Lee Lepper

An amazing TEFL journey

From Saudi to Thailand to China (and a bit of America in-between)


Five years ago, after teaching English in Thailand for over a decade, I traded the tropical heat of Bangkok, for the scorching desert heat of Saudi Arabia. 

Saudi was challenging, interesting and of course lucrative. I made a lot of money in the kingdom, at least in terms of ESL salaries, and as a bonus learned an incredible amount about The Middle East. 

However, there is a saying among expats in KSA that everyone who comes is given two buckets on arrival. One starts filling with money and the other with shit. When one bucket is full you leave, which was precisely my experience. In a photo finish my shit bucket won the race. 

One afternoon in late April of 2017, I returned from school to my apartment, packed my few belongings, dumped my homemade wine stash down the toilet, and got a taxi across the causeway to Manama, the capital of Bahrain. I had no prior plans for travel so I needed to think of some place to take refuge fast, as a visitor, Bahrain can get quite pricey quite quickly. Where could I go that was cheap, that I was familiar with, and where I didn’t need a visa?

Back to Thailand

Well that’s a no brainer. Luckily there was a flight that very evening to Bangkok.

Being back in Thailand was great. I made all the rounds. I met my old gang for brews at The Robin Hood, I headed down to Chonburi to play Khao Khiew golf course, and I stuffed myself on all kinds of noodles and green curry. I did all the things I loved to do in Thailand and it was as fun as the first time around. 

But soon my thoughts turned to my prospects for employment, as I definitely did not want to start spending all the loot I had saved in KSA. Not quite prepared to get back into teaching at that moment, I found a job working for my old company which runs summer and winter resorts in the Rocky Mountains. So, a couple of weeks after my return to the Land of Smiles, after my 3-year exile on the Arabian Peninsula, I boarded a flight to Wyoming and spent a blissful summer living and working at the Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis Club.

Back in the USA

It was an awesome job serving lunch to the extremely rich, but very cool, down to earth members in the clubhouse. I filled my afternoons playing golf while downing copious amounts of iced down Bush Light. My evenings I spent grilling up steaks and sipping Jack Daniels while listening to the sounds of the not so distant wildlife rustling about in the moon shadow of the majestic Teton Range.

After Saudi, it was heaven.

But summer is short in Wyoming, and the Rockies is no place for golf in the winter, and the season quickly passed. I had an opportunity with the company to work at a ski resort in Vail or Keystone in Colorado. However, being a native Floridian, free golf is a far more attractive benefit than a free ski pass, so I decided to opt out of the opportunity. So basically I was back to where I was when I left Saudi Arabia.

Since my marketable skills are limited to either waiting tables or teaching English, it appeared I was headed back into the classroom. But where? Returning to Saudi was out of the question. I had taught in Korea in 2008, but that was off the table too. Korea was not for me as I lasted only one year there before running back to Bangkok. I considered staying in the States and going back to work for an academic prep institute I had worked for years prior in Washington DC, a wonderful vibrant city. However the sticker shock of 2017 rent prices almost necessitated a shot of adrenalin to restart my heart. 

I had always wanted to go to China, and put that under consideration too, but I had heard that there was a lengthy visa process and I needed something fast.

Like Michel Corleona in The Godfather Part 3 lamented, “Just when I think I am out, they pull me back in.”

Dead end Thailand

I was returning once again to Thailand, a place I love, but for me had become professionally a dead end.

Of course going back to live in Bangkok definitely had its appeal. To be honest I was quite happy to have had my options limited. I had friends there and knew my way around, to say the least. Years prior I had passes through all the phases of culture shock one passes though dealing with living in foreign country. 

In the end I decided that there was more good to Thailand than bad, unless you make it not so, Thailand is indeed a sabai place. My plan now was to go back, teach a bit, and search for the right job, and move forward with my career (and to further pad my nest egg).

I had worked many different jobs over my 14 years in the Big Mango. Bangkok Christian, Wall Street and English First being among the schools I had taught at. My main employer through the language schools had been Nopadol at Edufirst. I go back with him to the days when the school was under the banner of English First. So, after arriving once again at Suvanabumi, I went straight to see him at his main office in Siam Square. 

He said he could hook me up with corporate work in Pak Nam, and some in-house stuff at his school in Central Bang Na. It was just what I needed. 

Now with a well-padded wallet, I got myself a very modern, if small 10,000 baht a month apartment on the Bang Na navy golf course. Such a residence registered me clearly in the upper “middle so”socio economic farang- ajarn class. Not hi-so yet, but moving up.

