The Foreign Teacher Role

In China foreign teachers are called 外教 (a shortened form of 外籍教师). Literally it means “foreign teacher.” It’s a simple descriptive term. There’s nothing wrong with it.

And yet I don’t like to be called a waijiao. Why? It’s the connotations that usually come with the word. A waijiao can come in many shapes and sizes, but typically:

– A waijiao is white.

– A waijiao is most often male.

– A waijiao is young, likely fresh out of college. (Alternatively, he could be retired.)

– A waijiao is entertaining.

– A waijiao doesn’t speak much Chinese, if any. (If he does, it’s likely entertaining.)

– A waijiao doesn’t really have any skills other than being a native speaker of English. Sometimes they’re OK teachers.

I know… I am white. I am male. I am young. However, I am not in China for anyone’s entertainment but my own, although that’s certainly not my main reason for being here. And I do speak Chinese. I am not without skills. I don’t like to be pigeon-holed.

I was a waijiao for 3 1/2 years in Hangzhou. I enjoyed that job, and I was good at it. Then I was a waijiao teaching kids for a year here in Shanghai. That was a valuable experience too. But now I would like to move on… I like teaching, but I don’t want to make it my career. (Not TEFL, anyway.)

And yet to most Chinese people, if you’re a foreigner and you’re young, you’re either a student or a waijiao. If you’re not young, you’re either doing business here or you’re a waijiao. There’s really not much else.

Ironically, now that I have finally moved away from the role of waijiao with my current job, I’m returning to the pigeon-hole by becoming a student again. Plus they still call me a waijiao at work anyway even though I’ve corrected them on numerous occasions. Micah is a (skilled) waijiao, and I guess it’s too much to remember that we actually have different roles at the company.

When I get out of grad school I’m going to have to wreak havoc on all this waijiao stereotyping.

I do three main things at my job now:

1. I edit a new line of textbooks for Chinese kindergarteners. I don’t decide the lesson themes, but I play a role in determining the vocabularly to be taught, and I write the lesson text. My lessons must be of the appropriate level, but not contain too much difficult or unfamilair vocabulary or grammar. The lessons must also have rhythm, because they are set to music and sung as songs. When these books come out, my name will be in the books as writer.

2. I play the Chinese voice of a cartoon character as well as the English voices of several characters. I also manage the recording of the international versions of those cartoons, which involves putting together a team of voice talents and overseeing the studio recording. (I’m doing that this week and next week.)

3. I translate the cartoon scripts from Chinese to English, which are then used to record the international version of the cartoon. I also translate other parts of the textbook line for the international edition.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. haha, interesting. i terribly agree to what you listed:

    A waijiao doesn’t speak much Chinese, if any. (If he does, it’s likely entertaining.)

    A waijiao doesn’t really have any skills other than being a native speaker of English. Sometimes they’re OK teachers.

    It seems most Waijiaos are of that type.

  2. And may I know what else skills you have John?

  3. THIS is a post? Says: August 17, 2005 at 2:01 pm

    Get over yourself, Pasden. You’re no Da Shan. Your high opinion of your job (you are a waijiao, like it or not) is very, very over inflated.

    What happened to the down-to-earth Pasden that made sinoplice fun. Now it’s a cookie-cutter of what it used to be. Completely disposable.

    At least you ubdate your blog, unlike your “network” brethren (alf, greg, etc.). too bad it’s phoned in and the sincereity is gone…

  4. Heh, I realize now that I communicated pretty poorly in this entry… What you read:

    > Waijiao are bad. I am not a waijiao.

    > This is the amazing non-waijiao work I do!

    That was not my intent. The second part was actually intended for my parents, because I could imagine them thinking, “well, John, what do you do now?” after reading the first part. So what I wanted to communicate was:

    > The term waijiao has some negative connotations. I want to escape them (if I can).

    > Mom and Dad, this is what I’ve been up to.

    I’m not actually as arrogant as I came across, believe it or not.

  5. Kastner,

    I think you misunderstood my intent. My skills are irrelevant. If you really want to know, though, you can find them on other sections of this site or e-mail me.

  6. Dear anonmymous waijiao,

    Hmmm, this post made somebody pretty defensive.

