Moving to Shenzhen, pt. 3: Learning

Part of the preparation for any of international move involves learning about a culture and location. Even the most rudimentary understanding of some of the unique cultural aspects of a place can go a long way to helping ease the inevitable shock of taking up residence in a foreign place.

There are a few bases we’ve tried to cover to this point. Most important, doubtless, is some knowledge of Chinese language. Learning a language inevitably impacts and helps to form a better understanding of a people, plus we don’t expect a lot of spoken or written English around Shenzhen. While we have a TON left to learn, we’ve found iPhone apps like ChineseSkill and Memrise to be useful. ChineseSkill is really neat, because it has a nicely scaffolded manner of development which covers spoken language, learning Pinyin, and also practicing writing Chinese characters. Memrise is rather less logically laid out, but it is helpful, too. Podcasts are a favorite method of learning for Shon, and he loves the very straightforward lessons the Shao Lan offers in her Chineasy one. What’s more, Shon is using a book called Chinese in 10 Minutes a Day, which is helping expand his (still pitiful) language skills.

There are a number of interesting videos about Shenzhen on YouTube, which give us an idea of what the city is like and where it has come from (it’s only 40 years old and the population surpasses 10 million!). Wired has an interesting documentary about how Shenzhen is basically China’s Silicon Valley.

YouTube is also home of vloggers such as Serpentza, a South African who calls Shenzhen home and creates videos about life there. Here is a link to one of his videos which explains how Shenzhen is one of China’s first tier cities. Needless to say, these videos can be illuminating.

We have also watched TV shows such as Wild China and even, you might laugh, An Idiot Abroad, which has an episode set in China.

That’s all for now!

Advertisements

Getting a Chinese Work Visa

FullSizeRender

Waiting outside.

IMG_4543

The queue at 8:30.

IMG_4546

Nondescript surroundings.

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.

 

 

 

Moving to Shenzhen, pt. 2: visa office

It’s close to go time. We are supposed to be in China the weekend of August 18th. In the meantime, we are waiting for our visas.

Here’s how that went down. Rather than use a courier service (because the Chinese Embassy won’t accept anything by mail), we took our passports and complete visa applications, along with supporting documents (the list of documents necessary is on the Embassy’s website), to the Chinese Embassy’s visa department, which is, by the way, not in the Embassy building, but on Wisconsin Avenue. We parked under the building, a privilege which cost $10. The attendant told us it would probably take a while: “Very bad. 2, 3 days.” With that cheerfully covered, we took the elevator upstairs to the first floor and found a long line–we joined the que with no less than 60 people in front of us.

That was fine, though. Jenia heard that the Chinese are very picky about the size of the photos that must be included in the packet of stuff to be submitted–they want a rectangular size that is not the usual easy CVS 2×2. There is, on the third floor, a Chinese visa specialist who do pics, etc, so we left the throng and went up there. The pictures didn’t take very long. Our applications were complete with those, so back down to the waiting room.

Long hallway on the third floor. The visa service place is at the end of the hall.

Services the visa place upstairs offers and prices.

We bided our time for about 3 hours before finally getting called to the window. Oddly, the guy behind the window hardly acknowledged our presence, other than to answer our questions. He gave us receipts and told us when the visas would be ready. That was it.

Tomorrow we return to pick the passports up–hopefully with no problems. As soon as I have our visas in hand, then we will have tickets ordered for us by the school.

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?

 

 

Working in Utah. And What’s Next.

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.

IMG_3863

This is PJ. He loves taking students outside on nice days to read books. He found it necessary to take drastic measures to prevent further sunburning.

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.

 

 

 

 

Bubbles

My Facebook circle is pretty diverse (which is more or less an accident). I am friends with people from a variety of countries and probably half of the US states. There are engineers, IT specialists, medical professionals, ministers, human rights activists, designers, accountants, lawyers, scientists, yoga instructors, artists in a broad sense of the word, and a ton of educators. My circle includes Catholics, Russian Orthodox, all kinds of Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Atheists, and, I believe, at least one Pastafarian. The range of political views is just as wide. Still, I can’t pretend I’m not living in a bubble because out of my 457 FB friends there are only 27 people of color. That’s less than 6%. I am purposefully trying to diversify and look for interesting people to follow but I am not very good at this yet.

