Category Archives: Employment issues

Thirty-one Months Later: Adapting to Life in China

When I first arrived in Beijing in September 2014, I knew almost nothing about the country I’d just moved to. I was embarking on a new life that didn’t seem to have a sell-by date – I had no idea how long I’d stay or even when I would next go home.

While many of my initial questions were answered long ago, the questions never stop arising, and the number seems to grow rather than shrink. The deeper into creating a real life I venture, the greater my curiosity for this vast country grows.

About thirty months ago, a few weeks into my Beijing life, I wrote what was to be my first and only “Beijing Update”. I sent it as an email and posted part of it on my blog, as a list of weird things I’d learned about Beijing.

While I’d like to imagine I’ve shed my China naivety, after almost three years living here, I’m not even sure that’s even possible. At no point have I felt that I could ever stop learning about this monolith of a nation. So to honour that never-stop-learning spirit, here’s an updated look at those weird things I’m still about Beijing:

Thousands of bikes crowd Beijing’s streets | image from guardian
  1. Health Check. All foreigners must go through a basic health check as part of their visa application. Only selected hospitals provide this all-inclusive test of sight, blood pressure, height, and weight. Patients get a little manhandled as they are passed from doctor to doctor, who take a blood sample, a chest x-ray, a cardiogram and an ultrasound. Standard procedure. Friends of mine speculate it’s all an elaborate ruse to check foreigners for HIV/Aids and other venereal diseases, which could result in a denied visa. I’ve luckily only been through it once, but I’ve got it coming whenever I change job or get a new visa.
  1. IKEA. I avoid Ikea in Beijing like the plague. Yes, it is treated like a social outing. Yes, people go there to sleep. Yes, people go there on dates. No, it is not a fun place to be. I went once and have never yet been back. I’ll just have to ensure I don’t wind up in a less-than-desirably-furnished apartment!
  1. Milk. Fresh milk appeared in my local supermarket a few months after my first frantic search for it. I stopped buying yoghurt and milkshakes by accident, and I only buy cartons of UHT from our closest shop during bouts of laziness.
  1. Long nails. A significant number of men have long nails on their little finger, often just on one hand. It’s a status symbol showing that the hands’ owner doesn’t work with their hands, but most people I see on the subway simply use their pinkie nail to dig that little bit deeper for ear wax.
  1. Public toilets. There are still public toilets all over the place, but only in certain areas. Bars and restaurants in the Hutongs don’t have loos, and will never have them. Some are kept clean, others are not. Most but not all are squatters. Many don’t have cubicles or even dividers. Few have hand-washing facilities and fewer have soap. Never forget to bring your own bog roll.
  1. Bikes. If I thought there were bicycles everywhere in 2014, you can’t move for bikes now. Cycling has become cool again, thanks to Mobike and Ofo, companies that enable you to hire a bike by scanning a QR code. Beginning with student areas like Wudaokou, these bikes have slowly overrun the city and clogged up an already slow-moving two-wheel traffic system. They’re dockless, so the rider can just leave them wherever his or her journey ends. More than once, I’ve seen men unloading 50+ Mobikes onto a single street corner in a busy area late at night. There are stories of burning piles of bikes. There’s less space to lock a bike you actually own, but less likelihood of theft.
  1. Holiday compensation. In 2014 I was surprised that I was required to work on a Saturday and Sunday to compensate for national holiday. I soon learned that this is common practice. Working at weekends (usually doing one or more six-day-week), is considered fair recompense for having consecutive days off. It gets particularly messy when the celebrated holiday falls mid-week. This never becomes normal; working ‘make up’ days in order to earn a holiday never seems fair. But it makes sense, given the size of the country and the familial nature of traditional holidays, to allow the population time to visit their hometowns for celebrations like Qing Ming Jie or Tomb Sweeping Day.

I’ve learned a lot in my thirty-one months in Beijing, and I have enjoyed the incessant challenge this metropolis poses. Although sometimes it feels the smog outweighs the curiosity, I don’t think I’ll ever stop (begrudgingly) raising questions. Which is why Beijing continues to be my home.


