Does Working in China Help or Hurt Your Career?

Does Working in China Help or Hurt Your Career?
May 03, 2011 By Paul Bacon ,

On vacation over the summer, I sat having dinner with a friend and his boss – a senior manager at a large British company. Over dessert, the conversation turned to my plans for the future. Was I ever coming back to the UK? Or, was I in China for good? I assured them that I planned to return home at some point, I just wasn't sure when. My friend then asked whether I thought my time in China would help me find a good job when I finally got back to England. For many expats, this is the $64,000 question. Will employers see a spell in China as evidence of adaptability, an adventurous spirit and a sense of dynamism? Or, will they view it simply as a long holiday and time wasted? Will it grab a HR department's attention with enough vigor to secure an interview at a top company?

Does working in china help or hurt your career
Photo: thebadastronomer

At this point, my friend's boss chimed in, "As a manager, if I saw a stint in China on someone's resume, my curiosity would certainly be piqued. Maybe this would be enough to convince me to offer them an interview. But, I don't think it is quite as simple as spending time overseas being either positive or negative. It's just isn't that black and white." The more I pondered the issue, the more I could not help but agree with him. There are so many expats doing so many different jobs that looking at things in such simple terms would be foolish. Therefore, I will break the issue down into different areas. I will start with one that I have touched on in previous articles, young graduates.

Recent graduates
Currently, in both the UK and US, graduates leaving university face grim job prospects. In both countries, the unemployment rate for those fresh out of the gates of academia is pushing 10%. This makes finding good jobs particularly difficult. Graduates now need something to distinguish themselves from the mass of their peers. In this way, as my friend's boss suggested, time in China can help – it can “pique an employer's curiosity”. However, there are limits and exceptions. For example, 6 months or a year can work well in this regard, but as this stretches to two years and more, things begin to change. Spending too long out of their home country can have a two-fold effect on young graduates, (a) The sense of dynamism and adventure is replaced by one of wasted time and drift, and (b) The longer they spend away from home, the more graduates enter the market and competition for jobs becomes even more fierce.

For most students fresh out of university, their clear option will be teaching. This is an option that is fine, in the short-term. However, if the graduate wants to avoid the problems mentioned above and intends to make their time in China a success that will have long-term benefits for his or her career, then moving away from teaching may well be a sound option – unless the graduate hopes to one day become a teacher! This is why we have also seen the growth of internships that look to offer young expats vital practical experience that they can use when they return home.

Older expats
For slightly older expats, with some professional experience, the value of their time in China depends most on how they use it. For many, China offers opportunities that would be far harder to find in their home countries. In many major companies and major markets, the competition for management and high-level technical positions is intense. One way to circumvent this competition is to be prepared to move to China – even now many Western employees still find China as a “hardship” posting and are wary of such a challenging move. This means that whilst a management position in Europe or the US will be hard to secure, in China it may be considerably easier. Moves like this most commonly begin in the expat's home country. It is rare to see large companies hiring for managerial or technical talent within China's expat market, at least certainly not on a wide scale.

I have met several European managers who, at home, were competing with hundreds of others for a handful of managerial positions. However, because they were prepared to move to China, and others preferred to stay at home, they got the opportunity to take relatively high positions at a surprisingly young age and to accrue vital managerial experience. When they return to their home countries there is a good chance that this will help them leapfrog many of their competitors in the race for top jobs. I even met one expat who was in the process of applying for jobs at home and was finding that employers almost did not believe the experience he had managed to acquire here in China by the age of 30.

There is, sadly, also a flip-side to this equation. If the time is not used wisely, it can cause a once promising career to stutter and to stagnate. For example, for those professionals taking a career break and heading to China to teach, the risks can be high. It may allow them to take time out, to recharge batteries and to experience another culture, but at the same time it can cause a successful career to embark on a downward spiral. For example, I have met two or three professionals from scientific fields – these were well qualified men in their thirties with almost a decade of experience – who had come to China for a taste of life outside the lab. The problem with this decision was that with each month outside their industry at home they began to fall behind others in their industry and to see a black hole appearing on their resume. This has impacted upon their employability at home and has, ultimately, damaged their careers.

