Slight gap in between the blog postings- idle fingers and busy minds I’m afraid.
Let us give you a rundown, with some snaps, to get you up to date. We’ll try not to ramble but it has been a long and eventful period.
We moved to Yantai, a small Chinese city (6 million) in Shandong province- Jimi teaching PE and Rose a Kindergarten class in an international school for primary and secondary pupils.
We met some lovely people and were very happy with our new school. The school was not perfect but with the great teachers it was heading in a good direction and we were receiving good feedback from the parents and students.
In November the school encountered difficulties. The first, a large one, being that one of the owners bought the lease for the building and attempted to blackmail the other owners into giving them a bigger share of the business. This was not good and led to many emotionally charged meetings involving parents, teachers, owners, lawyers and landlords being held openly and clandestinely throughout the city. This was not good.
We cleared the school of resources on a Friday night under the watchful eyes of the lease buying owner’s cigarette smoking, leather jacket wearing ‘mafia’ friends. Not good.
For the next 5 weeks we taught in two borrowed spaces. Primary in the spare rooms at a nearby kindergarten for a small fee- the proprietor ‘poached’ several of our pupils and was horribly happy about herself. Secondary at the local Korean run Christian church which many of the pupil’s parents attended. During this time it became known that the current majority owner and face of the business had no money to buy back the lease and certainly no money to pay our wages. A mother of one of the parents and small time investor in the school had during this episode announced that she would take over the school and try to steer it towards safety. However, after 2 weeks and many meetings she realized that it was a financial mess and she did not have the resources to make it work. She did however, pay us for the two weeks that she had overseen the school.
We were then presented with two options.
1. Join a local Chinese school and start an international arm of their organization.
2. Start a new school with some of the parents.
The downsides to first option for us were that the old principle (who had proved himself to be an inept headteacher and a deceitful man) was heavily involved and the owners of the school would not employ any of our Chinese staff- they only wanted foreign teachers. They were however offering large financial incentives to work for them.
We chose the second option along with 6 other foreign teachers and all of the Chinese staff. To our surprise, a the last minute six foreign teachers did sign with the other school.
At one pint the local media turned up and we were on the tele explaining what had happened to our school.
With the support of the local government we went about setting up a new international school whilst teaching the three very small classes we had. Our temporary building was a very posh town house that one of the children’s parents owned. In our non teaching time we were all designated tasks such as curriculum design, marketing plan, website design, policy writing etc.
For Christmas and new year we flew South to Guangxi for well earned holiday- thoroughly recommended. It was extra nice in the off season because it was quiet. We stayed in some lovely hotels and in the days did lots of activities; climbing, cycling a tandem, mountain biking, a cooking lesson, hiking and on Xmas day itself we kayaked down to the Li river with only fishermen as company! We then headed back the the cold Shanghai for a 3 days of restaurants and bars. And we celebrated Rose’s 30th birthday in a Central Asian restaurant- not knowing what was to come!
On our return to the freezing Yantai we continued teaching in the home. But there was only a few weeks to go until our next school holiday.The parents (owners) suddenly decided they wanted a 3 week holiday instead of two so they could make the most of the Chinese New Year and return home to their home towns (which in China could be thousands of miles away.) We were busy planning where we could go and what to see that was affordable, not too far away but somewhere we hadn’t been to before. I certainly didn’t expect what was about to be planned.
One blustery cold morning whilst getting ready for school, Jimi decided it would be a perfect time to pop the question “so…shall we get married then?” We could go to England for the holidays and do it then? “But that’s only two weeks away Jimi!” I’m sure we can plan a wedding in three weeks cant we? OK LETS DO IT! Our families were a little worried when we said we need to Skype you at 7am their time. They all huddled around the computer as we told them the amazing news on Skype. They were excited we were getting married, then excited we would be home for 3 weeks and even more so that it would be in 3 weeks time!
Countless skype calls later, difficult timings due to a large time difference, eventful evenings staying up until 2am (“we could do this, we could do that, who should we invite? what food shall we eat? where shall we get married? what will we wear? who can we invite? the usual wedding chat) A few minor disagreements and discussions and LOTS of help from family and friends and the wedding was planned!
