From years of experience, Canadian expat and Tsinglan School teacher Christopher Hewetson shares his honest thoughts on working in China as an international teacher.
Why did you become a teacher?
Before I came to China, I was working in the finance sector. That’s a rough job—you’re on 24/7, you’re always looking for clients, you’re always looking for people to invest with you. It was great career-wise, but I just wasn’t passionate about it. I worked for quite some time with a lot of kids. I started working with them when I was 19. I started coaching, [and I] helped out with basketball [and] hockey. I actually worked with disabled kids as well. Those were the best days I’ve had. Sometimes, you wake up and hear bad news. But then you go to work with a little kid [who] doesn’t know this, or they love you almost unconditionally. And they would make you a note, saying, “I miss you.” It gives back as much as you give to it.
Why did you come to China?
I wanted to come to Korea in my 20s. I visited Korea and friends of mine for a few months. I was like, “This is a great life.” I wanted to give it a shot because I loved working with kids. So, I was [thinking]: “How do I get paid more to work with kids and become a teacher?” I was going to go to Korea, but then my grandpa suggested that I had to learn Chinese, and China’s going to become a powerhouse. My grandpa’s the smartest guy in the family—he’s a physicist—so I couldn’t really go against my grandpa. He was kind of subtly sending me newspaper articles [about China].
How was your initial job-hunting journey upon coming to China?
I spent a few months looking for a job. I got a TEFL certification like most teachers does to get started. Then I found a training center in a tier-four city, here in Guangdong province. It was called Jan—loved it, great place to work. I worked with kids of all ages. I started with little four- to five-year-olds and up to high school kids that wanted to improve their English.
What are the pros and cons of being a teacher in China?
If you’re looking to teach internationally, this is like a sweet spot. You get paid a good salary, you can save a lot, you get a lot of respect from teachers and students. It’s [also] the Chinese culture. You’re considered by the parents as a third parent—that’s how much respect. It definitely does have its disadvantages. There’s more pressure and expectations on you. We work hard. People think that we teachers work 168 days a year. Well, we’re doing much more than 168 days a year. We’re doing 12 hours a day, we’re doing weekends. There’s a lot of additional hours that people don’t see that we actually put in. Like, we don’t just teach art classes, and that’s it we’re done. We have to grade and prep. We have to continue our homeroom duties. So, there’s a lot of work that goes into being a teacher.
What is your opinion on the mix of local students and the third culture Chinese kids in Tsinglan?
Some kids are born abroad. It’s very unique, because they’re coming back to China. In some cases—not all—their English is better than their Chinese. So, they’re not having the typical struggle that some of our local kids have where their Chinese [level] is so high and they need help with English. Some kids would much rather have a conversation with the international teachers, because [they are] a native English speaker. Some of them speak four languages. Some of them speak Spanish, Chinese, English, and then a local dialect that their parents have taught them. [Some of them may have] also adapted to a local language and made it into their language.
As an expat living in China, what is something specific that you miss back home in Canada?
I miss having a backyard. We all live in apartments here. [As teachers, we] get housing allowance from the school, and I found an apartment. I’ve been [living] two and a half years at that apartment. I have a great relationship with my landlord, beautiful 127-meter-square. I’m Canadian, so I need space. There’s only two of us—me and my wife—but I need space.
What is your advice for teachers coming to China?
From the years of experience that I’ve had, the advice that I would probably give is to study the culture. Chinese people have had five thousands of years of history, and they want you to know about it. It’s always good to know what you’re getting into. You’re going to have a culture shock. Try to bring some of those home comforts. For me, I miss certain things at home that I just can’t get here, whether it’s clothing or food. You can get everything here [in China], but unfortunately, it’s different sizes or it’s not as authentic.