Moving to Shenzhen, pt. 1: of authenticating, emailing, and waiting.

We're moving to China in the fall! International adventure, here we come! We have been surprised how much we miss traveling overseas–after all, the last year has seen us move cross country, make road trips to Las Vegas and San Francisco, and explore a fair bit of Utah. Living and traveling in a different country simply stimulates the adventure gland in a way that exploring at home doesn't. Thus, when the chance to work overseas came again, we were happy to take it.

Here's what is going on with our move. After I, Shon, accepted the position in Shenzhen, I had to e-mail a variety of documents to the school's Human Resources department. Those include some obvious ones like a CV and letters of reference, but also some which aren't so typical for your average USA job. Those include copies of passports for the whole family, marriage and birth certificates, a criminal background check (normal for a teacher, after all), medical checkup forms, and a copy of my highest college degree. Oh, plus notarized Chinese translations of the marriage and birth certificates. And a signed statement that I'll abide by Chinese laws and be a decent person. A number of those documents have to be authenticated, as well.

We learned back in 2012 how to go about authenticating documents. Here's the process. First, we take original documents (in the case of the degree, my notary made a photocopy and then indicated that it was a copy of the original) and have them notarized by local officials. The next step in the process is to take the notarized copy (in the case of the degree) to the county Clerk of Court and have that person indicate that the notary is, in fact, legitimate, and sign and seal this statement. Now that document goes to the State Capitol, where the Secretary of State applies the State Seal. After that, the document is then ready to go to Washington, D.C., where it is again stamped by the US Secretary of State. After all that, it has to go to the Embassy of whatever country (the UAE in 2012, China this year) where the document gets its final stamp. The local step is usually free; the state level costs a little bit (usually $10), and the national level costs more. The Embassy charges, too. Since we don't live anywhere near Washington, D.C., we use a courier service (ProEx, the same one we used before) to tote our documents from one place to another, which greatly reduces the amount of time it takes for everything to be completed. As you might imagine, all those fees add up.

Oh, and yeah, we've had to get things re-authenticated, because the Chinese Embassy requires documents to be freshly done–it didn't matter that we'd already had this done five years ago and could furnish those proven documents. In the case of the criminal background check, I must admit that this makes sense, but as for the other documents, well, it seems like a simple way to generate revenue, doesn't it? However, be that as it may, having things authenticated again is necessary, so we bit the bullet and did everything over again. I say "did," but I mean "are doing," as we are still waiting for documents to return from D.C.

Here's a list of the documents that we're having authenticated, as well as the way those fees add up.

-Local and state level notarizations for marriage certificate and background check: $40 (approximate; I forgot how much my background check cost to obtain)
-DC notarization & authentication of degree $70.00;
-US Dept. of State authentication of 3 documents $24.00;
-Embassy of China legalization of 5 documents $125.00;
-ProEx service fee and FedEx shipping: $205.

Grand total: $464. Not at all cheap, right? Like I said, though, that's just how it is. While we're on the topic of money, if you add in the $120 fee for notarized translations, we've got a total of $584. That $120 was a marvelous bargain, by the way. Ah, and I seem to have forgotten that it cost money to mail our stuff to ProEx, too–that was around $40.  So we're well over the $600 mark.

What will happen next is that we send scans of all this stuff along with previously e-mailed documents to HR in China. Then the Shenzhen government will issue an official invitation letter, and I will take that letter to the Chinese Embassy along with our passports, and apply for a work visa. At least, that's the basics of it.

We'll have to DHL a few original documents to China, too, which is interesting. Regarding the other documents, we'll have to take all the originals along when we relocate.

At this point, we simply wait for paperwork to be finished up in order that we may continue the process I outlined above. None of it is really that hard. It can, however, be stressful, and that tends to be compounded by the bureaucratic hassle (this sort of paperwork epitomizes bureaucracy, with requirements being very specific, even for reference letters) and expectations that are sometimes unclear with HR. So, we mutter in exasperation, shrug the shoulders, and do things again. During the waiting, I've actually had plenty of things to do–emailing things already emailed, for example; obtaining letters of reference with wording in just such a fashion conforming to particular guidelines, and so forth. Who ever said waiting around is boring?