Related Links
Finding and Keeping Jobs in China
Leaving China and the Challenges of Returning “Home”
China Beyond the Blackboard: Finding Jobs Besides Teaching

Warning:The use of any news and articles published on without written permission from constitutes copyright infringement, and legal action can be taken.

Keywords: Working in China


All comments are subject to moderation by staff. Because we wish to encourage healthy and productive dialogue we ask that all comments remain polite, free of profanity or name calling, and relevant to the original post and subsequent discussion. Comments will not be deleted because of the viewpoints they express, only if the mode of expression itself is inappropriate.



China is no longer considered a hardship post.

Dec 27, 2017 23:06 Report Abuse



bye bye career

Apr 06, 2015 10:02 Report Abuse



BTW. I wouldn't consider Ft. Meade NSA Linguist job, unless I absolutely had no choide but to start on something (given no other opportunities arised). That was just an exmple of "scrounging" for anything.

On a more serious note, it may require more patience and "extra extra" fine tuning and "extra extra" persistence to get those ideal overseas China or Hong Kong, business-related careers/positions (even with previous China experience).

I guess I'll have to work at a local bar or tour guide agency until I can find "the better job", I guess...

...And teaching English was not so bad after all, and at least you have more flexable schedules, and students appreciate you in a certain way. Pay is also consistent.

I'm still wondering why I even came back to the States. But I'm keeping my hopes up still. Not easy though.

Aug 21, 2012 16:58 Report Abuse



"flexible" is what I meant to say, sorry. I'm typing hesitantly to get my thoughts out quickly as possible.

Aug 21, 2012 17:01 Report Abuse



Ok, ok, we get it.

Dec 27, 2017 23:09 Report Abuse



I wanted to added earlier to my last comment (I think someone might've deleted the last posting, not sure why).

Anyway, I would like to add that I'm currently searching for careers or opportunites where I can be submersed and use my Mandarin Chinese skills. I did not spend the last 2 and a half years in China just to come back to the States and find nothing.

Either way, I am determined to explore nw opportunties. I cannot easily give up. Just so long as I don't stay in Ft. Meade forever being a Linguist, I just might not "last long".

So I do prefer to find something that's pertinent to my previous volunteer and work abroad experiences.

Aug 21, 2012 16:49 Report Abuse



I also spent 2 and a half years in China. After graduating in the States with a BBA, I decided to study abroad in China to learn Mandarin. I studied for 4 semesters at Fudan University, in the meantime I taught English, and I also did ocassional volunteer jobs in export sales.

I also did a two-month internship in an offshore investment firm in Shanghai. However I was not offered the position after internship. While my experience in China was culturally and globally enriching, I cannot say for sure if my overall overseas experience stunted my business career path.

I even used LinkedIn extensively with friends and acqaintances in China, but after a few recommendations by my friends to their bosses, I was turned down for some job offers.

After several times of job searching-while-finding non-English teaching jobs in Shanghai, I gave up and decided to come back to the U.S. to find jobs related to my work experiences (the non-English ones that is).

I am now currently searching for jobs in all industries (governtment, FBI, military, hospitality, finance, and even University). I have posted my CV/Resume on various job websites.

It's a shame that all I get are phone calls from insurance companies wanting to interview me, yet to find later that these insurance jobs are only 100% comission sales jobs. But I get calls left and right (eg. American Life Insurance, Mutual of Omaha, Bankers Insurance, etc.) I didn't even apply to those companies, but Monster and Career Builder easily allow jobs seekers as easy targets to these insurance firms.

I don't want to be choosy, but if I can't find the proper match for me, I'll have to make a move soon and choose something (maybe government or hospitality).

