Some words of wisdom, updated November 2004
From: Brian and Mary Mennis > email@example.com.
I wrote the original of this in July 2004. Since then, I
have had some correspondence from other teachers and a little more experience, so the time has come for an update.
From my lofty eminence of a whole 5 months (now 9 months)
experience in China, may I offer the following points that may be of interest to teachers who are coming, or thinking about coming, to China.
Do not put off coming. It is a very interesting experience
(mostly) and you will wish that you had taken the plunge sooner. Do not come to China with any pre-conceived ideas. They will almost certainly be all wrong.
When you get here and get to your
school, and sign your SAFEA contract, ensure that the "Appendix" that is attached is the one that you were faxed, signed and returned, before you came. I had not realized this and had a completely different
appendix attached to my contract. This has given some problems.
There are a few other things that you must do as soon as you arrive, as your passport will be taken from you to get your residence
permit arranged. This can take several weeks. There are stories around that some schools deliberately hold onto passports so that teachers can get over their initial culture shock and be less likely to leave
after only a very short time. (This has happened). Whether this is true, or just an urban myth, I do not know, but certainly our school took the best part of 3 to 4 weeks to get our passports back to us.
Without your passport:
- you cannot change foreign money.
- you cannot open a bank account.
- you cannot get a Chinese SIM card for your mobile phone.
- you cannot book into a hotel.
So make sure that you do all these things as soon as you arrive, before you let your passport disappear into the Chinese bureaucracy. I got caught when my passport was taken. I had obtained a
SIM card the first day purely by good luck as I saw a China Mobile shop when we went shopping and "did it" there and then. However, I had not got around to changing my foreign currency, nor had I set up a
bank account. Things were starting to look grim until I found an ATM that would take my VISA card, which was linked to my bank account at home. So, I was able to get RMB from that. One problem with getting
RMB using a foreign card is that it can be very difficult to find an ATM that will accept foreign cards and give RMB, particularly in the smaller towns. Another teacher commented that getting a SIM card does
not require a passport. Certainly, in my case, a photocopy was taken of the front details page of my passport when I obtained mine. Even when I requested a supermarket card, they wanted ID and took a
photocopy of the details page.
In my mind, there is confusion in the various items you get given when you finally get all your papers. There is the Foreign Experts Certificate, which is nice
embossed red book. It says inside this that, "this shall be used as an identification for foreigners in China". I tried to use mine as an ID to book into a hotel and was very quickly told that they wanted my
passport. Then there is the "Green Card", really a bit of folded paper, very light green, that is the actual temporary residence permit. This, I am told, is supposed to come in a green folder, but mine came
just as a bit of paper, no folder. Again, this stated that it is of no use without a valid passport. I have actually stapled mine into my passport, and anybody looking at passports certainly looks for that.
One thing to be aware of is that the actual Z visa is only issued for a few months, just to give sufficient time to arrange the temporary residence permit. A caveat here is that the various Provinces seem to
have an amount of autonomy as to how they do things. I am in Jiangsu Province, so things may be done differently in other provinces.
Apart from the larger towns, or the bigger hotels, or the
tourist places, it can be very difficult to find businesses that will accept credit cards. When I organised our July trip around China, the cost was 17000RMB, and I had to take a wad of 100RMB notes to the
travel agent to pay for it. And the agent was CITS, which is one of the major agencies in China.
Traffic in China is horrendous, and gives way to nobody, and only takes notice of traffic rules
(if there are any, that is) if it suits them. One teacher commented that I was unduly alarmist about the traffic in China, as he had both motorbike and car licences and had used both. While he may be
correct, I am always glad to get to my destination in one piece when travelling in Chinese traffic.
We cannot get CCTV9, the only English TV channel. So, we read, or watch DVD's. For news, we
listen to Radio Australia or the BBC. Voice of America would probably be as good, but I never remember to dig out their frequencies, and when I do, their web site never seems to be available. I have a very
good short wave receiver, and, when the local noise does not drown out the stations I want, I usually do OK.
English language newspapers outside the major centres are a problem. There are
essentially 3 country wide ones: China Daily, the major National paper in English; 21st
Century, which is a weekly, general purpose magazine type newspaper, which is aimed at college students and has a good English language page; China Today is a monthly magazine, which also has an English language page. We live in a small (by Chinese standards, only 1m population) city and only rarely have we been able to get the China Daily. The others come to selected newspaper kiosks in the town centre. I am advised that you can take out a subscription for any or all of these at any China Post office.
A hint on DVD's you buy in China. Mostly (note mostly, we all have a pile of DVD's that are only in Chinese) you can change the language into English using the normal DVD controls. But some
DVD's have the Chinese language superimposed onto one of the stereo channels, leaving the normal English on the other channel. When this is done, you can hear English at a low level under the Chinese. The
cure is simple. Disconnect one or the other of the stereo audio connectors going to the TV. This will kill the Chinese channel and you can adjust the English audio level to suit.
If you are
near a train line and/or wish to travel by rail, you should get the English version of the Chinese Railway timetable put out by Duncan Pettie. This costs less than $US20, and can be downloaded as a PDF file.
