Check, check and almost check
To rewind a month or so, to before we started working in earnest to apply for our visas, we looked into flights. Seeing the cost and comparing it with the uncertainty of what we were actually planning on doing. We decided it might be a good idea to get our insurance sorted before spending any large amounts of money.
We faffed about for a bit and then noticed there was actually a link on the TEFL.org website to an insurance company that do a special package well suited to our situation. See following for more details; https:// www.tefl.org/tefl-resources/tefl-travel-insurance/
So with that done, it was time to really commit. We looked on skyscanner and found a Finnair flight at a decent price, at a decent time and that took less than fifteen hours in all. So we booked it, to leave on the 14th of August, arriving on the 15th, ten days before we were due to start work. I can’t imagine there are many reasons in life to book a one way flight, I imagine most involve fleeing mobsters, but we had just done it. For TEFL, not to escape the mafia. We chose to fly when we did because we wanted to make sure we had plenty of time to acclimatise, before being chucked in at the deep end of a new job/culture shock double whammy. And ten days sounded about right, not too short and not so long you get bored waiting.
A leap of faith
We had done everything we could in regards to the visa
application at that point in time, and the next step really was out of our hands. The countdown to our departure was starting to creep closer and closer towards the single digits. So the time we spent waiting for the school to get back to us with the official work permit was somewhat fraught with unspoken concern. Thankfully we were not short of minor tasks to keep us busy during this time. Between visa applications, vaccinations and general preparations for living abroad for a year, we had to contend with a tangle of loose ends that needed sorted before our leaving.
Now, I’m sorry for the confusing time hopping here, I sacrificed a linear approach in favour of simplifying the visa check list. But to take us back again, to when my fiancé and I had a conversation about our possible accommodation in China...
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, we knew there was accommodation at the school, only we didn’t know anything about it and we couldn’t seem to prise any more information out of our contact. Although we did know that it would be shared, which is not ideal for a grown up couple used to living in their own flat. The alternative option suggested to us, was that the school would help us find a private apartment when we arrived.
Our first reaction to this suggestion was perhaps a little unfair, but it was founded in reality. Because we neither had faith in the reliability of the school, or the security of privately renting accommodation in China. Where signing contracts can be a little like signing an office birthday card - either people really mean what they say, or they really couldn’t care less but they still put plenty of Xs beside their name anyway.
Our solution to the issue of ‘not wanting to fly to the other side of the world unsure of what kind of mouldering, studio apartment was waiting for us’, was Airbnb. Surprisingly the company actually operate in China, surprising due to the censorship of most western websites. Unsurprisingly, the available Airbnb’s were literally mouldering, studio apartments furnished with some of China’s finest wooden sofas. Yes, a wooden sofa is genuinely a real thing over here, please don’t ask me why.
This search wasn’t helped by our not knowing the exact location of the school. That and the fact that Apple maps satellite view of the area still showed a rural nothingness, with supposed streets running over the various wooded patches and pools of brown water that may or may not still exist. Which was better than Google’s map which showed a satellite picture of buildings that we can say for certain, are actually a good kilometre or two to the east of where the map says they are. Nevertheless, we struck gold. Of a sorts.
Slight tangent here - in Scotland, taking a taxi is most definitely considered to be a luxury by most people, and especially by students. Taxis were to be avoided at all costs. Unless you’re drunk. So upon arriving in Beijing airport back in 2016, my friend and I obviously got the bus from the airport to the hostel we were staying in. Straight off the plane and already we’d made the biggest mistake we made the whole time we were on exchange. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say Beijing is a little bigger than Edinburgh and a lot harder to travers on foot laden with four months worth of luggage. My first day in China really set the tone for the entire student exchange.
The bus in China literally costs pennies, and taxis literally cost pounds. To pay anything near what you pay for a taxi back home, you should expect a shinny black car, all leather interiors and a liveried chauffeur. Lesson to be learned, China is the land of affordable public transport.
With this previous culture shock in mind, we readjusted our expectations and looked again. We were looking on Airbnb for what we would expect to get for our money in the centre of Edinburgh. So when we stopped thinking in terms of bedrooms - equal affordable rent, we found something that looked a hell of a lot better than a shared studio flat being rented out by a family of cockroaches.
Here was a three bedroom apartment with an en-suite in the master bedroom, a second bathroom, kitchen - living room and a balcony. It had a washing machine, hob, fridge freezer, wifi, tv and even a projector, everything was fully furnished and fairly stylish - I use that word in the loosest of terms. All this for only a little more than what we were paying for a one bedroom, ground floor flat in Dunfermline. It was expensive, we didn’t need anywhere near that much space, but the reality was, on our new wage we could afford it. And that was quite difficult to comprehend.
We arranged to rent the flat through Airbnb for the duration of our stay in China and suddenly, we knew where we were going. And that really made the world of difference when we were preparing to live in the other side of the world. A lot of the guess work had been taken out of the equation. This was no longer a completely blind leap of faith. We knew where we were going to land.
