Teaching English in China | Interview with Michael Tieso (Art of Backpacking)

For my first featured interview, I couldn’t think of a better choice than Michael Tieso (behind the ever popular Art of Backpacking travel blog) who takes time out of his busy schedule to answer questions about teaching English in China.  Having already completed an around the world backpacking journey and experiencing life as an expat in China, he’s experienced a nomadic life that many only dream of.  The following interview gives a great overview of what it is potentially like to teach in China – living & working conditions, salary, student’s ability, and life outside of work to name just a few of the many topics he thoroughly covers.

1) Where did you teach in China? What level were your students?

I taught in Xi’an, China. The ancient capital of China.

The name of the school was Siyuan University. I taught first year and second year students that were majoring in English. Sometimes even high-school students. Some classes were better than others but for the most part, their English was pretty horrible. English is difficult and I realized that more while teaching it but the problem was English was also being taught by Chinese teachers that had horrible English. This created a lot of conflict between the foreigners English and the Chinese teachers English. Perhaps I expected too much out of English majors but one thing I learned was that I had to create different lessons plans for each class since everyones level was so different. Impossible to ever plan for this when you’re first coming into China.

Xi'an, China Sports Meeting for a University

2) What were the working conditions of your contract in terms of housing, working hours and holidays? Were these conditions met?

I lived on campus which made it easy to attend classes. I had been to Xi’an before so I figured I would be in the city when I applied. Definitely not. It was only a 30 minute ride to center of downtown but local transportation isn’t always the greatest. It usually required me to take taxis to get downtown which was luckily cheap anyway. My advice to everyone is to ask about where exactly you’re living compared to the rest of the city. Regardless though, it was a decent location. I had a more local experience and the food was half as cheap as it was downtown. The other teachers and I were the only foreigners in the area. If I had lived downtown, chances are I would have spent more money and went out more often. Instead, I spent most of my time eating out with other students, playing pool, and drinking in the apartment with some friends.

The apartment building was for foreigners only. I had a bedroom, living room, kitchen, and balcony. I never had to use the kitchen because eating out was less than a five minute walk to every possible food known in China (the schools cafe). The apartment was paid for by the school. I only had to pay for electricity.

Working hours were confusing. China works on a different organizational planner which is none at all. Sometimes they’d add a new class out of the blue with no advanced warning. Planning to leave the city was often difficult because I had to be available at all times. Still though, I hardly worked. You could be mostly brain dead and still teach the class. The first four months were 26 hours a week with Sundays and Mondays off. I got paid about 6,000RMB for this. My second semester I worked 10 hours a week. The thing is according to my contract, I’m required to work 16 hours. They didn’t have enough classes to give me so they were forced to pay me for 16 hours although I was only working 10. The pay was about 4,500RMB. This gave me a whole lot of room to travel, party, learn Mandarin, and work on my businesses.

I had the months of January and Febuary fully off. I traveled throughout Thailand and Vietnam and they even paid me for Febuary even though I wasn’t even in the country.

I was seriously spoiled in China. I had enough money to do what I wanted and even have way more left over.

3) Do you find any clear differences between backpacking in a certain area versus living somewhere for a fixed period of time?

There’s definitely a difference. I had backpacked throughout China for one month the year prior to teaching. It was like a teaser. A glimpse of everything but never fully understanding everything. By living there, I feel I have a deeper understanding of the culture and its people. Backpacking has helped me gain interest though. I probably wouldn’t have taught in China if it wasn’t for backpacking there initially.

Backpacking helps me know where I might want to stay longer. If I like a place, I’ll either come back to it later or after arriving just stay longer than most backpackers.

4) One of the biggest complaints in the ESL industry revolves around native English teachers not being considered as ‘actual teachers’ and more as just a hired hand. How did you find your experiences in terms of being treated with respect by staff and students?

It’s true. For many of the schools in China, we’re not taken as serious as the local teachers are. By providing foreign teachers, the school has a better image and is usually provided better funding through the government. It’s a way of saying “Hey! We have foreign teachers. Come to our school!”

