Chongxi or the Wash of Misfortune

I’ve grown fond of China after seven months of living and working here. However, certain circumstances continue being a stone in the shoe.

A few days before the Chinese New Year holiday, I hurt my big toe during the rehearsals for the school celebration. Every step was so difficult during the 7 minute walk to the office and more so while teaching my classes.  This was the fourth day already. I left school to a hospital where I could be seen in private (I was tired of the “collective” consultations). A bilingual woman was waiting for me, she asked me what the issue was as I followed her to the doctor’s office. This was the first time I was going to be seen privately, and despite the pain, I had a feeling of wellness and relief.

“You Don’t Have Insurance”

The woman asked me for my insurance card.

“I don’t have an insurance card, but I have insurance through school.” I showed her all my other  documents: Passport, expert certificate, hospital book…asian-doctor

“You need an insurance card to be seen or you need to pay 400 yuan for the consultation.” I repeated my previous statement and added that she could look me up in the system, which she did, only to give me the bad news, “You don’t have insurance.”

Startled, I tried to convey an explanation that I myself could believe as well, but nothing coherent came out.

I texted our department coordinator and her answer just shocked me, “The insurance that is made available to teachers is for serious injuries, surgeries and conditions. If you are at the doctor and it is minor that is not covered.”

When I asked for an explanation she told me to talk to one the school’s officers. She works for the international school… and ours, the domestic. They were on vacation, but I could set an appointment with her a few weeks later.

The Foreign Affairs Officer

At the appointment the officer started, “Not because you’re friends with some people at this school that means you have the same insurance.” What? Where did that come from? I took a deep breath to prevent blurting out the answer I felt she deserved, then pulled out a copy of my contract, “Here it says the school provides health insurance, I went to the hospital and they told me I don’t have insurance, what’s the deal? I’m complying with my side of the contract, I feel that you’re not.”

She smiled in a condescending way, “It is different.”

“That’s what the coordinator said, that I can only use my insurance for emergences, but where do I go if I have an emergency? And who determines that? And, I don’t even own an insurance card!” I breathed again and pointed at the contract, “Plus, here it says, ‘Party A shall introduce to Party B the laws, decrees and relevant regulations enacted by the Chinese government,’ but nobody has explained anything to me!”

“Huh, I went to college in Europe and nobody explained the rules of the country to me!” She laughed superciliously and I was losing it. “I really don’t care about the ‘rules of the country’, I just need to know how the school works! And if the contract mentions ‘laws and decrees’ there must be a reason for it. You could have prevented a lot of stress for us foreigners who don’t know how the school operates by explaining this to us. Like, who’s my boss?”

“Your coordinator.”

“And, who’s her boss? You?”

“No, your coordinator’s boss is the school owner.”

“I need to speak with the school owner then.”

“You have to understand, she’s a very busy person.”

“I get it, but if I’m here for a year I’m sure she’ll have 5 minutes for me. How can I arrange an appointment? Can you show me where her office is?”

“I can talk to her to see when she can see you.”

“Perfect! And going back to my insurance. How does it work?”

She drew a horizontal line with the number 1,000. “When you spend up to 1,000 yuan out of pocket, the school gives you a refund. If you spend more than 1,000 we submit a claim to the insurance.”

Nevertheless, months ago our coordinator had said we had to spend 1,000 out of pocket before we were able to make an insurance claim.

“I haven’t spent 1,000 yuan yet, so I still can get the money back?”

“Yes, ask your coordinator to sign this form, bring it together with your receipts, and I’ll give you the money back.”

“Oh, great! Thanks! And when can I talk to the school owner?”

“I’ll let you know as soon as possible. And if you have any questions, just come to my office, I’ll be happy to help you.” Two months have passed. No news about the school owner despite my inquiries.

Back at the Office

wp-1489128211094.pngI asked the coordinator to sign the refund form. She seemed confused, “But, have you spent 1,000 yuan yet?”

“No, but I understand that if I bring my receipts I can get the money back.”

“That is only because you asked!” Whoa! I’m trying to practice not to lose face (stay put, not to lose respect) so I point at the document politely, “Will you sign here, please?”

“I have to ask.”

