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How Much Money Can I Make Teaching English in China?
Bill Gain
July 4, 2017

Numerous articles have been written getting you excited about teaching English abroad. These articles tell you about the wonderful travel opportunities, marvelous culinary delights, interesting cultural experiences, and wonderful classroom/social lifestyles that await you. When asked, “Why did you become an ESL teacher and move to your host country?”, many will give the reasons listed above. Seldom is the answer about money. Are we merely trying to be humble? Is it not important to an ESL teacher? Or, is money so far down on our list of reasons that it is not worth mentioning? Perhaps all of these are correct answers.

For newbie ESL teachers, or those who are just curious about this lifestyle, money is an important factor. So, let’s talk about money. I will write from my experiences teaching English in China but I think much of the information crosses over to other countries as well. We need to evaluate salary and cost-of-living when we discuss the economics of an ESL teacher. For the purpose of this article while discussing China, I will use a monetary exchange rate of 7 RMB=1 dollar. Let’s begin with salary.

Salary is a tricky subject because there is no minimum or maximum wage. In China, ESL teaching salaries depend on many factors, such as location (city or rural), the kind of teaching institution you are located in, and your experience. Focusing on China for the moment, salaries in 2017 have seen a significant increase in most areas. When I arrived four years ago, a beginning salary for public primary to high school was around $900 – $1200 per month. This year, I have seen salaries jump significantly to the $2000 – $2500 range. There are still many schools trying to hire teachers at the lower rates, but I suspect that most schools will be paying the higher rates by next year. So why the big difference in pay? Personally, I think it is due to the shortage of ESL teachers coming to China for various factors. I have heard that people do not want to teach ESL in China because of the pollution, or other world events reported in the media. Whatever the reasons for ESL teachers not coming to China, it is good news for those who do come. A general rule of thumb for salaries in China is that kindergarten teachers get paid the most. As you move higher in the education levels, the salaries decrease, with university instructors getting paid the least (typically). ESL Training centers run the gambit of low pay to high pay, depending on how well established they are and their need for ESL teachers. You can typically expect a salary of about $1800 – $2000 a month from a well-established, franchised training school.

But what about the rest of the world?

What about other regions of the world? This is where you need to do your research and decide why you want to teach abroad. Are you looking to pay off debt or are you teaching English abroad mainly for the experience and travel? Whatever your reasons are, the basic trends for different regions are as follows.
Central and South America

Countries in Central and South America typically pay lower salaries than other regions. It is not uncommon for the salaries to just pay for your living expenses. Thus, ESL teachers may resort to tutoring for extra pay or paying from their savings.

South Korea, Japan, and China still have the best pay opportunities in the region, while other nations pay slightly less. Cost of living will be discussed later in the article, but you need to take these things into consideration for each country.
Middle East

Countries in the Middle East have the best paying contracts for ESL teachers, but they also have the highest cost of living and typically the highest qualifications required for ESL teachers.
Eastern Europe

You will find many Eastern European countries on par with those in Central and South America. Each country and their economic status needs to be researched, but you might find that you are just breaking even.
Western Europe and the European Union

Finding an ESL teaching job in Western Europe can be difficult. Most require that the ESL teacher is from an European Union (EU) country, or has an EU passport. If you can find a position, salaries are all over the board, from draining a savings account to being able to pay off significant debts.
Cost of Living Overseas

Be cautious when looking at salaries alone. It does you no good if you have what seems to be a good salary, but the cost of living eats up your salary. Do some comparison shopping and understand the economies of the countries you plan to live in. Another aspect to consider is what your ESL contract includes as part of your benefits package. Your contract benefits are perhaps the most important part of this discussion. In China, your housing is usually provided for you or they pay you a stipend. If the housing is provided with all of the living expenses paid, you have zero expenses. If you have a stipend, will that cover the cost of your rent, utilities and other living expenses, or will you have to take some of your salary to supplement them? Most ESL teachers in China, who have housing provided, have quality living accommodations that are well furnished with the basic needs. They do not have to pay for deposits, electricity, water, cable or internet for their housing. This means more money that you get to keep in your pockets. Your education institution should also pay all of the country’s taxes and worker’s insurance separately from your salary. Most will also pay for travel expenses, if the school is a distance away from your housing. All in all, the only expenses coming out of your salary should be your cell phone, travel/entertainment expenses, and shopping costs (although some schools will let you eat for free in their cafeteria). My personal experience is limited to China. Other nations and their contract benefits will surely differ. What’s important is that you consider all economic factors when choosing a host country.

