This Q&A is part of the Chengdu Stories series of interviews with people living and working in Chengdu, telling stories of their lives in the Sichuan capital city. This interview is with a university English teacher with years of experience working and living in China, who also runs a bicycle touring company and has traveled extensively across Sichuan.
1. Who are you?
My name is Jeremy, I’m an American from Buffalo, New York. I teach English at a the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics (SWUFE) and organize bike tours around Sichuan province in my free time.
Last weekend I hosted a camping trip to Dujiangyan with more than a dozen travelers, and last last month I hosted a cycling trip to Sancha Lake. We camped we used a grill and stone to make pizzas. I grew up in the outdoors, so this is the culture I’m used to, and I’m happy to share it with people in China. Aside from bike tours, I also have done a lot of motorcycle trips around Chengdu and elsewhere in China.
2. How did you arrive in Chengdu and China?
I’ve lived in Chengdu almost three years but I’ve lived elsewhere across China, too. Over ten years ago when I first came to China, I lived in Kunming for over a year. I liked Kunming, but I wanted to be somewhere a bit more developed, with more action and opportunities.
A few years later I came back and chose to live in Taipei which is more developed and has a much different feel from mainland cities. I studied my masters in Chinese studies there at Chengchi University (國立政治大學) which was an amazing experience. I also lived in Chongqing for a year but that city didn’t really suit me.
Later I lived in Zhuhai for two years, which had good university job opportunities, but you mostly need to go to bigger cities nearby like Hong Kong, Macau or Guangzhou to have fun. In the end, I chose Chengdu because I wanted to host tours here, because we have nearby access to some of the most beautiful places in the world.
3. How did you first get into teaching English in Chengdu? What do you remember about your first experiences?
I got a job at Sichuan University before I came here when I was in Zhuhai, so it was similar to the other university jobs I had. My first job in teaching was in Kunming at a training school. It was a good opportunity because you have all levels and ages of students and administrators didn’t meddle. That was in 2006, and my impression is that students’ level of English on average was much lower than it is now. China has developed in many ways since 2006, and English proficiency is one of those.
Years ago, I spent some time in a Chinese hospital. Only one of the doctors knew any English, and only one student and one English teacher in the entire hospital could translate for me when I needed it. Exposure to western ideas and items was much more limited.
One time I remember asking students to the one pizza place in town, and they had such a hard time using a fork and knife which I thought was funny.
4. What do you think is the greatest misperception or misunderstanding that people who haven’t taught English in China have about teaching here?
Most people assume you have to be able to speak some Chinese or that we primarily teach things like grammar. Almost no schools want you to speak Chinese, because they are seeking full immersion in English. Grammar is difficult to explain to people who don’t know any English, so they usually have Chinese teachers complete those classes.
Some jobs at universities or other places may require more grammar for writing or reading classes or for thesis, but in general, most foreign English teachers are guiding speaking and listening classes.
5. What is your work routine like?
I taught at Sichuan University before and I’m currently at the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics. It’s considered a good school, and is one of the top three business schools in China.
Generally I have about 35 students in a class but I’ve had more in lecture halls. Usually university jobs don’t have that many teaching hours, about 15 to 20 hours at most in one week. At Sichuan university people usually teach 2 full days a week, and now I teach three days a week. The other time you can use to prepare lessons and grade or do whatever else you want.
Most classes are an hour and a half with a ten minute break between. I usually teach about a subject for part of the time and then arrange students into groups doing some activity or discussion, and a game or something fun at the end. Just lecturing doesn’t work well in China because students have a hard time focusing for more than 15 or 20 minutes at once. If you observe ordinary Chinese classes here, you might find that they’re extremely dry. I feel that there needs to be some interaction. The complexity of what you can do depends on the development of students’ language ability.
Most schools I worked at don’t have a lot of meetings or communication which can be good or bad depending on the person. If you have little or no teaching experience and you’re new to China, then it can be quite difficult because you are pretty much on your own. Not just for teaching, but getting adjusted to living here which is challenging.
In my experience, teachers are usually given a good amount of autonomy in calculating student performance, according to tests, quizzes, papers, or other forms of examination. However when you are managing 1,000 or more students (as I am) you quickly become constrained by time and attention. If it takes 2 minutes to mark a paper for each of 1,000 students, then a simple evaluation might dozens of hours.
It’s up to the teachers to decide how they will maintain classroom management, attendance and other duties. Every classroom I’ve been in has a computer and a projector screen so I use Powerpoint, pictures and videos to help assist me in class. At the end of the semester you have to input all the grades into the universities website which is often very time consuming.
One great benefit is that you normally have almost two months vacation in the summer and winter. It depends on the school, but you usually get paid throughout the entire year but some schools don’t pay you the entire summer. Reimbursement for return trips to your home country are common, too.