    Again, I think you misunderstood me. I wouldn’t look down on any waijiao — I was one myself for 4.5 years! But if you have plans to be in China long-term and you don’t want to be a waijiao forever, you have your work cut out for you.

  7. haha, i was joking, John.
    I know what you really mean and will always supporting you!

  8. I’m special! I’m a unique snowflake! I’m not like all those “other” foreigners, I’m more Chinese than them and can see things they can’t!

    I think we have a case of Marco Polo syndrome here. And look, two entries down, the author proudly proclaims he’s a student, thus fitting one of his definitions of the only roles a foreigner can fit into.

    > I don’t like to be pigeon-holed.

    Ironically, someone with a greater understanding of China would comprehend the Chinese way and be at peace with it.

  9. Da Xiangchang Says: August 18, 2005 at 7:08 am


    Hate to say it, but I find your points about being called a waijiao to be valid but also a bit hypocritical. Dude, I would imagine it’s PRECISELY cuz you’re ostensibly a waijiao (young, English-speaking, and ESPECIALLY, Caucasian) that you got the job(s) that you did. Even if a Chinese guy had ALL your skills but didn’t look like you (i.e., Caucasian), he wouldn’t get nearly the same level of treatment and salary. So I find it funny when a foreigner wants to be treated “equally”–i.e., not be singled out for being foreign–yet partakes in the all of the advantages OF being foreign. It’s like a broad saying, “I want to be equal, but I still want the door opened for me.” WTF is that?!! I mean, if foreigners in China want true equality, to feel closer to the REAL Chinese experience, they would be working for 2000 yuan a month or less–which I doubt any of the foreigners reading this are making. So enough of the whining.

  10. Who says these connotations are negative? I think it depends on your point of view. The school administration would probably accept these traits as typical, but doesn’t really care as long as the waijiao sticks to teaching oral English classes and doesn’t try to stick their nose into any of the important classes. The students themselves would probably see young and entertaining as quite desirable things (and english majors, who are more often girls than boys, would probably not complain about the “male” bit either).

    The people who have the most beef with this list of typical characteristics are those waijiao which do care about teaching, and want classes by foreign teachers to fulfill their potential rather than just being a win-win situation for the schools (who want foreign faces) and the foreign teachers (who want to bum around in China for a few months), but with little obvious value with regard to actually educating the students.

    Some waijiao are “OK teachers”, some waijiao have other skills. In fact, the number of waijiao who fit ALL the criteria listed by John are probably very few, but I would have to agree that MOST waijiao fit MOST of the criteria. Mainly the system is to blame for this, especially the fact that most jobs require no teaching qualifications, and the salaries are high by local standards but low when converted into western currencies.

  11. John,

    There’s no need to be defensive about categorizing yourself differently from foreign language teachers who are in China for a brief period of time and have little or no Chinese language proficiency. You’re right to point out the general connotations the word waijiao carries to most Chinese people. Your post is a fairly straightforward description of the statistically dominant characteristics of ESL teachers in the mainland China.

    Any readers put off by your charactarization should ask themselves (1) why they are having a negative reaction. Is it what you said, or their own emotions (2) where the hell are the women waijiao, and particularly those women fluent in Chinese?

    I would imagine that any serious language student would immediately grok the difference you identify. I do anyway. Foreigners with language skills can move more freely in Chinese society and tend to have greater job and social flexibility.

    The only reason I can imagine someone getting disaffected is if they think you’re making a claim to some sort of financial or normative superiority by virtue of less classroom face time — something patently absurd given the abysmal ratio of effort to return in studying Chinese, and the fact that most decent Chinese speakers (basically all of the ones i know) have gone through teaching stints at one time or another to support themselves while in China..

    p.s. its nice to have a new post every day.

  12. The “international” version of the cartoon is performed in what language? Esperanto? Or does it mean “international” in the sense of “north american”.

  13. THIS is a post? Says: August 18, 2005 at 12:57 pm

    This is similar to foreingers trying to deny they ever et at a western fast food joint overseas, when they do – a lot (not to say everyday, but certainly once a month or more). It’s like the b. s. “harder than you” crap that raped the punk rock scene in the eighties. People were afraid to just say, “hey, I’m a punk. Hard or soft, I’m a punk, man.”

