Historically, China has always been an important job destination for Filipinos. During the 1920s to the 1940s, Filipino jazz musicians were in demand in cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong. But in 1949, job opportunities for Filipinos dried up in China, leaving pockets of opportunity in Hong Kong and Macau. But the job situation could change now: Philippine labor officials claim that China’s job market is opening up again to Filipinos. In April 2018, the two governments signed a memorandum of agreement for the entry of Filipino teachers of English language to China.
The surge in demand for Filipino workers is due to China’s aging population and its perennial lack of workers fluent in English.
The Department of Foreign Affairs estimates that there are approximately 19,000 Filipinos currently working in China. Many workers are based in big cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xiamen. But Sidney Christopher Bata, a lecturer for Chinese Studies at Ateneo de Manila University, says the figure could be a lot higher if undocumented workers are included.
While the Department of Labor and Employment claims that Chinese employers are willing to pay as much as P60,000 or US$1,200 a month to Filipino workers, Bata warns that there are challenges. Among them are lower wages compared to other foreign workers, poor living conditions, language barriers, and issues regarding contracts.
The last issue, in particular, is a growing concern for many foreign workers in China.
In his China Law blog, lawyer Dan Harris wrote, “The only relevant portion of a China employment contract is the Chinese portion and so teachers (and foreign workers) who do not speak Chinese have no clue what their employment contracts say and no clue even whether the English language portion of that contract accurately translates the Chinese portion – I can tell you right now that the odds are about 100 to 1 that it does not.”
Despite these challenges, there are Filipinos working in China who are thriving, like Beijing-based Elizabeth Ang and Rhio Zablan and Maria Isabela Sumanilog Fawcett who is based in Guangzhou.
Elizabeth Ang, a 53-year-old Tsinay from Manila, is currently teaching kindergarten English in Beijing. A 1987 BS Psychology graduate from St. Scholastica’s College, Ang admits that originally, she had no plans of working in China. “It just so happened that while I was still in Manila, I was becoming rebellious. Along with some serious problems our family’s retail business was facing at that time, my mom decided that I needed to go to China in 2002. I went to Xiamen, which was my father’s hometown, and studied Putonghua at Xiamen University.”
After she finished studying a year later, Ang decided to stay on. The problems her family faced were growing, and since she held a Chinese passport, they advised her to look for work there. She applied for an English teaching position at the Xiamen Nanyang College and got accepted.
Ang signed a three-year contract and was assigned to teach English to first year college students. She loved her job and ended up working there for nine years.
In 2012, she moved to Beijing and helped set up the college’s new English learning school for children. Then in 2015, she moved to another school in Beijing, ACE or Accelerated Christian Education. She left the following year and went back to teaching young children English at another school called Reading English, and is currently still there.
Adjusting to life in China took time. First, there was the language barrier. She was not fluent in Putonghua while her colleagues were not fluent in English. She also found it difficult dealing with China’s cold winters.
Some people would view Ang’s career path from a business owner to a teacher as a downgrade. But she doesn’t see it that way. Her time is no longer consumed by the demands of the family business.
Her work schedule is an eight-hour-six-day work week. She is happier as she has more time for social and leisure activities.
Although she earns less, her income is enough to meet living expenses in China. She is careful not to live from pay check to pay check because in China, asking for an advance on salary is not allowed. All employees have to wait for pay day to receive their salary. Furthermore, it is common practice in China for employers to sometimes delay the release of pay checks by a few days.
Ang also cautions those planning to work in China to expect to be under probation when newly hired by a company, as well as a reduction in salary. But once the probation period is over, they should receive the full amount as promised earlier.
Ang survived her decade-long stay in China because of the network of local friends she made over the years. Her friends and co-workers for the most part do not bring up controversional issues with her like the ones surrounding Philippines-China relations.
She likes the least China’s high cost of living. Beijing is listed as one of the most expensive cities to live in. Ang’s school has tried to address the situation by offering her and a few others an apartment for them to share. But she has since opted to get her own place for privacy and space.
Overall, Ang rates her experience of working in China as positive. She claims that she is proud to be given the opportunity to teach English to the Chinese. She also feels that her time in China has helped her grow and become an independent and reliable person.
