Sunday, May 22, 2011

“Welcome to Join Our Company!*”

*Only Americans, Canadians, Australians and British will be considered

China is full of hilarious translations, to the delight of any native English speaker who comes here. This will be the subject of one of my posts at some point, as I, like many foreigners before me, have been gathering pictures of the funniest translations throughout the country. But “welcome to join our company” in particular is the perfect metaphor for my experience looking for English teaching jobs over the last two months.

The Chinese word for "house" is the same as "family"

China will soon be the largest English speaking country in the world. Everyone here wants to learn English, and as a result hundreds (probably thousands) of companies have sprung up that offer private English training services to those wealthy Chinese that can afford them. A native English speaker can find a teaching job here with almost no effort. Even some non-native English speaking Europeans manage to find teaching jobs (as long as they have a white face, it doesn’t seem to be that big a deal to these companies). But the challenge lies in finding a good company to work for. Indeed, the quality of most of these companies matches the quality of the English grammar in their advertisements and correspondences. I’ve heard countless horror stories from former teachers about poor treatment, late pay, not being paid, contract breaches – you name it. And as a foreign teacher, often without a work visa in the first place, there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it. So at the end of January, I set out to find those rare companies that treat their employees well and provide quality, career-advancing positions. It’s been quite a roller coaster ride of excitement and disappointment. Even after spending nearly a year in China and seeing many strange things, I’ve encountered some situations in the past two months that have given a whole new meaning to the ridiculousness of this country.

A trip to the amusement park with my Chinese friends

As some of you may recall, I decide back in early January that, after four months of investigating clean energy jobs in China and not finding anything to my liking, I would spend the next several months teaching (either English, or other subjects like math that are often taught in English), working on improving my Chinese and trying to start a business. In mid-January, I stumbled across an odd job advertisement that seemed too good to be true. Almost all job advertisements for foreign teachers here are posted by agents, who are a bit like headhunters, but their job is pretty straight forward since few schools are very picky about their teachers, as long as they meet the “nationality” requirement (see above). The opportunity involved going to a small city about four hours south of Beijing and teaching math to middle school students for a two week “winter camp” during the Chinese holiday season. All travel, food and lodging expenses would be paid for, I would be able to return to Beijing on the weekends, and the job would pay 300 RMB per 45 minutes (about $45), with six 45-minute sessions per day. Altogether, it would amount to 18,000 RMB (nearly $3,000) for just two weeks of teaching. Skeptical, I went in for an interview with an elderly Chinese university Professor who spoke very good English and described the job to me just as it had been laid out in the advertisement – no hidden strings attached.

I immediately signed myself up and was preparing to depart on this strange teaching adventure within two weeks. The company was going to arrange everything, I was told. All I needed to do was show up at the train station. I proceeded to cancel all my plans in Beijing for the next two weeks and stopped pursing other job opportunities. Then, three days before I was suppose to leave, I got a text message from the agent who had introduced me to the job, saying that, due to lower than expected demand, the classes had been canceled…

So I was going into the two week Chinese Spring Festival holiday season, with very little money, no job prospects on the horizon and no chance of finding any while the whole country stopped working and spent two weeks traveling home for the holiday. “Not to worry though,” I thought, “it’s only a two week holiday, and after that everyone will be clamoring for English teachers again.” What I didn’t realize is that I was going into a prolonged two month slow-season for the English teaching market.

Throughout the holiday season I continued to respond to advertisements and going to “interviews.” Usually an interview simply means meeting your prospective employer, usually an English training school; them asking you a few routine questions that seem completely pointless, and then you conducting a “demo” lesson. This usually means you spend anywhere from 10-30 minutes giving them an idea of what your teaching style is like and what material you would use. The problem is that you will often go into one of these interviews/ demos without a clear idea of what you would be teaching/ what the job really is, so its difficult to prepare. Two experiences stand out in particular where I found out during the course of an interview that the job I had come to apply for was completely different than what was being offered.

The first involved a conversation that I had with an agent who described a job to me that sounded like tutoring a small group of young adults a few times per week in advanced business English. The day of the interview, I met the agent at a bus stop, along with a young British guy who was apparently being taken to apply for a similar position. On the way I learned that in fact the subject I would be teaching was more specific – something to do with marketing. I quickly started trying to revise the demo I had planned in my head to incorporate some marketing elements, although I still didn’t really know what to expect. When we arrived at the location, I realized we were not going to a regular “school,” but to an actual university. So they wanted us not just to tutor young adults, but actual university students, paying university tuition! Did they realize that I had just graduated from university less than a year ago myself? Did they really think I was qualified for this? “Oh, that’s right,” the agent said, “you should tell them that you’re 26 years old and have been teaching English for two years.” As I soon discovered, almost all agents and schools ask you to lie about your age and experience to their clients.

We entered the university and met with our prospective employer, an elderly woman who we found out was a Professor in the School of Economics & Management. I looked at the British guy, who seemed just as clueless about what was going on as I was. After giving our demos, the Professor didn’t seem too satisfied and told us how we could have done them better. I have never been outright rejected for a teaching job in China, and that wasn’t about to change with this job.  It seems that if you get to the interview stage – and that isn’t hard to do – you’ve pretty much been accepted. After giving us her criticism, the Professor took us to her office and showed us the curriculum she wanted us to teach.

