Why I broke up with China


It’s always tough breaking up, but when it’s with a whole country you’ve made a one-year commitment to, it’s affects a lot of plans.

The last few months, I’ve been planning on teaching English in China for one year. Two weeks ago that plan crumbled.

Just like with most breakups, there was some drama, some lying, some different views and a lot of miscommunication.

This is just my experience with this particular school. There are plenty of people who go to China and have no problems. Don’t judge all of China from my story. I haven’t even been there yet and I would still love to go. It’s a beautiful country and full of awesome people, it just happened that my first experience trying to go there wasn’t very good.

Maybe it all boils down to cultural differences, but I’m not going to drastically change who I am, especially for a job that pays just enough to live on and asks me to come on a tourist visa because they need teachers ‘urgently’.

After getting in contact with the country representative for an English school in China, I was directed to the head of a new centre in Kunming. I sent in my resume and told them my eagerness to go to China. After nearly two years in Europe, I would be a wonderful change. I was able to meet up with a Chinese CouchSurfer who had visited Kunming, so he gave me advice and encouragement. I was stoked.

One month and two interviews later, I was offered the job.

I quickly accepted and began researching what I needed to do to get a work visa. I’ve never had to apply for a work visa on my own, so the process was new to me.

When I asked the school for advice on the visa application process, they encouraged me to arrive with a tourist visa, promising me it can easily be ‘converted’ into a work visa. It sounded shady to me. I know sometimes things are more flexible in other countries and sometimes they are more strict. I had a hard time telling which this was since I’ve never been to China, but it didn’t feel right to me.

I repeatedly tried to call the Chinese Embassy for advice and no one picked up. Ever. Only once in two weeks of calling did I get in touch with the Chinese Embassy and that was the embassy in Chicago after the San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, New York and Washington, DC embassies didn’t answer – even during their posted office hours.

My emails to the embassy asking multiple questions came back with one answer: see our website. Great. Thanks, guys.

After a bit of research, I found the forms I needed (or thought I needed) to have filled out by my doctor (proving I don’t have HIV, a bad spine, colourblindness, etc.) to apply for an Alien Worker’s Permit.

‘What is an Alien Worker’s Permit’, you might ask? Well, according to the school I was hired at, it’s the form I need as a foreigner to legally be employed in China. According to the official at the Chinese Embassy in Chicago (the one and only time I was able to speak to someone at the Embassy), it’s the form the school needs to legally hire foreigners. I’m going with the embassy official on this one.

So, I sent off the paperwork. A week later and the school has all the documents they asked for. Why, then, do they still ask me to come with a tourist visa? Well, because they need teachers ‘urgently’. Ok, seriously, if you needed teachers right away, why didn’t we just get all this visa stuff settled two months ago?

After multiple requests for me to come without a work visa, they still couldn’t understand why I was uneasy about it.

Here are my reasons:

1. I can’t work unless I have a work visa. If I don’t have the work visa and they ask me to work, I’d be either illegally working or turning down the job I was hired to do.

2. If it’s not legal for me to work, I can’t technically work, but if I do, they don’t have to pay me because I’m not technically working, right?

3. If I have to send off my passport to apply for the work visa, I’d be without my only source of legal identification in China. That scares me. In any country.

4. They had over two months to figure out the visa stuff and it never happened. They must have hired other foreign teachers and had to go through the same process with them (one of the requirements for the job is that you speak English as your first language). I appreciate they are a new school, but there are other schools in the organisation that they could have reached out to for help. If this was so hard to pull together, how smoothly is everything else at the school going to happen?

5. If I apply for the work visa, I have to go to San Francisco (the Chinese Embassy for my region) and pay $140. If I apply for the tourist visa, I still have to go to San Francisco and pay $140. If I apply for the tourist visa here and the work visa there, I have to pay $140 here plus $140 there. The school never said anything about covering the cost.

6. When I was hired, the school said they would help me get the work visa before I left the US, but backtracked a month later. I hadn’t agreed to go to China without a work visa when I accepted the job. That wasn’t what I signed on for.

