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16 Months – My Life as an English Teacher in China (Part II)

Name: Chad Heater

Current City: Xi’an

Country of Origin: USA

Years of EFL Experience: 2

Native Language: English

Chinese Level: Beginner


My Sudden Departure

Before the start of the fall semester, I was due my travel bonus; the initial contract I signed stated that I would receive a bonus to cover my initial flight to China. It was the final payday on my old contract and I was expecting the bonus to be included. It wasn’t. I asked Leslie when I would be receiving the bonus we agreed upon and she said it would be on the next payday the following month. I pointed out in the contract that it was due on a specific day, but she apparently was not going to honor that clause. I asked other people at the school about it and received little help.

At that point, I was tired of working for Leslie. She would always say one thing, but do another, and she did not care for my personal health or about my well-being. She only wanted me to work as many classes for her as possible to make her more money. I really enjoyed working at the school I was at, but I really didn’t want to work for someone like her. There were other teaching opportunities out there, but I had become so accustomed to teaching at Gaoxin and had developed a great relationship with all of my students that I didn’t want to start over. I negotiated a new contract with Leslie for a higher pay, but she only agreed to give me a higher salary if I agreed to stay on for another year. Having signed a lease on an apartment, along with one week left until my visa was set to expire and no flight home, I felt like extending the contract with Leslie was my only option. I regretfully signed on with her once again.

By this point, I had established a sound life in Xi’an; it was beginning to feel more like home every day. I had great neighbors with whom I played sports, and they’d invite me over for dinner multiple times a week. I also knew the majority of important bus routes, I could easily give directions to taxi drivers in Mandarin to get around the city, I knew where all the good restaurants (that didn’t make me sick) were, and I was beginning to plan trips to different cities around the country to explore more of China.

Leslie, on the other hand, was something that I could hardly tolerate. At that point life was good and I was teaching 27 classes a week ranging from 45-60 minutes apiece. I had a set schedule, and everything was located conveniently near my home. But a week before the fall semester began, Leslie decided to take two teachers who had working for her out for a meal. During this meal she informed me that I was to teach four additional lessons at a different school during the week. I was opposed to this idea. I moved to that area so I could walk to work, and this new school was out of the way and not in walking distance. She told me not to worry, she would hire a private car to pick me up in front of my building at 8:00 am to take me to one school, then it would pick me up after class and bring me to the other school. It seemed that I had little choice in the matter. Under the impression that this commute would be easier than I expected, I agreed to the terms. Little did I know, there was no private driver; it was all an outright lie – so typical of Leslie.

Since there was no private car, Leslie assumed it would be easy for me to just take a cab to and from that school. She claimed it would be just as easy as a private car, but it most certainly wasn’t. Trying to get a cab at 7:30 am on a weekday in Xi’an is like trying to get tickets to Metallica at Madison Square Garden. So my new schedule had me standing on the corner of a busy intersection for 45 minutes trying to hail a cab twice a week. I also had to transfer busses… TWICE. There were no buses that went directly to the school, so really my only option was taxi. Fortunately for me, the students at that school were an absolute joy and loved my lessons. This made the experience worthwhile. During the fall, I was teaching classes at the training center and two other schools, along with my private lessons for Gavin. It was the most work I had since arriving, but it all fit inside my schedule.

One evening, Gavin’s parents found cheap tickets to Chongqing. They weren’t sure if they had the time to go, but asked if I would like for them to help book a ticket for me. Having never been to Chongqing, I was very excited and told them to book the flight. I had been working hard all semester and assumed that I could get the weekend off. Parents would cancel classes on me all the time. I didn’t think it would be an issue for me to cancel my classes, especially with a ten-day notice.

However, it wasn’t OK with Leslie. She gave me a total guilt trip and reprimanded me for the situation. I explained everything that I had done for them in the past: not taking sick leave while suffering from a stomach bug, teaching courses until 20:30 and dealing with the treacherous commute home. They didn’t care. They were concerned about losing face with the family they were canceling with. I told them that I have a unique opportunity to visit a city that I’d never been to before, and that traveling was part of the reason I came to China. A simple request turned into a problem, but I had already booked a non-refundable ticket; I was going and nobody was going to stop me.

Chongqing was the first city I visited solo in China. I had gone to Beijing with my friend and his girlfriend, and had stayed with an old friend in Shanghai, but in Chongqing it was just me. The weekend was an incredible adventure. I took a cruise on the river, hiked around the arboretum for a day, ate at local restaurants, made new friends with people from Chengdu, and visited a famous hot spring north of the city. It was an amazing trip, and taking a nice little vacation was enough to de-stress me from the long days of work and Leslie’s shenanigans.


The End
My return flight landed at 00:30 in Xi’an. I had to get home and get some sleep before classes the next day. I hailed a cab that night and negotiated a fare to get to Gaoxin. During the ride home, however, the cab driver decided that he wanted more money for the ride. He pulled off the highway and down a small dirt road. He stopped the car and lit a cigarette. Then he told me that out of the blue he decided to raise the fare to 150 RMB. In the best Chinese I had, I told him no and that we agreed to 100 RMB initially. He just kept smoking his cigarette. I told him again that 100 RMB is the most I will pay and that he needs to drive. In response to this, he raised the price to 175 RMB.

