Tired of not putting that hard-earned degree to some good use while drilling those little, snot-nosed 5-year-olds in the ABCs for the umpteenth time? You’ve learned enough Mandarin to be dangerous, and now you’re ready to play with the big kids in China, but you only have a liberal arts major with little in the way of work experience? Shelve that dream of being a high net worth expat or bigwig diplomat for now, such jobs are rare indeed, and require a lot of real work experience. The good news is that nowadays there are a ton of opportunities for Westerners in China, if you just learn to think out of the box a bit. The following are some realistic options for the average millennial halfpat:
1. English Editor/Writer/Journalist
This is a natural transition for an English teacher since you’ve hopefully, at least in the process of teaching it, achieved a strong command of the English language and grammar. Beijing alone has half a dozen English rags and a plethora of state-run English TV channels, radio stations, newspapers, and news portals blasting their message to the world. Increasingly, it helps a lot to have media experience, but there are always going to be openings as foreign drifters jump from one media outlet to another or finish their gap year in China. The beauty of working for these organizations is you can quickly expand your network and lay the groundwork for future opportunities. A potential downside are late or odd hours at some of these organizations such as newspapers and radio stations. Corporations are also desperate for native English speakers for technical writing, legal document translation, and coherent correspondence with their overseas clients. Some, less scrupulous writers (I’m sure it’s just a couple guys) work for college application factories where they churn out essays to help students apply to foreign universities.
2. Marketing Manager
Chinese companies have not yet figured out the difference between marketing and sales, so be prepared for a hybrid between the two or a pure sales job that is “marketing” in name alone. However, as companies such as Alibaba and Xiaomi look to expand their markets abroad, the demand for Western marketing expertise, particularly in SMO and SEO has started to increase. Don’t know those acronyms? Well get cracking! Within China, international schools, luxury villas, sheik clubs, and high-end clinics have a need for native speakers with marketing savvy to lure in the rich, fat cat expat.
3. Project Manager
In the Chinese corporate world where managers rule their realm like a feudal lord and staff members have a dubious understanding of teamwork, there is definitely a dearth of quality project managers. In addition to laying out the scope and cost of a project, executing it, and ensuring its timely completion, you’ll also need to become a master of QQ to communicate with your minions. Strong organizational skills, mastery of Gantt charts, and fluency in Mandarin are keys to success. Don’t make the mistake of starting or expecting to complete a major project within a month radius before or after the Chinese New Year.
4. Voice Talent
Due to the insatiable thirst for the latest and greatest English learning materials in China, countless voice recording studios are ensconced in numerous high rise apartments dotting the capital city. The work may include but is not limited to voice acting for textbook dialogues, TV documentaries, advertisements, tourist audio guides, and dubbing for films. Every 张三李 (Tom, Dick, and Harry) will find themselves lassoed into a voice gig at some point or another, but most of these are low pay. To land more lucrative jobs, you’ll need to raise your game by properly training your voice, creating a voice demo reel, and learning to sight-read and edit on the spot. There are more tips on becoming a top notch voice actor in Lee Maxwell Simpson’s blog Editing Beijing’s Voices.
5. Actor or Model
The undeniable advantage of having a Western-looking face in China is that you can more quickly and easily get face time on TV and in commercials. Even if you don’t consider yourself a handsome hunk or a buxom babe, don’t worry, Chinese beauty standards for Westerners are very different than your home country. Get yourself a decent headshot and respond to a few ads in expat rags and who knows, you might find yourself on the set of a kung fu movie. Of course, acting and modeling are two completely separate disciplines at the higher level. Full-time Western actors in China take pride in their professionalism achieved through years of honing their craft. When most expats brag about getting into a movie or TV show, chances are they were just a low-paid, background extra. Landing the bigger, higher-paying roles takes a combination of skill and luck and establishing a good relationship with the right agent.
If you want to be a model, you need to be photogenic, tall (by Chinese standards) and in your 20s. You don’t necessarily have to be an Adonis or Aphrodite, but you need to clean up nicely for the camera. You also need train in the mirror on facial expressions and poses, not just your “blue steel” but a variety of facial expressions. The key is subtlety, bug-eyed, big teeth smiles showing the entire gum lining of your mouth are the kiss of death. One of the challenges that one encounters with modeling in China are the scams that turn into low-paid, human prop sessions at club openings or worse, government roundups during various “harmonious foreigner” crackdowns.
