And Breathe - the further adventures of living in China
So, I got canned from my job of six years in a High School at the end of January. Today is the first day since then I feel I can sit back, relax and reflect a little.
Life was going swimmingly. I had recently got married in August 2018 after enjoying a somewhat sweaty holiday in Japan. Teaching started as usual in September, and as I had a contract with my employer until July 2020, life was good.
Christmas came and went and then the snows came. Maybe the first indication of rough seas ahead was when I found a little kitten on the campus mewing pitifully outside my office building. It was sprawled on the ground, thin and emaciated and clearly had a problem with its back legs. Of course, I took it home and Essa and I nursed to back to health, it was a still a feral cat though and it stayed outside, but it had a little house and we fed it. Despite the problems with its back legs it could still get around and often I would have to go search for it to bring it back and feed it.
Then one day two students came and asked if they could take the cat home to look after it. We agreed as they seemed to be genuine. However, a week later Mocha, as we had named the kitten, re-appeared on the campus. I tracked the girls down and quizzed them as to why they weren't looking after the cat. They told me that the mum didn't want the cat in the house as it was 'dirty' but they had taken it to the vet for a check up. It had escaped from the place where they were keeping it, So Mocha was back with us.
We decided we would take it to the vet and take it in, turning it from a feral cat, to a house cat. Essa put a collar on it with our telephone number on. But to no avail, the next day Mocha was gone. We hunted high and low but it wasn't on the campus. The only explanation was someone had taken her.
A week or two later another cat came into our lives. Essa had bought a grey cat we called Smokey. It was cute as all kittens are, although Snooky wasn't too impressed as the cat gambolled around our front room. It wasn't long however, before we noticed Smokey, coincidently, seemed to also have a problem with its back legs. Then he started to become incontinent. We took him to the vet where we had scans and an X-ray done. It turned out Smokey had a damaged spine and as he grew it was causing the problem. The solution was an expensive operation or to wait and see what happened.
Over the next few weeks although Essa nursed that cat Smokey ended up being doubly incontinent, unable to use its rear legs and we had to hand feed it. This was no life for little kitten. So we had to make that terrible decision to have Smokey put down. We buried him on the campus on the Wednesday.
On Friday I was called to my employers office. I wondered why. One reason could have been an ongoing problem with the hot water in my apartment (provided by the school). It had been off and on for around 10 days and somedays it was impossible to have a shower as there was no hot water. I had been complaining nearly every day to the HR department. Once there they explained to me that my job was at risk. They had been caught with illegal teachers in their Kindergarten and had been fined. The teachers had probably been arrested and deported. They told me that because I was over 60, which is the ceiling for legal teachers in China, they might have to finish my job. This was, they explained, because my work visa had been arranged over the past 4 years (I was then 64) by the boss having guanxi with the local PSB (Police) who give the visa.
At that time it was still a 'maybe' they said, they were just warning me of what might happen. What could I do? I understood the labour laws of China like most people, its nothing one can change. Anyhow, these sorts of things often blow over in China, things happen and then they drift away as something else comes to the fore. Anyway I was on holiday in Thailand the following Wednesday so we tried not to think about it.
The next week saw us in Chaing Mai trying to put that worry behind us. It was working too. Hot sun, Cold beer, lots to see and do, it was relaxing. On the second day, the Friday, we had a nice boat trip on the river and were walking back thinking about getting an Ice-cream when my phone beeped.
It was the message. My job had ceased to exist on that Friday, the end of term and everything would be finalised by February 15th. Thank you and please sign this form confirming it. Bollocks!
We tried to make the best of the holiday and put the problem out of our minds, but I did start researching the teaching job market in Thailand, although Essa was not so keen on me doing that. I also started sending out applications to various schools and universities in China to see if I could still get work, despite being over 60. Lots of people had told me that my PhD was my trump card, but I was not so sure.
Back in China in early February we were faced with having to get out of the apartment I had lived in for nearly 6 years by March 1st plus wonder where my next salary was going to come from. The backstop for me staying in China was the spouse visa. Because I was married I could get this, but a spouse visa does not allow the spouse to work. The spouse visa is designed for those Chinese men that cannot find a wife in China because of the gender imbalance caused by the one child policy. So they can ship one in from Thailand, Vietnam or S. Korea to have their babies to keep grandma happy and apply for the spouse visa to her her here.
