Is it still worth moving abroad to mainland China for work even considering the recent spate of Chinese nationalism and growing conflict with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands?
Young Americans are still moving there for work today, but should they? Hard to say.
It is difficult to outright recommend moving to and working in mainland China, even when my own personal experience implies it would be a great professional choice for a young American looking for a fresh career start in a slowly recovering domestic job market. Living and working in China ends up meaning very different things to different people.
So in this blog post I'll do my best to relate my own personal experience of working in China as a formerly young, unattached, non-home owning or family having American in the effort of giving those thinking about working in China some idea of what to expect and what might be gained... or lost by doing so.
A Boring Cubicle Career
When I moved to China in January of 2006, I was bored and China was relatively conflict free on the international scene. Here in the United States, I was bored with my job, bored with my lifestyle, and in serious need of a change of pace. I was after something I didn't know I would find, and I didn't know exactly what it was I was looking for other than a challenge.
I was not challenged at my first job out of college. I was a quality assurance engineer at an educational toy company based out of Los Gatos, California. I worked in a cubicle, playing with toys, making sure they were safe, their English was correct, and that there would be no pieces small enough for a child to swallow and die.
Coming off of an English degree in college and graduating at the ripe old age of 24, I took the quality assurance gig not because it was what I wanted my profession to be, but because it was offered to me two weeks after graduation, and for what I thought was a decent starting salary for a position right out of college. And toys! I could play with toys and get paid.
Three years, a small raise, and hundreds of toys later, I was driven to the brink of my professional tolerance. Not because the company I worked for was bad, but because I finally realized it wasn't for me.
My solution was to uproot myself from my career -- and life -- comfort zone and to really challenge myself. There seemed no better way to do this than to head overseas, and back in 2005 Shanghai, China seemed to me a vibrant and alien experience brimming with opportunity.
I sold my car, sold my possessions, quit my job and moved in with my family for three months to save cash and get my affairs in order. I was moving to Shanghai, I had no job lined up when I got there, and a room in an apartment of a friend of mine that lived in Shanghai who I played Xbox Live with.
If it sounds a bit risky, that's because it was, even without international conflicts and rising Chinese nationalism. There is never, ever a "sure thing," and as well as things have turned out for me because of my personal decision to move to China and change things up, that experience can't be replicated solely based on the fact one thinks moving to China is a sure-fire way to start a successful career or find a new one.
Because it isn't.
Abundance of Opportunity?
There are many opportunities to be had by pursuing a business, a new profession, a new way of life by heading East. I've had friends start bars, artist co-ops, and restaurants. But those opportunities aren't handed to you, and even if success is achieved, those successes can sometimes be taken away.
A New York Times op-ed from January by Jonathan Levine, a lecturer in American studies and English at Tsinghua University in Beijing, titled "Go East, Young Man" greatly oversimplified the "abundance of jobs" available in China. Yes, if you're an English speaker and light skinned, you're going to get work at a language school.
I say "and light skinned" because that is exactly what you see in the schools in China, and what the private schools look for when hiring teachers. They know many Chinese parents equate (at least in 2006, 2007) a good English language education for their child with being taught by a blonde haired white teacher.
There was one teacher at the first school I worked at from South Africa who was an unapologetic racist and who would continually berate her Chinese assistant staff members. The school would tolerate it because this horrible woman looked great in school photos and the parents demanded she teach their student's classes.
I started off my time in China as an English teacher because of the exact reasons nearly every other expat English teacher picks up the job in China: It was ridiculously easy to get, I made decent money, and I didn't have to work many hours. I could explore Shanghai and live comfortably with relatively low work stress.
My first year I spent teaching English at a variety of schools. Some more legit than others. All of them usually willing to help you do a business or tourist visa run or forge a Canadian Diploma for those without credentials when the time came (I had my credentials.) Which, in the last year has become more difficult due to the Chinese government cracking down on "illegal foreign nationals."
Teaching English as a profession in China is another story in itself, and there is no lack of blogs to be found with "laowais" (foreigners) relating their teaching experiences. The point is, while there is an "abundance" of teaching jobs in China, it's hard to recommend teaching English as a long term career choice in China, and those "abundant jobs" Jonathan Levine speaks of should come with a huge disclaimer: WARNING! Actual job might not be what you expect!
