China: Here We Go Again

Great Wall of China

It Wasn’t Easy

It took over half a year of effort, but I have made the leap back to China. In a small (again, by Chinese standards) city called Huzhou which is situated just south of Taihu Lake, a body of freshwater thought to have collected over an impression made by a meteor impact an estimated 70 million years ago. A town of rapid growth, a facet ubiquitous in this country. But oh man…getting here, to where I am in a cozy apartment on the tenth floor with a wholesome view of the lush hills to the west, green tea cookies to nibble on, and what I think is a bonsai tree…getting here was a pain.

View From Flat in Huzhou
Here.

The Process

It actually began over a year ago, when my girlfriend enrolled in a TESOL certification course, a laborious program that put my own flimsy certification procedure to shame. Then came the job search. Countless Skype interviews during lunch breaks of my full-time job in Moscow, at best. The rest were at five in the morning because of the time-difference. Sometimes back to back.

I avoided wearing pants for most of them. The glory of interview by video call.

I am from the USA. There, my qualifications are set. The interviewer might ask other questions, but no other qualification is as valuable for teaching in China than that your passport is from a country with English as its native language. Skin color plays a part too. The Bachelor’s degree is just a technical issue. It could be in Fermentation Science (an actual degree offered at Appalachian State University), and I am somehow qualified to teach English in a foreign country. They say they want two years of experience and references, but a piece of paper with an illegible scribble for a signature is good enough.

In China in Huzhou City
Qualified…Being able to use chopsticks probably won’t hurt your chances either.

The Setback

My girlfriend is Russian. Has a Master’s degree, a TESOL certification that is actually credible, a certification in teaching Russian, studied how to teach English at the Moscow State Pedagogical University, and has herself been a student of English for most of her life, a fact that gives her more firsthand knowledge of how foreign languages should be taught than I ever could with my rickety American education and diluted comprehension of grammar.

No one could hire her. We had to, with sour grimaces, cross out options like Japan and Korea, for now. Were given a chance to go to Hong Kong, but for meager pay and major expenses. And when you have debt to pay off, that just won’t do.

Only China looked like they could swing it. After a nightmare of interview after interview, we were offered a pair of jobs, accepted. Asked a dozen times if they could get us (re: my girlfriend) a work visa. Yes, yes. Of course. Sure? Okay. Got all our documents in order. Waited nearly a month for a response. The visa application was denied. Brushed it off. It happens. Found another. Waited. Denied. Found a third toward the end of August, and by this point began to wonder if this was the universe giving me signs that China was not meant to be, if I was mad to keep going at this when clearly the country was not keen on letting us in.

When in Doubt, Go to Budapest

Decided if we were to spend another month waiting for an answer, we might as well do it in Budapest. Booked plane tickets, a place through Airbnb. If we were going to receive another rejection, might as well do it in the comfort of a Hungarian café. Turned out this newest company had good relations with the local foreign affairs committee or whomever and churned out an approval for our visa in a matter of days rather than the 4-6 weeks we were told to twiddle our thumbs.

So much for Budapest. The school was in urgent need of teachers and offered to refund us the money spent on our Budapest trip. Okay, sure. Two tickets to China and less than a week later we were in Hangzhou International Airport, sweating and trying to maneuver my secondhand, broken suitcases to a place in the airport with wifi so we could connect with whomever had been sent to pick us up. Drove us to a hotel that at first looked comfortable, but we would soon come to loathe in the month that followed.

Huzhou Coffeshop Cafe
Cozy Cafes such as this became our only respite. A cheap Americano and I was set for hours.

Rent Doesn’t Mean What It Used To

In hindsight we should have asked, or a voluntary informing by the school would have been appreciated, but we discovered that apartments in Huzhou, while affordable, required an advance payment of up to six months of rent, in addition to a security deposit and a fee paid to the agent, each also equivalent to a month of rent. That is up to eight months of rent paid to occupy a place in a town that was just a hop, skip, and jump away across the entire fucking planet.  Marriages don’t even last that long. We didn’t even know if the job would be suitable yet. Or the town. Might just hate the place and run off back to Russia. What if one of us had some sort of emergency and needed to return home? This sort of commitment is one thing when you have stepped out of your home town to move across a state, or even if you moved from the West Coast to the East.

But this was a Communist land that had barely let us in, we still hadn’t even received our resident’s permits, and all it takes is one pissed off bureaucrat with marital issues, a hangover, and stamp and we would be given the boot. A scenario that presented itself as all too likely. And a poor apartment room in Huzhou would gather dust for half a year.

So we chugged on in a hotel that was perpetually damp, alternating in hot and cold waves, at a rate we could barely afford with a dwindling supply of cash and hordes of mosquitoes for friends. Hand washed clothes in a shallow sink and hung them to dry…a process that lasted the better part of a week. See: aforementioned pervasive damp.

Somehow we snuck a trip up to Shanghai in there and spent a week in the most populous city in the world during the busiest week of the year, but that is a story for another time.

Pictured: A Story For Another Time

Finally

After loading all our worldly possessions into a taxi no less than half a dozen times over the span of a month, we moved into an apartment. Bought a space heater. Plopped down on the couch. Where I intend to enjoy the rest of my evening reading about the exploits of a certain Geralt of Rivia and staring out over my balcony at the barely visible outlines of the hills. Let the sounds of dwindling traffic and sounds of industry putter themselves out, and get ready for another adventure abroad.