 

 

Money Monday: 4 Years in

It’s been almost 4 years now that we’ve been living the expat life, experiencing life overseas and away from home. Regular readers know that we’ve found this to be a challenging, but generally wonderful period of our lives. We’ve had children, we’ve traveled to corners of the globe we once only day dreamed about, and we’ve mingled with lovely people from all sorts of places we’d have never been blessed to meet otherwise. That said, one of the major stressors in anybody’s life, except maybe the privileged few from the one percent, is finances. Living abroad carries its own stressors, of course, especially after moving to a new location, but we’ve sought and found employment that allows us to significantly allay our financial stresses, and that’s a big deal.

Going rent-free and enjoying the reduced expenses of life in the UAE allowed us to pay off my student loans in 2 years, a task that seemed Herculean, though not impossible, in the USA; the best aspect of working in the UAE was that I, Shon, generated the income (if you subtract taxes) that it took 2 of us to make in the States. The income was one of the redeeming elements of the job, along with the shorter work days.

So where do we stand at this juncture, approaching 4 years into our adventures in ordinary life abroad? How are we faring financially? We are doing alright, I’m glad to say. We’re not wealthy, by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re able to put back a healthy nest egg, a significant portion of which came in the from of the 3 years worth of bonus pay (not really bonus, given that it’s contractually obliged) from working for ADEC; and we’ve been building the savings account nicely.

Besides the savings account, in 2014 we opened a couple of Individual Retirement Accounts and started contributing to them–only to discover that, as we should have known from reading about them, but failed to notice, IRAs are meant to be contributed to from taxable income only, and we would be looking at a significant tax penalty every year we had no USA taxable income (and, of course, one of the main advantages to working in Abu Dhabi was that we weren’t being taxed). So, with the assistance of our Edward Jones financial advisor, we shifted the money into an American Funds mutual fund which Edward Jones manages. That meant no tax penalties, happily. That was about all I could say about it–the mutual fund, called Capital Income Builder, which goes by the ticker CAIBX, had generated a reasonable return for years, and it seemed like a solid enough choice, given that neither of us knew much about investing. Whatever fees we incurred through using a financial advisor was of no consequence, because the advisor was, after all, being paid to help us navigate waters we didn’t know anything about.

However, during the last six months or so, I’ve been learning a great deal about investing, and I’ve discovered that our Edward Jones mutual fund account is probably a financial mistake, since there are plenty of other Electronically Traded Funds (ETFs) which perform better, and cost a lot less to purchase. Not only that, but 2015 turned into a terrible year for CAIBX, and instead of the upper single-digit return it had been generating, it turned -8.5%, making our ongoing investment into that fund seem like a bad choice. Not only that, but taxes on an actively traded mutual fund are higher than a more static ETF, and the fees that it once seemed reasonable to pay Edward Jones (which, by the way, are among the highest of the investment firms, at least according to my research), now don’t seem like such a good idea. After all, the waters of investing are evermore familiar to me at this point. We haven’t yet closed our Edward Jones account, but we will; we’ve reduced what we put into it, however. We will close it, though, and transfer that money into other funds in the near future.

Besides having a savings account and a mutual fund, we’ve also opened up a Scottrade account to manage our own investments with. Scottrade has low brokerage fees and has an excellent program called FRIP, wherein dividend payments are reinvested for free into stocks of your choice. We’ve established a portfolio there with a small number of stocks, and will be expanding it over time, confident that we can do better than -8.5%.

What brought on the interest in investing, you might ask? My friend read The Wealthy English Teacher, penned by a blogger with numerous years spent teaching abroad, and he recommended it to me. I found the book very relatable, and then perused the author’s blog. I’ve also discovered, again, thanks to my friend, blogs like Go Curry CrackerDividend Mantra, and many others, all of which helped show me what’s possible to achieve without much more effort than we were putting into being frugal anyway, and prompted me to get serious about my own investing.

