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After a first rocky year living in China, it seemed like the next would be much easier.

I was happy. I finally had a permanent job, after one whole year of just some odd hours here and there. But my second year in China turned out to be even more challenging…

Here’s an account of the Chinese visa problems I faced as a Polish expat in my second year living in China.

Note: the names of all Chinese people mentioned in this post have been changed to protect identities. Since Chinese people often like to use English names when talking to foreigners, I’ve also not used their Chinese names.

My Chinese Visa Problems Part 2: PInterest Cover Image

How our first year ended

In May of our first year we found out that our school didn’t have permission to hire foreigners. They’d applied for the official permit too late.

So, they told us that officially another language school in Quanzhou (a nearby city in Fujian province) would hire us. They promised us that they’d move our papers back to Putian as soon as possible.

Of course, we agreed. Given it was too late to look for another job, we didn’t have any other choice.

Over the summer, we both managed to get our Z visas (foreigner working visa) without many problems. However, Z visas are only valid for a month. During this month your employer needs to apply for your residence permit.

We got back to Putian at the end of August 2015, with no idea that an even crazier year was yet to come.

River flowing through Putian, buildings in background
The River in Putian

When all looked it would go well…

At first everything looked like it would run smoothly. On 24th of September we were supposed go to Quanzhou to convert our Z visas into residence permits. We knew it was ridiculous working in a public school in one city, while being employed in a private training centre in another. But I guess we’d started getting used to the fact that in China not everything is as it seems.

An evening before, Anne, our FAO (Foreign Administrative Officer, the Chinese person responsible for looking after foreign teachers), called us in to the office to inform us that we would need to stay in Quanzhou for some lectures and wouldn’t be back for a few days. We couldn’t understand why but after talking to her for some time we managed to get out of her that our school might have an audit, so they didn’t want any teachers on site.

We said that we couldn’t stay in Quanzhou (I had a birthday party booked for that weekend), but we promised to keep off the school site during working hours and stay within our apartments.

Another teacher from our school was in a hospital with second degree burns on her leg (another story) and she also had to leave the hospital to go with us. Even though she was on crutches and found it difficult to walk.

We kind of sensed already that we might have a bit of a rough time ahead.

What happened in Quanzhou

We went to Quanzhou on 24th September. We had to run around quite a bit between different offices. Anne had just started her job, so they sent an FAO from another school with us to handle things.

It turned that the school where we were legally employed hadn’t brought one document with them (to be honest it wasn’t their fault, in China things can change every day). At first the officials wanted us all to come back the day after with all the papers.

But, after around an hour of arguing with them, our FAOs managed to convince them to keep all our papers (including our passports) and that they alone would come back with the extra document the day after.

Just to clarify, In China when you apply for a residence permit you need to leave your passport with them for around a month. You get a piece of paper with your photo that works as a replacement for your passport. You need either this or your passport if you want to check into a hotel, get a train or, for any reason, you’re stopped by the police.

But as the officials didn’t finish processing our application, they couldn’t give us this piece of paper, while still retaining our passports. This meant we couldn’t get back to Putian by train.

By sheer luck we managed to get tickets for the last bus (which took 2.5 hours, the train would have taken less than 30 min).

We got our documents back a few days later. We hoped then that that would be the end of our Chinese visa problems.

But we were wrong.

Why we were thrown out during a typhoon

Typhoon rolling over Xiamen
Typhoon warnings hit Chinese cities every year. In Putian, they tend to blow over. In Xiamen, pictured, sometimes they don’t.

A week later, our school received another warning that they might have an audit. This time they told us to sleep in a nearby hotel for two nights, so we would stay out of the way of any inspectors.

To make things worse, during that time we had a typhoon warning. This didn’t turn out to be much of a typhoon (we experienced a far worse one the next year), but it rained like crazy and we couldn’t go outside. So, we had to survive on dry food and Chinese soups, as this hotel didn’t have a working restaurant.

Things calmed down for a while after that. A week or two later, our school ordered us one more time to leave the school premises, with only an hour’s notice, and not to return for a few hours.

Well, at least we didn’t have to teach that afternoon.

Finally, in late November our school finally gained the permit to employ foreigners. So, they could move our papers to our school.

We really did then think that was the end of it all. Finally, no more Chinese visa problems.

But then, we encountered a very different problem…

Why they wanted to fire me

At the beginning of December, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I’ve already told this story, in this series of posts.

Long story short, we decided to go to Poland, so I could have an operation there.

At first, it wasn’t easy to convince the school to let us go. Fortunately, we didn’t have many teaching hours (less than 10 per week each), so the other teachers in our school could cover our classes.

We talked to other teachers about it and they agreed. Because we were supervisors, we started negotiating an overtime agreement on their behalf.

Now, I need to give a bit of background. Teachers in my school and several others in the province were supervised by an overarching company, separate to the school. We probably communicated more with this company than with the school. All our FAOs were also employed with the company, including Alice, who had just replaced Anne.