Sign here, here and over there
2. University degree certificates
- Should be certified by the notary offices of a lawyer first
- Then go to the National Foreign Office and the Chinese Embassy
3. Teaching qualification certificates (PGCE, TEFL, TESOL, CELTA etc.)
6. Certificate of No-Criminal Records: Valid from 6 months
- Should be certified by the notary offices of a lawyer first
- Then go to the National Foreign Office and the Chinese Embassy
Now this is where things get confusing. So firstly, I’d like to point out that we had been passed on from Benjamin (or Ronald, we never did find out) to a work colleague of his. Who we had managed to convince to finally give us the WeChat account for a point of contact at the school. This was great, except that the two of them were obviously speaking to one another on and off outside of our private chats with either of them. So when we would ask our contact at the school a question, we would often not hear from them and then the agent would reply. The answer never being that useful or clear.
To work in China as a TELF teacher, you need to have a university degree, this is mandatory. If you don’t have a degree and you are offered a job and they tell you this is not a requirement, then you will be working illegally, eligible for deportation and possibly worse. Trust me, it really isn’t worth a stint in a Chinese jail. (Not that I’ve had first hand experience of this.) In the past this has been a real issue in China and the government has clamped down hard on it to make sure it stops. I know there are a lot of talented TEFL teachers out there who don’t have university degrees, but hey, China’s loss. If you don’t have a degree, then there are plenty more countries out there to explore and I wish you all the best.
Fast forward to March and we have our TEFL.org certificates, yay! Now we both had our degrees and we’d previously ordered our disclosure Scotland certificates online, so we were ready to get what we needed done, done. But before we wasted money on expensive medical checks, lawyers and train fares, as well as the time it would take to travel across the Forth to the Chinese visa centre in Edinburgh, we thought it would be a good idea to confirm what we actually had to do with our contact at the school first. It went a little something like this; (I am paraphrasing.)
“So how do we start to apply for our visas?”
“Just take your documents to the Chinese embassy so they can authenticate them, then they will tell you what to do next.”
“So we don’t need to get them notarised by a lawyer?”
Great, that saves us precious time, money and the pleasure of having to speak to a lawyer. So there we are, a day off work, documents in hand, striding toward the same Chinese embassy I had accidentally visited by mistake the last time I tried to apply for a visa (you need to go to the separate visa centre, which is a good hours walk in the opposite direction.) We pass through the doorway and suddenly I’m in China again. The walls and floor are covered in marble effect tiles, the air is rank with the smell of cigarette smoke and the chemical discharge of a scented humidifier. The small neglected waiting room occupied by a harried looking Chinese family and a joyless receptionist, who scowls at us from behind the bullet proof glass of her counter.
From my previous experience, I knew that queueing is somewhat of a lost art form in China. So after a short lived game of ‘silently gesturing toward the receptionist and the empty station next to her’, it became apparent that the other visitor was waiting for something. So we stepped up and in response to her ‘greeting’ we had to ask the woman to repeat herself twice, her voice hoarse and ringing through the speaker system in the glass.
Feeling it too rude to ask for a third repetition, I simply slid our neatly organised and treble checked documents through the delivery slot with a friendly smile I hoped would be universal. She snapped the papers up without so much as a twitch in expression, or even a flicker of eye contact. It didn’t take her long to notice that the documents had not yet been notarised by a lawyer or certified by the British government. She explained all of this in her ‘wonderfully friendly and eloquently polite manner’ and slid the papers back toward us. Spouting something we assumed was friendly advice as she passed us a piece of A4 paper with fairly clear instructions on what we’d need to do. And with that, we had wasted a train fare.
I won’t lie, I was knocked off my stride after being in that environment again for the first time in three years. My first experience in China was a very important period in my life and it carries with it a lot of emotional baggage. So when I stepped back in time and half way round the world, it did effect me. I found myself privately terrified, one question swimming about in my head, one that I dared not voice to my fiancé. ‘Can I actually do this again?’
Irritated by our having been told by the school that we did not need to get the documents notarised by a lawyer before coming over, we made our way back to the train station. We decided that instead of sulking over our wasted trip and making the most of our time in Edinburgh by going out for lunch or whatever else we might have done for fun after delivering our documents, that we would head back to Dunfermline immediately.
We walked home from the station and stepped into a lawyers’ office on the way, booking a consultation for later that day to talk over what we needed from them. After lunch we headed back and found ourselves in the office of a young man, who greeted us with a warm smile and something of a nervous twitch about him. Maybe he could sense our disliking for his trade, or maybe it was just a case of ‘he’s more afraid of you than you are of him.’
We told him about our situation and showed him both the visa check list the school had sent us and the A4 paper we had received from the lovely receptionist at the Chinese embassy. He explained the process to us and the next day we returned for another appointment. He certified that our disclosure Scotland certificates and our degrees where in deed official paperwork and in doing so, had to deface them with his careful, blocky handwriting and a big red stamp.
That was hard to watch, despite my not pursuing a career in product design. He then did the same with photocopies of our passports for good measure and explained to us that after we left, he would post them to... I can’t remember the name of the place and I don’t seem to have record of it with me. But it was essentially somewhere in England where a government official authenticated the documents - with a sticker on the back of the paper I might add - for a modest fee. All in all it cost us about £250 or thereabouts, which was a bit of a shock, although we had expected it to be much more expensive, you know what lawyers are like.
