Living in China vs USA: One Teacher’s Perspective

This is an interesting topic and clearly costs as well as income are a concern (and motivation) for everyone. With that said, motivation for doing anything, including what we choose to do for our work and where we choose to live, is different for everyone.

I am American and I come from the northern California, San Francisco Bay Area. It is said my area of the US is the most expensive area for cost of living, even more than New York City! I worked in the Financial Technology industry and most immediately as a recruiter for a firm that specialized in technology. Compensation for my previous positions was very good and high to be sure and likewise the cost of living (rent, taxes, food, fuel, etc) was also quite high. Comparison of salary and cost of living between there and here is drastic and, on some level and in many ways, not easily comparable because so many things are so very different.

In the ESL/EFL industry here in China it is difficult to Google statistics about age and pay. I will share what I have experienced since being in China and working at 3 different schools and what I know relating to age, earnings, and cost of living. Let me also say, that when we sign our employment contract agreements with our schools, they are private and we are urged to maintain confidentiality about financial details, and to not speak about them to other teachers. This is also true in the US when we make an agreement to work for any company.

In my experience in two different provinces and at 3 different schools the average age of teachers is around 32 years old, though there is a higher number of younger early 20 somethings with the 1 or two 40+ year old’s that raises the average age. The starting monthly pay range varies approximately from $1143 – $1430 at all three locations regardless of teacher age and experience. At EF there are two business types one is the corporate owned schools and then there are the independent franchise owned schools. All of the locations I refer to are franchise owned schools which provide accommodations for foreign teachers. Teachers working for a corporate owned school with EF, in bigger cities like Shanghai or Beijing where a teacher will have to secure your own apartment, will be paid higher salaries. Also, all schools typically pay local and national taxes on your behalf, and the quoted salary range here is after tax. Also, there are immediate and then recurring annual expenses for visa and residency for all foreigners and most companies incur these expenses. It is also fair to mention that most all ESL companies do provide a travel benefit which is basically the value of your return ticket home (this can be paid annually or bi-annually depending on the school). Also, some schools will pay a portion of monthly utilities and wifi for your apartment and there could also be a bonus system at your school for various metrics the school is aiming to achieve. So with all this said, it is a good idea to be clear about your ‘package’ which includes all compensation and payments (salary, bonuses, payments of services on your behalf, etc.) before you sign your agreement.
Here is a breakdown comparison of cost of living (including median general salary and rent) in US dollars for easier comparison. Keep in mind that cost of living from your community in the States may be lower or higher depending on where you come from and your current industry. I am also including the basic food stuff we tend to consider staples back home (bread, milk, eggs) and cell phone and basic utilities (water, electric, gas). I did Google searches for average US salary/costs based on single person. For the numbers on China, I have based them on my experience with cost of utilities and food stuffs. I did not include longtime work experience in an industry or a specific location within the US or China. Also, usually companies increase your annual salary every year you remain with them here in China.

 

US Average China
Average Income (single) $2500 $1430 – $2600
Rent $1400 $200 Or Company provided
Utilities $200 $21
Cell Phone $80 $7
Dozen Eggs $2 $1.50
Bread $2.50 $2
Gallon of Milk $3.50 $5

*These figures are impacted in both countries according to region and size of city, and industry.

 
These are rough averages because in the US and China, the cost of living is much higher in larger metropolitan areas than in small cities, oft times this holds true for salaries as well. Here in the world of ESL teaching often companies provide a single bedroom or shared apartment while paying a lower salary. If the company doesn’t provide the apartment, the salary is higher. If you opt to find your own apartment or your company requires you to find your own digs, here in China rent is often paid bi-annually or annually so the impact on cashflow is different and this important to know before you come to China and to budget for, too.

Also, it is important to note that the cost of local produce overall is much less here in China than back home in the US. It is really like being able to visit a farm stand every day of the week! I’ve been wowed at the fresh, beautiful, locally grown food available here at what is often refer to as wet markets! If as a teacher you are planning to prepare your own meals here you’ll find a huge savings over all, though you will also need to purchase the tools to cook with in your kitchen here as most apartments will only come with the very bare minimum (stove top, possibly a hot water kettle, and that is all).

One thing I mentioned at the start was different motivations for working as an ESL/EFL teacher. For me income is a factor but not the most important factor for me in this experience. I have an altruistic nature as well as an interest to live and work in community in different countries, the latter being my driving motivation. This is different for people at different stages in life; the younger set have few if any financial obligations to consider, and the middle aged usually have obligations but quite possibly investment income that can take care of things back home. Here in China, I have outfitted my apartment comfortably for myself, and I am still able to save money each month living only on my local salary (no supplementing with income from back home). Most all teachers tell me they are also able to save money, to eat well, and to travel and see China and neighboring countries easily on the salaries they earn with the extremely reasonable cost of living in China. Generally, for those already in the work force, do not expect the pay to be even close to that in the US, but the very good news is that overall the costs of goods, services, rents, etc. are much lower here in China than in the US.

One big difference here in China is the annual reporting of wages; we do not receive a W-2. You must be proactive in asking your employer for an accounting or a written statement of earnings and taxes paid on your behalf. They can then use their official stamp on the document for you to include with your annual taxes.

To wrap it up, there is always room to negotiate with your employer – just make the ask for what you need and want. Also, be sure that you have these details in your agreement in both English and Chinese. Research the company you are interviewing with and ask to correspond with or speak with currently employed foreign teachers. For me EF has been clear and above board with communicating all these things with me. Also, important, EF has been fair with regards to salary range and clear about the breakdown of my salary and all costs related to my living and working here in China. I did in-depth research about EF with many people before deciding to come to China as a teacher with them and I didn’t hear one negative review. There is a lot to be gained professionally and personally teaching in China. I am going into year 4 as a teacher here with EF; I enjoy the work, and really like the city I am living in, too! For me, I am comfortably #LivingaDreaminChina!

 

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Susan is an American woman living a dream — a dream to live and work in community in different countries! Several years in to her journey, she has found her home-away-from-home, while learning more about herself, more about the world, and building bridges through common language as an ESL teacher with EF Kids and Teens in Taizhou, Zheijiang, China. #Livin’aDreamInChina!

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