Category Archives: China

No escaping China’s clutches…

I may well have finished with China last summer, but it appears China has far from finished with me…  Am I famous, or is it more a case of infamy???

Only just about two weeks ago, a friend in Hangzhou sent me a copy of a newspaper article…


‘Look,’ my friend L. exclaimed, ‘your name is in the newspapers in China!!’

‘Hmmm,’ I replied.  ‘It may well be my name… but it’s clearly your mugshot and your husband’s….’

‘Don’t you fret…  Your mugshot is there!! On that wall…  We’re looking at it.  Just check it out in the left-hand corner..,’ she carried on.  Or did she mean right-hand corner?  The photographs are far too small and far too grainy for me to recognise my own self in them…

Not exactly thinking rationally at the time, and being in the grip of a definite black period in my life, panic ensued at seeing my name – LIEVE LEE – plastered in several places across the paper.  And did I  spot the unmistakable word ‘FAMILY’ in capital letters?  Somehow the only logical connection I could see was to my rather unorthodox exit from China.  I certainly could not recall any grand achievements that would have warranted the attention of the media.  Maybe my agent was pursuing me after all!!  Or maybe the Chinese mafia were trying to get at me via my family in the UK…  What had I been thinking in the summer?  That escaping the past unscathed would just be a plane ride away?  Although granted, a wanted poster usually features the ‘wanted’ person, and not a handful of  nosy loawai staring at some photographs pinned up on a wall…

Calamity Jane

‘On the upside,’ a colleague in Vietnam remarked after studying the photograph, ‘there is no mention of a telephone number to get in touch with the police if anyone was to know your whereabouts and decided to report it.’  But was I really sure??  Do the Chinese use the Arabic numerals or do they have their own unintelligible (to the uninitiated…) characters??  I rued my careless decision not to at least acquire a rudimentary grasp of the Chinese language.  Isn’t counting to ten one of the most basic things we learn in any new language???

The problem was that neither my friend L., nor I, learned a single iota of Mandarin during our stay in China.  So how to get a translation and from whom?  A real Catch-22…  Who to trust?  Would they be friend or foe if indeed the article was less than complementary about my exploits on Chinese soil?  Until I could ascertain the content of the article, it was tricky to decide who would be the most appropriate person to approach to translate it…

After a day or two of some head scratching and digging deep into my list of loyal expats in China, I remembered J from the UK…  A man with a bone to pick with his own agent and well aware of the reasons of my sudden departure from China AND with sound contacts whose command of the Chinese language was undisputed.  I sent him the photograph of the newspaper article and was keeping my fingers crossed.

As expected, a man of his word, he put out some feelers and got the gist of the article to me in no time.  Far from me being added to a blacklist or wanted list, it was all a whole lot more innocent.  The article merely related how J, a Taiwanese friend in Hangzhou, came to the rescue when I needed a lift back home from the hospital after my knee surgery…  Funnily enough, whereas my guardian angel at the time was only referred to as an Australian (???) Chinese member of the ‘family’ – the community where I lived – the journalist clearly deemed it entirely appropriate to add my name in full, just to make sure there was no misunderstanding…  Still, it felt good to have the mystery solved.  I could breathe a sigh of relief; I was not ‘wanted’ after all…

No sooner was the issue laid to rest, than more evidence came to light of my lasting impact on China.  A photograph featuring yours truly is being used by a small Hangzhou-based travel company to promote exciting and adventure packed day and weekend trips in and around the area… Although I am of course flattered, I cannot shift the feeling that, as I was on most trips organized by them between last March and last August, they may have struggled to find any suitable photographs that did not star me…


Personally??  I would have gone for the photograph below.  I much prefer the incognito look. Wanted.  Dead or Alive.



A Factory of Lies in the Name of Saving Face.