She makes a phone call, I hear my name, she hangs up.

“You’re not planning to go to the doctor anymore?”

“I don’t know, maybe.”

“They said they will save your receipts until you have reached 1,000 yuan, then they will file for a refund.”
“That’s okay. Could you sign here, please?”

I leave the signed form and receipts on the officer’s desk. Three hours later she shows up at our office with an envelope for me, “Here is your money.”

Maybe they didn’t want to lose face. However, why in the same day two people contradicted themselves about something so important as the health insurance? And why didn’t they tell us about it since the very beginning? I don’t get what losing face has to do with not following protocol. If the contract says they have to tell us the “laws and regulations”, why don’t they just do that?

The answer came to me when I was listening to the radio on the internet. This American Life Podcast 585 “In Defense of Ignorance” was talking about how Chinese doctors usually don’t give test results to the patients, but to their relatives, if it is bad news, the relatives decide either to tell them or not. And in honor of mental health… It’s better not to receive bad news. Chinese people think mental and physical health are deeply connected. On the radio, the Chinese lady told a joke, “One patient is healthy, the other patient is terminally ill. Their results are mixed up. The healthy patient gets the bad prognosis, and the sick patient gets the good results. A few weeks later, the healthy patient ends up dying while the sick patient ends up living a long life.” And let’s face it. If I hadn’t gotten sick and looked for private assistance I would have never known I didn’t have insurance and my thoughts towards administration, Chinese regulations, etc. wouldn’t have been affected. Instead, I had a headache, anxiety, became sicker, and resentful. They didn’t tell me about the lack of health insurance because they wanted me to work with them, and also “save face.”

I am also aware of chongxi or the Chinese believe that you can wash away a misfortune with joy. The coordinator never stopped smiling and giving me compliments despite of my long face, and the officer waves at me warmly when she sees me though she never responded to my messages about being able to see the boss. Nobody apologizes. People just go on, like a splice between before the dispute and the afterwards making the actual event vanish. No casualties.

School Schedule

wp-1487752948607.jpgLater that week, I was presented with another matter. I seriously believed I was done with the Chinese schedule and the “tentative” dates until they gave us the “tentative” schedule for second semester.  Because there are a few holidays we have to make up for the leisure time by working on weekends. Check it out. “Tentative” School Calendar 2017:

  • Week 7 Work on Saturday
  • April 2-4 Qingming Festival Holiday
  • Week 8 Work on Saturday and Sunday

Chinese students walk into the entrance of university for Gaokao test (photo from the web)

  • April 11-16 Gaokao Holiday
  • April 29-May 1 International Labor Day Holiday
  • Week 15 Work on Saturday
  • May 28-30 Dragon Boat Festival Holiday
  • End of School Year July 1 – July 5 ? ? ? Which Day? We don’t know!
  • Summer Holiday ???

I’m not kidding! This is the “official” document for our “tentative” school schedule and they wrote these last two bullets like that (question marks and exclamation point included). And as I’m writing this they have already changed one of these dates, last minute.

The end of my contract is June 30, and as far as I’m concerned, I’ll be taking off soon after.

I hope I don’t lose my face by then… Or my mind!


Teacher Schedule In China

First Days

The beginning was chaotic, but I went with the flow. I woke up early, put on my best smile, and went to the office days before my contract started because I wanted to be ready for my classes. There was no new teacher orientation, or a formal introduction to administration. It seemed there was no administrative staff. Just, one person, the foreign department coordinator. So she tells me, You start to teach on September 4th. Teach?? I thought my contract started on September 1st because I would have the first two weeks to plan, not because I was going to start teaching immediately! I’m an experienced teacher, but this is a new realm, I expected a little bit of input into the culture and the way students learn here. I didn’t have a list, or time to decorate my classroom, would I even have a classroom? I hadn’t been given a tour on campus, I didn’t know the school standards, goals, philosophy, rules, or even the lunch schedule (which I got completely wrong at first), and on top of that we started to work on Thursday, had Saturday off, but went back to work on Sunday. It didn’t make sense to have a day off before the first day of classes!