It’s funny, isn’t it? In the year 2017, the world is at our fingertips. It’s never been this easy to stay in touch with friends and family or find a long-lost childhood friend. Yet somehow, instead of becoming more and more open to the world and each other, we tend to reinforce the walls of our bubble to drain out any voices different from our own. I would like to hope that most of us don’t do it purposefully, that we simply don’t give it any thought, that we were born into this bubble and never even realized it was there.

screenshot2016-02-29at9-09-06am

The presence of the bubble may not be our fault, but I believe that breaking free from it is our responsibility. It may take a lifetime; it may be something we will never truly achieve but we sure can try.

If most of the people in your circle look, talk, and think like you do, I challenge you to talk to somebody different. Listen to somebody with a different skin color, a different religious background, a different socio-economic status. Listen to a legal immigrant, listen to an illegal immigrant, listen to a refugee. Listen to a woman who went to the March for Life and to the woman who went to the Women’s March. Listen to hear, not to reply. At least once a week, read an article from a news source you don’t normally read (sometimes the headlines alone can make my blood boil or my eyes roll but I do read because I want to understand where people are coming from). Read a book about the subject you know little about (extra points if it’s written by someone whose views are not exactly the same as yours). Google. Research. Go to the source. Ask questions to learn rather than to trick or prove wrong. Keep in mind (and gosh, this is hard) that if we disagree, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the other side is stupid and/or closed-minded. It usually means that at least one side (and ouch, it can be yours!) is misinformed or is seeing the issue from a different angle.

You see, I am challenging myself to do all of this, too, and I need good company.

bubble-pop1

 

On Loving Your Neighbors

I wrote this for Venn Magazine in March, 2015. It seems it may be worth repeating.

 

Recently, I saw an article entitled “Why You Need More Muslim Friends.” While a little saddened by the fact that such an article was even necessary, I thought it was worth sharing on my Facebook wall. The response came quicker than I expected. An acquaintance of mine wrote that I could love Muslims all I want, but he would keep hating them.

His response caught me off guard. I wondered how many others felt the same way. And that led me to ask a few questions.

When you say you hate Muslims, do you really know who it actually is you hate? Do you hate the Muslim women in Saudi Arabia who are not allowed to drive? Do you hate the Muslim children who are maimed or killed by the bombs sent by non- Muslims? Do you hate the Muslim laborers who move to a foreign country to work and live in very harsh conditions for $3 a day and send 90% of that money back to their family, whom they don’t see for a years at a time? Or how about those Muslims in Egypt who formed a live chain around the Christians to protect them during prayer?

Do you hate the perfect stranger who stopped when our friend’s car broke down, called a tow truck, paid for the tow truck, and offered to let the guy borrow his own car while the garage was sorting out the problem? Do you hate the Bedouin lady who gave my crying son one of the toys she was selling and insisted my husband took a seat in the shade to calm the boy down? Do you hate the man who practically ran to our car when he realized we were looking at the map, gave us directions and invited us over for tea? Do you hate my friend’s principle who gave him money to help pay his son’s hospital bill, or my other friend’s vice principal who showed up at her house a couple days after the new baby arrived with a box of beautiful baby clothes and so much food they had to invite people over to finish it? Do you hate the Saudi couple we met at a hotel breakfast and who made us laugh till we cried with the stories of their 3 boys?

These are the faces of Islam that you are not likely to see in your everyday life – or ever. I, however, live in a Muslim country. These people are my neighbors in the most literal sense of the word. They have welcomed me into their homes, and I have welcomed them into mine. We broke bread together. We laughed together. We talked about religion, and women’s rights, and travel, and education. They kissed my baby and called blessings upon him, and I kissed their babies and said they’d been willed by God. They even walked with me through my son’s birth.

