New York Times article, entitled, “American Graduates Finding Jobs in China,” makes it seem that all a young American needs to do to get a job in China is to show up. Wow!
When I read that article, it did not seem to jibe with what I was seeing out there, but from my perch at a tiny law firm, I figured I just was not seeing enough. Guess my perch is not so bad after all. Danwei has a great short post on this that very concisely calls bullshit on the whole idea:

Danwei received email from two old China hand journalists yesterday regarding the New York Times story linked here:
Wise Hack A:
Here’s one of those great stories that the ever lazy hack pack recycle every so often – floods of Yanks coming to China for jobs.
No evidence whatsoever for this but it gets churned out again every couple of years I note.
Wise Hack B:
Please please mention the NYT “no Mandarin required” article and what
an absolute crock of shit it is. Thanks.
Stan Abrams at China Hearsay concurs:
Sorry, that is some real skewed bullshit writing there.

I have spoken with a few China people on this who should know and they all saying the same thing: there are jobs in China for foreigners, but things are tight and it certainly ain’t easy….
I am NOT saying don’t go, but I am saying be reasonable on your timeline and keep your expectations in check.

  • James G

    I don’t know why they didn’t mention English Teaching. The majority of westerners working in China are ESL’ers. Many of today’s “old hands” got their start in ESL. Ditto for many of the “translators” and “consultants”.
    It’s not a bad gig, actually. Especially when you consider that most Chinese uni grads fail to break 10K in their first decade out of college, and an ESL’er can make much more than that that teaching the alphabet and colors to the wee ones.
    I think the NYT peddles in a lot of class envy. It might not be glam enough to say that people are making decent coin teaching at Kid Kastle, so they make it sound like with a bit of the ol’ American pluck, you can shoot up the ladder at a quicker rate… that hasn’t been true for a long time, and it is getting less and less like that everyday.
    People are in for a rude awakening. China does not lack young, hungry westerners with Chinese skills and name brand diplomas. Then, throw in those from the Chinese diaspora – Indonesia, Malaysia, etc – and it gets a lot more cut throat.
    I speak from experience, and I haven’t been in China in years. I’d say, get a TEFL certificate, head to a third or second-tier city, and be patient. Biblically patient.
    There should be an article about how teachers in China can afford to buy a nice place in good cities like Qingdao, Ningbo, etc, while back here in the states, teachers are getting laid off by the hundreds in states like Florida and California.
    Gods Go Begging

  • I’m glad you’ve picked this up Dan, as the story was about the laziest written about expats in China that I’ve read in a long time. Formula: find two people who showed up and found jobs, often by luck, and extrapolate to cover the hundreds of thousands of other laowais around. Ridiculous

  • Jared

    Issues with the article:
    1) Proficient in Mandarin after working for two years and studying on the side? Whatever. Proficient means more than ordering 鱼香肉丝 at a Chinese restaurant.
    2) Smaller towns have jobs for young grads seeking employment in the China corporate world. The environment isn’t attractive and the pay isn’t great, but after 2-3 years there, I believe a big city corporate job is much easier to obtain along with the Western compensation package. The article didn’t focus on these types of jobs. Rather, it concentrated on the few jobs in big cities. Where is the data to back up the big city job bonanza?
    3) Grads would be better off interning for 6 months in the States than coming to China. The last person I want to hire is a cultural illiterate Western grad who brings less value to a company than a highly dependent business illiterate Chinese recent grad (and there are plenty of them!).

  • Speaking as someone who started out on the ESL/language student mill seven years ago, managed to land a fairly decent job, quit it to go home to do a masters, couldn’t find work back home after graduation, and is now back on the mill – well, I am disinclined to agree.
    The whole ‘no Mandarin required’ thing is a pile of BS. If you can’t speak Mandarin, unless you already have some heavy-duty professional qualifications and experience (engineering, law etc.), you are pretty much guaranteed to end up doing something where your ability to speak your mother-tongue is the only really necessary qualification.
    The weirdest thing is the 12,000 USD quoted as being the cost of starting a business in China. Since I’ve heard some pretty reliable people saying that the cost can be up to ten times that this confuses me more than a bit.
    A final note on ‘consultants’: a lot of these are upstanding people who can help you and your company thrive in China, but a significant minority are lying through their teeth about both their experience/qualifications before coming to China and their achievements since doing so. Do your due diligence.

