One advantage to Beijing is the availability of English teaching jobs. Beijing has an emerging middle class. As parents begin to acquire disposable income, they realize they can indulge their kids in some luxuries (a full treatment of the "little emperor" phenomenon is forthcoming). English is perhaps the hippest luxury in Beijing, followed up by bowling, cell phones, beepers, and any Western brands. The hippest Asian-Pop (Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, or Japanese) song will always throw in the occasional English phrase like "I love you, baby" or "Don't leave me." Hence, while many Americans are showing off that they belong to the Veblenian leisure class by buying luxury SUVs, the Chinese are showing off by taking English classes. The problem is that there is a severe shortage of well-trained native English speakers teaching in China. Hence, schools are willing to throw jobs at foreign students with no experience, a lot of whom really have no claim to being paid for standing in front of a classroom and speaking English. Some of them aren't even native speakers. I have a Belgian friend who learned English about four years ago and he's successfully duped the school into thinking that he's Canadian. It's sad that at the secondary level (and especially in the rural areas) that most teachers' English is so bad that they really can't distinguish a native speaker and that being duped is rather easy.
Of these half-assed foreign teachers, the typical pattern is to get all eager about teaching; go into the first class excited, but nervous; deliver a nervous 10 minute introduction about themselves; and go into code-red panic mode when the class doesn't say anything and you wonder what to bullshit about for the next 50 minutes. I know this because that's what my first experience was like. Some people I know got so nervous that they walk out right there. About half or so start to adapt at first, but get sick of it (especially the hours, which are typically Sat and Sun mornings) and by week three mysteriously not show up. Not only does this group screw the people who paid good money to take these classes, but it screws the other hard working teachers with policies of having to wait for a month for their first paycheck. The rest of us (of which I'd think I'd include myself) slowly adapt and stick to it, even if their natural ability isn't much. They also switch jobs pretty frequently but that's just because better offers keep cropping up.
There are other ways that this whole English thing is a scam. For instance, most of the textbooks are written by non-native speakers so the dialogues range from slightly awkward and chockfull of colloquialisms that were passe in the 40's to barely indecipherable texts that are just one big grammatical error. Beginner texts introduce conversation English but the format is such that it's taught in a rote memorization method so when you ask, "How are you, Jane?" you'll get a robotic, "Fine. Thank you. And you?" But if you ask, "How's it going, Jane?" you'll get a blank stare. Intermediate to advanced level texts suffer from trying to be overly clever. After teaching basic methods of expressing ideas, they'll try to cram as many obscure idioms as possible which oftentimes are not suited for the context that they're used in. (My Chinese friends have likewise told me that they feel the same way regarding my own Chinese textbooks.)
That being said, I've had a mixed bag teaching English. At the horrible end, I taught at a random public high school for two months. I taught seven 50-minute classes per week, each class consisting of more than 40 students and the female/male ratio being something like 20:1. I had no set curriculum but rather had to make up my own. At first, it was OK. I still vividly remember six or seven girls came up to me after the first class I taught. They had their arms around each other (this being a socially acceptable for platonic same-sex friends). And I remember them cooing, 'Oh, so what's your phone number?' Was it not Sting who said, 'Don't stand so close to me.' Or was it, 'Do do do de da da da'? Yikes. It got to be a freaking pain, though, trying to think up of what would interest a bunch of high schoolers week after week. What would compound the misery was that except for a few in each class (and these would usually be the few males in each class), no one would participate. Not just volunteer, but participate. That is, it got to the point where I would ask someone to answer a question and they would literally turn their back to me; if I tried walking to the back of the class to face her, she would then turn back facing the front of the class. Other times, groups of students would openly play cards in front of me. I soon became entrenched in apathy. I began talking to the students with a layer of irony as thick as oatmeal. One time I brought in some copies of some Dear Abby columns and had the students work in groups try to figure out some advice for the sad sack of losers who wrote in. When the group time was up, I would ask them, "So what do you think he should do? I'm dying to know!" I quit the job soon after that lesson.
