Teaching English in China is known for many things, but having a fulfilling, enriching life isn’t one of them. In fact, most
English teachers end up down one of two paths: they grow to hate themselves, and their job, more and more. They get angry at Chinese things, and basically just talk about how “dumb” China and Chinese people are. They turn nasty, they turn cranky and go eat at McDonald’s waaaay too much. Basically, they burn-out and the only solution is to leave.
The other path is the party path. With lots of free time, an elevated social status and an easy life at their fingertips, English teachers tend to party away their time, drinking all night, having fun all day and wake up 10 years later thinking “what have I done with my life?”
I’ll admit, back in Hangzhou I thought I was a bit of an oddity because I didn’t fit into these two categories. The more I live here, the more I like it, and I have never felt burnt-out, or tired of my life here. But then I moved to Xiamen and met other “successful” teachers like me. People who liked living in China, found enjoyment and growth and meaning in their daily lives even if they have been here five, ten or fifteen years.
And I realized we all had two things in common. The two secret elements of teaching English in China without hating yourself. And now, I will pass them on to you…
Follow your passion
It’s a cliche, I know, but it’s essential for life in China. Truth is, for most teachers in China, our job is not our passion. Of course there are some, but very few teachers in China have grown up wanting to be teachers or go back to their home country and teach as well. No matter where you work in China, private or public school, elementary or college kids, there is always the element of “dancing monkey” hanging over your head. And foreign teachers can’t go very high in the chain of command. We start at a higher salary than new Chinese teachers, but within a few years they can outpace us and get promotions and more duties and responsibilities. With few exceptions foreign teachers can’t.
So to be a successful teacher you have to find your own passions and your own hobbies and do them. You can’t rely on your job to give you growth and satisfaction. (And I say this as a teacher who really loves teaching.)
For me, traveling and writing, has always been my passion and now badminton is added to the mix. One of my friends has found a passion in Ultimate Frisbee and building up the Xiamen team. Another plays music, another began learning yoga and is now training to be a teacher. Also several people have come here with the purpose of learning the language and really immerse themselves in all things Chinese. This is what I mean by following your passion. It’s no coincidence that these teachers have been in China for years and are happy here.
You don’t even have to come to China already knowing your passion. Many of us have found it thanks to opportunities that opened up for us in China. I mean, I’ve always been into traveling and writing, that’s why I came here originally, but this crazy badminton
obsession passion only came about after friends invited me to play in China. And I’m not alone. My friend who plays Ultimate Frisbee is also obsessed but he admits that if he stayed in America he never would have gotten into it because he’s just not a natural jock. It was being in China, where the sport is less established, that gave him an opportunity to make a difference.
And the truly happy teachers usually have several passions. A main one, and then some secondary ones that are almost as important. For me, writing and badminton are battling it out for top billing, with traveling coming third. My yoga friend has recently started boxing, and my Ultimate Frisbee friend is passionate about learning Chinese and music as well. Having too many passions will just dilute you and your time, but having 2-3 serious ones seems average for the happy teachers.
Be Self Motivated
Of course, finding your passion doesn’t help at all if you don’t have motivation. That’s why the party path is such a common one: it basically falls into your lap. You can be a total annoying douche and you’ll still get invited out regularly for dinner and drinks. And if you have no motivation for doing your own thing, then you’ll get sucked into that easy life.
I’ve known teachers who had their own passions but lost it because they had no motivation. They arrive all gung ho talking about writing, or learning the language, traveling the world, yet a few years later have done nothing because they’ve been “busy” (aka partying ) and broke. Or they just got too lazy.
Xiamen is especially bad for this. It’s an amazing sub-tropical city ringed with beaches and coffee shops just begging you to laze away the day. And the people in Xiamen are really good about arranging events like arts fairs, African nights, sporting events and the infamous beach parties that you can have a full and varied life while actually accomplishing nothing.
You have to set goals and work towards them. It means you have to turn down bar invitations (or go home early), it means you can’t sleep late, or waste all day on the internet. You need to have goals and stick to them yourself. No one is gonna hold you accountable and your close friends will probably do everything they can to (unconsciously) sabotage you.
That’s it. The big secret revealed.
It’s that simple.
I know this sounds like basic information, just general life stuff in fact, but it’s absolutely critical for life in China and yet so many people don’t do this. I have a few friends who are incredibly motivated and do a lot of stuff, yet have no real passion. They like the things they do, but not love them, and after a few years here they are feeling dissatisfied. The same goes for people with passions but no motivation to pull it off themselves.
Teaching in China isn’t a punishment or a chore. It’s a choice and usually not an easy one. So if you come here you should see it as an opportunity for self growth, not as some prison sentence you have to survive. By following these two steps you can make your time in China so much more meaningful and life-changing than you can imagine.
That’s a really good point — that you have to know what you ultimately want (or maybe just what you don’t want). But how many young teachers have any idea what they truly want, or any sort of self-knowledge? How many young people of any nationality have that?
Are some of the teachers that found their passion more mature — like you? Or did they get lucky? Or did they just try lots of activities and one stuck?
Excellent advice, even for someone who is not teaching English in China. It sounds like a combination of self-motivation and self-discipline has helped you narrow down your passions and then have the discipline to dive into them and also to say no to laziness and to friends and activities that would pull you away from your passions. You and some of your friends are good examples to other English teachers who are unhappy and wasting their time.
I agree that that is the way to make it work. Right now I am unable to separate my work life from my social life, so my attitude and health here is eastern China is heading down a bad road. I didn’t get any fulfillment from my teaching in Qinghai but I had everything else in my life to keep me going…my wonderful friends, exploration, beautiful places, constant discovery…then romance and eventually a family. Now that my student debt will be paid off, we are headed back to the place where I feel passion in my life.
Living in China allows for us foreigner teachers to have more time to find out what we are passionate about and to be able to go after it. Over the course of my time here I’ve discovered that I am passionate about designing textiles, photography, and learning about sub-cultures. I’ll never run out of things to keep my passions going!
Agree with you! I found some passion only when i came to China like patisserie and doing fun activities 😀
Because I have more the opportunity to do in China than in Paris 🙂
Oh really? You didn’t have a passion for patisserie before? I think as a french person you were born with that passion, hahaha.
That’s great, Becky! It’s true that one runs into disillusioned English Teacher expats that have grown to hate China a little too often, so it’s wonderful to hear that it doesn’t have to be that way! Way to go 😀
Autumn, a lot of good questions! I think it’s a bit of luck and trying a lot of new things. I do a lot of different things every week, so I’m more on the side of “trying everything,” but I have friends who more kinda lucked into it. But was it luck? Or was it more just kinda being drawn to the people you like because part of you recognizes something you want to do. I’m not sure really! And, again, it depends on the teacher, but a lot of us were drawn to China for purposes of travel and I think people who like to travel, and do it, are a bit more self aware than others. I guess maybe there is a difference in the foreign teachers who come here to teach for the experience versus the foreign teachers that come here because they lack options at home. Something to think further on for sure.
Thanks Nicki! I’ll admit that I have fallen into the trap of “being busy but not accomplishing anything” a few of my months here. Luckily, with the semester schedule I have a clear break, and a limited time, so even if I “waste” a few months I can recalibrate and focus again.
I am being lazy about writing articles. But you write out about what I thought. Haha. It applys wherever you are and whoever you are. Follow your passion and self motivated with a positive attitude towards things you will find happiness everywhere. So far it works for me.