Living in China

Hong Bao party

It is sometimes hard to tell if the Chinese are generous or very selfish. On the one hand, they are obsessed with making money, by any means. Sales people are often pushy, dishonest and even aggressive; Taxi drivers will refuse to accept you, if you only want a short ride and landlords will lie shamelessly to get out of returning your deposit. On the other hand they are very generous hosts and will fight fiercely to be the one who pays for a meal. What I realise now is that it is all about the perception and face. They want to be seen as generous, but the generosity can be quite superficial. At our end of term office party I was reminded of medieval nobles throwing coins into the street and watching as the peasants scrambled for a share of the money.

The winter holiday in China in centered on the Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival. In China this is a time when everyone is expected to return home, to visit their parents and grandparents. It is one of the longest school holidays, typically between 4-5 weeks long, depending on whether it is a primary or secondary school. If the foreign teachers are not setting or marking exams, then it can be a few weeks longer still for us. For most people working in China, the holiday is only about a week long. It is not a peak holiday season and most of the holiday is a good tile to travel, except for that one week, when China experiences the planets largest mass human migration, when airports and train stations can each have tens, or even hundreds of thousands of people fighting over tickets. If there are delays from smog or ice, like last year in Guangzhou,then even the thousands of extra soldiers and riot police drafted in for crowd control can be insufficient for the task of keeping order.

My last few jobs were at state run institutions. A public school and a university. At the end of the term we would have a couple of thousand as a bonus before the holiday and we might have a meal. At Bao’yi wai the Chinese English teachers and the foreign English teachers went out for a meal, paid for by the school. The head of the English department would attend, but no other school officials. It was just a time to chat, relax and have fun. At Ludong University nothing was provided, but the foreign teachers organised their own dinner. Here I am in the private sector and things were very different.

The first obvious difference was entertainment. Every group of teachers was expected to put on a performance of some sort. My girlfriend, with the grade 2 teachers, was doing a dance routine. The teachers of other grades were singing songs or performing comedy routines. We were lucky that one of our teachers, Andrew, is a semi-professional singer. He often has paid gigs at the weekends at bars around Shenzhen. We had just planned to let him sing for us. Then two of the American teachers also decided that they would also sing. The organizers were clearly taking the entertainment seriously, as the music teacher was trying to get the music that they would use two weeks before the event. Andrew, however, was unwilling to commit and insisted that he needed to get a feel for the crowd and would decide on the night, which, no doubt, made her extremely frustrated.

The dinner venue was a local seafood restaurant, with the typical revolving tables. We did not have a private room, as our group was too big, but we were not enough to occupy the whole restaurant. the teachers took up a little under half the room, with regular customers all around us. The foreign teachers were meant to be spread between two tables, along with the Chinese English teachers, but instead they just took over one table for themselves. As we had not had any real work to do that day, most of them had been at the pub most of the afternoon and were already a bit drunk. Pretty soon they had drunk everything on the table and were three sheets to the wind.

The entertainment was quite amusing. Crystal, Purdy, Mathilda and some other grade 2 teachers started off with a funny dance routine, that went quite well. Andrew has a powerful voice and sang well, despite how much he had drunk. Richard sand a rap song of his own composition and Angela sang along to Valerie. Then there was a “comedy routine” which I couldn’t understand but which reminded me of old stage acts, like Abbot and Costello etc. Then a few Chinese teachers sang very badly.

A major New Year tradition in China is Hong Bao. This translates as red bag, but in this case refers to red envelopes. At New Year relatives give children red envelopes of “lucky money”. In some places employers also give Hong Bao to their employees. For my last two jobs I was not in the private sector. At the end of the year I got a bonus in my paycheck. There was no ceremony. This was different.

Before the party we had been made to attend a very dull meeting, all in Chinese, with no translation. For an hour the principled droned on at us, before giving award to the top performing Chinese teachers in the school. We were then called up one at a time to be given 500 rmb in cash. This was the first part of the Hong Bao. The rest was via Wechat.

We chat, or Weixin, is a very popular social networking app from AliBaba. As well as being used for messaging people, micro-blogging and sharing articles, it is also commonly used for shopping. Many businesses in China offer discounts if you pay online, with Weixin or Alipay etc. It is fast, convenient and not really all that secure. It also has a Hong Bao function.

You can send a Hong Bao on wechat, to transfer money to one person. You can also use it to transfer money to a group of people. You set how much money you will give, how many people can receive cash and whether the amount will be equal or random.  The Chinese prefer to give random amounts and usually set the number of recipients to less than the number in the group. Anyone in the group will get a notification that they have HongBao. When they click the envelope, they get a share of the money (If any is left).

This is what was used at our party. When we arrived, everyone scanned a code to join the party wechat group. During the party the head principle got on stage and announced that he was sending us all 8000 rmb of HongBao. People got poised by their phones, ready to click the envelope for their random share of the cash.


At intervals throughout the rest of the party, other principles and school patrons got up on stage. After being introduced the announced how much money they would be giving away and everyone got poised on their phones. Later on a few teachers send small amounts of money to only about the first 10 people in a group of 150 or so. The teachers would be clicking away, only to get a message saying “better luck next time”. In the scramble for the loose change that had been thrown down virtually, they had been too late.

