So you want to move to China
Tired of the divisive politics of the United States, scared of getting shot on your way to the super market? You want to escape, but Canada is too boring and Mexico is too dangerous.
Is it ennui? You’re approaching quarter life and tired of the same old faces, same old bars, same old routines. You’re stuck in a dead end job with a boss you hate and you feel vaguely cheated, slowly discovering society lied when it told you you were special and your future bright.
Or is it a sense of adventure? A desire to see the world? Life’s too short to spend in a country where exotic cuisine is swapping in your white bread for whole wheat.
Maybe you want to learn Chinese. Maybe you have a passion for calligraphy, kung fu, tea, pandas, the Great Wall. Maybe you’ve been reading in the news that China is the up and rising superpower, Asia is the future, and you want to cash in on that.
Maybe you like Chinese girls. Maybe you feel suffocated by your tons of student debt. Maybe you’re just bored. But something made you pick up this book. You want out.
The good news is you’re not alone. Out is in. Every year, thousands of young foreigners just like you flock to Asia to teach English and drink cheap alcohol and take weekend trips to Thailand. And because you’re not alone, the path has been paved for you. China is no longer the mysterious, forbidden kingdom of lore—so let me explain how to make your China dream come true.
Ask almost anyone if they like to travel, and they will say, “Of course I would—if I had enough money.” If they won the lottery they would travel, but otherwise it’s just not feasible. Traveling is seen as the privilege of the elite, like a country club membership or a Lamborghini—duh, everyone would like one of those, but who can afford it?
Since money is the great stumbling block on the path to our dreams of becoming carefree gypsies, let’s start by addressing the financial reasons why it makes sense to move to China.
First, let’s make a straightforward comparison in terms of earning power in the U.S. versus in China. Let’s look at the profile of the average Tim who moves to China: a twenty-four-year-old young graduate with a humanities degree from a mid-ranked university. According to 2014 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Tim could expect to earn an annual salary between $25,000 to 27,000 in the U.S.
If Tim moves to China and becomes an English teacher, he can expect to make between RMB 12,000-15,000 a month in China. In terms of dollars, that’s about $1,800-2,250 per month, which will add up to around $21,600 to 27,000 annually. This doesn’t include the extra benefits he will receive as part of his job package—either free housing or an extra housing allowance of around RMB 2,000 per month.
Tim’s gross earning power is about the same, if not slightly lower, in China as it is in the United States.
Now let’s compare cost of living in the U.S. and in China (with the important caveat that there are wide disparities between different cities in both countries):
Gross Income (Salary): 13,500 RMB
Rent: 2500 RMB
Utilities (electricity, gas, water): 200 RMB
Phone & Internet: 300 RMB
Food: 1500 RMB
Remaining Disposable Income: 9,000 RMB ($1,350)
If Tim had stayed in the US, would he be able to save $1,350 every month while paying rent and living a nice lifestyle?
A SOLUTION FOR STUDENT LOANS
America is facing a student loans crisis. In 2016, the average American graduated with student loan debts of $35,000. Millennials cite student loans as a reason for delaying moving into their own apartment, buying a car, buying a house, getting married, and starting a family.
Student loans also have an opportunity cost—money put towards student loan repayment is taken away from retirement savings. If a fresh graduate put $35,000 in the bank from graduation until retirement, compound interest would turn the amount into $684,474 by the time he retires. Paying off your student loans young has huge repercussions on your ability to retire early and enjoy a relaxing end of life.
Teaching in China is an excellent way to pay off a large chunk of your student loan. Putting $1000 towards student loan repayment every month would still allow you to have a high standard of living while paying off your loans entirely within three years! Even if three years seems too long to spend living in China, within a year or two you could have saved up enough to make a significant dent in your loan repayment. This takes pressure off you to immediately get a high-paying job when you return to the States. Even better, you don’t have to move into your parents’ basement. And you get to do all this while living in a fascinating country, enjoying the world’s best cuisine, and exploring the beaches of Southeast Asia. Becoming a teacher in China makes excellent financial sense for a recent graduate, and were Millennials robots motivated by profit they would all be fighting for the chance to teach at New Oriental.
But humans are not robots. We don’t always make the rational economic choice, to the frustration of economists in ivory towers across the world. Moving to China requires a certain amount of sacrifice. It’s a foreign country, with an unfamiliar language and culture. It’s far from home and friends and family and familiar comforts. Teaching English is not an obvious stepping stone on the path to a lucrative career.
