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Your English degree may mean nothing here, but you can make it in China

In spite of the over sixty thousand Americans already teaching English in China, English teaching is still the most popular and the most sorely needed position for foreigners. As a result, China has become an excellent place for the wayward liberal arts educated westerner to begin their life.

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story and photography
by Andy Cushman

I am standing in Scarlet’s, the most popular club in Nanjing. All around me lights are flashing while hip Chinese in their goofy club garb pound Heinekens, and drunken cops moonlighting as club security shake their asses to a bass-heavy techno remix of John Denver’s “Country Road.” As I try to approach the bar, I battle my way through a horde of exuberant youths, one even grabbing my hand and jumping up and down to O-Zone’s “Dragostea Din Tea” (better known as the “Numa Numa” song). When I finally cross the floor, I spy a ring of Americans around the bar. I have found it: the Nanjing English teacher’s underground, an increasingly familiar sight in the new Chinese prosperity.
A major part of today’s often-discussed global economy is the growing, and (for the present foreseeable future) seemingly interminable trade partnership between the United States and China. This relationship has flourished since 1998, when President Clinton made the then controversial decision to assign China the “most favored nation” trading status.

The status provided a massive reduction in trade tariffs, and China’s economy has soared as a result. Chinese citizens of all stripes have frequently told me that Clinton is a great man. One apartment I stayed at had a copy of Hillary Clinton’s Living History (the only western book on their shelves). And, though I never personally saw it, I was informed that some Chinese families display portraits of Clinton in their living rooms as many Germans used to with the likeness of former President John F. Kennedy.

The drastic change in the Chinese economic status has caused an immediate need for a complete overhaul of the work force, as the developing nation rushes to turn foremen into office managers and farmers into data entry personnel. Many Chinese now seek American educations to expedite the economic renovation, and many Chinese businessmen now need to make frequent trips back and forth across the pacific.

At the same time, Chinese media and contemporary design lag behind by western standards. Most Chinese advertising is hilarious, albeit quite inspired in a grass-roots sort of way; it is not uncommon to see a photo from a Versace ad re-appropriated to advertise any number of bizarre things, from food to housing. Somewhat-attractive western tourists are scouted off the streets in shopping districts to model as glamorous figures for Chinese fashion ads. Contemporary television in China boasts sub-Ghostbusters-quality special effects, and simply owning a Macintosh computer and the Adobe Creative Suite seems to place one on par with the first-rate Chinese design studios.
While we hear horror stories every day about suspected spies, or threats regarding Taiwan, it is not much different from what CCTV (the major Chinese network) says about Americans. but, despite of militaristic chest pounding, the average Chinese person really does love the average American.

To some this love may be for purely monetary reasons; more than once I was given a thumbs-up followed by an “America! Fifty billion trade! So good! So strong!” Many drinks were bought for me by thirty-something Chinese men who have suddenly found themselves whisked off of assembly lines and into high-rise buildings earning twice the salary they did five years ago. Among professionals there is a tangible sense of optimism unheard of in the States these days, and an unprecedented feeling of brotherhood towards the west.
Others have romanticized our culture the same way much of the western world traditionally has viewed the French: a doorman at Beijing’s Jade Palace hotel explained to me that he thought English was a beautiful language, and that he dreamed of both being a translator one day and of writing English poetry. From cowboys to a Humphrey Bogart-era sense of style and golden retrievers to hip hop; in spite of growing anti-American sentiment throughout much of the western world, we are hot in China.

For better or worse, this situation causes a massive (we are talking about a population that exceeds the United States’ by over one billion people) demand for English teachers, and American style. The demand has caused English speakers of all sorts to come to China in droves, seeking promises of free housing, relatively massive stipends coupled with a far cheaper cost of living, and a huge amount of worldly experience. The supply still falls far short of the demand, however, which would be impossible to supply with westerners alone. In spite of the over sixty thousand Americans already teaching English in China, English teaching is still the most popular and the most sorely needed position for foreigners. As a result, China has become an excellent place for the wayward liberal arts educated westerner to begin their life.

Back in Scarlet’s and screaming over the music, I discuss the experiences of the ex-patriot teachers since arriving. They are quite popular here, and the club gives them (and all westerners) their own drink special to help attract more to the intense Chinese club scene. One of them, a man named Chris from San Diego, seems to be well aware of the local ex-pat scene. Over the course of several drunken hours he told me many things: of Triad gang fights complete with swords and axes, of dealing with the Chinese police who are surprisingly lax when dealing with foreigners, and, most importantly, how to make a living in China.

Chris tells me he entered naval intelligence after graduating college, and they, in turn, sent him to the military language school where he was taught fluency in Chinese. After he completed his tour, he joined one of many English teaching programs that are now sprouting up all over Asia.

Though fluency (or even a firm grasp) of Chinese is hardly a requirement for the teachers, his pay as a fluent Chinese-speaking, native English speaker is already greater than a Chinese neurosurgeon’s. That, coupled with his salary as a club manager, grants him a lifestyle in China roughly on par with NBA star Yao Ming’s. Chris owns property, a nice car, and all the Japanese electronics he could ever want. He has a hot Chinese girlfriend, and he is still several years shy of turning thirty. What is the best part, in his eyes? The cost of living in China is so low (the average Chinese salary is roughly $1500 a year) that when he returns to America he will return a wealthy man in spite of the exchange rate.

As I mentioned earlier, Chinese design is somewhat lacking in sophistication and technology, to say the least. The scale of hipness in a Chinese clothes store is often seemingly determined by the amount and quality of English that is displayed on the clothes. Ranging from bottom-of-the-barrel knock-offs broadcasting “Dolce & Gababanarbr” to their more eloquent, if extremely cryptic, club wear slogans—a shirt I purchased for my roommate proudly proclaims “Bernings-Sho: The Groove of Supreme Bliss that the Unknown Sense and Intelligence” (yeah, I don’t get it either). English is clearly in demand in the design world as well as the professional one.
A week after my adventure with the Nanjing English teacher’s underground, I am sitting in the smoker’s lounge of Shanghai’s international airport surrounded by chain-smoking businessmen in pinstriped suits. The door opens and a gorgeous, fashionably dressed young Western woman in her mid-twenties walks in. She introduces herself as Laurel Griffin of Boulder, Colorado, and explains that she is a fashion designer for an Italian clothing designer based out of Hong Kong.

Laurel arrived here a few years ago and has quickly become part of the fast-paced Hong Kong design scene. She is friends with major art scene figures up and down the coast, and was in the process of retuning from one of her frequent business trips to the mainland when I ran into her. She is enjoying her life in Hong Kong, whose history as an English colony makes it somewhat more navigable for Americans.

Forgoing a start in the saturated New York or Paris markets has provided her a great deal of professional experience, much better wages, and a much more interesting life than working as a Starbucks barista during the week and as a voluntary ass-kisser on the weekends in some obscure corner of Manhattan. Despite the unavoidable initial culture shock, she is visibly more satisfied with her career than practically anyone my age that I have met in New York.
Perhaps you don’t want to be rich, perhaps you don’t want an apartment packed to the ceiling with stuff or a new car but, you still want to eat, right? Your health care already sucks, right? Would you rather pay five hundred dollars a month in rent, or forty? If your answer to these questions is yes or even if you are wondering, “What am I going to do with myself in six months?” perhaps you should consider giving the world’s largest scene a chance.


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