It was these small packets of Hong Bao, where not everyone would bet anything, which made me think that it was like the gentry casting down a few coins for the beggars to fight over, or Jack Nicholson as the Joker. In total I got nearly 1000 rmb from the whole evening, which was a nice added bonus, but even with the 500 in cash it was less than the bonus that I had been given without any ceremony at my previous jobs.

The principles and patrons of our school were no more generous than my previous employers, but they wanted to make very big deal of showing off their generosity and letting everyone know exactly how much money they were giving away. As Thomas Fuller said “Lavishness is not generosity.”


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This is Halloween in China

Last week we were celebrating Halloween at Yunding school. International schools and language training centers in China tend to put a lot of effort into staging events for western holidays. It is a way of showing that they are giving the students a chance to experience western culture, although they tend to do it in ways that are not at all western.

A week before Halloween they decorated the classrooms. More effort was put into doing this for the primary children, with parents contributing time and money, coming in at the weekend to help decorate. This also meant that Chinese teachers were coming in at the weekend, unpaid, to decorate the classrooms.


During the week we were asked to have Halloween themed lessons. Teaching about Halloween, singing Halloween songs, doing Halloween crosswords and word searches and watching Halloween movies (but nothing too scary. In my case, I showed them the original Ghostbusters, which was very popular)

The school had planned a Halloween party for Friday 28th, because they thought it would be better at the end of the week, rather than the start. Each class was asked to prepare some activities which the kids could try. Surprisingly nobody did bobbing for apples, as they thought it might not be hygienic.

On Wednesday one of the school principles decided that the party would be organised like a Chinese school sports day, with the classes parading past a stage in costume and performing a small dance routine in front of the school directors.

The teachers were all required to be in costume too (except for one NewZealender who told them to f*** off and refused). Some of us took a minimalist approach, while others bought cool costumes. The best was Ed, who decided that Halloween should be properly scary and made himself zombie make-up from latex, fake nails, flour and face paint.


The classes paraded in age order, followed by parents and then teachers. Each class was expected do do some sort of dance routine together, but the teachers were only told that this was compulsary on Wednesday evening. This gave them just over a day to prepare. Unsurprisingly most of the routines were lame. The music was often completely inapropriate for Halloween. The best performance involved the grade 11 teacher gunning down his undead students. The students then had to line up in their classes and stand to attention for what followed.

A couple of teachers were asked to speak about the meaning of Halloween (some of the foreign teachers went in school uniform, as their costume). This was followed by a “costume contest”. Primary students, middle school students and foreign teachers went onto the stage in pairs, to show off their costumes. However there was no actual judging, no scores, no winners and no prizes.

The rest of the afternoon the kids were free to play games. The best was the inflatable maze, which Ed hid in and scared some of the young children.




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The CITA fiasco

Last year I arranged for work in Shenzhen through an agency. Obviously teachers can get better deals if they approach schools directly, but being a thousand miles to the north it was very hard for me to interview if schools in Shenzhen and a lot of the public schools are required to hire their staff through agencies.

I would like to make it clear that I myself had no major problems with CITA. My contract was handled properly and I was able to work legally. I was paid what I had been promised and more-or less on time. The only gripe I had was that the school accommodation was nothing like we had been promised. More details on that are here: However, for others the way in which CITA handled their employment was both farcical and criminal.

During that year CITA found itself at the center of a legal controversy which cost the agency a lot of money, cost many people their jobs and destroyed the reputation of the company. The consequences of that fiasco are still continuing, with many people coming back to China, due to start teaching this week and still having no idea of whether or not they will have a job or anywhere to live.

As I mentioned before, many people who were working through CITA were not working legally. Having grown steadily over the previous years, CITA was cutting corners to get as many people into jobs as possible. They entered on business or tourist visas, the lacked any experience and had false reference letters for non-existent jobs provided for them. Some even had falsified degree certificates arranged, as they lacked any qualifications. Most people didn’t mind this, as it gave teachers to the schools, jobs to the people who wanted them and money to the agency, but eventually their house of cards started to crumble.

There are still conflicting stories about what happened and who is to blame. At first a few disgruntled teachers were said to have reported the agency but the “official” story from a CITA spokesperson was that one of the schools decided to use their foreign teachers in material to promote the school, even though no invitation letters had formally been filed by the school to get Z visas to legally hire the teachers. This led to visits by the police, who wanted to see if there were foreign teachers staying there. The result was that two illegal teachers were deported from China, had their accounts frozen and lost all their pay, but that was just the beginning.

In the winter the Chinese government decided to crack down on the illegal hiring of foreign teachers in Bao’an. Schools were banned from accepting teachers who did not have the correct paperwork, nationality and qualifications. English teachers now needed to be native speakers. Some schools found ways around this, hiring teachers to be German or French teachers etc and still having them also teach English, but many people, especially Eastern-Europeans found themselves out of a job. A few American or English university graduates still found themselves out of work because they refused to lie about their lack of teaching experience.

By the end of the year CITA had lost quite a few teachers, but the ones who remained were mostly properly qualified and competent teachers. The schools were generally happy with them and wanted them to stay on. CITA offered them a retention bonus, to stay on for another year. However, it was not clear whether the Board of Education would give CITA the contract to supply teachers to Bao’an again.