6. Advertising Account Manager
Do people describe you as a “go-getter”, “proactive”, and “passionate”? Do you like a fast-paced, hyper-competitive environment? Well then, my comrade, advertising is for you! The advantage of looking for work in advertising is that they are always looking for new faces with a novel outlook. Experience is not as important as creative instinct and a high amount of energy and drive to land the next big fish or project. As Chinese and foreign companies alike are fighting a dog-eat-dog battle for the Chinese market, foreign ad agencies have a significant presence in 1st and 2nd tier cities looking for fresh foreign flesh.
Ah the consultant, one of the most coveted positions because you can name your price and when people ask you what you do, it sounds mysterious, yet cool. The reality is that you have to be real road warrior, probably spending more time out of town than at home. The pay can make this worthwhile, at least in the short run before you have kids. It takes a combination of both excellent analytical abilities and people skills–and being able to knock out a slick PowerPoint “deck”. It helps to have experience in a specific field to be a consultant of, but you also can fake it until you make as you go along “consulting”.
In November of 1988, Da Shan(大山, Mark Rowswell) set foot on the stage on the annual 春晚 TV extravaganza and uttered his first 相声 (cross talk) words in front of half a billion Chinese opening the floodgates for many waves of foreign entertainers trying to follow his footsteps. Nowadays, all manner of singer, dancer, musician, magician, and comedian find work in China’s burgeoning entertainment scene, both on stage and TV. After doing almost all of these jobs on this list over 20 years in China, American magician and clown, Christopher Parsons, who goes by the stage name “Mr. Magic” (pictured at top competing on BTV’s “The China Hand Show” as Elvis), says he prefers live stage shows because of “the interaction with the crowd and getting to hear their laughter.” There are plenty of places you can hone your skills on stage such as Open Mic Night at the Comedy Club China and the Beijing Improv group; try out for a play at Beijing Playhouse or express yourself at Moonglow Burlesque.
9. Trading Company Sales Manager
With everything “made in China”, why not get a piece of the pie and ride the gravy train with one of the countless trading companies that hookup Chinese suppliers with Western buyers? Once you learn the trade-related Chinese lingo, day-to-day work is mostly turning emails and other correspondence from Chinglish into something resembling English. Depending on the company and the number of clients, an aggressive, salesy personality may be necessary to survive and get ahead by landing new accounts.
Long gone are the days when being a native English speaker fluent in Chinese ipso facto garnered a high wage. With 250,000 Chinese at American Universities a year, there’s a lot of Chinese that speak excellent English and with 750,000 students taking the HSK a year, foreigners are getting pretty darn good at Chinese. The key to success in translation is establish expertise in an industry such as energy, IP law, or gaming. Many companies that are localizing their content into English for the overseas market; the drawback is that work hours will probably be long. The advantage of freelance translation work is that you can set your own hours and are not locked into a particular location.
On the opposite extreme is simultaneous interpretation, which demands being able to memorize what the speaker is saying at the moment and then translate what was said 5-10 seconds ago, not to mention public speaking skills and a complete arsenal of idioms and colloquial expressions. Due to the surplus of Chinese college graduates, the pay is not high in comparison to the stress level.
As professions that take a lot more training and education in one’s home country, foreign-trained doctors can practice in China if they are invited by a Chinese clinic or hospital. Foreigners are not allowed to take the Chinese bar exam and thus technically cannot practice law in China, which might explain why some foreign law firms are struggling in China. Foreign accountants can take the Chinese CPA examination, it’s notoriously difficult, but many have done so. Foreign airline pilots are in great demand because of the rapid expansion of the airline industry and the resulting shortage of seasoned pilots. Foreign pilots can actually make a higher salary and more quickly achieve captain status than back in their home countries such as the US.
With skyscrapers sprouting up all over China like weeds – there are 58 over 200 meters and another 106 in the works – it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that foreign architects are in high demand. Though President Xi Jinping’s call for an end to “weird architecture” was a bit of a buzzkill, you can bet your bottom RMB that developers will still want foreign-looking architecture, weird or otherwise for the foreseeable future as China tries to build its way out the economic downturn. The same could be said about engineering and there are actually many Chinese universities that offer English language programs in many types of engineering.
Other odd jobs out there include being a waiter, bartender, au pair, and fake businessman. The latter is irregular work at best and is much more profitable for men in their 50’s and 60’s, as they are more convincing for the part and have a higher default status in this Confucian nation. Of course, you have to stomach getting paid to lie a lot all day long, working at a Chinese law firm is good training for this. Forbes China recently released a list of the top 30 Chinese entrepreneurs under 30 and many are raking in the kuai with smartphone apps and E-commerce solutions. If you’ve got your heart set on teaching, why not teach something else? Chinese universities now hire professors to teach a wide variety of subjects beyond English, such as journalism, business management, marketing, and economics, to name a few.