I enlisted the help of a few friends to take me to the Yantai wedding dress shops in the hunt for the perfect dress! I tried on so many dresses and realised I could even get one made in time and have the one I wanted. It turns out after a lot of Google translate and mis-communication that the workers were all on holiday. There was a dress in the shop which could be altered to my linking and it actually fit me!
I finally found a dress from the first shop I tried that actually fit me. It was a little surreal thinking I would be married in 3 weeks in this dress after waiting years to be married! A few tears fell from my eyes as I tried on the beautiful dress! It was full of sparkles and sequins and was too long but I asked her take it up, with gestures and broken English with the aid of Google translate. Finally after many visits to the dress maker, I decided to take the dress as it was (even though it was full of sequins and glitz) “but it looks so pretty” I was told and she refused to remove the ‘bling’! Alas 4 hours later sat in Lem’s kitchen, back in the UK the sequins were no more and the dress resembled a dress I wanted to wear.
The wedding a few weeks later was beautiful and perfect (apart from a little food poisoning) and the whole day went as planned. We had a small wedding in a registry office witnessed y our loved ones (minus a few who couldn’t make it) and had the reception lovely restaurant we booked out for the occasion. The food was delicious (so I’m told) and there were plenty of speeches to keep everyone entertained. I think nearly all our family got to have a little say, we laughed and cried a plenty. We got to celebrate our special day with people we love and it was a very happy day indeed. Now I was Mrs Davies and couldn’t quite believe it had all really happened, it had been a whirlwind month.
We had a fabulous few weeks in England catching up with everyone and spending all our saved up money. We bid our farewells to our loved ones vowing we would be back in a few months to spend the summer with family,friends and questionable boat tours.
We arrived in China, shared our wedding tales and photos with everyone and shared travelling stories and experiences of the Chinese New Year. And I’ll hand you back to Jimi.
Things were ticking along nicely and we had even secured new premises on a six year lease when the following happened…
Wednesday morning, during the first lesson of the day, I glanced out of the window and noticed a stream of police cars pulling up outside our house. Out of these cars poured about 40 police officers. I closed the curtains. This did not seem to put them off the scent and they barged into the front room of the house (also the kindergarten classroom) shouting, videoing and photographing us. The children (and the teachers) were quite upset and were taken next door to the family house by one of the Chinese teaching assistants.
The foreign teachers were made to sit at a table and hand our phones in. Our passports were demanded but we didn’t have them on us. Rose and Amanda were not present they had gone to town that morning to buy resources for the school. Through the one English speaking police woman we were told we would have to wait for their return. They said that it was their protocol not to tell us what this was about. Whilst we waited they asked a lot of questions and carried computers out of the school and into their vehicles. All the while we were still being videoed and photographed. We waited and waited until a compromise was reached. We were allowed to call Rose and Amanda and arrange to meet them at our apartments to pick them and our passports up. We drove in a large convoy to our homes across town to meet our spouses. Once they were on board we headed to Zhifu police station.
Once in the station we, 6 foreign teachers and 2 Chinese teachers, were sat around a large table outside the evidence room. It was now around 12 o’clock and we argued that they should feed us. Lunch was brought by some henchmen and with 8 police officers sitting around us the officer in charge of the operation delivered dead pan the line, “enjoy your lunch, the interrogation will begin shortly”. We still did not know the reason for all this kafuffle and now demanded an answer. “You are all working illegally and unless you pay 25,000rmb by 4 o’clock you will go to jail and the fine will be bigger.” With that we were left to enjoy our lunch under 16 curious eyes and several interested camera phones. Over lunch, which was good by the way, we had a chat (emotions varied) about what our position was, if and how we could be ‘illegal’ and what we were going to do as a group. We all agreed that we would not pay a fine. We all called our Embassies (UK, US, Australian and Canadian). The British, US and Australian offered good and supportive advice. The Canadian told her to call a lawyer but that it wouldn’t do any good. We were at least told “don’t worry, if you do go to jail, we will be able to come and visit you.”
