Glen Cornell is a local friend, and heads the ChinaSquat language & teaching resource website for expats. He lived in China for a total of five years, starting out as an English teacher in Dalian and finishing up in Shenzhen for three years working for a manufacturing company while simultaneously working as a freelance teacher. He also started up the Shenzhen Book Exchange, an amateur library of sorts for expats to find books in their own language. He recently returned to America and I thought we could catch up via blog…
Hi Glen, how’s the transition back home been? Where are you living now?
I was very ready to move back to the US, but to be completely honest it’s been a bit of a whirlwind the past month, but that’s what I expected. I left China in a bit of a hurry going after a job opportunity that I really couldn’t pass up on. Part of me had hoped things could have gone more smoothly, but normally the transition for expats from China to the U.S. can be a really tough one, with weeks of unemployment, so I’m really glad that I was able to avoid that.
I’m now living in Boston, Massachusetts, working in sales for a marketing software company called HubSpot.
Can you go over about your decision to move to China? Where were you in your life when you made the choice? Why China?
I first decided to come to China about six months after graduating. It was 2010, and the recession still felt like it was in full swing. My “dream job” after college fell through and I was working at a steakhouse living with Mom and Dad. It wasn’t ideal. However, two of my good friends, one from childhood and the other college, were living in China and pushing for me to come check out that side of the world. On my end, I was just happy to get out of my current situation and see a new country. I was also thinking that learning Mandarin would be a good career move, as China and Chinese were becoming more important in the world.
How exactly did you actually get to China? Did you have a job lined up?
So I took a pretty risky move and just came on my own. My friend Eric Lewandowski was currently living in Dalian and he encouraged me to just get myself there with a tourist visa and then I’d find something. In retrospect, that was probably a dumb move, but luckily for me it worked out. I flew in to Chengdu and did some “sightseeing” for a week, and then moved to Dalian to crash on Eric’s couch while looking for work. I found a job my first day in Dalian, and moved into a new place within 5 days.
So clearly you’re not afraid of making big decisions in a hurry.
I guess one could say that.
Without getting into too many specific details, how would you generally summarize your time living in Dalian and working as an English teacher? And how did you get to Shenzhen?
Actually I lived in Xiamen too before I moved to Shenzhen. Haha, it’s a pretty important part to my personal story, but I’ll get to that later.
I started in Dalian working for a private English training center called “Federal IELTS English School”. It was one of those English schools that puts a ton of time into looking like a great school, but very little time actually worried about the content of their classes. I was never trained, and actually ended up passing out in my first class (another story for another day), they very much used me as their “dancing monkey” in numerous situations, but I was willing. I ended up teaching in public a lot. Teaching in malls, in the park, right outside the school… At one point I swear that wanted me to go to one of those indoor playgrounds and just “start talking to random kids and play with them.” A lot of really odd situations. Strangely enough though, I really liked teaching, despite all that BS. I was teaching kids aged from 5 to 18, but mostly middle-schoolers. On the side I decided to open up my own apartment school called “Exact English” which was essentially a chance for me to just simply teach without dealing with all the crap. I was doing small group classes of five students and tutoring one-to-one. It went well, but the biggest hassle was just dealing with parents. I ended up closing things down after about six months in, and ten months into the Dalian experience when I learned that the English school had never properly finished filing my work (Z) visa. It turned out I had been living in China illegally for about three months and had no idea. Since the principal of the school was so well connected with the local government I was given the option to stay with the school, and stay in Dalian, but I opted to just go home. Things had gotten pretty crazy, and I was in over my head, so I went back to the U.S. just in time for Thanksgiving.
You passed out in your first class?
Hahah, okay, so I feinted. It was supposed to be a speaking class of 20 students, but since they hadn’t had a foreign English teacher in years roughly 60 students showed up. It was enough that I didn’t really know what I was doing, but now that there were 3 times the students to the amount of material I had prepared I just kind of lost it and the next thing I knew a student was helping me up. By the way, it was a three-hour class, and this was just the first five minutes. I ended up finishing up the class, but it was definitely not a good start. What I did learn from that, though, is that if you start out at rock bottom you always have room to improve and a real visual for how bad a class can get. I got over a lot of fear from that experience.
What happened after you went back home?