Yet spending a year in China can help you reap rewards in different ways. For one, there’s the language: Mandarin is the most widely-spoken language in the world. It is the mother tongue of 873 million people, and the official language of the most populous country in the world. China’s economy is expected to surpass America’s to become the largest economy in the world by 2018. As China becomes a global superpower, it is expanding its reach in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Learning Mandarin will unquestionably give you an edge in the world of tomorrow—and even today. China is currently the U.S.’s top trading partner, which means if you have an interest in creating a product you will be working with Mandarin-speaking manufacturers. Steve Jobs once remarked he had no choice but to make the iPhone in China as no other country could produce it at such high speed and low cost. And China isn’t just a country of factories and manufacturers—as Chinese companies become richer, they are starting to expand their portfolios overseas. Alibaba recently invested $200 million in Snapchat. Dididache just bought out Uber in China.
And this is not to mention the vastness of China’s consumer market. According to Forbes, the Chinese consumer market currently makes up 35 percent of sales of luxury goods internationally. Alibaba’s TMall and Taobao online retail store have more active shoppers than the entire U.S. population. On a single day, November 11, 2015, Alibaba made $14.3 billion dollars of sales in less than 24 hour. As China continues to develop at breakneck speed and increase its people’s spending power, the country’s population gives it a center of gravity that draws the whole world in.
You might argue that many American businesses are successfully trading with China without forcing all their employees to learn Chinese. After all, English is the international language of businesses, and any contract you sign will be in the world’s lingua franca. That might be true, but speaking Mandarin will give you an edge in the hypercompetitive Chinese market.
Chinese business culture rests on the concept of guanxi, which can loosely be translated as relationships. Networking and making connections is crucial to succeeding in the Chinese market, and speaking Mandarin will immediately boost your credibility with your Chinese business partners. American companies attempting to break into the Chinese market have often remarked on this phenomenon. Tom Adams, CEO of Rosetta Stone, attributed his success in China with his ability to conduct business in Mandarin. Mark Zuckerberg received widespread admiration when he conducted a Q&A at Tsinghua University entirely in Mandarin, a feat for which Bill Gates praised him, stating his one regret in life was that he never learned a foreign language.
As China continues to expand its international influence, the ability to converse in Mandarin and conduct business on an equal footing with English-speaking Chinese will be an important advantage in conducting business internationally. For this reason alone, multinational human resources experts are encouraging young graduates to learn Mandarin as soon as possible to push their resumes to the top of the list.
The twenty-first century is the age of global interconnectedness. Speaking Mandarin gives you access to the world’s largest market and increases your ability to work with America’s largest trading partner. It’s easier to learn a language when you’re young, so invest the time now and reap the benefits for the rest of your life.
For two years I worked for a company that helped Chinese students prepare to study abroad in the Anglo world. My students were young, mostly teenagers. They had grown up in provinces all across China and almost none had had the opportunity to travel within their own country, let alone abroad. When I asked them why they had chosen to take the huge leap of going overseas for university, their answer (if it was not an honest “because my parents are forcing me”) was invariably some version of “To broaden my horizon. To open my mind.”
This is a pretty standard response recited by anyone who wishes to travel. In the West we too are encouraged to see the world, to experience different cultures, to open our minds. Yet when I asked my students what they would gain from broadening their horizons and opening their minds, it was clear they had never considered this question before, and could rarely articulate an answer.
I couldn’t blame them. Broadening your horizons and opening your mind seems such a self-evidently beneficial thing to do that it also took me a long time to wonder what exactly those nebulous concepts meant. Of course there are the quantitative benefits I listed above—learning a language, gaining professional skills, having an interesting paragraph to add to your resume. But when I look back on my time in Beijing it is not the concrete gains from which I feel I have most benefited.
Moving to China will change you. This change will not come from having the experience of sitting over a squat toilet or eating chicken feet—these are the most superficial aspects of living abroad, amusing diversions from the true lessons to be learned from a foreign culture. Living in China will change you because it will expose you to an un-Western way of thinking and viewing the world. It will make you question the core values with which you have been raised, and ultimately either reject them, or reaffirm your belief with renewed fervor, now understanding the principle behind your convictions.
For a Westerner coming to China, one such key belief is individualism. Americans and Europeans are all raised to believe in our individual selves as the center of the world. We are indoctrinated in the dogma of selfishness, told that our most important duty is the pursuit of individual happiness, that we should “be ourselves” and reject those who would block our path to personal fulfilment. Stories where the plucky hero finally stands up to his heartless parents who would come between his dream of becoming a musician and marrying the girl he loves are celebrated in our culture.
Enter Confucius. Confucius taught Chinese people they are a cog in a great communal machine, whose duty it is to perform the task that has been allocated to them to the best of their ability. Chinese children are not raised with the idea that their individuality is something to be celebrated, nor that personal happiness is in and of itself a goal worth pursuing. Obey your government, obey your parents, and find contentment in your contribution to maintaining a stable society.
