Travel and Work Woes in China | ArtSocket Gallery Magazine

Travel and Work Woes in China

By Header image credit: Betty Dai

Why We Travel

I left Toronto at the end January of 2013. For a few years leading up to my departure, I've felt an increasing sense of restlessness. My boyfriend, Dmitri, and I have been discussing the idea of travelling ever since we met. But at the beginning of 2013 when we both found ourselves without jobs and thoroughly disenchanted with Toronto, we were ready for a drastic change.

Travel Dog drawing

We wanted our trip to last as long as possible, as far as our savings would take us. Asia, being the cheapest option available to us, was our best bet. On our itinerary we included China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines. And if by some miracle we still would have money remaining, we planned to venture into India and the Middle East.

A lot of people talk about travelling the world, but only some do. Exploring the world in actuality takes conviction, however misled. At the beginning of 2013, we decided that it was now or never. If we don't go now, we would never have the opportunity again - we thought. And with that conviction, we began selling our furniture and donating our clothes.

At the end of January, having reduced what I own to a backpack and few odd things to be left with Dmitri's parents', I was ready.

Job Searching Woes in China

For the first portion of my journey, I planned to stay in Dalian, China for a few months to be close to my family. I also wanted to try my hand at teaching. I had tutoring experience and my friend who had worked in China before assured me that it was ridiculously easy to get a teaching job. He told me that there are a lot of English training schools, and they are all dying for native English speakers. The money wasn't great, but a part-time teaching gig would cover all my living expenses. My friend wasn't wrong. It wasn't hard to get a teaching job in China, but the job seeking process left me culture shocked, insulted, and amused at the same time.

Dalian, unlike bigger cities like Beijing or Shanghai still didn't have the networks to link foreigners with language schools. At first, I tried applying online. Since I speak only broken Chinese, I thought this was the best way to go. The city was littered with English schools, but they rarely have English websites. The ones that allowed you to submit resume online took too long to go through them. I only got responses to the applications I submitted in February in April.

Impatient, I went to the English school in the neighbourhood to ask them whether they had any openings. I had no trouble finding them; there was, at least, one every block downtown. I figured I would just drop off my resume with the receptionist and be on my way. However, the headmaster or HR personnel would usually be called in to see me. Probably because the receptionist spoke very little or no English.

Here's how that conversation usually went:

Headmaster: *looks at me with elevator eyes* Are you Asian?
Me: Yes.
Headmaster: Are you Chinese?
Me: Yes. But I grew up in Canada.
Headmaster: But we are looking for a foreign teacher.
Me: I AM a foreign teacher. I'm from Canada. I've been speaking English most of my life. I have experience tutoring in Canada. Here is a copy of my resume. Please take a look.
Headmaster: Okay... so... you're from Canada. Are both of your parents Chinese?
Me: Yes, they are both Chinese.
Headmaster: Okaaay.

Then they would proceed to ask me a series of questions which would be highly inappropriate Canada and not at all relevant. Things like: Are your parents in Canada? Are your grandparents in Canada? What do they do? How old are you? Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend? No one ever looked at the resume. If I were to do this again, I would write keeping it real and pimpin' as my special skills and add that I've been voted the #1 narcotics sales rep in the Greater Toronto Area for three years in a row (it's all about being #1 in China). I will bet anything that no one would notice. It would also make the interview process much more fun.

Some of the places blatantly told me that they were looking for a Caucasian teacher, but if they didn't find anyone, they would give me a call. One lady asked me if I had any white friends for the job. "Bitch, are you kidding me?!", I thought and looked at her wide-eyed.

The most disappointing fact is that they weren't looking for more qualified teachers, just more White. I was surprised by how broken most of the English teachers' English was. Most of the teachers were Russian exchange students with adamant accents. They could barely string an English sentence together.

Despite the baffling interview process, it only took me a week to find a position at a public school. I later found out that I got hired because the HR lady thought I was Spanish.

Impression of China

Starbucks Girl drawing
Chinese girl in Starbucks

Almost every Chinese person I know talks about how much China has changed. It has been only five years since my last visit to Dalian (in 2008), but I can't help but be surprised at how little of it I recognized on my return. I saw condos, malls, offices sprout up at an alarming rate. And just as fast buildings deteriorated, were torn down, or abandoned.

In the six months that I stayed in Dalian, I witnessed at least three condos and a mall erected along with miles of coastline filled in for a highway all within walking distance from our apartment building. From dawn to dusk, I could hear the clamouring of steel and concrete. Walking from the bus station to our apartment I saw more flyers given out for condos than for supermarkets. Meanwhile, there are abandoned projects in every district of the city. The subway that was started in Dalian for the Olympics sits exposed and untouched along the main road for over five years. On my way to work, I could see skeletons of buildings with rusting scaffolding and tattered tarp that dances in the wind like ghosts. Neighbourhoods that were newly built at the beginning of the millennium look like the projects from the 60s. My parents' building, shiny and brand new in 2008, is already falling apart. Only one (sometimes two if you are lucky) out of the four elevators work. Most of the lights have gone out in the stairways making it difficult to avoid the sticky garbage water and abandoned appliances. The hallways are always dark and dirty. When it rains, the whole building smells like a sewer. This is the same building that had two doormen, a security guard and four cleaning ladies just five years ago.

China is growing too fast, trying too hard, and cutting too many corners.

Like a teenager trying to reinvent themselves, the country is fraught with a unique mix contradictions. Just like teenagers, Chinese people live with these contradictions without noticing them. It's a state that understands the importance of a good foundation but not detail, appearance but not value, brands but not quality, fashion but not taste. There are ocean view housing developments worth millions of dollars with drawers that don't close all the way and uneven floor boards. There are beautiful open tree-lined boulevards backstreets littered with plastic waste. There are big shiny shopping malls that sell cosmetics that turn your skin orange 30 minutes after application. There are fake everything you can imagine and things you can't - like fake Apple electric scooters. There are women sporting dresses copied right off the runway of Paris with old sneakers and their mother's purse.

Despite all of China's efforts and money, there's an unruliness to it that is not quite first-world and a shabbiness that's difficult to sweep under the rug. Yet the Chinese people seem to be happy. People are grateful that they have more of what they used to. There's a sense of optimism about the future that hasn't been felt in the West since the 80s. For a country that looks so much forward to the future, it's sure not building things that would last. Even with all its money, China can't afford to build and rebuild forever.

This article has been edited and reprinted from "Why We Travel", "Impression of China" and "Job Searching Woes in China" posts by Betty Dai on her blog, Betty's Travel Adventures.