It’s rather obvious that we are not Muslim. Even our visas state we are Christian. Yet, this has never been a problem. This particular Muslim country has quite a few churches, and, ironically, we have found a more vibrant, dynamic, and welcoming church community here than we ever did in the Bible Belt. We feel safer here than we ever did in southern Georgia. Around here, when it is time to go back to their home countries for the summer, expat moms worry about giving up the safety of our children running around freely and our purses being left in our unlocked cars.

Do not misunderstand me – there are some barbaric traditions carried out in parts of the Muslim world. The things ISIS does cannot be justified. Yet, judging all of Muslims by ISIS is like judging all the Christians by the Westboro Baptist Church. The man who kills his unmarried daughter because she was seen with a man represents all of Islam no more than a man who says he hates Muslims represents all of Christianity – or even all of the Southern Baptists.

I wonder if we hate people not because of who they are, but because of who we are – humans. Faulty, messy, broken humans who have such a hard time forgiving, letting go, or much less loving a group we do not understand. We can come up with dozens of excuses, but in the end hatred, like love, is always a choice. It is easier to hate and fear than to use critical thinking and do thorough research. It is easier to be enslaved by these powerful emotions than to break their bondage, but since when is easy slavery preferable to hard-earned freedom?

Maybe we break away from hatred when we know people, real life people, rather than mere headlines. In fact, maybe that article was right after all. Maybe we all need more Muslim friends.

Russia: Underrated Teaching Location?

Note: Moscow at one point earned the title of World’s Most Expensive City; that’s no longer the case, but it is undoubtedly more expensive than Kazan. The information herein relates to our experiences in Kazan, rather than Russia’s huge capital.

Russia–what a storied place. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Leningrad, multi-hewed onion domes atop brick towers, Red Square. Having had time to reflect on our year in Russia, a few things really stand out about the experience.

First and foremost, it’s a country that can aptly be described as Second World. Google the phrase and you’ll find that it refers to the former Soviet countries (and a handful of others). While the term Second World is a relic of a bygone era of Cold War, it is still used to describe a country’s level of development–between underdeveloped (Third World) and developed (First World). Perhaps we’d be better off using the phrase “developing” instead of Second World. At any rate, whether we call it Second World or developing, sometimes Russia is as modern and wonderful as can be–spacious new apartment complexes, glittering towers, high speed internet, glamorous German sedans, and all the luxury you might imagine of a country that, as some say, is experiencing a type of resurgence. And yet, those glamorous Teutonic cruisers zoom over potholed pavement, suspension slamming against the stops in a most unglamorous fashion, and despite blazing quick internet, the hot water quits working for days at a time whilst undergoing yet another round of maintenance and repairs. The fancy apartment complex’s landscaping consists of tires as planters, poorly pruned trees and helter-skelter shrubberies. The newly paved parking lot has a section ripped up and poorly repaved scarcely a week after being finished. The parking garages in this complex have never even opened because they are both a terrible deal–one has to pay extra to park in them, as opposed to simply parking on the street level–and also because they are dreadfully constructed. Consequently, navigating through the overcrowded street level parking lot is sometimes impossible.

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Oct 25, 2015 at 10:47pm PDT

 

It would seem #winter is ending.

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Feb 29, 2016 at 9:24am PST

 

Second, it’s an inexpensive place to live, assuming that one makes an otherwise competitive Western salary. While it would be classless to share how much I was making, it was in line with a typical IB/international school salary, and included the usual benefits for those sorts of jobs. Suffice it to say that we were able to send up to 70% of our money home monthly. Cab fare using Tap Taxi would run around $2-3 for a typical middle-length ride (Kazan is cheap compared to Moscow or St. Petersburg, by the way), and while eating out could be as expensive as anywhere else if we didn’t use some discretion, we found fantastic delivery sushi, and groceries were inexpensive. During August and September, the fruits and vegetables were surprisingly fresh and delicious. We had trouble finding decent cheeses, though, and settled on Cheese Gallery offerings as usually tasting best. Home DSL internet is inexpensive. Mobile phone service is marvelously affordable–we paid around $3 a month for our MTS internet-equipped phone plans, for instance. A month’s expenses for water, gas, and electricity, as well as whatever fees the apartment complex included, cost around 5,000 rubles (the ruble hovered around 60 to a dollar while we were there).