Next we explained what had happened to our contact at the school, both to justify our delay and to point out that we did in fact need to get the documents notarised by a lawyer and the British government to boot. Information that evidently came in handy for the English international teacher I mentioned previously, who would later follow us to China.
We then had to wait for the documents to get sent back to us by the lawyers, once the government returned them, hopefully fully certified and ready to go. So, finally two weeks and a train fare later, we were back in the Chinese embassy, handing our documents over.
We waited, uneasy, as the same, bubbly receptionist slowly picked her way through the paperwork with her talons. Then without a word she passed us a slip of paper and returned her emotionless gaze to the computer screen. We prompted further explanation but all we got in return was ‘collect in five days’. We made sure to thank her, both in English and Chinese, smiling, teeth and all, but we got nothing for our troubles.
The Chinese embassy in Edinburgh is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We assumed ‘in five days’ must mean the following Tuesday, so we just had to sit tight and wait. Unfortunately that’s much easier said than done, so by the time Tuesday rolled around, we had decided it would be best to call the embassy first to make sure the documents were in fact ready. The last thing we wanted was to get the train over, waste an entire day and end up with the possibility of just having to return again on the Thursday, without any guarantee that they would be ready then either.
So logically, we decided to phone them first. I tried a few numbers that we found online, then finally got through to the embassy, only to be greeted by an answering machine, which politely informed me that their mail box was full. This was right after opening time and I was fairly sure that it took more than a couple of recorded messages to fill up an answering machine.
Begrudgingly I kept calling over the next couple of hours, every time getting the same recording. Obviously they never answer or check the messages left on the phone at the Chinese embassy in Edinburgh. I can only assume they have a separate line for diplomats, otherwise I can’t imagine they would ever get anything done.
Splashing out on another train fare, we returned to the embassy, stoically prepared for the worst, but silently hoping that we might be a step closer to getting our visas ready. Waiting in the ramshackle queue/scrum, we eventually came face to face with the lovely receptionist (another few visits and I’m sure we would have been on a first name basis). Without looking she tapped on the delivery slot beneath the bulletproof glass and I slid our receipt through the depression in the counter.
Glancing at it, she then painted us with a weary look as she gestured to the booth beside her. Taking the hint, we then moved along to the very closed looking collection desk. Then in turn, she finished up with whatever she had been doing and slid along to the desk before us. You can’t hear much through the glass without the aid of the microphones, but you didn’t need ears to hear the sigh she gave as she opened up that booth for us.
I handed over the collection receipt and then she gave us our documents back, now with the addition of stickers on their backs, proclaiming their authenticity as approved by the Chinese consulate. That was it, our stalemate was over and we were ready to apply for our visas! As we left the embassy, we thanked the receptionist and were in fact gifted a rare half smile in return. A good omen if ever there was one.
So to summarise
Order your disclosure documents, for us this was from disclosure Scotland, which prove you're not a criminal. Here is a link to their website - https://www.mygov.scot/basic-disclosure/apply-for-basic-disclosure/
Have your university degree, disclosure document and a photo copy of your passport notarised by a lawyer, before sending them to the British government for authentication. (although not required, the photo copy of your passport gives you extra proof, even if it’s just for your own peace of mind, plus it was free for us!) Our lawyer sent them to the relevant government body as part of the service. Though this might not be something every lawyers does.
When your documents come back, go to the Chinese embassy and submit your notarised documents for authentication. Then return and collect them when they are ready.
Time scale, give it 3 weeks.
You’re now ready to apply for your working visa. Almost, but the one thing you’re missing is out of your control...
Acceptance and all that goes with it
Was it real? Was our first offer for our first ever TEFL job real? Private school, good location, good wage and both of us could work together on the same campus, but was it too good to be true? The reality was, we had no idea and no way of finding out. But, to be honest, when you’re already willing to travel to the other side of the world to do something you’ve never done before in a place so different from home - was an offer that sounded too good to be true really that much more of a risk than one that just sounded decent?
I’ve spent my whole life looking for the ‘catch’, ask anyone, I really don’t take anything at face value. I will often go to irritating lengths, deliberating as to why a situation might sound so great and then, what the motivation behind the offer or deal could really be. Because most of the time, there is always an agenda. It sounds cynical, but it’s often the case.
My fiancé - the one with the philosophy degree - had recently diagnosed me as a stoic. Which obviously I immediately took as an insult, thinking she was just calling me stubborn and inflexible. But as soon as I started to read about it, I realised she was absolutely right. Without knowing it, I had cobbled together a way of thinking that just happened to align with pretty much everything a bunch of Greek guys came up with a couple thousand years before I did.
Essentially, it boils down to the lyric from Alphaville’s Forever Young - ‘hoping for the best, but expecting the worst.’ Sounds a little pessimistic, but it’s actually the opposite. Because if we signed this contract with the expectation that it was far too good to be true, then we would be prepared for that eventuality. Only we would do nothing but hope, with all sincerity, that this opportunity would be every bit as good as it could be. Always be prepared for the worst, but always hope that things might just go your way, then you’ll never get disappointed, only ever pleasantly surprised.
