Canadians see a land of opportunity—in China

Maybe a new life awaits you in Nanjing

Go east, young man

Os Ishmael/Novus Select

When Noel Muller returned to Toronto from China in 2010, he was thrilled to be home. Within a few months, however, the then-28-year-old teacher, fed up with unemployment—and with bunking in his mom’s basement—was back on a plane bound for China. Muller had spent a year in Jilin, a small city in China’s northeast, teaching English to local children. He’d been homesick, especially toward the end, and keen to start a permanent teaching career in Ontario. But within weeks of returning, Muller realized that might not be an option for him.

With the economy in the tank, he says, “all the jobs dried up.” And in a year in which over two-thirds of education graduates were unemployed, Muller certainly wasn’t being picky. He was applying for everything from tutoring positions to teacher’s assistant spots to a job teaching English as a second language. Then he got a call from his old boss in Jilin. “He was pretty desperate to have me back,” he says, “and offered me a substantial pay raise.” For Muller, it was an easy choice. “Adventure may have brought me here the first time,” he says, “but monetary considerations certainly brought me back.”

Muller is one of a growing number of young Canadian professionals pursuing careers in the new land of opportunity. In Canada, recent graduates were hit particularly hard by the financial crisis—youth unemployment here sits at 14 per cent, double the national rate—and have not fully recovered. Many are settling for contract work outside their field, often below their skill level. But in China, companies are hungry for educated young workers. And they’re willing to pay a premium for foreigners who can act as linguistic and cultural bridges between China and the West.

Mitch Moxley, a Regina native, was in a similar position to Muller when he moved to China in 2007 to pursue a writing career. Moxley, a freelance reporter, was struggling to find paid work in Toronto. One day, while browsing online want ads, he noticed an open position at China Daily, the state-run newspaper, and applied. China itself wasn’t the allure—any position abroad would have suited him. He wanted to improve his resumé, experience a new culture, and head home after a year. But all that changed after the financial crisis in 2008. Five years later, he still lives in Beijing, one of many young Canadians pursuing the kind of careers they were struggling to launch at home. “People can come here and really land on their feet,” he says. “There is a tonne of opportunity, especially for young people.” The combination of good jobs and a low cost of living has kept even the most hesitant Canadians in China years longer than they expected.

While Muller isn’t entirely confident his teaching experience in China will be marketable back home, his current lifestyle is enough to make him want to stay. “I’m really comfortable here. I have the nicest apartment I’ve ever lived in. I go out and eat and drink. I spend as much money on entertainment as I want, I travel on every vacation, and at the end of the month I still save half of my paycheque. That’s just not going to happen in Toronto.”

While lifestyle alone is enough to keep Muller in the country, Tyler Ehler, a graduate student in economics at the University of Nanjing, went to China to begin a career in international business. The McGill grad was confident the country was going to be a huge part of Canada’s economic future. “We’ve got to expand beyond the United States,” he says, “and Europe is a mess.” Smart companies realize that if they’re not in China, “they’re not in the global market.” The 23-year-old Aurora, Ont., native is working for a Hong Kong venture capital firm.

Ehler thinks it’s critical that he’s in China when he’s starting out. Many of the struggles Westerners face when trying to break into the Chinese market are the result of a networking failure; in China, good business relies on good relationships, he says. “If I develop a network now, at the start of my career, it’s going to be a lot easier than just showing up here at 40 and expecting to do business,” he says.

Ehler has been able to dip into the Hong Kong business world’s most exclusive circles simply as a novelty. “There are a lot of Chinese-Canadians here but there are no non-Asians who speak Mandarin,” he says, adding that his boss has taken him to meetings to which he might not have been invited under different circumstances. “When he’s having lunch with government officials, my boss says he likes to surround himself with pretty girls and a white guy who speaks Mandarin,” he says. “That’s his way of distinguishing himself.”

Alongside work and school, Ehler is part of a $30,000-project, launched by Johns Hopkins University, to start a bilingual English-Mandarin social enterprise to help Chinese and Western companies interact. Ehler hopes the project will turn into a consulting firm in the future.

But despite all the opportunity China offers today, few young Canadians say they intend stay much beyond their twenties or early thirties. Living in a country undergoing rapid change can be unsettling, Ehler admits. “In Shanghai they have the living standards of an affluent European country, but in other parts of the country they have the living standards of a poor African country. There are so many challenges ahead.” Even after five years in Beijing, Moxley says he intends to return home. “Living in China, you can sometimes feel like you’re running away from reality,” he says. “Eventually you grow up and realize you don’t want to hide away.”

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