How Teaching English in China Gave Us a Better Life

by Rachel Story
teaching English

Are there any points in your life that were a major turning point? There are several decisions that I made that changed my life path. We’ve written about a few of those occasions such as how we met 10 years ago and how my college internship completely changed my life. Teaching English in China is another one of those major decisions that turned out to be the best we’ve ever made. We’ve both been teaching English for a combined decade now and it’s allowed us to travel and live in many different places. These days, we are fortunate enough to enjoy a location independent lifestyle thanks to teaching English online. The road to get here wasn’t an easy one, though. Read on to learn the challenges we faced along the way and how we can help you do the same.

It all started when I met Sasha in 2008 while sitting on a trampoline at Rothbury Music Festiva, just one month before he was set to move to Beijing. Talk about terrible timing! Fortunately for us, the internet is a thing and we were able to keep in touch.

The Summer of Music

When Phish announced their mighty comeback in 2009, we were beyond stoked. We both went to work securing tickets for shows. I thought we would probably see one maybe two shows together, but before I knew it, we had tickets to 15 Phish shows that summer. We did the only logical thing hippies do and went on tour! That summer was absolutely epic!

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Traveling the country chasing music

We rode that wave of fun for as long as we could but when fall hit, reality began to set in. With no money, no place to live, and no more shows to attend, we had no choice but to try and find jobs and settle down a bit.  Sasha had been planning on returning to China to teach again and had even lined up a job. However, I still wasn’t sold on moving there.

After that summer of traveling the country together, working at festivals and going to countless Phish shows, I was motivated to put my Music Industry Studies degree to use and get into the music business.  Sasha being the gentleman that he is decided he would stay behind with me and give me a chance to pursue a job in the music biz.

My Attempt at Landing a Job in the Music Biz

Since we had friends in the area, I figured I’d try to get a job in Nashville; after all, it is Music City. I bought a pants suit, got my resume and cover letters ready, and hit the pavement on Music Row looking for any kind of opening. I volunteered at conferences, attended networking events, and reached out to everyone I knew. In short, I did a real job hunt and took it seriously.

Unfortunately, jobs were in short supply (thanks, economic crisis!) and the ones that were available were going to better-qualified people. After months of this never-ending job search, I finally got an interview for an extremely entry-level position that paid $10 per hour at one of the big artist management companies. The position ended up going to one such qualified person who had been laid off from a higher position. They hired him because he had experience. It was an entry-level position!

I ended up just waiting tables again and Sasha got stuck teaching ESL in an unreliable, demanding, and low-paying job. Instead of living in Nashville, we found ourselves packing into a college house with our hippie friends. Between the two of us, we barely made enough to pay our meager share of the rent.

We were poor, under-employed, on food stamps, and stuck in a filthy college house.  Something had to change.

From the moment I was turned down for that position, I decided that we were leaving the USA, but I wanted to earn the money to do it myself and not ask my parents. I searched for any way to make money and I did a lot of odd things to get it. It was a strange time in life.

teaching English

We still had fun!

Sidenote: While that may sound like a horror story, we did have plenty of good times in those months.  Living with our college hippie friends was incredibly entertaining.  We went to a bunch of shows in Nashville, Murfreesboro, Asheville, and Boone, and we enjoyed plenty of weekends partying with friends, bowling, singing karaoke or whatever else sounded like fun.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

After laying low and trying to spend as little money as possible, we managed to work out a trip to Miami for Phish’s NYE run. We were so excited to enjoy the nice weather, good friends, and great music. The mood was soured one day, however, when we heard from a friend back in Tennessee that our house had been broken into. My computer was stolen, as was Sasha’s nice guitar. A few weeks later, my car was broken into as well.

I had reached my breaking point, and all I knew was that I had to get as far away from middle Tennessee as possible.

Finally, I asked Sasha what he thought about returning to Beijing. It seemed like the happiest day of his life when I gave him the green light to go back. I knew that the only reason he had stayed behind was for me to pursue my dreams, but they just weren’t working out. We decided to go to China together this time and start teaching and saving money.

Moving Out and Moving On to Beijing

In early March 2010, we boarded a flight bound for Beijing. I was super excited for the adventure ahead!

I wish I could tell you that we arrived in Beijing and everything was immediately perfect and we were no longer super broke, but we still had a few obstacles. For one, we were still super broke with lots of student loan debt. Our parents were kind enough to buy our flights under the condition that we pay them back. We swear we will one of these days…

live in China

My first day in Beijing.

Thanks to Sasha having lived there already, we were able to stay with some friends while we looked for jobs and an apartment.  We did some sightseeing so that I could get to know my new home a bit while we worked part-time jobs, tutored, recorded our awesome American voices, and whatever else was available to pocket some kuai.