The biggest hurdle to get over when it comes to making any huge life decision, especially one that involves China, is accepting that nothing is really in your control. You can only do what you can literally do to make sure you and those you love are safe and happy. Where as worrying about anything you can’t actually control, for example the rain, will only cause you stress. In the end, either take a brolly, or start singing. We signed the contract and waited for the next step, with our futures, for the moment, out of our hands. We returned to our jobs and to studying the course. But, we were one huge step closer to our goal. We had our destination.
Now, as I have briefly touched on previously, you really need to understand one thing about China. To be poetic about it, China often flows like water, fluid and reactionary, unsure of where it is going, but nigh unstoppable in getting there. To be more blunt, they know they are going forward, but they have no idea how or when they are going to get to wherever they are going. You just need to take a ride through Chinese traffic to know what I’m talking about.
We are even starting to suspect that there might not be a Chinese word for foresight. Everything is reactionary, always logical, but often built on what some might consider to be a crooked foundation. If you are even remotely considering TEFL in China, you need to come to terms with the fact that in China, there is only the here and now, there is no tomorrow to prepare for and no yesterday to learn from. So when we started preparing for our grand adventure to the other side of the world months in advance, that was a little premature for our new employer.
An idea of where to start with visas - check
When we received our... check list? I don’t know if you can call it that, there might be a Chinese word that’s better suited. Either way, it gave us very well intentioned, but slightly squint guidance on what we needed to do in the run up to our arriving in China.
I’m going to try to simplify the process for you because I imagine that would be more helpful than my just complaining about our experience, but I won’t sugar coat it. The months that lead up to our departure where both worryingly relaxed and at times concerningly hectic. We are fairly well organised people - despite my fiancé’s tendency towards storing her clothes in an ever growing pile in the corner of our bedroom - so we made sure to get a good, solid head start on our preparations.
1. Current passport (valid for at least 7 months. A high-resolution scan of your Passport photo page).
Passports are probably the first thing you think of when you’re planning on going abroad. Obviously you need one and you need to make sure that it’s valid for the whole time you’re going to be away, right? So we were a little confused by the line “valid for at least 7 months.”. Because the contract was from August through to July, more than seven months. So did they mean that our passports had to have been valid for seven months already?
We didn’t spend much time thinking about this because both of our passports had been and would be valid for more than seven months. Though this vagueness could pose an issue for someone who has just got their new passport specifically for coming out to China. I would like to add that quite often in our experience, things are listed as strict requirements, but then are quickly forgotten about. But if anyone isn’t going to be lax when it comes to requirements, it’s going to be the government. So check, double check and check again to make sure everything is water tight.
7. Health Record signed by your doctor. (We will send you the form, please ensure all parts are signed and stamped by your local GP, see attached form).
Reading over the list we decided to start with number seven, they were listed in order of importance, we think, not chronologically. And the medical check was certainly something we wanted to get the ball rolling on early. If there was any possibility of our being declared unfit for travel, we wanted to know before we booked our flights. Obviously we started with a quick search online, then booked appointments with our GP.
We brought the forms the school sent to us and then sat in silence as we watched the face of our doctor slowly sag into what resembled a half crumpled crisp packet. Equal parts confusion, professional curiosity and outright trying not to laugh.
This was a form, that honest to god had boxes labeled; nose, spine, neck, extremities etc, with no explanation as to what was expected to be written, crossed or ticked into it. Not to mention the space left for the results of our chest X-ray and ECG, or the multiple choice section which included psychosis, yellow fever, leprosy and the Black Death. It was thorough, I’ll give it that.
The doctor, with his serious bedside manner face back on, politely informed us that he suspected neither the surgery nor he would be permitted to fill out the form we’d been given. Don’t quote me on this, but I believe it was primarily because its broken English and odd contents were not recognised by the NHS as official paper work.
Worried that our progression through the check list had fallen at the first hurdle, we listened further. The doctor said he would arrange a meeting with the senior staff and they would call us regarding whether they could do anything about the form and if not, then what they could supply us with in its stead. (Spoiler, they couldn’t fill in the form - and I really don’t blame them.)
Instead he suggested we could either go through the hospital to get a paid medical check, which would only cover a small percentage of the contents of the form. Then we could go private for the X-ray and ECG, then run blood tests for the various diseases, infections and medieval plagues, all of which would cost more and more money. The amount of which I won’t even bother telling you about because there was no way we were ever going to pay that much.
In the mean time, he booked us in for separate consultations with the travel nurse to go over the vaccines we would need. Then he informed us that we would likely be told that a ‘fit to travel letter’ would be the result of the senior staff meeting. (Which it was, costing us a mere £20 each, which was a much easier number to digest than the previously discussed figure.)
So we didn’t have any of the form filled in and no hope of getting it done, but, we sent scans of the fit to travel letters to the school and they said they would ask the government if they would be suitable. We would only months later find out ambiguously that the fit to travel letter was fine, we think, if it was even required at all. We may never know the truth...