  • It’s not impossible for a foreigner to forge a career for her/himself in China with little or no Mandarin and zippo work experience. I know several people who have done just that. It happens in Shanghai and Beijing, and not just the next-tier cities.
    But picking up on what previous posters have alluded to: what the article does not say is that you would have to be prepared to put up with pretty bad pay and living conditions, probably for years (not months) until you get to a decent level of Mandarin and might possibly be able to move on to a lucrative package aimed at those with a “desirable skill-set”.
    There are so many types of positions available to foreigners, and perhaps the tendency is to associate expat employment in China with the top-end. The truth is that foreigners working in China cover a whole spectrum, and the article simply fails to differentiate between these.

  • I think this is a “man bites dog” article. The interesting thing is that how well or badly Americans in Chinese are doing, but there are fresh American graduates that *want* to go to China for career reasons.

  • Everyone I know in Beijing thought this article was pretty lame. The oddest part is that there is no mention of the fact that it is virtually impossible for under-25s to get work visas in China at this point. Several people in the story know this first-hand, so I’m not sure how this critical aspect, that might be important to a 22 year-old looking to move here, didn’t make it in.
    I think the much more interesting/accurate story would have been about how early/mid-career professionals with track records of success in the US can do extremely well here. That certainly would have been more interesting. Jack Perkowski, who was cited in the article, is essentially an example of that, as he moved to China in the early 1990s (granted that he had TONS of success in NY). Unfortunately, that didn’t fit into the pre-determined storyline.

  • Brian Schwarz

    Hi Dan,
    In the past six months, it has become much more comptitive for freelance work. And many of my expat friends at MNCs in Shanghai are losing their jobs.

  • Chris

    The idea of young expats coming to China and moving quickly into high paying corporate jobs is just a fantasy. The depth of local talent means that few foreigners will be in a competitive position to achieve that kind of immediate offer. Young expats need to be experts in their area (whatever that may be) or speak excellent Chinese. My personal advise for a young graduate looking to develop a career in China is to take 2 years out and study Chinese. Take it seriously, focus and develop strong language and cross cultural skills. Consider a 2nd tier city where the costs of living and tuition are low (Kunming, Wuhan, Xi’an, Harbin etc) and there may be healthy future employment prospects in entry level management positions. Be realistic.

  • xiongmao

    Recent grads are barely employable for the sole reason that without 2 years experience, getting them a work visa is very difficult (especially in a down market with tons of unemployed local uni grads, but admittedly not impossible). This is from our experience of trying to balance our ratio of new entry level hires of 1 non-Chinese to 4-5 Chinese.
    And if you aren’t already in China, we won’t even bother looking further. This is also from experience.

  • What execrable journalism! This bit stands out:
    “Mr. Perkowski’s latest venture, JFP Holdings, a merchant bank based in Beijing, has not posted any job openings, but has received more than 60 résumés; a third are from young people in the United States who want to come work in China, he said.”
    Tell me, how does that suggest a move to China will help? To me, that suggests “desperate American graduates will try anything” more than “Go to China to jump start your career”.
    From my own experience: We needed to replace 3 teachers. At the start of the summer, my boss said something to the effect of “It’ll be easy. America’s economy has tanked, there’ll be plenty of Americans looking to come here and teach”. He has been rather fussier than I would prefer, having rejected a few applicants, and yet we have filled all vacancies and have potential surplus. And this is ESL, the bottom of the market, the lowest of the low on the socio-economic ladder.
    Oh, and we’ve noticed the visa issues already commented on, too.
    So, yes, I’m sure if you’re looking for a teaching job in the 4th tier and below, it’s still easy enough to show up with an almost finished degree and walk into a job, but if you’re looking at Beijing or Shanghai, it’s not going to be easy.

  • And this is ESL, the bottom of the market, the lowest of the low on the socio-economic ladder.
    Actually, English teaching pays a damn sight better than freelance translation does. I don’t know a single translator in Beijing who is easily able to make rent.
    I’ll be interested to see what price pressures in Beijing and Shanghai are going to do to the long-term freelancer communities here. I know a couple of friends and I had talked about moving to a second-tier city — Qingdao or Kunming — where the cost of living would be lower. Just idle talk at the moment, but if things don’t change soon w/r/t income and/or rent and visa costs, I can definitely see it happening.