The coordinator gave me a very thin sheet of paper with my schedule. Wait a minute! What schedule? I was given a time table with my four daily classes, but no classroom numbers. She just said I’d teach English grade 10. The first day she came with me to show me where my classrooms were, there I found another surprise, 42 studentswp-1481206622232.jpg, no chair for me, only a big table, a blackboard, and chalk.

I have low blood pressure and bradycardia, so that first day I was about to faint several times because I had nowhere to sit. I told the coordinator about it and her answer was, “In China teachers don’t sit!” I explained my medical condition hadn’t been an issue in the past, but she said that if I needed a chair I should ask the students. Where would they find me a chair if all the tens of desks were taken? I sat on the table a few times, but classes are so crowded I felt embarrassed to sit there  when the front row is literally against that table. Upon my insistence, they provided a “chair”…

Classroom Numbers

After the first day I asked the coordinator for the classroom numbers. “It’s very easy,” she said in her squeaky little voice, “English 1 in classroom 101, English 3 in classroom 103, English 5 in classroom 105, and English 7 is on the second floor.” Good! Ready for my second day I directed my steps to classroom 101. The students froze when they saw me until one of them uttered, “Your class no here!” I walked out, looked up, and pointed to my schedule, “Look! This is the correct number!”.


“No, no, no, your English 1 is over there! I show you.” Kindly, the student left me at my English 1 classroom door, I checked, the number was 103. That was my whole day, asking where to go, except for English 7, which was on the second floor. I returned to the office to tell the coordinator she hadn’t given me the correct information. She screeched, “Yeah! English 1, class 101!” I stopped her. I hadn’t been able to find my classes without help. She pointed at my schedule, “Look! Class 1, classroom 101!” I knew this was going to go on circles so I asked her to come with me the next day. When we arrived I told her, “See? English 3 is in classroom 107.”  ” Ah, you don’t understand, don’t pay attention to those numbers, just learn where your classrooms are or ask the Chinese teachers.”

Unexpected Changes

One morning, the coordinator was screaming in Chinese on the phone. The only word I understood was my name, so I turned as she rushed to my desk. “You have to be in your lesson 7 right now!” wp-1482159062067.jpg

“No, today is Wednesday, my first class starts  at 9:50.”

“No! They changed the schedule! You had to have been in your class at 7:50!”


“Hurry up! Come with me!” I put my things in my backpack, she starts to run, I start racewalking behind her. “Oh, you don’t like to run?” “My backpack is too heavy.” It was Wednesday, but she said, “Today is Friday schedule because students go home after lunch.” I was sweating when we arrived to the second floor classroom. “Ok, teach for ten minutes.” And she leaves.

The Domestic School

Since the first week we worked on Sunday the coordinator told us it was the beginning of the school year and we’d probably have to work on a Sunday again a couple more times, at least until the schedule was stable. We had a couple of days off, but we went back to work on Saturday. “Today is Monday schedule,” the coordinator announced. “It’s only for now.wp-1482159038412.jpg You won’t have to work on weekends once we get the schedule from the principal.” I sighed. A teacher had told me I could make good money teaching English on weekends, and I was looking forward to earning extra money soon. I inquired how he managed his side job when we had to work some weekends. He looked at me with pity. “Ah, you’re at the domestic school.” “Domestic? What do you mean?” It was then when I learned that my school is divided in two sections, actually two completely different schools. One is the international school, which follows the American model; and where I am, the domestic school, ruled by the Chinese people and government, even though both schools belong to the same person (whom I haven’t even been introduced to.) My friend didn’t want to discourage me, but he did say that things there were a little “different.”

Compulsory Evening Appearance

A little before the Mooncake Festival, which is a one-week holiday, the coordinator told us she was “making the program for tomorrow night” and started asking us for our talents individually. I hesitated. Why was she saying she was doing the program for “tomorrow night”? When did we get an invitation for an evening event? Since I didn’t have any plans for that night I told her I could do the cumbia, a traditional Colombian dance. Later I played it in my mind again. She hadn’t asked us if we could attend the holiday celebration, she informed us the time and place just a day before. That night it was raining a cántaros (cats and dogs). My umbrella didn’t prevent my beautiful long red cumbia dress to get soaking wet since there is a long walk from my apartment to the building where the event was being held. I did my dance, but it was still in the back of my head that we hadn’t been told about this celebration in advance.

