I would be lying if I said the number one reason I decided to become a middle school teacher in Hangzhou, China, was a burning desire to work with children as they navigate through the most difficult hormonal changes of their lives. Of course teaching is a fantastic profession that allows you to create truly special bonds with your students, and those moment where you can inspire them and see a light turn on in their head are irreplaceable. However, teaching teenagers who you cannot fully communicate with due to language barriers is a challenge, especially when you are moving to an unfamiliar place where you are, in essence, an outsider. While these were all factors I considered before accepting my job, I knew that even if the job itself was challenging, taking it would give me the time and means to do so much more than just teach…
Vacation Time & Salary
Public school foreign English teachers in China have a pretty good deal regarding holidays, time off, and payment. I work from Monday to Friday, never finishing later than 4pm, and have Saturday and Sunday off to do as I please. My school is closed during all the official public holidays, which means a four-day weekend every month or so, and as I previously wrote about, we have around one month off for the Spring Festival holiday. Of course, all this free time would be useless if you did not have the funds to support yourself during it, and that was a concern I had before coming here. I compared my salary to that of my friends back in the U.K. and noticed some serious discrepancies. It is widely known that living costs here are lower than in the U.K., but still, I had some concerns about if I would be able to use my time to travel around as much as I hoped. Given that I am writing this as I am on the bullet train from Shanghai back to Hangzhou, rest assured my worries were unfounded.
Since I started my job I have been able to live a relatively comfortable life, travel every other weekend and save up for bigger trips during longer holidays, and still keep some money on the side. It almost goes without saying that for every individual spending habits differ, but on my end, I have been pleasantly surprised with how this job has made it able for me to travel around, both in terms of free time and finances. Since this is a topic many new teachers may worry about, I will try to explain some of the basic living costs both within my city and for traveling to nearby places like Shanghai or Suzhou.
While I do try and spend most of my weekends in Hangzhou, both because there is so much I still need to explore here and it helps save money, sometimes I will get an urge to pack up for a few nights and go somewhere different. Most recently, this led me back to Shanghai for my eighth visit since arriving in China, one of China’s most well-known cities that is around 110 miles from Hangzhou. For anyone familiar with the prices of British trains, this might seem like it should be extortionate, especially since I normally book my trains the day before departing. When I was a student at Exeter, a train back home to London (175 miles) would rarely cost less than 25 pounds. However, on my present salary trains here are insanely affordable. If you want to budget, you can take a ‘slow’ train that takes 2 hours or so and costs 24.5RMB – £2.84/ $4. Alternately, you can take the bullet train, which takes around 1 hour. Normally they cost 73RMB (£8.47/ $12) but there are a handful running every day for 56RMB . What is better is that you can download the CTrip app on WeChat and book tickets from your phone, which additionally helps you learn some basic city names in Chinese since the app is in Chinese. You just pick your train time, seat class, and go to the station to pick it up before departure. The prices never change and the bullet trains are almost always on time.
Depending on where you go to, there are a lot of options for staying away from home. Perhaps you build up a network of friends in every city you can find and always have a place to stay, or maybe you are an avid Couchsurfer. However, for last-minute trips there are always hostels, which most Chinese cities have. In Shanghai, one of the more expensive places to stay, hostels are around 80RMB a night (9.28 pounds), but the prices vary depending on room size, on/off season, and location. I have found at times hotels can be cheaper than hostels, especially in cities like Ningbo and Suzhou where there are less international travelers, but it is always nice to stay at a place where you can meet new people who are traveling around and build connections.
One of the main reasons to travel is to try different foods every city and region has to offer. Luckily, if you eat local, food here is very affordable. Most Chinese meals out will cost no more than 60rmb (6.96 pounds) if you include drinks, although in Shanghai I normally go to my favorite BBQ place and get dinner for 18RMB (2.09 pounds). Although Hangzhou has some of the best places to eat in China, Shanghai’s sheer amount of food diversity makes it an attraction for me. From great Xi’an food to Indian cuisine that I cannot find as easily in Hangzhou, there is always something new to try. Something I am always happier to spend more money on is food, but even if I have two meals out and a FamilyMart snack, I never find myself going over budget.
Perhaps one of the reasons why I do not go over-budget by spending money on food is because I am under-budget on transport. I am not talking about the bullet trains here, but rather simply getting around cities in China. In Hangzhou we have buses aplenty and (at present) 3 metro lines, and cities like Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing have even more. You can buy a metro card or set it up with Alipay, but on average buses will not cost more than 2RMB (23p) and metros 3RMB (35p) a ride. Coming from London where buses have a 1.50 pound fare, I often forget how much money I save teaching in China in total by the cheaper transport costs.
China is one of those countries with so many visual attractions to keep you occupied; during my trips to Shanghai I often just spend time wandering around different areas, taking in the scenery and scouting for local artists. This is something I would do regardless of budgeting, but it helps that it does not cost me any extra! Shanghai, of course, has the Bund, but it also has areas like M50, Tianzifang, Xintiandi, and the Power Station of Art area that are great to wander through. One of my favorite days during my last trip was taking a trip to M50, an urban art area in north western central Shanghai. I got a coffee from Familymart, took along some books and my journal, and just camped out at a bench near an art mural. People watching and reflecting on my surroundings is something I have really come to enjoy in China, so many of my surroundings are interesting and unfamiliar and I want to appreciate and enjoy them while I can.
So far, I have not found myself having to restrict myself from doing activities I enjoy like going to museums, trying new foods, buying the occasional coffee, or taking weekend city breaks. Teaching has given me the time and means to really enjoy my time in China, allowing me to travel across the country and experience what each corner has to offer. After a tough week at work nothing is more relieving than knowing you can occupy your mind with a new sight, a new place, or a new dish, and I am so grateful that my job gives me time each week and a salary to support this. Teaching is an adventure in itself, but living here and being able to make the most of your surroundings is a huge part of the experience.