When I decided to try teaching English abroad, I had my sights set on South Korea. As I pushed forward through the process, Dan introduced a different possibility to me—heading to a relatively unknown, yet massive and modern urban center known as Shenzhen, China.
Not wanting to miss out on anything by mentally closing doors before I knew what was on the other side, I began to look into the opportunity. Sure enough, I arrived in Shenzhen in mid-February to begin my year abroad. I joke to my friends who knew how much I love Korea that I simply got on the wrong plane, but my decision was carefully laid out. In this post, I will answer some common questions to give you an idea about life in Shenzhen as an English teacher. Later, I will address the teaching side of things more specifically.
The Benefits of Teaching in ChinaFor many prospective teachers, finances represent a significant portion of the decision. While teaching in Korea is a reliable, established industry with solid benefits and respectable pay, China’s ESL industry is growing explosively and may even be the future of ESL in Asia.
The benefits and base pay are certainly better in Korea, for now. However, China’s cost of living is significantly lower than Korea’s, and in most cities, you will have a pretty good salary. Combine this with lucrative private lessons (the standard minimum rate in my city is 250rmb/about $40 U.S. per hour) and your earnings potential can be quite high. I splurged a bit and rented a large, single apartment and spend about $600 U.S. a month on rent and utilities. I spend maybe $70-100 U.S. a month on nonessential purchases. I can save about half of my paycheck without even living that frugally, and that’s before including private lessons. It is definitely possible to save money in China, which you can use however you’d like.
That fact has proven quite convenient for me, because one of the things I really wanted to do while in Asia was travel, and teaching in China gives you ample time to travel. I teach about 16, 40 minute classes a week, and I am on the higher end for teachers. My school district requires me to remain at school for office hours, but I can use that free time however I’d like as long as I’m at the school. I also got two months’ summer vacation on half-pay (full housing allowance), and I will get a week off for the Chinese National Holiday, a month off in February, and a handful of other three-day weekends. If I took a position I was considering in Korea, I would have gotten 14 days’ vacation the entire year.
The greatest thing about China for me is this flexibility to spend my money and time however I want. If you want to save all you can, that’s feasible. If you want to live a luxurious Shenzhen lifestyle, you can do that. If you want to travel as much as possible, that’s a realistic goal (and more on that later).
Shenzhen; The Megacity
About four decades ago, if you came to Shenzhen, you would not have found much to do. Back then, a series of small fishing villages comprised the entirety of the area. The population sat at around 30,000. However, when Deng Xiaoping began his economic reforms, he established the first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in what is now central Shenzhen. Today, the city is home to roughly 15 million people, and it lays claim to being the manufacturing and tech capital of China (and maybe the world!). Sort of the “Silicon Valley” of China, you can find all sorts of electronics and parts here for reasonably cheap. You also see an ambitious, young population not afraid to take initiative. Shenzhen is one of the economic centers of China, and it’s exciting to be here while this country is changing so quickly and so profoundly.
Nanshan, Futian, and Luohu districts represent the SEZ. While other districts in the city are still quite urban and modern, there are clear distinctions between these three main districts and others around them. I live in Bao’an, which is a massive and quickly developing district providing exciting and rapid changes to witness in what feels like high-speed.
Getting AroundShenzhen is an incredibly modern city and may have the best subway system I have found yet. This will likely be the primary way in which you get around. You can get pretty much anywhere in the city within an hour, despite its massive size. Most trips you take will likely be 15-30 minutes, if that. You can get a Shenzhen Tong metro card to get a discount on each trip, which you can also refill at any metro station. It makes a trip on the metro extra convenient because you can just swipe in and out without needing to slow down at all.
The maps are easy to follow, and there is English everywhere you may possibly need it. A vast majority of the city is covered by the metro as well. Want to go into Futian on the weekend? Easy enough. Care to venture out into the outskirts? Hop on the subway and plug in your earbuds.
Buses are also readily accessible, although slightly less friendly to the non-Chinese speaker. They are incredibly cheap and cover a lot of routes that the metro can’t handle as well.
When you exit a metro station, you will usually find at least a couple men on covered bikes ready to taxi you nearby for a meager 10-15rmb (about $1.50-2.00 U.S.). Although you may hesitate initially, they can be a lifesaver if you are in a hurry or get caught in unexpected rain.
Another popular option is renting a bike. Shenzhen has a world-class bike sharing program. There are about 4-5 companies who provide bikes for rent. Once you download the app and get your account going, you simply pull up the app, locate the nearest bike, scan the QR code, and the bike unlocks. The going rate is usually about 1-2rmb ($0.15 U.S.) for about two hours. And the bikes are everywhere.