6. What have been the most rewarding and most challenging aspects of teaching English in China for you?
In general I don’t find teaching English super fulfilling, but that can be said of teaching in general. I actually planned to be a high school history teacher before coming to China so it’s not far out what I planned to do for some time. I mostly wanted to do this for the vacation time. The problem I found with teaching in general is that it’s all very subjective and outcomes are small and not easily noticeable. What is good teaching or a good teacher? What is the best way to assess a student’s achievements or know you’ve made a difference? What works for one person doesn’t work the other. You are selling something most people really don’t want but have to do, so I think that’s why most people don’t teach for long. At least if I sell a bike tour or pizza it’s something people really want and are happy about it. With teaching there aren’t so many happy customers, only a few, most others don’t care and many downright hate it. It’s like forcing kids to eat their vegetables. If you work super hard on lessons or in class that doesn’t mean you will get a good result so there is little incentive to work super hard, especially if you are restrained by guidelines from the school. There is also no ladder to climb for the most part like most professions, unless you get into administration so you’re pretty stuck for the most part. You can get a PhD and go into academia, which I considered, but that also has many other problems like getting published isn’t easy and very competitive.
So with that being said, English teaching isn’t amazing but it depends on their English and motivation level. Obviously better universities or students with better English is easier and less boring. I was lucky enough to teach some electives at one university I worked at in Zhuhai. I taught critical thinking and an introduction to English speaking countries and that was better because I could go a little deeper into many different subjects. When you have some decent students who are genuinely learning somethings I know they never heard or thought about before it can be pretty satisfying but you can only go so far and once you’ve done the lesson a bunch of times it can get boring regardless.
I think the toughest aspect of teaching is classroom management and discipline. Obviously most students would be on their phones all class so you need to have rewards and punishments for different things. I usually ask their name and immediately deduct points for things like being on the phone, but everyone has their own system. There’s other ways to get younger students to be motivated like have stickers. Better schools have less classroom management at least but it’s always a challenge. Like I mentioned, I studied Chinese studies in Taipei so I would like to talk more about many subjects like politics, but they are taboo here so that’s also a huge drawback. Back in the States there are different things that are taboo to talk about so it’s ironic that the one place that should be open to any ideas is often most restricted.
7. Previously you lived in Taiwan and taught there: how was that experience different from Mainland China? What are the pros and cons of each?
Taiwan developed decades before China and became a democracy in the 1990’s so it’s more developed in some social and economic terms. With that said, the economy has been stagnant for over two decades, so wages are lower there. The big drawback is salary and most of the jobs are at kids training school (buxiban).
The cost of living, at least for rent in Taipei is a little more than China on average, not including Shanghai and Beijing. Everyone is always working in those cities. Not laid back like Chengdu or some other medium size cities in China.
It’s more difficult to find good jobs in Taipei because the expat population seems a bit less transient – foreigners get the good jobs there and keep them. After five years living in Taiwan you can get an Alien resident certificate, so it’s like a green card and you have some of benefits of citizenship like cheap health care.
I also saw most of the island after three years, so there is more to explore in China and better job opportunities here. If I had a decent university job and more to explore I’d probably still be there.
Taiwan in general has a better and friendlier vibe towards foreigners and more of an international feel. There’s also less beeping, spitting and staring.
8. How has teaching English in China changed in your time here?
The overall level of English has improved, which has made China more accessible. I attribute this so the fact that China start teaching students English at a younger age now than before. When I went to Taiwan I was surprised that most of the jobs were for teaching kids, but I realized it made sense because you can learn most quickly when you’re young and get a head start. I assume that’s why they have a higher level of English in Taipei, for instance. I imagine the same can be said of Hong Kong.
9. What do you think the future of teaching English in China looks like, if it’s different from today?
There will always be a market because there are so many people who want to learn English and an enormous population here. There is, and will probably continue to be, more jobs teaching children than adults.
The other big change over the years is that they are getting stricter with the requirements for teachers. When I came back to China in 2013 for my first university job that was the last year you could be a teacher with basically no qualifications – at least for universities. Up until that point any person from a western country could be an English teacher pretty much regardless of degree, experience or country of origin. After that, universities required people to be native English speakers, to have three years’ experience teaching, a BA and a TEFL certificate.
I remember working with a couple of older American guys that year it changed who had been working in China for years and I knew they had no qualifications, so I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t get rehired the next year.
About 3 years ago the government also required teachers to have their criminal background check and degrees authenticated by their government and by the Chinese embassy in their respective country. This is obviously another huge hassle. I understand why, but it will discourage many young people from coming to China if there are so many hoops to jump through.
