Leaving Lishui

Hello, it’s me.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post. It’s taken a couple months for me to fully process the series of events that left me reeling at the end of last term. Yet, I did want to share that I’ll be moving to Beijing at the start of the next academic year!

 I’m still coming to grips with my decision to leave my beloved home of two years, a place I’ve come to view as my Chinese hometown. It’s a big change that I have mixed feelings about, but this move promises lots of new responsibilities and opportunities for growth that’ll be beneficial in the long run.  This is a synopsis of the ups and downs of the last few weeks of the term and subsequent decision on my part to let go.

Unexpected news

My coordinator William, at the Lishui Experimental School where I’ve worked and lived for the past two years, is hands down the best in terms of being on top of paperwork and other requirements I need to do. In May, he had presented me with a contract for 2019-2020 academic year, which I had happily signed with the blessing of our headmaster.

I was walking on sunshine, looking forward to continuing my life in Lishui for a third year. I was going to continue working at our two campuses. I was already making plans for all the things I wanted to accomplish in and out of class, such as meeting with students’ families and seeing the more rural “out-there” parts of Lishui I’d yet to visit. I was even slated to get a nice raise! Life seemed to be going great. William had submitted my contract to the Lishui Education Bureau, and we were essentially playing the waiting game at this time. I wasn’t too worried, though, because last year, we received approval for my contract within about a week and were able to check off in quick succession all the things I needed to renew my work visa before I left to the USA for summer vacation.

William and I at our department’s Women’s Day dinner.

This time around, two weeks passed without any news. I asked and William said maybe next week we’d hear something.

A third week passed and he and I were both becoming pretty antsy and worried. I had already signed the contract for a third year, so we should be good to go! Everything went so smooth last year, I didn’t understand what the holdup was and neither did he. I had about a month left at this point to get my passport turned in to the Immigration Bureau for my work visa before it expired. At that point, I’d have to either leave or be kicked out of the country. Not the most appealing thought, so I persisted in asking.

Another week passed before William drew me to the side one afternoon before one of my 5th grade classes and told me that he had good news and bad news. My heart sank as I asked first for the bad news. He told me that the education bureau wouldn’t be covering my salary for next year, but the good news was that our school really wanted to keep me. The school was essentially trying to squeeze together money to pay me for next year. Confused with little time to go over what he told me before class started, it didn’t hit me until later it wasn’t a definite “Yes” that I’d be allowed to stay on a third year. I wasn’t guaranteed a spot there. This news felt like a huge blow. I’m the type of person who likes to make and stick to definite plans. Having this uncertainty thrown in felt like an avalanche of anxiety. Desperate and panic-y, feeling like my world was crashing down, I wondered if I should just try to find a new position as a backup in case everything fell through. 

At about the same time, a friend of mine in the same program in Lishui went through a similar shake-up. She and another friend had expected to continue working next year at a nearby high school, but during this same month, she found out that her school wouldn’t keep both foreign teachers. In fact, in a cruel move, her headmaster simply flipped a coin as to which teacher to keep, regardless of who was more skilled or any other normal deciding factors. Needless to say, when she heard that she no longer had a job in Lishui for next year, she scrambled, and, within a week, actually found a gig in another city. From her experience, the market sounded like it was really desperate to hire foreign teachers. This gave me confidence that I might not be left high and dry without choices should I have to find work elsewhere for next year.

Weighing my Options

With time ticking away waiting for my school’s answer as to whether or not they could afford me, I poured over online resources and spammed my resume and intro video/teaching demos to legit-seeming recruiters. At this point, though, I was still pretty hopeful my school would come through. Yet, within the span of a day, interviews and offers came pouring in. I found myself scheduling interviews multiple times a day and having to, surprisingly, refuse offers. Some schools were really aggressive, wanting me to negotiate and make decisions on the spot. It was overwhelming! I made a spread sheet to keep up with them all. I honestly didn’t expect so many offers since I wasn’t white, but most didn’t seem to care as long as my passport said “USA” and that I had certified experience.