Gaining and Losing Face in China

Rain was pelting down, angry rivulets screaming down the windscreen.  I sighed, nervously, as heavy rains would inevitably delay my flight.  The taxi had been punctual, organised by one of only a handful of people in China I could really trust.  Still, I had not been entirely honest with her either, only divulging I was taking a trip to Hong Kong, omitting that it would be a one-way flight.  No return. It was better if she was not implicated.  Questions would be asked, and at least this way, she could reply with honesty.  She was not to know until later, and even then I would not tell her my actual destination.

It was so strange leaving China.  You are meant to feel emotional, engulfed by a certain sadness, clinging on to make these final lasting memories.  But there was nothing, just emptiness and overwhelming numbness.  The relief I had been expecting had not materialised, not then anyway.  And there was no regret in saying goodbye to friends; those that mattered I would see again in the different countries we call ‘home’.  In this shrunken world we live in, everyone is only a few flights away, and Skype or Face-time connect us in the meantime.  China is just a phase, a rite of passage for the band of English-as-foreign-language teachers.  One home in a string of many, but never intended to become permanent.   My departure from China was just the end of one chapter, and not the best one.  Not one I felt the need to reread..  Not then anyway, maybe later when the dust had settled and I could look back and add it the list of ‘experiences’.

At the airport I tried to subdue my anxiety.  Not about flying, I am pretty much a pro by now.  But my exit from China did not happen as planned and I would not be able to relax until the plane was in the air and I had left Chinese soil and airspace.  And although I had nothing to reproach myself about, a door had been closed, possibly forever.  I had spent my last few days and hours carefully dodging my agent, arranging a visa for Vietnam, whilst hastily disposing of my meagre belongings.  Within the small local  community of expats an oven, a portable induction cooker and even a handy airing rack were prized possessions and my ex-colleagues descended on my flat like vultures on a corpse, picking over the scraps.

My return to China in March 2017 had been fraught with problems.  My agent’s incompetence had not only prevented my timely arrival back in Hangzhou, it further marred the next few weeks as he seemed clueless about how to secure my residence permit.   A simple procedure that takes just a couple of days if you know what to do.  Instead of gathering the forms and papers himself, he eventually offloaded the task onto the school I was working for…  In good Chinese fashion, he was happy to take the money and let others do the work…  To add insult to injury, my agent had also negotiated a separate deal with the school to increase the fee paid to him because I was a properly qualified teacher…  Not that any of the additional money ever saw my pocket…  All in all, just like I was not exactly in awe of my agent’s performance, the school were equally unimpressed with him.  He was already skating on thin ice as he had previously introduced a string of totally unsuitable teachers, so the school were keen to cut ties with him at the end of the school year.  However, as my contract was with the agent and not the school, as often is the case in China, this meant I would not be able to continue teaching at that school.

Of course, I was not privy to the conversation that took place between the school’s principal and my agent and I can only surmise what happened from the snippets that reached me, and from my Chinese friend’s interpretation…  ‘You have done nothing wrong,’ she translated the events, ‘They just want to get rid of the agent, and are using any excuse to justify this…’  Apparently, I failed at team work… a flippant remark made by the 24-year old British ‘academic manager’ of the school, who was catapulted into the Chinese labour force straight from uni, ready to teach English, with not a clue about real teaching nor about a Western style workplace where discussion and exchange of ideas are welcomed…  Not so in China!!  Having arrived at the school in the middle of the school year, it only seemed normal to me that any professional teacher would ask questions about the how and what of the curriculum and teaching methods, if only to ensure continuity for the students.  Not so in China!!!  Questions are taboo; it was not a wise move on my part…

‘Michael (my agent) refused to accept what we were saying,’ one person in the know at school confided.  ‘Well, schools can only employ teachers directly after they have completed a full year with their agent,’ Michael stubbornly insisted.  Maybe the school indeed wanted to employ me directly in September, but refused to pay Michael’s price for buying me out…  And there will have been a price, I can assure you, a hefty one… I still had another seven months left on my contract with him.  Throughout August employment offers from the school, in various guises, blipped up on my WeChat.  Maybe I would be interested to be the school’s substitute teacher, filling in when other teachers were not available…  Or how about just coming back for one month in September and then they would rekindle the negotiations with my agent to release me from my contract…?  But without a real guarantee of a secure job and freedom from the agent, I would have been foolish to oblige.   At the end of the day, the school were equally culpable and never substantiated my ‘shortcomings’, as honesty would have meant someone would ‘lose face’ and that would never happen…  I was the fall guy, no chance of clearing my name.