    Pasden, you still TEACH. Education is education and the work you’re doing is guidence. It involves TEACHING materials. It’s also entertainment-based.

    I agree with the other cat who said that you have opportunities afforded to you because you are a white foreinger who speaks English. This too falls into the waijiao category.

    Finally, your WORK relates to the learning of ENGLISH in China.

    You’re waijiao, dude, and wave that f’n banner proud. Come out of the waijiao closet and acept your current career for what it is.

    I agree about looking beyond teaching for long term China goals, and it’s clear you’re attempting that, too. Still, you’re wiajiao, dude. Right now: for sure.

    As Sam Peckinpah once told my dad, “you can paint a turd gold but it’s still a goddamned turd.”

    You’re not a turd, but you are a wiajiao, no matter what missives you present to the opposite effect!

    I liked your blog better when you were a waijiao and not in denial!

  14. Da Xiangchang,

    Yeah, you’re right.

    I guess this was just the occasional whiny post. Emotional reactions are not logical.

  15. Todd,

    Good points.

    And yes, “international” refers to American English. Of course! (It’s for the kindergartens in Shanghai with foreign kids.)

  16. THIS,

    No, I haven’t done any teaching for quite a while. I think I know what my job is. Yes, my job is still at an English education company, however.

    外教 is short for 外籍教师. If I’m not working as a 教师, how can I be a 外教? Still, I suppose it’s a fine line. The Chinese don’t make the distinction, and I suppose you’re “Chineser” than me for insisting that there is no distinction. Congratulations.

    Your claim that this one post ruins my whole blog is a little ridiculous, though. I don’t know what you’re getting so worked up about.

  17. Well, these days, the “international” lingua franca is English. This never hit home with me until one day, sitting at the tea tables in the lobby of a 4-star hotel (see, I’m a stereotypical Western businessman), I heard a Pakistani man talking to a Chinese man in the most horrible English possible. Nonetheless, they were having a conversation and getting business done. Really made an impression on me at the time.

  18. Da Xiangchang Says: August 20, 2005 at 7:39 am


    Heehee, good points about the domination of English. I have Chinese friends who are learning German, and I’m like, What’s the point? You would be a lot off improving your English than learning how to speak German from scratch. A story: I was once in a Beijing hotel restaurant where a Chinese waitress was explaining the dishes to a vacationing old German couple. Of course, they all spoke English and HORRIBLE English at that. It was HILARIOUS seeing them communicate.

    So English rules. Mandarin might rule in the future. Spanish is very good to know too. If you know all three languages well, you rule. (Don’t get too full of yourself, John!)

    German and French are a complete waste of time; as their populations and economies inevitably shrink in the future so would the importance of their language. Same thing with Japanese, though I’d imagine it’ll stay important in the near-future. By 2050, however, it would be TOTALLY pointless to learn Japanese–unless you want to talk to old farts reminiscing how they were once the world’s second-biggest economy. HA!

  19. John,

    I just wanted to let you know that I totally empathized with you while reading this post. In fact I’m kind of disappointed that you gave in and called it whiny and illogical. I don’t think it’s whiny or illogical in the least.

    Those who are calling you arrogant may be right, but considering how much you’ve accomplished, you have every right to be arrogant. Feeling that you should be spared of a stereotpye that in no way fits you, however, is not arrogant or whiny.

    Besides, it doesn’t matter what your point of view about it is, this stereotype is still going to be unfairly applied to you. My husband is Chinese, and according to Chinese tradition, I now am essentially a member of my husband’s family alone. But this doesn’t prevent me from being labelled a foreigner or foreign teacher everywhere I go. If my husband and I walk down the street alone, the presumption is that I’m a foreign professor and he is my host. If we walk down the street with our baby, making it clear that we are a family, then all three of us are called foreigners.

