Phil Roeland

My great escape

How are things working out in China?

1. Where did you move to and when?

I moved to from Thailand to China in August 2009.

2. How long did you work in Thailand?

Five years, from 2004 to 2009. I did take a six-month break in 2008 though.

3. What was your main reason for moving?

Difficult to pinpoint really. I guess I was fed up with the place and needed a new challenge. Although paperwork was done for me, jumping immigration rules still remained a hassle. Although my fellow teachers and I really tried hard to make lessons effective and interesting, not many students tried hard or became proficient in English. At times, the lack of qualified, enthusiastic teachers or applicants was somewhat demotivating as well. Often teachers in Thailand are merely foreign entertainers or even zookeepers.

4. What are the advantages of working where you are now compared to Thailand?

As I am in a similar position (head teacher in a private language school) as I was in Thailand, there aren't many differences for me personally. Teachers in China usually work fairly regular hours. There aren't many that work seven days a week or teach 50 periods each week (and then drop dead). Standard 40-hour weeks with 20 to 25 teaching hours seem the norm. Salaries are relatively high in big cities - slightly higher than Thailand - but can be rather low in rural areas (like in the LOS). Most teaching position offer free accommodation or a housing allowance. Most expats fall in the category ‘Normal', although some could be labelled ‘Hippie-ish' or ‘Slightly odd'. There are definitely much fewer dubious characters and washouts than in Thailand.

5. What do you miss about life in Thailand?

No that much. The food, maybe. Not really the food itself, but the omnipresence and availability of it. Chinese food is great, but there aren't nearly as many food courts and street stalls as in the Land of Smiles.
The toilets, for sure. Although China has come a long way and is in many respects more western than Thailand, they don't seem to be able to get those right. Smelly public squat toilets still prevail in the Middle Kingdom.
Some rays of warm sunshine in winter probably completes the list.

Things I don't miss include the stifling heat, the narrow pavements, the air and noise pollution, the ‘kreng jai' and ‘mai pen rai' attitudes, the airheads in the classroom and the dual pricing. It gets a bit chilly in winter here, but walking remains a joy. Wide pavements are everywhere and oven-like temperatures are rare. There is some air pollution of course, but where I live it's definitely not as bad as Bangkok. The Chinese I've met so far are quite open and speak their mind; many also seem to enjoy learning English more and try harder than Thais. Travelling and prices for tourist attractions are much higher than in Thailand, but at least everyone pays the same price.

6. Would you advise a new teacher to seek work in Thailand or where you are now?

Either country would do for newbies. As the average level of English in both Thailand and China is still pretty low, new teachers needn't worry about explaining the use of the third conditional or the present perfect continuous. They'll mainly teach conversation lessons. By the way, local Chinese teachers seem to be fairly skilled at grammar, like their Thai colleagues.
Classroom sizes are similar to Thailand: small classes in private language centres and international schools and super-sized classes in government schools (30 to 60+ students).

Whereas Thailand is a slightly easier country to live and get around in (especially when you're fresh off the boat), China is a bit more challenging because of the language barrier. Chinese restaurants (except those in the high-end bracket) often have menus in Chinese only and staff are rarely fluent in English. Getting settled in, renting a flat and arranging visas needs to be done with the help of a local.

7. Any plans to return to Thailand one day?

I don't have any plans or intention to return to Thailand in the near future, but my motto remains "Never say never".

8. Anything else you'd like to add?

Never take anything for granted. Never stop learning. Don't wait to travel the world until you're retired (What if you drop dead at 60?). Practice makes perfect. Don't let your teaching techniques become rusty. Keep an open mind. Think Darwin and evolve. Adapt yourself to local customs. Don't whinge or complain excessively. Listen and learn from negative feedback and constructive criticism. I'm sorry, is this the section where you start waxing philosophically...?


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