In his infinite wisdom, Michael forgot to inform me of the bad tidings (his ‘company’ losing the contract with the school) until a full three weeks later, the end of July .  And instead of being proactive in securing me an alternative job before schools closed for the holidays, he waited and waited in the expectation that I would be able to persuade my school to change their mind…  Once back from my trip to Japan, it took me a mere two days to have two firm job offers in hand: one in China and one in Vietnam…  The Chinese one was by far the more lucrative, but in the end I had no option but the turn it down.  No way was I prepared to pay Michael US$ 3000 to buy my way out of my contract when the only reason I could not return to the school was down to his conduct, and not mine…  Believe me, I tried.  I was willing to pay him US$1000 – I would have earned it back within the first month, but the $3000 he insisted on???  ‘You don’t owe him anything,’ my Chinese friend (who is in the business of placing English teachers with schools) assured me.  ‘He breached the contract, not you..  He lost the contract with the school, and that puts him in breach..’  I had read the small print in the contract before signing, but never in a million years had I thought that a breach clause, or series of clauses, would ever apply to me…

I accepted the position in Vietnam, delaying my arrival until September to first make full use of the summer break and enjoy my planned trip to Malaysia.  And so I set in motion the train of deception as I could not afford for anyone in China to become suspicious… I took days to reply to my agent’s messages and postponed meetings until the end of the summer vacation under the pretence that as I was too busy; it was my holiday after all.  I point blank refused to put myself through a series of unpaid demo lessons when I had already two job offers in the bag, just on the basis of an interview… And I certainly would not entertain the idea of jobs outside of Hangzhou…

I finally left China at the end of August.  Ultimately, it was easier for me to just pack my bags and quietly leave the country, not to return.  I know I could have fought it, and involved a lawyer…  As I found out in August, many clauses in my contract did not comply with Chinese labour law, making it a worthless piece of paper and invalid in a court.  My agent had breached the contract long before I did, as he did not pay me for the days I worked in July… but by then I had had it with China and the lies for the sake of ‘saving face’..   I firmly closed the door of my apartment one last time, leaving the key in a secure place for the agent.  I would wait until I had reached Hong Kong before sending him a message; I did not want to be in China when he unleashed his fury.

Would the agent really have had the power to prevent me leaving China?  He certainly could not make good on his threat of cancelling my residence permit: he did not have my passport.   Would Chinese immigration officers really have detained me at the airport until I paid up the US$3000??   Would the agent really have added  me to the blacklist so I can never again obtain a work visa for China, or maybe not even enter China on a tourist visa?? The rumour mill is rife with scaremongering and speculation and I really did not have the stomach for the legal wrangling that would have ensued.   Tired of arguing what seemed like a lost cause, I did not want to wait to find out.  It was time to leave the Chinese adventure behind, it had run its course and I was thoroughly unimpressed…

Sitting in the lounge at Hong Kong airport, safe from the threats of my agents and the tentacles of Chinese authority, I dispatched my messages and waited to board my onward flight.  But just as the morning downpour in Hangzhou had thwarted a speedy exit from the country, an impending typhoon affected flights in Hong Kong.  An aborted landing attempt on arrival and a three hour delay for take-off later, I was finally on my way to Hanoi.

Vietnam, a new country, a new chapter…

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The awe-inspiring landscapes of Tibet


Our ride eventually arrived at 10 a.m., an hour late.   As our previous driver had been involved in a little collision on the way to our hotel and was delayed by police enquiries, a new vehicle and driver had to be found..