Again, I will have to say that I might be one of many victims to studying abroad in China and teaching there (for survival).

I didn't teach out of desire for ESL. I taught beacuse it was the only type of job that could realistically support my living and utility expenses. It was those ocassional volunteer jobs and internships that are actually related to my major.

So for now, I continue to search. If no success, it's seriously time to reconsider something. Something that can possibly turn my direction into a new field.

Whatever it may be, I hope to find a solution, and soon.
For my fellow China abroad expats, and returnees, I wish you good luck. Don't give up on networking opportunities, and don't give up your career search. However long it takes, and whatever means possible, do the best that you can.

Aug 21, 2012 13:21 Report Abuse


JAY (Just Another Yangguizi)

The answer to the question posed by the article headline is really that it's dependent on several factors - whether the work you're doing is relevant to your career, the reputation of your employer, how old you are, where you want to take your career from that point, your education, your interpersonal skills, your politics, and who you know.
That being said, I'd argue that *on balance* working in China hurts most careers. Why? Mostly because of attitudes displayed by employers and usual practices in hiring. Most employers cannot be bothered with checking foreign credentials, and it's easier just to round-file the application that has them. I have seen this applied time and time again to qualified foreign-born professionals trying to find work in the US, internationally-educated American citizens ("a DPhil is not a PhD") and American citizens with experience working abroad.
A second set of reasons has to do with the generally low regard the English-speaking world has for foreign language skills possibly acquired during such an activity. Language skills (no matter how excellent) are usually not considered factors in hiring, full stop. I believe you'll find this is true in the US and also the UK. At best foreign language skills are the icing on the cake - at worst they're actually an impediment to gainful employment in most of the English-speaking world, including high-level and sensitive government positions that one would assume would require pertinent language skills (they don't).

Aug 19, 2012 14:42 Report Abuse



I have been living and working here for five years now. I do not regret coming to China. I could care less if it is good for my career in the future as presently I am happy doing what I enjoy. I teach children English. Why should I sit around worrying about what will happen tomorrow? That is utter nonsense. If I spend all my time with one leg in the past and the other in the future I am pissing on today. For those people that look down on English teachers I will say this....not all teachers are bottom feeders with no prospects in their home countries. I left a job in America paying me 35,000 dollars a year and presently make 50,000 dollars a year teaching here in Shanghai. When I leave China I will continue to do well because I believe I will do well. My C.V. is solid and my education is top notch. Invest in yourself and you will now how to sell yourself to future employers. It's all about the pinstripes...

Jul 08, 2011 02:37 Report Abuse




I would like to say that I am a recent undergrad graduate. I graduated with a B.S. in Biology with a concentration in Biological Sciences on May 6th, 2011 and I would just like to say that I am staying in China for a year this coming August. I will be taking a year off of schooling to go to China to teach and following that I will be going back to get my Master's in Microbiology. Who knows I may persue one in Chinese Literature and Culture. Although I have not had any experiences like you all have had in China just yet, I personally believe that for each person who travels and teaches in China, or any other country for that matter, will have some kind of experience from business to technology, etc. You just never know. I also feel that it is all about networking and what you do with it. My ties lie with the the Mathematics and Science Department of my school as a whole as well as the the president of my university. On my resume I have two main experiences which includes working in the laboratory as well as teaching in different levels of education. With that being said, I have been blessed with the opportunity to graduate from a university who has a life long relationship with China, who's bridges cannot be broken. I understand that I could get over there and hate and/or love it but I would like to be the person to say, "Well I won't do this ever again" or "I enjoyed it, I want to go back." I feel that I am prepared and mature enough to make the decision whether or not I will want to embrace this opportunity that has been given to me. I have always been fascinated with the Chinese culture since I was a little girl; along with teaching and the sciences.