    People have made a few very ridiculous arguments after you wrote this post. One is that since English teachers in China are in high demand and are therefore compensated with a higher salary, foreigners in general have no right to expect to be treated like normal people. There is absolutely no correlation between those two points. The second ridiculous comment is that this kind of treatment is the “Chinese way,” and you should just be “at peace with it.” In reality, it’s only a matter of time before all national borders start to crumble and more foreigners settle in China. At that time, Chinese society will be forced to adapt and become more open-minded. Eventually, foreigners in China will be able to enjoy being treated like normal residents just like foreigners in other open societies do, such as the United States, where any self-respecting Chinese American would be appalled if he were referred to simply as a “foreigner” in public or routinely called by some stereotypical label. That’s because cultural diferences notwithstanding, human nature is universal, and all of us just want to be treated like normal people.

    Anyway, good job on this post. You put into very clear words what a lot of us are feeling.

  20. Da Xiangchang Says: August 25, 2005 at 8:08 am


    Maybe I’m a cynic, but I TRULY doubt most foreigners in China want to be “treated like normal people.” I would imagine for most foreigners, the ENTIRE point of living abroad is to be treated not as a normal person but rather a minor celebrity with all the perks such a status affords: more money, less work, more travel opportunities, more success with the ladies, etc. Again, you cannot have your cake and eat it too. And don’t give me that “English teachers are highly in demand” refrain. I’d imagine there are thousands upon thousands of Chinese English teachers who work twice as hard as foreign English teachers and get paid less than a fifth of their salaries. And don’t say foreign “teachers” are better cuz most foreigners who teach English in China can’t even teach English in their own countries cuz they would need both an English degree AND a credential to do that. In the end, most foreigners are hired not for their skills but rather for cosmetic reasons–i.e., the “Look, we got ourselves a Caucasian!” attitude that dazzles the superficial Chinese. Bottom line: if you desire true normalcy, give up your high salary and get paid like any NORMAL (i.e., Chinese) English teacher, which is less than, I’d imagine, 2000 yuan a month. Once you assume this first part of normalcy–economic normalcy–then you have a case for other parts. If you can’t even do that, I can’t help but feel you’re a hypocrite.

  21. Da XiangChang,

    I wouldn’t say you’re a cynic, I think you’re just uninformed. I mean, have you ever stopped to think if these stereotypes you adhere to even make sense? You say foreign teachers come to China to make more money for doing less work while enjoying social perks like “success with the ladies” and being treated as a “minor celebrity.” Well, let’s take American foreign teachers for example. Any minimum wage job in America pays at least three times as much as even the most prestigious English teaching jobs here. Even working only 10 hours a week at a minimum wage job in Washington would earn a person a salary of 11,550 yuan per month, an unheard of salary for TEFL teachers in China. For most Americans who have graduated from university and have some student loan burden, working at the level of Chinese wages is pretty much like doing charity work. “Less work?” Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe the average English teacher in China puts in at least 15 hours per week of class time, not including additional tasks like lesson planning, grading, office time, and talking with students outside of class. “Success with the ladies?” Like Chinese girls are easier to “score” with than American girls? Not unless you’re willing to get married, get her a green card, bring her to the U.S., and let your friends laugh behind your back about how you got taken advantage of. About the “status perks”, I think you made some cultural misunderstandings. You see, to Westerners, getting stared at profusely wherever you go, asked where you come from, being forced to tell your life story to everyone you meet, being quizzed and laughed at when speaking Chinese, all these things are not considered being treated as a “celebrity”, though most foreigners in China experience these on a daily basis. Also, even if American society were more like Chinese society, and people with a higher “status” could enjoy being treated like royalty even by their own family members and treat other people like dirt at their whim, the way to go about earning a higher status certainly wouldn’t be to travel far away from friends and family and live in a country where economic, medical, sanitary, and other standards were far below those back at home. I think you have been so busy hating, ridiculing, and blaming foreign teachers for economic problems in China that you haven’t stopped to even try and understand the many sacrifices they make coming to China to teach, all because they are interested in helping students and learning about your culture.

    Thank you for catching my error, by the way. I did mean English teachers who are native speakers are in high demand, not English teachers in general. And yes, they are better, no matter what they studied in college or whether or not they specialize in ESL. A native speaker is a better teacher of any language, that’s common knowledge the world over. It works that way no matter where you go. For example, if you are a native Chinese speaker and you want to teach Chinese at an American college, you would only need a bachelor’s degree in any subject and preferably a teaching Chinese as a foreign language endorsement. But, if you are an American who wants to teach Chinese, you would need a PhD in Chinese, and even then you would have a very hard time finding a job. So, Americans who want to teach Chinese and Chinese who want to teach English both have their work cut out for them. That’s to be expected, since textbook knowledge and real-world knowledge are two entirely different things.