We had a long journey ahead, all the way from Lhasa to Shigatse (284 km), Tibet’s second largest city and another must-see destination on every Tibet itinerary.  Expecting at least a six hour journey, followed by a visit to another monastery before the fall of darkness, time was tight and opportunities to take pictures of the unfolding scenery scarce.  We traversed through agricultural areas, green patches brightened by the yellow blooms of brassica;  the brown hues of barren mountains towering in the distance.  On occasions, we passed small villages.  Streets were lined with houses not only displaying prayer poles, but also Chinese flags…  Nowhere else in China are Chinese flags so ubiquitous as in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.  A display of loyalty to China, or compulsory? A question we never asked our guide; some things are taboo and remain unsaid.  You can never be sure of the eyes…




Our drive shadowed the course of the Yellow River, named for the colour of the silts that are carried downstream in its flow.  Along its banks, strings of prayer flags flapped in the wind and we briefly made a stop – not at the most scenic part unfortunately – to allow us to take some snaps.  But apart from that, and a short break for lunch, we carried on relentlessly to make sure we reached Shigatse in time before the local police office closed.  As foreign visitors to the town, our presence in the city needed to be officially registered and our permit for Tibet inspected.  Whereas Chinese tourists have free access to Tibet and travel unchecked, foreigners have to obtain prior permission for a visit and their movements are closely monitored.


As the whole of China adheres to the same time zone, evenings in Tibet remain much lighter for longer compared to the Eastern side of the country.  So although we did not arrive in Shigatse until early evening, we still managed to explore the Tashilhunpo Monastery before the onset of dusk made photography more challenging, or impossible even.  We walked around the ancient buildings, again watching Buddhist locals making kora and wondered about the little heaps of random pebbles piled on the steps, yet another means for worshippers to keep track of the number of times they circled around the stupas.   We were too late to witness the great monk debates or the chance to ask questions about their life; we just watched them wandering down the street towards their homes at the end of the day.






Our last whole day was reserved for the awe-inspiring landscapes of Tibet: majestic snow topped mountain peaks, enormous Alpine lakes and impressive glaciers.  As we steadily climbed from Shigatse towards the Kharola Pass at an elevation of just over 5000m, spectacular scenery unfolded at each bend in the road.  An emerald green lake, streaked and flecked with brown stripes and patches was festooned with endless strings of gently fluttering prayer flags.   Just like many mountains are considered sacred, lakes are equally revered and prayer flags often hem lakes and rivers as well as brighten up the sides of holy mountains.


Near the top of the mountain pass, we were enthralled by the spectacular Kharola Glacier.  We did not stop at the most touristy site, but our driver slowed down enough for us to get a few shots, before parking the vehicle just around the corner.  Away from the throng of too many tourists, we hiked up closer to the densely packed snow clinging to the cliff, a massive ice tongue covering the top of the Kharola Mountain.  We huffed and puffed our way up, definitely struggling to catch our breath in the thin air.  At moments like this, I am always pleased to see I am not the only one affected and the younger ones amongst the group also needed plenty of rest breaks to cover maybe one hundred meters in total…  Of course, even at the spots with fewer tourists, local Tibetans did not miss the opportunity to supplement their income with posing for photographs and selling Tibetan prayer flags.





We ended our list of must-see attractions between Shigatse and Lhasa with the famous Yamdrok Lake.  This enormous freshwater lake is one of four particularly sacred lakes in Tibet and everyone, including the Dalai Lama, makes pilgrimages there.  Along the shores, small towers of rocks possibly tally the number of times devotees walked around the lake.  Not a mean feat as each circumambulation on foot (making a full circle) takes around seven days.  Yamdrok Lake derives its name from its perfect turquoise colour and is surrounded by all-year-round snow capped mountains making it a popular location for wedding photography, as well as attracting numerous tourists and Buddhist devotees.  No wonder that on each outcrop and stretch of usable land near the lake, locals are trying to encourage visitors to have their picture taken with a yak or Tibetan mastiff .  Stalls and tables hem the path to the viewing points and it is hard to resist buying at least some small souvenir from the locals.