Life is what you make one can make the decision for another. Let them experience and gather their own opinions, their career paths and choices. Who knows, as we speak, there could be a person out there who has been teaching in China for a substantial amount of years in ESL but have a degree in something completely different but then comeback home to find that they were able to land a career in their primary field. It is up to you on how you use your resources, knowledge, talent and mind.

Please do not try to discourage others from doing something that they would like to do with their lives. No one can learn that way, it is nothing but "he said, she said." We all can have our own opinions but please respect what one has to say.

Thanks for reading my post!

Jun 03, 2011 18:46 Report Abuse



I am a chinese ,i know many foreigners comes to china teaching english and i also had three such teacher when i was in colloge ,i like some of them,especially Adam.
There is a common saying in china :if you are gold ,you will shining whereever you are.
if you are young ,enriching your eyesight is very important ,since it will effect the way you do and think in future.

May 14, 2011 01:06 Report Abuse



I like China. But for me, I am finding very difficult to get the job. From last 1 year I am hunting a job but still no luck :-( As most of the employers are looking for Native Speaker and I am an Indian passport holder. According to me Nationality doesn't make any difference, it is depend on all your experience and degree you are holding. It depends how aggressive, how much passion do you have for your work / career.

May 12, 2011 22:03 Report Abuse



what if you learn chinese fluently while working, i.e. score good on the hsk, then your time wasted? I think not, especially since China is going to be the biggest economy in the world. Most major companies in the U.S. have training programs anyway...if you come over hear after you graduate, just go back before you are 30 and you'll be fine.

May 10, 2011 22:33 Report Abuse


Eric Blair

Do you know anyone who learned Chinese fluently while working? That is a rare thing. How long do you imagine it would take to learn Chinese fluently while working? What is the time investment on that? High.
What is the returns? Low.

Also, so what if you learn Chinese fluently. What use is it? Seriously, spending all that time to become fluent when you could be advancing your career has limited payback. If you have an established career with a strong skill set why retard it by learning Chinese. If you are going to be dealing with professional Chinese they all speak English fluently. In an international company you will be expected to deal in English not Mandarin.

If you want to chat with taxi drivers, street merchants, local uneducated, and impress newbie laowai, yeah sure learn Chinese.

Oh, and showing a company outside China your HSK score will only cause bewilderment. No one cares, and frankly every top company knows no matter how good your Chinese is, you will be expected to talk in English.

So what if China becomes the number one economy? I don't think the world is going to change it's business language to Mandarin in my lifetime or any life time. However, if you want to work as an interpreter or translator, heck go for it!

The bottom line is, I learn Chinese because I love it. I don't learn for money or for career advancement. Oh, and any anyone who says, "I'm learning Mandarin, French or Yugoslavian for my job" is destined to fail. Learn for love.

May 11, 2011 07:17 Report Abuse



hey, smart ass, I already speak proficient Chinese (2 semesters of intensive study at Chinese universities while teaching English and over 1 and half years working here in a Chinese office setting--I am the only laowai) I tested HSK 6 out of 11 one year on the old test. and yes I do know people who speak fluent Chinese just from may take 5 years to do it but who cares. Like you said, I learn Chinese because I enjoy it first and I enjoy talking to taxi drivers and the shaokao guys; if you enjoy a culture you should be learning the language of that culture.
And to say it does not lead to better job opportunities is downright stupid. My chinese is just as good as my boss's English, and he is an international businessman! Besides, who would the Chinese want to do business with: someone who can speak their language and knows their culture or some dumb ignorant laowai who can only say "ni hao" and "xie xie"...I can say that American companies who do business with China (Proctor & Gamble to name one) are actively recruiting employees who know Chinese culture and the language. It makes their company look more global and more cultural. Do you know the American CIA gives a $35,000 sign on bonus to anyone who can speak Mandarin proficiently (on top of a high salary); do you know the U.S. State Department gives Mandarin speakers .41 extra points on the admission process...speakers of French, Spanish, and all the European languages only get .15 extra points. That means, in the eyes of the US government, speaking Mandarin proficiently is as important as speaking 3 European languages.
And another point: yes, English is the world language for now, but Mandarin is right now a distant number 2. That gap will only shorten as China develops more and more. Remember things change quick, and China will surpass the U.S. quicker than anyone thinks. Also, remember that the French language used to be important. haha.
Anyway, I do not plan on going back to the states for another 3 years, and by then, I figure on putting down my Mandarin abilities on my resume, on top of my work experience here...Educational Investment Consultant (I don't teach English, my company invests in kindergartens and international schools in china and schools abroad). whatever, to each his own.