    I mean, did you think that Chinese parents and educators prefer that their students learn English from a native speaker simply because they are superficial and think white people are prettier? Of course not, it’s just that the stereotype is that a native English speaker is white. You surely can’t blame Westerners for the existence of those stereotypes. It’s those same preconceptions that are making our lives harder everyday.

    Finally, you told me that if I want to stop seeming like a hypocrite, I’d better give up my English teaching job and the high salary that goes with it. Your making that comment shows that you didn’t know me or have any interest in knowing who I am before judging me. I did teach English in America, but I don’t do it here. I came to China for one reason, to help my husband take care of his family here. I looked into teaching English for a little while, but although I taught English in the U.S. for a year and a half, I wasn’t up to doing it here. It’s a hard job if you want to do it right- teaching kids who have never heard a native speaker except on audio tape, plus helping the Chinese English teachers improve their English and doing PR for the school in your free time. I knew I could make twice as much money just selling stuff on EBay, so I thought I’d leave teaching English to all those teachers who came to China because they love to teach.

    However, being a part of a Chinese family, I do know firsthand how painful it is trying to make a living in this economy. My father-in-law has worked for 28 years making less than 1600 yuan per month, while being pushed around by his “high-status” supervisors so he could save money to send his kids through school. After spending some time in China, my husband and I decided that we’ll all be better off packing up and going back to the States. That way my father-in-law can work for a fair wage and be treated equally, plus our daughters won’t have to spend their entire childhood being called foreigners or maybe even white devils even though they’re half Chinese. Anyway, just wanted to let you know that I did give up the royal $450 or so U.S. dollars English teaching salary a long time ago, so no need to call me a hypocrite anymore for thinking people should be treated equally in China. But you know, after watching a news conference today about what’s going on in Xinjiang, I realize how unrealistic it is for foreigners in China to ask for equal treatment when Chinese minorities can’t even expect that much. I guess China just still has a long way to go when it comes to equality.

  22. Da Xiangchang Says: August 26, 2005 at 6:33 am


    As President Bush would say to Cindy Sheehan, “I respect your opinions, but I disagree.” One thing, though: your minimum-wage calculations are way off. Minimum wage for Washington state is $7.35 an hour and in Washington DC, it’s $6.60. A guy working 10 hours a week at $7.35 will make $316.05 a month (4.3 weeks a month)–or 2560 yuan a month (8.1 yuan to the dollar), not the 11,500 yuan you quoted. A guy in Washington state working FULL-TIME at minimum wage wouldn’t even make that much money.

  23. Sorry, you’re right, my calculation was definitely messed up somewhere. Math and accuracy are two things that are not my strong points. Anyway, I do know that the 4000 yuan per month, the maximum that a teacher can make in this city working full time hours is less than $500 per month, which is why I presume that in Washington State a full time worker can easily make three times as much. I do agree with you very much on some points, especially that there are some male foreign teachers in China who are childish and attempt to prey on women or otherwise be typical conceited Western men who couldn’t possibly be very successful in the U.S., but survive in China just because they are native English speakers. The more weblogs I read, the more guys like this I hear about. I also agree that many schools hire foreign teachers just as a PR tool, and they won’t hire any qualified foreign teacher who’s not white. But I think that stereotyping foreign teachers doesn’t do the good ones any justice, and there are some very good ones who are doing their best to make a contribution to China, simply because they love it here. Unfortunately, the few rotten apples have given all foreigners a bad name.

  24. lol, I was once forced to learn English from a Waijiao.
    Frankly, I think Waijiaos are over-paid. Sure, they are able to make English learning much more fun. But my English improved little anyway, coz I was too old to learn from a Waijiao. It only works on small kids.
    And Waijiaos are rare in my city, Dandong. People sometimes treat them as if they were from another planet…

  25. @trevelyan: Anybody who uses “grok” when not posting on a tech blog like slashdot is cool. You rock, dude.