Taxis are incredibly cheap in China. I have taken a 45 minute taxi ride and spent only about 80rmb (around $11.00 U.S.). If you split a taxi with friends, the cost almost becomes a non-factor. You will need to know the address of your destination in Chinese, or have a picture of the address, but I have gotten accustomed to just saying the name of my metro stop in Chinese and going from there.
Lastly, if you don’t want to taxi, there is an Uber-equivalent app called Didi. Once you learn how to navigate the app, Didi’s present you with another fairly cheap, convenient option for getting around.
DiningInside the SEZ is where you find the most modern, international side of Shenzhen. While you can find great Chinese food throughout the city, to find the best international food, you will want to head to one of these districts. Chinese food can be found everywhere, of course, and for both very cheap and fancier prices—I have fed myself entire meals on a little more than a dollar, and I have found more expensive, yet-absolutely-worth-it Chinese meals as well. Outside of your popular American fast food restaurants, which are common all over the city, international food is focused a bit more in the central districts. It also tends to be a bit more expensive, although not any more so than you’d find in Western countries. Foreigner hotspots Coco Park and Seaworld offer international options for $8-15 U.S. a meal, for example. The international food you find here is pretty good on average, too. If you find you need a break from all the amazing Chinese food, it’s not hard to find a satisfying meal.
NightlifeCoincidentally, Coco Park and Seaworld represent two of the hotspots for nightlife as well. In each of these places, you can find Western-style bars and clubs conveniently located in proximity to one another. Pick a place and dance the night away; go bar hopping; or bring some friends to a sports bar to watch the game. Nightlife in Shenzhen has all the same comforts you’re likely used to back home. There are other popular areas in Shenzhen too—some parts of Luohu are popular with local Chinese, and Bao’an Center has a growing bar scene. There is a niche craft beer scene with good spots in Coco Park as well as around Baishizhou station in Nanshan, if that’s your thing. And if you want to drink for really cheap, you can buy beers at a convenience store for less than a dollar and bring them to a restaurant with friends.
I won’t argue that Shenzhen’s nightlife matches that of a city like Seoul, but you can find whatever scene you like here and you can definitely keep yourself entertained. Adventure out or find a bar to become a regular—whatever you like!
Meeting Other Foreigners It is remarkably easy to meet other foreigners here. My company, Seadragon, makes it easy to develop a network of friends among teachers who live around you, and I am sure other companies here do something similar. If you’d like to branch out, it’s very easy to meet foreigners at Coco Park, Seaworld, or elsewhere in Nanshan and Futian. A third great option is to find WeChat groups dedicated to activities and hobbies you like. (WeChat is a social media app that you will come to love if you make it to China. You use it for absolutely everything—but I will go into detail about it at another time.) These WeChat groups typically have a good mix of English-speaking Chinese and foreigners, so you can meet friends from all around the world. I have seen and participated in groups ranging from hiking/eco groups, to craft beer groups, to a group just for people in my part of town.
Learning ChineseIf you’re like me, you may want to bolster your experience by learning some Chinese while you’re here. I will say that you do not have to learn more than the basics to get by. There are foreigners in Shenzhen who know nothing more than the most basic travel phrases. However, I think a wonderful part of the cultural exchange that comes with living in another country is becoming more familiar with the language used there.
Shenzhen is a part of Guangdong province, which is known as the region of China where Cantonese is spoken. That said, Mandarin is the most common language in Shenzhen thanks to its status as a modern, Tier 1, international city. Mandarin is a lot different from most Western languages for two primary reasons: tones, and characters. There are four tones in Mandarin, meaning how you say a word affects its meaning. Written Chinese is a lot different in that there are characters that represent one specific unit of meaning. While these two unique aspects prove challenging, they can also be quite fun once you get past the initial learning curve.
Within your school and all around you, there are plenty of opportunities to practice Mandarin. I can’t count the number of Chinese people I have met who have been eager to do a language exchange. It’s very easy to find. Unfortunately, I have less experience with finding formal language lessons. However, last semester, my company provided an optional weekly Mandarin lesson, and it should be very easy to find a good teacher if you are willing to put in the time and money. Perhaps I’ll be able to add more information to this section later.
Again, if you do not want to learn Chinese, it is possible to get by without knowing much. In my six weeks in Korea, I was able to conclude that Korea is easier for non-Korean speakers to navigate and live in, but it is still definitely doable in China. For example, the metro system in Shenzhen does a great job of being friendly to English-speakers. Sometimes, you will have to rely on pictures of food at restaurants, but you can live a comfortable life even if learning new languages is not your thing.
