Monthly Archives: March 2017

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)