So there you have it. I’m happy to say that we’re doing rather well for ourselves at this point, especially considering where we came from with quite a bit of debt, and we’ve learned a lot about investing our hard-earned cash for ourselves. It’s nice to actually have a net worth these days, and we have every reason to believe that it will continue to expand.

Money Monday: My Chains Are Gone!

Shon & I have been married for a little over 6 years now.  Today, for the first time in those 6-something years, we are debt free.

We don’t own any property, I don’t have any designer shoes, our phones are not the latest thing on the market, and our baby doesn’t have an iPad, but we don’t owe anybody any money.

And it feels so darn good.

 

 

ADEC Discounts

Working for the Abu Dhabi Education Council has its perks.  Summer vacation is the main one, of course, but there are some vendors that offer discounts to ADEC teachers and employees.  And, if you missed it in one of my posts from last August (Flexible Pricing), there are vendors that take advantage of ADEC newbies and actually increase their rates (Infinity Services, if you’ll recall).

Now, for those of you who are prospective ADEC teachers, you may well be interested in what sorts of discounts that are available here in Al Ain, right?

To begin with, some furniture stores offer a discount to us.  Home Centre comes to mind.  In order to get this discount, you just need to furnish your ADEC identification (or visa, which is sponsored by ADEC, or some proof of employment with them).  If they have another sale going on, though, that will override the ADEC discount.

Most of the local hotels offer a discount to ADEC teachers for health club memberships (as well as food and drink from the mighty expensive hotel restaurants).  For example, the Danat Hotel Resort (near the Hilton) offers a 15% discount.  Some hotels actually have a welcome party event and they’ll offer deeper discounts than usual at those events, too, so keep your eyes peeled for those (the Danat has one coming up Tuesday the 11th, actually).

The Rugby Club offers a 10% discount to ADEC teachers.  They’re one of the more cost-effective places to go if you’re looking for a decent gym and pool, plus their restaurant has reasonable prices since they’re not a hotel (hotels attach very high taxes to food and drink; 16%, if I remember right–we avoid hotel eateries for that reason).

It might pay to know that Etihad Airlines offers 20% off airfare to ADEC folks.

At any rate, wherever you go, particularly if you’re looking at some kind of membership, it pays to ask if they offer an ADEC discount, because there are quite a few places that do.

Normalcy

Dear reader,

Today I’m offering my newspaper column’s entry for the week.  It is something that any expat can probably relate to.  If you’re an expat and you agree or disagree, let me know.  I enjoy hearing your thoughts more than you probably know.

-Shon

How long until seeing this becomes normal?

How long until seeing this becomes normal?  Eh, give or take six months.

Vantage Points: Teaching Abroad

Normalcy

Normalcy is defined by freedictionary.com as “being within certain limits that define normal functioning.”  So, in terms of living our lives, normalcy is what we’re used to.  Our routines, our home, our friends, and so forth, all contribute to our sense of having a nice, normal life.  And all that is quite definitely abandoned when you move overseas.  How long does it take to achieve normalcy when you move to a new country?  Well, you go through a few marked stages before any kind of new normal can be established.  Experts say you go through a state of euphoria when you first arrive in the new place.  That’s when most everything is lovely and you’re all excited about being in a new country, a new culture, and having new experiences.  Then you swing to the other extreme, and basically hate everything about the new place.   Everything that isn’t like it is at home drives you mad.  Then, finally, you end up back in the middle, more or less, and living in this foreign country becomes normal.  Based on my own time here in the UAE, I’d say that’s entirely correct.  I went through each of those stages.  And now I’m more or less back to feeling normal.  I recognize that this country is vastly different from home, but generally I feel comfortable.  The other night I was hanging out with a friend who has traveled extensively. He and his wife taught English in Japan and Korea before coming here. Anyway, he commented that it takes about 3 or 4 months to get financially comfortable in a new country.  He’s completely right.  The first month is consumed by running about doing paperwork and errands concerned with residency.  The next month is more or less burned up with adjusting to everything else, making sure your apartment is furnished, and all that sort of thing; the third month, finally, is when you might just be able to put some money back into savings.  That’s when things start to balance out.  That’s when you start to have some expendable income for a change, and when you can think about things that make life more normal—getting a used car, purchasing a guitar, whatever.  I’ll tell you what: I never really appreciated how nice it is to just have things good and normal until I left my own country to come here.  And now that I’ve adjusted to life here, I’m glad to have normalcy return.

