My China Experience: Visa Pains and Getting Deported
Welcome to ‘My China Experience’ series, where we have sat down with Gavin, who has taught English in China for 3 years. He takes us through his life in Beijing, battling the smog on a daily basis, the difficulties of the language barrier, cartoons about not dating foreign men and his run in with the law.
TEFL Exchange: Can we ask you about something more mundane? How did you get around? Did you drive?
Gavin:Driving in China is tricky as a foreigner – you need a Chinese driving license and foreign ones aren’t valid. On top of that to drive in Beijing you need a special number plate. Every month a few thousand number plates are distributed through a lottery-like online registry. This system was introduced for a couple of reasons. There are 5 million cars in Beijing, this creates a lot of pollution. In addition the roads cannot handle all the traffic. The city has several ring roads, based on the old soviet model, just like in Moscow and it is not very effective. You are allowed to drive on a certain days of the week depending on what number your plate ends in. This is quite strictly enforced on cars. Despite this traffic jams can still get quite bad, although not as bad as the 12 day traffic jam that occurred on the Beijing-Tibet expressway (Don’t believe me? Google it).
At the time scooters and motorbikes were in somewhat of a grey area. You can buy fake plates online for about 20 Pounds ($25) and for a bit more even a driving license… About once a year the government would crack down on these illegal 2 wheelers. Petrol stations stopped serving you fuel and the police would be making stops at major intersections. A couple of times a teacher showed up late moaning about how the government had confiscated their illegal scooters.
My first year there I braved the subway. At the time it cost around 20p ($0.25) to go anywhere on one of the biggest subway networks in the world. If I couldn’t face the subway or was out late I would take a taxi, relatively cheap and abundant. When Uber entered the Chinese market competition between and the local rivals, was fierce, companies were dumping cheap taxi services on the market. For a few months me and my friends got into the habit of being taxied around in big fancy Mercedes, simply because it was cheaper than anything else.
Once my friend Pan left Beijing he gave me his GIANT racing bike. Cycling in Beijing is a lot safer than other places in South East Asia, but it still kind of felt like pod racing in Star Wars. Beijing has cycle paths on either side of most main roads, unless they are being used as parking you are generally separated from the larger vehicles. They are used by motorbikes, e-bikes, 3 wheelers, bicycles, pedestrians and every once in a while a wheelchair, all travelling at different speeds in different directions. It felt quite intuitive and feels much more natural than traffic imposed with strict regulations. It becomes normal to play chicken with those driving against traffic. On one occasion I turned a corner and found myself face to face with a horse drawn cart, galloping straight at me.
TE:That’s cool. Riding a bicycle in some cities is just impossible, or too dangerous. Are there any other big plus sides to living in Beijing, or China as a whole?
G:One thing that impressed me the most is how well Chinese people master their smart phones. I have many Chinese friends who don’t own a computer and manage to get everything done on their phone. In China it’s incredibly easy to pay with your phone or transfer money via WeChat (Chinese whatsapp) and Alipay. You could easily get by with a phone and no credit card or cash. Not all shops have a credit card machine but someone in the shop will have a smartphone.
Online shopping is an essential part of life in China and is extremely convenient. The corner shops would often receive packages for the people in the neighbourhood while they were away at work. I got on very well with the guy in charge of the corner shop and he was very helpful. At my peak I would be getting several deliveries a day. In fact one time I ordered 17 items in one day, including a full chemistry set as well a few other large and cumbersome products. The next day I got sent on a last minute one week business trip. The corner shop was very much a corner shop, probably no more than 25m². Needless to say the shopkeeper was not impressed. We stayed on good terms but after that I developed a network of shops and restaurants that would also be willing to receive my deliveries that I could rotate, so as to enable my shopping follies.
Also, the food in China is amazing and it’s quite affordable. While I was there I barely cooked. But be warned. It has nothing to do with the food you’re used to eating in a Chinese restaurant. Most of the food there comes from the southern provinces. In reality Chinese cuisine is incredibly diverse. China consists of 56 ethnic groups and 23 provinces each with their different cuisine. A lot of Chinese rave about Sichuan hot pot, but it’s way too spicy for me. I’m more of a Beijing hotpot guy, with loads of Majiang sauce. One of my favorite breakfasts was Jianbing. Batter wrapped in a pancake with spices and herbs. They sell them in little stalls all over the city.
