The Guilt of Being an Overpaid Foreign Teacher in China

The Guilt of Being an Overpaid Foreign Teacher in China
Aug 04, 2021 By Sarah Meik ,

I am a foreign teacher in China. I start work at 9am, I have a two-hour lunch break from 12 noon, and then I leave at 4:30pm. I go home to my apartment, play with my kids, see my spouse and visit friends. I even have enough disposable income to go do fun things every weekend.

foreign teacher in China
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My Chinese colleagues typically arrive at 7am. They get a 30-minute lunch break and then leave at 5:30pm or later. Most go home to rented apartments, but some stay at very basic dorm-like accommodation provided by the school. I’m sure they fantasize about one day having a disposable income.

Like most foreign teachers in China, I work alongside many just-as-qualified, hard working and brilliant Chinese teachers who toil for longer hours for less pay than me. Salaries for foreign teachers in China tend to range between 15,000 and 30,000 RMB a month, depending on the type of school and the workload. This usually averages out to an hourly wage comparable to, or better than, what teachers are paid in the West.

Most Chinese teachers, however, are lucky if they can scrape 8,000 RMB a month, even with a university degree. And aside from the classes they teach, Chinese teachers often have other duties to attend to, like answering the phones or monitoring lunch times. I, on the other hand, pretty much stick with my teaching, some at-home grading and occasional marketing duties — the latter of which is really what us foreign teachers are around for anyway. At least, that’s sometimes how it feels.

A foreign friend of mine was once grumbling about the lack of interest her administration seemed to have in the grades she gave her students. “Do they care at all how I teach, or if my students actually learn anything?” she mused after a staff meeting. “It’s as if they hired me to put on a foreign clown show.”

As a foreign teacher in China, it’s easy to feel guilty when you know colleagues you respect are paid a fraction of your salary for working arguably harder. But should you? Economics dictates that your salary is not really related to theirs. Chinese teachers are not paid any less because foreign teachers are paid more. To think that schools would pay the Chinese teachers more if foreign teachers took a pay cut is a nice daydream, but capitalism doesn’t really work that way.

In fact, for some schools, it could even be argued that the sole reason the Chinese teachers even have a job is because the school was able to recruit a few foreign teachers. The focus for many non-public schools, which are of course businesses in their own right, is to sell classes, typically English classes, taught by foreign teachers. Without the “foreign clowns,” the school itself may not survive.

Because of this, I personally try not to feel too guilty when I hear my Chinese colleagues talk about the big ways in which their low salaries affect their lives. This is easier said than done, however, as often, it’s not just that they can’t afford an outfit they like or that they have to save up longer to buy a scooter. It’s that their present and future stability is in jeopardy.

When asked if she planned to stay a teacher, one of my Chinese colleagues replied, “On 5,000 RMB a month? How can I buy a house? No, this is not a job for my future.” Another colleague told me of the pain of being apart from both her husband and child, as both parents were forced to stay at accommodation provided by their workplaces as their salaries were too low to afford rent for a place of their own. As is the case still with many migrant workers in China, my colleague’s son is being brought up by her mother in her home town.

Because so many talented and qualified Chinese teachers find it hard to secure their futures or enjoy a normal family life on a meager salary, they eventually turn away from education, ultimately hurting the students that could have benefitted from their expertise.

While I try not to feel personally guilty, I do wish capitalism worked differently. I wish that parents and schools understood the importance of good Chinese teachers and rewarded them accordingly. A good education in China is about so much more than the foreign clown.

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Keywords: foreign teacher in China


All comments are subject to moderation by staff. Because we wish to encourage healthy and productive dialogue we ask that all comments remain polite, free of profanity or name calling, and relevant to the original post and subsequent discussion. Comments will not be deleted because of the viewpoints they express, only if the mode of expression itself is inappropriate.


The reason that foreigners are paid more is because the cost of living in the teacher's home country is much higher than what it is in China. When a foreigner is done teaching in China, the policy is "GTF Out!" (by way of no gesture to settle here). There isn't any reasonable accommodation to take your domestic goods, furniture and appliances with you. There isn't any Pension or Retirement granted to you on the outside. If anything, your social retirement benefits in your home country are diminished for the years that you haven't been paying much into the tax system. Any money that you accrue in China is all that you may have when you return home and start life again (unless you have your own home etc. already). Furthermore, the domestic salaries are not enough attractive to foreign talent in a way that would be enticing from a lucrative standpoint. Finally, China's own Ministry of Education requires (by national policy) that spoken English must be taught by a native-English-speaking foreigner. Face it, if you come to China, it's because you want to see the rest of the world, you have some degree of humility, you love what you do as a teacher, and ultimately you want to help others as well as experience international culture first hand. So collect your paycheck with a smile, go visit an orphanage with a group that is allowed to do so, and put your conscience at ease.