A Traveler's Paradise: My favorite part about Shenzhen might be its location! Five Cities for One:
When you move to Shenzhen, you are not just getting Shenzhen. I call it the “five cities for one” package deal. The world-famous travel destination Hong Kong is Shenzhen’s next-door neighbor, and it is absurdly easy to get there for a weekend away. You get all the benefits of living in Hong Kong without having to pay Hong Kong prices. I live quite far away from the land border-crossings, and yet I can get to a hostel on Hong Kong Island in about 3 hours from the time I leave my apartment. If you live in the SEZ, you can get to Hong Kong in an hour or two.
Macau is also a short ferry ride away. Macau is sometimes considered the Las Vegas of Asia, as there are plenty of casinos, yet Macau is not just a gambler’s paradise. The Portuguese colonial influence provides a special color to the city, and there is a lot to see and explore.
If you don’t want to go through immigration or border control, there are two great options for a quick getaway within Mainland China’s borders as well. A world-class city, Guangzhou is only about 40 minutes away from Shenzhen North train station, and an hour and a half from Shenzhen’s central station. Guangzhou is about as cheap as Shenzhen, and has a bit more of both a Cantonese and an international flair. It might be my favorite getaway spot from Shenzhen, because it has a rich history as the capital of Guangdong and as the only port initially accessible to foreign traders in the 19th century.
Lastly, although perhaps a bit less glamorous than the others, you can ferry over to Zhuhai for a relaxing seaside retreat. Zhuhai has quite a few neat sights on its own, and has a reputation for having incredible seafood too.
These five cities are all within a couple hours’ transit time of Shenzhen, making it really easy to get out of town for a bit. But they aren’t the only reason I love Shenzhen’s location.More on travel...
Traveling Within China
Shenzhen has an international airport located in Bao’an District, which I find so far to have the best deals on flights within Mainland China. It’s possible to fly to Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, or another major city for a long weekend.
As you might have guessed, Shenzhen is also well-connected by train. The high-speed rail line from Shenzhen to Guangzhou is just one of numerous high-speed lines within China. Leaving from Shenzhen or Guangzhou, high-speed rail can connect you with a number of major cities and tourist destinations throughout China.
Although there are plenty of amazing countries in Asia, China is enormous, with countless sights to see. You could spend an entire year and still not see all of the immense diversity of sights. Living in a Tier 1 city allows you ample paths to see as many sights as you have time for. For instance, it’s popular for people to travel to Xiamen, Guilin and Yangshuo, and Chengdu with a couple days off. Some of these are must-see destinations. You can visit beaches, hike mountains, venture into deserts, and relax on river cruises, all without having to go through immigration or buy a new SIM card.
Traveling outside of China:
If you wish to travel internationally, you can do so out of Shenzhen’s airport, but I might recommend going to Hong Kong instead. Because Hong Kong has long been a travel hub of Asia, it’s possible to get really good deals on flights. I found cheap flights to and from Seoul through HK Express airlines.
Shenzhen’s location next to Hong Kong makes it painless to get out, but it’s location in the context of Asia amplifies this. The city is relatively centrally located in China, and it is reasonably close to South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and other countries like Indonesia and the Philippines. You never have an incredibly long flight to endure.
Traveling within Shenzhen:
Admittedly, since I live out in Bao’an District, much of my traveling around the area has been to the other major cities nearby or to the central districts. That said, there are a couple good day trips I know about, both in the eastern side of the city.
If you like to hike, Wu Tong Mountain is the highest mountain in Shenzhen. This shaded hike will take you across waterfalls and up to a fantastic view of the landscape around you.
If you want to go to the beach, there is a popular one in Yantian District called Dameisha. Yet, if you venture farther out, about an hour and a half to two hour trip will bring you to Dapeng. Dapeng has several quality beaches, a supposedly fantastic yet challenging hike in Dong Chong, and a wonderful ancient old town to explore.
I hope to update this as I have more day trips under my belt!
Making the jump!You may be like me. You may be someone who did not even have China on their radar when looking to move abroad. However, if you can open your mind to the possibility, you may be heavily rewarded. China allows you the flexibility to live the life you want. It’s a land of ambition, adventure, and opportunity, and there is so much to explore within its borders. Yet, in the modern metropolis of Shenzhen, you can find a perfect balance of comfort and adventure if you desire. I would definitely recommend you consider the option seriously.
By: Brody Weinrich