There is a lot of money to be made from supplying teachers and it was clear that CITA had some ruthless competition. In the winter most of the CITA teachers received letters, allegedly from CITA saying that we had been defrauded by CITA and should respond to them in order to get compensation from their legal department. As the letters were sent to people who had initially been assigned to the schools, before changes in the first weeks, it was clear that they had got their information from CITA very early on, probably from a disgruntled former employee. Someone was clearly working hard to get more material to use in further destroying CITA’s reputation.

The contracts with teachers staying on included the promise of 20,000 rmb if at the start of term CITA could not offer them a teaching job.

Over the summer it became clear that the teaching bid had gone against CITA, but their teachers were told to sit tight, as they were trying to get the decision reversed. As time passed it became clear that they had failed, but there were still some possibilities.

  1. CITA merges with a company that got the contract.
  2. CITA sells the teachers to another company, for a finders fee.
  3. CITA somehow arranges teaching jobs at other schools, possibly not in Bao’an.
  4. The teacher could leave CITA, try to find other work and forfeit the penalty fee.
  5. CITA fails to do anything and people try to get their compensation.

It is now two days before the start of term and the teachers are still waiting. CITA seem to have failed to get the decision reversed and people are left feeling very insecure.  Some of my friends are still living at school accommodation and are being told that they will need to move out soon. However, because CITA are still fighting for a favorable resolution, the board of education have not yet issued a final decision.

As far as I have heard, no organisation can supply teachers to public schools in Bao’an until a final decision has been reached. Some schools are being advised to suspend  teaching for the first week due to legal technicalities, which is extremely frustrating for schools, teachers and parents, although I assume that some of the students are happy to get a bit of time off.

I honestly have nothing against the people who work for CITA. They have tried their best to give people jobs and keep them in jobs. They are no more dodgy in their practices than most of the employers I have had any dealings with in China, either directly or indirectly. However the situation is definitely a complete fiasco for the 50+ teachers still waiting to see whether they will have a job or not this year.



On September 1st the CITA teachers who had signed on for another year had to move out of their school accommodation and move into a hotel together. However, CITA are covering the cost of the hotel. It is hoped that they will have some sort of answer within the week. Despite messing things up CITA do seem to be trying to do right by their teachers, which is good.

Update 2:

two weeks after the start of term CITA was trying to place teachers in private schools. As was obvious, they did not get a contract to supply any state schools. CITA teachers were informed by the staff that had abandoned CITA to work for their competition about which companies had been given contracts. Because CITA had been offering people some sort of jobs, they felt that they did not need to pay the promised compensation, and that people needed to sign a release to forfeit the promised 20,000 rmb if they wanted to work elsewhere or stay at their old school by going through another agency. All in all, it was indeed a thorough fiasco.

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School memories

Yesterday was my first day at my new school and was a complete waste of time. The students are not here and the classes don’t start until September 1st, but we were told that we had to be here on the 15th for “training”. The first day of so called training was a meeting with the Chinese staff in which the Chinese principle spoke at us in Chinese and the new Chinese staff introduced themselves. It seemed to me that the only reason the foreign teachers were asked to be there was because someone was photographing the meeting and we were there as window dressing. After an hour we were free to go home, but were told that we needed to be back for another meeting at 3.00. We had hoped that this was something useful for us, as foreign teachers, such as perhaps being told what classes we would teach etc. However, once again this was with the Chinese teachers. The owner of the school was due to turn up, but was running late. We waited around for an hour and a half for him. When he finally turned up he made a 5 minute speech, the photographer was back to document it, and that was it. Another complete waste of time.

It says something about the Chinese style of leadership. The subordinates wait around, just for the boss to appear. Last year our first experience of the school was when we had to wait two hours for the director to turn up for a welcome dinner. The people in charge often have no skills or abilities and they certainly have no respect for their subordinates. All they have is guanxi, the political connections.

Afterwards I was talking with Crystal about her school experiences. Shandong has a very good reputation for good academic grades, but not for producing well rounded students. Students there generally do very well in exams, but learn very little else. She went to the Lichung number 2 middle-school, but even before she started there she had heard it referred to as Lichung number 2 prison. It reinforced a lot of things that I had noticed during my time in China, but at her school it was even more extreme.

In China the students are not allowed to have boyfriends or girlfriends, but Crystal’s school took this further than most. Students were not allowed to spend any time together with students of the opposite sex. Students were not allowed to sit next to students of the opposite sex. They were not allowed to touch, hold hands or even walk side by side. They were not allowed to talk to each other. The dining room even had separate floors for boys and girls.

The students were not allowed to have mobile phones, in order to prevent them from talking to each other or having any other distractions. They were also not allowed to leave the school campus, except to go home at the weekends. Students could only go home every two weeks and the teachers would even be watching to make sure that they did not try to get taxis together and were not sitting together on the bus.

Crystal had a boyfriend when she was at school, although the innocent relationship was probably good practice for a career in covert operations. They were in separate classes but arranged to pass each other on their way out of classes during the break, so that they could slip notes to each other as they passed. On other occasions she would get girls in her dorm building from his class to slip him notes.

