White People with No Skill Sets Wanted in China

By Morgan Hartley and Chris Walker

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If you’re a white English speaker, you can get a job teaching private English classes in China. Many schools will hire you without any prior experience, teaching credentials, or a working visa. Sometimes you don’t even need to apply for the job. In Urumqi, in China’s northwest, my writing partner and I were offered our first teaching gig at a roadside noodle stand. We had been in the country less than a week. 

“Want to work at my school?” a lady asked us, thrusting two business cards forward with a smile. “You can start tomorrow.” 

We weren’t sure whether to laugh or not. Was she serious? Neither of us knew the first thing about teaching children. 

“We don’t speak Chinese,” we told her. 

“No problem,” she replied quickly. “So what do you say?”

The offer was the first of many we would refuse during the two and a half months we traveled around China—we received unsolicited offers on the street four more times, and nearly every time we visited a school. In the private tutoring industry, which is growing at almost 15 percent a year, private language academies are looking for pale faces like ours to meet the booming demand for foreign English teachers.

But the industry's rapid growth is creating a new leisure class of young foreigners who are often unqualified for their teaching jobs. In addition to the roughly 180,000 “foreign experts” who enter China on working visas each year to work in education, there are many more who come to work on tourist or university visas. Of the dozens of English teachers we talked to for this story, only two had official work visas, and little more than half had any kind of teaching experience or certification.

The black market teaching jobs offer good wages in a cheap country, often with short working hours and little accountability. Many parents who pay the high prices for lessons don’t speak English themselves, making it difficult to track the progress of their child or gauge the talent of his or her teachers. It seems that many locals don’t fully grasp just how easy it is to get a job with some white skin and basic English skills.

Kunming, the capital of the southern province of Yunnan, is just one city where the 4.5 billion dollar a year English teaching industry is supporting a thriving expat scene. The city’s Green Lake neighborhood is dotted with foreign-owned coffee shops like Paul’s Café, where exchange students at the adjacent Yunnan Normal University meet to practice their calligraphy or have a beer after class. Within the confines of the Café’s patio, Kunming’s local dialects suddenly disappear into a swirl of various English accents. Some discuss studies, some their next travel plans around Asia, others the tough questions from Thursday quiz night at the local pub. It is a diverse community, with people hailing from everywhere from Ukraine to Uruguay. But what nearly everyone has in common is a part-time gig teaching English. 

Eric, a Norwegian who came to Kunming to study Mandarin, is no exception. When we met him he was sitting alone at one of Paul’s tables practicing Chinese calligraphy. At the next table to us, some Americans in tank tops were popping caps off their second round of beer at two in the afternoon. Eric glanced at his watch and laughed, “As a foreigner in Kunming, it seems you only do four things: smoke, drink, teach English, and occasionally learn some Chinese.”

Eric had decided to take up a job teaching English on the side shortly after arriving in the city. A friend told him he could make 120 yuan an hour for the work (about $22)—a considerable sum in China, where a typical lunch costs 10 yuan. “It’s way easy,” the friend assured him. 

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Eric showed up to a downtown high rise where Lijao Academy rents a room one day a week. The boss hired him immediately and said his first class would begin in two hours. No teaching certifications like TEFL were necessary; payment would be made under the table because he didn’t have a work visa; and it was no problem that Eric wasn’t a native English speaker. 

“I don’t think my boss even knows what country I’m from,” Eric said.

Most of the English teachers we spoke to said their employers have similarly scarce requirements, and that ESL certificates are rarely required. Even when they are, forgeries can be purchased for as little as $300. In 2007, The China Post reported that as many as 40 percent of the foreign teachers in Taiwan were operating under fake credentials. In China, the problem is so rampant that the China Foreign Teacher’s Union, an organization that advises foreign educators, maintains a blacklist of agents that falsify credentials. What makes this difficult to track is that many schools tend to be off the books, operating on cash payments that are hidden from regulators. 

Perhaps the best argument for the lack of qualifications lies in the numbers. In 2010, the Guardian estimated that 30,000 organizations were offering private English classes, up from around 15,000 in 2005. The supply of new, qualified foreign teachers is limited, and there are simply not enough of them to service the millions of new students who enter the market every year.

The harsh economics are also evident in the premium salaries being awarded to foreign teachers. Eric is being paid three times what the average Chinese teacher makes.

At Robert’s School, the largest private language academy in Kunming, the typical salary for a foreign teacher is 10,000 yuan a month ($1600) for a 25-hour workweek. Chinese natives are paid 3,000 to 6,000 yuan a month, depending on seniority. The salary gap exists because foreign teachers are harder to find, and can generate more revenue for the school. The school’s foreigner-taught classes cost 40 yuan an hour vs. 30 yuan an hour for a Chinese-led class. The academy pays even higher wages to foreign instructors with several years’ experience and teaching degrees or a TOEFL certification.

Robert Norfolk, the UK native who founded the academy in 2001, says foreign instructors are key to making his business competitive. “The fact that I am a foreigner also brings [the business] a lot of credibility,” he said. “It’s a huge attraction for the parents.” Such an attraction, in fact, that even though foreigner-taught classes are more expensive, Robert often struggles to convince parents that working with a Chinese teacher is better during their child’s first years of learning. He says some parents who push for foreign-taught classes as early as kindergarten don’t realize that an expat’s inferior Chinese makes it more difficult to teach kids language basics like the English alphabet.

Among the less legitimate schools, parents’ foreign-fever can lead to some unsavory practices. One Asian-American teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, told us that she had more difficulty finding a job and faced stiffer interviews than her white counterparts. When she was finally accepted on the strength of a co-worker’s recommendation, she continued to face more scrutiny in class sit-ins from both parents and the school manager. The LA Times ran a feature on this phenomenon in 2007.

In all cases, the industry excesses are floating on the pocket books of China’s booming middle class, many of whom have traveled to English speaking countries like the US, Australia, or Singapore. 

“Frankly speaking, many of them are rich. They’ve traveled around and want their kids to experience the world,” says Vanessa, a Chinese born English teacher at Hengdong Haina Education, another private English school in Kunming. Their focus has moved beyond the rote memorization kids need to pass the state English exams, which are required from the third year onward in the Chinese curriculum. “Parents want their kids to be conversational.”

Vanessa’s English-teaching colleague, Liang, already has plans to sign her daughter up for the school’s foreign-taught kindergarten class. She says having a foreigner at the front of the classroom will help her daughter learn the pronunciation, accent, and spontaneity of conversational English that will allow her to be successful when she studies abroad. It is an increasingly common outlook in China: the Chinese are the largest foreign student group in the US, with 235,000 students enrolling in American colleges in 2012, according to the annual report of International Education Exchange.

As the industry matures and more westerners move to China, the English education industry may be more heavily pressured to enforce higher standards for their instructors. But until that happens, a foreign instructor does not necessarily guarantee quality lessons. While some are undoubtedly committed and great at what they do, many see these teaching jobs as an opportunity to live an easy life abroad while working only 20 hours a week—and quite possibly screwing up some kid's education while they're at it.

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