Gouqi, the not-so-abandoned island.

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‘Where are you??’ friends  eagerly enquired after I posted pictures of Gouqi on my Wechat* Moments (see below).  Pristine beaches, the sky and sea dressed in shades of blue to rival the Mediterranean.  Surely this was not China, or anywhere near Shanghai where murky brown waters permanently surround the coast, often smothered by the persistence of the grey haze of polluted air.  The closest beach to Hangzhou is in Ningbo, one hour South by bullet train, but reports from those who’ve seen it are far from glowing: turbid waters; grimy, dirty beaches – not exactly the kind of place to while away a lazy afternoon..

(*For those not in China and therefore unfamiliar with Wechat …  it is the Chinese version of WhatsApp, only a little more versatile and much easier to use than Facebook in China.  No need for a VPN to let friends and family know your whereabouts….)

 

I was on a trip to an ‘abandoned island’, or so the blurb on Travelers Society’s website led me to believe, somewhere to the east of Shanghai.  We were heading for the Shengsi Islands, a scenic area, consisting of hundreds of islands outlying the Hangzhou Bay and boasting multiple quality beaches, rocks, and cliffs.

It was definitely an island, only to be reached after a four hour boat trip from Shanghai’s port,  but abandoned was best taken with a pinch of salt.  As we were making the most of one of China’s few extended ‘holidays’ at the beginning of May (a three-day weekend courtesy of Labour Day on 1st May), long lines of Chinese tourists besieged the ticket booths… We were not the only ones visiting this gem.

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Far from abandoned, Gouqi island clearly was very much alive with people whose livelihood depended on the sea.  Endless lengths of fishing nets trailed along the narrow coastal road, its verges  littered with skeletons of perished fishing boats and other discarded paraphernalia.  Whilst thoughtless drivers careered around sharp bends, women and men – too old to be out on the sea – braved the unrelenting sun to mend the nets, ready to be set out into the sea at night for the morning’s haul.  Suspended from polystyrene buoys, the nets crisscrossed large squares in the coastal waters and, come early morning, smaller fishing boats took to the sea to pull in the catch.

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On Gouqi, seafood is the staple diet and the giant mussel a speciality.  Whilst fresh fish is eaten in abundance, the rest is dried in the sun on huge racks along the quayside.  Even the local snacks are fish-based: anyone for battered and deep-fried fish backbones???  I tried them – well, only one – after a shopkeeper insisted on handing some to us.  Too crunchy for my liking and not sure about the nutritional value, I discreetly let them slide into a dustbin, out of sight.

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We did eventually find the ‘abandoned’ part of the trip on the neighbouring island Shengshan: Houtouwan, a small fishing village nestled in the lap of the rugged hills with the sea at its feet.  Only established in the 1950s, but hemmed in on all sides and with no room for expansion, the village soon outgrew its inhabitants as the fishing industry expanded rapidly in the 1990s.  The now wealthier villagers left in droves and the village was eventually relocated in 2002 to a more desirable and accessible area, leaving the original village to the forces of nature.  The village history at the entrance of the ‘tourist attraction’ did not chronicle how it became a magnet for visitors, but as vines and ivy invaded the deserted, crumbling stone walls and steps, and creepers weaved through doors and windows, the village became like a ghost town, eerie and spooky, coming alive with the change of the seasons and the whims of the weather.  We were there in the midst of spring, on a warm, sunny morning, the greenery not yet fully showing its lushest.

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And of course, no island and beach visit would be complete without spending some time enjoying the sun, the sand and the water…  I dipped in a toe.. but left the swimming to a few braver souls as I certainly did not fancy the goosebumps that would follow complete immersion.  Instead I joined in with beach volleyball, mainly watching the ball go by rather than being any use on the court, although surprisingly some of my serves ended up going over the net!!!  As our night time beach party was gatecrashed by the locals and other Chinese tourists, we beat our retreat and spent the rest of the evening playing 15 man (and woman..) UNO at the hotel…

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These two obviously did not belong to our party…  Only Chinese women go incognito when the sun is out…

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In the early evening we hiked up to the highest peak of the island, near an ancient Buddhist temple, to watch the sun cast its dying, warming glow over the cliffs and the sea.

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And in the early morning, we  rose before the break of dawn.  Wrapped up warmly for the chill, we made our way to the other end of the island to take some spectacular shots of the sun soaring above the East China Sea…  It’s amazing what cameras can do!!

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A place called ‘home’…

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There comes a point when living out of a suitcase takes its toll…  Admittedly, my ‘living out of a suitcase’ may be stretching the truth a little.  I have always had a place to unpack and  call ‘home’.