Next, was the meeting with the travel nurse. Now I’d like to take this moment to profess my undying love for our NHS, which has been a huge part of my life from before I was even born. Without which, my parents would have spent a fortune on medication for me growing up, which I will continue to require throughout my adult life. The NHS is even so good as to provide basic vaccinations for people going on holiday. Now you really don’t get that kind of care in other countries without paying for it.
The travel nurse spoke to us each on separate occasions, going over the basic vaccines we would need for living in China and then a few others that we might need to get depending on what we intended on doing whilst there - which we would need to get privately. Here’s a link to the website the travel nurse referred us to, having helpfully found all the relevant pages we would need and then sent them over to us in one handy email.
I already had the Hep B vaccine from my previous visit to China and only required a booster for Hep A + Typhoid, but my fiancé needed the whole shebang. Lucky her. On top of these NHS covered vaccines, we also privately got a course of Japanese encephalitis (£175 each) and Rabies (£105 each) from our local travel clinic. Neither of which were strictly necessary if you're careful, but just might prevent your brain from swelling to the size of a watermelon or a convulsing, hydrophobic death by animal bite. As if I didn’t have enough of a reason to avoid stray dogs and giant rats.
Months later, only last week in fact, we were talking with another international teacher from the school. He is English and had gone through the same rigmarole as we had regarding the medical form and as I’ll mention in the next post, the notarisation of official documents as part of the visa application process. Only he wasn’t so lucky with his GP or his lawyer.
He spent a small fortune on unnecessary and awkward tests that upon arriving in China, they did for free anyway. Thanks to our experience with the lawyer though, he did save a few quid on a return train fare, but unfortunately he also paid through the nose for documents he didn’t actually need notarised. I’m sure you can imagine just how delighted he was to hear that we had spent £40 on our medical letters and less than half of what he did on his lawyers fees. On the bright side... hm, well at least it wasn’t us.
First times the charm
Working full time didn't really give me as much opportunity to devote as much of my attention to studying on the course as I would have liked, nor much of a chance to look up job listings on TEFL.org. In my mind we were a long way off even beginning to think about applications and interviews, but thankfully my fiancé was considerably less patient than me. My plodding approach would have seen us having completed our courses and earned our certificates before I even browsed through the jobs available online, but, if we had been even just a little less impetuous, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. I’m sure we would still be in China, but like as not doing a completely different job to the one we are now.
I’m not a religious man, but something about how smoothly our whole TEFL experience has been up until now (never tempt fate), just seems too coincidental. I don’t want to tell you how easy it is to get the perfect job in the perfect location, because quite often I’m sure it’s not, in fact I strongly believe that we were just very very lucky. All I know, is that our experience at points has seemed too good to be true, and I sincerely hope that is the case for anyone else reading this who might be considering teaching English as a foreign language. Moral of the story, don’t be afraid to apply to ads you like the look of, before you finish the course, it might just land you that dream job.
First application. First interview. First offer. First ever TEFL job. I have no idea what we did in a past life to earn us that stroke of luck - assuming we ever make it home - but that’s how it happened. I can’t imagine our experience will be something that occurs regularly, that would just be suspicious, but at the very least I can tell you about it in as much detail as possible, as an example of when things do go right. As I said before, it was my fiancé who found the job advert on TEFL.org, as far as I’m aware she just looked it over, as she did with other ads, and then we applied for it. We built our CVs, using the helpful guide on the website and then we sent them off. In our case we had a middle man, an agent who passed our information and questions onto the school and vice versa.
This was a less than ideal set up for many reasons, the most prevalent of which, being that the agents were all fairly useless when it came communicating, there really was no such thing as a straight answer. So for starters, we had to use the Chinese social network WeChat, this app, is the key to living in China. They use it for everything, it’s not just a messaging service, it’s for personal life, family life and working life. Here, they use it to pay for everything, from buying vegetables to smart phones, even utility bills. I personally hate it, because it’s not only used by a certain ‘social gathering’ to harvest data, it’s also clumsy and ugly to boot. Think scarily futuristic tech dependency, but without any of the slick razzmatazz of science fiction. But, it makes living here considerably easier, being the main method of payment for everything and having a built in translate function. Gone are the days of drafting up professional, well constructed and eloquent emails to prospective employers, now, we enter the world of emoji, gif loving text talkers.
My fiancé had to spend hours staring at WeChat’s blunt user interface, scrawling though the quagmire of Chinese agents, all clambering to get hold of our CVs and ‘stay in contact as friends’. We found and still find that this is what we in the west would perceive to be an incredibly unprofessional, messy and at times suspicious method of conducting business. When a stranger online named ‘bob’ with a profile picture of a famous white American child actor offers you a job that sounds too good to be true, it might actually be the real deal. We really scrutinised these agents’ every miss spelt, poorly constructed message, unconvinced by the sincerity of their offers. On top of the at times silly communications with these agents, their messages were also constant and didn’t even prescribe to either British or Chinese time zones, making it often exhausting to keep track of replies.