By some measures, then, teaching in Russia is a great experience. Financially, it was very good for us. Other things made it hard, though. There’s virtually no English spoken on the street (even though some road signs feature both languages), making exploring more of a challenge. Of course, that also helps one be motivated to learn some Russian, and acquiring a foreign language is no small feat.

What about teaching itself? There is a range of opportunity available for an American to teach English. Language schools are one option, although they are basically their own animals as compared to public or private schools. I was able to get a job working at an international school, which, we shall wait and see, may help open doors to other international schools in the future. The school I worked for was brand new, and had its share of growing pains, which made the work environment a bit more difficult than it probably would have been if the school had been established for a while (there’s a good lesson, I think; find a school that’s been around for long enough to be stable, with administrators who have plenty of experience in their roles). In most ways, the work place was nice–it must be said that the new building was generally world-class; having meals (they even accommodated my vegetarianism happily) provided was super convenient; and having transportation to and from work included was a definite perk.

Coming out of the Emirates, I found Russian students to be much easier to work with than the over-privileged Emirati youth, and that was a welcome improvement. Also coming out of the Emirates, the long work days (7:45-4:45) were not a pleasant adjustment, and seriously ate into my quality of family life, while also making it harder to fit routine things like going to the gym into my schedule.

As was the case in the Emirates, and as is usual of international schools and many teaching jobs abroad, living quarters were included as part of the salary package, and the apartment we had was nice and plenty roomy. The location in the Sun City area wasn’t very convenient, which meant we relied heavily on taxis to get around (we could travel by bus, but it took forever and a day), but as I said before, taxi fare is cheap in Kazan, so that was alright. Of course, Russian taxi men are a mixed bag, and you might get a jovial driver one day, and a horrendous jerk the next. Uber has made its way to Kazan, by the way, but I never had any luck finding a car with Uber.

Everyone always asks about the weather. In short, the temperatures only got extremely cold for about a month around January, and only about 2 weeks were truly frigid (-25 c or more). August sucked–it was cold and dreary, but September was made great by Indian Summer–beautiful and clear–and snow fell and stuck from October. In general, after that, winter arrived and it was an overcast crap fest with terribly short days, especially in December, making the arrival of spring and frequent blue skies most welcome around April. May was okay, and June quite nice.

There isn’t much of an expat scene in Kazan. “Single women we knew had a particularly hard time making any kind of connections outside of work,” Jenia says. There are a few small gatherings, there’s a little Western church homegroup that meets regularly, and with coworkers at the school, we had a bit of a social life, but nothing like the thriving one that we experience in Abu Dhabi. But then, as our world-traveling fellow expat-teacher friends the Casales once observed, it is incredibly easy to live in the UAE as an expat. Russia, or at least Kazan (Moscow and St. Petersburg have larger expat populations), doesn’t make it easy to be an expat, although as I said, that does have some benefits, including making it easier or at least more necessary to acquire some language skills. There are lots of events going on, though, with concerts, sports events, and more happening frequently, if one can just navigate enough Russian to figure them out (a task much easier these days with the mind-blowing Google Translate app).

Travel within Russia is inexpensive. We’d recommend visiting the Caucasus–it’s drastically different from the plains which dominate the rest of the Russian landscape.

#Dombay #Russia #Caucasus #caucasusmountains #skiresort

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Apr 3, 2016 at 2:41am PDT

A final observation is what Jenia calls spotty but inexpensive healthcare. There was only one hospital in all of Kazan, with its 1.2 million people, willing to allow me into the delivery room when our youngest was born, for example. This private hospital, Ava Kazan, did generally offer a Western level experience. “It differed dramatically from doctor to doctor,” Jenia says.  Ava had English-speaking staff, too, which was great, but even they couldn’t get Western-made vaccines (Russian ones don’t have a very good reputation).

