English is my business

It’s Saturday morning here in Beijing, one of the few days of the week that I have to go to work. I tutor a seven-year-old girl named Nancy. So at 9:00 I will leave our warm little apartment, climb on my bicycle and pedal to Nancy’s dowdy apartment complex, about a half hour away. Besides Nancy, I have only one other regular tutoring gig: I meet twice a week with Yong, a researcher at Microsoft Asia who is applying to US Ph.D. programs in engineering. I have a couple other clients who will ask for an hour or two of my time every now and then, but only sporadically.

My ‘tutoring’ sessions have been very enjoyable. Nancy used to live in Canada, and her English is excellent. I’m basically just a talking dictionary for her as she reads. Yong’s English is also very good, and our conversations have been very interesting. Lately we’ve spent a lot of time going over long lists of words and phrases he’s written down while watching episodes of the TV show Friends. If he hears something he doesn’t quite understand, he writes it down, accumulating a list a page-and-a-half long per episode, I’d estimate. So I’ve had to explain the frequent use of the word ‘like,’ what a ‘quickie’ is, and the origin of the phrase ‘Bizzaro World’ (which I also had to explain to my wife, television-deprived as she was as child). For his part, Yong has explained to me the long process of getting a Beijing driver’s license, and why Audi cars are viewed as prestigious (they used to be available only to high officials).

When we were planning this year-long adventure in China, one of the first questions was what I, the one who does not speak Chinese, would do to occupy my time and, hopefully, earn some money while living in Beijing. No problem, our friends in China assured us–as a native English speaker with an advanced degree, I would be in high demand as an English teacher. Students would flock to me like pigeons to breadcrumbs; along my every path would flow a current of renminbi that I could dip into at will, whenever my wallet threatened to run dry. Things haven’t gone according to that plan, however.

In addition to the tutoring jobs, I have also edited English versions of legal documents for a Beijing law firm, but this work has been the least constant–only two jobs two-hour jobs in three months. I have also spent a fair amount of time preparing for and teaching ‘demo’ classes for various agencies–classes designed to show your teaching skills to a prospective client. So far, however, these demo classes have not resulted in regular teaching gigs, either because the students wanted to have a teacher who also spoke Chinese, or because the agency and the client could not agree on a price. I have also turned down several teaching offers because they would have required too many hours, keeping me away most evenings, or demanded too much travel (to another city–Tianjin–in one case; in other cases to distant parts of Beijing) to make the pay worthwhile. In a typical week I earn 600 RMB, or about $75. It’s enough to keep the household in groceries and some cheap restaurant meals, but that’s about it.

There does seem to a high demand for English teachers in Beijing, but the market, at least in our neighborhood, seems fairly crowded with foreigners, and prices have fallen accordingly. It might be different, also, if we lived in a section of down more business-dominated than university-dominated. Most of the prospective employers of English teachers around Wudaoko are poorly-funded relative to the international business groups in other parts of town, where I suspect better teaching salaries could be had.