Sometimes a well-paid corporate job just does not feel right. That is what Derrick Chang Dao-yan discovered nine years ago in his then role as a Toronto-based project manager with telecommunications company Bell Canada. He was earning a generous salary and had significant responsibility co-ordinating cable-laying activities, but felt stale and was itching for something with more meaning and interest.
"I was in charge of projects with 20 to 30 people working for me, but a lot of [them] were `lifers'," Chang says. "The youngest were in their 40s and had already been there for 20 years. The problem was working in an office, in a cubicle, never seeing any results from what you do."
Unsure of what he really wanted, but intrigued by stories of his family's ancestral home, and a Chinese history course at university, he decided to move to Dalian. The northeastern city seemed like a good base from which to explore the mainland and a place where work as an English teacher should be easy to find.
"It was a shock to everybody but me," he says. "My parents were upset that I would quit such a good job. At that time [in 2003], China wasn't such a big deal ... but I just wasn't very happy."
When leaving Bell, Chang agreed with his boss that he could always come back if things didn't work out. He was determined, though, not to let that happen and, soon after arriving in Dalian, landed a job at a private English academy. Unfortunately, it only lasted a month. When severe acute respiratory syndrome struck, all schools were closed, but rather than sit idle, Chang dedicated himself to learning Putonghua. He found a small neighbourhood restaurant and spent three to four hours there every day, chatting with the owner and other customers, making local friends, and insisting people also speak to him in the everyday dialect. He learned to read Chinese by texting friends and chatting via QQ instant messaging. Competent in the language, he then travelled through the mainland countryside for three months, observing everything and taking photos of what he encountered.
"I saw a lot of corruption and unfairness, so I started contacting some NGOs [non-governmental organisation] and pitching my services as a photographer," says Chang, who, without quite realising it, was soon building up a lucrative sideline as a photojournalist.
Returning to Dalian after his travels, he began teaching English to university students, and the more he taught, the more he enjoyed it. Hearing about the Hong Kong government's Native English Teacher (NET) scheme for public schools, he decided to sign up and, in due course, accepted a post at the Chak Yan Centre, a school for boys with emotional or behavioural problems.
Chang now teaches Primary 3 to 6 classes, though some of his students are as old as 16. They were often kept back year after year in other schools, and most come from low-income or migrant families where difficult circumstances at home work against their academic achievement. "You need a lot of patience," he says. "It's a cliche to say that you have to love the children, but I've seen a lot of new teachers quit because they couldn't handle it. You really have to be committed to what you're doing."
After his first year, Chang hit a roadblock when told that, without an education degree, his pay would be capped at less than HK$30,000 a month. This spurred him to enrol in a part-time postgraduate diploma programme at the University of Hong Kong, not so much for financial reasons as to be able build a career in teaching.
"I just think it's a very meaningful job. If I were to move, I would prefer to work in another special needs school. I worked at a [normal school] part-time when I started the NET programme and a lot of what we did was rote memorisation. Kids don't really think creatively; it was exam-based education."
Teaching has also allowed Chang to continue his interest in photojournalism. During holidays, he has worked in this capacity for NGOs, documenting social problems and poverty around Asia, and seeing repeatedly how much more you experience when not just sitting behind a desk. In mid-2009, for instance, he was in Indonesia to record the lives of people who scavenge through massive piles of garbage to find and sell recyclable plastic.
The assignment brought its own challenges, including the loss of thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment when he fell into a pool of sewage water.
"My passport still stinks," he says, emphasising that such mishaps were just part of doing the sort of job he always wanted. "I've become more socially aware since I came to Asia. I left Toronto to escape boredom, the routine. I wanted my life to have more meaning."
How to get the idea Talk to people and surf the internet for blogs and websites about interesting careers
How to plan Weigh the pros and cons by researching the salary, working conditions and likely prospects
How to get going It is not easy switching career, so be 100 per cent committed to the decision
How to make sure it works out well If possible, try volunteering or do some part-time work first to see if you like it, and have a plan B in your overall strategy