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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A month ago we had a short holiday. It was a three day public holiday (really only a two day holiday, as we were expected to work on the following Sunday) but foreign teachers at my school also had a bit more time off due to the Gaokao examinations, which we were not involved in. I have been quite busy since the holidays and have not been updating this blog as much as I would like, but I want to write a bit now about the short trip which Crystal and I took across the waters to Zhuhai.

Zhuhai is the closest mainland city to Macau, just as Shenzhen is to Hong Kong. It is only a short hop across the Pearl River delta from Shenzhen, by ferry. However it takes about six hours to get there by coach. Crystal and I took the ferry from the Shekou terminal, which took about an hour and a half to reach Zhuhai. There are regular services between Shekou, Hong Kong airport, Macau and Zhuhai every day.

Our first impression was that Zhuhai was a lot less crowded than Shenzhen and it also seemed greener and cleaner than most cities in China. The roads were wide and lined with trees, there were a lot of parks and the buildings mostly seemed quite well maintained.

Zhuhai is typically described in tourist media as a coastal garden city with large green areas and 146 charming islands. The coastal Jingshan Road and Qinglu Road (Lovers’ Road) are said to be beautiful and add romantic atmosphere to this city. In 1990s, Zhuhai City was selected as one of the top 40 tourist attractions in China. Since the 1990s the city has become known as the most suitable place in China for human living. I wouldn’t argue with this. It was a nice place to visit and if you could find work there, it would be a very pleasant place to live

After dropping off our bags at the hotel we took a short walk to the shore, to see the area around Wild Fox island and to ride a double bicycle along the waterfront. Unfortunately the weather was not looking favorably upon us. It was a wet, hazy morning with poor visibility. We managed to see the fisher girl, which is the most iconic image of Zhuhai. I don’t doubt that the waterfront would look very pretty on a good day, but the water in the sea looked filthy. I definitely wouldn’t recommend swimming here.

In the afternoon we went to the New Yuanmingyuan (Chinese: 圓明新園). Yuanmingyuan was the old summer palace in Beijing, which had been destroyed by the French and British in 1860 during the second opium war, in retaliation for the Chinese abducting and torturing to death the envoys sent to discuss terms for peace. It had been regarded as one of the great architectural marvels of the world, drawing on a variety of international building styles.

New Yuanmingyuan is a park which features simplified reconstructions of a few sections of Yuanmingyuan. It took us over an hour to reach it by bus and it was still raining lightly, on and off, when we were walking around the park.

New Yuanmingyuan seemed like a lovely place and the crowds were relatively small, for China. There are plenty of pretty buildings and statues, a large central lake, places to dress up or feed the fish. There were gift shops and snack food vendors. In the evening there were shows and performances, but we didn’t stick around for those. It was a very nice place to go for a peaceful afternoon and would have been ideal, if the weather had been better.

We left just as the weather was turning. As we waited for the bus the rains came down in torrents and the rain continued for the rest of the evening.

On the way back, Crystal decided to book online for a very popular beef hotpot restaurant near our hotel. There was a waiting list of over 50 people when we started and it was still at nearly 40 by the time we arrived in town. We were amazed by the crowds of people waiting outside in the pouring rain, under umbrellas and a small canopy, wanting to go in so we decided to forget it and go somewhere else.

The xi’an restaurant we went to had delicious food and a really lively yogurt with honey. I really like some traditional Xi’an dishes and the food was all excellent.  When you place your order you are given a small egg timer for your table. If the whole meal wasn’t served within 30 minutes they also had a policy of giving you each an extra pot of honey. When our last dish was served the sand had not quite run out, but according to my watch, 32 minutes had passed since the time shown on our receipt. We were given the extra yogurt without any trouble. The kitchen area was behind a glass screen, so you could see everything going on in there and it looked very clean. The staff were all charming and helpful. I would definitely eat there again.

The following day we took a trip to the south of town, wanting to spend the whole day at the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom. This is a fairly new, huge ocean park to the south of Zhuhai. I think I need to make a separate post about that place, as there was a lot there to see and do.


Coming back we booked again for the hotpot restaurant. We hoped that the two and a half hour bus trip would be long enough for us to get a seat. The rains were coming down heavily again and the bus took three hours, but we still had a long wait. The screen showed that the waiting lists were divided into the number of customers in the group. There were different tables for 1-2 people, 3-4 people, 5-6 people and larger groups. The larger groups had smaller waiting lists than couples. We waited around for a bit, went to a nearby supermarket to buy some drink, bought some cream buns for a snack and returned to wait a bit longer. It was after 10 before we got a table. The food was very nice and the price was not too bad, but I don’t really think it was worth such a long wait.

