perspective, and specifically how living the expat life can cloud how you approach your future, in China or otherwise.
I think that teaching in China is one of the best jobs you can have. The pay is decent (especially as you gain experience), the job can be a lot of fun (if you put some time and effort into it) and the hours are minimal. As an introvert, the classroom affords me a social environment where I can put myself out there while simultaneously be in total control. It’s a deep-end-of-the-pool kind of therapy for shyness. My kids were great, and I had a wonderful relationship with my school. On top of that, China might be the most interesting place in the world right now, and it was amazing getting to witness, firsthand, the largest rural-to-urban population transition the world will ever see. As a writer, living in China does most of the work for you.
The problem was that, at the time, I didn’t see education as my career. I moved to China on a whim, while recovering from a horrible knee injury and experiencing an existential crisis. Three years after graduation, my English degree had gotten me as far as mid-level retail management, and, due to the financial collapse, I was looking at having to put in five more years as a copy slave before getting anything resembling a promotion. I also fucking hated the work; the money was decent, I was good at it, but it was slowly consuming my soul on a daily basis. While laid up with a fractured tibial plateau, I was chatting with an acquaintance from an off-topic message board about my vague interest in teaching in Japan. He told me I had a job at the school he ran in China if I wanted it. Five months (and a fuckload of paperwork) later, I was in Zhengzhou and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.
Teaching didn’t come easily to me at first; it took a while to master the social dynamic aspect of classroom management, but I wasn’t too worried. Teaching abroad was, at first, just a means to an expat end. I always envisioned myself as a novelist-poet who would be constantly waylaid by a “real job” until my dream of being published came true. After finishing my China adventure, I figured I’d get a technical-sounding Master’s degree (city management held a lot of appeal at the time) that would land me a solid-paying, if boring, job that could support a normal family life back home. Along the way, I developed into a pretty damn good teacher, but I assumed I’d be leaving Teacher Greg behind once my little jaunt was over. I put zero thought or effort into shiny certifications or training courses I could put on my resume, one of my biggest China regrets.
As soon as I arrived back in America, I set to work researching my next steps, in the meantime taking a career one-eighty and stacking wood in a lumber yard.
Oddly enough, the first thing I missed about China wasn’t the food, the people, the pollution or the cost of living: it was my classroom and students. I realized that all I wanted to do for a career was educate people. I spent a lot of time researching and getting myself qualified to teach high school English, but after eight grueling months I realized that the tepid job market and ever-powerful bureaucracy would be too exhausting to overcome. The whole time, I had my eye on returning to China, but this time with specific career goals instead of “get paid to travel” and “teach gud Englitch.”
One thing I definitely wanted, according to the old Confucian saying, is to train people how to teach. To start on that path, I got a good TEFL certification and found my current job, which has taken my teaching to the next level. The certification provided an imprimatur for my (mostly self-taught) pedagogy, while the latter has given me the chance to engage a diverse group of students with completely different needs than Chinese primary and middle schoolers. I have a fifteen-year plan for my education career, and every day I teach is another step down that path.
The crux of this story: none of this would’ve happened if I’d stayed in China. I might’ve been working at a different school in a different city, and probably making more than I was initially. I wouldn’t have seen the need to spend money on certification, and I doubt anything would’ve shocked me into investing much time or money into professional development. Old habits would probably not have died, and I doubt I’d have any idea where I’d be in a year or two, much less fifteen; I could see my future self starting to feel unfulfilled and quite pessimistic about working in education. Teaching can be a grind some days, and it’s really hard to track student progress across a couple of weeks (or months, even). It’s sometimes even more difficult to step back and look at the big picture of your career in TEFL when you’re entrenched in a fairly comfortable, if boring, career abroad.
To teachers reading this: I’m not advocating taking as drastic of an action as quitting China and going directly into manual labor, and I don’t want to detract from the experience of anyone who fits China into their long-term plans. My experience has just led me to believe that you need to pull back and assess your short-and long-term goals, then see how teaching and China can fit into them. China is not necessarily the best place to do that.
You could do something as easy as saving up some dough, then spending a couple of months mid-contract taking an intensive TEFL course and traveling around. You might even get your employer to pay for it; if they do, they’re probably a place you might want to consider for long-term career options, as it shows they’re as invested in your professional development as you are. You could try teaching in a different country for a year and see how it compares to China. I work with people who’ve taught all over the world, and China’s still on my shortlist of places I’d like to continue working. Or if you’re iffy on continuing in education, get a different job and see how it compares.
Closing your eyes and jumping in the deep end, into new experiences, shouldn’t be too difficult. After all, isn’t that what led a lot of us to China in the first place?
Greg is an ESL instructor who spent two productive years teaching in China. He currently lives in Colorado.