Eventually, we found a great room for rent in an apartment in the Old City.  I settled into a routine of tutoring for a super-rich Chinese family and working in a kindergarten, while Sasha worked at a Korean school and did some tutoring.

Sometimes Things Get Worse Before They Get Better

Just when it seemed as if we were finally getting on our feet in China, we were unexpectedly moved out of our apartment and seriously screwed over by our terrible roommate (another story for another day). Basically, we came back from an awesome week-long trip to find that he had packed up all of our stuff and put it in the hotel across the street, moved out himself, and disappeared. He took the money we had just paid him for rent and ran.

But everything happens for a reason, right?

About this same time, Sasha was offered a high-paying teaching job at one of the top universities in Beijing thanks to a referral from a friend. Since I had more free time, I hit the pavement looking for a new place. Thankfully, we had good friends who allowed us to crash with them while we searched.

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Home sweet home in Beijing

After looking at 30 different places (seriously, 30!) I finally found the perfect apartment. It was three bedrooms with real hardwood floors, a balcony, and bathtubs – something pretty uncommon in Asia. (Click here to see more photos of all our apartments in China!)

We ended up living there for three years. Our hustling, hard work and connections really paid off as those connections led us to work at more prestigious schools and companies.

Teaching English Got Me Here

Since then, we’ve lived in Kunming, Bali, and now Puerto Vallarta and traveled to countless other places. These days we teach online with VIPKID which allows us to pick up and hit the road when we feel like it. We just spent 7 months traveling in South America all while teaching English online.

teaching English

We’re still not rich but we are out of debt and now earn enough to have the kind of lifestyle we want all thanks to teaching English in China! Looking back on the last decade full of travel and all the incredible experiences that come with it, it’s amazing to think that we’ve done it all just by being part-time ESL teachers.

Are You Interested in Teaching English? We Can Help!

If you have no desire to ever teach English abroad or online, then you can stop here. Thank you so much for reading our story!

But if I’ve piqued your interest, keep reading. We have a plethora of content to help you with your teach abroad journey.

Step 1: Get Your TEFL Certificate Online

The best thing we ever did to further our teaching careers was to get our TEFL certificates online with Bridge TEFL. There are lots of different types of English teaching certificates so don’t worry if you’re confused by all the acronyms.

Getting your TEFL certificate online is the fastest way to get certified and you can do it on your own time. Click here to read my review of the best online TEFL courses.

Bridge TEFL has some pretty good discounts on their courses for this month. Click here to check the price and learn about the courses they offer.

Step 2: Answer “Is Teaching English in China Right For You?”

We have quite a bit of content about teaching and living in China. Here are some good places to get started:

You can also enroll in our mini-course that teaches you everything you should know about living in China. In it, we go into detail about everything from finding a place to live and getting a visa to understanding Chinese personalities and behaviors. Clicking that link above will take you to a post all about what you can expect from the course. Click here to skip the post and directly enroll in the course.

Step 3: Learn About Teaching English in Other Countries

China isn’t the place for everyone and we know that it’s not always the top choice when searching for opportunities to teach abroad, so we’ve interviewed other people about their experience teaching English abroad in countries such as Thailand, Oman, Dubai, Mexico, and Kazakhstan.

Click here to check out all the posts from our ESL Around the World interview series.

Step 4: Teach English Online to Become Location Independent

Once you’ve gotten some experience teaching English, you can start teaching English online and live in whatever country you desire! This is how we became digital nomads and created a life of freedom of travel where we don’t have to ask permission or take time off to do the thing we love.

We have a fresh new free e-book about how to teach English online and start traveling the world on your terms.

Click this link or enter the information below to get your copy now. It’s free!

teaching English online

We are more than happy to help you on your journey to becoming location independent by teaching English so do not hesitate to get in touch and ask for help!

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Thank you so much for reading this to the end! I hope you’ve found our story inspiring or helpful in some way. Do you want to teach English? Drop me a comment and let me know!

teaching English abroad | teaching English in China | expat life | living in China

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Mitchell Scott May 18, 2019 - 12:10 am

Thanks for your articles on ESL teaching and location independence. I’m considering online ESL teaching as an option. I taught ESL in Taipai (Taiwan) in 1990-91 which in turn lead me to study education and teach English in Australian high schools for 20 years. Recently I bought the 2019 Paradise Pack – I am looking forward to checking out your course 🙂 – to help me with my location independent lifestyle. Keep up the great article on your blog.

Rachel Story May 18, 2019 - 5:21 pm

Hi, Mitchell! Thank you for the kind words! We bought the Paradise Pack in 2015 and I don’t think we’d be where we are right now without it and the communities we were introduced to as a result. I would love to hear more about your experience in Taiwan sometime!


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