Maybe a Possibly Definite Schedule ?

A month into my job I wanted to find some stability to hold on to. It had been too crazy and I really needed to know I had control over something, and the schedule was going to be that something. I kept asking for the year schedule, for the holidays, teacher workdays, etc. Chinese don’t have teacher workdays. Nevertheless, I continued asking for a piece of paper or a link to tell me when my vacations would take place. I got different answers from the coordinator that came to the same thing, “There’s no schedule yet, you have to wait a little.” It was just frustrating to have acquaintances at the international school planning for holiday trips and trying to include me in their plans when I couldn’t say yes or no because I didn’t know yet when I was going to be off.

Maybe this is my Kung-Fu Panda year. Maybe this is the Chinese philosophy, “Live for today and never plan for tomorrow… or for the next couple of hours.” But I just couldn’t take it. All we got was notes written with chalk on the office blackboard, tomorrow this, next week that, even a tentative New Year’s vacation  (who can buy tickets anywhere with this assurance?) with dates that constantly changed, and some notes didn’t even make a distinction between the primary and the high school, which was simply confusing.

So I put it out in the teachers’ WeChat group after the coordinator sent us this message:

-Coordinator: I will make a new winter schedule for high school and a new one for middle school tomorrow morning.

-Me: [@Coordinator], with all due respect, some of us need the year schedule so we can plan for visiting family, buying plane tickets in time, etc., especially for the long holidays like New Year’s.

-Coordinator: School doesn’t have year schedule. All the schools in China have to listen and wait for the government to announce the dates for each holiday.

My heart sank. I didn’t continue the conversation. This woman had been telling me to wait for the schedule, that we wouldn’t have to work on weekends after the first month, that everything was messy only because it was the beginning of the school year, that once we had a schedule from the principal it would be easier…

I contacted my cousin immediately. He had lived in China for 5 years. He certainly would know what the heck this was all about… Not knowing my schedule felt like a straight human rights violation. Having to work on weekends without being told in advance was shocking to me as well. Wasn’t it during the Nazi Germany that people were forced to work 60, 70, and 80 hours a week? Adolf Hitler tried to arrange the weeks to be longer, but the human body doesn’t work like that. Production lowered as illness and fatigue dominated. That’s how I felt after having to work 7  or 8 days in a row, and 13 days once!! When they told us we’d have a break during the week, then we would have to start teaching on a Thursday, but with a Monday schedule in mind.  That is probably one of the worst parts. The make believe game. Sunday we do Monday schedule, Wednesday we do Friday schedule, Saturday we do Tuesday schedule. At school I had to convince myself it was one day and after work people told me otherwise.

My cousin ended up speaking on the phone with the coordinator in perfect Mandarin. There was no clarification about schedules, except what it had been said above, but now at least they are trying to tell us about future events and “tentative dates” a little beforehand.

I learned that it is part of the Chinese culture to say yes to everything. They don’t want to “lose face.” At the same time, they don’t appreciate a direct answer, especially a negative one. That’s why I wasn’t told about the schedule issue from the very beginning, or that I was going to teach at the domestic school. They led me to believe the advertisement (international school established in 2010… same address, different management.) The domestic school is not even mentioned in the web. It might seem cruel to an expat, but it is their way to bring hope and happiness, as all their advertisement and food menus state. In all their evasive answers they just want to give hope. And the constant last minute changes… those are part of their normality, that’s why they are always running, so we end up doing the same. When in China…

Then I found this website. Pay attention to the adjusted working days… Argh!! So, it is real. The government tells its citizens when their vacation is and when to work on weekends.  The government decrees the holidays, and the government can change their mind, so we do have to “wait and listen.” However, these regulations don’t apply to the international school!

