Escape ESL Hell: Stop Teaching and Land the Job You Want in China (In Ten Steps)

Recent graduates who speak English at a native or near-native level and come to China find that there is one type of job that they can find in abundance: teaching English.

It's easy to find jobs, the workplace is usually pretty relaxed, the hours aren't long, and the pay is good.

What's not to like? 

Well, for those who feel "trapped" teaching English, a lot.

For many ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers in China, teaching does not directly relate to their desired career path. They aren't looking to continue a career as a teacher when they return to their home country and many feel a sense of frustration as they try, oftentimes unsuccessfully, to break into an industry more closely aligned to their target career path.

If this is you, read on to learn SmartIntern's ten top tips to help you transition away from teaching English and into the career of your dreams in China.

(It goes without saying that this guide is not written for ESL professionals and those who are interested in pursuing teaching as a serious profession. If this is you, keep doing what you are doing!)

1. Expect to Earn Less

If you take a job or an internship in China instead of teaching English, you will almost certainly earn less money than if you were teaching. 

This means that, if you compare two positions (let's say a teaching gig and an internship) based only on salary, teaching English will almost always look like the better option.

After all, if you can make 15K RMB a month teaching English but only 7K RMB working at an entry-level job, you should take the job teaching English, right?


This is because the only correct comparison between two positions is the one that invokes opportunity cost. 

If you aren't familiar with opportunity cost, it is essentially the benefits you sacrifice by pursuing one opportunity over another.

For example, when calculating the true cost of college, you need to calculate  not only the amount of money required to pay for 4 years of university, but also the money that you could be earning at a job if you weren't in school every day for 4 years. 

The true cost college = (cost of college) + (sum of 4 years missed salary).

So what about the opportunity costs incurred by a recent college graduate in China who decides to take one job over another?

Let's say they are deciding between an entry-level position that doesn't pay well (the salary is 7K RMB a month) and a job teaching English that does (the salary is 15K RMB a month).

What are the opportunity costs of pursuing one opportunity over the other?

If you take the internship, you not only don't earn the 15K a month salary, but you also miss the other benefits that come from teaching. These might include improved interpersonal communication skills or further connections in the teaching industry.

If you take the teaching position, you earn the higher salary. This fact alone is enough to convince many in China to accept a teaching position, but it shouldn't be.

Because you also need to consider the benefits you miss (the opportunity cost) when you teach instead of take an internship. These missed benefits could a well-defined promotional track, rapid acquisition of skills, industry-specific networking, and any other benefits associated with the internship.

Everyone's goals are different so there is no one right way to approach this. The bests thing you can do is write down all of the benefits you project to come with a certain position before weighing them against one another in your decision.

Whatever you do, don't fall into the trap of hopping from language center to language center teaching English. Do this and you'll very likely be earning the same wage in 5 years that you are today, while costs in all of China's cities will have risen substantially and many of your peers climbed a few rungs up the proverbial "career ladder".

2. Start Baselining Your Costs

There are many ways to live quite well without a lot of money in a city like Shanghai, but it means you need to aware of your expenses. 

The first step towards reducing your costs is identifying what they are in the first place.

Even if you don't want to write out an elaborate budget, it is good to keep track of your costs so you can see where your money is being spent.

Instead of detailing how to set a budget (financial planners we are not), I'll just refer you to some helpful apps that can help you keep track of your monthly expenses:

Budgeting Apps

Moneywise Pro for Android

Budgt for iphone


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3. Find out How Much your Time is Worth

When you don't have a lot of money coming in, it can be easy to develop a scarcity mindset and resort to extreme penny-pinching and insane trades of time for money.

Would you add an hour on to your commute to save $3?

Some people would, even though time is the only truly scarce resource (you can always make more money; you can't make more time).

So while watching your expenses is important, an unwillingness to spend money can really be a setback.

The first step to effective time management is to attach a dollar (or whichever currency you choose) value to one hour of your time, even if you aren't earning much money right now.