After lunch, the now much grumpier officer in charge came and instructed three of our colleagues to go to another station with him for their interrogation. We argued that we all wanted to stay together. He shouted about being in charge and started waving his handcuffs about. There were tears, not his. The three teachers left with him. Remaining in our station was Rose, Melissa (Canadian teacher) our Chinese colleagues (remaining nameless as a precaution) and myself.
I was first to be ‘interrogated’. It was in a small room. There was one young chubby friendly faced police man on the computer typing my answers. There was also a now stern part English speaking pretty police woman asking the questions and interpreting the answers to the typist. A third man, much larger than the other policeman with a pock marked face set in a disapproving frown. His only role in all of this was to intermittently shout at the others and tell them to change what they had written on the computer. There was also another man behind a one way mirror/ window (I could see his silhouette moving because his door was open), he would pop in every now and then to shout at the three of them and change what they had written. It seemed very much like they were all on little power trips.
The questioning lasted about 3 hours most of them were not complicated; What is your job? What subject do you teach? No, you teach English, don’t you? ….
We had still not been told why they thought we were working illegally. During the interview they asked a few questions that implied what this was all about. “Have you ever worked at X school? And “Have you signed a contract with X school?” They seemed not to believe me when I had neither heard of nor worked at this other school.
At the end of the interview the translator seemed like she was getting ready for something big and then she announced, as if it was going to be a surprise, that, “You have been found guilty of working illegally and must pay a fine of 25000rmb (roughly £2500) before 4pm (it was about half past four already) or I would be detained for 30 days.”
I replied that I would not be paying the fine for three reasons; 1. I do not believe that there is any evidence that I have been working illegally- we have permission from the education department to start the new school and our valid working Visa, 2. The American Embassy informed us that the law changed in 2013 and states that if any person is found guilty of working illegally the employer is liable to pay any fine and 3. Even if I wanted to I only had about 500rmb until payday.”
This was not well received and the shouty men did some shouting. The translator then upped the stakes, “If you do not pay this fine then some very bad things will happen to you, maybe here and then maybe in the jail. I don’t want you to suffer so you need to pay.”
“No”, for the same reasons, I said. A little more shouting ensued and then they all looked a bit disgruntled and seemed disappointed in me- like I’d let them down in some way.
I was led back to the evidence room area where Rose and Melissa were anxiously waiting with their sleeping guards. I explained the anomaly amongst the questions regarding the mystery school. It was Melissa’s turn next.
Whilst she was away and the guards were sleeping we did what any free thinking intelligent people would when presented with such an opportunity- yes, played travel scrabble.
Despite being told we couldn’t use our phones we discreetly made calls throughout the day to our friends at the other station. The owners of the school had got together with each other and congregated at the other station. They were apparently and hopefully negotiating our release.
Our colleague Melissa was quite teary but smoked heavily to compensate. One of the head honchos came in about 10pm and asked us to verify is a signature on a contract was ours. On each contract was a basic scribe of each of our first names, the name of the school was not ours but the afore mentioned School X. This seemed to us that we were going to be cleared of whatever charge, it was obvious to them and us that these contracts had been forged.
Shortly, one of our Chinese friends and colleague, let’s call her Sam, came into the room. She was obviously upset. She said the police had been nice to her. It was what she had to tell us that was bothering her so. It transpired that it was Sam who had forged our signatures by the order of the school owner and principle. She was told she would lose her job if she didn’t.
Let me break down what this revelation meant in terms of the actual process.
Rose and I, and all the teachers accepted jobs at the original school.
All the teachers signed contracts with the original school and sent them back to China.
The Visas are then processed by the school in China and picked up in teachers home countries at Chinese Visa offices.
When we got to China we then completed the Visa process with new medical check and were issued with a residents permit (which our employer kept).
All of the above happened except unbeknown to us when we sent our signed contracts back to the school they then filed them away and used different (the forgeries we had been shown by the police) contracts for School X to get us the Visa.
We now learnt from Sam that this was done because our school did not have the correct licence needed to hire so many foreign teachers in one year. School X was one of the owners other schools which had a license to hire extra foreign teachers
It was then Rose’s turn to be interviewed. She was typically cooperative. Refusing to sit in the manacled chair, refusing to agree with leading questions etc etc.
