Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 4 -- Getting Legal

Update: There's a new policy requiring applicants to leave China to get a Z visa. I was wary of further hassles and expenses, so I ended up getting an F visa. That means in six months, I might go to Hong Kong!

"Thin ice is only a problem for those who choose to go skating."
--Chinese Proverb

Once I did get a job, getting a visa became the main priority. I absolutely had to get one before my tourist visa ran out. My employer offered two options: an F visa or a Z visa. The F visa is the business visa, which lets someone stay in China for 6 months as a "consultant." Not strictly legal, but I've heard of many people getting these and having no problems. The Z visa is the true work visa. It can easily be renewed for up to 5 years, making it a favorite for longer-term expats. For those who want the complete lowdown, I've written a detailed comparison at the bottom of this post.

Although the Z visa grants more rights, it's much more of a pain in the ass to get. In order to get one, I had to do a full medical examination. One English teacher told me not to worry: "You'll only fail it if you have AIDS."

My usual doctor in Hawaii got me scared about going to a hospital in China. She had warned me that I should have taught in Japan instead, because it's cleaner there. My worst nightmare was that the Chinese hospital would look like a biohazard zone, littered with the dead bodies of SARS victims.

I shouldn't have worried. Medical exams for foreigners and overseas Chinese (usually from Taiwan and Hong Kong) take place at the Shanghai International Travel Healthcare Center, a state-of-the-art facility on the west side of Shanghai.

Thinking I was smart, I made an appointment in advance. I also made sure of what I had to bring: passport, photocopy of passport and Chinese visa, 3 passport-sized photos, and a letter of introduction from my employer. (Hot Tip: bring a lot of 2 x 2 photos of yourself before going abroad to work)

I was totally prepared when the receptionist asked for my documents, one by one. When she was supposed to ask for the letter of introduction, she said something else:

"Where's the photocopy of your employer's business license?" she asked.

"The what?" I said. She never said to bring that when I called her.

She repeated the question.

I whipped out my cell phone and called the company office. Michelle was the one in charge of visas for employees. When someone got on the line, I asked for Michelle. Guess what happened. Yes, it happened to be her day off.

Time to think fast. I asked the person on the line to transfer me to someone who spoke better English. While he was doing that, I whispered to the hospital receptionist, "Could I get your fax number?"

A minute later, my company's business license sputtered out of the fax machine. I'd get to be a human lab rat after all.

I was surprised at how hi-tech the hospital was. While a nurse entered the info from my forms into a computer, she took my photo with a webcam. The weight scale was completely electronic. I stepped on it for a second and stepped off. When I get on a scale in Hawaii, I still have to wait for the nurse to balance the fulcrum by hand.

After that, I was shuffled from one room to the next. A blood sample here, a chest X-ray there. The EKG was the most fun. They strapped these bands of electrodes around my wrists and ankles. It was like I was Frankenstein! The one I didn't get was why I had to do an ultrasound. I knew I wasn't pregnant. Or was I?

* * *

The Visa Report

Disclaimer: Although I've read a lot of John Grisham novels, I am not a lawyer. The following information may be incorrect and is subject to change. A lot of it depends on the company sponsoring the visa and how good their connections are. Look for changes to this report if I get more updated information.

F Visa -- Business Visa

Pros: Easy to get, fast processing (about 1 week), and costs only 600 RMB. Very little paperwork. Just provide the passport, 2 photos, and temporary residence form (it's yellow).

Cons: Lasts only 6 months, unsure legal status, only 2 entries back into China, and cannot be renewed within China. That means a "visa run." It's only a 2-hour flight to Hong Kong, making it the most popular place to get a new visa.

Z Visa -- Work Visa

Pros: Full rights, official status, multiple entries, lasts for 1 year, easily renewed for up to 5 years.

Cons: Paperwork. Must provide passport, 10 photos, temporary residence form, original college degree, resume, employer's business license. Takes 3 weeks to process. Costs 2000 RMB. Requires a full medical exam, which costs another 702 RMB.

There is a third option: a 12-month, multiple-entry, business visa. With the rush of foreigners pouring into China to strike it rich, a lot of "visa assistance" companies have sprung up to meet the demand. They use their connections to get visas for foreigners. Or they set up dummy corporations that will hire foreigners as consultants, when the foreigners are really working somewhere else. Many of them have a more boring approach: they'll fill out the necessary forms in Chinese for you and hand them on to a myriad of government offices. One of my friends got a 12-month business visa. She said it was really expensive, much more than a Z visa would have cost.

Even Z visas aren't quite what they seem. Some of my friends were surprised when they got back their passports and checked their visas. Instead of seeing their ESL company, they saw the name of a Chinese school they'd never heard of. What some ESL companies do is partner with government-affiliated schools that have the authority to issue visas. They add their ESL teachers to the school roster when they're really working for a totally separate company.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 3 -- Job Search

"The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials."
--Chinese proverb

"Marcus, we can't give you a job," Andy said. He rubbed his forehead and leaned back in his office chair.

The weight of failure crashed on my shoulders again.

"It's not you," he added. "Your teaching was fine."