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In India ‘home’ was the ‘far-too-large-for-one’ ground floor of a huge house nestled amongst the coconut trees.  Did I really need two grand bedrooms with en-suite, two reception rooms and a kitchen large enough to accommodate a handful of staff…  But for all the abundance of space, it lacked suitable, cosy furniture or useful kitchen equipment to make life more comfortable.  The walls remained bare, shelves unadorned.  I made do.  And even then, when at the end of my first year the time came to move location, the floor was scattered with heaps of to-be-abandoned belongings.  India taught me to live frugally, not spend money on unnecessary things because they will not all fit in my suitcase at the end.

During my first year in China, ‘home’ was an apartment on the 10th floor of a modern block of flats: spacious, bright and airy.  More wardrobe space than I could fill!  A kitchen with cupboards, but no equipment… not even something to cook on or in.  I invested in a few bare essentials,  and inherited some along the way.   For a whole year, I managed with one plate, one bowl and four cups – four cups definitely not a luxury as each coffee or tea brew deserves a clean receptacle and life is too short to spend it at the sink doing the washing up….  Not much crockery you think, but still I bought more than most: why dish up food on a plate when you have a bowl or pot …  Dinner parties were strictly ‘bring your own plate and utensils if you do not want to eat with your hands out of the cooking vessel’.. and who needs a glass when you can use a cup or mug??  Does beer not taste better straight from the bottle or can??  I tried to jolly up the place with a few hats and candle holders from Ikea, but the flat never felt like home, just a place for temporary residence… I never intended to stay more than one year.

My second year in China spurred on a change of heart…  maybe there was some merit in making a house into a home, even if I would only be here for a short while.   It didn’t need to cost the earth either and some small purchases could go a long way.  Having moved into a shell of a flat, still being refurbished by a new homeowner/landlord, gave me a little scope: I just might be able to encourage her to add the right comforts and luxuries…  With a little patience, and lots of prodding via my agent, I extracted hot water for the kitchen – definitely not something you should take for granted in a modern Chinese kitchen.  Windows have now been fitted with mosquito screens so I can let in the breeze.  A small electrical heater appeared to fight a losing battle with the damp and cold permeating the flat…  Luckily I have a few months to work on more lasting and effective measures to keep the room temperature up before the start of the cold and damp Chinese winter…

Rather than waiting for the big teacher exodus at the end of June when all things useful and Western can be bought at rock bottom prices from expats parting with China for good, I paired down the essentials of homely living to an oven…  I cannot  profess to ever having been the greatest fan of cauliflower cheese, but there’s something comforting about the version of bubbly cheesy sauce oozing around tender-to-the-bite cauliflower topped with oven-crisped breadcrumbs..  Or proper crunchy pizza; not the floppy, soggy variety reheated in a microwave…  And an oven has the great versatility of toasting bread, baking bread, cakes, and scones; roasting potatoes and decent portions of chicken; grilled asparagus and salmon à la Jamie Oliver…  Living in an affluent city in the shadow of Shanghai means that although not all Western tastes and flavours are catered for, there is access to a reasonable supply of ingredients to ward off the worst of food-homesickness…

When putting nails and tacks in walls is strictly forbidden, lifting the spirits of white and grey surroundings required a bit more inventiveness.  A white, old and smelly cupboard could be transformed into a display cabinet with the help of a borrowed screwdriver to remove doors, and a lick of paint courtesy of B&Q (yes, B&Q!!) around the corner…  I was even able to select my own shade of baby blue, choosing from a colour palette to match Dulux’s own in the UK.  Family snapshots and favourite photographs from my travels printed out at school now smile back at me in cheap and cheerful photo frames from the local Ikea store.  Shawls bought in Thailand last summer add a splash of colour; blankets and cushion covers conceal the dreary brown of the sofa-cum-sofabed… And although I have no intention of stockpiling Chinese mementoes in the coming months, maybe I will just buy a few interesting knick-knacks and spruce up the room with fond memories of the exciting places I visit and friendly people I meet.

At least for the next 8 or 9 months, my apartment will feel a little bit like a home to me…

Playing at being ‘Jane in the Jungle’.

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Finally, the time of procrastination is at an end…  Back in China, almost settled into my new apartment, and knees as operational as they will get: time to don the hiking boots and explore the great outdoors of Hangzhou and beyond!!

Over the past twelve months, I have been on a fair few trips in China, mainly with organisations that cater well for the expat community…  Cash-rich (relatively speaking) and time-poor, weekend trips are often the only option for us, with longer trips reserved for Chinese national holidays or the long summer break when everyone hankers after an opportunity to escape China’s pollution and insanity, as well as Hangzhou’s oppressive heat.

Recently, a new travel group has burst onto the scene, this time based in Hangzhou itself.  Capitalising on a gap in the market for low-cost trips for eager low-budget travellers such as students and English teachers, they offer day trips for the adventurous and hike-loving,  all within easy reach of Hangzhou…  give or take a few hours of sitting in a coach… So my last few weekends have been fairly action-packed on a quest for the hidden gems and thrills of Zhejiang Province.