So, I did not go to Everest Base Camp…  A pity.  But maybe on another trip back to Tibet or Nepal… who knows…

Gouqi, the not-so-abandoned island.



‘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.



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.











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…



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


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.



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!!


Playing at being ‘Jane in the Jungle’.


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.


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..

Authentic Hangzhou

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!!


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???



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


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…


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)


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…


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…’


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…


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??


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!!


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…


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)


Harbin: the fun of minus 20 degrees Celsius..




When the list of recommended travel essentials includes a ‘small flask of hard liquor’, you know you are either in for one hell of a party, or going to somewhere cold, very cold…  In my case, it was the latter, although a party would definitely be on the cards too!

As if the frosty temperatures of Hangzhou and Shanghai were not chilly enough, I decided to check out THE Chinese winter destination of Harbin, located in north-eastern China and sandwiched between Russia on the East and Mongolia on the West.   In the firm grip of the icy Siberian High anticyclone, Harbin winters are cold and dry and average day temperatures hover around minus 18.  Definitely a case of getting the extra layers and winter woollies ready to brave some serious subzero mercury… and of course packing generous supplies of hand warmers, foot warmers, body warmers, balaclavas as well as not forgetting the recommended ‘small bottle of something strong’ to add that shot of instant heat!



For the last thirty years, Harbin has hosted the Snow and Ice Festival, an extravaganza of snow and ice sculptures, which from mid January until end February attracts an avalanche of visitors to revel in the impressive accomplishments of its designers and artists.  Starting in mid-December, massive ice blocks hewn from the nearby frozen Songhua River, are sculpted into awe-inspiring buildings and monuments of different architectural styles.  Compacted snow is carefully and delicately carved into grandiose and mind-blowing statues.   In fact, in matter of a few weeks a small city fashioned out of ice rises up providing not only spectacular views for the visitors, but also a range of fun activities.  Adults and children alike spill from the ‘castle doorways’ on massive slides; a ‘cycle lane’ is brimming with ice-adapted bicycles; there are areas for ice hockey games… Awe-inspiring by day, the park transforms at night when the millions of LED lights meticulously threaded through the ice blocks are lit up and set the ice city aglow.







Although most of the sculptures are found in the ‘Ice and Snow World’ and other dedicated parks, plenty of other statues and creations are dotted around the town.  An intrinsically carved train engine stands proud in the pedestrianised main street and a huge ‘frozen chicken’ heralds 2017 as the ‘Year of the Rooster’.


But Harbin is not just a destination for spectators and offers plenty of opportunity for action.  Whereas I had to give the ski slopes a miss on account of my knee (and probably the fact I was never any good at it in the first place…), there was plenty to keep me busy.  The ten-minute long husky ride (which included a full five minute photo shoot) and two circuits on a quad bike on ice set us back more than two hours on the slopes would have cost…   We were  in ‘tourist land’ and the locals had definitely cottoned on how to make the most of it..  Although to be truthful,  after just a short spell of thirty minutes outside, we were pretty glad to escape to the indoors and warm our hands, toes and noses..


More fun was to be had on the Songhua River, frozen solid in midwinter, and turned into an enormous playground at festival time.  Biking, skating, miniature tanks, ponies and even 4x4s set revellers spinning across the Songhua’s frozen surface.


And of course, there were those who literally preferred to take the plunge in the outdoor pool, cut into the frozen river…   Whereas the onlookers on the sidelines were carefully wrapped in thermal layers and covered with heat packs and heat patches to defeat the cold, the swimmers – mainly Russians – appeared from their huts,  scantily clad in bathing suits and bikinis and charming us with displays of bravado before, elegantly or otherwise, diving into the icy water…  Not for the faint-hearted, but after prancing around in the minus 15 air temperature, maybe the water felt pleasantly warm and none of them swam more than a few strokes before retreating back to their saunas …  I do not know, because – to be honest – I was not that keen on finding out…  Some boxes do not need to be ticked…







China’s north-south divide of haves and have-nots.

