self portrait 2018


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The Final Chapter of China

The Final Chapter of China

In April 2016, I returned to China. I would have preferred not going back. But I had to retrieve my things. I had sent my 5 boxes of clothes, winter clothes, books and various possessions to Shanghai because I had nearly completed every step of securing a job for the 2015-2016 school year there. Ready to complete the final step of securing a visa, I mailed my belongings ahead of me. In the end, it didn't work out. My boxes of things were away from me for nearly a year.

I should have known better. In June of 2015 my visa was about to expire. I had already expressed my plans to leave Yichang and I was excited about a high paying job in Shanghai starting in August of 2015. I completed the interview stage and accepted the job by the end of May 2015. But in mid-June, the school in Shanghai was unreachable. I was told in the beginning of June that I should come to Shanghai to renew my visa but without hearing from them in the weeks leading up to the expiration date of my current visa, I was not going to book a flight to Shanghai on the the day before my visa expired. The expiration date is not a suggestion. I didn't want to face any sort of fine for overstaying my visa.

Luckily I had a plan B. In early July, I would send my boxes to Taiwan where I would be staying with my former college classmate. He had settled down there and was glad to receive me for a short time until everything got figured out.

Within just a few days of my departure for Taiwan, literally the Saturday before, I got a message from the school in Shanghai telling me that they were looking forward to my arrival on Monday. After two weeks of me trying to get a call back or any acknowledgement about where they were, I told them that I was going to Taiwan and that we would have to work out the visa situation from there. It would become infinitely more complicated now that I was not renewing a visa within China. I was applying for a new visa out the country. Rules are always changing in China and this means that the people helping foreign teachers apply for new visas are always unsure about the process.

I would wind up spending three weeks in Taiwan--one week with my friend and two weeks at a hotel. The school in Shanghai assured me that all they had to do was send a letter of invitation to me with the proper Foreign Expert Certificate which they had secured for me. I would then have to take that paperwork to the Chinese consulate in Hong Kong. I would then receive my one year multi-entry visa. I could then arrive to Shanghai and all would go smoothly. So sure that I could complete this business in Hong Kong, I was given the address of the proper office and the name of a nearby hotel to stay in while the paperwork processed in Hong Kong.

After the boxes arrived to my friend's home in Taiwan, I made the choice of unburdening him by moving to a hotel to complete this business. I needed to be centrally located downtown. I needed constant access to the Internet. I needed to have peace and quiet. Taking the boxes to my hotel in Taiwan from my friend's house was easy. I decided to send the boxes off to Shanghai ahead of me.  The rest of the process was simply a matter of receiving the paperwork that would allow me to apply for the Chinese Visa.

The office in Shanghai was finally coming off of their summer vacation. I was told that the head contact, who went unreachable during those weeks leading up to my visa expiration, was absent because he was in his home country getting married. As improbably as that seemed, I had no recourse but look forward. The school head was traveling in America. But I got to talk to a really nice woman who was just back to Shanghai from another Chinese city. She was chatting with me as she landed at the airport and I felt that we had good rapport. She seemed concerned with making everything work well but she had to be updated on the situation. She told me that the paperwork was coming and I felt that I could book a ticket for Hong Kong. Still I felt it prudent to wait until I get the paperwork before making the actual booking.

This is where this plan collapsed. I received the paperwork and looked over it carefully. There was a box ticked on the paperwork which indicated that I was allowed to apply for the visa in my home country only. This meant more unplanned time and unplanned expense. I wasn't willing to pay for a last minute flight to America.  These delays and expenses were due to their mishandling of the situation. The question I had was, when would this carelessness end? If these communication problems and flippant attitudes towards my costs and inconvenience happen before I even arrive to the school, what am I to expect once I have committed to the job?

I have dealt with management in China which prefers to leave me on a need to know basis and this usually means that I have to adjust to changes which I am the last to know about. The negligence seems to be by design.  Even for a company so small, as to not require so many layers of communication, asking for the situation to be any other way is seen as threatening. As soon as I complain about such a situation, I get thrown to the wayside.

So I exercised my only power. I quit before I even stepped foot in the school. This was the smartest decision. As I searched for more information about this school, I naturally found other sites which advertised job openings. The monthly payment was listed as 1/3 of what I was promised. It now became painfully clear why completing the hiring process was made so terribly inconvenient.

I searched for another job among some of the links that I had saved throughout the spring and early summer. It wasn't long that I heard back and landed a job in Vietnam.