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Noodle Village

After an early start and a tedious drive battling with holiday traffic in China, we reached the ancient noodle village of Panzhoujia…  If we had expected to take part in the noodle making ceremony, we had arrived in the wrong season.  Tea leaf picking was the more urgent, and clearly more profitable business rather than entertaining hapless tourists with draping over-long noodles over the extended chain of arms…  Of course, we – all twenty of us –  had a little go and carefully stretched one noodle between us before having the pleasure – and it was a pleasure – of eating the famed noodle soup trying to fish out the meters-long noodles…

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The 3-D Village

Chinese people have a knack of spotting business opportunities where we might see none… Derelict and remote buildings nestled against a hillside would hardly attract our attention, but how better to entice the masses than by decorating walls with 3D paintings and calling it the ‘3D Village’…  And when a visit to this place coincides with the spring extravaganza of rapeseed flowers on the hillside terraces, you can be guaranteed of an influx of visitors and a healthy supply of traffic jams..

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Real adventure can definitely be found in and around Hangzhou with the Hash Harriers – the running/hiking group with a ‘drinking problem’.  Admittedly, I have so far stuck to hiking the trails rather than running, but a slower speed means more chance to take in the often spectacular scenery.  A recent night hike revealed Hangzhou’s West Lake in its nocturnal glory, a blaze of colour reflected in the water.  And of course,  there is more fun to be found off the beaten track, clambering over rocks and sliding down muddy slopes, experiencing some of the few remaining authentic nature areas that escaped a Chinese makeover…   Nothing beats a bit of a ‘Tarzan and Jane’ exploit!!

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Tianmen Mountain challenge… walking the glass plank…

And then there was the challenge of the ‘Coiled Dragon Cliff Walkway’, built along the edges of Tianmen Mountain’s summits, clinging to the sheer vertical cliffs. Part of the cliff-hugging walkway had a makeover last summer and those who dare can now brave a walk over the 100m long tract of crystal clear glass looking all the way down to the bottom of the cliff… It is not for the faint-hearted and requires a bit of stamina as the walkway is only reached after climbing 999 steeps steps.  Not a mean feat on warmer days, but the views of the valley and the surrounding nineteen peaks are awesome and certainly worth the effort.  And the scary looking bridge suspended between two peaks???  Luckily, it looked more flimsy from a distance; it was clearly well-maintained and in good condition to make sure that visitors do not come to a sticky end…  At the end of the climb, we found a delightful little pool, fed by fresh water streaming downhill…  How could anyone resist the temptation of dipping their feet in???

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The Great Brick Wall of China…

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Michael, my agent, collected me from the airport.  As arranged.  With just a stopover of 90 minutes in Beijing, my suitcase was the first one to appear on the conveyor belt when I reached Hangzhou…

I only made my connecting flight by the skin of my teeth.  Wow, if I thought Heathrow was a large airport, or maybe Hong Kong, it was nothing compared with the scale of Beijing.  To transfer from the arrivals hall to the departure area within the same terminal, I was herded onto a train, which took an agonising fifteen minutes to reach its destination.   This was definitely not the bullet train variety travelling between Chinese cities… Of course, I needed to clear immigration and still run the gauntlet of another security check before boarding the flight to Hangzhou…

I headed for ‘Departures’ on the third floor, looking for the gate number…in vain.  In desperation, I accosted a security employee at his desk next to his computer – the only living soul in view – but his job description did not include  ‘helping stranded passengers finding the necessary information’.   Whilst the minutes were ticking away at breakneck speed, he advised me to check the board on the floor below.  Really, no board on the departures floor itself??? I rushed, I ran, I scaled the escalators…  I grabbed the first person crossing my path; she simply scanned my boarding pass and hey presto, the gate number appeared.  After a mad dash back to the third floor,  I finally reached the gate, the last person to board..  I must make a mental note for the future: allow more time for a transfer through Beijing, even if it bumps up the price of the ticket…

As my return to China had dragged on a bit, finding a new flat was a priority.  Michael had been ‘proactive’ the previous weekend and, after a brief flurry searching the web, sent me some adverts for what he considered suitable living space….  Suffice it to say that our ideas and tastes clearly clashed and I was certainly not going to spend the next twelve months holed up in a box, nor pay exorbitant prices for a lavish two-floor apartment.  Was there no middle ground?

 

 

Deciding to play it safe, I dispensed with Michael’s flat-hunting services and took Amanda with me.  Although Chinese, she is a sensible person with a clear understanding of Western standards of living accommodation… She is a woman after all…  In the end, we agreed on a perfectly sized ground floor flat, nestled in the middle of a quaint Chinese neighbourhood, but within walking distance of life’s necessities, such as Starbucks, McDonalds, CenturyMart (a rather posh, expensive Chinese supermarket chain) and of course, the school where I would be teaching…

There was just one little snag: the flat was clearly still a work in progress: a bathroom without doors, a bed without mattress, no furniture and no heating, and definitely no kitchen…  On the upside: freshly painted walls, brand new sanitary wear in good working order, a separate bedroom, a sofa bed in the living room and the generous offer of two televisions provided by the landlord.