Ang has three pieces of advice for those who want to work in China. First, develop a love for Chinese people despite the cultural differences. Second, do your best to do whatever tasks are assigned to you, as this will help gain appreciation. Finally, keep your reputation clean. Do your best to stay away from illicit activities like illegal drugs, gambling or anything that could get you in trouble in China.
Thriving in Beijing is 41-year-old Rhio Mata Zablan who currently works at China Radio International (CRI) as producer/host for a radio/web program called “Dito Lang Yan sa Tsina.”
A physical therapist graduate from Pines City College in Baguio, he took up communication management for his masters degree at the Polytechnic University of Philippines. After finishing his studies, he was hired by the Presidential Communication Operation Office in 2003 and for the next seven years, he worked for the government as news writer and media relations officer.
In 2008, Zablan traveled to Beijing as part of the Philippine delegation to a three-week ASEAN media seminar. While touring China’s State Administration for Radio, Film and Television, he met his future wife Mary Liang.
The two embarked on a long-distance relationship that lasted more than a year. Zablan realized that if he continued to work in Manila, his relationship with Liang might suffer. He chose his girlfriend over his job.
But there was a glitch: how was he going to support them both after they marry? “Without a definite plan of re-employment, I submitted my resignation letter the following day. I had started the process of applying for a visa at the Chinese embassy, when the China Radio International Filipino Service gave me a call and offered me a job. It was destiny manifested.”
He accepted the offer and moved to Beijing in 2010. He and Liang got married the following year. In 2013, they were blessed with a lovely daughter, Xiao Ao.
Even after nine years in China, there is always something new for Zablan to discover and learn about life in China, its culture and its people. “It was a bit hard at the beginning because of the language barrier, different climate, food and culture. But after a few very cold winters, I am fully adjusted like a fish in the sea,” he said.
Zablan credits his wife for helping him adjust to life in China. Originally from China’s northeast region, she is his guide to life in China. “She taught me many things about her country and its culture, such as the difference between northern and southern Chinese. She has also taught me her country’s history and showed me things and places that a foreigner living in China would not normally see.”
His wife also served as his language teacher, though he jokingly admits that he is learning at a far slower pace than she expects. But most importantly, his wife gives him the love and emotional support that is vital to any migrant. “She lifts me up whenever I am down. She has brought me life and most importantly she gave me a beautiful daughter.”
Zablan admits that after nine years living in China, there are some aspects that he still has not adjusted to.
For example, he still has not developed a taste for spicy Sichuan/Hunan cuisine, neither has he gotten used to drinking baijiu, a strong Chinese distilled liquor. But the part he likes best about his job, especially when he does his web/radio shows, “I get to explain how Filipinos and Chinese have harmoniously co-existed for thousands of years, how the Filipino forefathers and Chinese ancestors created the unbreakable bonds of friendship that withstood the waves and tides of time. Of course, there are times when I have to dispel the lies that the West and western leaning media have cast upon the relationship between the Philippines and China.”
Given the rough waters that Philippines-China relations is going through at the moment, Zablan would rather not comment because he believes that issues like that are best left to the diplomats and government leaders to sort out.
But he shares his opinions during his visits to the Philippines. “There were friends and families who were really eager to push the issue and I needed to give an appropriate reply. So, I had to shed light in the most objective manner. I tell them that based on my 10 years of experience as a journalist in Beijing, I don’t think the Chinese have any intention to bully or to conquer. What they want is to live peacefully and bring progress to their people, make friends and do business. And in doing so, spur development and advancement for China and other nations as well.”
So far, Zablan is happy with his current employer, the CRI. He says he has not had any job issues with either his contract or salary. Compared with his work experiences in the Philippines, he finds working in Beijing much better due to better management style and work environment.
“Because my job has a lot to do with deepening cultural understanding and fostering close ties between Filipinos and Chinese, it is more fulfilling compared to my previous jobs in the Philippines,” says Zablan.
Aside from work, Zablan also fosters closer cultural ties between Chinese and Filipinos through the Pinoy martial arts called kali (arnis). He first got involved with kali during his university days in Baguio. When he moved to Beijing, he realized how little the Chinese knew about Filipino culture.
