Ice Cream and Zombies

Do you remember the first time that you ate ice-cream as a child? Or the first time you jumped into the sea?

First time experiences are very nice, but also become rarer and rarer as we grow up.This is why traveling is loved by so many people: All these new first times!

First time to fly to China, first time to eat something new, first time to do, see, hear or breathe all these new things!

Oh, and the first ever flight delay in China!

Imagine this: you have been traveling for countless hours and as a result you are pretty much a zombie, you have reached an airport that you visit for the first time, only to discover that your mobile line – which was supposed to work internationally and had previously worked internationally – is not working, the free wifi of the airport needs – of course – a working mobile line to give you an access code to the wifi network, you have tried to make a call from an airport land line and failed miserably, and your connecting flight to Xi’an is delayed over and over again.

I need to contact Cairene to let her know about the delay. You see: I will reach Xi’an airport late, buses might not be available anymore, so Cairene arranged a driver to wait for me. But since I got delayed so many times, I have no idea if the driver will be waiting or not, no idea of anything else, really, because – basically – I am off grid.

So, I wait, and wait, and wait, take videos, make funny faces at some Chinese toddler, take a video of myself and the situation – just in case they found it later with my belongings and my skeleton in abandoned corner in the airport many years from now – and then wait some more, until eventually – right before my feet get stuck forever to the floor of the airport – the line starts to move, and I find myself sitting in another airplane full of Chinese people flying to Xi’an.

2 hours and 2 coffees later, I find myself in Xi’an airport, with Carine at the exit door with a big smile on her face.(I secretly cried tears of happiness on the inside. Shhh, no one tell her that! I will not become a broke, homeless foreigner, living in front of the exit door of Xi’an airport! Yay!)

And this is how I reached Xi’an city, where Carine and I were to spend the next few days walking around the city, fighting the endless rain and finishing the health check papers.

written by Rora


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Settling: Job

I can’t believe I’ve been in Hanzhong for 60 days already. Time flies quickly indeed!

That’s 60 days of new adventures, new friends, new opportunities.

And 60 days without my husband, Rora.

15 more days, and he’ll be here, too.

What follows is the first of three parts on settling in, regarding my job. The next weeks I will focus on my city, Hanzhong, and leisure time activities respectively.

Job

I teach oral English in a private primary school and kindergarten to students aged 4-6 and 9-12. As my previous teaching experience was always with those over the age of 12, I wanted to work with that age group again. As the other foreign teacher arrived at the school before I did, however, he was able to choose the grades he wanted to teach, and I was assigned the others. Or, as our foreign affairs officer (FAO), Lou, put it: “This way you can gain experience in a new field.”

I must admit, I really enjoy teaching my grades 4, 5, and 6 now. The students are generally well behaved, and their Chinese English teachers help to maintain order and discipline – at least most of the time. In primary school I teach 23 classes, and see all of them once a week for 30-45 minutes, and in kindergarten I teach 8 classes, 4 each week, for 25 minutes each. I don’t particularly want to teach kindergarten students, and I have expressed my dismay to the school, but somebody has to do it. Don’t get me wrong, the kids are cute and funny, but it’s just not my thing – I don’t show that in class, though.

The average school day of primary school students at my school looks something like this: they get up at 6:50 am, have breakfast, then attend “morning class”, during which they do some reading practice or review, from 7:30 to 8 am.  Regular lessons begin at 8:10 am and end at 11:45 pm; during this time they have four lessons and ample breaks in between that are filled with snacks (usually some fruit and buns) and physical exercises. This is followed by a 2.5 hour lunch and nap break, and afternoon classes are between 2:35 pm and 5:45 pm – four lessons with breaks in between. The students then have a dinner break from 5:45 pm until 7:20 pm and “evening class” from 7:20 pm to 8:20 pm for grades 1-4, and to 8:55 pm for grades 5 and 6. Bedtime is, I believe, at 10 pm. They have class from Monday to Friday, as well as Sunday afternoon.

My school, reportedly the top school in the area, is also a boarding school. Most students sleep here, and only see their families on weekends, others live in nearby apartments with their parents, grandparents, and sibling. No, the singular form of sibling is not a spelling mistake. After the one-child-policy was amended to be a two-child-policy, many Chinese families have opted for a second child. Many of my students’ siblings, however, were born before the policy was changed; in other words, they have rich parents who could afford the penalties that had to be paid in order to be allowed to have a second child.