Keen to be absolved of the cost of the hotels (paid for by the agent until suitable accommodation has been found),  Michael hastily arranged a meeting with the estate agent and the landlord for the next day.  He wanted to get the deal signed and sealed as soon as possible.  It did not worry him that he had not seen the property, as long as I was happy, he was happy…  During the two minute conversation we had, I tried to imprint on him that it may still be a few days before the flat was ready for me to move into and he may have to put me up in a hotel a little longer…  ‘OK.  I shall collect your suitcases from the hotel after work and bring them to the flat tonight,’ Michael reassured me.  ‘When Michael???  The flat is not yet ready…’ ‘Tonight, after six!’…

Two of Michael’s answers immediately send all alarm bells ringing: ‘OK’ and ‘I see…’   Both spell disaster as he either has not grasped the message at all (OK – ‘Hmmm, I will need to figure this out later’) or he has realised he does not have a clue about what he is required to do (‘I see’ – he doesn’t see it at all…).  Although he vehemently denies this, Michael is an agent ‘on the side’.  His day job keeps him busy during business hours, so he only has his evenings to deal with any urgent paperwork or other issues for the teacher(s) under his wing…  Needless to say, it explains a lot about all the delays with my visa and currently my residence permit.

I spent my first two nights back in a hotel in downtown Hangzhou, close to the centre, but some distance from my school.  Not very convenient, as my new job requires me to be at school for 8 am.  With the contract for my new flat to be signed in the evening, Michael insisted I checked out of the hotel.  ‘Michael, where will I stay tonight??  Do you have another hotel booked?  The flat is not ready for me to move into…Where do I leave my luggage?’ I urged him. ‘Don’t worry,’ was the the worrying reply. ‘It will be fine..  The hotel will look after your suitcases and I will pick them up tonight before we sign the contract…’ ‘And what shall I do when I finish at school..?  Wander the streets in the cold??’  ‘Go and have some coffee somewhere…Isn’t that what Westerners do??’

With nowhere to go at the end of the school day, one of my new colleagues took pity on me and I stayed in her flat until finally, a few hours later, Michael turned up and we set off to meet the home owner…  ‘Did you pick up my suitcases from the hotel?’ I pressed him… ‘Later,’ he shrugged off my remark. ‘Later, after we have signed the contract.  And then you can move into the flat.’  ‘Michael, I cannot move into the flat!!!  Did you speak to the owner about the mattress and the bathroom door??  I have nothing to cook with!! The heating does not work.  All my things, such as sheets, towels, are stored in YOUR flat…’  Michael insisted that the home owner had confirmed there was a mattress on the bed and the bathroom door had been fixed…  And what about sheets??  ‘No problem,’ he continued, ‘I will take you  shopping and you can buy sheets and towels.’  ‘No way, Michael.  I have sheets, I have towels.  If I have to move into the flat today, YOU will be paying for my shopping… It may be cheaper to find me a hotel for tonight!’

I was not privy to the Chinese wheeling and dealing that ensued during the signing of the contract, but any suggestion of negotiating on the monthly rental fell on deaf ears.  Being clever, I had  clinched ‘free accommodation’ as part of my package as this would save me forking out three months rent, another month’s rent as deposit and the agency fees in one lump sum in advance, plus my accommodation would be paid for in the summer.. .  But the flat was slightly over budget and I had agreed to pay some of my salary towards it.. so Michael did not feel HE would gain anything from achieving a rent reduction… and, as he confided afterwards, ‘Prices go up for foreigners…’   Maybe if he had not paraded me at the signing of the contract, the house owner would have been none the wiser…

By the time all the red fingerprints had been inked on the papers, it was nearing 9 o’clock and Michael was still adamant I should move into the apartment on that day.  ‘Let’s at least check out whether there is a mattress and then, if you  insist, YOU can buy me all the necessities such as sheets, a kettle.…  Why not get me a hotel room for tonight???’  Still jet-lagged, I was so not in the mood for camping without sleeping bag or airbed…

The estate agent handed us the keys and showed us to the house…Nothing had happened since my last viewing the day before…  There was no mattress, no curtains in the bedroom, nor a door for the ‘wet room’.  Paint and builders’ dust covered the floors.    At last seeing sense, Michael relented and reluctantly agreed we should collect my suitcases from the other side of town and look for a hotel nearer my school…  It was almost 10.00 pm.