    @John: Three and a half YEARS as a 外教? I honestly don’t know how you survived. If I hadn’t started working at schools where Chinese speaking foreigners do all the teaching I would have slit my throat with a flashcard for “toast” (with a picture of bread on it, of course). Or, maybe I would have devised some complex suffocation device made entirely from sticky-balls. It’s a tough call.

    Maybe the local run schools are better on the mainland, but here they suck. Most students who have been at a big chain for 4 years struggle to pass my school’s first semester final. They have a non-existant comprehension of phonics (just memorized spellings, and nothing more), and terrible accents, too. Local run buxibans with the “local teacher” and the “foreign teacher who isn’t allowed to speak Chinese” are just a rip-off for everyone involved. How good would your Japanese have been if your university hired only Americans who sucked at it, and Japanese people who were under a strict “No English in the classroom policy”?

  26. In my experience, this massive gap in wages between foreign teachers and local Chinese English teachers is largely a myth. Yes, there is often a difference, but not as much as some foreigners would like to believe.

    My girlfriend used to do the payroll for a private university in Xi’an, so I do have some first hand knowledge of this. For professors at public universities, the chance for side income (bribes) often leads to an income much higher than that of the foreign teacher.

    In the case of those teachers that do make more, it’s just a matter of supply and demand. They certainly don’t pay any more than they have to. My first school told me that they just didn’t have the money to pay me more money. This was following the director of the school buying his 6th car. A Lexus to fit in with his Mercedes and Landcruisers. That ended my days of ever feeling guilty of how much money I made in China.

  27. Hi Folks,

    This issue is a typical PARADOX, and there is (by definition) no solution for a paradox. It’s worth listing a paradox, and, as someone already mentioned, “be in peace with it”.

    Foreigners are both hated and envied in China. Foreigners are indeed stereotyped into being English teachers (not only “waijiao”, which could mean ANY kind of teacher: but specifically ENGLISH LANGUAGE teachers, even more typically ORAL ENGLISH FOREIGN TEACHERS) or business people (must be associated with MONEY in some way).

    It seems unimaginable for a PRC mind the wide variety of races, religions, nationalities, languages, professions, etc that our beautiful world (outside their fence) encompasses.

    So, with their stereotyping they only issue a certificate about their own IQ levels and international exposure. Leave it like that. It’s valuable information for a foreigner to be classified as a “waijiao” or a “businessman”. Both mean something.

    Being called and considered a waijiao means that the person thinks foreigners are ONLY good here to teach them English (English language skills are considered “halfway to Heaven”, a necessary must item on the way of immigrating to any country that currently still grants visas to PRC citizens).

    Being considered a businessman means that the person thinks foreigners ought to a) buy the local products or b) give them high-paid jobs.

    There is some statistics that shows that unfortunately, this stereotyping is not far from reality. Indeed, if you randomly come across a foreign face, you have a 90% chance that the person will be either a waijiao or a businessman. And, if you stay in China long enough, you will realize that this won’t even change much, in the years to come.

    I personally find it very sad, because what China REALLY needs is neither English teachers nor businessmen. China needs advisors at all level to clean up the mess, dilettantism and corruption that makes this country a nice, big JOKE compared with any other country that REALLY means business.

    The PARADOX in question (waijaios in China) is a particularly sad and humiliating one. As Rob said, schools in China are everything, but education. They are, just like hospitals, PROFIT CENTERS, and their managers (“deans”) are making sure that indeed they don’t pay anyone a penny more than what s/he accepts. On the revenue side, they charge as much as the public can afford. Hence school managers riding around in luxury cars, foreign teachers paid locally high, internationally low salaries (double ridiculous: foreign teachers will never feel rich here, while locals will continuously envy them), and local administrators earning minimum salaries.

    I did run my own school back in 2002. It was successful. However, working together with a Chinese partner was no fun at all. Greed, dishonesty, dilettantism anywhere you see. Oh, forgot nationalism (“because this is China!”-kind of arguments).

    Dude, I found a golden shield against all these stereotypes. I simply call myself a philosopher, without explanation. You should see those faces of ignorance and shock: someone who doesn’t teach locals a language, rather, how to be WISE? And, someone who is BEYOND this material world? 🙂

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