Our life in Urumqi

Well, our time in Xinjiang has come to an abrupt end and we’re en route to Thailand to begin a tour of continental SE Asia.

The last few weeks have most definitely been rough on both of us; the stresses of the last week especially have tested our sanity to breaking point. Here’s the story;

We were promised two weeks of holiday time for the end of June, which, after dates had been confirmed, became 9 days (including four weekend days). Not bad, but not what we’d been told we’d be getting. Even more unexpected was the idea that we work six days a week for six weeks on our return. So, yes, we get holidays, no, we don’t get our contractual holiday leave. Go figure. To make the situation worse, the company wanted us to have around 35 hours of contact time per week as part of a summer intensive course while the students were on holiday from school. To put it into perspective, that’s six hours of teaching time per day for six days consecutively FOR SIX WEEKS. This is way outside of the stipulations in our contracts, in which we get two days off per week and 25 contact hours. I won’t bore you with the details of what these classes were actually meant to be. Okay, just a little: disembodied, ineffectual phonics. Basically, the Chinese staff found lots of words with the same letters in them and that that was a good way to teach phonetics. For non-teachers reading, that’s like taking the words ‘ear’ and ‘pear’  and saying they have the same -ea- sound because they have the same -ea- spelling. Obviously English doesn’t work like this at all. But try telling them that!

More disturbing was the revelation that one of our friendly American colleagues, who fled the country after apparently facing a heavy fine from the police for taking photos of an undisclosed military base, was completely innocent. The other Pumpkin school in Urumqi (and perhaps our one, too) was not registered to have foreign employees (all the paperwork is done in Chongqing where they are registered – it’s a province by province thing). During their investigations as to why a 6ft2in tall ginger American was covertly spying on the glorious nation of China, (by wandering around, openly taking photos) the police discovered this gem and wanted to find the school a sum of 100,000RMB (10,000 quid). However, something went seriously wrong when this was translated back to him: our colleague had to pay the fine as HE was to blame for taking the photos.

In fact, as we’ve now been told, the police didn’t care about him, illegally employing foreigners is considered much more heinous. Our colleague was being told by our employer that he would have to pay the fine and it was his fault because he was taking photos in a sensitive area. Due to him not speaking Mandarin, the school was going to take advantage of him and make him pay their fine.  During all of the police interviews one of our Chinese colleagues had been translating and so, evidently, had been lying through her teeth on company orders. Totally reprehensible.

Our reaction has been swift and decisive. We booked flights to Thailand, got our money out of China (on company time; I’m kinda proud) and gave no notice. Quite simply, if they want to employ foreigners illegally and extort money from us for their own failings they don’t deserve the courtesy of a notice period or any prior warning whatsoever. Or any foreign staff. In any case, we fully expected them to become vindictive on learning we were leaving. We packed up last night and were gone by the time we were meant to start work this morning with no regrets and barely a backwards glance.

Getting on the plane today was a wonderful feeling. The upset stomach I’ve had for months has cleared up immediately (and he’s eating enough food for three people: Ange) and Angela is smiling real smiles again. Also, the revolutionary in me is feeling contented in having been able to make a toast to (just saying it is illegal) East Turkestan with a Uyghur friend of a friend. People have been jailed for less in Xinjiang. The last night in Urumqi proved cathartic. Scotland could learn lessons from these politically repressed peoples around the world, it would make our own self-determination debate much wiser and nuanced. That, though, is for a follow-up piece after we’re well and truly across the border.

(I should point out; Ian wrote this on Saturday night during a long airport layover, it’s taken a few days for me to get it up. China is quickly receeding into vague memory.)

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