Jul 07, 2011 17:56 Report Abuse



You are right, but you are also wrong. Learning a language depends how far you are willing to take it. to what level and complexity? And for what use you will need it for in your life? There are many factors, but one thing is for certain, when you study a language and live the culture for an extended period of time, and have cultivated other interpersonal skills, it is just more than knowing how to speak the language. You learn the culture, attitude, personalties, and the very nuances of Chinese society.

So don't kid yourself, learning and being able to fluently communicate in a foreign language has both ups and downs, but the ups usually tend to outweigh the downs. It is your choice...what you put in is how much you get out of your experience. Yes the HSK outside of China may not mean much at all at western employers, but when you are given a job or career, and you perform well and acatually used the language skills and work abroad skills to your advantage.

The employer will see that you really did learn how to adjust to new cultures and societies, and will further see how you will be vversatile in the if the company shouls assign you to another location at some point. They want to see that you have initiative, you are a quick learner, and even if you make mistakes, you are willing to correct yourself and improve from mistakes, that you are willing to explore new cultures and regions, and to see how interpersonally diverse you are. That is what's important.

As I say this to you, I'm encountering difficulties in the job market back here in the U.S., even after spending 2.6 years in Shanghai working and studying. It seems really hopeless in the moment, but one way or another, these experiences will shine through someday. Hopefully its' not too late, and I hope the same for you.

Aug 22, 2012 00:20 Report Abuse



I think that coming to China and having a business internship was the best move I could make, because it gives you a very special insight into Chinese culture that you simply can't get out of a class or a book. Admittedly, I am currently an undergraduate, so I am not yet competing in the job market. But I think that for any undergraduate who can't find an internship at home and can afford a stint to China during the summer should. Finding as internship and getting to know the language a bit will hugely set me apart from other undergrads, in fact, put me in where I compete against MBA's because I have a special skill and experience.

I have also experienced people looking somewhat baffled at my resume because they can't believe I would be able to get that sort of experience so young, but the nature of a lack of native English speakers in a city like Shanghai, opportunities are very great.

I would never advise any student to teach English unless their major was education. I'm sorry, but simply being in China doesn't mean that you get business experience. You need to do what you are going to do in the future (generally speaking anyway) and use your Chinese experiences to your advantage when you return to your home country.

May 06, 2011 02:34 Report Abuse



Teaching English in china or elsewhere is not a right decision for any young person should think of. Just like some people have commented above, I am also a victim of such action. I will advice young people to seek career counseling before jumping on the plane and come to china for teaching . If your carrer goal is not tailored towards education line and you are already in china , please ,get out of china asap, else , you will discover after few years that you have mortgaged your career for peanuts you are getting in china as you may be short of necessary skills to compete with your peer by the time you return home as many employers back in the western countries will not consider those skills of teaching ESL as valuable enough for you to be fit into any working organization except probably teaching. I am speaking from my personal experience.

May 05, 2011 20:42 Report Abuse



A pretty rounded article, with some good points.

If I could add a few more based on my personal experience, I would say it's key not to stay in china more than 1 year or so teaching, unless you see your future career in this field.

I spent 2 years in china and although i learnt so much and loved my time in China, I am now 2 years behind my peers in terms of western job experience. This sounds obvious now, but at the time i thought my time in China would add to my CV not detract from it.