Flexible Pricing and Cheap Translation

Flexible pricing is one of the odd things to be aware of here in Abu Dhabi.  Even big, shiny, reputable looking companies do it.  Case in point: the company that we were recommended (Let’s call them IfS; the name has been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty alike). They don’t have prices for some of their services posted anywhere. I have, like several others, paid 110 dirhams per document for translation services. I also paid 200 dirhams to have my marriage certificate attested. Yesterday I left my driver’s license with them to get it interpreted, again paying 110 dirhams, which is what I paid for the marriage certificate translation.

I have since discovered that there are also several people who got things translated for 60 dirhams and attested for 150 by the very same folks in the very same establishment. That’s a considerable difference in pricing, with no difference in service or explanation for the discrepancy.

IfS is also not the most affordable place around (at least not when they decide to charge folks the higher prices). There is talk about a place on Hamdan Street behind the Etisalat building (that would be the one with the golf ball on top, if you know AD) which translates for 75 dirhams per document. Other folks tell about getting a quantity discount because they went in a group. A reliable source tells me that the driver’s license facility actually will translate it while you wait for 60 dirhams.

dirhams

Here’s the moral of the story, kids: ask around about pricing for services, and insist on the lower prices if you hear of a place which, like IfS, has flexible pricing. Sadly for me, I didn’t know that other folks were having things done more cheaply until I’d already paid up front for the service.

As a sort of footnote, don’t underestimate the helpfulness of the hotel concierge, either. The concierge can give advice on a wide range of things. It’s very possible that the concierge could have recommended a place that would be reliable and more affordable for these services. One of my colleagues got a laptop fixed very cheaply because the concierge steered him in the best direction.

When it comes down to it, the 420 dirhams ($114.50) that I’ve paid for having my license translated and marriage certificate both attested and interpreted isn’t just totally outrageous. I mean, Jenia is worth that much to me and then some, and I’ve got to have this stuff done in order to get her here. But if you make this journey, bear my words in mind, because you might save some hard-earned cash if you are a bit more savvy than me.

Money Monday II: The Dollar Strikes Back

I’ve been sitting here trying to think of something funny to write–something having a little kinship with my allusion (above, in the title, if you somehow missed it) to George Lucas’s brilliantly conceived Star Wars sequel (wow, it’s been a while since those words have been said, huh?)–but I’m coming up with nothing.  Nada.  Zilch.  Zero.  Punch it Chewie, I’m done.

What I set out to blog about today is obvious: money.  Jenia and I have been discussing finances a bit today.  Always depressing.  At least it is for me–maybe you come from better circumstances or the Lord has been kinder to you in that regard.  Anyhow, regardless of how far down the road to financial failure any of us maybe, the wife and I are managing to squirrel away a decent amount of savings.  That would be because at heart, we’re both cheap, penny-pinching Scrooges (sorry, honey, but you know it’s true).  It would also be because when I arrive in Abu Dhabi, I’m supposed to have a couple grand to make it through the month, to last me until my first pay period.

Now, different people advise you to take different amounts of money.  So I’m sure that with my miserly ways, I could probably survive on about ten bucks, but we want to be safe.  In all seriousness, folks have said that a thousand dollars can get you by until your first pay check.  We’re playing it safe and trying to put back about twice that, so that in case there are any unexpected financial burdens that rear their freakishly ugly heads, we can tame them without any undue stress.