Feb 08, 2022 00:59 Report Abuse


You should probably feel guilty if you suck as a teacher and are only doing it to avoid flipping burgers at home. In my case, I'm worth every penny and I've been doing it my whole life. "If you're good at something, never do it for free" - The Joker

Oct 18, 2021 21:38 Report Abuse


You should study economics and business. If you are so guilty you can give your check back to you boss.

Sep 27, 2021 03:47 Report Abuse


Chinese teachers are entitled to retirement at 51. If they live to 81 then they worked 30 years at 8000 and receive 30 years pay while retired. As far as I know Foreign teachers can not collect retirement in China. So in fact over the lifetime it works out about the same for foreign and Chinese teachers. Further I do not agree that Chinese teachers work harder. Foreign teachers often have 20-25 teaching hours a week a Chinese teacher may have 8-12 teaching hours a week. Further Chinese teachers get to live close to their family and friends. I have not seen many of my family and friends for years. I could not even return home to my fathers funeral . Honestly no one cares about us here. While I do respect most Chinese teachers and some have perfect English in fact many have poor English and really have no business teaching English.

Aug 15, 2021 14:38 Report Abuse


Don't feel guilty about it. Start gifting your salary to your Chinese colleagues! Better than just wringing your hands and feeling all guilty. Plenty of other people are worse off in China.

Aug 12, 2021 22:56 Report Abuse


I am not confident in my response, but I understand that the bonuses that public school Chinese teachers receive is quite substantial. I have the mindset that I do not make the rules and policies. It seems that most "normally" employed workers in China are paid about the same amount, regardless of career. It is through continued employment that salaries increase. I also think that if you are a party member, certain benefits come with it. As for me, I am not selfish with what I have. Since I do not belong to a church here, and I am a Christian who believes in tithing my wages, I do give back to the community, the school, and through other sources. As for our status here, I doubt you would have "native" English speakers willing to come to China for less than $1000 per month, even with all expenses paid for. I believe we are paid what the market allows for. I am not ashamed of my "wealth" in China. I do not apologize for it. Again, I did not set the rules and policies. I have no guilt in it. As for working hours and contributions to the school, I do many voluntary projects, invested in the school in several ways, and treat my teaching as a profession which requires many hours of work outside of the office. During these Covid years, the majority of the foreigners in our school told the company that has hired us to forego the annual salary increase. Many even offered to take a certain pay cut. Due to the lesser amount of students, some of even volunteered to give up our positions and go elsewhere if needed. The company that hired us had none of that. They gave the annual increase, kept us all on staff, and assured us of a good future. I wish our Chinese counterparts could earn more. I wish the cost of living in China was not increasing with stagnant salaries. I wish for many things for our Chinese friends. Wishes do come true, but in this case, it will take the determination and severe change from the governing bodies of this land to help their citizens.

Aug 08, 2021 15:06 Report Abuse


I think your are wright to some degree. But you have to understand that some of these foreigners where appointed from far region to come to china and their currency value should also be considered. For instance ,is it possible for a foreigner whose currency is far more higher than Yuan to board a flight to china and have 5000rmb as a take home pay? . Also in some countries I believe that in academic institutions ,a Chinese language teacher who happens to be a Chinese citizen will earn more salary as compared to any none Chinese citizen that undertakes same Language course. Finally some other country indigenes whose official language is English still face same challenges as far as their countries are not known by some institutions in china as English speaking countries . My country maintain British Academic standard but we face same problem you face even when we are more qualified ,yet it doesn't change anything as some countries whose official language is not English are seen to be more qualified for the Job. But I think they need to look into your suggestions because the citizens needs to be encouraged .

Aug 06, 2021 20:39 Report Abuse


Sssshhhhh, don't ruin it for the rest of us. Also, how can i get an easy job in China?

Aug 06, 2021 05:36 Report Abuse


I have come to realise that it is the same situation in countries all over the world. I am a qualified Language Consultant (English and Chinese)Each time I secured a job In the Chinese field in MY country the following happens 1. My Salary will be lower than all my colleagues' 2.)Students prefer to be taught by my Chinese colleagues. I remember how I would beat myself up for it the very first few months, Eventually I started working on myself, my work ethics, My craftas a Teacher And it it feels great. On the other hand,Whenever English is was vise versa kinda of situation. I cannot say I have a better Suggestion to resolve such a Situation But I know How it FEELS to be amazing and passionate about something And not be appreciated. I encourage all of you who come accross this to know that "YOUR DREAMS are VALID". Keep on Shining

Aug 05, 2021 18:53 Report Abuse


Feel guilty? I personally know foreign teachers who badly want to leave China but know that when they do the school will close and the people they work with will lose their jobs because in the current situation they're impossible to replace.. They're sacrificing a lot to help their friends and workmates. As for the Chinese people and the pay sucks for them but that's life. If they had the skills and qualifications for a better job they'd take that better job.

Aug 05, 2021 12:59 Report Abuse