7. Most of the research for the work visa I did without the help of the school. I understand they are busy, but they didn’t seem very eager to help me get to China with a work visa. If I waited and applied for the visa in China, how much help would they be then?

So, after being asked a third time to come with a tourist visa and explaining myself for a third time, I decided that I’m not going to change and China isn’t going to change. It was best to just part ways and move on with our lives.

I was really excited about going to Kunming and one day I’m sure I will make it there – at least to visit. But for now, the China door is shut and Italy is just around the corner, waiting for me.

It’s sad to break up with China, but Italy will be a good rebound fling. Viva Italia!

Read about my new job teaching English at a summer camp in Italy.

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12 thoughts on “Why I broke up with China

  1. Sounds like you made the right choice, I wouldn’t want to be in China without a passport either. And getting caught there working illegaly is probably not something that would help either.

    I had it as well that I made plans a year in advance and couldn’t wait to go, but then I got sick for 6 months with a virus infection and couldn’t go anymore. New plan is Thailand now in September, should still be awesome as well 🙂

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    • Yeah, I’m happy with my decision. I bought my ticket a few days ago and I leave 23 May for NYC, then 25 May to London… then I have to be in Italy by 5 June so I have a few weeks to spend in London and traveling down to Italy. 🙂 I’m very excited!

      One year is too long for me to plan ahead! I would probably change my mind once a month if I had organized something that far in advance. Too bad you got sick! But something always works out, right? Thailand sounds like an awesome back up plan. It should be really fun! Maybe it’s where you belong since the other plan wasn’t meant to be… 🙂 The travel gods were telling you something. 🙂

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  2. Sorry to hear about your visa troubles. I can relate, I got deported from S. Korea because of a shady boss/shady immigration friend that he had, which boiled down to visa issues. I had planned to stay for a year, but had to leave after 4 months. It all worked out though as I ended up teaching in Thailand and loved it, and was much happier than I had been in S. Korea. A summer in Italy sounds like a fantastic opportunity.

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  3. I know all about visa troubles and it sucks that you had to break-up with China, but like people told me – think of the positives and the awesome opportunity that has presented itself!

    I know plenty of people who would be insanely jealous of you getting to spend summer in Italy. Guaranteed you’re gonna have the best time! Good luck! 🙂

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    • Thanks, Kieron! The realization that China just wasn’t going to work out happened just after your visa issues and Adventurous Kate’s shipwreck. I knew it was just a bad week for travelers…. luckily, plans are easy to change and I’m flexible. 🙂 Italy will be fun, no doubt! 🙂

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  4. Definitely sucks but I’ve learned the HARD way that you should ALWAYS follow your gut! I had bad feelings about an organization in Nepal that I was supposed to volunteer with but I chose NOT to listen to my instincts and agree anyway. BIG MISTAKE: http://connvoyage.blogspot.com/2010/04/lies-lies-lies-or-volunteering-in-nepal.html

    I’m sure you’ll be able to find another teaching opportunity that you’ll feel 100% sure about and you’ll be much happier.

    I, for one, am very proud of you for sticking to your guns!

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    • Thanks, Jill! Italy will be a lot of fun! And if I have problems, at least I speak a little Italian (and my Spanish will help me again). I’m sure the language difference would have been much more difficult in China since I only know how to say ‘thank you’, ‘good night’ and ‘tofu’ in Chinese! 😛 And if I need to leave Italy, it’s easier to cross borders or get in touch with an American Embassy. 🙂

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  5. What a headache!! I think you did the right thing though – I travelled with a girl who had some problems with her Chinese visa while we were in China, and going to the visa office was a nightmare and incredibly expensive. Sounds like Italy instead is going to be awesome.

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    • Thanks, Megan! It’s scary to think what could have happened if I had planned to apply for my work visa once I was there. Each time I think of those possibilities, I am happy for my decision and wonder why I didn’t make the choice earlier! I’m really excited for Italy! China will be somewhere in my future, but maybe just as a visitor! 🙂

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