After a quick dash into town to get my luggage, Michael started searching…  He had spotted a cheap establishment very close to my new apartment.  ‘You stay in the car,’ he said, ‘I shall go and see if they have a room available.’   He returned, tail between his legs… ‘Ah,’ he explained, ‘they are cheap, very cheap, so they don’t allow foreigners..’  We drove to the next hotel, just around the corner in a niche spot opposite the famed GongChenQiao Bridge.  ‘Far too expensive,’ Michael decided after looking at the special rates on offer online; he did not even venture inside.  We set off again, and Michael tried his luck a little further afield, but there was nothing to be found within his budget nor with rooms available…

Running out of options, we returned to the posh hotel.  It was past 11 pm and Michael had a day’s work at the office ahead of him and I needed to be in school by 8 am.  I unloaded my suitcases and accompanied Michael to the reception desk; I was here to stay whatever the cost.   The hotel had indeed rooms available, but this late at night, there was no hope of getting the discounted rate suggested by the internet.  And they certainly did not have any rooms at budget prices…  I have no idea how much Michael paid in the end, but he certainly turned a few shades paler on the mention of the figure.  By then I was beyond caring!!  I smiled and inwardly could not resist the thought, ‘Serves you right for leaving this till the last minute… You only have yourself to blame for not listening…’

My hotel room was wonderful, comfortable and luxurious…  and I only had a few hours to indulge.  I filled the bath to the brim and sat there enjoying the bubbles, leisurely topping up with soothing hot water… because undoubtedly, I would be moving into my new home the next day…   With three months’ rent in her pocket, the landlord would have no excuse not to at least put a mattress on the bed and curtains in the bedroom…

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Breathing life into the heater…

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Which remote control will get the heating going?? New batteries maybe???

Good things come to those who wait and ….. hustle (part 2)

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I set my alarm for the crack of dawn: 5.15 am.  My friend Liz had offered me a bed for the night and a lift to the airport.  Being a seasoned flyer, I had already checked in, so no need to turn up too early for my 7 am flight.  Life’s essentials for my short trip easily fitted in a small backpack and I did not even have to worry about taking little containers of shampoo, conditioner or toothpaste, which would be provided courtesy of my classy hotel in Brussels.  I breezed through security!!

The flight announcements looked promising:  we were scheduled to take off on time.  Unaware and unsuspecting, passengers were herded onto the plane and, once seated,  praised for their efficiency.  We were all ready and waiting for take-off 10 minutes ahead of time…   It was at this point that the captain chose to put us in the picture.  Fog in Brussels!!  Our landing slot had been pushed back and take-off delayed by about an hour…  Whilst we sat on the tarmac, waiting for clearer skies over Brussels,  my mind raced, ‘Would I still have enough time to make it to the Chinese Consulate before the 11.30 am deadline??’  The time difference between England and the continent meant we would now not land until nearer 10 am.   I could still get there before they closed for business, but I would have to dig deep and pay for a taxi..  The Chinese Consulate was not exactly in the city  centre and out of reach of the metro network, and the bus route from the airport was uncharted territory to me.  With only a small margin of error, too much of a risk ..  I queued for a taxi!

The taxi driver was familiar with my destination and whereas I immediately shadowed our progress on Google Maps, he followed his nose… straight into a traffic jam on the Brussels ring road…  I had seen the red stretch looming,  warning us of stationary vehicles.  I sighed.   Time ticked by as we crawled along.  Had he not checked the traffic flow before setting off in the direction? What about the back roads, maybe they were less clogged?? He apologised in English (lots can be forgiven from those who speak English…), ‘I know where this is, so did not need to look at Google maps…’   We made it with an hour to spare.  Plenty of time, I thought, I had all the necessary documents, I had scrutinised the internet..

The Consulate was not very busy, just a small huddle of people.  I went to the legalisation counter, confident of a quick and smooth process,  and presented  the legalised copy of my degree (legalised by the Belgian authorities), my original degree (just in case) and my passport plus a photocopy of my passport.  The girl – Chinese – at the counter checked the papers carefully. ‘I need to see your passport,’ she said.

I pointed to my passport and the photocopy in full view..  ‘No, this is a British passport.  Do you have a Belgian ID card or passport?  Are you a resident in this country?  I need proof of residency,’ she continued.  The Consulate could only legalise documents for Belgian citizens, it transpired…  I either had missed this bit on their website, or maybe it had been omitted in the information..  A grim consultation with her supervisor (in Chinese) only seemed to confirm the requirement..  There was definitely no way around it.

A resident in Belgium??  Not having lived in Belgium since the 80s, any claim on residency had well and truly missed the boat…  But I still had an old – duly expired – Belgian passport, which was sitting safely  in a folder in my daughter’s home in the UK.   Would they accept that if I could get a copy??