The kids have lessons in English, Math, Chinese, Science, Art, Music, Computer, PE, and an optional class (cooking, cross-stitching, rope-skipping, etc.). And they have my oral English class. There is no curriculum for this kind of class, and my school does not provide a course book or material, so it is up to me what we do in class. We play English games, sing songs, the kids have to practice pronunciation, sometimes we watch a short movie and discuss it, or they have to work on tasks in groups and present their results to the class. There is no homework or test in my class, which means there is less stress in my class, too.

Each primary school class consists of up to 45 students, and in kindergarten there are up to 25 children in one class. Add all the numbers and you will realize that I teach up to 1000 students each week. I assume there are over 5000 students enrolled in my school.

Please note that this is not representative of all primary schools in China. In most primary schools the schooldays are much shorter, and the workload lower. As a top school, however, my school has the aim of putting as many graduates into the best universities in China and abroad as possible. There even is a “wall of fame” along the high school building, giving information on previous students who managed to get into such prestigious universities as Beijing or Tsinghua University.

Speaking of the school: while the kindergarten and nursery are each housed in separate buildings outside the school campus, the primary, middle, and high school all share the same campus, albeit all have their own buildings. There are, furthermore, the following things on campus: a huge canteen with several floors where students and employees can have breakfast, lunch, and dinner; a fine-art/music building, the administration building, a large hall, the students’ and teachers’ dormitories and teachers’ apartments, a huge basketball court, a football field with racetrack, and lots and lots and lots of trees and other plants everywhere.

I work approximately 20 hours per week, and while I do have quite a full schedule, I do not have any required office hours. My lessons take place between 8am and 4pm, and I have a lot of free time every day, which I spend reading, writing, riding my bike, watching TV shows, and surfing online. Lesson planning is minimal, as I usually teach the same lesson in all my primary classes – I simply adjust them based on the class’s English level. In kindergarten I can use one lesson plan for two weeks. I love this job, as it makes me and my students happy, isn’t too stressful, and provides me with enough money and time to enjoy life. Summer and winter vacation add up to 3 or 4 months, and almost every month there is some national holiday or other, which means additional days off throughout the school year.

There are many critics of foreign oral English teachers. The most common argument is that the teachers are not qualified. While this is often unfortunately true, the Chinese government is making it more difficult for unqualified people to obtain a working permit. I can, with pride, say of myself to be fully qualified to be an English teacher in China: not only do I hold a degree in English from a British university, but, besides many years of teaching experience, also have a teaching diploma, and thus the necessary background in education.

Another reason oral English teachers are belittled by many is that they are an example of what is often called a “white monkey job”. Many Chinese companies will hire foreign staff, preferably white Westerners, and use their foreign faces as a means of advertisement to make their product more attractive to buyers – kind of like the exploitation of circus or beggars’ animals. They claim superiority of their services, and thus justify charging higher fees. It’s a win-win situation for both employers and employees: the company makes more money, and the employee gets a high salary and many benefits (free housing, free food, travel bonus) for a stress-free job, while his or her only merit might often be nothing more than the color of his or her skin, the passport he or she is holding, or the native language he or she might speak.

A 30-45 minute oral English class once a week – or 25 minutes in kindergarten – might not be very efficient for such large classes, but I believe that those students, who are interested in the language, can still benefit from even such little practice. White monkey job or not, I strive to do my best and try to make my classes fun for the students. And I have some hope that I can teach my kids at least a little bit of English.

Breakthrough

أُولَـٰئِكَ عَلَىٰ هُدًى مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ ۖ وَأُولَـٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

THOSE ARE UPON [RIGHT] GUIDANCE FROM THEIR LORD, AND IT IS THOSE WHO ARE THE SUCCESSFUL. [Al-Baqarah 2:5]

On March 17, 2017, I, Cairene, finally got on a plane from Cairo to Guangzhou. The days before I received my visa, I had been busy with checking flight schedules and prices. After some digging, I eventually found the perfect connection: a direct, red eye flight from Egypt to China on Friday, a hotel for the night near Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, and an onward flight to Xi’an on Saturday morning. I could have found cheaper options, but they would have been less convenient, as not only would they have been very exhausting due to several long transits, but also would not have allowed as much luggage as Egyptair does – 46 kg plus carry-on.

As I had reserved an emergency aisle window seat, I had all the legroom I could wish for, and was able to get about 5 hours of sleep above the clouds. This amount was enough to get me through Friday afternoon and evening, and ensured that I could go to bed in a timely manner in the evening. I spent the remaining flight time eating and watching the Academy Award winning musical “La La Land”. Despite the high praise from critics and success with the audience, I found the movie a little boring, and the music average; I think there are much better musicals out there, “Dancer in the Dark” is one example.