They both needed to take two buses in order to get home, so they would get a little bit of time to see each other on the second bus and waiting for that bus, but this was only once a fortnight. Therefore they got good at finding ways to see each at school. Since the school did not allow them to have mobile phones (which they did secretly have, but had to keep hidden in their rooms to avoid confiscation) the students needed access to payphones. At the front of the school were a couple of phone boxes, so they would slip notes to each other, for a time to meet at the phone box. Whoever was there first would pretend to make a phone call and the other one would pretend to wait to use the phone. In this way they could talk, while pretending not to be talking to each other.

Another school restriction was to try to prevent vanity. It was felt that girls who paid attention to their appearance would not be paying attention to their studies. Make-up was prohibited and all girls were required to have the same basin hair cut. Hair was not allowed to be long enough to cover even the tops of their ears. If their hair grew too long a hairdresser was called into the school, in order to cut their hair in front of the class. This was intended as a punishment, to embarrass the child.

Life in such a school must have been quite unbearable for the children, so I was not surprised to hear that during her three years at the school there were a couple of children who killed themselves.

At every school I have taught, at least one student has compared it to a prison. I found myself immediately thinking of prisons when I first passed the international school behind Baoyiwai. With the ugly accommodation blocks, sometimes with bars on the windows, barbed wire fences, prison trays in canteens, crowded dorm rooms and lights out at fixed times Chinese schools can easily be compared to prisons, but until speaking to Crystal I had not realised quite how far the analogy goes.1095

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It never rains, but it pours

The thing about Shenzhen that I find the hardest to get used to is the weather. When I first arrived I found the heat unbearable. For most of the year the temperature is in the 30s. It is not just hot, but humid too, which makes people sweat more. Just walking five or ten minutes to my new school is enough to have me dripping in sweat.

The winter was surprisingly cold this year and in the south of China people are not prepared for the cold. Most homes and schools have no heating at all.

After the winter there is a period of about two weeks of intense humidity. Condensation appears on everything, papers and books turn soggy on the shelves, within day there is mold and mildew on every wall and on all the furniture. It is a horrible few weeks. But soon it is gone and the heat returns.

Yet it is the rain that gets me most. When it is so hot, I don’t normally anticipate the need for an umbrella, but I have learnt that you always need one in Shenzhen. When it rains, the rain comes suddenly and it comes down hard.

When Crystal and I had just moved into our new flat, we met outside her school and went to get lunch. On my way there it was bright and sunny, but as she emerged from the school it started to rain. By the time we had walked the hundred yards to the end of the street it was torrential and water was flowing down the streets in rivers. We went to grab a bite in one of the nearest cafes. When we came out we saw that water was flowing through some of the shops, because the street behind is at a higher level.

Most people in this part of China wear flip flops, crocs and other sort of plastic sandals, because wellington boots are too hot, but normal shoes will get drenched when the rains come. They would rather have footwear that looks ugly, but will dry out quickly.

Usually the rains don’t last too long, but one of the disadvantages of living out at Bao’yi’wai was that the area is prone to flooding. It is in a valley, surrounded by hills, with very poor drainage. When the rains come the road outside becomes a brown, muddy river and the river remains for several hours after the rains have stopped.

Here, in Futian the rains may be as sudden and the rivers of water nearly as deep, but at least the waters clear away nearly as quickly as they appear.

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China’s impossible employment laws

This year the Chinese government decided to tighten up the laws on foreigners working in China. This is mainly because of how many companies will employ any white face as an English teacher, claiming that they are a native speaker (Jenny, who I worked part time for, told parents that the French, Russian and Albanian teachers were all Canadian), giving fake degree certificates to potential teachers (I have heard that a few of the teachers hired by cita had been supplied with fake certificates) and lying about the work experience of foreign teachers. The last one is one of the most common. Two of the teachers I work with had fake work experience and reference letters added to their documents without telling them. My friend Leah, after working for 4 years in China, has only just discovered that such fake documents were used for her too. She was only told, so that she can continue telling the same lie.

Under the new legislation only native speakers (or those with degrees from English speaking countries) are allowed to teach English in China (that seems fair). They are also required to have a minimum of two years teaching experience after graduation (which is very unlikely as most of the people who come here to teach are fresh from university). This means that many of the people who were teaching English in China in 2015 are no longer able to stay. The government is also taking steps to ensure that these requirements are actually met.

One annoying consequence of this is that there is more paperwork and in some places it is necessary for foreign teachers to get their degree validated and this will soon be necessary in most major cities. Making sure that the degree is real might seem like a sensible enough piece of legislation, however as China doesn’t accept any foreign government agency’s word, the process is very convoluted and expensive. First you need to get your degree notarised by a lawyer in your country, or your consul in China. They also require a notarised Chinese translation. You need it legalised by your country’s foreign office. You then need to send it to the Chinese embassy in your own country, in order for them to verify the whole process.Clearly, for someone who is already in China, this whole procedure is slow, expensive and inconvenient.

Last year, because I had left my original degree certificates in the UK, I had gone home and gone through the whole process of applying for a work visa all over again. This was expensive, took over a month and included the absurd stage of needing me to get a police check to show that I did not have any new UK criminal convictions from the two years I had spent living in China.

This year, as I am not changing city, I decided to try to get everything sorted out here in China.