This mind-set is pervasive in Chinese society. Teenagers have fully absorbed it by the time they graduate high school. Ask a Chinese student what major he will choose, and his answer will be some variation of, “My dream is to study architecture…but my parents want me to study finance, so I will study finance.” Your parents disapproving of your boyfriend is seen not only as a valid reason to break up with him, but an obligation to do so. Ask a colleague if they like your arrogant, overbearing boss, and they will give you a puzzled look and say, “What do you mean? He is my boss, how can I say if I don’t like him?”
Perhaps you will find you dislike this mode of thinking. You will look at your dutiful, passionless students and wish they could shake themselves up and take control of their own lives. You will pity your colleague trapped with an indifferent husband and a dreary job who seems to have very little to live for in this life. Westerners often leave China with a renewed appreciation for our culture, which celebrates passion and creativity and individualism.
And yet we also leave feeling like we have learned something from this communal mind-set. Chinese people are very generous. My students were constantly buying each other snacks and treats, never expecting to be repaid. If one of them was sick or struggled with answering a question, there would always be a classmate to step up and volunteer assistance. In a Chinese restaurant, everyone orders dishes for the whole table and shares everything. Your friends will show affection by picking the best bits from each dish and putting them on your plate, and then fight for the privilege of paying the bill. They wonder why foreigners always say please and thank you, as they consider doing small favors for each other so natural that there is no need to express gratitude.
Chinese who have been abroad comment that in the West, people treat strangers like family and family like strangers—Westerners are more friendly to strangers than a Chinese would be, but they treat their family with a distance and indifference that seem callous to someone with Confucian values. They find it strange that Westerners entering adulthood feel ashamed if they have to live with their parents or ask them for money. They are shocked by the treatment of the elderly, who are left to live by themselves with only their TV set as entertainment before being shipped off to a retirement home when they are too weak to care for themselves. In China, old people can be spotted dancing and singing in the street, playing mah-jong, taking their grandchildren for a walk around the park before returning to the home they still share with their children.
Westerners could learn a thing or two from this selflessness and communal spirit. We could also learn from the Chinese work ethic, their discipline with money, their willingness to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term benefit. When I say that China has broadened my horizon and opened my mind, I am referring both to the renewed appreciation it gave me for my own culture as well as the flaws it revealed.
And living in China will not only expose you to Chinese culture—it will expose you to the hundreds of other foreigners who will be living and working alongside you. Germans, Swedes, French, Russians, Pakistanis, Eritreans, Cameroonians, South Africans, Koreans, Japanese, Mexicans, Colombians: Beijing and Shanghai are cultural melting pots in the true sense of the word. Expats bond over the experience of living in a culture whose foreignness dwarfs our differences and we intermix to an extent rarely seen in our home countries.
Living in China not only gives you a different perspective on your own society, it also lets you see yourself in a new light. China is undeniably a harsh environment. There are days when you will feel that the air is unbreathable, the food is toxic, the crowds are claustrophobic, the language is incomprehensible, the people are bizarre. How will you respond to adversity?
Sadly, some foreigners joke that coming to China has turned them racist. They respond to the obstacles they face in living and working with Chinese people with bitterness and an endless stream of cynicism and complaints.
Others find that, away from the eyes of friends and family and long-term repercussions, they go a little bit wild. With money to blow and time to kill, they can go out and get smashed every night of the week, taking advantage of the naïveté of Chinese girls to supply them with a steady stream of sexual partners.
Others rise to the challenge, learning Mandarin, building strong friendships with Chinese people, making connections that will help them advance their careers, adjusting smoothly to the new world in which they find themselves.
Transplanting yourself to a country where you don’t know anyone and must live in difficult circumstances with a lot of personal freedom can be character-revealing. If you’ve spent your life in your hometown, with parents always close by to take care of you, comfortable in a familiar environment and never having to face any significant difficulties, moving to China will help you see what you’re made of. A year in China is a maturing experience. To paraphrase the enduring words of Disney’s Hua Mulan, “[China] will make a man out of you!”
Living in China can also be a revealing experience for those who have never been a minority in our own countries. I am not trying to equate the experience of being black in America to being white in China—for the most part in China whiteness is a source of respect and privilege, which is totally opposite the minority experience in America.
But it’s interesting to suddenly find you are the only white person in the room, and your behaviour is held representative of everyone of your race and nationality. Chinese will constantly ask you, “What do Americans think about the NBA? What do Americans think about Jay Chou? What do Americans think about the Communist Party?” as if you can telepathically know what the three hundred million plus people in your home country feel about any given issue. Your individuality will be eroded. Tell someone you don’t like basketball and they will nod sagely and say, “Ah yes, Americans don’t like basketball.” Alternatively, they will give you a puzzled look and say, “But all Americans like basketball! You must like basketball too.” Everything you say and do will be scrutinized not in the context of you as an individual being, but as a representative of your people.