How much is an hour of your time worth?

(This isn't an exact science- just pick a number.)

Let's say that you estimated an hour of your time is worth $10.

Now envision a scenario in which you can take a cab for $10 or a bus for $5 to get to your destination. The only difference between the two is the prices and, and, oh yeah, the time:

The cab takes 30 minutes while the bus takes two hours.

What do you do?

Well, if you value your time at $10 an hour, the answer is clear- you take the taxi because the extra money you pay ($5) compensates for the time you save (an hour and a half, which is $15 worth of your time. You thus effectively "save" $10 by taking the taxi. 

So if you have the opportunity to earn 500 RMB a day at a job with a two hour round-trip commute, or earn 400 RMB a day at a job with a 20 minute commute, depending on the amount of value you attach to your time, you might want to take the lower paying job with the better commute. It's counter-intuitive but it works. 

save time, not money

Image courtesy of xkcd

Finally, when in China, don't make the mistake of buying the cheapest products in order to save money. Yes, you can get a set of headphones for 20 RMB from somebody on the street, but how long do you think those are going to last? 

I can tell you from personal experience that investment in quality products, especially when it comes to electronics, which actually cost you less money in the medium-term. Invest in quality equipment upfront, and perhaps most importantly, invest in your health. I spend money every month on a nootropic stack that includes a kind of MCT oil because the mental clarity and energy makes it a no-brainer investment.

Eat the higher upfront cost and enjoy ownership of a quality product.

4. Manage Your Time Like a Boss

In the age of internet and constant cat photos, time management is essential. Either you run your day, or your day runs you.

And if you are looking for a job, then you know how true the following adage is:

"Looking for a job is a full-time job."

The first step towards treating your job hunt as a full-time job is to make sure that you are maximizing the limited amount of time that you have available to you.

Following are some tools that we have found effective at keeping us focused on the task(s) at hand:

Pomodairo Timer- The Pomodoro Technique is a time management technique that was developed in the 1980s. Basically, it breaks work into highly focused, 25 minute intervals interspersed with 5 minute breaks. You can try different variations as well, like working for 50 minutes with a 10 minute break in between.

Rescue Time- If you find yourself regularly visiting sites that aren't serving your objectives- stop! Of course, this is easier said than done, and luckily there are a few tools that can help. 

Rescue Time allows you to track your web usage so you can track where exactly your time is going (YouTube cat videos?). It also has a website blocker that you can use to block distracting websites for pre-set periods of time.

OF course, you can always just cut to the chase and de-activate your facebook account (don't worry, you can re-activate it at any time).

Freedom- You can use Freedom to block your access to the internet for a pre-determined amount of time. Once you determine the amount of time you want to work offline, there is nothing you can do to change it- you are offline until that period of time expires.

Momentum- Momentum is a Chrome browser extension that replaces the default view you get when you open a new window or tab with an inspiring, high resolution photo and customized message. Change your message when you log on in the morning to reflect your goals for the day. For example, if you are applying for jobs you might set, "Send out 20 job applications today" as the default message.

In addition to managing your time aggressively, maintain consistent working hours and focus only on the tasks that drive results. Submitting your resume to dozens of sites like in a scattershot fashion might feel productive ("I've sent my resume out over a hundred times today") but be honest with yourself and track whether you are actually getting responses and double down on that tactic.

5. Outsource What You Can Afford To

Outsourcing can actually save you money almost immediately, so don't tell yourself that you "aren't there yet".

Even $100 USD paid to a virtual assistant can make a huge difference in your life and free up dozens of hours of time. 

Maintain your habit of valuing your time and focus on spending it on the tasks that bring you results. Outsource the other stuff.

Following is just one example of how you can use outsourcing to your advantage.

How outsourcing Made My House Hunt Even Cheaper

I recently decided to rent a new apartment in Shanghai. 

I regularly checked listings on SmartShanghai but finding the right place was taking more time than I had available.

