Not so long ago, I had just graduated from college and was trying to figure out what to do with my life. So I can totally relate to RJ, a reader who wrote in with the following questions:

I am a recent college graduate looking to try a new culture and try to sustain myself as a teacher in an open minded, intellectually stimulating society – a place in which I can try some new things while meeting nice people. What was it like? Good experience? Growth experience? Is China dirty? Repressive?
Thank you for your time, and I’ll look forward to your response.

Great questions, RJ! Here are my thoughts:

I am not an English teacher, but many Americans and other foreigners teach English here. To do so legally you will need to have the TEFL certification, and you will need to be at least 24 years old (you can’t get a proper work visa if you’re younger, and I don’t recommend working illegally on a business visa). Lots of the private language schools here are scammy garbage so look around on the forums like TheBeijinger, WeLiveInBeijing, and BeijingStuff to network with other English teachers and learn what to avoid.

Don’t come here for the money. English teachers make, on average, about $1,500 a month. This sometimes includes a housing subsidy, but not always. Chinese people have a different idea of housing than you may; your school may offer housing but then you find out you’re sharing a room with 3 other teachers and you’re a 1 hour bus ride away from the school, and another 1 hour subway ride beyond that to anywhere interesting.

Never give them your passport for “safekeeping,” no reputable school will ask you to do this and it’s a big red flag. Be sure to register with the US embassy before you come here – they are mostly useless, but at least the government will know you are here if you run into trouble with the police (which is incredibly rare unless you do something incredibly stupid).

Dirty – yes, China is one of the dirtiest countries on the planet, the environmental problems are severe here. You can’t drink tap water, washing your clothes is sort of a misnomer because they come out almost as dirty as when they went in (they’re stiff as cardboard from the minerals after they dry, don’t bring anything irreplaceable here and avoid any expensive fashion), and the air quality is so bad the US embassy called it “crazy bad” once until they thought up a better way to describe off-the-charts hazardous. Not every day is like this but you’ll wish you weren’t here on the days where it happens – you’ll be sitting in your apartment feeling like you’re breathing bus exhaust. I bought an Ionic Pro Turbo air cleaner and if I lock myself in my bedroom with that and the humidifier running on days like this, it makes the air quality breatheable (and I’m not particularly sensitive, some people have a really rough time). The cleaning of the unit that you’re supposed to do monthly, I have to do every other day when the air quality is hazardous.

On the other hand, it’s not like India where there are stories-high piles of garbage everywhere and urchins surrounding you on the street begging, and random cows all over the place. Beijing compared to Delhi is very, very clean and well-organized.

Should you come? If your goal is to get rich, probably not (with rare exceptions). Some people here are incredibly rich, but that game is mostly for well-connected Chinese businessmen and government officials. If you open a popular expat bar, that’s about the only way for a foreigner to get rich. If you are ready to work you will not go hungry in China (hope you like Chinese food) and there isn’t much to spend money on here, but you probably won’t make enough to pay back your student loans at any reasonable rate. In my case, I’m very lucky to be one of the top people in the world in my professional field (not DJing, I do crazy high-tech stuff for a living) so I was able to come here on a more reasonable salary.

Is your goal to learn more about Chinese culture and language, and experience daily life in a culture so overwhelmingly different than your own that it may drive you over the edge? China may be for you, just be sure that you go in with your eyes wide open. The culture here is ruthless and inconsiderate (but also incredibly kind and loyal, everything is a paradox in China). It’s enough to drive me to the edge sometimes, and I’m a very experienced world traveler who has visited six of seven continents. Nobody would ever argue that living in China is not a challenge, with the possible exception of folks who never leave the expat bubble in Shanghai (which may as well be California).

My advice is to come visit first. I don’t know you, but I’m happy to show you around town if you’d like (just schedule with me in advance, my job keeps me pretty busy and I frequently travel either for business or to DJ) and give you some advice on where to stay and what to see.

Many of my friends have had good experiences teaching English in Japan through the Japanese government’s JET program. This program has a very good reputation for high integrity, and most teachers have excellent experiences. Japan is a first-world country and while it can be a difficult place to live (and the working culture is very formal) it’s much more like the US than China. You will make much more money there, but everything is also tremendously expensive – you may have equal financial challenges as taking a job in China.

Good luck whatever you choose, and let me know if you end up in Beijing!