Once I reached Guangzhou, it was time for immigration, baggage claim, and customs. As Guangzhou is quite a busy airport with many flights arriving simultaneously, the waiting time to go through immigration was about an hour; reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies helped pass the time. The immigration officer was friendly and quick, something you don’t find at every border, and there was no further wait for luggage or customs. Make sure to have a pen ready to fill out the arrival form.

I then proceeded to the hotel information desk in order to find out about where to board the free hotel shuttle. The nice lady behind the counter told me where to find it and I followed her directions, only to find out that her directions didn’t make any sense. The next person I asked was from the bus ticket office, and her directions – different ones – weren’t helpful either. Fed up with being misdirected, I figured I could just as well take a taxi for the short distance. The nice driver helped me with my luggage and asked me whereto I was headed. In response I showed him the address on my phone and asked him to call the hotel for directions. They connected us to an English speaking lady who told me to get out of the car and wait for a few minutes where I was, a driver from the hotel would come and pick me up. The taxi driver unloaded my bags, we said goodbye, and a very short time later I was picked up by the shuttle. I would like to note that the taxi driver did not ask for any money for his help – in Egypt the same situation would have required some baksheesh.

Another thing I would like to mention is that the hotel I originally booked for the night is one that only accepts Chinese guests, not foreigners; a fact I wasn’t aware of at the time of booking. Nonetheless, they arranged a room at another hotel for me that would accept foreign nationals, albeit at a somewhat higher price, but with great service. (I’m speaking of a price difference of roughly 15 Euros, so no big deal.) The hotel provided the airport shuttle both ways, a wakeup call, and a private ensuite room; all in all it cost around 25 Euros and proved to be more convenient and only slightly more expensive than spending the night at the airport on a bench, eating expensive food, and paying for a shower and luggage storage over night. After a long, hot shower I was quite refreshed, and got a good night’s sleep. The time difference between China and Egypt is six hours, and I was easily able to adapt to the difference.

On Saturday morning the hotel staff woke me up, I packed my bags once more, and was taken to the airport. All went well and I boarded the plane, a Hainan Airways flight to Xi’an. Rarely have I been on such a turbulent flight! There must have been strong winds above the clouds, as we were shaken about half the time. Regardless, the plane was comfortable with enough legroom, and the staff professional and courteous. The pre-departure flight safety video was more interesting than that of many other airlines, as it showed the beautiful Hainan beaches, and emphasized protecting the environment. On arrival there was no wait for the luggage, and I proceeded to the exit, where I was to be picked up by Rita from Buckland.

I was in for a surprise!

Setbacks (May 2016 – March 2017)

إلا الذين صبروا وعملوا الصالحات أولئك لهم مغفرة وأجر كبير

“Except for those who are patient and do righteous deeds; those will have forgiveness and great reward.” [Hud 11:11].

May 2016

Encountering setbacks is not as bad as it may seem. We recently had one on our path to imbibing China. It could have been easy, we were rejected, now we need to get over it and find a better way, even though it might be more challenging.

Sabr is the Islamic virtue of “patience” or “endurance” or more accurately “perseverance” and “persistence”. […] It teaches to remain spiritually steadfast, […], specifically when facing opposition or encountering problems/setbacks/unexpected & unwanted results. Source: Wikipedia

What would have been easy? Well, we applied for teaching jobs with my former employer, Buckland, and we would have known exactly what to expect from our new life in China. We would have known how reliable they are, what would be expected of us, and we had already built our plans for imbibing China on the presumption that they would hire us.

We did not get a response.

We were rejected.

But we didn’t give up!

I, Cairene, applied to other schools. Very quickly I received positive answers from possible employers. All seemed to go well, until one recruiter pointed out that I would need the original of my university degree certificate in order to be granted a working permit, and that the certificate had to be notarized. In May, however, I had only just finished my exams and was still waiting for my results and the certificate. My university was unable to expedite my results and certificate, and we thus decided to postpone our move to China from September 2016 to February 2017.

August 2016

Exam results came out, and I was officially done with my studies. No certificate in sight, though. According to my university’s website, certificates would be issued THREE to SIX months after graduation. In other words, I could expect to receive mine some time between November 2016 and January 2017.

December 2016

My degree certificate finally reached my mum in Germany, who mailed it to a friend, who then brought it to Cairo a few days later. I sent out applications again and posted my resume on Dave’s ESL Cafe. Within a short time I had many great offers, much more promising than half a year earlier. It took me several days to work through all the responses and weed out the uninteresting or unsuitable ones. Not only had I received many offers based on my applications, but my resume also created a lot of interest from other employers. One of those e-mails put a big smile on my face – from my former employer.

