Unemployed in China: a Response to “Go East, Young Man”

This is a response to Jonathan Levine’s article on working in China, “Go East, Young Man”, published on January 8. After writing this response, I found that someone had written an insightful blog post at the singularly named (written about a month before Jonathan Levine’s). I highly recommend reading said post for more details about what I describe below.

Jonathan Levine has been in China for almost a year teaching American studies in an English-speaking Tsinghua University class. According to him, China is a treasure trove of jobs for Americans, as demand for native English speakers is “white-hot.” And frankly, he is correct. I’d wager that the majority of secondary school principals would jump out of their chairs if an American walked into the office asking for an English-teaching job. Educational consulting businesses would claw at the chance to have, ahem, a white face to put on their college-prep advertisements. The chances for Americans are plentiful – especially white Americans.

This is something any CET study-abroad student could tell you. What Mr. Levine does not mention is the definite tiered system of jobs for native English speakers in China, wherein most involve copy-editing or English training at a price of 6,000-10,000 RMB per month ($1000-1500, and no health insurance) – more than enough to party it up in Sanlitun. For sure, China can be a whirlwind of crazy daily experiences, fascinating conversations, good food, and cheap drinks; a real paradise for singles in their twenties without a strict career path (I would know). But for non-teachers with a specialized skill set, especially those coming from middle-level American jobs, and especially those with families, I dare to suggest that China is a step down for them in terms of income and professionalism.

The next tier up includes Western-salary companies, who hire native English speakers to audit, manage, train, and communicate. It’s not a bad gig if you can get it; most of those end up in Guangdong, where the factories are, or nestle into random pockets of IT activity. There is a plethora of consulting jobs in Shanghai; most Americans can land one of those at China-salary, while big-name consultants (Bain, KPMG) are reticent to hire anyone who is not a native Chinese speaker. To my friends and classmates who have worked their way into the latter positions, I have the utmost respect. They could not have done it without years of perfecting their Chinese language skills.

This brings me back to my frustration with an article about working in China from someone who knows very little about the place. Those who have high-paying, health-care-providing jobs in China generally do so either because they are hired by a Western company first and then move to China, or because they know about China and speak Chinese very well. This group cannot afford, however, to be looking at the jobs that Mr. Levine rightly claims to be so plentiful (i.e. teaching and copy-editing). First, almost anyone who has lived in China more than a few weeks has done one of these jobs. Chinese majors and freelance scholars, therefore, tend to have plentiful TESL experience to blog about. However, these people generally do not go to China to be Western. They seek something more meaningful; something that is a testimony to the work that they have put in learning Chinese and about China.

I dare to say that, ironically, finding a real career in China is hardest for this group. They have sweated over memorizing characters, perfecting tones, mastering the nuances of discussing sensitive issues with Chinese people. They are invested and, in many cases, in student debt. The American with the best Chinese I have ever heard graduated from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center last year. While teaching English at a high school in a second-tier city, he buried himself in Chinese culture. He labored to this end for eight years before returning to the US this past year. Why did someone so skilled have to leave China? Because, in his words, the only things he was qualified to do in China were teach English or open a bar. He is now a US federal employee.

My other friend graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Chinese language and literature in 2008. He moved to Beijing and taught English, then copy-edited, then freelance translated, for a total of three years. It was a charmed life for sure, but the aimlessness of translating and copy-editing spurred him to return to America to start a career.

After six months in America, he’s back in Beijing. When asked why, the question of employment doesn’t come up. “Everyone in America just talks about politics or the TV shows they watch. When you mention that you’ve just lived in China for three years and speak Chinese, the conversation basically stops,” he says. After a certain point of delving into China, this friend is faithfully and irretrievably a laowai, wherever he may go (laowai is the Chinese word for foreigner). I expect Mr. Levine to end up in this group one day, as well, and maybe then he’ll be more humble.

For those who graduated with degrees in China studies and have an honest, vested interest in the country paired with deep humility from having learned the language, Mr. Levine’s sort of article borders on offensive. Was he just trying to rile up the political feathers of those who claim that China has stolen American jobs? “If you don’t have a job, go to China” – and manifest destiny! Just be careful about getting into the language and culture; if you go too far, you might not qualify as Western enough to be employed.

This entry was published on January 11, 2012 at 9:14 am. It’s filed under Laowai and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

3 thoughts on “Unemployed in China: a Response to “Go East, Young Man”

  1. Pingback: East Asia Blog Round-Up : 15/1/2012 | Eye on East Asia

  2. I had very much the same reaction to reading Mr. Levine’s piece, and was surprised that the New York Times found it fit for publishing. Thank you for writing about the real situation so well, I’ll be sure to look into the earlier post.

  3. I stumbled upon your blog after reading your introduction of Misty Poetry on Seeing Red in China. I know you have abandoned writing in this blog, but if you still notice comments, I have a few questions. Maybe I am too young to understand, but I don’t really understand the cause for warning. The American you mentioned who speaks amazing Chinese, he came back and found what sounds like a stable job that allows him to use his language and culture knowledge, no? Maybe he wasn’t as Western as before, but it looks like that didn’t hurt his employment, right?

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