When you're preparing to relocate to the other side of the world, you really want to feel as comfortable as possible in the knowledge of what or who is waiting for you at the arrivals gate. You must remember, that you are going to be in a foreign country, and you’ll most likely be alone. So please, please make sure you find out as much information as you can about the company, school and place you are looking at teaching in, because when the genuine offers look like scams, it gets all the harder to spot the bad apples. TEFL is a fantastic way of seeing the rest of the world, and there are so many brilliant opportunities out there, but you must always be careful.
Our agent, the one who got us here, called himself Benjamin - his western name. He didn’t speak fluent English and lacked any professional structure to his correspondence 😺👍🙀👌🙏💪🌹. His profile picture was of him standing next to a life sized statue of Ronald McDonald. Hardly the vision of reassurance when you’re facing a leap into the great unknown. But, we sent him our CVs and he passed them onto the school we were applying for.
Obviously they liked what they saw and asked us to film a short video in which we had to tell them a bit about ourselves and our teaching experience. - I will never forgive them for that, because I’m fairly sure that bloody video has fallen into the hands of my soon to be mother in law and I suspect it will feature prominently at our wedding. Another difference between our situation and the average TEFL teacher, is that we come as a comedy due, we agreed from the offset that under no circumstances would we accept a job where we wouldn’t be working at the same school, on the same campus. If they wanted one of us, they had to take the other.
Which was great for me, because I am most definitely the second half of the ‘buy one get one free’ (although they do still have to pay me). My fiancé has a philosophy degree, a post graduate module in religious studies, a module form the PGDE course and teaching experience in both a classroom environment and on a one to one basis. Me? I’m the guy that showed the new staff at work how to log onto the company computer system. Which in our shared video, I tried to pad out a bit more, never telling a lie, but not being quite so blasé about my nigh total lack of proper teaching experience. So, after a couple hundred takes, we managed to run through our dialog without laughing, bickering or tripping over our words (not the best quality in an English foreign language teacher), we finally had our video ready to send. Then before we knew it, we had an interview via WeChat.
To give you an example of how poorly this was all orchestrated, we didn’t even know who we would be interviewed by, or even if it was an actual interview or just a filtering process by the agent. At one point we thought it possible that we could sit down to the WeChat video call and find Ronald McDonald on the other end of the line. We had after all only assumed the Chinese guy next to Ronald McDonald was Benjamin. We made some notes, read over our CVs several times and talked about the questions we would like to ask the interviewer regarding the job. Then it was time for the call.
It was 8am, 3pm China time, and suddenly our situation had become very real. A woman from the other side of the world was asking us questions about our experiences and attitudes toward teaching, with the intention of deciding whether we would be suited to work for their school. Before then, it was all just hypothetical, a fantasy almost. But now, we were looking at the blurry face of an interviewer (with really bad wifi) and the possibility of living and working in China. Once we had run through the schools questions, we had an opportunity to ask a few of our own. The most important being clarification on whether my fiancé and I would be working at the same school and on the same campus? Would we get the same days off each week? Would we be able to take the same holidays off together? What kind of accommodation was there and would we have to share with other people? - the answer to this question was along the lines of ‘we have teachers accommodation on site.’ Leading to further probing along the lines of ‘Okay, can we see pictures of the accommodation before we fly out?’ Resulting in the rather ambiguous and slightly shifty answer of ‘no, we’re actually building new accommodation right now’ - so no you can’t see it. The interview ended well, with most of our questions being vaguely answered and we were left with a lingering, generally positive vibe from the conversation.
By this time we’d received another couple of requests to see our cringe worthy, self introduction video, which yet more people got to laugh at and obviously found so funny that they offered us interviews. Of the three or four video calls we had, none of them had a decent connection and none of them really instilled a great sense of confidence or security after they pretty much all danced clumsily around our questions. I’m just glad that from my previous experience, I knew this to be the Chinese way. Don’t ask me why, I’ll never understand it. It’s almost like they run on a permanent ‘need to know’ basis. This will be a recurring theme as I’m sure you’ll see. Of all the interviews we had, we both agreed that the first one had the edge. Despite my fiancé’s belief that there was something dodgy going on with the accommodation, given that the video feed just happened to cut out at the point when the interviewer told us we couldn’t see any pictures of it.
Back home, in the bustling commuter town of Dunfermline, we often escaped the humdrum repetition of my work life, by going to the pictures. (I seriously miss our limitless cinema cards.) It was on one such visit that we received the emails, containing both our job offers and the contracts that we would be signing. Sitting in the back row - not my choice, my fiancé refuses to sit anywhere else incase someone tries to assassinate her - we quickly tried to read over the documents before the trailers ended. I remember, that just as the age rating for the film came up on the screen, a silence having fallen over the quiet, mid week audience, I finished reading over our offer. Now let me tell you, it’s not every day you get a fantastic job offer and you get to watch the Lego movie 2 on the big screen. It really was too good to be true, except for the bit about working the occasional Saturday. But despite that, the job seemed almost perfect. So perfect in fact that we didn’t believe it was real. For the next 24 hours, the time they gave us to decide on whether we wanted to accept the offer, we searched and nit picked, looking for the fly in the ointment. But there wasn’t one. Except the Saturday thing, but that was more like a tiny fruit fly than the blue bottle we had expected. All that was left to do, was sign the contract...