It seemed easy to renew a contract and get an extension on my residence permit during my first years in China, when I was working for the same university. The university handled whatever paperwork. I had one trip to the entry-exit bureau and that was it. However, when changing jobs it seems to be quite literally impossible to legally stay in the country. Thousands of people do it every year. Changing jobs and moving to new schools should be pretty routine, but the process is absurd.

In order to be a teacher you need to have a foreign expert certificate. Every year the employer needs to apply for a new foreign expert certificate for you. This certificate only allows you to work for the named company. If you do any other part time work or tutoring (which most teachers do) you are breaking the law. You can only ever have one foreign expert certificate at a time and in order to start work at a new company you must first cancel the old certificate in order for your new company to apply for a new one.

That seems simple enough, but your residence permit cannot be extended beyond the date of your contract. In order to extend your residence permit when you are already in China it is legally required that the new contract must begin before the old contract ends, so that there is no time when you are not employed. Yet it is illegal to work for anyone other than the person on your foreign expert certificate, so this is always illegal.

To further complicate things, you are not able to cancel your foreign expert certificate until you have completed your contract, but you must leave the country when the contract expires and you need the new foreign expert certificate in order to apply for an extension of your residence.

How is it done?

One month or less before the end of your contract (and your residence permit) the Chinese government allows you to sign a new contract with your old employer, claiming that your contract ends at that date. (They are not allowed to lie about this prior to that date) This allows them to start the 5 day process of getting an official cancellation certificate stamped by the government. This can be taken to your new employer, who will have you sign two contracts. One which starts prior to the month before the end of your old contract and one for whenever you are actually starting work. They can then apply for a new foreign expert certificate, taking at least a week, and apply for an appointment for you to visit the entry-exit bureau and apply to have a new residence permit, that follows on from your existing permit.

This invariably means a lot of rushing between employers and crowded government offices, as every school and university in the country will be processing their paperwork withing a window of just a few weeks. It also means that for your last month your employers have a contract saying that you have finished working there as well as a contract requiring you to work. This puts them in an ideal situation to screw you over, should they so choose.

It also means that absolutely anyone who changes employer without leaving China has technically broken their law, but in a way that is not only allowed, but required by the Chinese government. It is absolutely absurd!

Being cynical, I assume that this is done so that the Chinese government will always have an excuse for kicking you out of the country, should you be considered a nuisance.

The changes in the Chinese legislation for foreign teachers are intended to make sure that Chinese students are getting a proper education from qualified teachers. The Chinese want their education system to be taken seriously. The days when anyone with a white face could live in China as a teacher are ending. However, the convoluted system of administration used by the Chinese government means that no matter how qualified, how experienced and hard you try to jump through all their hoops and follow their laws it is impossible to follow all the laws.

But, try not to worry too much. The Chinese need qualified teachers more than ever before and fewer people are applying. The legislation is just there to create jobs, doing meaningless work. The Chinese government may want to be taken seriously, but until they can clean up their Catch 22 legislative system that’s impossible to obey, the Chinese legislation and their government will continue to be a joke.


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Welcome to the mistress village

Next year Crystal and I are both working at Yunding school in the Futian district of Shenzhen, near the Fumin metro stop. It is a private school with an international department and the English ability level of the students seems very high. The first grade English book that they are using is almost as advanced as the books my senior school students use and includes words that some university level English graduates don’t know, like splinter and scampering.

Crystal started work there this term, but as she needs to start work at 7.30 a her old place was nearly an hour away by public transport from her old apartment, it was quite difficult for her. The first train came at 6.41, and if she took it and hurried out of Fumin startion, she could just about reach the school by about 7.32 or 33. We therefore wanted to find a new place to live, closer to the school, as soon as possible.

The local area seemed very nice (at least, by Chinese standards). There was a convenient supermarket, there were a lot of places for food, several KTV bars and a few cheap dvd shops. The first few places we looked at seemed too expensive, especially the furnished places, which seemed to be about 2000 rmb a month more than the unfurnished ones, but after a while we managed to find a decent sized, unfurnished apartment.

Moving house was pretty exhausting, because neither the old apartment building, nor the new one, had an elevator. Crystal and her flatmate were both amazed by how much stuff they had. I am sure anyone who has moved house recently will know what that is like. The Chinese removal people amazed us with their ability to carry loads of luggage at a time both up and down the stairs (5 and 7 flights respectively).

If you ever find yourself searching for an apartment, you should be aware that in China and unfurnished apartment will often come with absolutely nothing. No furniture, no curtains, no water heater, no air conditioning, no oven, no hob, no shower, no washing machine, no fridge. Nothing! You will be lucky to even get a toilet. Trying to furnish the place was therefore a far bigger task than we anticipated. Especially when the air conditioning installers refused to deliver up more than three flights of stairs, requiring us to try lugging the huge air conditioning unit up the stairs. (when the delivery guys realised that we would not pay them extra to carry the units upstairs, they carried most of them up)

The area we are in is between Shuiwei cultural square and Huanggang village. When we were looking for apartments we heard from another foreign teacher that the local area had a reputation about 10-15 years ago as a place for Hong Kong people to go to find prostitutes. It has since been gentrified and has instead become a place for wealthy Hong Kong people to keep their mistresses.

