My Personal Experience Moving to Beijing to Teach English
Traveling for me is more than seeing a tourist sight and snapping a picture for your social media. Traveling is the opportunity to explore the world, immerse myself in different cultures and connect with the people of those cultures. Teaching English abroad has allowed me to do just that. In late 2019 an opportunity presented itself for me to teach English in Beijing, China. I had never been to China before. I had never traveled to Asia before. Having an adventurous soul and nomadic heart that I have, I accept the offer without too much hesitation.At the time of writing this personal experience article, I have lived in China for approximately four months and would like to share some lessons I have learned thus far.
1. Language and Communication
As soon as I received my teaching job offer in China, I downloaded Duolingo and diligently spent at least an hour a day learning Chinese. By the time I was arriving in China, I had studied Mandarin every single day for approximately 90 days. And I was completely helpless. I couldn’t even order a coffee or ask for a bag at the store! You might think that I am simply horrible at second language acquisition but having had taught in other countries around the world, I can assure you that my ineptitude is only part of the problem. Mandarin is a tremendously difficult language. It is a tonal language, which means that each syllable can be pronounced in five different ways, each with a completely different, unrelated meaning. For example, saying xióngmāo (熊猫)means “panda”, but xiōngmáo (胸毛) means “chest hair”. If that doesn’t seem like a big deal perhaps a mortifying example from my own experience would drive the point home. I tried to say “Can I ask you a question?” (Wǒ kě yǐ wèn nǐ ma?) but instead said “Wǒ kě yǐ wěn nǐ ma?” which means “Can I kiss you?”
Of course, being a wài guó rén (foreigner) gives you a lot of leeways. Most Chinese people are delighted that you are making the effort to learn and communicate in Mandarin and will be very patient and helpful. And of course, we are blessed with living in the 21st century and having instant translation apps like Google Translate which can make getting things done possible.
Having said that, if you are considering taking a job opportunity in China, I strongly recommend getting some actual Mandarin lessons with a real-life language teacher! If your students or future employer asked you why they should hire you instead of just using Duolingo what would you say? Exactly.
## 2. Finding your “Home”
After landing in Beijing, your first and most important task is to find an apartment. From speaking to other foreigners in the city, it is my understanding that in Beijing, it is not a common practice for the employer to provide a company-rented apartment. Rather, it is more common for the company to provide a monthly housing allowance (which is paid along with your salary) and arrange for an agent to show you apartments depending on your budget and the area you wish to live in. Here is the important part – and this is only my experience, I have only been in Beijing for 4 months with limited ability to communicate and negotiate in Chinese – upon choosing an apartment to move in the renter needs to pay 5 months rent on the first day of the lease.
As far as I understand it, instead of paying a first and last month’s rent like it is done in North America in Beijing, it is common to pay three months rent upfront, last month’s rent and an agent fee which is also equivalent to one month's rent for a total of 5 months of rent paid upfront. The good news is after you have paid that large sum of money, you then don’t have to pay any rent for the first three months (as you have pre-paid them on the first day of the lease). The average cost of a 1-bedroom apartment in Beijing is approximately 1000 USD, which means that you will need USD 5000 just to rent an apartment.
In the few months I’ve been here, I have heard of other rental agreement arrangements, but at the time this information was a complete shock to me. I was extremely hesitant to make such a big financial commitment considering my probation at my job had not even started. Not to mention, I had never stepped foot in Asia before and was wondering how the culture shock would affect me. Instead of renting an apartment through an agent I decided to rent an apartment on a month-to-month basis through Airbnb.
This option has worked quite well for me. Firstly, if you take the time to shop around, you can find apartments that are on the subway system and are quite reasonably priced around 1200 USD. Although that is slightly higher than the average cost of renting an apartment through an agent, you do not have to pay an agent fee.
Furthermore, when renting month-to-month through AirBnB electricity, heat, water and internet cost are usually already included (make sure to confirm with the host). Finally, because I had never lived in Beijing before, it gave me the freedom to change location after I got a little more familiar with the city and decided where I wanted to settle down. I do have to caution you though – before you rent the apartment confirm with the host that they can provide the necessary paperwork for you to obtain your accommodation registration at the local police station. (If you are staying at a hotel, you do not need to go through this step, but once you rent an apartment or AirBnB you must register at the police station within 24 hours.)
Moving to Beijing is expensive. The jobs are lucrative and remuneration is generous, especially considering the cost of living, but making the initial move is expensive. Depending on your contract, your employer may offer reimbursement of your airfare and a housing allowance, but those benefits are usually reimbursed after the probation period or even at the end of the contract. The cost of living in China generally depends on the tier level of the city you are located in. Most foreigners have settled in the big “three”: Beijing (107,000 ex-pats), Shanghai (209,000 ex-pats) and Guangzhou (over 200,000 ex-pats), where the salaries are highest, but the cost of living is also higher compared to other cities around China.
The cost of the visa and document authentication can range between $400 and USD 800 depending on the service level you need (how urgently you need to get your documents processed). Airfare can also range depending on how far in advance you can book your ticket, the time of year you plan to travel as well as the level of convenience you want to pay for (number of connections, layover length, etc.). Once you arrive, you would need to support yourself until your first paycheque. In China, salaries are paid monthly (not bi-weekly), so you will likely need to pay all living expenses for the first month. All-in-all my expenses to move to Beijing had summed USD 4200 before receiving my first paycheque and that is considering I opted for the month-to-month rental through Airbnb. If you choose to rent an apartment with an agent, you might need to be prepared with a much greater sum of money.
Once you have sorted out your living arrangements and have all your documents sorted out (work visa, residence permit, etc.) you will need to open a bank account and set up your WeChat pay. Money is archaic in China. It is so archaic that even beggars have a WeChat Pay scan code. And once you have WeChat pay you will discover a level of convenience you have never known before. WeChat Pay is a mobile payment method integrated into the WeChat app to enable users to complete payment from their smartphone – coffee delivery, utility top-up, ordering a cab, renting a bike…. Anything and everything can be done with WeChat pay.
On the other hand, many foreign teachers who leave their homeland and families come to China at the prospect of saving some money or sending money home to family. Although the remuneration is generous enough that depending on the employment contract and individual lifestyle, a teacher can save between $500 to USD 1200 per month, it is important to note that if you wanted to send any money home, you are only able to exchange a maximum of USD 500 per day. So, if you wanted to send USD 1500 to your family, you would have to go to the bank for three different days.
Are you interested in living and working in China?
Living in China has been a tremendously rewarding experience! I am fascinated by the history, the culture, the customs, the people - everything. But I do have to admit that the culture shock of moving to Asia is like nothing I have ever experienced. The above-listed experiences were the greatest contributors to that culture shock, and by sharing them with you, I hope that you can be more prepared to enter this alluring and intriguing side of the world.
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