The Road to China

Chapter 1: Get a Job

(Sha na na na Sha na na na na)

"Dear Prospective Foreign Expert for China,

It is with profound regret and deep disappointment that I write this letter to you.

Since my return to China, I have discovered another side of my boss. He is lacking in honor. He often makes promises and breaks his word without a second thought to the consequences to the individuals concerned. He has forcibly removed foreigners without giving adequate thought to their concerns and complaints. He has promised monies for overtime work and failed to provide it. He has done all this knowing he has more than sufficient funds, according to his word. I don't believe a Westerner's conscience would allow him to act in this manner.

[…] He has refused to reimburse people for their expenses on his behalf and he has withheld salary. If he can do it to us, he can do it to you. And this is only the beginning. I have only scratched the surface. Therefore, I feel, that in order to protect my reputation, and free me from any responsibility regarding you treatment here, I must warn you and recommend that you consider carefully coming here."

That was an email from the guy who recruited me. Keep reading, it gets better…

One of the statues near Beijing's Forbidden City


Please excuse my typing. I am shaking. Rian attacked me and held me hostage for 3 hours this morning. I have been to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and they referred me to another agency this afternoon. I may have to get the Am. Embassy involved.

While I was here yesterday emailing you, he entered the room clandestinely again and stole the computer Sam made me and many other things.

I want to bring this to court, and they say I have a right to, but they also say that he controls many gov't. officials as he is head of a small mafia and bribes them regularly. We will see how far it goes."

And again the next day:

"Hi Gary: This is Bob. I'm hiding out at the friend of a friend's place. Rian found out where I was and came here with his body guards/drivers and now I'm afraid for Tory and his mother. I did contact the US embassy in Beijing and they want me to go there soon. I hope Tory's mother could lend me the money to go. Rian has stolen virtually everything I own and that includes all the documentation. I am sorry to have put you in such a situation, but I had no idea he was operating illegally and he was such a paranoid schizophrenic. I knew he was tight. But this is beyond belief."

It sounds like a plot to a really bad movie. Oddly, I later discovered that his experience was not unique - Chinese business leaders in general have a reputation for being pretty slimy. Further emails from Bob went into much more detail about how he got beaten several times, how he (unsuccessfully) tried to escape his 3rd story apartment by tying his bedsheets together and throwing them over the balcony, how none of the officials in Datong could be trusted, and how he had to hide out with several different families, but I think you all get the idea by now. Timing in life is everything -- I was receiving these emails a mere three days before I was scheduled to leave for China to teach at this school!!

Bathing somewhere in the city.

Upon receiving these emails, I immediately emailed the school and made up a story about a close family member being ill and I therefore would not be able to teach this semester. (The sympathy emails in response were really quite touching!) Then I sat and stared at my non-refundable one-way plane ticket and almost $1,000 in White Guy Health Insurance (also non-refundable) that were sitting on my desk. I had made all arrangements to be away for 4 months; my business and my dog Kona were both in good hands, and I was itching to get out of Dodge. I decided to fly to Beijing anyway and try my luck at finding a job.

This is how all adventures begin, and so far it has been wonderful. About a day after I arrived I met up with Dr. Bob Loren, (the guy who recruited me and author of the email excerpts above) who had apparently succeeded in leaving Datong and had landed a part time job at the No. 80 High School in Beijing, a most amazing place. He let me stay with him for a few days while I started to network and find work. Networking in Beijing is extraordinarily easy - everyone here is so friendly and helpful! I have even been approached many times on the street by excited strangers who wanted nothing more than to practice their English with me!

A no-frills convenience store outside the hotel.

Beijing is a difficult city to describe. It is at once a "salad bowl" mix of Manhattan, Moscow, and the worst parts of Mexico - and sometimes they are layered on top of one another, rather than residing in different geographic zones. And in true Soviet style, the most modern-looking office buildings have built-in window air conditioners and exposed pipes on the inside for easy maintenance, kind of reminiscent of the movie "Brazil".  The amount of high-rise construction here is insane - and it occurs around the clock. Efforts to modernize (read: raze and rebuild) many cities throughout China quadrupled recently with their acceptance into the World Trade Organization and winning the bid for the 2008 Olympics. Oddly, the only traditional Chinese architecture (apart from the Forbidden City and Summer Palace) you will see are the restaurant facades.

Two things that stand out most in this city are the seemingly perpetual haze/overcast, and the almost incessant desire to be all things American. (Quite a break from 50 years ago, eh?) English is everywhere; you can find a McDonald's or KFC every 8 feet and they are always packed.


"Day of Soup"

Her own fan club.

And the English Teaching industry is everywhere. Although English is a standard part of the Chinese curriculum (from elementary to high school and college), there is an awareness that their grasp of the language, often humorously referred to as "Chinglish" and associated most with bad product assembly instructions, can be improved upon and many people who are driven to succeed will spend a lot of money for a private English language school. Most of the job descriptions here are very similar - sign a contract (usually for 1 year), and they will give you room and board, pay your meals and transportation, and also give you the equivalent of about USD $600.00 per month, a king's ransom unless you're a corrupt government official. There is usually also a lump sum at the end of your contract period which theoretically covers your round-trip airfare -- they do it this way to provide slight incentive not to leave before your agreed time is up.  Teaching is only about 20 - 25 hours per week, and the savvy English instructor can supplement their income by doing private tutoring on the side. And since the new semester starts on September 1st, the race was on to find the best job before the window of opportunity closed.


The School

While looking for work I shared a room at High School Number 80 in the Wangjing district, probably the most impressive public school I've ever seen and certainly the best in all of Beijing (and some say all of China). It is the USC of high schools, in that the only way to attend is if you're in the top 1% of academic achievers throughout China, or if your parents can buy your way in. The school has a brand new campus (see pictures), including a huge gymnasium, computer facilities, and even its own observatory (don't ask why they build an observatory in a city with perpetual overcast!)  Mozart plays over the loudspeakers instead of bells to mark the beginning and end of classes.


I have now been here a week, my Mandarin is slowly improving, and have amassed about 5 job offers, and finally accepted one earlier today. I sign the papers on Sunday and start on Monday. Not much time for training!  I'm staying with a 30-year English teaching veteran here so I'll have some good coaching on effective ways of teaching.

A form of Mahjong on a hot summer's day.

Not all schools are run by crooks - in my short stay here I have already met several Americans who run the schools and who were referred to me because of their integrity. And I was impressed with many of the private schools I toured. After turning down 3 job offers and considering 2 others, I got a phone call on Friday morning at 11:00; a job offer close to Wangjing for a little more than average, with room and board, which starts on Monday. And I have to respond within 45 minutes!! I love offers like that, because it means the school is desperate for a teacher and you can negotiate your salary upward, which in fact I did. Now that I've accepted, on Sunday I'll see the two campuses I'll be teaching at and see the apartment they'll provide for me. This should be interesting!! :-) 


"One order of Fried Ox Penis, Please!"

The food here has been surprisingly good. I attribute that to the fact I'm still in a major city and because I have been with others I didn't get to try much of the smaller non-touristy restaurants. I plan several weekend excursions to the countryside so I can see what the vast majority of China looks like, and try their local specialties. Only a handful of things caught me off guard, and so I felt compelled to share them with you below:


As you can see, there has been nothing but nonstop activity since I got here, and there was no time to sit down and write postcards (or even create a web page!!). I hope to be settled into my new place by Wednesday, and expect to have a little more time to relate some of the more obscure things that have happened to me since arriving.

"Yours Truly, Gary Friedman"

August 29, 2003

Next Page - Chapter 2

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