Doing Things "By The Book"
The thing to understand about living and working in China is that even if you try to do things "by the book," in the first place, there really is no such thing as "by the book." The book that you go by is the whim of whatever Chinese government official it is you're dealing with at the time and his or her willingness to work with you, or not.
After working as a teacher under the wrong visas during my first year, I reached a point where I wanted to do things "by the book," do things the right way, and give up teaching for something that would push me in a career direction that I could do more with when I left China, as I knew I eventually would.
It would have been easy to carry on in the lifestyle I had during that first year, and many like me in a similar situation choose to do exactly that. After freelance writing for a local website, doing some voice acting for a Nanjing Brocade Museum, and writing scripts for children's audio learning courses, I set out to see what I could find and ended up as an editor for a small, newly launched Shanghai English-language lifestyle magazine.
I had no real previous editorial experience, but my then boss took a chance on me based on the effort I put into applying for the position and my potential, something that would have been doubly hard to do here in the United States with no experience. To get the same level position here, I would have needed to have two to three years of related experience.
Working for that magazine was the best professional opportunity to ever happen to me, taking nothing away from my last company or The Huffington Post! I had to start somewhere, and that somewhere was at that small publication in Shanghai.
In the year I was (legally) employed for the magazine I worked what I now estimate to be at least three years worth of editorial experience. I also got to do ridiculous things like pose for the cover of the magazine in a chef outfit, have candles stuck in my ears, and get paid to go paint-balling and sprint-carting.
When I left China I left with experience that would have been twice as hard to get here, and a new career in editorial and professional direction. Unfortunately, I returned to the US of A in 2008 at the start of The Great Recession.
Foot In The Door
Even with that experience in my belt, It took me a year to find solid work back home. When I did manage to find a job, it again took me to Asia, but for a major media company looking to start a new lifestyle and travel website based out of Hong Kong. My deep Shanghai lifestyle editorial experience got my foot in the door as an associate editor.
That experience launching a major media branded website in Asia got my other foot in the door at HuffPost as Senior Travel Editor, and that experience has led me to Senior Editor, Huffington Post.
I can trace back my professional path to that decision to move to Shanghai at the end of 2005.
There was opportunity in China for me. My risky decision paid off, it's worked out for others, and it hasn't worked out at all for some. The thing about China is that there are opportunities if you've got the drive to really go for it and not get caught up in the ease at which you appear to be able to live there, or don't take advantage of the real opportunities that might come up.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
For many foreigners living in China, they eventually come to a realization they will never be fully accepted, fully integrated into the Chinese culture. They will always be foreigners. Where we as Americans have a history of assimilating different nationalities and cultures, the China as it exists today is rife with nationalism. Things can turn sour at the drop of a hat or an island, and whatever gains and successes you achieve in China in career and business, it should be a given that you have your "escape plan" in place for when that day of "China fatigue" hits you and you're ready to move on. And that day will more than likely come. For some it's a few months, for others years.
So should you "Go East, Young Man/Woman" for work? For a new career start? If you have the desire, the true desire, to get after it and make it count for something then yes, make the jump. But don't be ignorant of the current political scene in China and their attitudes towards foreigners.
If you're a lost soul and looking for an escape from your emotional baggage and expect moving to China will cure all -- including a lack of motivation -- then no, there's nothing China can do for you.
My best advice is to not be naive and think things will be a cakewalk, understand you're going into a different culture and many things won't be easy (in business and life.) Unlike myself, set a goal for yourself before you go on what exactly you want to achieve as a result of your experience, and don't shut yourself away in an expat bubble. Get to know the culture and the Chinese way of life, learn the language and don't be an asshole. It's not your country and you're a visitor.
There is success to be found, but achieving that success is up to you. China isn't going to give it to you. If you want your China success to last beyond your time in China, then you have to earn it.
Here are some of my favorite websites to read up on China:
Tealeafnation.com: Making sense of China through social media
WSJ China Real Time Report: Business, lifestyle and China issues
Chinasmack.com: Translating what's trending on the Chinese Internet so you don't have to.
Shanghaiist.com: Shanghai and China related news and views.
Asiaexpat.com: A stable classified English board for the region.
If you're looking for teaching positions, then Google is your friend and as things change so quickly, my sources for reliable information on teaching information are a bit out of date. Do your research, it's all out there!