Shenzhen: Facts, Observations, and Thanksgiving Celebrations

It’s been long enough that we are through the honeymoon phase of our move. We should be thoroughly into the “hating it all” phase, but remarkably, we’re fairly content. A few months time living in Shenzhen has given us a bit of perspective, and we’ve seen much of the city now (but not all of it by any means). We still find the generous greenery appealing. We still can’t believe there aren’t a million traffic fatalities every day. We have learned more about the city, and made more observations. Here are some.

Population: almost 12,000,000. Some estimates place the actual population, including those who aren’t registered officially, closer to 17,000,000. It’s China’s fourth most populous city, behind Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai. I figure it’s part of the reason traffic laws and crosswalks aren’t necessarily paid much heed to, but that maybe just because the cops in the vicinity don’t care much. I hear other districts have more rigid policing. Anyway, since Shenzhen is such a big city, it takes a long time to get around. Speaking of getting around…

Didi: it’s Uber, but bought out by a Chinese company. With a new English interface, Didi makes hailing a ride much easier. I set it up, in conjunction with the ubiquitous social app WeChat, so that our rides are automatically debited from my bank account. This leads us to…

WeChat: it’s China’s do-all social app, and it’s mind-blowingly convenient. I can scan a QR code to pay for food, taxis, bicycle rentals (something else very China), and the like, after linking my bank account. I can use it like Facebook or like Facebook Messenger. It’s a bit like Apple Pay meets Facebook and they have a baby. A really convenient baby. Now, back to observations–a drive, or indeed a Sunday afternoon stroll, could not be accomplished without witnessing…

Skyscrapers: lots of them! The Ping An International Finance center, designed by an American firm, was just finished this year, and it is the fourth tallest building in the world. There are high-rise apartments everywhere. Quality, if you’re wondering, doesn’t seem to be especially high in most buildings, though they are evidently safe enough. Speaking of super tall buildings, presently, according to CNN, there are 49 buildings over 200 meters tall in Shenzhen.

Ping An IFC

Newly completed, Ping An International Finance Center reaches 599 meters into the sky, making it the world’s fourth tallest building. It comes within about 10 meters of being the third tallest and is indeed impressive.

Style: still not much. On hot days, of which there are many, men roll up their shirts to keep their navels cool. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my coworkers christened this the “Beijing Bikini,” while I just call it cringe-worthy. Other men shirk the shirts altogether, regardless of whether or not they have a body worth showing off. One must admire the unselfconsciousness of these guys, I guess. When it’s hot, you gotta be comfortable, right? To answer your unspoken question, not everybody disregards all sense of taste. There are definitely some elegant dresses and spectacular suits, but they’re in the considerable minority.

T-shirts: we get quite a kick out of seeing things terribly written in English (and sometimes terrible things written in English) on T-shirts here. Check out the hilarious (and highly inappropriate) things people wear courtesy of an instagrammer from Shanghai, who’s made an effort to document some of the ridiculousness here, if you dare. We’ve seen some pretty dumb shirts, but nothing quite the jaw-dropper “I Am a Whore” is, for example. Now, let’s move onto that favored, always-safe conversational topic: weather.

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T-shirts aren’t the only things to get puzzling or hilarious English translations, as these signs attest.

Temperature: has now dipped into the upper 50’s (Fahrenheit) at night. It feels like fall at last. Today Jenia even lamented not having brought more cold-weather clothing from the States. Shenzhen veterans tell me temps can dip almost to freezing, and when that happens, it’s mighty unpleasant, for there isn’t any heating inside the school offices. With the mercury dropping, it actually seems appropriate that we should be having…

Thanksgiving: not celebrated by Chinese folks, of course, so Starbucks is already decked out for Christmas. As for us, we will be celebrating over the weekend with friends–folks we know from the UAE, as well as new ones we’ve met on this teaching adventure. One of the enduring pleasures of life abroad is the relationships that spring up and the surrogate families that form.

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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.

About Money. About Getting Paid. About Expectations.

For today’s Money Monday post, I would like to share about some of the financial things that I deal with working for ADEC. I consider myself to be a fair-minded individual, and that’s the perspective I intend to write this from. Too often I see folks complaining about the way things are here, and I soon start to call their judgment about those things into question, because I usually find those people are the ones who have made no allowances for living and working in a foreign land.

When I was researching job prospects in the UAE, I spent time on websites like Dave’s ESL Cafe and many others, and that was a good way to determine what schools an organizations played fair with their employees. Of course, I tempered my reading with knowledge that people who get themselves in trouble out of their own idiocy are often to be the loudest Internet complainers.  So I’d like to address the issue of pay (not the rate as much as other aspects) in a level-headed fashion, because it’s the kind of thing I’d have liked for someone to elaborate upon when I was job-hunting and when I was trying to figure out what to expect.