The hiring manager was elated when I told her that I could arrive in a week. Beside my hotel was a travel agent that could process my Vietnam visa in three days by sending my passport to Taipei. I was eager to get to work. Over the past 8 years, July has always been an incredibly busy month for me with full days of classes for 6 days a week. I was eager to get back to work.

The only problem was that my boxes were on route to Shanghai. Nothing in them was essential for getting my feet back on the ground in Vietnam. I was careful to bring along the essentials like my computer, degrees, some work clothes, etc.

Xenia would be joining me. And among all of the positive thoughts I was having about this move, the best one was that in Vietnam (as opposed to Shanghai) we would be able to work together and live together. Different schedules and different apartments in Shanghai could have easily spelt the end of our relationship which in Vietnam has blossomed over these past 9 months. We are closer than ever and I have never been happier. All the more reason that I could put the drama with that school in Shanghai behind me.

Yet, I knew I needed those boxes and I looked at every option. There were no moving companies that could help. UPS and FEDEX work with businesses. Other companies deal with container shipments. Private movers are interested in helping international businessmen move entire home furnishings from places like London to Singapore. No third party wants to help a humble teacher in east Asia move his five measly boxes to southeast Asia. The school would not simply mail them to me. They wanted me to pay them nearly $1,000 to have a moving company pick them up and mail them to me. Although they could not tell me which company they got this quote from. When I asked them, I wanted to know how they came up with the quote of 5,000 RMB. There was no way I was going to send them money before they sent the boxes. They had already proven themselves to be unreliable. Each time I contacted them, I was talking to a different person. They were quite wisely shifting this responsibility to someone else. How could I get frustrated with person G when it was person D who promised me something? They clearly didn't want to deal with their mistakes. And I knew that this problem would only be resolved if it required next to nothing of them. To their credit though, they did store my boxes for almost a year.

So I kept them in the back of my mind as I worked on making my life work in Vietnam. Everything was smooth and I enjoyed the winter months in the tropics. I ate healthy fresh food, enjoyed the low costs of life here, and I have never taken the ever-blue sky for granted. I have a great schedule. Compared to what I was used to in China, the work was much easier than it was in China. Also, I live with a beautiful woman who feels at home in the tropical heat. But I knew that I had to get my belongings and finally close this China chapter in my life.

There were no cheap solutions. But it was more important that I get the boxes and so I planned a trip to go pick them up myself.

Fast forward to April. I secure a visa. The only one available was a 10 year visa which allows for multiple entries for up to 60 days at a time. It cost $220. All I needed was 5 days to pick up my things and sort out anything that I didn't need anymore and then carry the rest back. This was the task and I was ready.

I would leave Vung Tau at 7 PM on Sunday night. This got me into Ho Chi Minh City at 9. I planned on hanging out at my favorite restaurant until it closed at 11:30. I would eat a nice dinner, drink a couple of beers brewed from the local brewery and even have a cab called for me. Getting to the airport at 12:30 AM, I checked in and made it to the gate an hour before my flight. No stresses or problems to count. I just listened to music before the flight.

Flying China Eastern, the plane had no in-flight entertainment, the food brought to me in the middle of the night was all high refined breads and a snickers bar. I was awoken to find it on my tray and ate nothing but the croissant which gave me the weirdest reaction. It was like my brain was wide awake as my body was still trying to sleep. The flight attendant came by with the drink cart and when I asked for apple juice she just shouted back the one word; apple juice. She could say the English word but with no sense of how English speakers use tone of voice she made it sound like I had carelessly left apple juice somewhere and she was sharply reminding me to pick it up. All of this felt very strange and was very familiar at the same time. 

Then at daybreak, we were flying over water. But the water took on a strange viscosity as we continued to fly over it. The soupy black water pulsed instead of waved. The water gave way to mud which then gave way to red earth.  From that arose dwellings made from the same color of the dirt. Then there were fields carved out of that. Low and flat dwellings covered the land while veins of road scratched into the land stood out brightly against the darkness. Looking outwards into the distance, the low hanging smog smearing the horizon like a pencil smudges. The low dwellings in the distance obscured by the pencil dust. The only sign of Shanghai was the skyline of the Pudong Financial district. From this vantage point, Shanghai's signature buildings were not so impressive. A city of multi-millions represented by a skyline of fewer than five sky rise buildings looking as if drawn out of smudged graphite.

I wanted to take a photo so badly. But that flight attendant who yelled at me in her most polite voice, when handing me a drink, was now nearby helping someone fill in an immigration document. She had already caught me once taking a shot with my phone. I accepted that this sight would have to go un-shot.