Shenzhen is known as China’s mistress village. Keeping a mainland mistress seems to be pretty common for people from Hong Kong.  The average income in Hong Kong is much higher than the mainland, but so too is the cost of living. Poorer people may choose to live in Shenzhen and work in Hong Kong, in order for their money to go further. Similarly the middle class of Hong Kong seem to be quite rich when the come to Shenzhen. This makes it easier to turn the heads of the mainland girls.

When I was reading the story about the Hong Kong bookseller abducted by mainland Chinese police for selling banned books I noticed that he was reported to have crossed over to Shenzhen to visit his girlfriend, but was reported missing by his wife when he didn’t return. Similarly, the British university professor who worked in Hong Kong and vanished a few months ago was believed to have been murdered by one of his several long term girlfriends in order to get the money from his recently sold apartment.

It is not just Hong Kong businessmen who keep mistresses. It is also very common among Chinese officials. Investigations into Chinese officials reveal that 95% of officials who had been charged with corruption kept mistresses. In one case, more than 140 mistresses were kept by a single official. Several people that I know have admitted that their fathers keep mistresses, but that their mothers endure it, mainly due to the fear of being rejected and alone in a society that stigmatizes mature single women as “forgotten women”.

The area we are in is just 1 metro stop from the Futian checkpoint, which makes it an ideal location for keeping your mistress in. I heard that our district is the number 2 place in Shenzhen for keeping a mistress in (The number 1 place is over near the Luohu checkpoint). The local area includes several massage parlors, including a huge place that I thought was a hotel. there are also a lot of beauty parlors, to help the mistresses to keep looking good. From the first day we started looking around the area I was struck by the number of good looking women we would see passing by on the streets.

A few people have commented on the way that men from Hong Kong regard Shenzhen as being the place to go to find cheap women for sex. A couple of doctors told my friend Alex (within hours of meeting him) that you can approach any woman and offer them money for sex. Ever if some of them refuse, it will not take you long to find one who will agree. This seemed to me to be a quite worrying attitude to take and it probably explains why Crystal has repeatedly been approached by strange men asking for her phone number or wechat details.

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China’s struggle with outdated ideas

One thing about dating a Chinese woman is that I often hear interesting things from or about her friends and colleagues. The more I learn, the more I think that the mentality of the Chinese is stuck somewhere prior to the 60s.


Drinking and Smoking:

Ailsa, one of Crystal’s colleagues, asked Vivian, another colleague; “Does your husband smoke?” She replied, “no.”

“Does he drink?” Again Vivian replied, “No.”

“What is wrong with him?” Ailsa then demanded.

This was followed by a long conversation in which Ailsa insisted that a person who does not drink or smoke will be unable to go out and socialise with other Chinese men. She insisted that anyone who does not drink would be regarded as being less than a man and would never be promoted.

She ended by insisting that Vivian should break up with her husband and find herself another man who drinks and smokes.

In any other country it would be seen as good to have a husband who doesn’t drink. I know too many people who suffered from having drunken fathers who would get violent when drunk and beat their wives and children for no reason. Men who go out drinking regularly will also waste more money and are far more likely to have affairs. China is one of those places where wives seem to often turn a blind eye to men having affairs, out of fear of being rejected and cast aside should they object. In China a single woman over 27 is seen as a “forgotten woman” and it is extremely hard for a divorced woman to remarry.

Then there is smoking. It is widely known and accepted that smoking is a major cause of death and disease, but China produces 2/3 of the cigarettes in the world and over 60% of Chinese men regularly smoke. There is only one country in the world where more people per capita smoke than in China. The official figure for women is much lower, as it is known that smoking will harm an unborn infant and it is thought to be unacceptable for women, but I have heard from students that as many girls as boys smoke. The only difference is that the girls do it secretly.

Despite being unhealthy, smoking is still seen as cool and sexy in China. Chinese girls are attracted to men who smoke, as they seem to be more influenced by superficial ideas of coolness and feel more of a need to conform, than in Britain.

Men see smoking as a way to assert their masculinity, to bond and to fit in. They resist any attempts to stop them smoking. Smoking in toilets is also common, to hide the smell of the shit in the waste paper baskets. Chinese don’t flush toilet paper. Even where there are signs against it, toilets are often used as a smoker’s lounge. This is especially true in less wealthy regions, where fitting in is far more important than anything else.



During the Spring Festival Light (a male colleague of Crystal’s) returned home to visit his family. During the two weeks he was back they had arranged matchmaking sessions between him and six prospective brides.

Arranged marriages used to be very common in China and are still popular in rural areas. Matchmaking is still very common. Because many young Chinese adults spend so much time working, working unpaid overtime, working extra jobs and obsessing about getting money for their first home, they have very little time for a social life. In some big factories, where workers work, eat, sleep and live in the factory compound, it is not unknown for the company to arrange mass matchmaking events and group weddings between employees. The matchmaking allows busy professionals a chance to meet other people interested in marriage.

However, there is a lot of pressure on young people to find a husband or wife. The parents of one of the girls insisted that Light should stay the night, suggesting that he should sleep with their daughter. They had coached the daughter in what to do, in order to please a man in bed. They felt that if Light slept with the girl, then he could not back out of the marriage.

