There is a certain appeal in the thought of teaching overseas: the adventure, the travel opportunities, the ability to immerse yourself in a new culture different from your own, and the good vibrations knowing you've helped improve someone's life for the better. For many newly qualified English teachers, China is the first port of call when securing a position to work abroad.
China is often hailed as one of the leading destinations for English teachers and rightfully so. Its rapidly expanding economy has dramatically increased the amount of available positions for teachers, which each provide different standards of living and qualities of life based on its location. It is therefore important for English teachers to become familiar with Chinese tiers, which is how cities are arranged in the country. They closely reflect the economic and social development of the area and this subsequently has a knock-on effect on the amount of teaching opportunities available to candidates in the tier. However, this doesn't mean that opportunities only exist in tier one. While there are generally more positions available and more comfortable surroundings for newly qualified teachers in the first tier, this comfort level comes at a significant cost that could otherwise be avoided and it would be wise for teachers to consider locations further afield when teaching English in China.
There's no doubt that new English teachers will have heard of the cities in the first tier and have likely seen job advertisements offering very attractive figures for the Chinese TEFL market. While it can be tempting to agree to one of these well-paid positions, it is very important to note that there is a significant cost of living difference when compared to the subsequent tiers in China.
Accommodation will be a teacher's biggest cost in the first tier with a room in a shared apartment costing around 4,000 RMB (570 USD). Private one bedroom apartments are often found for 5,500 RMB (785 USD) and this figure can sometimes be up to half of a newly qualified English teacher's salary. Utilities including gas and electricity will add another 500 RMB per month (70 USD per month) in the most populated cities. Unfortunately, those who are thrifty and concerned with saving while teaching overseas will find private accommodation costs prohibitively expensive in the first tier and the cost often exceeds comparable small apartments in large cities around the world.
Perhaps one of the biggest draws to the first tier is the vast availability of familiar brands and creature comforts. There is indeed a safety net in knowing teaching English abroad doesn't mean sacrificing at-home luxuries because popular shops and restaurants are all widely available in tier one. They are competitively priced with both British and American standards, too. For example, a value meal at McDonalds will cost roughly 30 RMB (4.20 USD). However, those who are willing to explore local restaurants will find prices slashed in half for comparable portion sizes of authentic Chinese cuisine. Teachers needn't give up any love of the cinema either as in China feature films from home are rotated on a monthly basis. Tickets cost 30-60 RMB (4.20 - 8.50 USD) depending on the cinema and its location.
Transportation isn't expensive within any tier in China, but there are price differences across the tiers. It isn't unusual for teachers to opt for private taxis to avoid the crowds of public transportation and the metre rates will begin at 14 RMB (2 USD) and cost 3 RMB (0.43 USD) for each kilometre travelled in the first tier. This cost is usually reduced by a quarter in the second and third tiers.
When an English teacher wants to experience China, then it's arguably more immersive to leave the popular tourist destinations found in the first tier and opt for a second or third tier city. Here, the local appeal of China will be found in greater concentrations than what would be found in the first tier. However, it does mean local English speakers are fewer and further between. Because of this, English teachers should consider learning conversational Mandarin before travelling to a second or third tier Chinese city. Teaching English in the second and third tiers is likely to come accompanied by a language barrier and culture shock due to there being fewer foreigners and international companies here, but it also comes with a significant cost difference. The differences make the second and third tiers very budget-friendly options for new teachers.
Accommodation prices are drastically reduced in the second and third tiers and allow English teachers to save substantial amounts or even be more liberal with an entertainment budget by exploring the upmarket nightlife. A private apartment will cost an average of 1,500 – 2,000 RMB per month (214 – 285 USD per month) with utilities reduced to 300 RMB (42 USD). Teachers can expect to pay up to 30% less for accommodation than they would in tier one.
English teachers will find the availability of international shops and restaurants reduced in these areas, but this reduction does provide an excellent opportunity to explore the local commercial districts with full course restaurant meals costing 18 RMB (2.50 USD) and cinema tickets on the lower end of the price bracket. Teachers could even opt for a high-end restaurant experience and will only pay roughly 120 RMB (17.15 USD) for the privilege. Comparably, Shanghai and other first tier cities offer this experience with prices beginning at 200 RMB (28.50 USD).
There are many reasons that teachers should consider second and third tier cities over the first. While newly qualified teachers may find the experience a bit daunting, there are very interesting and financially lucrative positions to be had within the region and its position in the Chinese economy means it is only growing stronger by the day. Now is the time to seize this ideal opportunity!