There are many foods that won’t be to your taste. I was quite adventurous and ate a variety of different things such as silk worms, insects, horse, donkey and a variety of different organs. The one thing I couldn’t stomach were eggs containing unhatched chicks. Supposedly the most hated food by foreigners is the thousand year egg. Although it isn’t really that old, chicken, duck or quails eggs are preserved in a mixture of clay, salt, quicklime, and rice hulls for several weeks. To accelerate the process led can be added to the mixture, or so I was told. To the dismay of some of my friends it also was one of my favorite dishes.
Food safety is a major issue in China. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish between truth and rumours. Is the kebab stall using rat meat? Is the food being fried in gutter oil? Over the years there have been several scandals, including one major scandal when 6 infants died and thousands were hospitalized due to infant formula and milk were adulterated with melamine, a toxic chemical.
If you eat food in China you’re not going to be able to avoid the food safety issue. You’ll have to be careful about where you buy your food and which restaurants you go to. Use common sense and you’ll be okay. The small amounts of led and other toxic chemicals you will most likely be exposed to are unlikely to kill you in the short term, but in the long term it will increase your risk of disease. The problem is for the people who are exposed to these toxic chemicals all their life. Most of the Chinese population. We often talk about the air pollution but in fact that is not be the biggest problem. A lot, if not most of the land used to grow food and raise animals meant for consumption is polluted. The water is polluted. Only in the last decade has the government started to seriously address these issues.
It’s easy to be critical of everything, in any country. China has problems like everywhere. It also has many advantages. There are not many other places where you can earn so much relative to the cost of living. Unlike the West it is still expanding rapidly. Things are happening. It is the biggest investor in renewable energy, it has a booming movie industry and is slowly but surely becoming a trend setter in today’s world.
TE:Yeah, one thing I love about China is the fact that there is an air of optimism and progress about the place. More so than in a lot of Western countries. The renewable energy thing in particular is incredible, as well as something they have to do because the pollution is endemic.
Now let’s talk more about how you lived in China on the formal side of things. What was it like with visas and the ease of working? Am I right in saying you had some problems with your visa?
G:There was always trouble with visas, I was working there illegally. At the time I was able to get a 3 months tourist visa followed by a 6 month business visa. If you were teaching English in China in a grey area, like me, you would either be paying an agency to extend your visa or visiting Hong Kong every few months and acquiring a new one there. This is common practice among many English teachers in China.
One day, the immigration police turned up at my school unexpectedly, while I was teaching. They spoke surprisingly good English and were rather intimidating. They didn’t detain me but they took my name and passport number. A week later I was summoned to the immigration department with my other colleague and the owner of the chain of English schools. We sat in the waiting room for about an hour while immigration and my boss had a “cup of tea”. After that we were free to go and nothing was said of it again. It felt oddly threatening to have your right to be somewhere put into question. I can’t compare myself with immigrants who suffer similar problems back home, but I definitely empathize with them a lot more now. Visas were the bane of my existence while in China.
Around a year later the government changed the regulations and acquiring a visa in Hong Kong under the same terms became harder. This was a source of stress for a couple of months while my girlfriend and I worked out how to get around this. When something becomes the focus of the government drastic measures are taken. However these are often poorly enforced and only for short periods of time. Eventually after some internet research on Baidu we found some agencies that provided 1 year multiple entry tourist visas, allowing 3 months stay at a time. So I gave my passport to a man on an electric bike and nervously watched him drive away with it, hoping for the best.
The man on the bike worked for an express delivery service. From one side of China to the other I could deliver a document within a day or two, all for about £2.50. They delivered my passport to an agency in Shenzhen. I’m not quite clear what happened from then on. But when I got my passport back it came with a visa supposedly obtained in Los Angeles – USA. I can only assume they mailed it to the US and thanks to some connections with the consulate there, slipped it into a stack of passports from the region and mailed it back to me. This all cost me about a thousand dollars. The only time that was problematic was when I lost my bank card (again). It became somewhat of a catch 22. I needed my passport to get a new bank card, but I need my bank card to pay for my visa. Fortunately, I was able to find a way.
But that wasn’t how it ended.
TE:Wow. This is an incredible story. What happened in the end? How did your experience work out?
G:Someone denounced me to the immigration police. I’m not sure who or why but I have my suspicions. One day the police showed up at my office. They brought me to the police station for visa reasons. My visa was overdue, and I was essentially deported. That’s how my China story ends.
TE:Would you do it all again if you could?
G:If we’re talking about a binary yes and no, then yes. But was I to do it again, I would do many things differently.
From what I understand I think I was a bit arrogant by trying to impose my western values and lifestyle on those around me. After my experience I am much more aware of the importance of conserving culture and national sovereignty. Although many people complain and have a tough time there, I think in the end we all learnt a lot from it. Beijing became a second home to me.