The following day we returned back to Shenzhen around noon. We had enjoyed our brief stay in Zhuhai. The weather had been mostly bad, but the food had been excellent. It seemed like a very pleasant place to visit. It is not high on my list of tourist destinations, but if you happen to be in the south, or if you are visiting Macau, it is worth hopping across to spend a relaxing day or two in Zhuhai.

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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.

Categories: Living in China | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sharing is caring; that doesn’t happen here

One of the most interesting things about my recent holiday to Thailand was seeing what my Chinese girlfriend thought about it. It was her first time to go overseas and her first insight into any foreign culture. Seeing the things which surprised her helped to give me a far better insight into Chinese culture.

One thing which surprised me was when we were being driven in the bus during the tour. We were looking out the window at the scenery, when she said to me: “I’ve never seen people riding in the back of a truck before.”

It was around 6.00 and people were coming home from work. There were quite a few trucks and pickups with laborers riding in the back of the truck.

Thailand 862Thailand 1775

It seemed to me like the most natural thing to see. Maybe I wouldn’t expect to see them sitting on top of a truck, but seeing them in the back of a pickup, on their way too or from work seemed completely natural to me. Laborers don’t get that much money, so it is natural for them to want to save money. Taking them to or from a construction site together saves them time, effort and money, but also helps the employer to ensure that the workers are there on time, ready to start work. I found myself wondering, why wouldn’t you see this sort of thing in China, however it occurred to me that I never had seen it in China either.

I had seen small family groups riding on a trike, with a wife and child often sitting on top of whatever huge, unbalanced load they were carrying, but I have never seen a large group of people sharing transport. The Chinese simply don’t share.

That’s not entirely true. They share food, but nothing else. Chinese meals usually have lots of shared dishes, often on a rotating table. You help yourself to the things you like, but try not to take too much of any one, so that everyone can get some. During meals the Chinese will make a big point of sharing. If there is something that they like, they will pile it onto your plate for you to try, whether you want it or not. If you finish all you want, they will try to give you more. Chinese meal etiquette really encourages sharing in a big way. Even when we go to somewhere that serves separate dishes for each person, it is natural and normal to share a bit of your meal which whoever you are with. My girlfriend gets upset if I don’t offer her some of whatever I am having. “Sharing is caring.” she often tells me.

Why then is it that the Chinese are so bad at sharing anything else? When I was on the metro and a child was sick, his mother was very surprised when I offered her some toilet roll, to help mop it up. With Chinese toilets being the way they are, it is always necessary to carry toilet roll. The Chinese passengers just shunned and avoided her. They didn’t want to help.

For me, helping others in need is a common courtesy. Yet in China it often seems like a big deal, and is shocking, or even viewed with distrust. On the plane back from Thailand the person beside me had a rather tatty 10 rmb note that the stewardess didn’t want to accept. I had some baht that I wanted to use up and so, much to the surprise of the person beside me, I offered to use my money to pay and accept the Chinese note. It was no problem for me, but it seemed to be a huge surprise to her that a stranger would offer help. One time when I offered to help an old lady to carry a heavy bag up a flight of stairs, she was far too suspicious and wary of my motives to accept. She seemed frightened by my offer.

I have been offered lifts a few times in China, so it is not that they are averse to giving lifts. I think the trouble is that China is quite hierarchical and has a huge gap between the haves and the have nots. People will go out of their way to curry favor with people that are above them, or to maintain the goodwill of people that they need, but they rarely do things without a reason. There nearly always seems to be an agenda.

Students often give gifts to their teachers, to curry favor. It would also not be unusual for the parent of a student to offer a lift to a teacher. If there are very few foreigners in an area, your employer might also offer you a lift home, or arrange for another teacher to give you a lift, because they don’t want you to decide that the classes are too far away to bother with. Yet employers rarely care about their underlings, unless that person is very hard to replace. In a country with so many people, employees have very few rights, and even those legal rights are usually ignored, because employers don’t need to give any reason for dismissing an employee.

While getting a lift from our school principle, one of my colleagues, who is the only foreign school director in Shenzhen, was told: “This is where the poor people live. They are stupid. They don’t have money.” He was stunned by the casual way the principle showed contempt for those less well off than him.

In China employers are unlikely to help their employees to get to work. Public transport is very cheap here and so it is generally felt that there is no need to provide any other help. At lunch time construction workers will just be lying around on the streets, because they don’t have time or transport to take them home. If the construction site is very far off the beaten track then the sort of portacabins that might be used as a break room in other countries could become the workers’ home for the duration of the construction job.

I was talking with a friend recently who used to work in the US state department. When visiting his former colleagues they asked him, “What is it like living in Asia’s superpower?” his response was, “China isn’t a superpower. They don’t share!”. I was relieved to see that I’m not the only person who has noticed it.