It was a good year, and as it was a bridge to my next move, and not really back at the grind so to speak, I took a medium load teaching. This covered most of my expenses while I spent my abundant free time playing golf while looking for a more lucrative teaching job elsewhere in the world.

As I started weighing my options, it quickly became apparent that when it came to making cash, the only options were Middle East, (which I did not want to return to), Korea (ditto), Japan (which seems to be mostly for fresh out of college types, and not really that well-paying anyway) or China.

Gambling on China

I had always wanted to go to China. It is the big kahuna of East Asia and I always felt something was amiss that I had never even visited there. A look at Dave’s ESL café seemed to indicate that China was catching up fast with Korea in terms of salary. However, forebodingly, the internet was rife with reports of scamming recruiters and bad working conditions. It looked like China was my option, but I had to be cautious.

I started applying for jobs and talked with a number of recruiters, but I found that it was very hard to make contact directly with a school. It seemed there was always a cut-taking interloper with a suspicious email address attached to every job ad. It also became apparent that the process to get a visa to work in China was quite a hassle. 

To get a Z visa involved multiple physical exams, apostilled documents, and police checks. Also there seemed to be confusion about age limits, so being north of 55 years old like I am, that became an issue. Nevertheless, I decided China was still my best prospect and I continued with my job search.

Interviews

After doing a number of interviews I ended up with a recruiter who forwarded my application to an agency in charge of managing foreign English teachers at Henan University in Kaifeng, one of the top tier public Universities in the Middle Kingdom. I was also looking at a very attractive offer in southern China at a private university an hour train ride from Guangzhou. 

I was very impressed with the interview I had with Pete, a 30 something American guy who would have been my supervisor. The campus looked park like from the pictures, had clean air and a golf course nearby. I was really gravitating to the job. 

Kaifeng, by contrast was in the cold north, and with notably poor air quality, at least in the winter months. Another huge black mark was that Kaifeng lacked so much as a driving range. The only thing that kept Henan University on the table was the significant salary difference, to the tune of about 8 thousand USD a year more it was offering than the University outside Guangzhou.

Paranoid from what I had read, things smelled fishier than they really were. Amy, the lady at Henan University seemed desperate, and the package seemed a bit too good to be true. I wanted, of course, the extra money but was it for real? Pete had assured me I could make up the difference in Guangzhou, a rich city with many opportunities for lucrative privates on weekends. As our workload was light I would still have time to get out to the golf course nearby during the week. In fact there were other teachers doing just that. It was a real dilemma.

However there is a reason golf is a four-letter word, and essentially that cursed pursuit made the decision for me. During the time I was weighing out my options I suffered a bout of the chipping yips (probably related to the stress and indecision I was experiencing with my job choice). This resulted in me once again swearing off the game. My vacations would now, I pledged, (as I had done on more than one occasion before), be spent pursuing the other passion of my life which I had developed in my hometown growing up in Florida-surfing. Famous last words.

So with golf out of the equation, the very evening of the day my yips delivered a soul wrenching 87, I sent Pete, an email thanking him for the offer but declining. I then contacted Amy, the lady I had spoken to at Henan University, with the good news that I had decided to join them for the fall 2018 semester.

Chinese paperwork

It turned out to be what so far has been one of the best decisions of my life.

The process to get a visa lived up to its infamous billing and was every bit as messy as advertised. I had to send all my documents to the States to a visa agent who would have them apostilled. He would then submit them to the Chinese embassy in D.C. for their review. After everything was translated into Chinese, they would have to be resubmitted to the education ministry in Henan. In addition, I had to do a physical before leaving for China in Bangkok and another in Zhengzhou on my arrival. I had to submit references, and get a police check. The police check was very stressful.

It appeared I may have had to return to the home, at great expense, to just to get the police check if I wanted to work in China, but in the end I was able to sort it out from Thailand.

The visa process was started in mid-July, but thanks to Chinese holidays, the general inefficiency of everything being done in triplicate, and it being a busy time of year for the issuing of working visas, I missed the start of the semester and did not arrive until late October. By that time I had rolled out almost a thousand USD in visa agent fees, medical exams and airplane tickets, all with the promise of being reimbursed. It was taking forever, and as such, I was becoming more skeptical about the complete legitimacy of the whole thing. I was starting to seriously question if I had made the right decision. Then, just when I was about to pull the plug, I was told everything was ready. I finally got a flight from Bangkok to Zhengzhou.

On the day of my arrival Lydia, who is my immediate supervisor, picked me up in from airport and we rode the train to Kaifeng. On arriving at my new apartment building, which sits directly next to the campus, I seemed my worst fears were starting to become true.