Having to teach while my brain is elsewhere wasn’t easy. These kids were troopers though, gearing up for our club dance performance.

I did contemplate changing countries. No, not to the USA (sorry folks!). Teaching in Europe would be fun, but they don’t really take care of their teachers like China does (by take care, I mean provide free housing and a plethora of extra benefits). I’d be really forced to watch my spending in Europe. I, at least for now, want to stay where my salary would far exceed the cost of living so I could put down more into my student loans and continue seeing more of the world. I did look into working in Korea or returning to my childhood country of Japan.  However, I ultimately agreed with my husband that perhaps I should continue to focus on my Chinese and study of China for the time being as I’ve invested so much time already doing so over the past decade.

In the meantime, I did have a neat opportunity for being a judge in Lishui’s English Dubbing (voice-over) competition with my friend, Dani!

The Final Say

During this crazy mess of interviewing in my down time. William finally called me with an answer. Apparently the contract that I signed (the same one we’ve used the past TWO years) wasn’t viable anymore (what?!). There were new officials at the head, as the main woman left on maternity leave, and William said that they told him something like our contract was made under a verbal agreement for next year (whatever that means!!!), not the official one the provincial government wanted to use. The new “official” contract approved by the provincial government of Zhejiang essentially capped my salary much lower than what I and my school wanted to pay me. Much lower. Too low. William and another official told me that they could raise it marginally if I agreed to work in a more rural district of Lishui, or I could accept the terms to be able to continue a third year with our school as this would be the salary all public foreign teacher’s would be getting across the board in Zhejiang Province this year. I wasn’t happy. William wasn’t happy. Our school wasn’t happy – they were able to gather the money needed to give me the raise they wanted to give me, but this news threw everyone in a tizzy.

We heard through the grapevine that only two foreigners were allowed per district to teach next year in Lishui officially under the Education Bureau (who had been paying my salary the last two years). This is unbelievable considering we had over six Americans this year in our district of Liandu, Lishui alone, who were all taken care of by the Education Bureau. To go from six to just two seemed unbelievable. This would mean that each school, not being either of the two approved for a foreign teacher, was on its own. These schools wouldn’t receive a foreigner for next year. Sadly, this would include mine if I didn’t stay.

Lots of anti-Trump propaganda going around.

Why would the government limit us like this? Kids and schools are having to lose out on good, talented native-English speaking teachers due to this. My expat friends and Chinese coworkers were equally mystified. Among the speculations was a rumor floating around that Zhejiang Province (and other provinces) were trying to limit the amount of foreigners there because of all the negative things being thrown around between the US and China. We’ll probably never know the exact reasons.

A Hard Decision

It came down to two options: stay and take a low salary, but continue working in a place I loved, or I could leave and try my luck elsewhere. If I stayed in Lishui, I would continue to have my friends, my dorm, my coworkers, my students. Yet, I’d be hard-pressed to find side gigs to supplement my salary. On the otherhand, interviewing was going really well.

Through Wechat, I talked with schools as faraway as Baotou, Inner Mongolia and Kunming, Yunnan. I ultimately settled on two schools with the best pay and benefits. Honestly, neither schools really filled me with butterflies, but Mark reminds me that Lishui probably didn’t either when I first chose to move there ( I can’t remember). After some intense days of back and forth negotiation, I settled on a private school in Beijing. The more I flipped it over in my mind, the more I was convinced that I couldn’t say no to their offer. It was just that good.

Breaking the News, Saying Goodbye,

Dealing with the Guilt and Moving On

Choosing to go was not easy. I think what hurts the most is that I had already accepted a third year. I had signed a contract and everything, even though it wasn’t the right one apparently. Coworkers were making plans with me, students and their parents were making plans with me, and I was already visualizing the things I would get done in and out of school for next term. I really hate letting people down, especially those I love. It felt like I was betraying my school as it was too late for them to apply to have another foreign teacher take my place.  I was a wreck the couple days before I announced my decision. Many coworkers didn’t help by constantly telling me they wished I would stay another year, trying to sway me.