Sometimes you will have to deal with the negative preconceptions Chinese people have about your people. White men with Chinese girlfriends report being harassed on the street by Chinese men who believe foreigners are stealing their women. Occasionally you will encounter the hostile taxi driver who hates you because of something your government has done over which you have absolutely no control. There are stories of white foreigners being beat up on the street after the disputes over the South China Sea Islands.
Being a foreigner in China means you will be continuously stared at, stereotyped, and held to a higher standard of behaviour than the locals. While this is not comparable to the difficulties minorities face in their home countries, it can be an eye-opening experience for someone who has always enjoyed the privilege of being part of the majority group.
Yet perhaps the most compelling reason for a millennial to move to China is that it’s fun. Where else in the world can a twenty-something travel around the postcard-ready beaches of South East Asia, eat at nice restaurants, take taxis everywhere, live in a nice apartment, and have maid service, while still paying off student loans?
If you’re going to be working a boring, dead end job—why not do it in a country where every day feels like an adventure? When you walk out the door and see the world brimming with potential discoveries? Encountering concepts and ideas that will challenge everything you believed to be true? Grow some skills that could eventually help you in your career? Have experiences that make you grow as a person, that increase your understanding of the world, that make you grow wiser and tougher? China is as close to another planet as we will find in this world—why not experience something completely alien?
Life is short. Make it count.
WHY I MOVED TO CHINA
Some are born in China, some go to China, and some have China thrust upon them. I was in the third category.
After graduating at twenty-one, I spent the summer in my grandparents’ house on Cape Cod. I had no clear idea what I wanted to do, and vaguely felt like I was too young to get one of those adult banking and consulting jobs all my peers seemed to be flocking to. But I wasn’t free to do anything more exciting: soon I had to start paying student loans that would severely limit my options. So I drifted about for a few months, waitressing to procrastinate having to make a decision about my future.
Out of the blue, a Chinese friend from high school I had sporadically kept in touch with over the years sent me a message: “I have a job opportunity for you! Do you want to work for my father’s company as an English teacher? It’s a good company and he will pay well.”
In a panic I called my parents to debate what I should do. They thought the job would be a good addition to my CV and a fun thing to do as a post-university gap year. I had studied Mandarin in high school, though I had never been particularly dedicated and in the three intervening years I had forgotten everything. Spending a year in China would get me speaking Mandarin again so the idea had a sort of surface logic.
I asked my friend more details about the position. It turned out the job she had in mind would be online—consulting via Skype—but since I had shown interest in moving to Beijing, with her usual efficiency she had talked to her father and he had created a job in his company for me. After she made all that effort for me I felt obligated to go. A month later I was at LAX waiting for my flight to Beijing.
My parents still tease me about how scared I looked as I boarded my Air China plane. I tell them I was right to be terrified, and had I known what the next three months would bring I would have been more terrified still.
Adjusting to Beijing was tough. I loved the food but it seemed to be an unrequited love: I was constantly sick, and spent many long minutes getting intimately acquainted with Chinese squat toilets. I couldn’t figure out basic things like how to buy shampoo since I couldn’t communicate with any of the shop attendants. I was the only non-Chinese in my company, and most of my colleagues spoke about two words of English. I spoke about four words of Mandarin myself, and our six common words made for limited conversation since two of them were “yes” and “no.” Because I was new, my boss gave me the lowest-level classes. These were the students who were profoundly indifferent to learning English, and teaching them was not dissimilar to teaching a brick wall.
My professional life was a disaster, and my personal life wasn’t much better. I was used to living in an environment where making friends was a matter of showing up to where I was supposed to be every morning. Though my colleagues and I did not speak the same language, I thought they could smile or make some effort to display friendliness, but they hardly acknowledged my presence. Later on I realized they probably did want to talk to me but were too shy to approach the foreigner. At the time they just seemed rude. I decided that all Chinese people were rude, and spent most of my free time lying in bed, alternately feeling sorry for myself or angrily wondering how I could ever have been stupid and arrogant enough to think this was a good idea.
Wallowing in self-pity is one way to kill a few months, but eventually it gets boring. After a while I decided couldn’t spend a whole year lying in bed, so I picked myself up and started to look around. I ventured out of my work bubble to explore the rich and vibrant city of Beijing. I started to understand how to navigate the cultural differences between me and my students and mended our relations until I looked forward to teaching them each day. I befriended the other expats stupid and arrogant enough to have thought moving to China was a good idea (and learned that the nice word for “stupid and arrogant” is adventurous), and slowly I began to have the best time of my life.
I hope this guide will help others skip the lying in bed crying part of the story, and move straight into having a blast, because China is filled with rich and exciting opportunities for anyone bold enough to seek them.