expat life

About my first two weeks in China


China didn’t start off too well for me, actually. I remember feeling a bit anxious before packing my stuff and boarding the plane: “What if I get there and there’s no job waiting for me ? What if I’ve been conned ?” I brushed off those feelings, telling myself I was being paranoid. Well, pretty much exactly that happened, but I’ll get to it. I arrived in Beijing on a Wednesday, and was supposed to start training on the Friday. To begin with, I was picked up at the airport by a guy ON FOOT. It took well over an hour to get to the hotel via public transport, which was obviously crowded as hell so we couldn’t sit. I had travelled an entire day to get to Beijing, and my stomach was a nightmare because of a dodgy sandwich I ate during the stopover in Istanbul. As a result I had been very much looking forward to chill in a taxi on the way to the hotel. But no, no. The company sent a bloody pedestrian to pick me up. Bless him though, he was a lovely guy, and had to walk around with one of my heaviest pieces of luggage, the one that had no wheels (I had no shame in giving him that one, after all it wasn’t my fault the company sent a guy with no car !)…

Anyway, we eventually got to the hotel, where I would be sharing a room with another trainee from my new company, First Leap. I was slightly concerned I’d get a weird roommate, considering I’d be living with him in a confined space for about two weeks. Thankfully, he turned out to be a really cool guy from California called Efrain, and we got on super well.

We thought it’d be nice to find a bar and get to know each other over a few brews, so we got out and looked around without really knowing where to go. Eventually we found a decent place, and after a couple of drinks decided to set-off to the hotel. We had ventured quite a distance and didn’t know our way back, so we hailed a taxi. Efrain proceeded to show off his Chinese/haggling skills by negotiating a price that was 4 times market value (which we’d realise later), and then he showed off his sense of orientation when he told the taxi to drop us off at a spot that was supposedly close to the hotel. Having a really bad sense of orientation myself, I assumed his was better than mine and just followed along. Obviously, we were miles away. From there he was using maps on his phone to direct us to the hotel. We were supposed to be something like 15 minutes away, but somehow he managed to make us walk around for an hour (Efrain if you’re reading this, you know I love you bro ;-)) . We even found ourselves in the middle of a tent camp of homeless people, of which we “escaped” through a couple of ladders and holes in barriers… At last after a rather eventful first night we did find the hotel and got some rest.

We had a free day before the start of training, so we went out to explore a bit of Beijing, beginning with Tiananmen Square. We wandered in the Square for a bit then tried to check out the Forbidden City, but the ticket office was closed, so we just walked around the outside. Lots of Chinese tourists were talking to us and asking us to take pictures with them, which is a very common thing in China. In many cases when you’re a Westerner in a Chinese touristy destination, you’re the first one many Chinese tourists have ever seen. At one point two ladies in their forties started talking to us, asking where we were from etc, and presented themselves as tourists from Xi’an. Now if you plan on travelling to China (and especially Beijing) soon, what I’m getting to here is important: THE TEA LADY SCAM. I had actually been warned about it, but it ended up being way more elaborate than I expected, so I fell for it. My turn to be an idiot !

Those ladies just walked with us having a casual chat for something like half an hour, until Efrain mentioned he needed the loo. One of the ladies then said “Oh look there’s a tea house here, they’ll have a toilet you could use !” So we walked in, Efrain went to the bathroom and the two ladies naturally sat at a table and ordered a round of tea. I thought “Alright, a bit of tea with some locals won’t kill us, that’s actually quite cool !” Efrain got back and sat with us, we talked about everything and nothing, and they ordered a second round of tea. I assumed it was just a free refill, as they didn’t ask us anything. Then one of them said it was customary to drink red wine when you meet new friends soon after Chinese New Year. Efrain said he wasn’t sure, and naive me retorted “Come on, it’d be rude not to !”. I guess it’s my French nature, I’m easily convinced to drink wine…

Anyway, a short while later Efrain got a text from First Leap saying they had been trying to reach me, and I was expected at the HQ asap. That was a blessing, because when we got the bill, it amounted to over 700RMB already (around 100 USD) which they tried to get us to pay for in full. That’s what the tea ladies do, they lure you into a tea house or a restaurant with extortionate prices and trick you into ordering expensive stuff, so you end up having to pay¬†an enormous bill. Efrain decided to handle the payment of the bill, messed up his calculations and only got about a quarter of the bill from the ladies. If you listen to him, I was to blame because he was throwing subtle hints that we were being scammed, only they were so subtle that I didn’t get them… (I still love you bro :-)) At least after this we knew how the tea ladies operated and avoided being scammed again.

We then went to HQ together and found a bunch of other newbies there, who told us what was going on. The company had messed up their recruitment and hired too many teachers, therefore they didn’t have a job for us. I hoped it was a bad prank from them, but after I sat down with some of the hiring managers, I realised it was true. They apologised and said it was a terrible mistake, but that they had already lined up some interviews for me to find a job with other companies based in Beijing. I somehow kept my cool whilst having a strong go at them. How could they let people come all the way to China, only to be told they didn’t actually have a job to go to ? Surely they could have told us before we actually got on the plane ! I wasn’t having it. I hadn’t left everything behind to come to a situation like this, and be offered jobs with companies/schools I knew nothing about, based in Beijing where I didn’t want to live. They told me they’d see what they could do, and that they’d let me know early morning if I had to report to training or not.

I spent the evening having a go at all my contacts from the company about the situation. They all just said they were sorry and would see what they could do. Came the morning I heard nothing from anyone, so I thought fuck it, I’ll turn up anyway, and if I’m not expected I’ll make a massive scandal. Luckily I was expected and from there things went about alright. They did try to send me to another, smaller city than Nanjing which was the one I had signed up for, but again I told them I wasn’t having it. I had come halfway across the world to work for First Leap in Nanjing, so I wasn’t gonna go anywhere else. A couple of conversations with the right people and I was eventually told I could go to Nanjing. I am so glad I stood my ground when they tried to screw me over, because I heard of a few other people among those who were in my situation, who accepted what was being said to them and ended up having a really bad experience. Some were moved from one company or one city to the other, some simply couldn’t find another job and went back home… That’s the kind of situations where a stoic mindset comes in handy !

Once the stress of uncertainty was gone, my time in Beijing actually got quite enjoyable. The hotel room was rather small and there was prostitution going on in the establishment, but it had a 7-11 store serving hot food right next to it along with a few decent restaurants, and it was very close to the subway, so it wasn’t too bad. Training was fairly intense but interesting and the group of trainees was overall pretty cool so we had good fun.

We were given a day off mid-training to explore Beijing, and a few of us hired cabs to go see the Great Wall of China. We went to the Juyongguan section, which is one of the most touristy and is fully restored, but nonetheless had a beautiful aura of grandeur. After all the stress from the previous days, being in a place of such beauty and such significance definitely was quite special.

During the week we also experienced Western privilege in China, which for Efrain and I somewhat made up for the tea lady scam. One night we went to a craft beer pub, and the manager came to our table to ask our names and contact details, saying he’d give us something special. We obliged, and a short while later, he came back with VIP cards for each of us, that gave us a 50% discount on food and beer anytime. Yes please ! After this we went to a select night club at which we were given free drink coupons on arrival… I started thinking I could really enjoy my time in China !

Soon enough training came to an end, and I boarded a bullet train to Nanjing with a few other newbies.

Those first couple of weeks had been intense to say the least, with emotional highs and lows. China started off being brutally challenging to me, but I made the best out of it and since then it’s been pretty amazing !

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Tom Davidson

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