Nonetheless, the benefits of leaving outweighed my desire to stay. Stating my decision caused a bit of a stir. Overnight, I became the talk of the school, with students and coworkers coming up to me to express their opinions about me moving. In China, one doesn’t really have the freedom to just pick up and go like we do in the USA (I read somewhere that the average American has over eight jobs before age thirty). For instance, my coworkers are stuck teaching (probably the same job, in the same town) for years until retirement. What’s sad is knowing for a fact that many of them wouldn’t have chosen that path were they given a choice. In China, the field you go into is usually whatever career path your parents deem acceptable. You’re expected to comply with this from university onward (if you’re lucky enough to pass the exams to get into uni). Thus, you get lots of people sadly stuck in unfulfilling positions, keeping up the appearance of working towards the good of their family. I try to avoid going to hospitals due to this, because heaven forbid you get an apathetic nurse (or doctor that you then have to bribe), but I digress…

My headmaster threw me a goodbye dinner – which was really heartwarming and made me regret my decision a bit. He told me next time I visited, that he’d treat me to dinner, again. I don’t know what I did to deserve such a great work family, but I am grateful to have them all in my life.

Thankfully, most people were really sweet and understanding – especially so when I said I’d be moving to the capital city. I think if I were leaving them for someplace less glamorous, they’d be less than happy.  A few coworkers that I became really close with told me they were sad their kids wouldn’t experience being in my classes. Some staff members were snarky that I’d be making more than they would get for their pension (yes, even my new salary was bounced around – because China). A couple coworkers told me they were proud of me, and that I’d represent my school well, which made me emotional that they considered me part of our school’s family even though I was leaving for a new school and city. I am sad, though, that I didn’t get to say goodbye to all my students, some being too young to fully understand.

Some coworkers, like Raina, were adamant about squeezing in one last meal. She stuffed me full of hotpot, then took me to her mom’s for crayfish, and then over to her mother in-law’s apartment (across from her own) for even more food.

Truthfully, I could’ve stayed another year. I really debated it. Even now, I still go back and forth about my decision to go. Sure, I would have been pinching pennies and trying to supplement my income had I stayed (which really isn’t what I wanted to be doing for another year), but I would have been able to keep all my plans and promises that I made. I would have been able to continue seeing my friends, my school staff, and watch my students grow. I would’ve had my ebike and favorite hangouts. I would’ve had Lishui for just a bit longer…

In one of my breakdowns, my husband reminded me that I did give them two good years. I touched so many lives there, and it might be time to do the same elsewhere. Lishui would always be there to visit, and I had Wechat to keep in contact with people. Another friend also brought my own words back to me with the consolation that perhaps I was getting too comfortable. “When you’re too comfortable, things become routine and monotonous. You don’t grow from comfortable. You have to force yourself to push your own boundaries and biases.”

Upon self-examination, I felt this was true. Lishui was insanely comfortable. In fact, most expats who come here (through AYC or other means) tend to stay longer than they had planned. Lishui is the perfect meld of big and small city. Life there is cozy – I had a good support system and network of expat and Chinese friends. I don’t think I would’ve stayed as long as I did if I didn’t have them. I’m grateful for the time I had in Lishui. I’m also guilty of probably judging Beijing and its climate too harshly and ought to be more open-minded and optimistic instead of letting myself wallow in what-if’s.  

Plus, I’m a military brat. Resilient, adaptable. Like our dandelion symbol, I float with the wind and grow on whatever terrain I happen to land. And who knows? Maybe Beijing will be a wonderful experience! It’s been nearly ten years since I last visited that city (circa 2011), so that’ll be exciting to see how much it’s changed!

Furthermore, I’ll really be pushing myself with way more responsibility than I’ve previously had and longer work hours. I’m nervous and terrified – which is a good thing, right? I stopped being nervous in Lishui, which is probably the best sign to move on. I just hope I can do justice to all the faith and expectations that have been put on me for next year.

AYC 2018-2019 Meeting

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