We do not want this to happen!

Let’s shift gears a little bit from actual money in the bank, to the sort of spending device which causes many people to have virtually no money in the bank, and which can easily lead to a complete lack of financial security: a credit card. We all have them, we all know they’re great if handled wisely.  In a way, a credit card is kind of like a pen in George Lucas’s fingers: it can be responsible for some great material, but if the individual wielding the thing gets stupid with it, the outcome can be pretty disastrous.  Oh, boy, look at me tossing Star Wars references around like The Phantom Menace just came out a couple months ago.  Hm.  Actually they did re-release it in 3-D round about March, didn’t they?

Jenia and I, anyway, are Discover card people.  Not because of any particular preference, but it’s just ended up that way.  I’ve been really happy with my Discover experience, but Discover is an unknown quantity in many countries abroad.  When we went to London over Christmas, the card was useless.  Nobody in England takes Discover.  And I do mean nobody.  It appears that England and the Emirates have something in common (besides trying to teach their young English with varying degrees of success): Discover is, well, undiscovered.  So since we’ll be unable to use our credit card there, we spent some time digging around on the internet for a good card which works abroad (Visa or Mastercard is fine in that respect).  If you watch more TV than I do (which is likely, because, if you haven’t figured it out yet, the only thing I’ve ever watched is obviously Star Wars), you may have seen Alec Baldwin hocking Capitol One’s Venture Visa card.  Turns out that Capitol One’s Venture cards have no overseas use fees, which is wonderful.  And they’re Visa cards, too, so they’ll work most everywhere.  Partly because the card will simply work overseas, and partly because they have a pretty stinkin’ good rewards program, we decided to apply for one.  Look what came in the mail the other day:

New Venture Card–no, you cannot have my card numbers. Get your own.

Not only did Capitol One approve me for a card, they set my credit limit at fifteen thousand dollars.  Yikes!  I can just imagine how much they’d like for me to spend a sum that large–they’d be making big bucks off me, as I struggled to pay off my balance.  That’s right, even in Abu Dhabi, I will not be paid well enough to pay of a fifteen thousand dollar credit card bill overnight.  Fortunately for me, the folks at Capitol One didn’t know what a ridiculous tightwad I am.  Please don’t go and tell them.  They might revoke my card when they realize they’ll never make a penny off me.  I know how to work a rewards card, baby.  Or so I say.  Those sound like famous last words, don’t they?  I wouldn’t want to be cocky.  But used right, a rewards card can really work for you, and that’s how we intend to use this one.  We’ll not make any silly purchases with it.  We’ll pay it off every month, and the little buys we make will add to the rewards balance, and in a while, we’ll have free airfare to somewhere interesting.

Anyway, with the savings account growing and a credit card that will work overseas, I think we’re going to be financially prepared for our upcoming adventure.  I think that should do it for this entry.  May the force be with…never mind.

Money Monday

Well, it’s time for Money Monday.  Yup, I figured anyone interested in traveling or working or living in Abu Dhabi is probably curious about what the proposition costs.  So here we go: today I spent more money than ever before at the Post Office.

Yup, I got my documents back from Atlanta, and turned around a put them in the mail to DC, along with a money order for $239.  The money order covers the cost of document authentication at the State Department and at the Embassy of the UAE.  It also covers a $125 fee for ProEx Delivery Corporation.  Their fee isn’t cheap, but it does expedite the whole process.  I’ll tell you more about ProEx another time.  Anyway, with priority shipping to and from DC, and the money order, I spent $251 at the Cuthbert Post Office today.

Thus far, the authentication process has cost me $30 at the Secretary of State’s office, too, plus shipping to and from Atlanta (which has to be included twice, because they sent it back once and I had to reship it–another $7) at $14, and the total comes to $295.

My next post will discuss the authentication process.  Alright, enough of Money Monday.  Sleep well.