I started to think about online teaching and finding illegal teaching jobs, maybe a couple of hours here and there in training schools and colleges would do. A few of my mates were putting the word around and I was contacting old friends and acquaintances telling them I was available for teaching. I started to get a few offers. And then the shit hit the fan again.
First it was the rejections I was getting, straight out 'no's' because of my age from recruiters and universities, Some later than others because if somebody was interested I made a point of reminding them of my age upon which they went silent and I never heard anything again. Then it was the news reports of foreign teachers getting arrested and deported for being illegal––confirming my employers story. Over 50 South African teachers had been caught, some of them in Nanjing, where I lived. They had been duped into coming here to teach on tourist visas which saw them languishing in a Chinese gaol for up to 30 days before being deported.
This was added frisson to my new unemployed status. Was I safe? My agency, at another meeting I had with them, to sign papers and so on confirmed that it was the provincial government that was behind the new purge. Nanjing had always been more relaxed in regard of the employment laws because of the number of foreign students that live here. But now the province was on the case.
Nevertheless, I was taken on by two online teaching providers and a couple of part-time illegal teaching jobs. But I was nervous. The first teaching job was passed on to me by a British friend. Someone was offering 4 x 2 hour classes teaching American History on a Sunday evening in downtown Nanjing. Could I do it? I said yes because after all American History was only about 250 years long so how hard could it be. I'm a fast study I said and got the gig––which was probably more to do with my white face and PhD than my ability to bone up on what went down in the US of A.
Almost immediately I started to get nervous. Then another woman contacted me and wanted to talk about doing some teaching at her training school near a big shopping mall in Jaingning. I met her when I was picking up some cash money for some work I did the previous year in Starbucks in the big central hospital in Nanjing. She was keen for me to turn up on the Saturday to speak to parents and show myself off if I was going to work for her.
I was nervous about this too and told her so. But she assured me I would be safe. But she would say that wouldn't she. said a little voice in my head. Anyhow around this time something great happened. I started to get positive responses from universities. Their spring break holidays had lasted a little longer so only now were they responding to my enquiries. One in Hangzhou was so keen they sent the contract for me to read. Unsure, I asked them if they had noticed my age and was that a problem? They told me they had checked with their local PSB and all was OK. Another American university also contacted me and asked for an online interview which I booked.
During all of this happening we had to move apartment which is fraught at the best of times. First off we had to find a new apartment at a price that wasn't going to break the bank. It turned out it wasn't that hard, lady luck turned our way and as it happened a Chinese friend of ours had an apartment ready to rent. We went to see it and shook hands on the deal immediately. He even gave us a discount on the rent. Now all we had to do was move in.
Essa booked a lorry and bought loads of cardboard boxes and we packed up the last six years of my life. I arrived in China with a suitcase limited to 23 kilos, a backpack, a computer bag and Snooky. Somehow I had acquired about twenty boxes full of stuff, furniture, fish in aquariums (not mine) and various knick knacks of all sorts of shapes and sizes. The van had to make two trips, at an extra cost, as optimistacally and with an eye to the cash situation we had only booked one trip.
Our new apartment is on the fifth floor of a typical Chinese high rise block some 33 floor tall. We are in a gated community of seventeen such blocks some of which are yet to be finished. Personally, the fifth floor is high enough for me. After seeing various disasters in high rises I don't want to be too high.. We have a big living room, kitchen, bathroom, two bedrooms, one of which we have converted into an office and a small box type room. It's nice enough. But despite now having no income I had to swallow handing over three months rent, plus a deposit - mate or no mate, business is business.
We didn't have much furniture so a trip to IKEA was in the offing. There we bought a new sofa and a new mattress which were delivered on the day we moved in. There is one thing about China and that is delivery is very efficient. We set about emptying boxes and making our empty new place our home.
The first Sunday gig was downtown. I was slightly apprehensive because of the news that the cops were actively chasing illegal teachers. But my mate had put me onto the job and told me it was safe as it wasn't a bona fide training school but just three of four students in a private room. I had to be there for around 18:10 and the two hour class would start at 18:30. I took a DiDi taxi as I didn't want to be late.
Once there I asked permission to film my class because the American university was asking me for a teaching video. As if these are things we regularly do. I had never taken a video of my teaching practice and now I was out of an actual school this was the best it was going to get. I was expecting four students. Eventually one female student turned up. The by 18:45 it was suggested I started the class. Then around five minutes later another kid arrived. By then I had two students and five adults in the class––three parents and two watchers. This is some of it.
