Four years ago today I was walking, half-dead, through Shanghai’s Pudong International airport, searching for a woman named “Apple,” who was supposed to be holding a sign with my name on it. My name, and that of a certain private English education conglomerate: I’d arrived in China to teach English abroad.
My legal immigration status notwithstanding, I was unprepared for what life in my strange new home would bring, woefully yet by design — you can’t make love to a metronome.
With this being said, there are a few things I wish I could’ve told my much younger self as he stepped out onto his swanky hotel balcony to greet China’s city above the sea. If you’re thinking of pursuing a job teaching English abroad, I suggest you read them as well.
1. Teaching English is not going to make you rich
The classic narrative of teaching English overseas, in Asia especially, is that you’ll make a Western salary, with a significantly lower cost of living and, potentially, paid-for accommodation. All of these things are true to a certain degree, but the fact is that if you simply teach your required hours and collect your paycheck each week, there will be enough to save or enough to live it up — but not both.
2. But working on the side might
A couple weeks after I started my job, a sales associate at my school pulled me aside and asked me if I’d be interested in doing some one-on-one tutoring for a friend of hers, who was trying to get into an MBA program. I said “yes,” and it ended up being the second-best decision I ever made (the first being, of course, the one to teach abroad in the first place!).
Taking private ESL clients, who have the money to actually pay you what you’re worth, can double or even triple your ordinary salary in a fraction of the extra time. Is it legal? Of course not. But if you keep things on the DL and do a good job, you’ll evade detection and make a ton of extra money. Everyone does it, at least everyone who knows what’s good for himself.
3. Most expats are not worth your time
When you first arrive in your new country, the company of your English-native colleagues might seem comforting, but I urge you to (mostly) abandon them as soon as possible.
Not only will having a cocoon of people just like you insulate you from all the amazing local culture that’s right at your fingertips, but living la vida expatriada— i.e. drinking frequently, dining out frequently and generally being irresponsible — will bankrupt you, and prevent you from achieving any sort of financial goals, which for me anyway were at the forefront of why I moved abroad in the first place.
4. The earlier you build an exit strategy, the better
To be sure, I knew from the moment I arrived in China that I wanted to use teaching English abroad as springboard into what I’m doing now, which is why I not only accepted teaching jobs on the side, but began moonlighting in journalism as soon as I possibly could.
The sooner you know what you want to do when you finish teaching – for me, this was traveling extensively and building a popular Web publication — the more deliberately you can you use your time abroad to make money and hone your skills, a sort of practice run for the new, better life you’ll be leading when you finish.
5. Your contract is not life or death
The vast majority of English jobs abroad come with the stipulation that you must sign a contract of at least six months, and usually a year. What most ESL job hunters fail to realize — and almost no recruiter is going to mention — is that you can easily cancel your contract, typically by giving a month notice.
Canceling your ELS contract might involve forfeiting certain benefits, such as reimbursement of your flights or other expenses you incurred, but it is almost always possible, which is important to know when times get tough.
6. Replacement ESL jobs are a dime a dozen
And they probably will. Even if you work for a Western company, like I did, chances are it’s going to be run as if it were a local company. In my case, this was Chinese-style, which resulted in me working longer-than-contracted hours and being subject to extremely questionable management and supervisory techniques.
The great news is that once you’re in the country and have the legal authorization to work, finding a different job is easy, especially if you’re in North Asia like I was.
7. Your time abroad is going to fly right past you
Many aspects of my life in China were not what I imagined, from work conditions, to health issues that resulted from pollution and questionable nutrition, to general feelings of loneliness and isolation. Often times, the only thing that kept me going was being able to see my greater goal — which I did, of course, end up achieving — in my mind’s eye!
Looking back, however, I wish I could’ve slowed down and enjoyed even one percent more of my experience living in China. Teaching and living abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and although you can of course return to your host country after you’ve finished teaching, I urge you to savor it as much as you can while you’re in the thick of it.