TEFL.org. That was it, we had begun our journey to the other side of the world. A call to a grandparent, an email to a family friend, then a 120 hour online course and here we are today. It really was that simple. Well, not quite, it was a journey in and of itself. I’m going to continue on the assumption that you have no idea what I’m talking about, because if you don’t, then our experience might come in handy - and if you do, you can just skip this bit if you like.
We looked over TEFL.org’s website and tried to absorb as much information as possible, to help us decide which course to go for. We decided on the 140 hours course, because that way we had the basic 120 hour online course most employers look for, plus a 20 hour ‘real life’ module, which we figured, that apart from anything, would give us a better idea of whether we might actually enjoy doing what we were setting out to do. We signed up and that was that, we had access to the guided online course instantly. It took a good few days for it to sink in, the understanding that we were actually doing this, before we felt ready to start. My fiancé began immediately then, being able to devote almost all of her attention solely to the course, whilst tutoring high school kids in National 5 and Higher English on a one to one basis in the evenings. I on the other hand, had to return to the glitz and glamour of retail work.
I designated swathes of my sporadic days off to following the course, the bit by bit structure easy to slip into, allowing you to learn without being at all overwhelming. Though I found that I eventually did most of my learning during the fifteen minute breaks from work, standing under the eves of the big, blocky retail outlet, sheltering from the rain and wind. I Would find myself running through the various points of grammar or the teaching techniques I had just learnt, whilst I stocked shelves and sat about waiting for customers to turn up. Between often mind numbing shifts, I would drop in and out of the short videos, mulling over the assignments and drafting up lesson plans on my phone. The course very quickly became an oasis amidst my day. Even working full time, the structure of the course allowed for both drop in learning as well as devoted study like my fiancé had the availability for. Needless to say, I kept my ambitions a secret. I don’t think any employer takes too kindly to having staff inform them of their intention to leave in the near future, especially not if they are desperate enough to fly half way round the planet to escape their current job.
Soon, it was time for our 20 hour weekend course, and I’m not going to lie, we were dreading it. The online course was great, really approachable, really clear and concise, though never lacking in information. But from previous experience and a general stigma, neither of us were particularly keen on the idea of spending an entire weekend playing ice breaker games and practicing trust falls with a bunch of strangers. But, we figured that if we intended to nip over to China for a year, we should probably make sure we could cope with a little social awkwardness closer to home. We booked an Airbnb to stay in (I had preemptively booked time off work, I believe it was for a ‘city break’) and we braced for the inevitable ‘tell us an interesting fact about yourself’ group introduction.
But, after the first hour of the two day course, it became apparent that our reservations were unfounded. I can honestly say that I haven’t had that much fun in a professional group setting for a long time - if not ever. I couldn’t believe how happy I was, exhausted after two full days of intense learning, but seriously happy. It felt good to be back in an environment where you could share ideas and soak up knowledge, listening to other peoples experiences and not having to worry about the corporate giant looking over your shoulder. It was the first time in a year and a half, that I felt like I was myself again, doing something I actually wanted to do. Being able to put into practice some of the knowledge we had learned from the course really helped consolidate a lot of the information we had been absorbing from the online videos and assignments. Then of course, having someone as experienced as the instructor, to harass with questions, was invaluable. She managed to not only put us at ease very quickly, but to keep us engaged and maintain both momentum and enthusiasm from the start, right through to the finish. Although we were a little delirious by the end of the second day, that just made it all the more fun. I would seriously recommend that extra 20 hour module to anyone thinking of doing TEFL, it made the whole experience feel so much more real. It was hard to return to the monotony of retail work after that weekend, having had a taste of what we soon hoped to do instead.
I do confess to one thing though. Standing there, in the cold and wet. Watching as people passed by, as the headlights of cars swept across the empty car park, the orange hue of the street lights reflected in the rippling water of the growing puddle outside the shop door. I couldn’t help my mind from drifting away from the course, looking past what was before me, no longer hearing the sound of the TEFL video in my ear. Instead, I was on the other side of the world. In those moments, I would lock my phone and simply gazed up at the deep pool of the winter sky, smeared with dark clouds and speckled with stars. I was wasn't just doing an online course on a whim, I was striving toward a new horizon, I was working toward pulling myself out of the dead end retail job I had fallen into after finishing university. I was finally, after two years, on the move again. Onwards and upwards. And that was all thanks to TEFL.org.
It’s the second of October, the day after National day and there are still a few of the red and yellow flags hanging limply from poles and window ledges far below. I’m sitting here, in an air conditioned bubble, looking out from the 29th floor of our stunning new apartment in Shishan, trying, and failing, to relax and enjoy our week long holiday from work. Beneath the hum of the swanky, Sci-Fi air conditioner, the omnipresent sounds of hammers, drills, angle grinders and the occasional honk of a car horn are the only real intrusions from the outside world. This is our 49th day in China, we’ve been TEFLing (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) for a month now and I finally have time to sit and write this blog...