The exciting part for many English teachers in China is how inexpensive most things are due to the cost of living differences:
Fifty cents buys you a cola, while a bottle of water will run about 25 cents.
For those who like to indulge in smoking, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes cost $2.00, while a large Chinese brand beer will cost you a buck at most.
Fresh vegetables, fruits, and meats from the local farmer’s market will cost you half of what you will find in supermarkets in America.
A large rice or noodle dish, complete with fixings, will run around $2.00 at a mom and pop restaurant. A full-blown dinner with six of your friends can be easily had for about $30-$50.
Internet shopping becomes a joy when you find prices are unrealistically low for most items.
Of course, imported foods and products have a huge increase in price, whether it is online or in the stores. Starbucks is still $5, and a combo meal from a fast food joint will be about the same as in America.
Bus fare is about 10 cents, taxis are $2-$3, and a purchased electric bike is reasonably priced for $300-$500.
Airfare in the country is about even with America, since it is still a relatively new luxury for most Chinese citizens. The trains, which reach most parts of China are very affordable, and the long-distance buses are even better priced.
A mid-priced, three to four-star hotel will cost you about $15-$25 a night in most places.
Your non-Apple cell phone can easily be purchased for a few hundred dollars, with $30 for a data plan lasting you 2-3 months.

Stories of how ESL teachers have paid off their debts, sending loads of money home, and/or living the life of luxury are common place in many Asian countries, including China. While you may be interested in teaching English overseas for world travel, culinary experiences, and cultural exchanges, consider the money aspect when choosing your ESL teaching destination. It will make your experiences much richer.


End of 2016-17 School Year

It is the end of the school year. The month of June was very busy with a wide range of activities.

In the video above, our school was hosting a dance competition. As most were older ladies, I assumed it was what we call “dancing grannies”. Every evening on the streets and in the parks of every city and town of China, people will dance. Usually it is older ladies that make up the groups, thus being called dancing grannies. They do this for exercise, socializing, and to just have something special to do. Many groups have rehearsed dances they do every night. It is fun to watch.

I was walking to class when I heard the music. I popped into the gym and saw this going on. If I didn’t have classes to teach, I would have stayed longer. I liked the costumes, the music and the dancing.

Earlier in June, many of my students were dismissed from class to attend a business seminar off school property. For those left behind, I knew it would be impossible to teach a lesson. 75% of my class was gone. I decided to have some team building activities outside. It was a huge success. I am always worried about taking a class outside where they have no walls to keep them corralled. Surprisingly, every one of them was into the activities. We played right through our break time. And, when we were finished with one activity, they asked to try it again. Pictured are three games we did. Teams of ten students had to figure out how to flip over a sheet on the ground, without stepping off the sheet onto the “hot lava”. Another game was that they had to figure a way to get all ten members onto the sheet. The sheet was folded very small. The last activity was a relay race to put together six children’s jigsaw puzzles in the quickest time. All the pieces were scrambled together at the end of the sidewalk. They surprised me again when the winning team went over to help the other team finish their puzzles. Great teamwork and great kids.



Most of the classes had end of year parties. Of course foreigner teachers are often invited. At this sophomore party, they booked a room at a restaurant and we had a great dinner. After the dinner, they sang songs at the KTV (karaoke). Keep in mind that all of these kids come from well-to-do families.

We finished off the year with final exams and the graduation ceremony for the juniors. I was honored to have been asked to speak on behalf of the foreign teachers at the graduation. In September, they will all be in the USA finishing their senior year of high school and then onto university. I will miss these kids very much, having taught them and seen them grow over the past year and half.

Summer vacation is here. Unlike previous summers, I am unsure what traveling I will do. I am working the summer camp in Zhuhai for the third year in the row. Because of the change in schedules this year, it kind of messes up my travel time. I had hoped to go to Mongolia for two weeks, but there is just not enough time. Over the next few weeks, I will decide where I want to go and what I want to do. Stay tuned for more adventures.

Miscellaneous Things



I have not posted anything lately. There has not been much happening as for adventures. I realize that the idea of an American living in China and saying that adventurous happenings are far and few between seems odd. Actually, to many of my family and friends, my postings may seem like a daily adventure. For me, normalcy has set in after over four years. I tend to take things for granted now days. That is not to say that I do not recognize how blessed I am and that there is adventure in every day that I go outside my door. I recognize the adventure as soon as I am confronted with having to try to translate something to a Chinese person. Adventure remains as I witness the non-western cultural differences that make me proclaim TIC (This is China). I am often awe inspired by the beauty of the China and the people who live here. Despite all of that, I have gained a sense of normalcy to every day life. My normalcy is the daily adventures that face me when I leave my apartment.

Confused? Me too. Think of it like this. You get your dream job, perhaps at Disney World, and your first couple of months is awesome. Everything is new and you are working in a great location. You enjoy everything about your job. Excitement abounds. You write to your family and friends how great the experience is. Six months to a year later, you find a normalcy to your life. You still love your job, you love the environment, and you couldn’t see yourself doing anything different. The only thing different is that the newness has worn off. The honeymoon ends and real life takes over. That is where I am today. The honeymoon is over and I am living a normal life with no regrets or second thoughts. The normalcy for me is know which side of the bed is mine. The normalcy is doing the daily routine of housework. The normalcy is going to work and achieving the goals I set for myself. The normalcy is even going to a Chinese restaurant where no one speaks English and I am still able to have a fine meal. Understand?

I decided to go out this morning and get some breakfast. I decided to stop at Starbucks for a Frap and read a book. This is part of my downtown region. I took a quick video to showcase a wonderful mural that lines the canal and the park-like setting along the canal.


Yes, I know the water looks like the chocolate river from Willy Wonka’s factory, but it is not chocolate. At least the water does not smell the way it looks. The city does have cleaning boat crews that go up and down the canal filtering the trash and other things from the water.

There are statues throughout the city. Unique and fun. But, these are my favorites. I can imagine, before the significant pollution of the waterways, this was a favorite pastime of children in this town. Skinny dipping in a cool, once clean, waters of the canal had to be so much fun for the kids.

It is quite remarkable to think that Zhangjiagang, just 15-20 years ago, was mostly a rural farming community of a few thousand. Like many places in developed China, the richness of the culture and traditions of a simpler time have made way for the technological advancement of the 21st century. My high school students can remember when this town was just beginning to grow and become developed. That is such a unique and special thing. Often asked why I choose to stay in China, my response is that I like to see history in the making here. I want to see what happens. This city, as well as the country, is in a constant flux of change and growth. I can almost imagine what it must have been like for my ancestors to see such cities in America go through rapid transformation in their lifetime.

Every once in a while, I do get a glimpse into their past. Daily, people come to the canal next to my school to do laundry. They pound the clothes and rinse them in the dirty water, which makes little sense to me. Throughout the day, these people come to the canal and conduct their business as usual.

I am often brought back into the present when I come across any number of commercial marketing to get people to spend their money in this growing capitalistic country. Here are some pictures of a local mall hiring a company to put on a show to drive people into the mall. I can only imagine the cost of such productions, but I see such things all the time during my travels in China. Of course I find these to be entertaining, as to the locals. I just wonder how much bang for their buck that they get for such promotions.



Then there is this monstrosity of a marketing ploy. China Jeep set this up to draw attention to their products in a local parking lot. You see the white vehicle on the right. That is lined up to take potential customers up the ramp to the top where the top is on a swivel. Once the jeep is up there, the swivel deploys through gravity to the other side of the ramp, allowing the vehicle to drive down the other ramp.

I see two problems with this concept. First is that there is no way you would get me into a car and let someone do that to me in the vehicle. Knowing most Chinese, I doubt they would do it either. Secondly, where we live in China is about as flat as Kansas. There are not many opportunities to go off-roading and to climb steep hillsides near us. In the hour I was there, I did not see anyone use the demonstration.

I recognize how blessed I am to be doing what I love to do and to live where I am. If I am bored, it is only because I choose to be bored. I am often saddened by the things I witness on international and American news. I honestly do not have any experiences in my life that others do around the world. Yes, I have the typical Communist power hungry bureaucrats and the red tape to deal with. Aside from that, life is good. Life is normal. Life is every day… at least until summer when vacation comes. Be on the look out for my adventures as usual during my summer holiday.

Poster Project and Game Night


I like to have my kids do projects from time to time. I like to see their creativeness come through and I think it assists in their education. For this project, I had the students make posters about the unit in the textbook we were studying. The unit is about overcoming adversity. The kids were to develop posters with this theme. Some of them did really well and were very creative. Some students missed the mark and produced more of an inspirational poster. Other students seemed to allow Chinglish take over their grammar once again. Overall, I mark this project a success. The posters are now hung on the walls for all to enjoy.



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We like to have fun and games in class. Since this week was mid-term exams for the students, I decided that one class was prepared enough to have a game night. Here are some of the results from that adventure.








Suzhou and Tongli Weekend



Let me first give you a little history lesson about China’s Grand Canal, thanks to Wikipedia.

The Grand Canal (also known as the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the longest canal or artificial river in the world. Starting at Beijing,  and ending in the city of Hangzhou, linking the Yellow River and Yangtze River. The oldest parts of the canal date back to the 5th century BC, although the various sections were finally combined during the Sui dynasty (581–618 AD).

The total length of the Grand Canal is 1,776 km (1,104 mi). Its greatest height is reached in the mountains of Shandong, at a summit of 42 m (138 ft). Ships in Chinese canals did not have trouble reaching higher elevations after the pound lock was invented in the 10th century, during the Song dynasty (960–1279), by the government official and engineer Qiao Weiyue.

Historically, periodic flooding of the adjacent Yellow River threatened the safety and functioning of the canal. During wartime the high dikes of the Yellow River were sometimes deliberately broken in order to flood advancing enemy troops. This caused disaster and prolonged economic hardships. Despite temporary periods of desolation and disuse, the Grand Canal furthered an indigenous and growing economic market in China’s urban centers since the Sui period. It has allowed faster trading and has improved China’s economy. The southern portion remains in constant heavy use to the present day.

With that said, many current cities developed as the canal was being built. Some are large like Suzhou and Hangzhou, while others are much smaller towns like Tongli. All along the Grand Canal are smaller canals and man-made rivers. In the eastern-central region of China, near Shanghai, canal towns flourished and still are. This blog will be more about the photos I took of my weekend trip to Suzhou and Tongli. A picture is worth a 1000 words, and I will let the pictures do the talking for me in this blog.



There are a few pictures that I want to give some commentary on, so let move on to more pictures.

There are all kinds of food available in the towns. I am not sure what the man has in the pan over the fire. It looked like fried pastry of some sort. There was a line of people waiting to buy them. I hate lines, so I did not get to try any.

Of course, no market would be complete without fresh killed and cooked chickens. Let’s just let them hang out in the open air without anything to keep them fresh. Yum! Actually, they do taste very good.

This guys looked like he is pulling taffy. At least this is what I thought. It is actually ginger candy. It is not chewy like taffy, nor sweet. It has a ginger spice flavor and it is actually crunchy. The texture looks like a light colored wood. It was very good. Since it was homemade, I bought five bags.


When you go to Tongli Town, you can enter various authentic buildings, people’s former homes. This is one example of a traditional Chinese home. Most had these open courtyards in the middle of the home. I would love to have a house like this, but it would have to be updated with some modern conveniences like A/C and heating, WiFi/cable TV, and a western style toilet.

I have seen these birds several times throughout my travels in China. They are fishing birds. The fisherman will tie a string around the birds foot as a fishing line. There is also a string around the birds neck. The birds dives into the water to catch a fish. The fisherman pulls the bird up out of the water and get the fish from the bird. The string around the neck is to prevent the bird from swallowing the fish. I have seen them used several times in rivers and it is very interesting to see it done.


This last picture is a hidden treasure right in plain sight. Few tourists, and perhaps the locals, don’t even know that it exists. It is about 12 feet up the side of a building wall. You are looking at a 300 year old wall decoration. I have enhanced the picture some. It is in pretty bad shape. But, what a great find. I was just amazed that I got to see it out in it’s natural environment, instead of in a museum.

On a side note to finish off this blog…the Chinese sex museum in Tongli is no more. This was the main reason why I wanted to go to Tongli. From what I saw online, it looked like it would have been great fun. Everything on the internet still says that it is there. I spoke with a tourist administration representative at the site and she said that they had closed and moved to Hainan. Bummer.

Spring is Here (China Style)

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Spring is finally here…yea!!!

