China Chinese Markets

5 years living and working in China: Here is what I learned pt. 1

Living and working in China

I have now been in China for half a decade! This month will mark my 5 year anniversary of living and working in China. It is crazy how time flies. Sometimes, it seems like just yesterday I was getting off the plane in Shanghai, completely lost and confused. Other times, it feels like I have been here much longer and I need to get out.

This post is less about marketing and more about expat life. If you are not interested in living, working, or understanding China, than stop reading and check out some of the other posts on CM. For those of you that have signed up for the emails and are interested in my personal life: read on….

I will talk about the main things that will affect an expat living and working in China and talk about my own experiences living and working in China. I will talk about jobs, language, culture, and travel. This first post will be about working in China. Read part 2 here.

Working in China

Since moving to China in 2010, I have had many different jobs. I have taught English, done two internships, and worked for both foreign and Chinese MNC. I have done many different and diverse jobs, which has giving me a unique view of Chinese work ethics and company cultures.

Living and working in China


When I first came to China, I was only planning on staying 1 year. I took a teaching job at a university and planned on traveling in South East Asia for 3-6 months after my original contract ended. This plan changed after I met Yvonne (my Dutch fiancée). I ended up teaching at the university level for 2.5 years before moving to Beijing and changing my goals. At the beginning, I was unsure how long I would stay in China and put off starting a career, because teaching is easy and pays well.

The Good

The good things about teaching at a university are hours, paid vacation, and holidays. One of the best things about working at a university is there are very few teaching hours. At both universities that I worked at I had less than 20 work hours per week. I also had no office hours and was not required to attend any meetings. This makes life really easy and boring.

Along with having a lot of time off during the week, you will also have summer and winter breaks and all holidays off. Most of this time off is paid. For university teachers, you could have up to 3 months paid time off. This allows many teachers to travel though South East Asia or back home.

If you work for a training school you will only get about 2 weeks off and national holidays, which is about one month. So, most teachers in China get about 4-6 weeks paid leave each year, but training schools also pay about 3-5 times more for teachers.

The Bad

The bad things about working at a university were pay, students, and opportunity. Universities pay really low. I was making 5,000 RMB ($800) per month at my first university and 4,500 RMB ($725) per month at my second university. Another major problem with working at a university is the students are not interested in learning English. This makes it very hard to teach and engage with students. They have more important classes and will often skip, do homework, or sleep in class. The schools will also force you to pass students. One example, I had to pass a student that had dropped out of the university.

On top of lousy pay and tired students, there are very few opportunities for foreign teachers to advance in their careers. This is at all schools in China. The foreign teacher is often stuck in one role and is given very few (if any) opportunities to advance within the organizations.

The Ugly

The ugly side of living and working in China, as a teacher, is culturally foreign teachers are looked down upon by both Chinese and other expats. The reason for this is because universities and training schools are hiring unqualified teachers. Good example, I had no teaching experience before coming to China and I had no interest in teaching. This leads to poor classroom management and lesson planning.

The HR departments are looking for a foreigner that speaks fluent English, preferably from the US, UK, or Canada. They are not looking for qualified teachers. This leads to a lot of young (18-24) or older (50+) individuals looking for easy money and an easy life. Many young people have no work ethics and they like to party. Many old teachers have social problems and often drinking problems. This leads to foreign teachers being thought of as lazy, unqualified, and sometimes drunks. Both Chinese and expats will look down on foreign teachers and often refer to them as “Losers back home.”

Living and working in China Internship


Internships can be the best or worst thing to happen to a young professional. They can provide valuable skills and real experience to launch their career or they can be mindless soul sucking wastes of time. Internships depend on the company and the individual. I have done two internships while in China and ended both early because of the company (and myself).

The Good

I think internships are extremely valuable and can help young employees grow and gain needed experience. In a perfect world interns are given responsibilities that allow them to better understand the company and their intended career. Unfortunately, China is not a perfect world. There are 100’s of internships available here in China and a dozen companies that help interns find employment. I have not had good experiences with the internships I attempted, but there is good and bad with every opportunity. If you are young (under 25) and want to try an internship, I say go for it. But be warned, it might not be what you would expect back home.

