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Guan Ya and Shenyang A-Okay
SI am at present a Guan Ya employee in Shenyang, Liaoning Province. My experiences can easily be related to the many of the comments presented here in the job discussion journal. The interesting thing about living in China is that people’s experiences can be similar and their perceptions of those experiences can be quite different. How you deal with “China”, can make a big difference as to how your life turns out here. When crossing the border from Ontario to Quebec or from Ontario to the USA, the culture shock in China pales in comparison. 

Supporting or refuting comments made in the forum won’t put any money in my pocket. It won’t enhance my status at with my employer. It will, however, attempt to give a tempered, less hostile interpretation of the subjects dealt with in previous postings. My experiences in Shenyang are largely positive. Jeffrey Baltzer evokes many similar experiences to my own, but my interpretations and perceptions are different.

In both postings “Shenyang and Guan Ya Report” and “Guan Ya No Way” the author says that the air conditioning unit is inadequate for cooling the entire apartment and that “you will be hot during the summer months.” However, early in Mr. Baltzer’s “Guan Ya No Way” letter, the author tells us of his experience in China lasting from October 2004 through to April 2004. When was he ever here in the summer months? My apartment has a heat-pump/air conditioning unit that works quite well. It was not included in my apartment when I arrived and Guan Ya supplied it for me. I had never asked for one. An air conditioner was not mentioned in the promise of a furnished apartment and yet one was installed. What is the problem? 

Mr. Baltzer might be qualified to talk about Shenyang seeing he did spend six months here during the coldest months of the year. Yes, it is cold and dry. It might be compared with living on the Canadian prairie or the in the American mid-west. The winters though, are not as long or as cold as it might be in Winnipeg or Fargo. All Mr. Baltzer had to do before leaving home was to look at the map to realize that Shenyang’s latitude was similar to that of Toronto’s and there would have been no surprises. Why didn’t he ask our recruiter about the weather? Mr. Baltzer’s winter fear mongering even advises people to bring their own western antibiotics because, in his words, “almost all Western medications are very weak or completely fake.” If this makes a reader conjure up images of sick miserable foreigners at home taking fake medicine and missing workdays, forget it. Our foreign teachers rarely take sick days. If one is really ill, a local staff member will accompany the teacher to a doctor. I’m not a medical practitioner and neither is Mr. Baltzer. How does he know western medication in China is truly fake? Finally, Shenyang is not the fourth most polluted city in the world. It is not even the fourth most polluted city in China. The China Daily newspaper lists emissions ratings for major cities in China. Many other cities that don’t even burn coal for heat in the winter months out-pollute Shenyang. Mr. Baltzer should remember his gripe about pollution the next time there are mid-summer smog alerts at his home in Southern Ontario. Will he recommend that people not live in Toronto or Hamilton, Ontario? I think not.

The apartments, as Mr. Baltzer states are on the sixth floor and with no elevator. It just so happens that, even new modern apartments, are six and seven-story walk-ups. Welcome to China. As Mr. Baltzer states, “if you are a heavy smoker or are out of shape, you will feel it.” Shenyang is a city of seven million people that live in buildings that are largely without elevators. If Mr. Baltzer wishes to sympathize with out-of-shape or smoking foreigners he could come back to China and try to change the building codes for a developing country of 1.3 billion.

Another issue with the apartments is that they are larger (140 square meters or 1400 square feet) units that have been cut down into two apartments. One of the units in the division has a basic, functional kitchen that is quite adequate by local standards. Unlike many Chinese kitchens, there is even counter and cupboard space. It is far from makeshift. The occupants of the half-unit with no kitchen have no problem equipping them with a hotplate and small oven to supplement the fridge and microwave already there. Yes, the mattress is hard but yet again, welcome to China. Other foreigner teachers with a more positive outlook have bought inexpensive foam mattress covers to pad the impact. They seem to be suffering from no insomnia. 