I was also asked by another woman to present to a room full of students something about the importance of learning English and passing the IELTS test. I had agreed to do this in my first panicking moments of not having any work. It wasn't much money but she said it would just be half an hour. I had to be at a particular school at 14:30. She was quite insistent about this and reminded me a couple of times. As well as reminding me to wear as suit. Obviously she had had dealings with expat teachers before. I reminded her I was a professional teacher, I always wear a suit when I speak to parents.
It was a farce as you would expect. Earlier, I had a meeting with the other person that was offering me teaching, I'll call her Jane 1. To get to Jane 2 I had to leave with enough time to get across town by taxi. I left with an hour to spare. Jane 1 actually booked and paid for the taxi which took me across town. Eventually, the driver stopped and pointed across the road so I got out. He had dropped me off in the middle of nowhere. Which to be fair is very unusual for a DiDi driver. It was close to 14:30 and Jane 2 was asking me where was I? In the middle of fucking nowhere I told her.
So I had no choice but to jump in a yellow cab and show the female driver the Chinese address of the place I was going. We went a hundred yards down the road before she stopped and told me to get out. I guess she didn't want to go there either. The next guy was more obliging and got me to the school.
But I was late. I hate being late, it stresses me out. I am never late. So I make it to the room where the meeting is. Its empty. I ask Jane 2 why is it empty? She tells me the meeting doesn't start until 4. What? I say. "You told me to be here at 14:30 and now you say its not starting until 4?" She says yes. I say "Right Im off, Im not sitting here for an hour for the money you are paying me." So she pleads with me and says once I have spoken she will drive me home. She then goes on to tell me this will be after 5. Ok. final straw. I say I am not waiting until 5 to speak unless you are prepared to pay me for 3 hours of my time and not just the one hour we agreed on.
It was a mess. I got to speak earlier. She paid me, plus paid all my taxi fares and I fucked off tout suite. Never again will Jane 2 have the pleasure of my help. (She contacted me again yesterday, so my yelling at her didn't dampen her enthusiasm for having a rude Englishman doing the business - I said no, of course) But this is the expectation of the Chinese professional and it's sort of part and parcel of their working life. I've seen it before so I shouldn't be surprised. Being told to be somewhere at a certain time and then nothing happening for an hour or two past the arranged time. It is mind boggling how some things get done here.
Now back to Jane 1. We had been discussing me working for her training school. The previous Saturday I had given a presentation to parents and prospective students for her. Now she wanted to move this onto a more permanent basis. She offered me regular teaching on a Saturday and she also wanted me to be the Director of English in her school. This would include some office hours on a Thursday afternoon. For which she was offering a monthly wedge and dangled the possibility of getting me a working visa.
I was still unsure about all of this and whenever I thought about these illegal jobs I was getting butterflies in my tummy. Obviously, I didn't want to get caught, gaoled and deported, not only for my sake but I had Essa, my wife, to consider as well. I asked a couple of friends for their input to try to work out what I should do.
Then I heard that an American guy I knew and had worked with before had jacked in his job with Jane 1 because of the issues with illegal teaching. He told me that just the previous week five foreign teachers had been caught downtown and taken away in handcuffs. They police had been taping their movements for weeks prior to the arrests. More stress.
I was pretty sure this was now a dodgy wicket and I shouldn't be doing it. I spoke to my mate who had got me the American History job and discussed it while I was on the metro to do the second Sunday. What really alarmed me was the owners had moved the classroom from the first place into an area in the centre of the city - exactly the area the five teachers had been arrested.
I did do that Sunday night and taught three students. I went mainly because I was being paid for the 2 sessions that evening in cash. I wasn't happy and had pretty much decided to knock all of these side jobs on the head. Then I had another message from my British buddy telling me that area of the city was swarming with police spies and his (illegal teaching) school had told him to stay away as well.
What convinced me was the University that was interested in me invited me to visit to meet the Dean and other members of staff.
The following Thursday I signed contracts with the University (subject to my documents being ratified in the Chinese Embassy in London) and on the train back home I sent messages to my two dodgy employers telling them we had finish with all that malarky.
Now, all I have to do is get my docs in the post and enjoy the next six months of doing nothing except living off my savings.
But, at least, I can breathe.