A Mitigated Disaster

As I approach the first anniversary of my time here in China, I can only say that it has been a mitigated disaster. Mitigated, because it could have been worse. But still; in all, a disaster.

Teaching English in China and Taiwan is a young person’s game. You must essentially be a high-energy prop comic specializing in “infotainment.” Furthermore, unless you work for a legitimate, state-run public school, you will be working for, and with, criminals and gangsters. And if you work in China, you can make much more money than you could in Taiwan, but you will not be able to get it out of the country and into your own bank account without considerable inconvenience.

All in all, though I had been happy in this profession twenty years ago, and although I am relatively accepting of my current situation, I cannot recommend teaching ESL in China as a career. I have been working away without a proper Z-class working visa. That situation is about to be rectified. But the people for whom I am currently working (or for whom I am supposed to be working, since I never got the paperwork) have, over the past year, have not been able to get me proper working papers. This is despite my having given them all the required paperwork on my part. Perhaps it wasn’t really important to them; my employers are actually Taiwanese, and while China considers them to be Chinese, as an American citizen, I am particularly at risk, not them. Especially since China and America are in a cold war that is heating up, thanks to the current administration in Washington.

I have often had to work six days a week, and sometimes seven. I am supposedly on a set monthly salary, yet my employers keep track of hours, assessing down to the minute. Worse, I have had to pay for my own flights and trips every sixty days to stay in compliance with my tourist visa. Something I should not have had to do with a proper work visa. Sick days were limited, as they are in America, nor were holidays paid.

When I was being courted to come here, I was told to expect a high salary, in addition to hongbao from grateful parents. I was promised great wealth. I was told that although there would be the opportunity to write and publish textbooks, there was already a curriculum in place from a school called “Calvert.” And I was given to understand that my friend from Taiwan over twenty years ago, would be running the show.

In fact, while the pay was indeed stellar, there was no prepared curriculum for the kindergarten and pre-k programs, and even fewer materials. The school was brand new, a startup proposition.

Now, to be fair, I was not really fit for this position. Indeed, I had protested that I had not been teaching for some twenty years, and that my skills were extremely rusty. But it seemed that they expected me to walk right in as if I’d just come off my last position in Taiwan as a head teacher, well experienced with k and pre-k curriculum.

But, as I’ve shared, I have been out of the game since 2002. My skills, unused since then, had deteriorated badly. Also, I was now twenty years older, twenty years more cynical, twenty years mentally exhausted, crushed by corporate America’s office culture. Furthermore, I had been used before by a Taiwanese businessman (read: low-level criminal) to build the foundations of an empire including curriculum, and audio materiel (still in use to this day, I’m given to understand). I never saw a penny of the value I’d helped to create, and was feeling loath to go through that again. This certainly affected my motivation over this past year.

I have been trying to regain my old skills of twenty years ago, here over the past year, and not much else. I certainly don’t consider myself worth the salary the have been paying me. Ah, but there are other hidden costs, in addition to my having to shell out for my own airfare every two months.
I have had many bills at home, mostly related to my home. Mostly including utilities, property taxes, HELOC bills—The original plan had been to rent out the house, so that I could have some sort of passive income while trying to reestablish myself in China. I would have needed to bring the house up to code so that I could rent it out.

Now in theory, I should have been able to do this. Certainly, my salary was sufficient. However, the first problem was that in China, one is only allowed to purchase USD$500.00 per day. That meant that it would take me a week to purchase enough money to send home by wire. Furthermore, without a work visa, I could not have a bank account of my own, meaning I had to be reliant on my colleagues who did.

Eventually, I could no longer keep up my home. I was unable to get funds home in sufficient amounts, or regularly enough to be able to maintain it. And so, nine months into my stay in China, I have to let go of my childhood home, and my future security.

So were I to go home now, what could I do? What would I have? I have no car, no transportation. No home, no savings to speak of, and no insurance. I have a plethora of health concerns: High blood pressure, tachycardia, diabetes, and clinical depression.

By chasing after these empty promises in China, I have burned all my bridges behind me. I really should never have come, even though technically, the work is better than working in call centers into my senior years. It was a mistake to have come.

I can only console myself by remembering that given the information I had at the time, I made the correct decisions.

I cannot return to America at this point. But I currently have an offer from a high school in Beijing that is affiliated with Beijing Normal University. It’s a legitimate public school, and everything is ready for my Z-class work visa. While the salary is only half what I had been getting at my former place of “employment,” I will be provided with a free, fully furnished apartment, sixteen weeks of paid vacation, and they will cover my airfare. Further, the hours will be much reduced, as I will be working for the public school district, and not a buxiban. This will give me time to continue writing, and possibly begin seriously training again in martial arts.

If I am lucky, I should be able to support myself for the next ten years or so before I die. And if I am lucky, I may be able to leave another three or five books behind me, so that my name won’t be completely forgotten for a few years after I’m gone.

So, there it is. This has been a disastrous year for me. But I have survived.
Stay tuned for further updates.

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a high school ESOL teacher, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in Beijing's Dongcheng district
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1 Response to A Mitigated Disaster

  1. elenapedigo says:

    Yikes! Sounds like a very difficult situation. Hope it improves soon.


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