Where we spent the last couple of days. #Kazan #россия

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Nov 28, 2015 at 1:02am PST

 

So is Russia an underrated teaching destination? In some ways, probably so. If you value a place where your dollars stretch a long way, then Kazan is certainly a place where they do. If you don’t need to be surrounded by a large community of Westerners, and if you value the chance to be immersed in Russian (and in the case of Kazan, Tartar) culture, then it’s a neat place to spend some time. So find an established school with experienced leadership, and give it a shot.

Reverse Culture Shock

This post probably requires a little context, so here it is, in brief. I know I have not specified exactly why I decided to return to the U.S.A. this year, so let me go ahead and lay it out there. My job in Kazan ended after I was offered a revised contract for a new position teaching in the middle school, and besides breaching my existing contract, it also reduced time off and lowered my remuneration, as well as extended things another year. Rather than accept that baloney, I decided to go somewhere else. The separation between my employer and I was generally amicable enough, but I can’t say I’d recommend working for them. Anyway, these last two months have been busy. We relocated from Kazan, Russia, to Bowman, Georgia, carrying the smallest and most manageable amount of belongings we could, and after a month or so, we loaded up a U-Haul with considerably more stuff and drove across the country. There’s all the context needed and then some.

Another day, another #highway. #Colorado

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

Now, before returning home, I’d heard more than one account of reverse culture shock: the shockingly difficult readjustment to Home. Folks who have lived abroad and made the return write blog posts that make it sound like the worst thing ever. It is bound to be a stressful process, after all, fitting back into a place that has moved on without you, or, perhaps even harder to cope with, hasn’t moved on at all, and therefore hasn’t changed to keep pace with your evolving view of the world. Your Home friends haven’t traveled abroad extensively (or at all), lived as a welcome minority in a Muslim country, learned how to speak survival Russian, or discovered in a meaningful way that people are basically the same everywhere. Essentially, you and your Home friends will have a lot less in common than before you set off on your grand adventures, trotting the globe. At least that’s what the reverse culture shock fear mongers say.

What the shockers are saying is not without merit. We had little reason to doubt that it would be hard coming Home. We’d had inklings of this seismic shift between ourselves and our Home friends before, when during our return trips we’d recounted memorable tales from our travels and our friends’ eyes glazed over as they tolerated our ramblings, either unable to connect on most levels with them, or else entirely uninterested in what irrelevant strangeness we’d encountered. To be truthful, we quickly learned not to tell stories, unless someone specifically asked for one.

Not a bad view, huh?

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

#Utah is #beautiful.

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

However, coming home has been easy. Of course, coming home hasn’t ended up as coming Home. The reason we trucked across the country is because one of my friends who shared the wonderfully bizarre experience of living and teaching in Abu Dhabi, and who returned last year, helped me get a job working alongside him at a middle school in the Salt Lake City area. Accordingly, we’ve moved to a new state and settled into a new culture that is notably different from Georgia, with breathtaking scenery to boot, so it’s not Home home, although it is our home country. Utah is so different from Georgia, actually, that as we have been getting accustomed to the area, Jenia has more than once caught herself thinking, “This reminds me of the U.S.,” only to have to laugh and say, “This IS the U.S.!”

Georgia mountains look like this.

#Georgia #mountains are beautiful. #RabunCounty #GA

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

Whereas Utah mountains look like this.

Anyhow, I am not saying that reverse culture shock doesn’t exist. I’m not saying everyone will have a smooth experience upon returning. As for these expats, though, we’ve been lucky enough that coming home hasn’t been a big jolt.

Regarding future teaching adventures and travels abroad, stay tuned. The traveling life is not over.

 

 

 

 

Leaving Russia

In 3 hours we’ll be off the ground, heading to America.

Our year in Russia has been in some ways wonderful, and in other ways, very challenging.

Let’s start with a wonderful thing: we moved here with, and I worked alongside, two sets of friends we met in Al Ain. This year we got to spend lots of time together, and it was great to develop our friendships further.