Salary and benefits

Part of my contract is an all-expense paid apartment. I had read tales on the internet about teachers being put into real dumps, actually approaching squalor. As we arrived after sunset, the hallway was dark when we entered the building. When an automatic light flipped on I flashed back to the time when I boldly visited a public housing project in DC. The walls were barren, partially painted cement. We entered the elevator and it looked old and unkempt as well. I was appalled.

However on walking into my apartment, I was pleasantly surprised. Although I would not describe it as modern, it was a perfectly clean spacious one bedroom apartment complete with a king size bed, sofa, full kitchen, laundry room and a hot shower in the bathroom. It had a good view out over a park on the campus. With a fresh coat of paint, and an investment in a bit of art for the walls, it would be a pretty nice place to call home. (I later to find out that ratty looking hallways are common in China, they just don’t seem to care about that).

From that point things only got better. I was quickly reimbursed all my money I had coming. I was given a very spacious office to share with one other teacher, an American former Peace Corps volunteer like myself. It was complete with desktop computers with printers, a water cooler, a leather armchair for guests, a picture window and even its own toilet. It is a splendid office, but honestly overkill as both Sam and I only teach conversation classes. The only paperwork we do is writing a simple syllabus, and recording two scores on spreadsheets for each student at the end of the semester. There is one speaking test and one presentation. As such, there are only a few hours paperwork each semester. I do come to the office though regularly, but to socialize rather than work.

I had found out just prior to my arrival that I would be working at Miami College in Henan University. It is a competitive program for the students to get into and is run in cooperation with the University of Miami in Florida. I am a lifelong supporter of the University of Miami Hurricanes football, so that works out nicely for me. My classes are great, all my students are studying to be engineers. That being the case they are all pretty serious. That is not to say all of them are excited about English class. The ones who plan to finish their degree at Henan University, not University of Miami, don’t necessarily deem English as very important to them. They may be right about that. However, they are all respectful to me personally and will participate in the activities willingly, but I do have to enforce cell phone rules. That is easily managed by giving them a homework assignment, which they definitely do not want.

The students have a huge course load, and the last thing they want is more work. The dean of our college however is understanding of them being overworked. Normally the students take 4 hours a week of spoken English. However this semester it was cut back to 2 hours a week. As a result, our teaching hours were trimmed down from 24 to 12. I was afraid that that my salary would scaled down as well, but as with everything this else, no surprises. In fact, since it is resigning time for next year’s contracts this semester, I was given a 1000 yuan raise, which equates to about 5000 baht a month.

As far as my colleagues, the only word I have for them is wonderful. All of the administrative Chinese staff I work with/under have advanced degrees earned in either The States or Britain. They speak excellent English and understand the strange ways of the Laowai (Farang). They are friendly and fun and I am developing a real friendship with my immediate supervisor. We are made to feel appreciated. We are often taken out to dinner or have other fun activities planned for us which always include all you care to drink beer or spirits.

The campus is lovely with many green spaces and lots of trees and parks. It is also huge, and a great place to relax and enjoy a nice fall or spring day

You may be wondering, if you have read this far, what kind of salary I am on. Since most everyone reading this is familiar with baht I will use that currency. This year I am making 71,000 baht a month after tax. (Next year it will go to almost 76.00) It is a 10-month contract, with one month bonus if you resign. A free apartment with all utilities with wifi is provided, as is an annual one round-trip ticket home, or anywhere in the world of your choosing. Medical insurance is included. 

The contract is for 24 hours teaching, but in the event that another teacher falls ill and you take a class you are compensated at 950 baht an hour. Private lessons can augment your salary up to 100,000 a month if you are a go-getter. 

There are 30 days paid vacation in winter. However the actual break is closer to two months as the students finish their English tests first. Financially this is a bit of a downside. I had almost two months of vacation in the winter. I was paid the full salary for January, but since I only worked one week in February, my March paycheck was dismal. 

The way I see it, my raise for next year offsets this “loss.”…(That is if having two months of vacation between the start and finish of each four month long semester is truly a loss). Next year I plan to take my summer vacation working back in Wyoming, something I have already talked to my company there about. As the cost of living here in China is so low, between working my summer break, and doing a few privates, I anticipate my savings will be almost what I was putting away in Saudi.

Even this year in spite of my almost two month late start, and the low paycheck in March, I will have saved close to over half a million baht this academic year.

In terms of downsides, I have already addressed the hassles involved in getting a Chinese work visa.

