Scott Hipsher

The middle kingdom

Impressions of teaching in China

Although home remains in Thailand, the lack of adequately-paid employment opportunities in the LOS and a son in university and a daughter planning on going to university in the USA next year have encouraged me to go off for a few years to seek employment with slightly higher wages in order to pay for the children's tuitions, pay off some of my own student loans, and maybe even to put away a Baht or two for retirement.

While many in my shoes go off to the Middle East, I first went to Vietnam and then I found a gig in China working as a visiting professor for an American university operating in this country. It didn't take long after arriving in China to realize that I wasn't in Kansas anymore, or Bangkapi for that matter.

So I have decided to give a few impressions of China. Of course writing about a topic as wide and diverse as the most populous country on the planet is bound to be incomplete, inaccurate for the most part and not applicable to the vast majority of the people or places in the country. Also I will try not to make judgmental comparisons of China with Thailand or other countries, as good, bed, better, and worse are strictly subjective terms and I have no reason to believe my judgments of other cultures are more appropriate or accurate than those of others.


My experience as a teacher is limited to a single university although I have had the opportunity to visit as a guest a few other universities. For the most part, university life for the students appears to be somewhat similar to what is found in the USA with students often living in dormitories on campus, unlike in Thailand where most student would appear to live off campus or with their parents, although the number of students per dorm room can be extraordinarily high. Undergraduate students are normally, like in Thailand, young and just out of high school and there doesn't seem to be a lot of adults going back to school to get a degree, at least for an undergraduate degree while there does appear to be a good number of slightly older students working on their MBAs. In general, students are friendly and respectful (not much different than any other country I have worked in) however the attendance of my Chinese students has been much higher than in other countries I have taught in.

Lack of foreigners and use of English

While Shanghai, Beijing and other large costal cities might be quite international in nature, this is not true in the interior of the country where I have stayed and traveled. I have traveled to cities with populations in the multi-millions such as Zhengzhou (Over 7 million) and Wuhan (over 9 million) and have gone hours or even days in these places without seeing another western face, even in the downtown areas and tourist attractions. Also while one occasionally finds signs in English, it can not be counted on. On occasion while out and about there has been someone in the crowd who could speak some English and who has intervened to help me when it was obvious I wasn't getting my message across, but there have been more times in this type of situation no one who could speak English could be found. In general one finds fewer people who speak English in the interior of China than one would in a country with more tourists such as Thailand. This is not a complaint about the country or its people (it would be arrogant to complain about people not speaking my native language in their own country), just an observation, and I am finding learning Chinese to be significantly more difficult than learning Thai.

Traveling around

China has a great rail system and traveling around can be done on the cheap, but signs are usually not in English and finding someone who speaks English working or at the train stations can be a challenge. In the small town I live in (it is considered a small rural town in China as the population is only around 900,000), it is rare to find service employees in the hotels, restaurants or stores who can speak even the most elementary English. And it has been found the Chinese are not used to hearing foreigners attempt to speak rudimentary Chinese, therefore my attempts to speak a few words in Mandarin Chinese (in the wrong tones and dialect I am sure) have not resulted in greatly improving the communication process.

There is saying in the ex-pat community that goes, "in China, everything is possible but nothing is easy," and I have found this to be accurate when trying to travel around the country without adequate Chinese language skills. Foreign tourism outside of a few major areas is not much of a business here, therefore while traveling alone around the interior of the country by train is possible for a seasoned old hand, it might be a daunting experience for someone new to living and working in Asia. On the other hand, due to the length of Chinese civilization nearly ever town or city has an abundance of sights with cultural or historical significance making most travel worth the difficulties. Taxis are widely available in the mid to larger cities and are quite reasonable while riding the local buses due to being overcrowded, and often being driven over roads that appear to be in a constant state of repair or expansion, would only be advised for the most adventurous of travelers.