  • James G

    “And this is ESL, the bottom of the market, the lowest of the low on the socio-economic ladder.”
    Actually, English teaching pays a damn sight better than freelance translation does. I don’t know a single translator in Beijing who is easily able to make rent.
    Seconded. For many, it feels good to call yourself a consultant/translator/editor/event promoter but I would bet the rent my salary of 5 years ago at a very ordinary language mill is competitive with the average… ummm… “translator’s” current salary.
    Not trying to start a pissing contest here, I just don’t get why so many people turn their nose up at ESL. I know many people only use it as a stepping stone, but the sad reality is that for the vast majority in China, that next step is a doozy. There is nothing like sitting in some bland office, having landed yourself a decent title but worrying about how you will be able to buy a satellite tv package so you can catch March Madness.
    For those of you looking to come to China and try to make, I suggest being enrolled in a distance learning program while you are waiting for your ship to come in. That way, if your parachute doesn’t open, you’ve got some back up for that fateful trip back home in 2 or 5 years.
    Another thing the article should have mentioned was the sheer amount of serendipity involved in making it as a translator or consultant. Nothing chafes more than reading about how some of the true heavyweights in various areas of translating kind of slid into their current positions. Roland Soong and Howard Goldblatt’s stories are particularly interesting…

  • Same logic applies in the US for those who speak Mandarin. It is absolutely mind-blowing how many well-educated, well-informed people think speaking Mandarin is a veritable golden ticket to finding a dream job in the US…it ain’t. Mandarin (or any other language with a high degree of linguistic capital) is a great skill to have *on top of an existing skillset,* and gives you a distinct advantage over someone who does not posses it. If you are, say for example a lawyer, an engineer, or a quality control guy, you could run into some seriously lucrative opportunities. If you are just out of college, and it’s all you have, you better enjoy waiting tables.

  • “. . . . you better enjoy waiting tables.”
    Although even that kind of work is hard to come by at the moment.

  • I’m glad you’ve picked this up Dan but for us ( the damage has been done already. Although our job board focuses on bi-lingual CHINESE nationals we received tons of traffic from (mainly) the US after this article, simply because we rank no.1 on the search terms “jobs in China” in Google. Results: our clients, that are mainly advertising for jobs that require bi-lingual (Chinese + fluent English) language skills and multiple years of experience are flooded with applications from overseas job seekers thinking “it’s easy to land a job in China”. Thanks NYT 😉

  • Brendan, I stand corrected on the economic status of ESL.
    James G. wrote “Not trying to start a pissing contest here, I just don’t get why so many people turn their nose up at ESL.”
    I agree. In fact, ESL is a pretty good job for a multitude of reasons.

  • I was one of those who called the original article a bit exaggerated. Even a lot of the ESL jobs (mostly training centers) in China are fading.

  • I for one was definitely not the typical success story…young, African-American with zero Mandarin speaking skills. I was however not only able to go to China but I launched two national consulting business (one of which still operates) over an 8 1/2 year period. I think the opportunities are not as extensive as they were when I fist came in 1998 and started my companies in 2001 but there are opportunities. people do however need to be realistic with expectations, time frame and salary level. The old hands can tell you it’s rough work building up your career in China but you can get there.

  • Shenyang

    Your best bet to land a job in China is to go where nobody else wants to go, but where there is a high demand for talent. Simply put, follow the laws of supply and demand. If you’re in Guilin, you have an ice cube’s chance in hell. Go to a city where there aren’t any tourists or businessmen, i.e. a second-tier, non-tourist city that is attracting investment nevertheless, and you will find many job offers.
    That being said, you also need more than just your language ability. You need to offer something that the local Chinese don’t have.

  • I get emails every day from US college graduates who speak decent Chinese and have been in China for a while. They are still looking for a job, and are willing to work for free in order to get their foot in the door.
    The NYT is pathetic. What else is new . . .

  • Panda English Education

    I would like to warn teachers in China. If you work in a school or education centre, you must have an expert certificate and residence visa. School will tell you that you can work on a Z visa or F visa but this information is “far from the truth”. If you are caught working without these documents, China will deport you at your own expense and in most cases, they will only give you a few hours to pack. Chinese employers are only interested in making money and they don’t care at what cost to the foreigner.

  • shilpa

    The idea of young expats coming to China and moving quickly into high paying corporate jobs is just a fantasy.

  • Bennie

    You are pretty much guaranteed to end up doing something where your ability to speak your mother-tongue is the only really necessary qualification.I think the NYT peddles in a lot of class warn the teachers………….