In the 13 months I’d been there, this was the first confrontation I had with a driver. I was essentially being robbed and I had absolutely no idea where I was. Call it foolishness, frugality, pride, or whatever, I was not going to give in. (In retrospect, I should have. What was an additional 50 RMB to me? An extra class?)

I needed someone that spoke fluent Chinese and English to explain the situation to the driver. The only person able to do that was my employer, Leslie. I called her three times and she never answered. Meanwhile, the driver put the car into gear and began driving down the dirt road, taking multiple turns. At one point I knew where the highway was, but after the series of turns I no longer did. I decided I would call the other teacher that worked for Leslie to explain the situation to him and to find out where Leslie was. He didn’t know and his Chinese was worse than mine. The only thing he told me to do was to take a photo of his certification (posted on the dash) and we’d deal with it tomorrow. Angry from the lack of help from the people that brought me to China, I told him that I would see him tomorrow and hung up. I decided I would agree to the 150 RMB and just pay him 100 RMB once I got out of the cab and had my bags. I eventually made it home a little after 2:00. I got out, took photos of his plates, his ID and of him. I paid him 100 RMB and left before he had a chance to explode with anger.

The next day I still couldn’t get in contact with Leslie; she wasn’t answering my calls. Everyone could tell I was rather upset from what transpired that night. I kept telling myself that it was all a part of the adventure, which it was, but I was disappointed that no one was there to help me. I showed the photos and asked how I would go about filing a report with the local authorities. Everyone was uninterested and unhelpful. This made me begin to realize that I was more of a commodity to my employer than an actual person. They didn’t listen to my problems and didn’t care to help me. They just wanted me to keep working for them like a mule, no matter what. This became even more evident once my eardrums broke due to an infection, and when I began coughing so hard I collapsed to the ground.

Weeks passed and my cough got even worse. On top of that, I was beginning to lose hearing in my right ear. It was filling up with fluid and becoming more painful by the day. It was an early morning when I first lost consciousness. I was getting ready for work when a coughing spell hit me. I was coughing uncontrollably and passed out. Luckily I lived in a studio apartment and was close to my bed. When I woke up and caught my breath, I called Leslie and my assistants to tell them what had happened. No one answered their phones as usual. I wrote it off as a fluke and decided I would go in and deal with it in person.

Once I met my assistant I told her what had happened. Either she didn’t understand or she didn’t care. I informed my coworkers what had happened and they told me I needed to drink more hot water. I made it through the work day and told the family in my complex about it. The next morning they took me to the hospital (something Leslie would not offer to do for another several weeks). I also told them about the issues I was having with both of my ears, hoping to get everything knocked out in one visit. The doctor was very nice and helped clean up my ear drums – both had become perforated due to the infections. He gave me medicine to fight the infection and also scheduled me to come in to help alleviate my upper respiratory infection.

I was at the hospital for three hours that morning and called in sick to work knowing that it may take longer. They didn’t ask how I was feeling, they just told me I needed to get back to teaching ASAP. This is another instance in which I realized that they had no interest in my well being, they just needed me in those classes to make them more money. As the week progressed my ears got worse. I slept very little and would wake to blood and puss on my pillow. I continued taking my prescriptions and going in for the treatment of my lung infection. I had missed three days of classes that week, and it was enough to get Leslie to call me. She informed me that if I was to miss anymore classes, it would be my responsibility to find a replacement. I didn’t have a ton of friends and I didn’t want to put the ones that I did have in front of the wrath of Leslie. I told her that I was unable to do that and she told that I had to be at work regardless.

Those words were the straw that broke the camel’s back. I went back to work and booked a ticket home that day at lunch.

In the past when I’ve quit a job, I’ve always given a two-week notice at work no matter how terrible it was. But after what I went through with this employer, I wouldn’t give them the courtesy. As far as I was concerned, they were not holding up their end of the contract, so I didn’t need to hold up mine. The most difficult part was telling the family that had been helping me that I needed to go back to the US to take care of my health. Despite all of the medicine and visits to the hospital, I wasn’t getting any better. They were sad to see me go, but they told me they would help me in any way they could.

I got up at 5:00 in the morning and headed to the airport, leaving in the middle of the night without telling Leslie or any of the staff I was leaving (this is a move many English teachers around China call “the Midnight Run”). Since returning home, I’ve had three surgeries on my ear and still suffer from a loss of hearing in that ear. I don’t know if any of this could have been prevented with earlier treatment, but my ENT told me he had never seen such a terrible infection in an adult.

I don’t want my story to discourage someone from taking an adventure in China. If I had the choice to do it all over again, I would in a heartbeat. I have no regrets from the time I spent there. The highs and the lows were what got me to where I am now. The best word of advice I can give you is to be careful with the employers that you work for. Some will work you into the ground and only view you as a means to get paid. Not all schools are like this; I know many other English teachers who have had wonderful working experiences.

In the end, your experience in China will be just that: an experience. Roll with the punches, stay positive and keep an open mind, and you will walk away from your time in China as a more worldly and wiser individual.

The End

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