So I’m going to talk about what it’s like to be receiving pay from an Emirati organization. First, let me address expectations: I was told that ADEC gives annual raises, and having that expectation in mind, I was disappointed to see that it’s not in my contract. My grade level coordinator has an older contract from a year before I came, and the wording of his contract is different–he is promised the raise. But he hasn’t ever gotten it, since one of the Sheikhs issued a decree last year freezing all pay. So that expectation was quashed. Another expectation has to do with timely pay for the first major payment into our bank accounts–our housing allowance, with which we purchase necessities like furniture for the empty apartments we’re provided.  This allowance didn’t arrive until the end of August, meaning that I spent nearly a month in Abu Dhabi without the means to purchase any of the things I would be needing very soon.  When the money arrived, I scrambled to get all the stuff I needed.  But then, before I’d managed to get any bedroom furniture, ADEC moved me from the Intercontinental to the crappy Hilton in Al Ain, where I had one day off before being shuttled to various orientations.  At the Hilton, we were told upon arrival that we’d be given up to two weeks to get our housing all squared away, and then that was suddenly changed after four days, when it was unceremoniously announced, via a slip of paper under the door, that all ADEC teachers were expected to check out the next morning.  The wife and I spent the next night at a friend’s apartment, and then slept on our own couches, before a friend lent us mattresses to throw on the floor until we got our bedroom furniture from Ikea.  So the expectation to receive the initial housing allowance in a timely manner was quashed.  I’m not sharing these experiences because I’m bitter, but because it’s the way things happened.

ADEC pays teachers on the 25th of each month.  After the initial month’s pay didn’t arrive, I had to wait until September to finally be paid.  At the end of September, I’d been without a paycheck for quite some time.  ADEC did pay me, on September 25, a prorated salary for August, and they paid me my regular amount for September, so that paycheck (or direct deposit, actually) was pretty large.

ADEC provides tickets to get teachers from their country of origin to the UAE.  Until today, the only complications in this area were due to different expectations–we were told that I would be issued a ticket and that the wife would have to follow me at a later date, and that we should plan accordingly.  If you’ve read our old posts, you know this isn’t what happened at all.  At the end of July, ADEC’s travel agency sent an e-mail verifying our travel information, and then they sent an itinerary for both of us to fly at the same time.  Plans were already made, and unable to alter them, we contacted the travel agency and had them issue only one ticket.  After waiting a month to get my passport with work visa back, we gave up waiting and bought our own ticket for her to come join me.  That resulted in a few complications, but nothing difficult to deal with.  ADEC reimbursed us fully for her airfare.  Today there is a new complication, however.  Rather than buying tickets for all teachers to go home during the summer months, ADEC provides funds for you to purchase your own tickets.  This amount is supposed to vary based upon your location, of course, but they have always been generous and provided plenty of money for folks to buy tickets on nice airlines like Emirates or Etihad.  This year there seems to have been some kind of goof–some of us, including yours truly, aren’t receiving anywhere near enough money to cover our flights.  I say it’s a goof because word is that ADEC honestly messed up–“a clerical error,” some say, resulting in wild variances and discrepancies.  At any rate, the allowance to go home generally seems to be substantially less than it has been.  As I write, I still have hope that this will be corrected, because I’m scheduled to receive, for my family, a mere 9450 AED, or about $2,600, and at the moment the cheapest flights (not even ones via Emirates or Etihad) to Atlanta are showing up at $1,800 a piece via SkyScanner.  This is disconcerting for obvious reasons.  We’ll see if ADEC fixes this.  If not, there will be much justifiable anger.

And what about sick days?  Are we paid for them?  Yes, as long as we go to a doctor and get a certain form rubber stamped and then submit that to our school’s secretary and to ADEC itself, via their clumsy and unintuitive webpage (hey, that’s true, not bitter or angry).  I had an issue pop up when they tried to deny me pay for one of my three sick days I took over the course of the year.  It turned out I needed to go get a stamp that was missing applied to my doctor’s note.  That was a bit of a pain in the neck, but after re-uploading my form with the required stamp, I was all set.

Another thing that impacts some people’s wallets comes in the form of what people are told when they interview for the job.  Besides not receiving the annual raise, teachers who come in the summer having just completed their degrees (I’m speaking of Master’s or higher), will end up only receiving the pay for the degree they had before.  My friend and coworker, who shall remain here unnamed, finished up with his Master’s degree in Education after he interviewed for his position in the spring.  “Don’t worry,” they said, “You’ll get paid on the Master’s pay scale.  All you will have to do is turn in the authenticated copy of your degree and we will make sure you’re paid accordingly, since you’ll have had the degree prior to actually working for us.”  That hasn’t happened.  In fact, after much hassling to make sure he had everything done right, and after being congratulated for an upcoming pay raise by a woman in the Al Ain ADEC office, he received an e-mail from the lady in charge of OK’ing stuff.  What did it say?  All pay raises were frozen as a result of the decree I mentioned earlier.  This defies logic, you say!  Yes, I agree.  You’re getting the idea of what it’s like to live and work in the UAE.

So that more or less sums up my experience with the topic of being paid.  Although I was late being paid my housing allowance, I’ve been paid on time ever since.  If ADEC fixes my family’s flight allowance for this summer, I can’t complain.