Written by Christina Roca
When you meet new people in Xi’an, they are either students, or, well, English teachers. When you do not speak enough Chinese, it is hard to imagine having another job in China. Few people know that you can broaden your horizons by choosing another path: the hotel industry.
I arrived in Xi’an as a university teacher, did not speak a word of Chinese and was pretty pessimistic about my chances of finding a job in a hotel. I had sufficient experience in hotels in other countries, but my Chinese was non-existent. After one year, I told myself, it would be enough to get by and I would start looking for a job in a hotel. It turned out that I found a job in a new hotel quite fast, right after the first semester. However, my Chinese was still pretty bad.
I found that working in an international hotel is the key, because international hotels in China need us foreigners. The staff needs to speak English, internal documents are in English and the customers are foreign as well.
A hotel has many job opportunities for all. There are what we call “front office” jobs, meaning you have direct contact with the hotel guests, but there are also “back office” jobs, such as jobs in marketing, sales, events, finance, accounting, purchasing, human resources and many management positions that do not require you to be “on the field”. The cool part is you would be working in the tourism sector, a sector that’s always challenging and constantly evolving. Your opportunities to actually be the tourist and travel within an international hotel group are at the tip of your fingers!
In the hospitality industry, there are opportunities for every taste, for every career, from management to pastry chef. You will probably start from the bottom, with a waitressing or guest relations job, but you can go up pretty fast in China! Salaries are low for everyone in this sector, and it’s not only the case in China. People don’t start careers in this sector for a high salary, but, in most cases, you’ll meet very passionate people who are not there for the modest money most starting positions offer. Learning from them is really worthwhile. They are really focused on customer service and usually very patient, good mentors. Think of it like an investment for your future career.
Hotel work can also help you drastically increase your Chinese language skills. You are a teacher and at the end of the day, do you really want to pick up a book and study Chinese? When you work all day with Chinese people, staff and customers, you’re learning Chinese. Your listening and speaking skills will improve in no time because you have to learn! The language barrier can be exasperating, though. You could be learning even more by observing if you spoke fluent Chinese, or react faster in some cases when you can follow a conversation. Some training sessions are only given in Chinese. However, the staff I have been working with always try to include me and do not hesitate to translate for me most of the time. You just have to ask politely and show you want to be involved more.
You won’t only learn the language, you’ll also be learning the culture and management style of your Chinese counterpart. Imagine, on your CV, you can actually say you worked with Chinese people and you served Chinese guests, which will be a valuable asset as China interacts with the world more and more. In a word, you have really lived the Chinese experience. Chinese management style is different from that of the West. For example, small staff can sometimes be what we would call lazy, or passive. They are just not sensitive to the same problems as Westerners are and can seem to lack empathy. It’s also because they believe everyone has a task to do and has to stick to it. You will often hear Chinese people say they “do not know” when asked a question, or they will give you a straight “no”. That is just because they are not in charge and were not told how to answer by their supervisor (or it’s possible they just did not understand your English). Hierarchy is very important in Asian cultures. It can be frustrating at times, especially when you want to go the extra mile for the guests and the Chinese staff cannot relate or understand why you are working so hard to please them.
The working hours, the morning shifts, evening shifts, night shifts and changing schedules can get on your nerves. It’s eight hours a day, minimum, and five days a week, with your off days often changing and not always consecutive. However, I see this as flexibility. You can shop on weekday afternoons when you finish at 3pm and have a coffee in a quiet environment! You can avoid the weekend crowd and discover Xi’an in a new light!
Some hotels will give you a management trainee contract (complete with a working visa!) because your experience is insufficient in the sector or because you do not speak enough Chinese. These types of contracts often include accommodation in the hotel in which you will work, most of the time. It’s super convenient, but it does mean that you will feel like a student again, sleeping in a room with no kitchen or house appliances. Another disadvantage of this is that some staff will feel they can call you anytime, because you are “just next door”. The best way to deal with this is to make your manager understand you are there for any emergency, but to respect your free time as much as possible.
A lot of teachers actually have the skills needed to work in hotels, as the service sector needs people who give part of themselves everyday, who are patient and caring. Working a “front office” job can be exhausting, having to deal with guests who complain or are too demanding. So is teaching, when you think about it: you give a part of yourself every time you face those students. However, if teaching is really your calling, why not teach the hotel staff? International hotels need trainers who have good teaching skills, for all subjects: English, cross-cultural communication, negotiation, wine knowledge, cooking, the possibilities are endless.
So, now that you know the pros and cons, why not you? You are here for a reason. Maybe you love to travel, or meet new people, or discover new cultures, or you’re just very open-minded. Hopefully you’re also willing to learn Chinese, or at least try. The hotel business could be a great fit for you. Leave the training school grind behind and embark on an exciting new career!