Sick, Dazed, and Confused in China

I was paid my last salary in cash, after a recurrent illness that took me to ER in a few occasions. The last time I got sick I still went to work, then my stomach was in so much pain I started crying and screaming. They called Elina, the coordinator, and she said she’d meet me at the nurse’s office in 20 minutes. At that point the part of the contract that says Part A will explain the rules and regulations of the country to Part B hadn’t been fulfilled, and despite of having been working at the school for almost a year they managed to never reveal which doctors or hospitals I had access to since the school didn’t provide health insurance, breaking one more of the clauses stipulated.

With the help of Paul, one of my students, I went to the nurse’s office where I was given three brown pills (I recognized this “medicine” from the very first time I got sick in China). These are supposed to stop the frequent diarrhea. Nevertheless, this time my body didn’t react so positively. The stomach spams increased, I was squirming, Paul helped me walk to the restroom, then we kept waiting for the coordinator. My confusion and despair grew bigger. I didn’t know which hospital to go to since the school hadn’t paid for my past medical bills and I didn’t have a hospital’s Chinese address to show to a taxi driver. I was thinking if only the coordinator showed up she’d be able to interpret between me and the doctors either at the Chinese or at the No. 2 hospital. One hour passed by and the pain was increasing so I looked for help at the international school. Paul helped me get there. As I explained the situation, the director immediately called for help and I was put in a taxi with instructions to take me to the Number 2 hospital making a little detour to the ATM for the hospital received cash only. Now I realize calling for help at the other school was a bad move, because this made my school lose face; but what  else can you do when facing a matter of life or death?

Once at the hospital, the angry VIP or Chinese interpreter (she didn’t like that she had been called last minute) started asking me questions. I had to tell her to cool it off. I was the one in pain, she was there to be the language bridge, plus she was getting paid for her time!  I had a fever, they wrote my symptoms, and plugged me to an IV for 4.5 hours. The VIP told me I had a virus, but she couldn’t tell what kind since the doctor was on another floor and everybody was pretty much getting ready to leave.

I came back home around 11:00 pm and texted my friends that I was okay. I was falling asleep around midnight when a drunk teacher who lived in the same building started banging on my door accusing me of betraying my school and faking my illness. One of my friends came downstairs and I pulled her in immediately while this teacher kept screaming that I had kidnapped my own friend! I called the police but they didn’t speak any English so they let him go with a pad on the back… and he banged on my door again at 3:45 am. I was recording as much as possible and sent the initial video to the school leaders.

The next day, Elina and four guards knocked on my door around 4:00 pm. Naively, I felt glad to see my video had caught their attention, but who was I in this country? Just a foreign woman teaching English to their children. The four guards and Elina were speaking in Chinese basically ignoring me, and the guards were invading all my space, pacing in my kitchen, bedrooms, looking around… I had the video with me and was ready to answer their questions, even to call my friend as a witness, but they didn’t let me speak. The school year was almost over so Elina pulled out a huge envelope filled with money explaining this was my last salary. She asked me to count the mountain of 100-yuan bills. I was still in naïveté mode feeling thankful they were paying me earlier while all the guards took photos of me counting. I confirmed the amount was right after making a bunch of 1,000-yuan packages.

“You have been sick for a long time and it’s better for you to go home to recover.” Said Elina. I was bewildered. What about the attack I had suffered the previous night? I pulled out the video, but they continued speaking in Chinese. “They will take care of it.” The coordinator spoke again.

“I can help you pack.” The coordinator continued. Suddenly I realized what was happening and called my friends right away. I started asking a bunch of questions. I was still sick, I had been attacked, the perpetrator was still in the building, I couldn’t just pack and leave!

My friends came with no delay asking questions as well. “She’s been sick and she needs to recover at home.” The coordinator repeated. “But… you want her to leave now?”

“She’s been sick…” Okay, okay… My friend told her I would stay with her and they could leave the apartment, but they didn’t move. “The guards are staying because she said she needs protection.” The coordinator muttered as she was exiting. “No! She doesn’t need your protection now! We are here and she’ll be okay!” My friends jumped like lionesses protecting their cubs.

They left, and being aware of how ill I was, my friends packed for me only stopping to ask what to trash and what to bring with me. They did all the work, and the next day I woke up in a nice bed at my friend’s apartment, still in shock.