In the morning they asked their daughter if she and light had had sex. Feeling a bit insecure, she replied “No.” in response to which he mother allegedly shouted, “Stupid girl! You’ve ruined everything!”

Romance is not yet dead in all of China, but in the countryside they have buried it in a ditch, where nobody can find it.

During classes my students often get excited by pictures of famous musicians, actors, business men, athletes and other celebrities. When asked why they like him, the most common answer is, “Because he’s rich!”



Some of Crystal’s family don’t like her dating a foreigner. They see dating as a short step to marriage and have very firm ideas of what a suitable husband should be.

According to her grandfather (who is the most closed minded) he should be: Chinese, of Han ethnicity, a member of the communist party and working for the government. Racism exists even within China, as the Han look down on the other 55 ethnic groups as poor, weak and unimportant, while the other groups (especially in outlying areas) regard the Han as rude, arrogant, obnoxious, smelly, arrogant, stupid… the list goes on.

In addition they have other requirements for a boyfriend. He must have at least a million in savings and he must buy her an apartment. Actually, those are their conditions for a husband, but they think that dating anyone who does not measure up is a waste of time. Like many Chinese, they think she should find a husband as soon as possible, or she is failing the family and will be a failure for life.

Family pressure is by far the most common reason for marriages between Chinese and foreigners to fail. My friend Phil’s ex-wife left him when he was at work, taking their baby with her, because her father had offered to buy her an apartment, as long as she left “the foreigner”. Another of Phil’s friends lost his fiance, when she was forcefully abducted from his home by her relatives and forced to marry a Chinese man from their village against her will.

There is now also government pressure on Chinese girls, trying to deter them from dating foreigners, by suggesting that we are all spies. This, at least, was the message of the propoganda cartoon Dangerous Love.

The Chinese government is so opposed to the idea of foreigners dating Chinese women that when a white man won the dating show If You Are the One (非诚勿扰) he was edited out of the program. The channel refused to air a show in which the Chinese contestants chose a white foreigner over the Chinese participants.



Casual racism: 

I recently attended a meeting at which a police spokesman addressed all the foreign teachers in Bao’an about visa requirements and illegal immigration. He said that a lot of people from Africa come over to Guangzhou and stay on illegally, in order to set up export businesses. During this talk he said that the Chinese call Guangzhou the “chocolate city”, because of all the blacks.

A lot of Chinese are wary of blacks. They aspire to be white, adding whitening chemicals to most beauty products, and see the white, western nations as a model to aspire towards. However, they are wary of blacks. They often regard them as drug dealers and criminals and are frightened if approached by a black person. (this doesn’t stop them wanting to touch the hair of random black strangers)

A black teacher told me that when she was teaching at a primary school one of the teachers would threaten the kids by saying, “If you don’t behave, we will let the Black take you home.”


There are times when I love China, but there are also times when I am shocked by how backward people seem.

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The villages that time forgot

It was recently Chinese New Year, when the Chinese ushered in the year of the monkey. During this time the Chinese are obliged to visit their parents, along with their children. Most of my single Chinese friends were taken by their parents, back to stay with their grandparents for a few days. Seeing the photos of the places were their grandparents lived, I was struck by how thoroughly the Chinese countryside has been left stuck in the past.

When I say “stuck in the past” I don’t mean like the timeless and idyllic old villages of the Cotswolds, where none of the bad things about modern life seem to reach. I mean that they are the poverty sticken regions that nobody wants to live in or visit, were none of the good things about modern life can be afforded. However, this does not mean that they aren’t beautiful. In many ways the countryside of China is still more attractive than the cities.

My friend Hera’s family comes from a remote Hakka village in Guangdong.


The Hakka people originally migrated south from the middle of China. The southern Chinese were initially hostile and so they lived in walled, fortified villages. They maintained their own customs and language and continued to be a distinct ethnic minority group in the south, never fully integrated with the locals.

You can still find Hakka walled villages dotted around China. As it was the winter when she visited, the village did not look quite as picturesque as in the summer, but it still looked lovely.


I said the Hera that it looks like a museum and she told me that parts of the village are a museum, that tourists can pay to visit, but the locals continue to live there.

It is not easy to reach. The trouble with rural china is that money is not spent of infrastructure and facilities. It would require nearly a day of travel and several buses in order to get there, even though it is not that far from Shenzhen. When travelling around the spring festival it takes much longer. For Hera, it took over 14 hours stuck in heavy traffic to get there by car.



The local people still live by farming, but the area has not been developed into the large industrial scale farms, like I saw in Shandong. Instead, it is a scene of rural Chinese life that has probably changed very little in over 100 years.


My girlfriend, Crystal also went to the countryside to visit her grandparents. They live in a less remote village, in Shandong province. Naturally this was a time for all the extended family to get together. As the Chinese rarely have siblings these days, their cousins are often referred to as brothers and sisters.


The village that her grandparents live in is a lot less dramatic looking than Hera’s hometown. The buildings are mostly non-descript single story structures, typical of the early years of communist rule in China.

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These small town and villages have a lot more sense of community than the big cities. There are not many places to go for fun and so the locals tend to make their own entertainment. Festivals and national holidays bring everyone together in the streets to celebrate.