This is not to say that the Chinese can’t be generous. Some of them are very generous and most of them are very friendly. Hospitality is very important to them and if you are the guest of a Chinese family, they will bend over backwards to be the best possible hosts. If you find yourself within the social circle of a group of Chinese people, they will be lovely. They are friendly, generous and extremely good company. However, if you are outside their social circle, they are likely to treat you as though you don’t exist. The exception is if they want you to be in their social circle, such as if you happen to be a foreigner in an area with very few foreigners.

Even when choosing friends there seems to often be an agenda. My Chinese friend Hera is small, often wears childish clothes and doesn’t make much effort with her appearance. However, she is very outgoing and easily made friends with many foreign students. She was treated badly by most people in her university classes, until they learnt that she flew home for the holiday and had started to rent an apartment off campus. This immediately showed that she had money and suddenly people who had snubbed her wanted to befriend her. When they learnt she had lots of foreign friends, other classmates wanted to befriend her, as a way of getting to know the foreigners. She told me that this sort of two faced behavior is something she regards as being a very northern Chinese thing.

After decades of communism, with nobody having much at all, the Chinese take a very selfish attitude to capitalism. To them a free market is all about getting as much for themselves as they can, at the expense of other people. The “haves” will flaunt their wealth and look down with contempt at the “have nots”. Sharing is caring, but in China, most people don’t care.

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Never had a bath

There are some things that I would never expect an adult to tell me. One of those is that they have never had a bath in their life. Yet while I was on holiday recently, that was exactly what my Chinese girlfriend said to me. I was completely flabbergasted. I could not have been more shocked if she had said that she had never slept in a bed.

Yet after consideration, it led me to realise just how different Chinese culture is. I knew that most Chinese flats only have showers, because they take up less space, but it was still shocking to think that an adult might never have a bath. Similarly most young people prefer watching movies to reading books, but I would still be surprised if someone told me that they had never read a book.

The toilets are also different, but it did not surprise the Chinese to learn that I had never used a squat toilet prior to coming to China.

Talking to Crystal, I learnt that she thinks that baths are not very hygienic. The Chinese tend to be very wary of touching things with their naked body that are used by other people, yet this in turn causes them to make the situation worse for themselves. They dislike sitting on a toilet that other people have sat on, feeling that it is unhygienic. Because they don’t like to sit on the seat, sometimes they will squat on a toilet seat, breaking the toilet seat or shitting all over the back of the seat. This gives the other Chinese a lot more reason to not want to sit on the toilets. In Chinese public toilets it is not unusual to see signs, warning them not to squat on the seat of a toilet.

Similarly Crystal believed that the bath was not hygienic, as the dirt from whoever had used the bath would be encrusted around the bath. As the apartments rarely have showers, the only baths people might have access to are in the better hotels. Since many Chinese people are very inconsiderate of others, this is probably true. They are very unlikely to rinse the bath after use. Many Chinese also take a minimalist attitude to cleaning, which further inflames their concerns about hygiene. When we stayed in a suite in a 4 star hotel in Guangzhou there was a thick film of scum dried to the inside of the bath. last year Our vacation to Thailand was the first time that she had ever had a bath.

Thailand 1890

In such a heavily populated country, where personal space is at a premium, I am still finding myself amazed when I learn more ways in which the distrust of other people has influenced the Chinese culture.

Categories: Living in China | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

The illegal practices of teaching agencies in China.

There are a lot of people coming from around the world, to China to teach English. The Chinese have realised that a good grasp of English is important for international business and to open up better opportunities around the world. For the last few decades things have been pretty easy for anyone wanting to come here to teach English.

In the 80s and 90s anyone with white skin could land themselves a job as an English teacher, with almost no questions asked. This led to some pretty shoddy teaching in some areas, but as the Chinese move towards trying to become a superpower, they have started to demand better standards, at least officially.

In order to work in China as an English teacher, you need to have a university degree from an English speaking country, or a degree in English or Education, a TEFL or TOEFL qualification and two years of experience, or a masters degree. You need to have an invitation letter from your employer, to get a Z visa and then get a foreign expert certificate, to show that you are qualified to teach here. In reality, most English teachers in China don’t have these.

What is more important is that you look right and your employer has Guanxi (connections etc.). I have known several people who were denied jobs because of skin colour. The Chinese, in general, are racist. They admire America and Europe, and so look well on white people, but distrust blacks, Indians and middle eastern people. If your skin is dark, they usually don’t want you to be teaching their children.  School recruiters will often be quite open about this, telling people that the parents will object or withdraw their children if the teachers are black (or openly gay etc, but that is a different matter). Similarly, if you look Chinese, it doesn’t matter whether you are British or not, you don’t look special or exotic enough to be worth the extra pay, compared to Chinese teachers.