I had done a demo lesson at the elementary school earlier that week. Several of the school staff sat in to observe and evaluate me. The way a lot of ESL companies work was that they recruit the ESL teachers, develop the course materials, and send the teachers to local schools. The local schools make the final hiring decision.

"I remember some of the people observing me," I said. "Which one was the principal again?"

Andy sighed. "You won't remember her because she didn't watch your demo lesson."


"I know, it's balls. She saw you for like 2 seconds outside her office before the demo lesson. She based her judgment on your appearance."


I really wanted to work for this company. Andy and Mr. Chen would have been such cool bosses. They actively hired young, creative types as teachers. Three of the teachers were actors, one was a writer, and another did graphic design. I would have fit right in.

"We're going to take care of you, Marcus," Andy said. "We're not just going to boot you out. You have full access to this office: computer, printer, phone, everything you need to find another job. If you need anything translated, our Chinese staff will help you. You can use me as a job reference. The apartment with Elizabeth is yours to keep."

His generosity only made me more ashamed. They were bailing me out, and I was robbed of the chance to make money for them.

It was demoralizing to go back and look for a job again. By the time I had gotten that previous crappy job in Hengmin Xinzhen, I was almost at my wit's end. I had already been rejected by over 30 employers in 5 countries. I should have taken that as a hint to quit. Believe me, I came close a bunch of times. But I couldn't shake that need to travel. I knew if I stayed at home, I'd regret it. I didn't want to spend the rest of my life wondering "What if I had gone abroad?"

I didn't trust the websites I'd used to find my former job. Instead, I went on Asia Expat: Shanghai. Interested employers often reply within the same day, or by the next day. One of the few smart things I did before I came here was to scan all my job documents and save them in my e-mail account. That way, I could access them from any computer and still apply for jobs.

I sent out so many resumes that I lost track of the different employers. So when Maggie, the manager of a school, e-mailed me about coming in for an interview, I couldn't remember which job was the one she was offering. I hurriedly said I'd do it.

When reporters talk about Shanghai being the center of China's business and commerce, they're talking about Pudong New Area. Specifically, the Lujiazui District of Pudong. That's where the Shanghai Stock Exchange is, as well as exchanges for diamonds, real estate, and practically everything else.

My first surprise was discovering my prospective school was there. What was an English school doing in a business district?

I got off at Dongchang metro station, and went out Exit 4 like Maggie had said. That exit put me on Pudong Road and Century Avenue. I came face to face with one looming skyscraper after another. I checked my directions again: the Pufa Tower, 12th Floor, Room B. I looked up and couldn't believe it: the Pufa Tower was the tallest building I'd ever seen!

I'm trying to get a job there? I've never felt so small as when I had to cross an 9-lane street to get to the Pufa Tower. Inside the lobby, the decor was cutting-edge modern: gray marble, steel, and glass.

I was wearing a button-down shirt from Costco and held a briefcase donated by my Mom. I felt very much like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. I'd need an MBA from Harvard to work in a building this nice.

Maggie was a pleasant young Chinese woman who spoke excellent English. She ushered me into a spotless conference room and got me a cup of water. Showing me a textbook, Maggie explained that I would be teaching one of her Chinese employees a demo lesson on the importance of music.

15 minutes later, I was teaching Sophie, one of the office staff. I talked about music as national identity, music as emotional expression, and its educational value. Sophie liked the way I explained things, and we moved beyond the parameters of the text book. She was eager to learn different styles of American music.

I told her about rap and rock. Sophie wanted some examples of performers. I named Public Enemy and Rage Against The Machine, since two of my favorite songs are "Fight The Power" and "Guerrilla Radio." I stopped myself. What was I doing teaching radical music in Communist China? Would I get shot for this?

The lesson in music for revolutionaries seemed to work. After the lesson, Sophie took me over to meet Mr. Kim, the owner of the school. She said I was young, energetic, and spoke excellent English. Mr. Kim smiled and approved the decision. I was employed!

Maggie gave me a quick orientation. The school specialized in teaching English and Mandarin to business executives in one-on-one sessions. When she said "business executives" I wondered if she really meant that, or if she was talking about regular office workers.

"And sometimes your lessons will be interrupted," Maggie said.

"Why is that?" I asked.

"They often have sudden business trips," she said.

That clinched it. The students would be middle management, maybe even upper management. The file clerk doesn't get to travel on company funds.

Since the executives were all working professionals, they couldn't be full-time students. That meant the school could only offer me part-time work. I said that would be fine. I felt lucky to have any job. She wrapped up the briefing and said I would start next week.

I was at home "cooking" microwave noodles when the phone rang. It was Maggie. Word had broken out about my English skills, and she said there were two students who wanted to start immediately. One managed the Shanghai branch of the third-largest bank in South Korea. The other was a Chinese woman who handled mergers and acquisitions in Japan. Would I be able to start tomorrow? I stumbled out a yes.

I hung up the phone. If someone told me I'd get a job like this, I would've thought they were nuts. I was amazed at how fast things were happening. Is it just me, or does everything in China zoom at warp speed?

Update: I later found a full-time job, also teaching adults. Visa sponsorship at last!