There were three classes in total, and they were not English teaching, but teaching actual business classes in English. One of them was on advanced business management theories; one was on e-commerce, and the other… well I can’t remember what the other subject was, because at this point I was just stunned at what was going on. This professor wanted two recent graduates with only bachelor’s degrees to teach advanced, graduate level business courses, to tuition-paying graduate students, and the Professor didn’t really seem to care that we had no experience. On top of that, she was going to pay us 200 RMB per hour (exchange rate at the time was about $1=6.6 RMB - I’ll let you do the math) for a three-hour class, once per week, but claimed that “she usually spent a good part of the week preparing for each class” - time which we would not get paid for. We also had to develop part of the curriculum ourselves, in a way that would meet certain “learning requirements,” which the school needed to check off in order to get the course accredited. Was she just trying to outsource some of her salaried responsibility on the cheap? Or was this university actually sanctioning her to hire inexperienced recent graduates to teach these courses at meagerly pay, simply because we were native English speakers? Needless to say, I thanked her rather abruptly, and left.

Throughout February I “interviewed” with many other schools, some of which I decided I didn’t want to work for, and some of which would bring me in to fill out a form, answer a few questions, tell me everything was all set and that they would be calling me about classes… and then I’d never hearing from them again. I traveled across Beijing one day for one interview that morphed into a completely different job as we conducted the interview. The position was advertised as something like a part time teaching job, 10-15 hours per week, at 150 RMB per hour (pretty standard). When I arrived, the owner of the school, who didn’t speak any English, greeted me and instructed me to do a demo for how I would teach SAT prep. No problem, I’d done SAT prep before so I launched into my introductory spiel about how the SAT was designed to trick you and how I would be teaching strategies to beat it. Unlike most schools however, this guy was not satisfied after the first demo, and had me do another one on teaching math to high school students. Then he asked me if I could teach AP Calculus and Physics. I got a 3 on the AP Calculus test in high school and had never studied AP Physics. This guy then started drilling me on my teaching methods and what I would do in certain situations. This was almost a welcome respite, to know that at least one of these schools actually cared about the ability of their teachers, or so I thought at first…

But the situation quickly devolved into my first real experience negotiating with a Chinese man for a position that I was not that excited about. He prefaced his offer by talking about how their school was one of the most prestigious in Beijing (maybe that was true, but I’d never heard of it) and then went on to add 25 hours of administrative duties per week to the job description, and offer me a salary of 6,000 RMB per month and a year long contract (I made the rookie mistake of telling him earlier how much I had made at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and I’m pretty sure he just added 1,000 RMB to that). I was not at all happy with this, and went on to explain to him that if I worked that many hours per week doing just teaching at market rate, I could make 24,000 RMB per month. He obviously didn’t understand foreigner’s salary expectations. So he upped his offer to 8,000 RMB, plus a three-month bonus of 600 RMB.

Now I realized I was fighting a losing battle. I should have just walked out right there, but I was polite and told him I would consider it. So he pulled out the big guns. On his laptop, he showed me a presentation he was preparing to give to some investors about a real estate development and school that he wanted to build in the US. He told me how he had all these connections back in the US, and how if I worked at the school long enough, maybe I could become his business partner. Nice try buddy, but you’re not impressing me. I told him I’d think about it, and headed for the door.

After a month and a half of this, I was starting to get a bit discouraged. But finally, things began looking up, when I got an email response to one of my numerous inquires that was not from a Chinese person with broken English, but from an American! He worked for a corporate training company called Oxford English, and wanted me to come in for what finally sounded like a real interview and demo. Sure enough, this American guy and I hit it off, and a few weeks later he set me up with a teaching job that was better than anything I had imagined. Every weekday for two hours around lunchtime, I would be getting paid 200 RMB per hour to tutor the Chairman of the SinoChem Oil & Gas Exploration Company. SinoChem is China’s fourth largest state-owned oil company, a relic of the communist era that had been morphed into s semi-competitive, multi-national corporation. Now this guy’s office is bigger than my apartment, and he can barely string together a full sentence of English. So we’re starting with the basics. It’s actually a lot of fun, good money, and has given me a unique look into the culture of China’s State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs).

The SinoChem building, just down the street from Tiananmen square

Soon I found another corporate training company called Morgan English, a Canadian joint venture company. While the manager is Chinese, he spent some time living in Germany, and is different than the other Chinese managers in that he actually gave me some useful preparation tips and training before throwing me into a new class. Through this job I quickly added three more classes; two of them also training VIPs (i.e. SOE executives) and one teaching a class at one of China’s most notorious manufacturing companies, Foxconn (if you don’t know why, google “Foxconn Apple”). And by mid-March, I was teaching 25 hours, seven days a week, running all around Beijing to my students offices, and had almost too many classes to handle.

So after weeding through all the low quality companies and learning a lot about the culture of the English teaching industry in Beijing, I’ve settled into a somewhat-steady part time job, and I’ve still got some extra time to study Chinese and pursue my own company. Teaching at these companies has been quite an eye opening and hugely valuable experience already, but more on that to come next time…

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