Ever wondered why the children in my classroom wear coats inside when I am teaching??  I did when I first saw photographs and videos taken in Chinese classrooms… This was before I learnt about the Chinese north-south divide of haves and have-nots.

A mention of the north-south divide immediately brings to mind the line that separates the more wealthy from the less wealthy, or the economically developed countries from the less developed areas of the world, the haves from the have-nots.  In China, however, the north-south divide of haves and have-nots takes on a completely different meaning, especially in winter.   It is the great dividing line of being warm or cold in the months when temperatures dip to uncomfortable levels…  And Shanghai and Hangzhou are just on the wrong side of it…


About sixty years ago, in the time of the Great Leader, a plan was hatched to provide Chinese citizens with free central heating in homes and offices and centralised systems were installed in residential areas, with the assistance from the Soviet Union.  Laudable you may say, and so it would have been if the offer had embraced the whole of the country.   But at those years, China was facing extreme energy shortages and the then Premier, Zhou Enlai, suggested the Qin-Huai line, a well-known geographical demarcation between north and south, as a cut-off point.  Buildings to the north would be provided with free or heavily subsidized central heating for four months each winter; buildings to the south would have no heating facilities whatsoever…  Rather unfortunate for those living below the line, even by just a mile….

I had been told by other Westerners that the cold in Shanghai and Hangzhou is different. Not that anyone could explain why.    Although freezing temperatures are not unheard of, the mercury seldom dips below zero and hovers somewhere between the low single digits and just above ten…  Like a British winter, basically.  But whereas in Britain we move from one nicely warmed room to another toasty area, here the only way to stay warm is to keep moving, moving from one icy place to another even icier place… There is no escape from the clammy penetrating cold sweeping in from the sea.  It flood your entire body and soul right down to the core..

So how to endure a winter here?  People are resourceful and adapt.  Instead of just wrapping up warmly to venture outside into the cold, people wrap up even warmer when entering their arctic homes.  Shoes and trainers are replaced with fur-lined boots and Chinese people wallow all day long in thickly padded pyjamas that make normal movement impossible…  And with an extra coat on top.  And yes, in school windows are thrown wide open to allow the more temperate outside air to circulate and ‘warm up’ the classrooms.  My days at school are spent in a state of permafrost…


Living in winter pyjamas


And then wearing long underwear underneath the pyjamas

In the meantime, I bought an extra woolly hat and special leggings and tights with fur on the inside.  Deliciously warm!!!

Luckily, China’s recent economic advancement has allowed for some improvement and newer apartments below the line of haves and have-nots now come with an air-conditioning-cum-heater units.  They are electrical, not very efficient and expensive to run, but at least they take away some of the chill.  For instance, my apartment has one located just next to the huge window, fighting off the biting cold permeating the double glazing.  But whilst the area around my window and bed easily reaches a sultry 25 degrees, the heat does not travel well and never extends to the bathroom at the other end.  Getting out of bed can be a trial and a frosty toilet seat is not exactly inviting; showers have to be kept short (not a lot of hot water in the small tank) and can only be started once the cubicle is misted up with hot steam.  I have been tempted to supplement my heating with a small electrical oil radiator; it’s all the rage… and probably more effective than the huge unit on the wall.  But with China trying to curb its greenhouse gases, maybe adding to them by generating the luxury of heat may well be frowned upon…


Last winter, us foreign teachers were chastised for putting on the blow heater in our small office.  Why did we not put on our coats, like the rest of the teachers and students???  It was an alien notion to us then and at the point no one had explained the big divide which meant that heating was a luxury only to be enjoyed on very special occasions, such as a whole week of deep frost…


I certainly no longer make fun of e-bikes fashioned with little blankets at the front to shield hands and body from the icy winds…You would do anything to keep warm…

Maybe  the solution is moving several thousands of miles to the south of the big dividing line…  Hmmm, and I have just signed up for another year in China, in Hangzhou…  I better invest in some more and warmer winter gear.


(drawings by Anna Z. and found on her blog post: