At this point, there are six entries, including ones on cost of living and shopping in Hong Kong.
See you there!
I haven’t logged into Vantage Points in a couple of months, and man, it’s fun to figuratively see all the familiar faces! You all have such cool blogs.
Anyway, I wanted to ask if you’ve checked out our new site yet.
So, have you?
We’re working on great new content about living and working in Shenzhen, China, and also about our ongoing travel adventures with the little ones. Stop by and say hello! Also, it’d really make our day if you signed up for our newsletter when you drop in so we can stay in touch.
Here’s the link: http://www.ourtravelingzoo.com
Hope to see you soon!
Jenia and I wrote a post about one of our favorite things in Singapore (at the Singapore Zoo, actually)! It’s on Our Traveling Zoo. Have a look and give us your feedback! Oh, and go eat with an orangutan when you can!
As we are approaching the end of summer, we are trying to cram in visits with friends and family members we haven’t seen before we ship out to China. When they find out we’re headed for the Middle Kingdom, lots of people ask me (Shon) questions about the preparation process. The usual conversation sounds a little like this: “Wow, you’re going to China! How did you get that job? What do you have to do to work in China? A lot of paperwork? You need a visa? Wait, what’s a visa?” Actually, not many people ask what a visa is, but sometimes young people do–students, for example, who haven’t garnered much, if any, experience traveling the world.
In regards to a visa, it’s the documentation for your passport which legally authorizes you to visit a foreign country. There are different kinds of visas, with the most basic ones being simple stamps which indicate an entry date, and with multiple-entry business sorts taking the shape of complex documents affixed to entire pages in your passport. This Rex fellow’s blog post about visas is humorous and informative in the event that a visa is a new concept to you.
Anyway, China has a number of visas which travelers can apply for. The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. provides a handy list for reference. As I’m going to be working there, I needed to apply for a Z visa and provide all the necessary supporting documents. While the list of documents is easily accessible through the Embassy’s website, it amounted to this for me: three pieces of paper, each related to the other, issued from the Shenzhen government and my employer in Shenzhen, which amounted to an invitation to work. We also needed to provide copies of our passport’s info page, our marriage certificate, and the children’s birth certificates. That’s it.
Getting said invitation, however, took time and required jumping through all the hoops that I did for the UAE back in 2012. I know I’ve written about this step before, but for the sake of having things organized well, here’s what went into that: I needed a recent state police background check, a notarized (specifically as an unaltered copy of the original) copy of my highest degree, a notarized copy of my marriage certificate, and then the kids’ birth certificates. These things had to be authenticated (the steps for which are mapped out easily right here, thanks to Georgia’s efficient state government) at the state level and then the national level. It might be worth mentioning that since the children were born overseas, they have Consular Report of Birth Abroad certificates, which are a national level document, and therefore don’t require authentication on a local level. After the authentications were all in hand, I had to send original marriage and birth certificates to the Human Resources folks at my employer’s in Shenzhen, and email scans of the other documents. Ultimately, of course, I’ll take all of the originals and provide them upon arrival in China. I also had to send along copies of my teaching certificate and letters of reference (which had to be in a fairly specific format), my resume (again, typed in a very specific format), and scans of our passports. All of that sounds pretty simple, but ends up taking quite some time to gather, so if you are going to take a job overseas that requires this stuff, get it done sooner rather than later.
We chose to hand deliver our visa applications rather than using an agent this time around. Why? Well, D.C. is half way to Maine, and as you may know, we have family in Maine, so it gave us a legitimate reason to go spend some time up north. Stop in Washington, spend the night, run our errand to the Embassy, and then finish the trip to Maine. The money we would have had to pay an agent (ProEx charges $170 for their courier services, after all) covered our gasoline for the trip, and so we could justify a hotel stay. Also, by the way, we have been booking hotels in the States through www.hotels.com, and they give you a free night’s stay after booking 10 stays. That’s just an aside, however–what matters if you’re going to go to the Embassy and submit your application in person is this: make sure you have all the supporting documents necessary, get the pictures done in the correct format (just go upstairs to the visa service place, it’s quick), and be sure to type your application. This is important; if it is handwritten, it’ll be rejected immediately. Oh, and what about the location of this visa office? It’s not in the Embassy; it’s on Wisconsin Avenue in a nondescript office building. And it’s pretty busy, so be forewarned. On the way to Maine we showed up around 11:00 am and had to wait forever. On the way back from Maine, when we just needed to pick up our completed visas, we arrived at 8:30am, parked in the garage downstairs ($10), and then joined the queue waiting outside. When the doors opened at 9:30, we entered in an orderly fashion and the security guards gave us numbers in the order we’d been waiting in line. It took just over half an hour. The nice lady at the counter took our payment, then sent us one window over to pick up our passports. We were able to pay with our Visa card (they’ll only take MasterCard or Visa if you’re planning to use a credit card–we saw a woman who had American Express get turned away), and we were good to go. Speaking of which, the total for the four of us was $560. We inspected the visas to ensure that passport numbers and names were correct (they were), and I noted that I received a Z visa and my spouse and children have S1 visas.
The visas we have in our passports are now good for entry until October. Immediately after our arrival in Shenzhen, we’ll have to apply for a residence permit and visas that will be good for an entire year.
Well, this brings us up to date. That’s the extent of our experience thus far, and hopefully this helps provide an idea of what exactly goes into getting the visa. It’s not extraordinarily difficult, but it is time consuming and requires a great deal of care, as you might expect.
This year in Utah has been a wonderful one. It’s been a time worth its weight in gold for recharging my professional batteries. I’ve been working at one of the best middle schools in the greater Salt Lake valley area, which effectively implements things like standards-referenced grading, professional learning communities, and generally has an incredibly student-centered ethos.
If I didn’t mention it before, I’ve been working with a colleague named PJ who also worked for ADEC in the UAE. Where in the UAE we didn’t work in the same building (ADEC has something like 1,000 schools under its umbrella, and we worked in schools several miles apart), this year we actually did work together. It’s been splendid. We’ve designed excellent assessments (probably a few mediocre ones, too), worked up proficiency scales based on Utah’s version of the Common Core standards (creatively named, wait for it–the Utah Core Standards), pitted our classes against each other in Quizizz tournaments, and much more. This guy has helped keep me sharp.
One thing that I learned from my time abroad is that effective leadership is of the utmost importance–an effective principal can make a school, and an ineffective one can ruin it. Put another way, administrators can either make or break the educational experience for students and the professional experience for teachers. In that regard, the school I’ve been working at has been exceptional. With an approach rooted in ideas from DuFour, Marzano, and Wiggins, this principal has successfully fostered a school environment with an ethos centered around boosting student achievement through various interventions, both general and targeted. Quite a pleasure to be a part of, I must say. This principal also goes above and beyond to help teachers feel valued–conducting giveaways, making payday pancakes every month, and celebrating members of staff regularly. Given that working at this school is quite demanding for teachers, he does a great job keeping staff morale high.
Utah is a beautiful place, and that’s no secret. What’s more, it’s got one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, at 3.1%, and the population has been growing rapidly. This also means that prices in the area are high. While Utah prides itself on having a much lower cost of living than California (which, as Jenia notes, is not even a next-door neighbor), it’s a lot higher than the southeast. Homes are expensive here (a nice looking one on a small corner lot in the subdevelopment nearby is on the market for $450K), and rent for a decent 2 BR apartment runs around $1,000 a month or more (we had almost settled on one that offered 1100 or so square feet and included internet for the price of $1200 a month). Happily, we lucked into a spacious basement apartment for a good price (less than the income-based place), through our personal contacts. This has been great–and the only way that we didn’t go deeply into the red every month, to be honest. Teacher salaries are pretty much a matter of public record, so anyone interested could find out my salary easily, so I’ll talk about what I make. Since my teaching experience overseas wasn’t accepted on the local salary scale, I’ve eked out almost $40K a year here, and it has barely more than allowed us to break even every month. It’s been a challenge to adjust to having to watch every penny, and aggravatingly difficult to make ends meet when, for example, the car needs an oil change, or my motorcycle needs a new tire.
Clearly I’m not in the teaching profession to make money. Education isn’t exactly a career known for filling the coffers. Nonetheless, I do need to make enough to provide for my family, and with Jenia doing the very hard job of stay-at-home-mom, I need to earn a larger sum. So, with some real regret, I tendered my resignation as this year drew to a close and, with some true excitement, accepted a position in Shenzhen, China.
“I’m off on Monday. Let’s go to Finland.”
That’s the genesis of our 3-day trip to Helsinki. A direct flight from Kazan to Helsinki turned out to be cheaper than a flight to St. Petersburg, so we booked three tix and headed north to Russia’s nordic nieghbor.
Here’s the short story: we loved visiting Helsinki.
Now for the longer one: Helsinki is a splendid place that has lots to offer while being compact enough to tour easily in a brief time period. It’s surrounded by sea and gulls swoop and cry wherever you find yourself. Oddly, we both noted that there’s no strong salty odor flavoring the air. We don’t know the reason for this, so feel free to enlighten us if you do.
A tip I picked up from watching a Rick Steves’ Europe episode about Helsinki was to take the number 3 tram, which runs in a loop around the city, and allows you to hop on and off as you wish (tickets are good for an hour). This way you get a cheap tour without paying Big Bus rates. The trams are impressively smooth and quiet, making a serene way to get around. And speaking of getting around, everyone we met spoke good English.
For us, highlights included the beautiful parks; accidentally stumbling upon the Sibelius monument, a lovely curiosity; exploring the neoclassical area around Senate Square, and a special tour of the Finnish National Opera house. We also liked the City Museum (which has a cool interactive history section for kids). We’d probably skip the so-called “Canal Tour” (so-called because I don’t remember an actual canal) which ran in a 90-minute loop around the harbor if we were to do it again, and instead opt for a 15-minute ride out to the 18th century fortress Suomenlinna, since you get some of the same views with the chance to kick around the island as a bonus. 90 minutes gets a bit repetitive by the time it’s over.
Here are a few other observations: during our time in Helsinki, it was quite cold–every day required a light jacket, with highs in the fifties and low sixties. We were lucky with the sun, though, as every day offered beautiful skies (punctuated by a few hours of clouds as if underscoring the point that clear weather was a blessing). The sun did not set until 10:45 pm and the sky was still streaked with red at midnight. Sunrise was at 3:30. The long days made it easy to fit in lots of sightseeing.
The city doesn’t date back to the medieval era like many European ones, and it hasn’t got a 1000-year plus history like many Russian ones, but it makes up for this with its modernity, cleanliness, and easy navigability. Helsinki seems like a place built to use, and it’s well-kept without being ostentatious.
We tried to eat on the cheap, as we didn’t want to blow too much money. With everything being expensive, we only ate meals out three times–once at Fazer (19.90 euros for two sandwiches, a yogurt parfait, and two hot teas), once at McDonald’s (they have a mediocre veggie burger), and once at Subway. Otherwise we bought food from the local supermarket and made ourselves little picnics.
Also scrimping a bit, we decided to forgo a Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt this time, as the ones we liked would have set us back 34.95 euros, and I’ll be a monkey’s uncle before I spend almost forty bucks on a simple shirt that probably ought to go for fifteen. All that said, the dollar is quite strong against the euro right now, so our bucks passed further than we expected them to.
As usual, we didn’t take a stroller. Instead, we carried the kids in Boba and Tula carriers. Boy, hauling a 3-yeard old toddler around will build up some leg muscles. “If we do this every day,” I told Jenia, “We’ll be the very picture of fitness.”
And about kids: traveling with the little ones continues to be like doing most anything else with them: occasionally challenging, but also rewarding. We structure our days differently (usually with space for naps) than we did in the days BC (Before Children), and we take into account that we’ll need to balance our day with activities that allow for play time as well as sightseeing. There were no major meltdowns or surprising episodes during this 3-day weekend–in spite of late-night flights to and from Helsinki. As Jenia said long ago now, it’s easy to allow children to be an anchor, but it’s also possible to let them be balloons and have them carry us to new destinations. It’s quite true that four years ago, we’d have missed out on the City Museum, and we’d have spent much less time relaxing in the city’s beautiful parks.
There’s much more of Finland to see than just Helsinki, of course, but we did thoroughly enjoy our visit to the city. The city center is compact enough to take in most of–or probably all of, if you’re not traveling slowly with kids–the highlights in one day. If, like us, you happen to have a few days on your hands, I’d recommend a quick trip to the nordic city of Helsinki.
Ejofallajokull, which sounds like aya-falla-yo-kull. Or something like that. You’ll remember it. It’s the name of the big volcano that halted air traffic over Iceland for what seemed like forever in 2010. That’s when Iceland got a lot of press. Yeah, well, anyway, we’ve been there now. We’ve seen Eja-falla-whatsit and gotten a whirlwind tour of a fair portion of southern Iceland. It’s a pretty cool place.
You know us. You know we like to maximize our travels and explore new places as much as possible. So naturally, on the way home from the UAE for the summer, we booked ourselves a layover in someplace we hadn’t been before.
If you haven’t been to Iceland, which is attracting a growing number of tourists, you might like to check it out. Courtesy of Icelandair’s attempts to promote the country with stopovers on the way to other destinations, there are some interesting deals available allowing you to have a look around Reykjavik fairly cheaply and easily.
The country is showing up on the silver screen and the ones in your living room with increasing frequency. Its intriguing landscape served as alien planets in the films Prometheus and Interstellar, and if you watched the Ben Stiller version of Walter Mitty, you saw it take a starring role, as well.
We found Iceland to be sort of Europe light, regardless of whether the country considers itself part of Europe or not (it does). Everyone we encountered was fluent in English (yes, yes, we mostly met people in the hospitality and tourism industry, but not exclusively), while that might not be the case in, say, Italy, or France. It’s also easy to get around without needing to worry about changing money. Credit cards are accepted everywhere, quite literally, to the extent that we didn’t even make an ATM withdrawal once. Right. We were there four full days, buying food from supermarkets, picking up the odd souvenir, and so forth, and we never had Icelandic cash in our hands.
The island is an absolutely fascinating place to visit. The landscape is otherworldly. It’s often beautiful, and surprisingly delicate. The Suderlandsvegur, highway 1, departs Reykjavik and goes south. Before long, there is a hillside rising up on the right hand side of the road. It has a phrase carved into it. The words were, it turns out, put there by a boy scout troop having fun some 50 years ago, and the vegetation they destroyed hasn’t recovered yet. This might give you an idea of the difficulty that Icelanders face when it comes to farming the unfriendly soil. If not, consider that the waterfall called Skogarfoss is named for a forest (“skogar” means forest, “foss” means waterfall). Even though there is no forest there, because the original Norse settlers chopped the trees down to make room for their animals to graze, some 1100 years ago. The trees have never really returned.
For most of its years as a nation, Iceland has been extraordinarily poor. Only after WWII did the island start to develop into a reasonable economy. Now, standards of living are high. Costs of living are, too, with food being very expensive (much of it being imported, of course), as well as most everything else. Heating and electricity, at least, are affordable. It costs one guy, a tour guide we had, about the price of a large pizza to heat his home for a month. It’s so cheap because water is heated naturally geothermally (Is that a word? Autocorrect doesn’t think so) and stored in huge tanks for the city. This is completely renewable and sustainable. Electricity is also generated through entirely sustainable means.
There are places we’ve visited that we agree we’d love to live. Iceland isn’t one of them. The weather is too oppressive. It’s not severely cold–surprisingly, temperatures hover in the middle-50’s F much of the year, and don’t go very far below freezing most of the winter–but the thick, grey clouds hang claustrophobically low, and visibility is often minimal. “The tallest mountain in Iceland is right over there, across the water,” said a buddy who was showing us around one afternoon. “But you can’t see it now.” Indeed, I’d have never suspected. When the clouds finally parted on the last day of our trip, what a sight we were treated to. The view across the bay was nice. The scenery was extraordinary, in fact. We’d love to go back and spend more time in Iceland, getting farther beyond Reykjavik than we did, but we’d never live there.
Ejafallajo…right, the volcano, anyway, probably helped Iceland to emerge into the consciousness of the average person in the States. Hollywood continues to explore the place, and I’d recommend that you do, too. Despite not being a place I’d like to spend years, it’s fascinating, and I’d love to have more time there.
It’s different from Prague. Most noticeable immediately is the size of the place. The main train station is none too large. Following Christmas, it’s practically deserted, and that makes it seem smaller still. Today that finally changed, with folks returning to work and the city waking up a bit.
The smile worn by the bus driver is nice. It makes the place feel warmer.
Prices are in Euros, which seems like a hopeful effort at tying Slovakia to greater Europe, while a few days of life here seem to suggest it’s got at least as much in common with Russia as the European Union. I say this because after two days of snow falling, there hasn’t been a single plow run along any of the city streets. “It’s never snowed at the end of December before,” says Jenia. “It took them by surprise. Just like Russia.” The sidewalks are slippery. The people aren’t outgoing and friendly. That’s not to say they’re rude, but they’re not what we fuzzy Americans would generally expect. Lots like Russia. And of course the Slavic languages have lots of similarities, too.
The downtown is pretty and there’s lots of cute cafes. The architecture is nice, though it doesn’t look half as old as Prague does.
So my impression is that this is Eastern Europe, and it is tangibly different than Western Europe. Not bad, but different.
Hello all! The holidays find us enjoying the nippy winter weather of the Czech Republic, in a neat little apartment in the Malestrana area of Prague. What a wonderful change from the pleasant but boring UAE December. The city is filled with Christmas cheer–there are stalls set up all around peddling mulled wine, trdelnik (a scrumptious not-too-sweet bread cooked over coals), and roasted chestnuts. There are concerts of Christmas music all around, and choirs performing on the old town square. Angels wrap gifts inside the windows of the Swarovski shop, and tourists bump into each other while sipping from steaming cups as they gawk at the astronomical clock. It’s a great place to be, steeped in European tradition. Happy holidays!
“You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run…” -Kenny Rogers, The Gambler
“Should I stay or should I go?” -The Clash, Should I Stay or Should I go
“I don’t want to end up cynical like everyone I know who has been here for three years or more.” -Krista
“I’m way more cynical than I was when I came here.” -Chris
Each year we’re here (and we’re in year three, if you forgot) we see more of our friends and fellow 2012 English teachers depart. For us the question of staying and renewing my teaching contract for another year resolved itself when the 2013 school year ended up being much easier than the 2012 one, and also because I couldn’t find anything that seemed like a better offer for me and my family. We’ve determined this will be our last year in the Emirates, as I think we’ve mentioned before. We aim to head somewhere else in next fall, in the way-futuristic-sounding year of 2015.
But why? The package here is good–tax free salary, housing that is provided, good friends who are as close as family, and we’re accustomed to the peculiarities of the area. Jenia has a nice little thing going with her photography, the little one has play groups and other things he goes to. For all practical purposes, this is home now.
So again, why leave?
See the quotes above. It seems a good time to go. We have had, overall, a positive experience. We want to see more of the world, to continue our expat explorations abroad before returning to the USA for a while (notice I didn’t say forever).
Chris has been here 4 years now, and he doesn’t bother with the bright side. He is resigned, in a manner of speaking, to the, er, structure of the work environment, but that doesn’t stop him from complaining about it.
Krista accepted a new job after 2 years because she didn’t want to be like Chris in that way. Now she’s teaching in another Asian country and by the looks of it having a blast. She left before she could grow cynical.
This year I have to fight to repress snarky comments, the roll of the eyes, the ever-more-snide comments when things go exactly as frustratingly as they typically do at work. At the moment, I’ve managed to look at the bright side of that battle, and say, “Hey, why should I expect anything different? Why be annoyed?”
One of the Arabic Medium Teachers (AMTs) that I work with is from Tunisia. He’s an English teacher, too. “When we go back to Tunisia to work after teaching here in the UAE or the Gulf we have to undergo rehabilitation,” he said.
“They observe us and make sure that we can still teach. They enroll us in a program where we go for training, much more than any other teachers.”
“Wait,” I said, “You’re serious.”
“Yes, I’m serious.”
My teaching skills haven’t been ruined. Like my colleague, whose school found him perfectly able to conduct classes when he returned to Tunisia for a while before coming back to the UAE, I’ll not need a rehab program. One of the good things about having a bunch of hooligans for students is that my classroom management skills are now second to none. I mean, I can see a kid’s mobile phone before he even knows he’s gotten it out of his pocket. I can separate and rearrange a classroom on the fly so quickly the trouble makers are located in different sectors before they can make a peep.
Even so, three years seems like enough. It’ll be hard to find another package that has benefits as plentiful as this one, but in terms of workplace satisfaction, the factor that makes many folks grow cold and hard inside in this place (because you gotta deal with frustration somehow), one would think that might be higher in another location.
“You gotta know when to walk away,” as ol’ Kenny sang. We’re planning to walk away in July with tons of amazing memories that we could never have generated anywhere else, and one day we’ll return with our son and be amazed at how different the UAE has become. The Clash sang “If I stay there will be trouble, if I leave it will be double.” I can’t apply that verse. If I stay I there might be some trouble with my psyche, but not the knock-down-drag-out kind of fightin’ that the song suggests. Until July rolls around, I’m aiming to stay optimistic and enjoy all the good things here, because there are plenty of them.