I was struck by the timeless nature of this scene. The buildings, the instruments, the dancing and festivities and in most cases even the clothes could have come from any time in the last forty or fifty years. There is very little to show that this is 2016 and not 1976.

Similarly, inside the houses, the decorations and furniture has probably not been changed in two generations.

For Crystal, the thing about visiting her grandparents’ home that she dislikes most was the toilet. It took me a while to get used to toilets in China, but it would take me a lot longer to get used to something like this.

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The toilet is simple a stone lined pit. Peeing in a pit might be easy enough for men, but squatting on the edge of a pit with nothing to hold for support while you do your business and hoping that you don’t fall backwards is not something I want to even contemplate. Coming out here at night could be pretty hazardous. Heaven forbid that you get cramp. I hate to imagine what would happen to an old person if they had any joint problems in their knee or hip. Surely, this toilet would be impossible to use. It is also very smelly, as the excrement is left there and occasionally collected to use as fertilizer.

In Britain we used to have outhouses which were effectively just pits, but even they had seats that you could sit on and more importantly, they were OUT houses. They would be out in the garden. Having something like this inside the house must be horrible.




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Don’t move!

This isn’t my command, but it does seem to be the message that the Chinese government is giving to its people.

During my first few years here I was mostly looking at China from the perspective of a foreigner. Now I am starting to get an idea of what China is like for the Chinese and there is quite a lot to dislike.

All the Chinese are registered as belonging to a family. Their registration documents include all the family members in one book, with their father as the head of the family. You are registered as belonging to your father’s home and you stay registered there until you get married and start a family of your own.

Going through any sort of paperwork in China can be a pain in the neck, and for that reason, along with many more, Chinese parents want their children to have their own permanent home before they get married. They don’t like the idea of people getting married if they are still renting, as they may need to move address and therefore go through the administrative nightmare of changing their registration documents, along with anything linked to those documents.

The cost of renting a two bedroom apartment in a reasonable part of Shenzhen is about 6 million rmb. The average monthly salary is 3000 rmb. Therefore the average person, if they spend nothing, needs to save up for nearly 200 years in order to buy a small apartment. Most modern buildings in China will deteriorate within a few years and be in ruins within 30 years. You don’t own the land, only part of the building. When it is knocked down you will be compensated part of the cost, but not all. Even in a cheap part of China, house prices are about 10,000 rmb per square meter. Saving up to buy an apartment here seems impossible for an average person.

Yet there is no real need to bother. the same 6 million rmb apartment can be rented for 4000 a month. You can rent the place for 100 years for less than the cost of buying it. Admittedly, you don’t own a home at the end of that 100 years, but the person buying will lose their home in less than half that time. When you add the way that Chinese laws seem to change every 5 years, there is no real stability for anyone. Renting, paying less and preserving your mobility seems like a good option to me.

However, without a spouse, a home and a family of your own, you are stuck belonging with your father. You can move somewhere else, but you will not be registered there.

There are still quite a few things in China that are subsidized by the government.If you work for the government you get a subsidy towards renting or buying a house and have most of your medical expenses covered, but only in your home town. There is also a government subsidy for everyone else to pay for the cost of renting or buying a property in your home town. but not if you move to another town.

As well as this, there are certain good quality, low cost rental properties in each town that are only available to people who are registered as living in that town. Again, due to government subsidy. It is much easier to move out of your parents’ home if you stay in your home town and don’t move.

By the time these people have earned enough money to pay for a government subsidized  home, in order to get married and start a family, they will be firmly settled in their career in their home town and will have no desire to move.

The Chinese are also obliged to spend every Spring Festival visiting their parents, on both sides of their family. This is a lot easier and less expensive if you have not moved far away from your home town.

The Chinese do not get free healthcare, so most of them pay for medical insurance. This will contribute towards the bulk of your medical costs, but once again, this is only in your home town. In Shenzhen it is not just required to be at a hospital in this city, but in your home district of the city. You can’t even go to a hospital across town.

If, like many young Chinese, you have gone to a big city to find work, you still need to travel home to go to the doctor, or the dentist, or else you will pay a lot more for your medical expenses.

If you are not married and want to change the city at which you are registered, the answer is usually no. You can’t.

I know several people for whom this has caused even more problems. Some of Crystal’s Chinese colleagues applied for visas to take students to America. Their visa applications were refused because their rental address and employer were in one province, but their registration card said they lived in another province. This made no sense to the people interviewing for the visa.

Despite making it so difficult for people to move, the government will sometimes create whole new cities and will remove all restriction on moving to that particular city. They may even require you to move there. When Shenzhen was being built, the top university graduates from across the country were offered incentives to move there and start a new life, with little option of saying no.

There seems to only be one class of people in China that I know of, who are free to change the city at which they are registered. People who studied overseas.

The Chinese government allows people who studied for further education overseas to move to wherever they want in China. Overseas in this case includes Hong Kong. (Another example of the way in which the Chinese government can’t make up their mind whether or not to treat Hong Kong as part of China). This is, nominally, so that they can put their skills to the best possible use. However, another reason is simply that the Chinese government doesn’t want them to move overseas.

Wherever you are in China the government has one simple message. Don’t move! Unless, of course, they want you to.

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