This country has a complexity that can be overwhelmingly frustrating. My cousin’s advice was to find what made me happy. Thank God the list isn’t short. I watch American TV shows on my computer (even though the internet sucks), have these amazing margaritas in Laowaitan (foreign neighborhood), exercise, read, go to the spa hotel, hang out with friends when possible, attend church, listen to Pastor Loran Livingston online, try to create art projects, keep up with friends and family in the US, look forward to the next country I’m going to visit, and write these long blogs to you, which is a great catharsis. Thank you for reading. You are the other half of my equation for sanity 🙂

The Importance of a Name

First Days In China

I don’t know anything about China and its people. I am just a passerby who is trying to learn and understand their ancient culture… after barely a week of living among them. I have started teaching English as a Second Language at an international school just today. I was following my coordinator to be able to find my classrooms, but she also stayed with me to help me with the Chinese names. Nevertheless it wasn’t only that I couldn’t read nor pronounce any of their names, the issue was that I had to re baptize them.

Photo on 9-1-16 at 4.05 PM #2

Ningbo International School (China)


We went to my first classroom, I greeted the students in English, told them my name and tried to write it down on a blackboard (it’s been a while since I’d seen one of those), the piece of chalk broke with my first attempt, they laughed, I looked at them offering a weak “Namaste” (I know, wrong culture), and tried again, successfully this time.
Elina, my coordinator, told me, “I’m going to call out their names, and if they don’t have an American name you give them one.” I looked at her with disbelief. I had to “give them an American name”, that is a lot of power.

What My Name Means

I had a little flashback. My name is Kurma, but my parents called me “Kerma” all my life. I never understood why they’d change the pronunciation of the first syllable  of my name when in Spanish the vowels are always pronounced the same. When I asked my mother, she said, “Your name is German”, and I went by this for years until my eighth grade teacher told me that in German as in Spanish the vowels are pronounced the way they are written. But my parents, friends, and relatives called me “Kerma’, and I was perfectly happy with that, getting aggravated every time some silly acquaintance dared to called me “Kurma” with a u. Only when I visited the United States for the first time I understood. They called me something very close to “Kerma” at immigration . It is because the vowel “u” changes to the phonetic sound [^] when between consonants. Understanding this was huge. Also, at the first school I had the privilege to work, I bumped into the definition of my name in a small book. It has to do with one of the reincarnations of Vishnu in the shape of a giant turtle in order to churn the ocean of milk and find the chalice of eternal youth. From then on it didn’t bother me to be called “Kurma” with a u because that is the phonetic sound in my mother tongue and in sanskrit too; then in English, they use the [^] which sounds very close to “Kerma” so I have allowed myself to be identify with these variations of my name. But I draw the line here. Do not call me “Karma” or “Kermit”… THAT-IS-NOT-MY-NAME!!

Kurma deva.jpg

Incarnation of Vishnu as a Turtle
Devanagari कूर्म
Affiliation Turtle God and second Avatar of Vishnu
Weapon Chakra
Consort Lakshmi

Lord Vishnu Has ten Avatars, of which this is the second

Chinese Names

Going back to my Chinese pupils. I felt it was a big responsibility to have to choose a name for them. If I were them, I don’t think I’d give them permission to call me by a Chinese name because in my small opinion there is a sacredness, uniqueness, semantics, and blessing that come with  that word or set of words bestowed upon you sometimes even before the moment of your birth.

Learning Moment

Know your strengths and limitations, and open your boundaries to make your bother’s/sister’s life lighter. In the United States I had a handful of Chinese students who told me they had chosen an American name, but since that name was the one in their progress report I didn’t think so much of it until now. I am humbled by the gift my students offered with both hands open. They resign to their names so that I (or any other foreign teacher) have a lighter burden. I am unable to speak their language so they help me by giving me the power to name them the way that is easier for me.

American Names

It was a pretty interesting exercise. Some expressed they already had American names, and though a few times they didn’t seem appropriate, my gift to them was to let them keep their chosen name. As far as for the others, I looked at them briefly and asked myself “What American name do you look like?” And I came out with a name for each one of them, without repeating, even when the classes are as big as 42 students. Thomas, Kevin, Alan, Lily, Jenny, John, Charles, Emma, Elizabeth… They are respectful, they listen, they follow instructions, and most importantly, they are very excited about their learning!!

I have bestowed them with a name, and in return they allow me to give them my gift. The gift of teaching.

Blessings to China!! ❤