Here is how quickly the hours were adding up:

For a week straight, I would spend around 20 minutes checking new postings and contacting house owners. That's 140 minutes (over two hours!).

During this week I also went to visit 3 properties, all of which turned out not to fit my qualifications.

One was being leased by an agent, another was simply not as new as advertised.

These three trips took 5 hours.

One week and over 7 hours of time wasted. 

I HATE wasting time.

So I decided to outsource the process. 

The goal I set for a VA (virtual assistant) was to find ten listings that met a basic set of criteria.

The house had to be in a certain area, less than a certain price, and in a certain type of building. 

I was also curious about the low-end of the housing market, so I tasked my VA with finding the cheapest housing she could in or close to the Former French Concession.

My friend EB recommended her and hired her on Elance at the rate of $4/hour.

A few days later I had a set of fifteen listings, all meeting my criteria.

Total cost? 

$8 on elance.

Total savings?

I can't say for sure, but probably at least 4 hours of my time (finding 15 suitable listings took Sally, our VA, two hours would have taken me at least double that amount of time, as I don't have the expertise in Chinese-language housing classifieds that she does).

I discovered that you can even uncover studio apartments in the FFC (Former French Concession) for less than 3,000 yuan a month.

Allegedly, at least. In China, it is common practice for agents to appealing fake listings in order to attract prospects and get their contact information. For this reason, it is really important that you vet the property in person first. I can't attest to whether these properties are as good as advertised or as to whether they even exist.

Anyway, here are some of the cheapest, most centrally located apartments I could find. Maybe you can book one :)

This apartment on Fuxing Xi Lu (复兴西路) in the Former French Concession is looking for a girl to move into an empty room for 2,800 yuan a month.

This studio apartment (56 square meters) on Gao'An lu (高安路) looks to be recently renovated and is located right by Shanghai Library. The cost? 2,500 yuan a month.

This spot on Wuyuan lu (五原路) has a price-tag of only 1,700 RMB a month. It's not clear whether this is just a room being rented out or if it's the entire apartment, but it looks like it could be a pretty great deal. 

The point is, even if it's just having somebody compile the best SmartShanghai listings for you, it might be worth it to outsource this task.

If you hire somebody with local knowledge and they can find a property that saves you 100 RMB a month over the course of a year, you have basically just spent around 100 RMB (to pay this virtual assistant) to save 1200 RMB. That trade-off sounds pretty good to me!

Housefinding Tools

How to rent an apartment in Shanghai- A guide to apartment hunting from the Sapore di China blog

SmartShanghai Housing Classifieds- The go-to resource for most things in Shanghai, housing included

Outsourcing Tools

oDesk- The low end of the freelance market. Some people on oDesk will work for as low as fifty cents an hour.

Elance- Similar to oDesk but less of a reputation as a cheap labor place.

Virtual Staff Finder- If you are running a business or have more work than you can handle in Shanghai (and a healthy salary) you may consider Virtual Staff Finder. You'll pay a $395 USD finder's fee plus a monthly salary of at least $350 a month, but those who are generating some nice cash either on their own or in a salaried position will probably reap a solid ROI (return on investment).

Get More Househunting Tips in our Weekly Newsletter:


6. Identify Your Strengths

While you may have an idea of what you like and don't like to do, you probably still have a lot to learn about yourself.

I know I do.

Identifying your strengths, weaknesses, and what it is you actually like doing (easier said than done) will allow you to search strategically for the right job.

Below is just the tip of the iceberg.

Myers-Briggs Test- This is the original and still most widely-used personality test. You'll have to pay to take the original version, but you can take the Jung Typology Test here. It's slightly different from the Myers-Briggs but will still provide you with insight into your personality type.

Strengths Finder- You have to pay ten dollars to take this test, but what it reveals to you about yourself might save you months or even years in time. Similar to the Myers-Briggs but far more actionable.

7. Build a Skillset In Six Months or Less

Once you identify a few areas that you think you might like to work in, it's time to further explore them and begin building a skillset.