It took less than five minutes for my daughter to answer the phone in the UK, locate the passport amongst all my belongings, take a photograph and send it all the way to Brussels…  I showed it to the supervisor.  She nodded approvingly, but she expected a printed copy…  ‘And where can I get this printed?’ I enquired, looking at her computer and other digital media equipment in the office…  If I had hoped for sense, there was none…  ‘Go and find a printing shop,’ was the immediate reply.

Anger bubbled to the surface, but if I have learnt one thing in China, it is that anger does not get you anywhere.  Chinese people respond best if they are made to feel they are doing you a favour…  So I grovelled, I pleaded, I debased and humiliated myself… ‘I have come all the way from London this morning and have to go back tomorrow.  Please, please is there anything you can do to help me??’ I all but fell on my knees intently staring at the computer screen in front of the supervisor… Would she take the hint??

‘Ok,’ she finally relented.  ‘You can send it to me by email.  There is an email address at the back of the room.’  She waved vaguely in the direction of the wall behind the photocopier.  ‘And then you have to wait…’  I sent the email from my phone, and then did as I was bid…

I waited.  There were just three people still sitting in the room.  I waited some more.  Everyone had been seen to.  I still waited.  The supervisor looked busy, she moved some papers, she walked to the other side of the counter, she made some coffee, she polished her nails.  I waited… With ten minutes left to closing time, she eventually glanced in my direction and motioned me to come.  ‘Did you send me the email?’ she asked accusingly, ‘I cannot see it.  Which email address did you use?’  ‘The one you asked me to use… you know,  the only one at the back of the room…’  ‘I see.  That was not the correct one, but I shall have a look then…’   Really???   It took her all of a few seconds to locate the email and push the print button…  she passed the papers to the girl who was responsible for dealing with the legalisation applications…

With the legalisation application finally accepted, all that was left for me to do was explore a bit of Brussels before returning to the Chinese consulate the next day to collect my legalised degree..

It came as a bit of a shock the next day when there were no further hiccups.  After paying my dues – of course adding a sticker to the back of the certified copy of my degree does not come cheap – I took photographs of all the stamps and stickers and sent them immediately to the agent in China so he could carry on with sorting out the paperwork for my visa…

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It was February 10th.  It took a further month to get my visa to return to China.  I finally picked up my passport in London on 13th March, and headed straight to Heathrow for my evening flight…

Good things come to those who wait and wait…? (part 1)

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I like to have a plan, maybe not with all the details sorted, but at least some idea of the direction in which I will be heading.  And yes, a plan B as well, just in case things go pear-shaped.  I accept I may have to make some tweaks and adjustments, if not totally change course – life happens.  But it helps me to sleep at night.

So with the ink on my latest contract for another year in China barely dry, I started plotting my next destination.  Vietnam, or Thailand perhaps…  I was certainly very  much taken with Bangkok last summer.  Working abroad within the parameters of local employment laws for foreigners often requires meticulous preparation and mountains of paperwork and  I was determined to make good use of my unexpected and enforced return to Europe.

Most countries, including Vietnam,  expect the foreign English teachers to be graduates and as these days degrees can easily be photo-shopped and bought  rather than earned, most countries ask for official documents, such as degree certificates, to be legalised…  This had not been necessary for my last employment visa for China, nor for India, but rumblings on the Expat rumour mill indicated that even in China the mood may be changing and legalisation will be introduced from  April 2017 onward..…  And speaking as a real graduate, with a real degree, I can only support this.

I had looked into legalisation before – last year when I happened to be in Belgium – as documents need to be legalised in the country of their origin.  Of course, I have a host of  postgraduate qualifications obtained in the UK (I am British after all..), but the one that everyone seems to want to check is your Bachelors or Masters Degree.  Although my first attempts to get to the bottom of ‘legalisation’ had failed – well, I did not really need it last year – this time, I was more tenacious and the internet suggested a trip to Brussels to the Legalisation Division of the Federal Public Service Foreign Affairs (FPSF) was involved.  I booked my flight to Belgium, allowing plenty of time for a trip to Brussels on Monday and booked the appointment…

It was only when scrolling down the confirmation email that I realised things were a little more complicated..  In Belgium, being the country that it is, consisting of two (or should I say three) autonomous regions speaking distinctly different languages, my appointment at the ‘Federal’ office had to be preceded by another visit to the ‘Flemish Community’ in Brussels after getting a certified copy of my degree from my Alma Mater…  ‘No problem,’ I thought, ‘I can fit in Leuven on my way from the airport on Friday… Hop  on the train, before visiting my family..’   only to find on my arrival in Leuven that the university admin office was closed on a Friday afternoon…

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With my Monday appointment at the FPSF booked for 11 am, it was going to be a tall order to travel to two different cities and three different offices to collect all the necessary stamps and signatures…  But Belgium is not exactly a big country, so distances are relative.  Thanks to the efficiency of Belgian trains, the Brussels metro network, and of course Google Maps to fill in the blanks, I succeeded with even the slightest whisker of time to spare and some leniency on the part of the officials at the FPSF!!  Plus I learnt that my humble degree is now recognised as a Master’s Degree..  I suddenly felt so much more intelligent!!