Zablan used kali as a way to foster deeper cultural and social understanding between the Filipinos and Chinese. In 2012, with the support of Consul General Frank Olea, he established the “Balintawak Kali China.”
Since then, the group has grown to more than a hundred members, and has promoted three from among the members as local instructors. To further boost its popularity among the Chinese, the group organized an annual week-long exposure tour of the Philippines. This year will be their fourth.
Zablan said he is excited in his role of being a bridge between the Chinese and Filipinos. He advises those who wish to follow his footsteps to have an open mind and “be prepared to have their mind blown away!” He added that even before arriving in China, “they need to learn some basic Putonghua to ease communication and language barriers.”
Maria Sumalinog Fawcett
The government can’t come up with an accurate figure of Filipinos working in China partly because many of them were recruited through a third country. Among them is 35-year-old Maria Sumalinog Fawcett.
Sumalinog Fawcett left the Philippines in 2002, after graduating from Science and Technology Education Center in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu. Her family moved from one country to another before settling in Canada in 2004. After trying out several career options, she decided that she wanted to become a teacher. In 2014, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Edmonton. The following year, she married her fiancé, Brett Fawcett.
She then worked as a teacher at the Edmonton Catholic School district in Canada’s Alberta province where she handled classes for pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and grades four to six. She also taught classes in Filipino language and culture.
In 2018, while attending a teacher’s convention in Edmonton, she came across a recruitment booth for the Canadian International School (CIS) in Guangzhou. It made her an offer, and both she and her husband accepted. That same year they left for Guangzhou.
Before arriving in China, Sumalinog Fawcett was concerned about how she would be received. “I knew people were going to doubt my being a Canadian and my competence as a Canadian teacher. I’ve always known that in Asia, Caucasians are given better treatment than colored persons like myself, a Filipino by heritage. I see my work at my school as my humble contribution towards correcting this misinformed perception.”
But her fears proved unfounded. The couple was warmly received by colleagues and the staff of the CIS. She was charmed when one of the school’s security personnel, in limited English, expressed admiration for President Duterte for being a great person and China’s friend. The school staff also acknowledged her Filipino heritage by bringing to her attention whenever the country is in the news.
Aside from the school’s community and her husband, she also found help and support from the local Catholic parish at Shamian Island (Guangzhou’s version of Xiamen’s Gulangyu Island).
It was very difficult for her to adjust life in China because of language barrier; she is not comfortable being in an environment where she does not understand what other people are saying. She has since learned a few key words and phrases to help her get by.
Since Sumalinog Fawcett started teaching in China, she no longer views the Chinese as just success-driven people, but as ones who also give importance to family and arts. “I love that parents are involved and want to know what I do in my classroom. Chinese parents here are invested in their children in a way that’s different from the families back in Canada.”
But there is another side she doesn’t like. “I struggle when I see parents force their children when they are not particularly ready for it yet. I see confident, happy children become anxious and discontented because they are deprived of play and made to perform academically (or in other ways such as playing the piano) instead. I try to help the situation by being not only an educator of my students but, more importantly, an educator of their parents and families.”
Sumalinog Fawcett said the biggest difference in working in China compared to other countries is the expectation and protocol with regards to how things are done.
“An example would be how challenging it is to send your salary home. It takes at least two whole afternoons to get that business done because we are told that the government is very particular with the paper trail. It makes sense from that perspective, so better be ready,” she said.
Sumalinog Fawcett and her husband are satisfied working at the CIS. They have had no problem so far with their work visa and contracts, plus their paychecks are always on time. She finds it nice that Guangzhou is near enough for her and her husband, both Catholic, to visit friends and relatives in the Philippines. Guangzhou’s location, she said, also allows them to travel and visit various Asian Catholic shrines and churches.
After two years of working in China, Sumalinog Fawcett and her husband intend to spend another year there because she is currently working on her master’s degree in education, while her husband is pursuing a degree in law.
The advice she gives to those planning to work in China: be patient due to the language barrier. It will require more time and effort on your part to be understood, as well as to understand others. She reiterated Ang’s advice to stay out of trouble and make sure everything they do in China is legal.