Since there is such a big market and limited supply, many training schools will employ non-native speakers who are studying here. I personally don’t mind and I’m glad they have the opportunity to make money to further their studies and travels, but it provides a big risk for employers and employees. They could make teaching in China even more difficult in the future but I imagine it won’t go much further than it is now because the demand is enormous.
English teachers have been imprisoned in Chengdu for visa violations, also.
10. What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of teaching English in Chengdu that newcomers to China might not know about?
If you’re new to China and teaching, then it can be quite difficult because some schools aren’t helpful in ensuring a smooth transition. You’re just thrown in and expected to figure it out, which can be overwhelming. Bigger schools like EF (English First) offer training and assist with your transition into China, but they represent a minority of the total job availabilities.
What happens to many new teachers to China is that they take a job that they find online that sounds great, and it turns out to be the job from hell. China Law Blog just wrote about this and recommended people from not teaching English here. It could be that the students are horrible or the classroom size is much bigger than you expected. You might get more hours or classes then were in the contract, or many meetings and office hours you were unaware of.
It’s normal at most training schools that teachers do demo classes, which are free short lessons to attract new students. Sometimes it feels like working for free. The schedule at training schools is not great because you usually work on the weekends. There’s other things outside the school itself – like they may have offered a nice apartment but you end up with a horrible one that’s disgusting. When they go to do the paperwork for your visa it might not get approved, or they may need more documents so you might be sent back to your home country, Hong Kong or outside China to get something done.
You might get told you’re in an interesting city or part of town to find out your in some industrial dump or a place without any foreign restaurants or people.
Some people have a hard time getting paid on time or at all. Overall, people are often disappointed they signed a contract that was practically meaningless so they feel deceived. This is emphasized and reiterated in the China Law Blog article above. You need a lot of patience.
I have almost always gone to the city I wanted to live in, and then looked or knew someone to get a job. If employers are desperate to find teachers online, then it could be because they have a high turnover or not it’s just not a desirable place. The good jobs don’t stay open for long.
Teaching is pretty interesting for most people for one to three years. If you’re teaching kindergarten you might be paid more, but you’ll probably get burned out. I prefer teaching at universities, although the environment can be more isolating than at training centers. I know a few teachers who have decided to leave because they’re living on a campus somewhere far away from anything interesting.
11. When did you first decide to do bicycle and motorcycle tours across China? What are your best and worst memories of traveling across China?
After suffering an injury, I was in a hospital in Kunming for a while. I began a cycling trip around the world in 2006 in Thailand. Four months into my travels I entered Yunnan from Laos and was in Shangralila heading into Tibet. An SUV swerved into the opposite side of road onto my shoulder and hit me head on, resulting in a broken femur and a month long hospital stay. My face broke the windshield and I wasn’t wearing a helmet.
I was surprised and lucky to be alive so I thought maybe there was something for me in China. Maybe fate. Instead of going home, I got a horrible surgery and then recovered and taught in Kunming the next year and a half. I even had to get a second surgery in Thailand after a year, which is why it took so long to recover.
I had the idea to do bike tours from when my accident happened. When I was in Taiwan I hosted dozens of bike tours and other events and have done so in other places I’ve lived. When I came back to China I bought a motorcycle in Chongqing so that I could explore more of Sichuan and find better routes to travel on.
12. Over the last few years you’ve been guiding travelers around Sichuan: what are some of the best routes and journeys that you’ve taken?
Are are so many, especially out west in the Tibetan areas of Sichuan. My first bike trip here in 2010 was from Litang and back through Tagong, Danba to the Ya’an area. Around Ganzi in the northwest is also amazing and has some areas like Yaqing Monestary, Zhuqing, Xinluhai Lake and more.
Down south heading on small roads towards Xichang there are great remote places with beautiful canyons in the Yi peoples area. Up North West you can go to ruoergai grasslands, Langmusi with two monasteries and first bend of the yellow river. There’s plenty of short one to three day trips around Chengdu to Sancha lake or around mountains east of the city or over towards Dujiangyan, Dayi or Qionglai area west of Chengdu. Coming down the road from Jiange up from up north is also amazing.
One of the best reasons to live in Chengdu is to have access to these and more places in Sichuan.
13. How do you feel Chinese people respond to your bicycle and camping adventures, given that it’s something most of them haven’t experienced before?
When I started doing this, I assumed it would mostly be foreigners but a lot of Chinese like it as well, which is great. They like breaking out of their ordinary routines. Some of them do, at least. Chinese are such a large group that it’s hard to generalize, but many people covet this type of experience. To see new things, be in new places, be outside, and have an adventure. If you’re interested, you can visit my website at BikeWestChina.com.