For good measure, I asked for two copies of my degree to be legalised…  you never knew when this might come in handy.  At least I would be able to skip this first part of the legalisation next time around.  Not sure which country I would choose next, I left visiting a foreign embassy to complete the process of legalisation for a later date…

Before leaving China in January, I handed all the necessary documents  (I was aware of) to my new agent, so he could apply for the Foreign Expert Certificate and my work permit whilst I squeezed in some European travel before handing my passport to the Chinese authorities in the UK for my new visa..  Throughout January I had implored the agent to double check the requirements, to make sure no sudden surprises would be sprung…  ‘Of course,’ he put me at ease, ‘You go and enjoy yourself…  I will let you know when I have the work permit…’

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I travelled to Italy whilst China was waking up after the New Year festivities and long national holiday, and my agent returned from his home town…   ‘I have had some feedback,’ his email read. ‘They need one more document from you…’ Suddenly it transpired that the ‘Foreigner Affairs Office’ insisted on a legalised copy of my Masters degree.    ‘Masters Degree?’ I questioned…  Since when had a Masters Degree been one of the demands for getting a Z-Visa for teaching English…???  And legalisation was not meant to take effect in Hangzhou until April…

‘I am sorry not let you know before [sic],’ he apologised, ‘for the new policy is just beginning from this year.  Everyone who want [sic] teaching in China need [sic] this document from this year.’   And had the Chinese authorities kept this a well-guarded secret? Or just decided to implement this without giving anyone due notice to be able to comply??  I wondered…   Or did the agent just not bother to check in advance when the impending changes would come into effect…  Or did only expats have knowledge of the new legislation, rather than the agents whose job it is to prepare the visa application paperwork…

‘They need you to go to the China Embassy of British [sic] to make your diploma to certificating authority [sic]. can you understand that? It is easy to get from the Embassy,’ he continued.  ‘Not so simple,’ I retorted. ‘A Belgian degree means a visit to the Chinese Embassy in Belgium…’  I had only been a stone’s throw from the correct Chinese Embassy when I was in Brussels less than a week before…  At least I did not have to start from scratch…

Flights  to Brussels at short notice were quite expensive… so expensive that I got a much better deal booking a city break in Brussels staying in a plush hotel…   Of course, even using the express service at the Chinese Consulate I would only be able to pick up my duly legalised degree the next day…  I secured my flight and hotel, scheduled to leave  Heathrow  on Thursday morning at 7 am to arrive in Brussels at 9am, with plenty of time to make it to the consulate before closing time at 11.30, or so I thought… (to be continued)

Tangled in the Sticky Web of a Chinese Contract…

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When I signed my contract for China last year,  I knew the small print left a lot to be desired.  It was not just the small print, actually there was very little to commend the contract to anyone…  Pay seemed adequate.   Not generous, but then again it was hardly going to be a full time job and as demand for English teachers in China easily outstrips supply, salaries are simply boosted by doing some private work on the side.  Although the contract included provision for medical insurance (as required by Chinese law), there was no room for being sick, unless of course without salary…    Holiday pay was non-existent (apart from eight Chinese statutory holidays), on the other hand there was the potential of doing extra work in July and August to tide teachers over.   The work on offer by my agency amounted to more hours for less pay…   Would I be interested??  Really??

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The not inconsiderable cost of obtaining a working visa would be paid by the teachers, rather than the employer as is the norm in other industries (or ESL agencies in neighbouring countries)…  As far as getting flights reimbursed at the end of the contract, I worked out in an instant that under no circumstances anyone would ever be able to get the full amount promised by the contract.   ‘Pro rata’ definitely worked in the favour of the agency…    And if anyone thought of jumping ship mid-contract, the penalties for doing so involved the repayment of several months of salary…  Your only options would be to leave the country straight after payday never to return, taking all your hard-earned ‘kuai’ with you,  or vanish off the radar whilst hanging on to your hard-earned ‘kuai’  and join the merry band of illegally employed teachers and run the risk of deportation if caught…

Of course, I put out feelers and spoke to people on the ground before  signing…  Curiously, the agency’s London Office could only put me in touch with two teachers, both still in their honeymoon period after just six weeks in China and in the job…  Glowing reports flowed my way.  ‘Great job.  Great kids,’  Italian Anna assured me.  ‘Best thing I’ve ever done,’ South African Riaan declared.  But as the contract strictly forbade employees to say anything negative about either the agency or the schools, no surprises there, I was hardly going to get to the crux of things…   Anna profusely apologised afterwards knowing that her positive spin certainly glossed over the less attractive side of the job.   ‘I felt bad,’ she explained, but what choice did she have?