The Bad

The bad is being giving little or no real responsibilities. The employer expects you to spend 40 hours a week doing mindless tasks. These tasks can be anything from simple emails and proofreading to making tea and photocopies. These internships do not allow you to grow or learn anything new about the company or your intended career. One example, I was working, as an intern, for a language school here in Beijing, but the boss was unable to trust me with any real responsibilities. This lead me to feel like I was wasting my time and I soon quit.

The Ugly

The ugly side of internships in China is being taken advantage of by a company. There is a growing trend in China by many Chinese and especially foreign companies to hire interns instead of full-time employees. The idea is very simple, hire an intern for 2,000 RMB or pay the intern nothing, but expect them to work 40 hours a week and do real work (not intern work). Internships are all about learning and gaining experience. What these companies are offering are full-time jobs, with no training, at internship rates.

The growing trend in China is to replace full-time staff with interns. This is the ugly side of internships in China and it continues to grow. Because the labor laws are difficult to understand and many young foreigners will not contact law enforcement, it makes them easy targets. The company gets a foreigner that speaks fluent English and nowadays Mandarin for nothing, when they should be paying 15k – 25k RMB per month.

Living and working in China


I have now worked for two MNC (Multinational Corporation) in China. One an American company called LionBridge and my current company, a Chinese multinational, called GWDC.

Lionbridge is the world’s largest language services provider offering industry-leading translation and localization services and highly scalable global marketing solutions. They help organizations achieve international success through exceptional customer service, the most advanced technologies, and the industry’s largest and most sophisticated network of professional translators.”

“The Greatwall Drilling Company (GWDC), a subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and an IADC member, is engaged in the worldwide business of petroleum engineering and technical services. Their business scope covers various processes of petroleum engineering and technical services and energy development.”

The Good

One of the things I like about working for a MNC is the management process is more structured. There seems to be more order and better processes in place to handled foreign employees’ needs and demands. The employees are more professional and the general environment is better. Along with better working conditions, you will have a better position in society. You will not be looked down on or considered a “loser back home” because you have a professional job.

The Bad

Although, I like working for a MNC, I find many things difficult. The management process is slower and often decisions are not made in a timely manner. This is more prominent in Chinese companies, because of the hierarchy within groups and divisions. Many organizations are not flat and foreigners at the entry level are often marginalized. Tasks can become a little redundant or pointless.

One example is I create reports in English, at my current job, that are not read because they are in English. This makes the work seem pointless and makes it difficult to find meaning in the work I do each day. I am also expected to behave in a stereotypical way for the benefit of my colleagues.

Another thing is the lack of opportunities for foreigners in Chinese MNC. The Chinese employee will almost always get the promotion before the foreigner. This can lead to dead end jobs with little advancement opportunities and low (or no) raises.

The Ugly

The ugly side of MNC in China is you might get hired at a major Chinese company because you are a white foreigner. There are many “Face Jobs.” Companies will hire foreigners just to give their department or company “face.” You will have little or no work and will not be expected to do much. You will be invited to important meetings, but asked not to talk. Your co-workers will have little or no respect for you and you will easily get frustrated and burnout.

There are many things that can make a MNC terrible to work for, this can include: pay, hours, vacation time, co-workers, boss, etc. There are many things that can go wrong, I fortunately have not experienced anything ‘really’ bad while working for a MNC, but there are many stories that float around. You must always be aware.

Living and Working in China

China is unique and dynamic. There are opportunities for everyone and anyone. Work will be more difficult than you are use to back home, but you can succeed if you are smart and capable. I have always said “Rocks sink and fish swim.” Okay, I have never actually said that, but I think China is a land were you sink or swim. Smart people who are not “losers back home” can move out of teaching (if they want) and succeed in a professional environment. I went from teaching to working, as a marketing coordinator, for the 4th largest company on the Global 500 list.

Living and working in China

If you are really thinking about living and working in China, think about what you really want out of your China experience and work your ass off to get it. Anything is possible here in China. And if you are already here and you think there are no real opportunities; make new friends, stop drinking (if you drink), look for opportunities, or better yet, make your own. The number one thing I have learned about living and working in China for 5 years is you make your own opportunities. Nobody is going to ‘give’ you anything.

Continue to Part 2 —–>

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