Another class I had in the fall was this adult conversation class. I actually really enjoyed teaching this class and I didn't even need to prepare. I would walk in and some supervisor would give me about $20, a bottle of water and a sheet of paper with conversation topics on it. The students would buy a set number of classes beforehand and could drop in any day of the week, with each day having a different teacher, so they can experiment to see what sort of style they prefer. Some might call it educational prostitution; I think it was a good set up considering the fickleness of both foreign teachers' willingness to teach and students' willingness to learn. The job was easy since I didn't need to prepare. I could just walk in and have a lively, culturally exchanging conversation with 10-15 eager adult advanced conversation students every Wednesday. I definitely learned a bit about modern Chinese culture. One day the topic was choosing one liver transplant candidate from a group of patients who had clearly defined characteristics e.g. Bob is a 65 year-old scientist who might come up with a cure for cancer but his last transplant failed. We agreed that the most deserving candidate was this middle-aged woman with a husband, 4-year-old son, a successful career, and medium chances of recovery. My second choice was the Bob the cancer researcher. However, for the second choice, they were arguing vehemently for this 23 year-old unmarried welfare mother with 3 children who had raised money for the transplant through donations. Of course, I was arguing from some sort of 19th century utilitarian standpoint (Hello people! Cure for cancer or a couple of kids. Which is better? Not a hard decision.) but they stuck to some sort of Confucian obeisance to the family. In another unit, the majority of the class thought that middle-aged Americans who send their parents to nursing homes instead of caring for them in their own houses are scum and should literally be sent to prison (not exaggerating) and that it's expected for three or four generations to live together. Another interesting phenomenon that I noticed was that the majority of students have had experience with real missionary type Christian English teachers who have pushed literature on them. On all of these occasions, the students told me they were polite but very skeptical. Weirdly, this skepticism usually didn't cross over into X-files-style pseudoscience. It was bizarre how they would they recall their meetings with these neo-missionaries ("But then I asked her what proof is there of Jesus?") and then go on to point out avidly that they're certain a speck of light they saw through the smog last night was a UFO. The ultimate reason why I didn't continue with this job is that it was a 50-minute commute each way. Spending two hours commuting in order to teach for two hours wasn't worth it.
This spring, I've had two opportunities for private tutoring. One was with this Chinese wife of a rich Korean businessman. At first it looked rather lucrative since she wanted to do 24 hours per month at $10 per hour, with half the time spent playing badminton with her. She definitely had this frustrated wife thing going on that was pretty easy to joke about e.g. we were going through one lesson in her textbook about simple conversational questions. One was "Are you married?" to which she sighed heavily, "Yes" and then uncrossed and recrossed her legs. Just as I thought I could ride the gravy train to some Chinese Anne Bancroft-style honeypot, she called off the tutoring since her work was very busy. She has since taken me out to Pizza Hut twice (a luxury beyond my humble means) but I haven't heard from her since.
The other private tutoring I did was these two Korean kids. At first, tutoring them was fine since they were pretty eager, although it was disturbing how much they liked to rub my arm hair (oh you furry Westerners!). Even more disturbing was how "traditional" the family was. The wife spent most of the time that I was there seemingly locked in the kitchen, coming out only to offer me some tea or apple slices. The husband, when he wasn't at work poking the secretary, liked to talk real conservative politics with me (Sample diatribe: "Let's say there were two stores. One owned by your friend and own owned by scum. Which store should you go to? That's why you should never go to a store run by the Japanese.") Other times he would make random lascivious remarks about women in front of me, his wife not knowing much Chinese. The whole traditional gender role thing was disturbing. But the tutoring itself soon became tedious as the kids lost interest. One reason was that he absolutely insisted I ONLY practice speaking with them i.e. having them repeatedly recite sentences, tweaking their pronunciation and that if he wanted them to waste their time with word games, he'd hire some Chinese guy for a tenth of the wage. More than once, he'd cause me to lose face in front of the kids by scolding me for wasting time, the only thing keeping me from walking out was that he paid me monthly and he owed me several weeks of wages. Towards the end, it became real unpleasant since the kids didn't want to do it, yet he was forcing them to as if he could buy their success at $10 per hour.
Finally, in the spring I did this primary school with seven or eight year olds on alternate Sundays. One of the sections was unbelievably frustrating: 15 of the dumbest kids I've ever met. I would spend 20 minutes going over two sentences like "Where's the bathroom?" "It's next to the kitchen." Then I would individually ask them, "Where's the bathroom?" and I would get two or three responses, and the rest were blank stares and strings of saliva running down their chin. I would try leading them word by word through: "It's...next...to...the...kitchen." Still blank stares. I would tell them the two sentences in clear Chinese which they understood. Still blank stares. Try doing that for an hour and a half. I did. It put money in the bank.