Although a lot of contracts for ESL teachers in China run along the same lines, mine was particularly ungenerous, probably one of the least generous ones I have come across.  But, in those early days, I placated myself:  I was going there for the experience,  and that was all that mattered…   At least I had read and understood the contract and started the job with my eyes wide open, which is more than can be said of the many younger teachers.  So even if the reality might turn out to be a tad uncomfortable, it would certainly be interesting..  And come the end of the contract, I would be free to leave and head for my next adventure!!

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The academic year ran relatively peacefully …   Just a few hiccups along the way as agencies use two different contracts: one for the teachers and another one for their schools.  Unfortunately,  the promises made to the schools do not always tally with the promises made to teachers and expectations vary accordingly.   Most things got smoothed over along the way quite effortlessly.  We, the foreign teachers, found refuge in our own ‘Foreign Teachers’ Office’ and our contact with the rest of the Chinese staff was limited to essential, need-to-know communication.   After a while one-sided efforts to integrate sapped all our energy  and seemed very pointless…  Plus, what the eye does not see, the heart doesn’t grieve over…  The feeling was definitely mutual!

In early October, with the end of my contract looming in the distance  and my daughter’s wedding in the UK just on the horizon, decision time was imminent: should I extend the Chinese episode or move to the next destination… ? In any event, no way would I spend another year in the little hamlet of Linping…  Too quiet, no pubs, no social life, no life…  Having filled the evenings of my first year in China with copious amounts of evening work and watching Grey’s Anatomy,  change was essential.  Downtown Hangzhou all the way, I thought!!

To keep things simple, I first approached my current agency to see whether they would improve on my salary and transfer me to a school in a more desirable location, in the heart of  Hangzhou civilisation, rather than on the periphery.  After weeks of dragging things out, I finally was given the best I could hope for…  A meagre increase (but at the top end of what any teacher in the agency could expect); a vague verbal promise of a relocation to downtown Hangzhou, depending upon vacancies; and a not so vague clause in the contract suggesting they could place me in any school in any area they deemed appropriate…  Plus could I also please pay an advance on my salary  for February/March so they could afford to pay for my medical insurance…  I would eventually get this money back in my April salary as, clearly, the contract stated that it was the agency’s responsibility to fork out for this and was part of the package…  ‘Hell, no,’ I said…  It was time to look elsewhere, so I did.

Of course the agency kept my school very much in the dark about my decision to leave after having  reassured them in September  that I would stay at least until the end of June, the full academic year…   An interesting pledge, especially as my contract was definitely due to finish in January and I certainly had not been approached by them with a request to extend it until June.  Suddenly, their proposed new contract made sense:  there would be no relocation to downtown Hangzhou, because, first and foremost, the agencies need to appease the schools…  I would have been given the choice of staying put –‘ Sorry, no suitable school available in downtown’ –  or moving to a less desirable area in China.  And having signed a contract with no real get-out clause, I would have been trapped and probably would have resigned myself to another six months of boredom…  Clearly the preferred outcome for the agency.   ‘Lucky escape!’ I thought.

Finding a new job was child’s play… In order of importance: I have the passport, I have the (Masters!!) degree, I have the  experience and a qualification to teach English as a foreign language, so I can get the right visa…  Although not a native by origin, my British passport is all that matters to qualify as a native English speaker in China… and believe you me, as a non-native at least I can write and speak grammatically correct English and have an accent that is universally understood…

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The sticky point was that the new job involved moving to another agency which made everything decidedly tricky.    Avoiding a costly visit back to the UK and applying for a new visa hinged on the transfer of my  ‘Foreign Expert Certificate’ and work permit before the expiry of my residence permit which coincided with the expiry of my contract…  and being the innocent piggy-in-the-middle between an aggrieved school and a thwarted agency meant I could expect no favours or help from either of them.

It may well have been that my agency’s hands were tied and it would have been difficult to effect the transfer any earlier, but any reputable agency – as I was told later – should allow for transfer time in their contract…  It is a mean streak, designed to discourage teachers to change agencies because of the cost and time involved in obtaining a new visa, especially since agencies (in China) expect the teachers to bear all the costs…

Although my new contract with the new agency is on much improved terms, it is still with an agency rather than directly with a school…  By the time my new boss (all of 25 years old and I can assure you that in the ‘interview over lunch’ I was the one asking the questions..) indignantly stated, ‘You have a British passport, you have the experience, you have the qualifications!!  You do not need an agency to get a job in China…’ I had already signed the contract… So, we will see how this one pans out…

You live and learn but some lessons are definitely more expensive than others…  And  not being able to transfer my ‘Foreign Expert Certificate’ and work permit turned out very expensive indeed…   (more in the next post)