It is said that if we were to help remove itself from the cocoon, the butterfly would not be strong enough to survive. It is the struggle that prepares the butterfly to become strong enough to fly.

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
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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!

Advantages of Living In China

As an international teacher who works in China I find the country fascinating and challenging at times. However, if you are planning to live in this country there are several advantages to your journey that you must certainly enjoy.

Free Rent

In most cases, foreign teachers are granted a furnished free rent apartment. I was a little skeptical on what kind of place I was going to live in because I’d heard spaces are small, but they provided a spacious two bedroom apartment with a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, and a washer! No dryer since in China most people dry out their clothes by hanging them outside.

Free Lunch

wp-1488711494290.jpgAs if staying in a place for free wasn’t enough, teachers are offered free lunch made daily by a chef trained in the west. Menus are varied, nutritious, delicious, and there is always fruit and soup! We have been blessed, because our school has its own farm, so all products we eat are organic and fresh!

No Taxes

Of course you have to pay taxes, but when you go shopping the tax is included in the price of the item. And it applies also for sales. If a piece of clothing has a 40% discount you don’t have to do the whole math of calculating the extra 8 or 10% after the discounted price. Paradise for shopaholics!! Which leads us to…

Cheap Food and Clothes

Almost everything in China is inexpensive or really cheap. You can dine out literally every day and that won’t ruin your budget. And if you buy groceries to cook at home you are saving much more! You can also find good quality clothes and shoes. However, even

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though in the United States I can wear sizes S and M, here I have to aim for the biggest sizes, especially pants, which for me are XXL, but even that size sometimes doesn’t fit me. That made me feel a little self conscious for a while, especially when I was denied to try on a coat because I was too (big), but I understand that they make the sizes smaller because the population in general is short and slim. The other problem is if your shoe size is 9.5 or bigger. “Meiyou”, no shoes for you ladies 😦

No Tips

This is actually a good thing! At least for customers 😉 Restaurants, spa hotels, coffee shops, bars, taxis, manicurists… You name it. No one demands a tip. You pay for what you order then you don’t have to think about that 15-20% tip or how to split this when you are out with friends. Yipee!!

“Celebrity” Treatment

mmexport1475937099457.jpgChina is a country with zero diversity. That’s why people feel enthralled when someone different is around. Anywhere a foreigner goes heads turn, people elbow their neighbors, and cell phones are pulled out to take pictures of you. It’s funny the tricks they use to get your picture taken. They might follow you for a few steps, or if you are at the bus stop or on the train, they shoot selfies with the peace sign, making you the background of their photos.  Now I know how Halle Berry feels when the paparazzi are all over her. Give me some privacy, please!!  😉

Traveling Options

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Thailand

Because one is able to save money, it is relatively easy to travel to nearby countries. I have had the great opportunity to visit Taiwan and Thailand. And if one has more money and time there’s Vietnam, Laos, Korea, Japan, the Philippines… But also being China as big and ancient as it is there are tons of landmarks and tourist attractions, like the Great Wall, and Shanghai Disneyland.

Safety

China might be one of the safest countries on Earth! For starters, no one is allowed to carry guns, and there are cameras everywhere, so if there is a crime the guilty would be identified and get punished without delay. I love to be able to go out for dinner or a late movie with friends, and take a taxi at 1, 3, 5 in the morning. By the way, all taxis are equipped with cameras as well, which makes it safer for the driver as well as the passengers.

Art Lovers

China has a long history of poetry, opera, and visual arts. Chinese love art in all its forms and they are very appreciative when you perform for/with them during their holiday festivals. Performances are an important part of the Chinese and no one is shy when it’s time to demonstrate their talents. Old Chinese women dancers or dama are often performing in the streets no matter the late hours or if they block traffic, and from a very young age children learn to play the piano, the violin, or more traditional instruments like the guzheng.

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Friendship

And last, but not least, you start friendships that might last a lifetime. It didn’t take me long to meet my “besties” at school, and once you begin to socialize and loosen up your circle of friends becomes wider and stronger. And your new friends are always there to cheer you up when you feel homesick, which is inevitable. Expats give their support freely, because we are all on the same boat.

“China is a big country, inhabited by many Chinese.”

Charles de Gaulle