I was escorted to the loo by the friendly faced police typist from my interview who when he was sure no one was listening whispered in English, “you no worry, you answers very good.” To which I didn’t know whether to feel proud, relieved or worried. I wished he hadn’t said anything.
After Roses’ interviewer gave up we had word from the other teachers that a fee of 20000rmb had been agreed. The owners of our new school had paid it after hours of haggling with the lead officer. Their theory was that the policeman was not acting in an official but instead just acting independently and would keep the money for himself.
After 12 hours in the police station we were told we could leave minus our passports which would be given back tomorrow and returned to our respective apartments (Amanda and Ryan were now living with us as they had been told they could no longer live in their apartment and had 24 hours to pack 2 years of belongings and get out.)
We invited everyone to our place to discuss the days unexpected events and literally where we all stood in this big mess. In our minds we knew we could no longer stay in the country and had to leave as soon as possible but without passports this would be difficult. We were told by the embassy they could in fact get us out of the country without our passports if needed.
The next day after a sleepless night and lots of worry about what our future would hold we were back at a police station for more waiting around and been shouted at. We were ushered into a room where on the table was the equivalent of £12,000 in cash piled up and waiting for us to physically hand over the cash to the police and sign a form to say we have paid the fine. We were a little unsure whether we wanted to be part of this and if we wanted to sign something that was not true. A few swearwords later on Rose’s part (the police mans perfect English asked her to stop saying bad words to him) and we were given our passports back. This of course was after we signed a statement to say that we were not held in the police station for so long and that we handed over the money ourselves and not the parents.
We were free!….we wasted no time in booking a flight home as soon as possible, this of course was not straight forward. Our phones and emails were hacked and when we went on the Virgin website, this was down, weirdly enough after a Skype conversation to Jimi’s dad to explain we were flying home with Virgin Atlantic. We were freaked out at the thought that someone was listening to us and possibly tracking where we were going. The next disturbing thing happened around 11pm that night, there was a loud long knocking at the door and when we looked through the peep hole there were two burly men stood there, banging in the door for about 10 minutes. We did not open the door but talked ourselves into the fact that someone came to get us! The next day we kind of fled China, we got on an overnight bus out of Yantai and to Shanghai to get a flight from there.
As the bus pulled away from Yantai bus station (a small entourage came to wave us off) we thought phew we are out of here…no such luck! We were in bunks on the bus next to each other; I awoke to police sirens behind us and looked around to find police cars following the bus slowly. I didn’t dare move and was unsure what to do. I thought Jimi was asleep until we had the discussion later on wher ehe confessed to be pretending. I thought we were going to be captured. They soon disappeared and I was relieved that they weren’t for us. The next step over but still the worry that we had to get through customs in Shanghai until we boarded the plane. With sweaty hands and nervous feelings we walked through passport control without a hitch…we were FREE! We didn’t want to seem too excited that we had passed security so we waited until we were well out of sight before we high fived and hugged each other knowing we would soon be home and safe but we were keeping this until we touched down at Manchester.
We spent the flight a little too excited to go to sleep and got our money’s worth of the free films, food and snacks on offer to us. We reflected on our experience of China and we are very pleased and privileged to have experienced China, even the unfortunate situations we were in. We embraced the difficulties and I am happy we were ‘in it together’ and had each other and the support of family and the Embassy to reassure us. We have learnt the troubles that China faces, we have experienced the corrupt side of the police and the authorities. We met some amazing people and lifelong friends. We were taught a thing or two about visas and contracts and what to look out for when moving to a new country.
I feel very lucky to have had the experience of China and the ability to travel –although not as much as we hoped to do- meet new people, taste some strange food and learn a little of the Chinese language. We are not sure if we will return to China anytime in the near future but this has not deterred us from fulfilling our dreams of travelling the world.
Our next stop will be Tashkent in Uzbekistan and although our trusty Thorn Sherpa bikes did not get much of a run in China, they will hopefully be well used in the mountains of Uzbekistan. Watch this space for (not so sporadic) updates of our trip.