In 2014, there are no excuses for not knowing how to do something. After all, you have the sum of humanity's knowledge at your fingertips in the internet.

Work hard at acquiring a skill and after six months you'll be competent enough to market it to potential employers and earn at least a part-time income should you use it to freelance.

So instead of falling back on the great big excuse of grad school, teach yourself a marketable skill for 1/10 the cost and start getting paid.

Following are a few resources that can get you started. They all have various fee structures, but before diving into a course on any one we recommend starting with some YouTube tutorials on the subject of your choice to see how you like it.





8. Build a Portfolio

Once you have started to build a skillset in a particular area, it is time to start putting those skills to work by participating in interesting projects. 

Potential employers WILL absolutely search your name, and they will be looking for more than just a facebook page. 

They want to see some of the work that you have been involved in.

If you are a computer programmer, getting involved in interesting, open source projects is easy- just check out out what interesting projects there are on Github or Monitor Nerds and get involved.

If you are a writer, make sure that your work gets published in a few different publications. 

A marketer? Put up a portfolio site explaining some of the projects you have been involved in in the past.

Get an internship working for an online personality who you admire. Make yourself their unofficial intern. Kind of like what you did with finding a mentor- make yourself to be of such persistent value that the person realizes you won't just "go away". At the end of it, you'll have plenty of experience and maybe even a job.

Trust us, those who are doing anything online are hiring in their immediate network well before they are hiring from a stack of resumes.

Resources for Building Your Online Portfolio

Bluehost Hosting



Learn How to Build Your Brand Effectively in our Weekly Newsletter: 


9. Get on LinkedIn


Next to your resume, LinkedIn is the single most important tool you could be using to get yourself a job outside of teaching.

Your LinkedIn Headline

Next to your photo, your headline is arguably the most important part of your LinkedIn profile. It essentially sums up who you are, what you do, and what your current position is. It is also one of the first, and only, things that someone will see when they make a search within LinkedIn. It is thus important to craft a headline that stands out from the rest.

Here are some examples of headlines that we like:

Why we like it: This highly creative title vividly describes what this person does- they live to product content.

Why we like it: She describes her specific area of expertise (#1 publicity expert on Google) and provides a

call-to-action ("Call & ask how I can help you with PR & social media").

Why we like it: Ed is not just a "writer", he is a "wordsmith" who clearly articulates the chief benefit of

his service, which is that he translates "business objectives into communications strategies and tactics".

Why we like it: This person uses arrows and stars in her profile to pique interest and attention.

The "read on" also entices the user (perhaps a recruiter) to click on her profile.

Why we like it: Nice use of an arrow icon, and a clear explanation of what exactly they do.

Build your personal brand but don't get caught up doing this. In the marketplace for employees, your true value is the value that you can create with others. So have a clear and compelling value proposition like the people's whose linkedin profiles we are highlighting below, but ulimately you should be focusin on getting out there and networking and creating value for other people in your network.

10. Leverage the Network Effect

the network effect at work

With each new connection you add, the value of your network increases exponentially, not linearly. 

In plain English, that means that, when you add somebody to your personal network, you in turn get access to all of their connections as well. 

This is HUGE. 

While most people recognize (or at least pay lip service to) networking, most of them do it totally wrong.


They ask when they should be giving.

Don't be that person who only gets in touch with somebody when they want something. People can smell that from a mile away.

Effective networking means building and maintaining relationships and offering value up front.

So figure out how you can help somebody and then actually (here's the secret) DO IT. 

Connect the people in your network who might benefit from one another.

They'll remember you for it.

And oh yeah- find a mentor.

Networking Tools


Shanghai Meetups


SmartIntern's video on how to network in Shanghai

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About the Author
Author: Brandon

Hi, I'm Brandon! I'm SmartIntern's co-founder and a native of California. I'm interested in all things tech, emerging markets, and writing. When I'm not working on SmartIntern, I like to skateboard through the streets of Shanghai and uncover the city's best hole-in-the-wall noodle joints.

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