The original Chinese version is hard to follow, as are the various shorter versions that are available at each major station, and, of course, these are all in Chinese. But, a word of warning. Train numbers
and times change, and, while Pettie's latest version was released in mid 2004, there will be changes as time goes on. However, you can use the English version to help you follow the monthly Chinese versions
that can be bought at each major station. Duncan Pettie's address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Buying train tickets can be a real pain, particularly if you do it at the actual train station. However, most towns of any size have agents who will do this for you for a fee, or you can quite often find a ticket office in the town centre, or in a local hotel, that is nowhere as crowded as at the train station.
If you have not read the Briggs' pages on the internet, you should do so. He has some good stuff, and the list of internet sites he gives is worth having. One of the addresses is a Chinese Menu
translator. This gives a PDF file of Chinese menu names in Pinyin and Chinese with their English equivalents. However, be warned, what you are used to as "Chinese" at home probably will be very hard to find
in China. Their address is www.freewebs.com/briggs_updates
Overseas phone calls can be expensive. The answer is to get an IP card. These are relatively cheap to use, certainly far cheaper than making a normal call
from a normal phone. However, be careful when you do buy one, as some do not work for overseas calls. And do not pay the face value. A 100RMB card should cost no more than 60RMB, and if you try hard, no more
than 50RMB. A 100RMB card gives me about 25 minutes talk time to Australia. There are some US based "cheap" callback phone systems, but they do not seem to be as cheap as the IP card.
The bus services in
the towns I have been in have all been pretty good. There is usually a map available which shows which bus number goes where. The map will be in Chinese, but you will soon sort out the road system and can
find your way around. Typically the fare is 1RMB, sometimes 2RMB for any distance. Taxies are quite cheap, 8RMB to 10RMb flagfall, which does not increment until that value is used up.
Most schools provide
a bike as part of the contract. I have never asked for this, as I really do wish to live long enough to see out my contract. The other problem is that bikes are a very attractive item for thieves. One
teacher in our town had 7 bikes stolen in one semester. And he used the best locks and chains to chain them up.
I would like to make a comment on the Chinese medical system. There have been many
scare stories around about how terrible it is etc etc. Do not believe them. I contracted a badly infected ear in our first semester, and the only problems I had were with language. However, an English
speaking teacher came with me every time I had to front for an injection and we had no problems. But, "injections" in China are not like injections at home (Australia in my case). The first lot I had
involved a drip in a hospital bed over the best part of an hour for 4 days. After they said that I needed another course, I complained about the time I was wasting and asked why I could not get an injection,
ie a jab in the arm, over and done with in a few minutes. Not possible, was the answer, but we compromised. The next lot they gave me took only 20 minutes, but still in a hospital bed. One topical story here
is that they first tried just a prescription, which I duly took off to the local medicine shop. It took 5 pharmacist types quite a long time to decipher the writing. Just like doctors everywhere.
then had a back problem and ended up in hospital for 10 days in a room with two beds. She had absolutely no complaint about her treatment during that time. However, the hospital thought I was a very bad
husband when I said that I had no intention of staying in hospital with her, and they had a hard job understanding that this was not customary in our hospitals.
We are at Changzhou in the
Jiangsu Province, and can be contacted by email. This currently is email@example.com. If I can answer your queries, I will do so.
You will note I said "currently" in the previous paragraph. Yahoo is running like a dog lately
and in this update, I will give a way to overcome problems with Yahoo. The problem with Yahoo, and Hotmail I believe as well, is that using a normal internet connection for access is very slow, and there is
nothing much you can do about it. The answer is to use the POP server that Yahoo offers to their MailPlus users. MailPlus costs about $US20 per year, and is really worth having, even if you do not use the
POP system. Go into the Mail Options page, and download the document that gives you the details on how to use the POP server and your normal mail program, ie Microsoft Outlook. For those who may not be
completely computer literate, a POP server is what you normally use to access your mail from a normal ISP. Since I have been using this service, I have found that it is very fast, both for incoming and
outgoing emails. When you set up Outlook, or another program, you can also tell it to check your mail at your normal ISP at the same time as it checks Yahoo. Note, however, you cannot send mail to your
normal ISP using this system, you can only use Yahoo to send mail.
The remaining pieces of advice here are to get a good firewall, (Kerio Personal Firewall is a very good one, www.kerio.com
) and a good virus program that you keep up to date. I also use a program, MailWasher, and its companion, Benign (www.firetrust.com
) to check for spam and for unusual activity on incoming emails. If you want more information on how to set these up, send me a note and I will give you more details.
It is difficult to get
paperbacks here. I bought a box with me at great expense, but have almost finished them. I read that China is now to relax the importation of books and to allow multiple importers to do so. In Shanghai in
late October, I found that the Foreign Language Bookshop in Fuzhou St had a selection of paperbacks at about 60 to 80 RMB, which is far cheaper that at most places outside China.
While you might
be going nowhere near Shanghai, there is a very good website for Shanghai expatriates that has a lot of general information, and is well worth a visit. Beijing or the other big towns may have something
similar but I do not know them. www.shanghaiexpat.com is their address.
Welcome to China, and maybe we will catch up with you sometime,
Brian and Mary Mennis.