4 No Bullsh*t Hard Truths About Working In China

17 Feb

There are a few facts about working in China that people tip-toe around with a very wide berth.  Yes, the topics are sensitive to talk about but ignoring them is not going to make them go away.  

Keeping with the theme of HARD TRUTHS, let's start by ripping the bandaid off the one that hurts the most:

HARD TRUTH #1:  Being South African in China is starting to suck....a lot.

China has caught onto the quiet South African invasion.  We're everywhere - in the thousands.  

I say WE because I am South African, but the work I do has given me a clear insight into the sheer number of us who have come to China.

Blame our shitty South African economy, blame the lack of job opportunities, blame the rolling-blackouts by Eskom (google it). 

Fact is that thousands of South Africans come to China seeking a better quality of life.  

The words of the late, great MJ echo in my ears: "It don't matter if you're black or white.”  

It doesn't matter what racial profile you fit in China, South Africans are fast becoming persona-non-grata.

Working in education consulting and human resources I see (and deal with) the ugly, heartbreaking feedback from schools on a daily, hourly, basis.  

Every.  Single.  Day.  

It's soul-crushing:  "Sorry, we don't take South African candidates anymore,”  or "3/4 of our teachers are from South Africa.  We need American or British teachers".  

The thing is, they're not entirely wrong. 

The number of South Africans in China is overwhelming - to the point that it might be worth going back to South Africa because there have to be thousands of available jobs there now.  

At any given moment I have 30 active South African candidates looking for a teaching position in China - with a salary that matches their American and British counterparts.  

There are exceptions to the rule.  We all know that one lucky bugger that earns an excellent salary and works in a top-shelf international school.  

Just because Kornelius Potgieter managed to get into a fabulous, high-paying, international school, it doesn't mean that we're all going to make what Kornie makes.

Decide if the 15,000CNY salary is better than the R4000.00 you were earning back home and learn to count your blessings - low crime rate, lower cost of living, free housing and medical.  

Be grateful for what China IS offering, rather than focusing on what blue-eyed, blonde-haired Tiffany from LA is making.  Yes, it sucks but, NO, bitching about it is not going to change it.

Personally, I blame the media, Hollywood and Justin Bieber for creating this idea of who Westerners are.

HARD TRUTH #2:  You are not going to change the way China works.

This one applies to everyone living in another culture.  We've all had the frustration of managing a different work culture.  

Sure, maybe you don't like it when the school suddenly changes your schedule.  Yes, it's f-ing annoying when you're expected to go into work on the weekend because the public holiday has shifted the workday from Wednesday to Sunday.  Suck it up.  Bitching and moaning are not going to change it.  

In these challenging moments when "things are not like they are back home" one mantra gets me through.  Maybe it'll work for you too:

"T.I.C. - This Is China."  

Folks who come to China and bitch, moan and rant about how things are different are wasting their time.  That attitude will get you nowhere. 

An entire nation, school or training center is not going to change the way it's been doing things to accommodate the way you'd prefer it to be done.   

Hard Truth, Sally: It's not going to happen.

Adapt, adjust, go with the flow, “Wooosah” yourself to your happy-place.  

Getting all wound up about how things are different only makes you look like an arrogant, obnoxious foreigner who can't adjust to life in China.

I once worked with a manager who told me: "I put my team-members into 2 baskets:  the easy-going-basket and the high-maintenance-basket."

Pick your basket.

HARD TRUTH #3:  The Foreign God Complex won't fly. 

  Acting like you are above the standard rules of Chinese society, common courtesy and manners, and some necessary professionalism is known as "The Foreign God Complex." 

You can't get shit-faced drunk and show up to work stinking of cheap vodka; you can't harass the young, beautiful local teacher and make her feel uncomfortable; you can't expect the people at work to answer your call at  11 pm on Saturday night because your wifi stopped working.

Before you start doing any of these things (and a whole long list of other questionable actions) ask yourself:  “If I did this with my employer in my own country, what would happen?”

If you'd get fired, sued for sexual harassment, put on your managers shit-list...newsflash:  You can't do it here either.

China and your employer can revoke your visa, at any moment, and send you back from whence you came.  

They don't even need a good reason to do it.  Something as simple as "he doesn't fit in with the team" is reason enough.  Be a high-maintenance, whiny, unproductive, un-adjusted complainer, and you’ll find yourself on the next flight home.

You are a guest of this country.  Act accordingly.  (I wish I had a kuai for every time I’ve written or said that line)

HARD TRUTH #4:  This is not an all expenses paid holiday

Now we're starting to move into the area that really grates my carrots.  

There are a shocking number of people who come to China thinking they've discovered some big global secret winning lottery ticket.  You have not found the golden ticket.  This is not Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory.

I'm going to break this one down into a few explicitly clear statements:

NO - your employer is not going to give you a loan to get settled. 

NO - they're not going to pay for your flights to China.  Some employers do this - but I can count them on half of 1 hand.

NO - they are not going to reimburse you for Business Class flights (I can't believe I even have to say that) or relocation expenses. 

You accepted a JOB to come WORK in China - you're an adult who made a CHOICE to go to China and should be able to support your decision to do so. 

 If you can't afford to support your decision to do this:  DO NOT COME TO CHINA.

Keywords: JOB. WORK. CHOICE.

I’ve had conversations with people who have said: “I want a job with low hours that pays a high salary.

Stop the presses!  

Why didn’t I think of that?  

A job that pays me as much as possible to do as little as possible? 


Can you sense how dripping with sarcasm that is?  Why would any employer pay someone fat wads of cash to do f-all?  What dreamscape are you living in?

China is a land of opportunity - but don't think for a moment that opportunity is for free.  Hard work, professionalism, maturity and common courtesy, with everyone you meet, go a long way to create opportunity.  Here and anywhere else in the world.    

Those who truly understand that and choose to haul ass across the globe,  bear all the costs and consequences of doing so, will find it is a wonderful, exciting and life-changing experience.

We earn salaries, even on the low-end, that are 3 to 5 (sometimes 10) times higher than the national average; have the benefits of provided housing and medical aid; and fascinating, rich culture to embrace and explore.

We have lives that most people will only ever get to dream about.  Remember that.  Don’t take it for granted but be realistic about it.

With all that said - I still think we should all pin this on Justin Bieber and get on with our day.

Looking for a teaching job in China?  

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