We’d also had a few run-ins indirectly with George, the owner of the company. He’d turned out to be quite ruthless.

When he found out about my cancer, his first reaction was to order Alice to find a clause in the contract that would allow them to terminate my employment.

Naturally, Chris wanted to come back to Poland with me to be around for my operation. George also wanted to fine Chris if he temporarily abandoned his duties in the school.

But Alice was a star. She managed to calm George down and convince him to keep paying me while Chris took unpaid leave.

We planned to get back for the second semester, so we only asked for 6 weeks off.

We got back to Putian in the middle of February, following a short visit to Shanghai. Things looked good. For a while…

A view of the Bund in Shanghai, over the river


Deciding what to do next year

Our residence permits were valid till March, so Cathy (our third FAO for this year) applied for our new residence permits. This time, everything worked, without any problems.

Around April we started negotiating renewing our contract for the next year. We had our doubts, to be honest. After two years we were getting a bit tired of this school. Also, as we were supervisors, Cathy was putting more and more extra work on us. However, in the end we decided to stay.

However, there was a slight complication. First the school had to find out if the government would issue me with the mandatory health insurance that usually comes alongside a contract (because I had cancer before). The insurance company sent me in for a check-up, that I had to pay for (fortunately it wasn’t that much). I was told everything was fine and I could get the insurance at the normal price.  This allowed the school to hire me.

In the meantime, my friend let us know about a job in Jimei, Xiamen, in one of the private universities.

We wanted to keep our options open, so we applied and went for an interview. The head of the department told us that we’ll get a reply in two weeks.

When we didn’t, we assumed that we didn’t get the job, so we signed the contract with our school mid-May.

The way our school started to behave caused us to regret that decision.

Why we decided to leave our school

Ola standing outside, some Chinese men loading boxes onto a cart in the background
Packing up to leave

At the end of May, the university in Xiamen offered us a job. At first, we wanted to refuse, as we’d already signed the contract.

But during that week, Cathy kept putting even more extra work on us. She told Chris to give a lecture for teachers in a different school. Fair enough, but we wanted another teacher to do this, because they’d be paid extra (Chris as a supervisor wasn’t).

But the school replied that they couldn’t do it as they weren’t staying another year (not sure why it mattered) and I was ‘too sick’.

This kept happening. Quite often, I felt dismissed, because I heard repeatedly that I “was sick”. I still needed radiotherapy, which I had in August, but I was feeling well, and didn’t have any problems working.

The school also kept delaying sorting out our paperwork, despite the fact that we needed to go back to Europe in early July for my radiotherapy. These delays caused other teachers to have to rebook their flight tickets.

To make things worse, Cathy told me three weeks after my health check, that the doctor had identified problems with my liver, and should check it out, but she thought it “probably nothing”. Why did she have to wait so long? I’d already had a bad “probably nothing” experience (you can read about it here).

But the last straw was when the school suddenly changed the date of Chris’s lecture. We’d booked a trip for that day and they told us we had to cancel the trip. I know this seems trivial, but we were really tired of it all. We felt that staying longer would make us miserable.

Our contract clearly stated that during our first contracted month we could resign without any penalty. The school, instead of prolonging our contracts, just gave us new ones.

So, since that first month hadn’t yet started, we decided to execute this break clause. We told the school that we had decided to leave. This was three months before the contract started, so we gave them plenty of time to find someone else.

They didn’t react well to the news…

At first, everything seemed fine. Our FAO was sad but said she accepted our decision. However, within one week, we were told that we won’t get our reference letters (which we needed to get a working permit for our new job), unless we paid compensation. This was 2,000 RMB each, so around $300 or £200.

Of course, we refused. We pointed out that we gave them ample time and our contract had a break clause.

But they told us the break clause wasn’t really valid, because we’d been hired in this school before.

We subtly reminded the school that we could leave them a bad review online.

This worked. They backed down, and told us that the final decision was up to the Foreign Expert’s Bureau, who could order the school not to give us a reference letter

By that time, we’d done a lot of research and thought it unlikely the Foreign Expert’s Bureau would do this. But, we were concerned what our school would say to the bureau.

We could only hope for the best.

Leaving the school

Students said goodbye to us, but the school didn’t and didn’t thank us for our work. We felt dismissed as we’d put a lot of work into improving the education system at the school.

It seemed that our only value to them was the fact that we were white, which brought prestige to the school. The university in Xiamen felt different.

Road with a grey sky: the last photo we took in Putian
Leaving Putian

We went to Xiamen and sign the contract and we put the HR worker from our university in touch with Cathy. She said she’d work it out. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much she could do. I’ll explain why in the next part.

Lesson learned:

Before leaving work in any place make sure you get all documents including reference letter

Thanks to everyone for reading my post. In the next one I will finish this story. Have any of you encountered problems with Chinese visas?

About Ola Jagielska

Ola Jagielska is an ESL teacher, language enthusiast and co-author of this blog. She speaks five languages and is striving for more. She loves traveling, reading and drinking good coffee.

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