Here’s a challenge: because of her Russian citizenship, Jenia had a bunch of hassles and hoops to jump through relating to renewing passports and getting one for our November-born baby. That was made harder (to the tune of 6 trips to Ryazan, a 9-hour ordeal) by the school I worked for. How is that possible? Well, Russia has some byzantine paperwork requirements for its citizens, and one of them involves registering in a new city when you move there. My employers somehow couldn’t manage to register my wife, despite more than one promise to do so, which meant she had to travel to Ryazan to handle the paperwork. That was a royal pain. Similarly, since the new baby was given Russian citizenship because her mom is Russian, we had some hassles involving her passport.

Wonderful: teaching Russian kids, after spending a few years in the Emirates, was a delight. Generally, the students apply themselves, and that’s unsurprisingly much more rewarding than trying to instruct unmotivated Emirati boys.

Here’s a second wonderful: shoe condoms and poplar snow. Wonderfully weird, that is. And the shoe covers are more of an annoyance than a good thing, but they’re so delightfully Russian that you have to appreciate them. Poplar snow seems to happen mostly at the beginning of June, when poplar trees spread their fluffy white seeds everywhere the wind will blow them. It’s kind of similar to shoe covers–incredibly annoying, yet also so unique you gotta love it.

IMG_1840

A tiny little bit of poplar snow

A challenge: dealing with a new school and inexperienced leaders therein. You can imagine how daunting setting up an educational institution is, can’t you? There are lots of expectations and it’s hard to hit them all dead center, no doubt about it. However, establishing clear goals and quality communication with experienced leaders at the helm would go a long way toward helping things get up and running without much problem. I say “would,” because that was not the case here. Everyone, except, for the most part, teachers, were doing their jobs for the first time. That was hard. Lesson learned: if you’re heading to a new educational institution, make sure you’re working for folks who know what they’re doing.

Here’s another challenge: midwinter. The sun set before 3pm, and many days it didn’t really come out to shine. Depression city.

Wonderful: seasons. You miss those when you’re in what amounts to year-round summer in the UAE for a few years. And summer in Kazan is really beautiful. Also, since we’re talking seasons, who can’t appreciate a good 3am sunrise?

Challenge: cultural expectations. This is one complication an expat faces almost anywhere–Russia is a different place from the States after all, and even though on the surface Russian culture is similar to that of Western nations, one must only scrape a layer or two to realize that there are lots of little differences. Widespread superstitions and adherence to puzzling traditions (could this just be due to ignorance?) are among these differences. Here are some examples of superstitions we’ve encountered: knocking on wood (familiar, right?) or saying “tfu tfu tfu” after a compliment, not shaking hands over a threshold, not accepting money in your hand at night, to name a few. Jenia can tell you more. As for puzzling traditions/ignorance, I had a mother tell me she didn’t want her child to sit on the bench outside during the winter because she wanted grandchildren one day. For the same reason, girls weren’t allowed to sit on the concrete. Yep, educated adults seriously think their kids will have reproductive issues because of sitting on cold surfaces. I’m telling you, lady, if your kid has gotten so cold that his reproductive system has frozen, then you won’t have to worry about having grandkids, you’ll have to think about replacing your child. Sheesh.

Wonderful: cost of living, assuming you are being paid on a competitive Western rate, is incredibly low. For example, we paid about 200 rubles a month, each, for our prepaid cell phone service, which included data. At current exchange rates, that’s about $3.50. A taxi ride across Kazan, reservations made using the wonderful Tap Taxi app, would usually set us back about 250 rubles, depending of course on where we were going. Hopping the bus costs 25 rubles. Food is similarly inexpensive. Brand name clothing and shoes, on the other hand, are similarly priced to the USA, and by comparison to other things, are very expensive. It’s been a really good year for saving money.

Oh, and I can’t forget to list another wonderful thing: learning Russian. My Russian is low, but I’ve learned a lot. Turtle, on the other hand, has really become a fluent speaker, and that’s fantastic.

So as we’re leaving, it’s obvious that we’ve had a year full of experiences both delightful and aggravating. And while it can be easy to focus on the things which are difficult, I think the year has been worthwhile. At any rate, it is over.