I landed in Shanghai. I had no specific feeling about the occasion. I had flown into China many times. But this was the first time in the past 10 years that I returned to China with no plan to stay long. Just as the morbid skyline reminded me of why I didn't want to live here. The broken escalator and the ridiculous sign reading 144 hour transfer area reminded me that this place is funny without trying.

Waiting in line at immigration, I realized that lots of people are still flooding into China on a daily basis and that SoundCloud is one of the websites that can be added to the list of banned websites in China. I was on my way to the hotel by 9AM and felt, that this being a trip of a series of hurdles, the starting pistol had been fired and I was off to a good start.

Monday morning, I checked in the hotel. It was cavernous and poorly lit and the woman at the desk was in a bad mood. I checked in and had to enter my passport number in order to use the wifi. It wouldn’t work until I called the front desk who transferred me to another office which transferred me again to their tech support who was finally able to register my password in their system after two tries. It seemed unnecessarily complex.

Now with access to the Internet, I contacted the school and my new contact person. She was at the school already and so I let her know that I would be there immediately. I booked this specific hotel because it was only a short ride to the school.

I wasted no time. I hired a taxi and told him that I am going to want him to take me back to the hotel where he picked me up. The fare turned out to be 40 RMB both ways ( about $6) and so I let him keep the change from 100RMB for the trouble of waiting at the school and helping me transport my boxes.

The school was easy enough to find. I had to wait as the secretary, at an intake office attached to the school, took her sweet time with some grandparents. When I met the person tasked with meeting me, I realized that she was none of the people I had been communicating with since last June. That was intentional and I was neither disgruntle about the job situation nor did I care who I had to deal with. I just wanted my boxes.

 After shaking hands with the woman who was tasked with having to greet me, I waved to the two older guards flanking me. I told her to give ******* my best. Then I left. Sure, there were some things on my mind. But there was no place for them. I had shaven and dressed like a professional. I came for one thing. There was no drama from their side. Nothing further to say from me. If anything, I wanted them to wish things had worked out better. They lost a good teacher when they lost me. And based on how they treated me, I can guess how they treat others. It would not be surprising, if they have a hard time attracting and keeping good people. And so they don't value someone like me. They are too stupid to know what they are missing. Nothing I could say could change that. I was smart to save my energy for more important things.

I was lured into the job with a salary of $3,000 a month, which is quite comfortable in China. I was told that my interview and video resume was very strong and they were excited to welcome me to their school. I was excited about the regular school hours and the travel camps to Thailand and having the chance to be valued as a photographer for school events and such.

So why was there a communication blackout in the weeks before my visa expired? Why was I told that getting the visa was going to be a simple matter of flying into Hong Kong when in reality I found out that I had to fly all the way back to America to get the visa? The costs would have piled up and I would have seen December before I would have been able to save any of the money I made from this job.

They were testing how much of a dog I was. They wanted to know how badly they could treat me before I left. They had nothing to lose because if I did the smart thing and left, as I did, they could replace me with two younger, more malleable, and cheaper teachers.

I returned to the hotel and had the bellboy deliver the 68kg of stuff up to my room. And there I was, finally alone with my stuff. I had labeled the boxes and tore into box number 1, believing the money belt with my birth certificate was in there. Yes, one of the reasons why this trip was essential, and not a simple matter of retrieving replaceable books and shoes. I had foolishly packed my birth certificate. That paper could have easily fit in with my other important papers but somehow I overlooked it.


While in Vietnam, I visualized the money belt with the document sitting neatly in box number one. But as I tore open box number one I noticed among the books and scattered tea and broken pottery, it was not there.

I would find it in box number two, sitting on top as if I had put it in there at the last minute before sealing it up. I was elated to have it in my hand again as it may prove to me incredibly useful as I renew my passport in a couple of years.

I spent the rest of the afternoon going through the boxes. I was overjoyed to be reacquainted with some of my things. I was able to throw other things away.

I then celebrated the completion of a major part of this trip by heading to the Shanghai Brewery. In February of 2015 this became one of the places which Xenia and I loved to visit. I returned there to find the beer to be underwhelming, especially compared to The Pasteur Street Brewery in Ho Chi Minh City. I was not impressed with the price of the hamburger. $12 seems a bit excessive considering what I can get at Lucy's in Vungtau.

No matter what, Shanghai will always be a great city for street photography.

