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Being an Overpaid Foreign Teacher in China
In China, I work as a foreign language instructor. I arrive at 9 a.m., work for two hours until noon, then leave at 4:30 p.m. Home is where I spend time with my family, play with my children, see my husband, and catch up with acquaintances. I have so much money left over that I can go out and have a good time every weekend.
At 7 a.m., most of my Chinese coworkers show up. After a 30-minute lunch break, they'll be out of here by 5:30 p.m. Most students return to their leased homes, although a few choose to remain in the school's extremely modest dorm-like accommodations. I'm sure they dream of the day when they'll have a little more cash to spend on anything they want.
Unlike the majority of foreign teachers in China, I am surrounded by Chinese colleagues who are just as competent, hardworking, and bright, but earn less money. A foreign teacher's salary in China typically ranges from 15,000 RMB to 30,000 RMB a month, depending on the school and the amount of work. On average, this equates to an hourly pay for teachers that is on level with or more than what is paid in the West.
However, even with a university degree, most Chinese instructors are fortunate if they can cobble together 8,000 RMB a month. Additionally, Chinese instructors frequently have additional responsibilities outside of the classroom, such as answering phones and supervising lunchtime. As for me, I mostly focus on teaching, along with some grading at home and marketing work, the latter of which is what most of us foreign instructors are here for. At the very least, that is how it seems from time to time.
The lack of interest her administration showed in the marks she awarded her pupils was a source of frustration for a foreign friend of mine. Is it important to them how I teach or what my kids learn? she wondered following a staff meeting. In other words, "it's like they paid me to put on an out-of-country clown act."
Teachers from other countries in China who work just as hard as you do may feel resentful when their pay is so much lower. Should you, on the other hand? Because of the laws of economics, your pay isn't truly comparable to theirs. There is no disparity in pay between Chinese and foreign instructors. Imagining that schools would increase Chinese instructors' salaries if foreigners accepted pay cuts is fun, but it isn't how capitalism works.
Indeed, some institutions' ability to hire a few foreign professors might be said to be the only reason the Chinese instructors have jobs at all. There is a strong emphasis on selling courses given by foreign instructors at many private non-public institutions. These schools are companies in and of themselves. The school may not be able to exist without the "foreign clowns."
As a result, when my Chinese coworkers complain about how their low wages have a significant impact on their life, I try not to feel bad. Although it's easier said than done, the problem isn't always that they can't afford trendy clothing or a scooter they'd want, since these things take time to save for. Their current and long-term well-being is at danger.
When I asked one of my Chinese colleagues whether she intended to remain a teacher, she said, "On 5,000 RMB a month? What are my options for purchasing a home? No, this isn't a job I'll keep in the long run. Another coworker described the agony of being separated from her husband and kid because their incomes were too low to cover the cost of renting a home of their own. My colleague's kid is being raised by his mother in her hometown, as is the situation for many migrant workers in China.
Because so many bright and competent Chinese instructors are unable to guarantee their financial futures or maintain a normal family life on such a low wage, they eventually leave the teaching profession, harming the pupils who might have benefited from their knowledge.
In spite of my best efforts, capitalism does not function the way I want it to. I wish parents and schools were more aware of the value of Chinese language instructors and provided with enough compensation. In China, a decent education entails much more than just avoiding the Western clown.