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Moonlighting in China: Lessons in ESL

China Travel
by Virginia Fortner Feb 3, 2009
I didn’t come to China expecting to do any teaching beyond my red-stamped contracts.

But this–my third year of teaching in China spread across three different cities–has taught me how to make some extra yuan and have some unexpected fun while teaching English.

My biggest hurdle to maneuvering while moonlighting was knowing what to avoid. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Don’t underestimate relationships.

Guanxi, or relationships–all-important in Chinese culture–held the key to every extra job I got. One Chinese friend laughed, “Westerners end with a contract. We start with a contract, then throw it away.”

A Chinese co-teacher who needed my help editing her Master’s thesis didn’t have time to teach kids in downtown Xian. (My editing was a freebie, but she took me biking around Xian’s ancient wall and her boyfriend accessed some English movies, both priceless gifts.)

She took me to Perfect English School’s owner, and I soon had an interesting weekend job for a semester. They paid me well and lavished me with roses!

In 2006, I biked past an attractive kindergarten gate as the headmistress walked out. We exchanged cards and began e-mailing. As we corresponded, she began adding, “Your friend” and “Miss you.” Two years later, she asked me to tutor her bright daughter.

I agreed out of friendship, not sure she would pay me beyond an occasional, customary Chinese dinner out. To my surprise, she paid monthly and became my highest-paying client.

2. Don’t reject surprises.

On the commute to my first day at university, I met a fellow teacher who insisted I teach for her. I told her I should ask my English department; she said, “Shhh” and “It will be OK.” I later learned that she was moonlighting at my school three mornings a week, though she was the head of English in her school.

I visited her university class, was immediately introduced as their laoshi, and was handed a tourism text. I thought, “Oh well…” and launched into a pronunciation lesson.

Over two semesters, the classroom monitor, a stellar student and wonderful helper, facilitated great PowerPoint presentations that prepared me for travel to Guilin, Dali, the Great Wall, Harbin, Hainan and the Terra Cotta Warriors, and the Yangtze River.

3. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

My boss, head of a college foreign language office, charged me with a challenging assignment: a professional woman representing a Third World health organization needed help writing and speaking. I confronted him, “What about my contract that says I will not work outside the college?”

He answered softly, “It is a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. You may negotiate your own fee with her.”

We not only spruced up her presentations for India and Mexico; she introduced me to dog meat hot pot, an experience I wouldn’t have entrusted to many Chinese friends.

4. Don’t make quick judgments.

A French neighbor and his Chinese wife invited me for an evening’s chat. I met Tom, who wanted to study English before going to an Australian university. He “knew 3,000 English words, but couldn’t use them” and thought my tutorial price too high.

We talked as he walked me home. I learned that he didn’t own a car (unusual for a governmental official), was quite concerned about the environment, and seemed genuinely sorry he couldn’t afford tutoring.

Six phone calls and three meetings later, he brought several friends who studied two hours daily in my home for three weeks. We met early afternoons, during the time when most of China sleeps.

They paid me “whether they came or not, because a promise is a promise,” something I hadn’t often experienced while tutoring in the United States. I found them as excited as small children about a Christmas gift exchange, our sole half-hour departure from debates and formal writing exercises.

Staying open to surprises, cultivating relationships, and keeping mum when tempted to make quick judgments added a new dimension to my experiences teaching English in China. I learned to state flexible limits clearly up front, value friendship over business negotiations, and expect the unexpected.

A Few More Moonlighting Tips for Expat Teachers and Tutors Working in China
  • You represent your country as well as all foreigners in the eyes of the Chinese. Plan lessons well. Take cues from what students want to learn, review often, and respond promptly. Tie a practical, doable assignment to each lesson, and check at the next meeting to acknowledge how it was done.
  • Decide on a price-per-hour comfortable for you. Also, decide how flexible you will be in negotiations ahead of time. Ask the going rate in your city and be realistic, basing your fee on your educational level and teaching skills. Chinese usually pay only for face-to-face hours, not for travel or preparation time.
  • If you must cancel, do so well in advance and get feedback about the new meeting time and place to avoid misunderstandings.
  • Avoid over-extending yourself by spacing between tutoring or moonlighting classes and your contract job. If word gets around that you are a great teacher, you may have to turn down some jobs for health and sanity’s sake!
  • Above all, have fun and celebrate your students’ successes.


Want to try a little language-learning role reversal? Give How to Learn Chinese: Student Versus Teacher a read, and for more on the TESL experience, check out the 8 Hidden Benefits of Teaching English Abroad.

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