In my answer I told the recruiter that I was happy to hear from them again, after my previous application had not come to fruition. Knowing their salary range, however, I thought they would not be able to offer me the position I was looking for at that time. Imagine my surprise when two or three days later I received their answer that they could match all my expectations with a position in Hunan province!

January 2017

After thoroughly discussing all options with my husband Rora, and secretly having made up my mind probably as soon as I had the first e-mail from Buckland, we decided to sign with my former employer at the end of December. I spent all of January collecting, translating, and certifying all the necessary documents that were requested in order to process the working permit. On top of that, I was busy selling all our belongings, which, fortunately, worked out surprisingly well. The plan was to finish all the paperwork and be ready to leave Egypt in mid-February.

I encountered several setbacks when I was trying to get information from the Chinese Embassy in Cairo. From their not very informative website I knew they are open until 2:30 pm on workdays. I reached the embassy at 12:05 pm, only to be told that the consular section closes at 12 pm. The next day I visited the embassy much earlier. I was glad to find out that the waiting times are minimal, compared to other embassies and government offices I had dealt with in the past. The clerk was friendly and able to give me a lot of information, but, as it turned out later, missed telling me several important steps that caused further delay.

One such delay was trying to get my university degree certificate notarized. At first I wasn’t told that I needed some stamps from the British authorities, as that is where my degree is from, and from the Egyptian authorities. Imagine my annoyance when I went to the Chinese embassy to have my certificate notarized, only to be told: “Not today. Get some other stamps first.” Taxi. British Embassy. “Can’t help you, go to the British Council.” Taxi. “Hello, yes, we can help you. Go online to pay 15 GBP, get the confirmation number, then come back.” Taxi home. Online payment. Sleep. Next day: taxi. British Council. “Ok, we see you paid the fee to your university. You also have to pay us money. Come back in one month when we have confirmation from your university.”

Wait, what?

ONE MONTH???

There must be some other way.

I have an eye for detail, and noticed that the sample notarized degrees my employer sent me both said “this document is a true, correct, complete and unaltered COPY”… I tried to clarify this with Buckland, and while in their answers they still wrote about a “notarized degree” but their samples clearly said something different, I thought why not give it a try, and find a notary who can notarize a copy of my certificate. This was easily done and set me back 50 US$. I handed in this notarized copy as soon as I had it, and Buckland said it was all right that way. By the end of January it was confirmed that I had handed in all necessary documents, and that my working permit could be processed. This was supposed to take around one week. Enough time to ensure a mid-February departure.

Shortly thereafter I received another e-mail that informed me that we had to have an official health check after all. “Oh, and Chinese government offices will be closed for a week because of Chinese New Year.” Good-bye mid-February departure!

February 2017

We surpassed this obstacle, too, and once more were told that all the documents were in order, and the working permit would be taken care of within a week. On the day I thought I would receive an e-mail that says “Good news, we have your working permit!”, I received an e-mail that said the following instead: “Bad news. We can’t process your working permit for Hunan province. They say you would have to notarize your degree in your home country.”

ARGH!

This, however, was not all. “We can send you to Shaanxi province instead! We’ll get your working permit in a week!”

Another week… By now it was already February 20th!

While I did not mind the change of place, I was shocked when I saw the pictures of the supposed teacher’s apartment: no more than one room that included a bed, a microwave, a fridge, several tiny classroom desks, and a locker. How are two people supposed to live in such a small space?

Fortunately this misunderstanding was quickly cleared up, and it turned out that the foreign teacher’s apartment is actually a 2 bedroom apartment with a huge dining/living room and a separate kitchen. Much better for a couple! We agreed to this change of place, and, believe it or not, on March 3rd the working permit was issued and on the way to Egypt!

By this time the British Council was able to certify the authenticity of my degree certificate, and Rora took it to the Egyptian authorities to do the same. They managed to get ink all over the front of my degree. Not nice. Really not nice! Eventually I got the notarization from the Chinese embassy, too. Not that it was needed anymore at this point, but who knows what the future might bring.

March 2017

The next plan was to go to the embassy as soon as the working permit and invitation letters arrived and apply for the visa. I would have liked to get the next-day visa, then book a flight, then be off to China. By this point you can imagine that, once more, things did not go according to plan. Rush service for work visa was not available, as issuing the visa depends on a confirmation from the Chinese authorities.

We were told the visa might be ready in a day or in a week.

I got it on March 14th.

And some more problems at the embassy.

Let’s just say that if you need submit proof of payment for several things to the embassy, it is best to get several invoices from the bank, as one invoice with the total amount confuses embassy employees.

The only thing left to do now was to book a flight to China and say goodbye to everyone.

Sabr!