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.

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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