Because of cultural differences in priority in education and in life in general, there are often clashes between me and them. I was once asked to work an extra day of the week which meant I would have had only a one day weekend. The contract says the weekends are mandatory to have off so I demanded it. They were confused as to why I wouldn’t take this opportunity to work more. In their eyes, having the opportunity to work more and earn more money is something to be grateful for so they were surprised that I didn’t want it. My future isn’t English teaching and I like to have free time. But the school didn’t understand that. I eventually got my way.

Sometimes we get our way and sometimes we don’t. I think it’s best to know when it’s worth arguing about and when it’s not. It’s just too much of a hassle to complain all the time. Things won’t always go our way just like any other job.

The students treated me SUPER well. They would often take me out to dinner and hang out with the foreign teachers. The amount of attention can be overwhelming but it’s all in good fun and kindness. When I was leaving, I was given so many gifts. It was flattering and I know there really isn’t many parts of the world that will treat me more like a god than in China.

5)  The ‘honeymoon phase’ of a job overseas typically refers to the first few months an individual spends in a new country – everything seems stimulating and exciting; however, as time progresses a critical point seems to challenge a lot of teachers when things aren’t as fresh. What do you think are some of the best ways to overcome such a hurdle?

Luckily China is full of adventure. It never gets boring and if anything we seek more relaxing atmospheres away from it all. After all, 9 million people can be considered a small city in China!

I’ve had days of wanting to explode, shout, and scream at the world. Some of ways things are done in China can be frustrating to foreigners. It happens to everyone. I think it’s important to just realize the cultural differences and look on the bright side of things. The culture can tests our patience over and over again. Then the next day the world flips and I’d remember why I came to China.

6) Aside from the necessary academic credentials, what kind of skill-set or personality do you think an individual requires in order to thrive overseas in a teaching position?

Two eyes, a mouth, ears, and fluency in English. There was a French teacher teaching Computer Science in the same school. He graduated University in England. So even if you’re not from a country where English is the main language, you may still have a chance.

Academic credentials depend on where you’re teaching. Beijing and Shanghai may require a University degree. My university definitely didn’t require anything. Not even a TEFL. Some schools are more strict than others. It really depends where and what school. Don’t let it discourage you if you don’t have a degree. There’s a spot in China for everyone. They need English teachers.

For more details on the school and my time there check out:


7)  What were some of your favourite destinations in China that you got to visit outside of work?

Chengdu is my favourite city in China. Sichuanese cuisine is known throughout the world and it’s the most popular cuisine in China as well. As a foodie myself, Chengdu easily became a favourite. The nightlife is also incredible. Great bands and an awesome electronic music scene.

Chengdu is also known for its beautiful girls. Confirmed to be true.

And there’s pandas! Who can say no to pandas?

8 )  What sort of long-term vision do you have with your travel blog?

There’s a lot going on. I’ve hired a few part-time writers to help ease the work load. It’s been hectic really but I’m also really fortunate for it. I’ll be keeping busy by continuing its growth and making it more user friendly.

My latest project is with Stephanie (Twenty-Something Travel) to start filming a documentary on how technology has changed the way we travel – Everywhere Connection. 

9)  Favourite country you’ve ever visited?

I never know how to answer this. Each country has held a favourite something that the other country did not have. My favourite pizza for example is in Argentina and my favourite beaches are in Thailand.

10)  Location you’re least likely to return to?

Perhaps Cambodia but I don’t want to say I’ll never go back. I think that if I do ever go back to Cambodia, it’ll be for volunteer work. I’ve also heard good things about the beaches in Cambodia but I didn’t make it that far. Maybe it was just travel fatigue but I wasn’t having a great time last time I was there.

11)  How has travel changed you as an individual over the years?

More open minded. More social. More of everything. I’ve changed in ways I don’t really understand or could put together. I feel more educated and open about the world, too. 

Be sure to check out Michael’s top travel blogs:

Art of Travel Blogging: The Travel Blogging Community
Art of Backpacking
: Backpacking Independent International Traveler – It’s cutting travel costs, but not cutting the exciting elements of adventure. Our mission is to help you travel in style; to distinctive places and to have fun doing so!
Everywhere Connection
: A new documentary on travel and technology.

Follow Michael on Facebook & Twitter.


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