If you have the right skin colour then there are plenty of people willing to bend or break the rules to get you jobs. There are quite a lot of people from eastern Europe that I have met in China, coming over to study Chinese, but working part time as English teachers. In one of my previous jobs my employer always claimed that they were Canadian, in order to pass them off as native speakers.

The process of applying for the official invitation letter, in order to then apply for the z visa is slow. You should expect it to take at least two months. It also requires lots of original documents and health checks etc. A much quicker way to get into the country is on a 3 month tourist visa or a 3 month business visa. Some of my current colleagues entered the country this way, being reassured that everything was ok, even though it was pretty blatantly obvious that this was all illegal. Once in the country the recruiter would then try to process the z visa and foreign expert certificate.

When I was taken to process my residence permit, having arrived legally, I was with two other teachers, one of whom was on a business visa. The girls from our agency were trying to coach him in what lies to tell and what not to say. Since they were translating for two of us who had come as teachers to teach English, as well as the third foreigner who had “come to develop his online shopping business” it must have been obvious that they were lying, but they got away with it. I know at least 6 people living in schools who came on business or tourist visas. How can they register the school as their address and not have officials know that they are teachers?

The simple fact is that in many parts of China there is still a big enough demand for native teachers that the Chinese are willing to turn a blind eye to the rule breaking, as long as the people breaking the rules have the right Guangxi. It is only in a few places, like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen that the rules are more regularly enforced and even when they are enforced, it is not done strictly.

In Shenhen it is necessary to have two years of teaching experience after graduation. When I first came to China, hardly anyone I came with had any experience. They were all straight out of college. But the agency knew enough places that didn’t care about experience and just wanted to get more foreigners. In Shenzhen the experience rule is followed, but teaching agencies will break the rules, in order to get more people on their books.

A common practice is to encourage you to lie about your experience and to create fake reference letters from past employers to support your claims. In some cases they have changed the CV of the teachers and sent the fake CV, along with fake reference letters, to the school, without bothering to tell the teacher. I know one person very surprised to find that his school believed he had taught in Japan for two years.

Agencies will want to recruit as many teachers for schools as they can and will lie about your abilities to get you a job. One friend, Justy, came from Spain to teach Spanish, only to find that the School did not want a Spanish teacher and expected her to teach English. Her English ability was pretty poor, even compared to the students. She was therefore rejected by the school on her first day. She had entered properly, with a z visa and invitation letter, but it could not be transferred to another school.

In a city near the border teachers might be encouraged to leave the country and enter again every few months on a tourist visa, in order to teach. Justy was told to go to Hong Kong, to get a tourist visa, in order to be able to return and get work at a primary school, where her limited English was less of a concern.

It is not legally possible to apply for a visa in Hong Kong unless you are a Hong Kong resident, but CITA have contacts in Hong Kong who sell them fake residence documents for 5000 rmb a time. I only learnt the price because when they messed up with another teacher and applied for her papers they used the passport number of her passport which had been stolen months earlier, rather than for her replacement passport. They therefore needed to apply again and asked that teacher to cover the cost of the replacement forgeries.

Getting accepted for a residence permit or foreign expert certificate in Shenzhen is much harder than many other cities. They insist on native speakers with teaching experience. To get around this, many of the eastern European and Russian teachers had their documents processed to teach and live in a different city in China. They then continued to live and work in Shenzhen illegally, under the pretense of being in a different province.

If you are thinking of coming to teach English in China you can be sure that any agencies will try to convince you that the rules don’t really matter and that what they are doing is ok, but it is not true. The school you are working at may have been led to believe the lies about your experience and if they find out that they were lied to, you can very quickly find yourself out of a job. I heard of 4 people hired through CITA who were dismissed out of hand when either the schools realised they did not have the ability that the recruitment agency had claimed or the police happened to check their registration documents. They were released without pay and without having their flights refunded.

Agencies breaking the rules face fines when it is discovered that they have been illegally employing people. However, the schools usually turn a blind eye, as long as the employee seems competent and the agency fee is enough to make it worth the risks. Fines for companies with the right connections tend to be relatively low.

Just this month there was a big crack down on illegally employed teachers in the Bao’an district of Shenzhen, along with the rest of the city. CITA has a lot of local government connections, so they were given warnings to get things in order by the end of the month. Many inexperienced teachers, non-native English teachers and other illegally employed teachers are suddenly being dismissed from their jobs without compensation. If you are not legally allowed to teach then your teaching contract offers no protection and the government can also seize all funds from your illegal employment, freezing your accounts and leaving you with nothing.

I have seen it happen to a lot of very nice people. Don’t let it happen to you.


Categories: Teaching in China | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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