But that is in the past, and renewals only entail an annual physical. The horrendous air quality in winter when coal is being burnt in much greater quantities for heating purposes is for me the biggest downside to the job.

Also, if you are looking for excitement, outside of Guangzhou or Shanghai, China is not the place to be. (I have been to Beijing twice, not much going on there from what I saw). A mere 5,000,000 people like the metropolis I live in is a backwater small town in China. 

In Kaifeng, I know of one craft beer place, one western style cocktail lounge, and apart from some Pizza Huts, a couple of McDonalds and a half dozen KFCs, there are no options for western style dining and nightlife in this city. Again, I am not sure this is exactly a big loss. As there are no temptations to spend money works well if your goal is to save money. The fact that you are never more than a few months away from having a 2-month holiday more than makes up for that in my book.

China as a TEFL destination

I would highly recommend giving China a good look if should you be looking for a job outside Thailand. However, I would be careful in what you sign up for. Always talk to another foreign teacher who is already working at the school, and not one that is going to be your boss who may desperate to get a warm English speaking caucasian body in front of the blackboard (they still use those here).

Since I have arrived I have met other teachers working in different colleges. I haven’t heard any real horror stories, but some have definitely had some unpleasant surprises. I would be very wary of coming on anything but a Z visa to work here.

China is definitely on the upswing as far as English teaching goes. Beijing has stated the goal that all Chinese students will be able to speak English fluently in the not too distant the future. That is a tremendously ambitious goal for a country of 1.2 billion. 

Quite frankly I don’t think it is attainable, not from what I have seen. However, even working towards that goal may signal that this is just the beginning of a Golden Age for ESL teachers in China, much like the 1980’s and early 90’s were in Japan. And considering that China has literally 10 times the number of people as Japan, the implications are staggering as to where the market might be heading.

Depending on your personal situation, many Thailand ESL ajarns may want to look to transitioning for a stint as a China ESL lao shu. It has certainly been a good fit for me.




Comments

An interesting article, so many people who have been in ESL or other international work have such interesting stories to tell, there are a lot of negatives in living and working internationally (especially if one is not on a full ex-pat package), but it is usually not boring! Thanks for sharing.

While the grass often seems greener elsewhere (Seems I remember Lee writing an article extolling the benefits of working in the desert a few years ago which contradicts his latest article to some extent, but Goggle can’t seem to find it so maybe I am mistaken). One should be careful in thinking strictly in terms of “country.” Within each country there are jobs with a wide range of salaries, working conditions and types of bosses, as well as a few general similarities. For example, I worked for three years in China with basically a full ex-pat salary, yet the living and working conditions were sub-optimal.

I also worked there three times in two separate location on short-term assignments where the pay was substantially lower, but the living and working conditions were better.

Also all supervisors I worked with (all foreigners) were quite different in style as were my Chinese and foreign co-workers.

The three places I worked at in the country were each a very different experience.

My personal experience was I usually made more money in China, but I also experienced some significant health issues while there and generally enjoy my life in Thailand (or Vietnam) more. Which is better? I can’t say.

But of course, other people have had and will have different experiences. China is a huge country and it is quite different working and living in a first-tier city as opposed to a third tier one or out in the countryside (Like Lee I also worked in Henan for a time).

Enjoyed the article, China might be a good option for some but I doubt many ESL teachers will find a utopia working there, there are always trade-offs in all we do.

By Jack, On the sofa (3rd May 2019)

If I can be of any more specific help, in the future, feel free to contact me at leelepper@yahoo.com

By Lee Lepper, Kaifeng China (2nd May 2019)

Thanks for this posting. As someone who has been in this for 10 years and been to the places you have worked, I can definitely appreciate your views and positive descriptions. I'm having a difficult time shaking off the bad experiences in the Gulf and in corrupt schools in LOS. Soon, I might have to change my path, if I am unable to move forward in thinking and ditch some of my baggage. Thanks again! Please write more!

By brad, vietnam (2nd May 2019)

An informative and interesting post. I've been in Vietnam for a few years and have the same sense of looking for the next destination. Your post might've given me the motivation to brave the Visa application process and head North for a year. Thanks!

By Terry, Vietnam (2nd May 2019)

Grand Teton Lodging Company Josh. Part of Vail Resorts.

By leelepper, Kaifeng China (1st May 2019)

Great post...one of the best I have seen.

What is this company in Wyoming you speak of? As a US citizen, I think that would be an awesome, alternative working-break for a summer.

By Josh, Land of Kimchi and Soju (1st May 2019)

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