Throughout this trip I was noticing that there was very little that appealed to me about China. Although the Former French Concession has charming lane roads, nearly everything else that I love about Shanghai can be found in cities around the world in more appealing countries. As I walked the streets I was very aware how aggressive people were. They walked right into me as if i were invisible. This did not only happen to me. I saw men walk right into foreign women. In the most extreme case, there was a foreigner on a bicycle. A couple of electric scooters were zipping by and as if they were locomotives chugging along at full steam. I noticed them when I heard the man yell at the top of his lungs. They would not even slow down as they passed him causing him to veer off to the curb. He was left to curse them under his breath alone. I witnessed this and could only think how common such things were while I lived in China. Oh, how I didn't miss living here.

On the second day I organized all of the things I wanted to keep. I had an entire box full of papers and broken things that I no longer wanted to keep. I organized the books neatly and had two boxes, one of books and another of winter clothes that I could send. I then decided to go for a walk, eating at a Austrian bakery. I would then go for coffee on Yong Kang Road--a street popular for its western bars. One side of Yong Kang Road was braced with bamboo scaffolding. In fact, this street is just a short section with hole-in-the-wall storefront bars like Soi Cowboy in Thailand but without any of the salacious themed entertainment which makes Soi Cowboy so much fun. Westerners drinking happy hour margaritas for all the public to see is the least Chinese thing one can do. I would leave, choosing to not waste any time there and satisfied enough having had a nice afternoon walk after the filling meal at the Austrian restaurant.

I returned to the hotel to pack my bags to see exactly how much I could actually fit. To my delight, I over-estimated how much I would have to send. I could fit all of my books and would send the box of clothes through the post. I would leave that for the next day.

The box weighted 9kg and traveling by surface mail, which is possible via a land border, the cost was no more than $20. This came as a great relief as I paid over $400 to have the 5 boxes sent from Taiwan to Shanghai.

With the box mailed, I felt an incredible weight lifted off of my shoulders. On that morning after I mailed off the box, I went back to the hotel and fell asleep. I woke up in the middle of the afternoon.  Having had worked the entire weekend, then traveling all night on Sunday only to arrive Monday morning to pick up the boxes, then sort them out, reducing the boxes down to one, and then finally sending it off, I just wanted to collapse a little. A major part of this trip was completed. The logistically difficult part of the trip proved to be easy. 

I had no hassles from the school. The hotel disposed of the things from the boxes that I wanted to junk. The only question was how overweight were my bags. When I eventually checked-in at the airport on Friday, I would learn that I was 10kg overweight for a total of 30kg. I had placed a one hundred dollar bill in my wallet earlier that day for this very purpose. The charge came to 680RMB which is roughly a little over one hundred dollars. The clerk at check-in was happy to take my bill to solve that issue.

On Wednesday afternoon, after I woke up, it was raining. So I enjoyed a glass of wine and dinner at the restaurant attached to the hotel. Watching the people walk by as the rain turned the streets into mirrors, I could sink into a little self-congratulations on getting to this point.

I had one more task ahead of me. I had to lighten my weight a little more. I would photograph all of the pages from the various file folders I had kept and store them on my phone so that I could turn them into digital files for my records.

One of the most important things I did during my time in China was keep regular records of my teaching. Daily lesson plans helped me keep track of my favorite methods and understand my strengths and weaknesses.

Five days alone in China were important for me to handle this final piece of business. The steps I laid out for myself made the process run smoothly and made sure I completed what I set out to do. The video work, photography, and voice memos were a way to keep a record of my thoughts that I would have otherwise shared with a friend.

While living in China, I was much less critical than a passing tourist would be. Although I never got used to the shocking things, I didn't feel a need to satirize or make fun of China at the people's expense. This is a poor country working hard to change that. Still, there is a reprehensible side of this place which cannot be explained away. I always saw hazards in living there. Whether it was dealing with unscrupulous people, the regular dangers of getting hit by a car, anti-western ideas that boil over, or just the accumulation of toxins as the pollution reached shocking levels. China is a hard place to be for a long period of time.

What China is not is easy to understand. What China is also not is wanting to be understood. That is no reason not to try. My interest in photography came about in China and evolved there. I definitely became a better teacher while there. I learned to be more self-reliant. I would complete one year and sign on for a new year to see how a changing situation would play out, to see how the students would develop, and to see how the city would change.

After long enough, I had seen enough. I had once gained great insight and a was left with a memorable education as an undergraduate, years ago, as an overseas student When I moved to China to work there in 2005, I had no idea that I would wind up staying so long. 




On Photography: Favorite Shot

On Photography: Favorite Shot