So you want to do the English teacher thing in China. Even more particularly, you want to teach English in Shanghai, or any first tier city for that matter. Your friend, let’s call him Tim, hasn’t shut up about it since picking up and moving there last year. The Facebook and Instagram posts have been annoyingly idyllic, and before you knew it, you had your own TEFL certificate in hand. It’s going to be great chilling with Tim in Shanghai! Except…
Don’t do that.
Okay, okay, you’re the master of your own destiny and all that, follow your heart, etc. BUT, hear me out. Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and the like are great places to visit for sure. But I wouldn’t want to live there. Whenever I arrive back in my humble, frozen city of Daqing, I always let out a sigh of relief. It’s nice to be home. Daqing is small enough to know where everything is, but big enough to get lost in an unfamiliar district for a day. I’ve met several lifelong friends here. Most importantly, I know exactly how and where to orchestrate a perfect night of debauchery in this city. It’s MY city. And here’s a few reasons why you should find your own as well.
5 Reasons to Not Teach English in Shanghai
I love Beijing. It’s a great city; a really hip place, if you will. I would also hate to live there. Every time I go there, I feel like I need to be wearing that thing that Bane wears in Dark Knight Rises or else I’m going to start sounding like him after a few days of sucking in coal dust. When I make it back to my hotel, I feel like I’ve just chain-smoked a pack and a half of Zhongnanhais (cheap Chinese cigarettes) without any of the pleasant nicotine buzz.
Am I saying that you’re going to be absolutely pollution-free if you live in a smaller city? Not at all. In fact, if you’re coming to China, you might as well embrace it because there is no way you will be able to completely avoid it. However, the further you get away from provinces like Hebei and Shanxi – famous for heavy industry and coal mining – the more likely you are to see blue skies, but you’ll always be at the mercy of the winds and the government’s coal-powered central heating system.
2) It’s way easier to learn the language.
When I visited Shanghai, nearly everyone I came into contact with spoke to me in English first. This is completely unheard of up here in Daqing, where I have to do a double-take if someone says anything beyond shouting “HALLOU!!” from across the street. The remoteness of this place (well, as remote as a city of 1.5 million can be) has forced me to learn Mandarin in order to complete the most basic tasks. I don’t think I would be where I am now with the language if I could use the locals’ English skills as a get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s just too tempting to be lazy when you’re new and you’ve got that option.
Learn some basic phrases with videos from sites like Yoyo Chinese before you hit the ground and befriend some locals, when you do. The fastest way to make no progress at all is to only hang out with expats, which is a pattern way more likely to occur in a place where you’re surrounded by them. Now when you go visit Tim during Spring Festival, he’ll be surprised to find your Mando skills have already surpassed his own!
3) You’re missing out on “Real China”.
China is a huge place, and limiting yourself to the megacities and all the tantalizing Western comforts they have to offer brings you further away from those terraced rice fields you saw on that one dude’s blog. The rate that this country is urbanizing is insane, and sometimes it feels like the Middle Kingdom is made up only of grey, concrete castles. The misty mountains from the brochure seem to be nowhere in sight. But they’re out there.
One only needs travel an hour outside of Daqing to find some pretty cool Mongolian villages, as well as a Tibetan Buddhist temple seemingly in the middle of nowhere. If stuff like this interests you, look at the more sparsely populated provinces. Qinghai mostly rests on the Tibetan Plateau and with 6 million people, the entire province’s population is 24% of Shanghai’s. Absolutely beautiful. The landscape is covered with 4,000 meter peaks and dotted with Tibetan temples, making it a playground for outdoor buffs and culture aficionados alike.
4) Smaller cities generally have better expat communities.
As of 2011, there were 210,000 expats living in Shanghai. There’s no data for Daqing, but my most generous guess after living here for 3 years would be right around 100. Now, I suppose this really depends on the type of person you are. Some will think more foreigners obviously equals more choice and therefore a better community. But, I kinda lean towards the opposite being true. In bigger cities, you’ll always have that initial grain of sand on a beach feeling, whereas I was taken in and promptly directed to the Daqing drinking hole on one of my first evenings here. Also, you’ve got that nasty segregation of English teachers vs. “people with real jobs”, which can be better or worse depending on the city.
In Daqing, we’ve only got each other, for better or for worse. The combination of so few expats and not having as much to do in a smaller city results in us making our own fun. We’ve got a book club, film club, board games night, DND group, sports club along with several other fun things, a favorite being wild bus parties. We just had a lively New Year’s Eve at Kingsley’s – Daqing’s longest running expat bar – and now we’re all eagerly awaiting the China-release of The Force Awakens. I will force-choke you if you give away spoilers.
5) You’ll save a lot more money.
This is a biggie for most people moving to Asia to teach. Everyone’s got adventure on their minds, and the deal is that much sweeter when you’re pocketing a fat brick of Mao’s face at the end of the month. Except, that brick might become wafer-thin if you’re making it rain all over Sanlitun in your free time. Despite it’s slowing economy, China is still seeing one of the largest rises of a middle class ever. Because of this, the standard of living varies greatly all over the country and you’re going to pay accordingly.
According to Numbeo, an awesome tool that calculates cost of living around the world, the average Shanghaier spends about 4,500 RMB per month. If you plan on regularly enjoying the great nightlife the city has to offer, expect to add another 1,000-2,000 onto that. I generally spend around 2,500 RMB/month in Daqing and I by no means am living frugally here. I’m still pocketing over 80% of my paycheck. Don’t limit yourself to that metropolitan ivory tower (it’s probably gray, anyway) and start making those small city stacks.
Create your own experience.
Travel is a very organic thing, and how well you gel with a certain place is highly dependent on how well your own personality meshes with the vibe of wherever you’re going. That said, following your friend to a place just because they say it’s awesome could be a terrible mistake. Do you really want to go through the trouble of getting your visa processed and signing a year contract in a city that you end up hating? Because you did no real research and just hedged your bets on anecdotes of friends? No!
Do your own research, read blogs and get the best feel you can for several cities before making a decision. Living in China is an adventure for sure, just make sure you’re living your own and you’ll a blast!
This is a guest post from Seth Barham at Spartan Wanderer. Subscribe to his site for more reading on life in China.