Essentially, what I have experienced is that my job experience in China (publishing/teaching) is worth much less outside China to employers back home, than similar work experience acquired in the west.

Furthermore, the longer you are out of your home job market the tougher it will be (you're be competing with another 2 years worth of grads and those with postgrad qualifications), not just job-wise, but also generally adjusting back to western life.

As the article rightly points out, proper western expat jobs are pretty much not available to those in China (unless you have previous experience in the west) as these types of jobs tend to go to those already working for an firm in the west and those with significant work experience.

May 05, 2011 13:21 Report Abuse



I have worked in education all my life. So, for me, China is actually a very good thing. In the state of Oregon where I worked for the past five years, educational spending is so erratic that working in education here is like speculating in the stock market. Teachers get laid off all the time, only to be re-employed a few months later. At least China is a steady job. I guess I am a minority, but China has worked out for me quite well.

May 04, 2011 15:11 Report Abuse


Mr. Martel

Same as where I am from. There are few jobs in my teaching field back home. In China, I make a great salary, which allows me to have a fun lifestyle whilst saving a lot each year. And because I am working at a campus that is part of a larger institution back home, that's experience I can use on my resume and that is transferable if I move back permanently.

Contrasting that to the dreadful job market for my field back home, where I might not even have a job, I definitely feel very thankful for the opportunities China has provided me. 我爱中国. :)

May 05, 2011 05:30 Report Abuse


Mr. Martel

If you are young (let's say between 21 - 27 or so), then I think even teaching ESL in China can look good on your resume back home.

If you are older, then I think you have to tie-in your experience in China within the larger context of your career. Teaching ESL, if it has no relevance to your occupation back home, obviously won't go over well with employers. Conversley, if you are working in business with a mulitnational, the experience would look great.

If you are teaching a subject other than English (at a British/American/Canadian/Australian school) and you are also a certified teacher back home - then I think your experience can have relevance for schools back home. Same might be said if you are a professor (though university jobs are certainly difficult to get back home anyway).

May 04, 2011 07:08 Report Abuse



Life is what you make it.
if you choose to be led by the nose , then other people control your future
if you choose your own path the you get to control your future.
so know where you want to go and have a plan that you can adjust when needed to get where you want to go and take resposability for your own life

May 04, 2011 00:59 Report Abuse



If you use your opportunity in China to develop other skills, teaching can be a great entry, and set you down a wonderful new path in life. If you don't want to be a career teacher, it can still be a good way to spice up a resume, if you only do it for a year or two. But, if you spend 5 years teaching, naturally employers will view you as someone primarily with ESL skills, unless you find a way to highlight your other talents.

I first started teaching in china in 2002, and worked hard on my Chinese in my spare time. Three years later I returned to the US, the worked on an MA in Chinese language in literature. Since then, I have been steadily employed due to my language skills and my passion and interest in technology, and making far more than I made as an English teacher. It's not going to make me rich, but I have the kind of creative international career that I always hoped for when I first arrived.

I think using a graduate degree to rebrand yourself can be key. 5 years teaching experience in China, with an MBA, JD, or an MA could be a great combination. I felt the same way this poster did when I first went back to the US. I knew I had learned a lot in China, but I had no way to prove it to anyone. Having the combination of real-life China experience, and a graduate degree seems to have made all the difference. Be creative and forge a path for yourself!

May 04, 2011 00:18 Report Abuse



Yes i think many Americans have nothing and come try something here. Why would they work here for less if they can do so much better in the US? The worst is, after a couple of months here, they moan and bitch about housing, pay and almost everything, cause now he feels China owes him something (maybe a red carpet?). The complains never end but goning back also never happen.. I am expat here and NEVER asociate with others , unless they Chinese cause, i am so tired of the complains they have..

May 03, 2011 20:45 Report Abuse