Mr. Baltzer seems so frustrated with conditions in the apartments that he qualifies the local people looking after foreigners’ apartments with an expletive. I haven’t had any problem getting repairs done in my apartment and funny thing; I try to be polite to them. The same holds true for many of my closest neighbors. The school even supplies a maid service once a week to do the housework. There is no mention of a cleaning service in the contract yet it is supplied to all of us. In our absence, repairs are done while the cleaning lady is present and she sees to it that that they are done appropriately. When did I ever have that privilege in Canada? It is true that one phone line is shared between sometimes up to 12 people. Some have bought their own mobile phones. As for the Internet connection, there are no complaints on my part. Our shared ADSL is quite appropriate for my needs and I am grateful for it. Again, when did my employer ever supply an Internet connection in my apartment in Canada?

Contract issues are always at the center of every teacher’s tenure in China. Mr. Baltzer complains, “Guan Ya will not provide nothing unless it is in the contract” (Guan Ya No Way). Well, what is the problem with that? Conversely, will any foreign employee supply hours of work unless the provision for it is in the contract? Mr. Baltzer himself even says, “They do seem to honour whatever is in the contract.” It is true that foreign teachers have no collective bargaining like the union shops back home. If, however, the school honours the contract as Mr. Baltzer states, what then, is the problem? 

While on contract issue, the complainant makes light of issues in his flight that the school refuses to reimburse. As I did, Mr. Baltzer signed a one-year contract. It is true that there is little incentive to sign beyond six months and re-sign at the end of the contract period. If what our former teacher states is true and that he is “used to working in Canada with labour contracts where disputes are resolved legally”, why then does he not respect his contract and fulfill his one-year obligation? If family or personal matters, God forbid, whose problem should that be? Should I terminate my agreement midway through the period expressed in the contract, regardless of the reason, I would expect to be in breach of my agreement. 

The readers should also know that other foreigners’ perceptions of their experience at Guan Ya is much different from that of Mr. Baltzer’s. Allegations that local employees are segregated from foreign employees are pure fabrication. How can there be racism or contempt of foreigners as Mr. Baltzer claims when various activities are organized to celebrate western holidays? Again, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners are not in the contract but Guan Ya organizes them to commemorate those special days for the foreign personnel. 

Also contrary to what is stated, local teachers work hard but do not work their fingers to the bone. They teach twelve hours per week. The foreign teachers assume a quarter of their teaching load while the local teacher looks on. Local teachers are off two consecutive days a week. They also are free mornings from Wednesday to Friday. They have a competitive salary in China. Out of town teachers sometimes are provided with dormitory accommodations. They are shared among four to six teachers with cooking and bath facilities, akin to a student dormitory in China. There are not, as Mr. Baltzer rants, twenty-four teachers that share one bathroom. Finally, and again contrary to Mr. Baltzer’s remarks, Chinese teachers do have a recourse to speak up. There is an academic department responsible for the local children’s teachers and on many occasions they present their grievances in writing or in person. Mr. Baltzer is misinformed. 

It is unfortunate that Mr. Baltzer’s stay was not a more positive one. I wonder how all his former foreign colleagues seem to succeed here and cultivate so many wonderful relationships with, as he says, “the snotty local headmasters and teachers.” Oh yeah, and many of the foreign teachers do indeed have a real degree and experience and some have renewed their contracts on more than one occasion. I guess comments like “If you have a real degree and some experience, Guan Ya and Shenyang are probably not the right place for you” have little credence like much of Mr. Baltzer’s postings.

Finally, it isn’t new for foreigners arriving in China to experience some kind of difficult adjustment period. Some leave China bitter. Some make it through the “dues paying” period. Some return home after having made many new friendships and lived exhilarating experiences. Some are even reluctant to leave China make their lives here. We should expect that frustrations similar to Mr. Baltzer’s will repeat with other foreigner’s arriving in China. 

We also should expect that, with the context Guan Ya and Shenyang provide, wonderful experiences similar to my own will also reoccur. Feel free to get in touch.

Michael Abboud
Shenyang, China
86-024-23252968 ext. 20