Political systems

Of course everyone realizes China has a different political system than do western countries, but in all honesty, the only reason I know of the differences is from what I have read and not what I have observed. I teach subjects that deal with issues, including economics, and business ethics, that can be controversial from time to time. However I have never had any pressures to adapt my courses or teachings for local sensitivities. On the surface censorship appears to be a major part of life in China, as evidenced by the banning of the use of Facebook and Youtube, while at the same time it is an open secret that the government will turn a blind eye if an individual gets a VPN to get around these official restrictions.

Freedom of speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the US constitution is not available in China, on the other hand calling it a police state that allows no dissent, would not be accurate either. I have had numerous conversations with Chinese citizens who felt free to criticize their government and I have no trouble reading about Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, on the internet while in the country. I do not agree with every policy of the Chinese government (nor do I agree with every policy of my own government), but for most people, unless one makes it one's life work to criticize the government, there are no real worries about running afoul of the Chinese authorities. This is not a defense of the imprisonment of individuals who do make it their life's work to criticize the government, just an impression that the average traveler, ex-pat worker or ESL teacher has little to worry about from the authorities, at least due to political or religious viewpoints that differ with those of the Chinese government.

Being in China has been an interesting experience, and while I am a newbie here, I thought a few first impressions of the country might be of interest. If that old wanderlust sets in, I wouldn't automatically check China off the list of places to travel to or work in.

Scott Hipsher is the author of
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm,

The Nature of Asian Firms: An Evolutionary Perspective,

Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An interdisciplinary analysis of Theravada Buddhist countries

as well as numerous book chapter, academic journal articles, conference papers and other articles on international business and other topics.



Thanks for your contribution.

Although I am not personally involved in teaching ESL, your rates of pay and expenses are probably pretty close to accurate.

However if I were an ESL teacher I don’t think China would be the place I would seek out if I was looking to make more money than in Thailand. Any differences in pay and expenses would probably get eaten up in a couple of air fares a year back and forth.

However there are a number of international business programs, including quite a few MBA programs, which are taught in universities here in China. And a number of these (including the one I work in) are extensions of American universities and professors are employees of the American universities and paid accordingly.

For business teachers/professors, there are quite a few international programs in Thailand, however these programs are generally not growing very fast and currently there seems to be few openings for foreign faculty members and the pay is more in line with local salaries than ex-pat ones.

I suspect this is due to the large number of qualified foreign educated Thais available, often splitting time between their “real” jobs and doing a bit of adjunct work at the various universities. Also a bi-lingual Thai professor is much more flexible and can teach in both the Thai and English language programs while most of us “native speakers” are linguistically challenged and can only teach in one, our native, language.

Paying the bills and sending two kids through university on a local teacher’s pay in Thailand would be tough, but after the nest empties a return to Thailand, with the wages available (or other options such as teaching full-time at an online university while living in Thailand) might be feasible.

But China can be interesting place to live and work, much like Thailand, despite the wages offered.

By Scott, China (but back in BKK next month) (8th December 2010)

go to the big cities and make more money at private schools or international schools if you have a teaching degree. you can live on the cheap and save. It is still possible in Shanghai to get a place for 2000RMB for a one or two bedroom modern apartment as long as you don't live in foreign popular sections of the city. Your bills can be as low as 50RMB per month (as long as you watch the electricity) and since you have experience you should be able to negotiate a higher salary with schools from 12,000RMB per month to 14,000RMB per month, if not don't accept anything less than 10,000RMB per month and try to stay away from university jobs that pay 6-8000 plus a place to stay (as it is usually dorms or very low income housing) might as well find your own place that you like and make the same or more at a good school. eating and shopping at local markets instead of western oriented stores will save you a lot of money and you would be surprised how much produce and meat you can pic up for a 100RMB. Public transportation in Shanghai is cheap and very good (the metro is extensive and growing all the time) Taxi's are pretty cheap but many choose to save that extra and take the metro instead. or better yet get a bike for 200RMB and ride, no hills in shanghai and bike friendly with bike lanes and access points to the majority of the cities commercial and entertainment areas (better yet spend extra and get an electric bike or scooter). In regards to negotiating a price on your apartment get a local to help you bargain. good luck

By owsley, thailand (7th December 2010)

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