I went back to the U.S. for a bit and lingered, but I knew I wanted to move back to China and work a different job. In February I traveled back with a friend, and started visiting different cities to decide on a place to stay. We visited Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Xiamen, and decided to just stay in Xiamen. I was going to work for the Swiss International Hotel, but once again things fell through in the last second. They changed their policy and could no longer hire foreigners domestically, only their international headquarters could, so despite getting accepted they had to decline within a week. I immediately went to a school called Meten English, that a friend at worked for in the past and told me they were trustworthy. During the interview I basically told them that I wanted to manage or train teachers as soon as I could get the opportunity. I didn’t like the idea of not moving my career forward. To make a long story short, I worked my ass off at Meten. They were much better than Federal IELTS had been, but they had their own problems. Within a couple of months I was declared the center trainer for the foreign teachers, and simply became the liaison between the foreign staff and the Chinese staff. To their surprise I even started doing some teacher training and participated in interviews. I didn’t get paid for any of that, but I actually wanted to make a difference. Because Meten is a chain school (like 40 branches in China now) their headquarters must have heard word of a foreign teacher that was overworking and not asking for much in return. They actually flew into Xiamen and interviewed me for a position in their headquarters in Shenzhen to be a national trainer.
So you took that job?
That’s right, so that’s how I got to Shenzhen. I worked for Meten in Shenzhen for only a year though. The small problems I had with the school only became big problems once I was in the headquarters. It was a great experience though; I got to do a lot of traveling as a trainer.
I recall that you also worked for a manufacturing company; how did you go from English teaching to manufacturing?
So I got to a point where I once again just needed to advance my career, and after almost three years working for English schools I really felt like I could get into something different. I saw a job opportunity posted to be a project manager at an American-owned footwear manufacturing company and jumped at it. In the interview they mentioned liking the fact that I was ambitious and willing to work hard so I got the job despite lack of experience.
Tell me about that job in just a few sentences.
Okay, so basically I was a project manager, product manager, account manager, and marketing manager all in one. We had to wear a lot of hats. I excelled in the account management/marketing side of things, so after about a year working mostly in the factory they shifted me to a position where I could work from home. It was more of a business development role. For the last year I was building out their website, visiting trade shows and making tons of late-night cold calls. To be honest, it was pretty exciting, but I could never get too jazzed about selling insoles.
What about the Shenzhen Exchange?
So this was a pet project of mine, that ended up evolving into several different projects. I basically wanted to start running events, in particular, cross-cultural events that people could learn from. I started with three events, an Idea Exchange, a Book Exchange and a Data Exchange. The Idea Exchange was kind of like a TED talk for China specifically. It kind of took of early on, and I more or less passed it off to a friend that was passionate about developing and growing it. The name changed to IdeaXchange, and it grew to an event that several thousand people went to over time. The Book Exchange was something I worked out throughout the rest of my time in Shenzhen. It was essentially a community library for expats and local Chinese to get access to more English books. I didn’t manage many of these projects very well though, since I was working a full-time job and starting up an English school.
You started an English school?
Really more of a freelance project, but I had a partner and we had big aspirations out the gate to build it out. I was called SpeakEasy English, and we ran it for over a year. In the end, it mostly ended up being an online school and a business training school. We never hired other teachers, but it was a good experience to learn from. Our biggest gig was a five-month long contract with ARUP to train their managers, which only ended when I moved back to the U.S.
What about ChinaSquat?
ChinaSquat has been through quite an evolution. I technically started the blog in 2010 when I was trying to find a job in the U,S. I started the website as a way to vent some frustration about the job market, and then talk about my move to China. I called it was first called “Life After Graduation” and then I changed the name to “Squatting in China”. The whole “squat” thing was because I knew I’d eventually move back to the U.S. and I thought it sounded catchy.
And now it’s called ChinaSquat?
Yeah, so in my last few months in China up till now I got a bit more serious about the site. I wanted it to be a reference for people like me that want to move abroad to teach in China I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time, but I learned a ton of valuable information. It’s also a bit more than that. I really liked websites like ChinaFile and TeaLeafNation, so I added a section “On China” to go more in-depth about other happenings in China. Now we even have several contributors. Most recently I’ve added a “Stories” section as well, for teachers and expats to share their own experience. I’m hoping that while I’m back in the U.S., this will be my way of staying connected to China in the future.
Sounds like a good plan. I wish you all the best to you in your transition back home, Glen. Good chat!
You too Ray, and congrats on everything you’ve accomplished with the book, website, and blog! I really appreciate the chance to talk!