It has been a busy couple of weeks for me. This is good in that I am coming out of my winter hibernation. The bad thing is that the weight gain was not very kind to me this past winter.

We had visitors from America this past week. Two of our sister schools in Wisconsin sent reps to interview some of our juniors who were interested in going to their schools next year. There are two things that our students worry about most: TOEFL English exams and school interviews. The students need at least a 60 out of 120 on their TOEFL scores for the good high schools to accept them. Once that is completed, they can then apply for and interview with schools. Prior to the school reps arrival, I was busy prepping the students for their interviews. I held an interview seminar with the kids one night. It was a great seminar, with lots of typical interview information. The following four evenings, Keith, Ken and I prepped them with mock interviews. With a few minor glitches, the vast majority of them passed their interviews.

Carl, from Craig High School in Wisconsin is a friend I made from last year. It was so good to visit with him during his return trip. After a very long flight, he arrived to a BBQ steak and potato dinner I prepared for him. We sat around for a few hours catching up and discussing some business. He was busy with interviews most of the time he was here. His final evening with us, three of the foreign teachers were able to sit with him and discuss who he should choose for his school. It was an interesting process reflecting on the quality of the students. We discussed their English skill levels and how well we thought they would settle into their new culture and environment. Some students we all agreed were superstars and Carl would be a fool not to accept them. Others, it was a mixed bag debate of why or why not they would be a good fit. The other reps did not seek our advice. I think this was a bad choice since they had flown half way around the world to interview them and they had access to the teachers who had taught them for the past year and half. I firmly believe that Carl benefited from our discussions and left China with a much better understanding of what students he was accepting at his school. Carl also allowed the parents of the students to sit in on the interviews and ask questions. This was a huge benefit to all involved. To be fair, this was Carl’s second time here, and the it was the first time for the other reps.

Later in the week, the students got to plant five trees. One tree was designated for each class. It was a great concept. A golden plaque with the students names and the date was placed at the foot of each tree. Years later, these kids will return to the school and remember their time here and a tree will be waiting as a constant reminder of the efforts they put forth here.

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We do have a pretty campus to work at.

It is Qing Ming holiday. It is a time for families to visit their ancestors graves and clean them, climb a mountain for health, and to fly kites to allow the winds to carry bad luck and poor health away. I like the holiday because it marks a time that the trees are in bloom and spring is in the air. One thing that China does very well is landscape their cities and parks. I am not just speaking of one or two streets, but nearly every major street is planted with flowers and trees.

I have made a decision on my next contract here in China. I was debating whether I should try a new part of China, basically rolling the dice of luck and chance, or staying here where I am comfortable and trust the system. The school made the decision pretty easy for me. In addition to a nice signing bonus, they increased my salary by $1000 USD per month. I am assured that I will get to teach the classes that I want. Therefore, I will teach the new sophomores next year reading and writing. I enjoy these subjects and the lesson plans are pretty well completed from the previous two years. I am planning on conducting a play next year. Last year, I did a theatrical reading of “A Christmas Carol”, and it was a huge success. In fact, my lead actor told his interviewer of the high school he wants to attend that he wants to continue doing acting in America. WOW!!!! I am also going to be used in various capacities in helping develop the program more. We will see how effective that will be considering I know how difficult the school admin can be with change. Although I am not overly fond of the city here as it is too Western and sterile for what I am seeking in China and socially it is very neutral due to the lack of English speakers, I do love my work enough to stay for one more year. So, I am here in Zhangjiagang until June 2018.

I am now beginning to think about my summer plans. I will be free from the end of June until September 1. I usually take a trip for a couple of weeks and then work at a summer camp. As such, my plans are similar to previous years. This year, I want to try taking a 14 day motorcycle trip through Mongolia. There are several tour companies that run these trips. The trip I am interested in would take me over 1000 miles where I get to see the mountains of the west, the Steppes grasslands, the Gobi desert, and so much more. The tour groups will have a supply truck to repair bikes if they break down, along with other support staff and vehicles. I need to investigate costs and itineraries, but it sounds like another adventure of a lifetime. I will also need to contact my old summer camp contact and see if they would like to have me return for a third season. I do not anticipate this to be a problem. I will have to find some time to either go to Hong Kong and get a new passport, as my passport is nearly full now, or find a company I can send it to and have them do it for me. It will be a very busy summer for me. That is the way I like it.