This isn’t my first time in China. In fact, that’s probably the reason we’re here now. It was 2016, as part of a university student exchange program, and I, along with my friend at the time and three others, made our way to the other side of the world - only to be nigh totally ignored for four bloody months. It was a difficult time for me then, I pretty much hated almost everything about it. The heat, the smog, the food, the constant staring of passers by, the drudgery of being neglected by the university, and the occasional hectic visit somewhere else that was also too hot, too polluted and void of a descent meal. The boredom, the knowledge that I was paying to essentially fall behind in university, having to share a hotel room with a friend I contemplated throwing out the window on more than one occasion and being so far from the woman I love, it was all too much for me.
I left China, with an overwhelming feeling of relief. I knew that when I got off that plane, I would find a dreich Scottish afternoon, a portion of chips and my now fiancé waiting for me. But as my flight taxied across the runway, as I forced myself to stay conscious - I had stayed up all night in the airport in an effort to combat jet lag - I looked out of the small window by my side. I was finally going home, I was finally escaping what had come to feel like a self inflicted exile. I understood then, that I had been well and truly defeated by my experience here. China had beaten me and I was running home, a good kilogram or so lighter and with my tail between my legs. But deep down, although I would have never admitted it to anyone then, I knew that one day, I would return to China. One day, I didn’t know how or when, I would make things right.
Over the Horizon
Our story begins with a spontaneous decision to spend a long weekend, in the old city of York, in the north of England. Now, both having graduated from university more than a year previously, I working as a kitchen designer for a well known DIY retailer, and my fiancé having recently decided to switch career trajectory, from training to be a high school teacher to something much less dangerous. We had spent so long working toward her getting the qualifications she needed to get onto her PGDE course, and then actually studying on the course, that in the absence of that ever present goal, we found ourselves somewhat cut loose. I had long since turned my back on the world of Product Design, the course I had studied at university, and spent the previous year and a half scaling my contract up from a measly twelve hour check out job to a full time post in the kitchen design department. My sole aim had been to earn rent money whilst she went through her teacher training - with the intention of retiring early and mooching off her for the rest of my life.
Now, with a little time to spare and lots to think over, we decided to go for a trip, to escape the ever shrinking confines of the small town of Dunfermline and to visit somewhere we had long hoped to see together. So one night, against the beautiful backdrop of York, to the well worn sound of Christmas music blasting its way through a fairly empty Slug and Lettuce, our conversation turned to ‘the meaning of life’. Or something to that effect, either way, we were trying to figure out what the most important quality is, to instil in children. The world is big, and it’s filled with all kinds of weird and wonderful people and places. And we both agreed that it doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you are happy. Which is true for all walks of life. I would never judge a person for being born and raised, to then live and die in the exact same place and never leave. With the exception of the occasional holiday to Majorca. All that matters is that you are happy. But sometimes, we aren’t lucky enough to find happiness on our doorstep, sometimes you have to peer over the horizon to get a glimpse of a better life. A sense of adventure. We agreed that the most important gift you can ever give a child, is a sense of adventure and the confidence to follow through on it.
My fiancé and I met when we were seventeen and eighteen, through haphazard circumstances whilst we were both at university - different universities I might point out. For five years we’d been together and never once looked back. We were engaged and happy. I could write a book about how lucky I am to have found her and several more on how happy I am to be with her. But when we were younger, we had both foreseen adventure in our lives, to take a peek over that horizon and see what else there might be in the world. Adventure, although by no means the swash buckling escapades of the past, can be a dangerous path. Not one often taken by married couples. Saddened, but by no means regretful for this twist of fate, we accepted that finding one another sooner rather than later was a fair trade to make for a missed chance to travel the world. Instead, it would be our responsibility to instil a sense of adventure and confidence in those around us. I don’t know about her, but I certainly felt contented with this resolution.
Until later that night, when we returned to our hotel room and there, a thought occurred to me. There was one frontier yet still open, one frontier that was by no means risk free, but all together safer than volunteering in South America. I knew one place where we might still eke out a little adventure for the both of us. China. China has an insatiable thirst for people willing to fly to the other side of the world and teach English. We laughed at the ridiculousness of the thought, then hypothetically voiced a few other countries where similar opportunities might present themselves. And then laughed again at my having suggested our living and working in China for any length of time. Given I had seemingly had an allergic reaction to my last visit. Besides, how on Earth do you even go about getting a job like that?
Over the next week or so we gave it no more consideration, only the vague impulse to peer at the distant horizon and wonder ‘what might be’, lingering in the back of my mind as I stood in the car park outside work during my fleeting breaks. Later that month we traveled north to visit my parents for Christmas, all thoughts of the future on hold for the holiday. Until one evening we were in the kitchen, helping my mum make the dinner (dad cooks just as much as mum, I’m just saying). We were talking about what we might do now that my fiancé had decided against risking life and limb in a high school classroom, when my mum mentioned that a friend of my grandparents knew about a company that helped train English language teachers. I was standing at the sink, washing dishes, gazing out the window at the darkening grey water of the North Sea, when a flicker in my chest made me turn. I looked to my fiancé for the briefest of moments, seeing the slight twist to her lips as she looked back at me, knowing she had just had the exact same thought that I had. Here was our answer. Here, was TEFL.org.