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Header image from: Uber for Bikes: how ‘dockless’ cycles flooded China – and are heading overseas, Guardian


Words and Women: Barbra Streisand

Barbra Streisand in 1966 | image from elle

Why is it that men are permitted to be obsessed about their work, but women are only permitted to be obsessed about men?

Barbra Streisand (b. 1942) is American singer, songwriter, actor, and filmmaker. In a career spanning six decades, Streisand is among the ten best-selling female artists of all time in the US music industry. She starred in nineteen films between 1968 and 2012, and was nominated for BAFTAs and Golden Globes galore.

In 1983, Streisand became the first woman to write, produce, direct, and star in a major studio film. The film, Yentl won an Oscar and a Golden Globe, while Streisand received the Golden Globe for Best Director, the first and only woman to win that award to date.


Words and Women is a regular feature that spotlights short quotations from influential women activists, artists, and authors.

Ovaries: Putting Reproductive Health on the Line at Work

I never imagined I’d have to talk to my boss about my ovaries, but that’s just what happened when I came up against a blockade in the insurance system.

I was going through a harrowing few weeks of stress and pain that culminated on my twenty-sixth birthday. My periods had been getting more and more painful for a while, and I got a recurring dull pain at other times in the month, but I self-medicated and continued to ignore it. It took a pain in my abdomen so sharp that a full night of drinking couldn’t take the edge off before I knew I could no longer stand it.

It still took me two weeks to see a doctor.

“Champ” from Mostly It’s Just Uncomfortable © Zoe Buckman | image from zoebuckman

Should I making this public knowledge?” I cross-examine myself. It’s literally a sensitive issue.

I’ve vowed to myself that my body is my public, political sphere as well as my private, personal sphere. It’s my mannequin on which to display my beliefs, my vehicle in the fight for gender rights, my pathway to strength and to weakness. I’m not afraid to bare the truth to the world.

What doesn’t help is feeling that the system is pitted against me because I speak a different language, because I am a foreigner, and because I am a woman.

image from pinterest

In September, I’d asked a friend to help me get an appointment at a Chinese hospital where I knew they’d accept my insurance. She had to call for me, because I couldn’t speak enough Chinese to get through the phone system. She was the only friend I felt comfortable asking this of. We discussed dates. She called. We tried and tried to get an appointment. But there were just too many people to get through the system. I kept waiting, trying to ride out the pain.

By the last week of December, I was desperate. I couldn’t wait for the Chinese system to find space for me, and opted for an appointment at an international clinic.

It was New Years Eve when my boyfriend and I finally went to the clinic. I felt frail and scared and lucky to have him there with me. It was a Thursday, so I’d had to teach an 8am class that morning but had the rest of the day free, tomorrow would be a holiday followed by a weekend. I’d done the legwork to ensure a few days’ rest incase something drastic had to be done about whatever was going on inside of me. I was terrified that what I felt was an ectopic pregnancy – an embryo growing outside of my womb, either in the fallopian tube or just floating around between my organs – caused in part by my IUD.

The place was almost empty – a privilege I paid for – and there wasn’t much of a wait before a nurse weighed me, tested my blood pressure, and showed me through to the doctor’s office. I was glad my preference for a female gynaecologist had been heard; she made me feel so much more comfortable. She was gentle but feisty, professional yet funny. I realised I would have been fine if I were on my own. I was in safe hands.

The initial examination didn’t uncover anything but good health, which worried rather than placated me. I insisted that there was something wrong. I had never experienced pain so bad. So she gave me an ultrasound, showing me where my IUD was, and what my ovaries looked like. Then she found it.

It wasn’t an ectopic pregnancy, thank fuck. It was something far more common and much simpler to treat. I had a cyst on my right ovary that was 5 centimetres in diameter (which is pretty huge). She prescribed me three month’s worth of the combined Pill (oestrogen and progesterone) and told me to come back in three months to make sure the cyst had gone.

I left feeling positive about everything but the price. It had cost me 4000 RMB, which is a little under £500 (or $600 US), and about 70% of my monthly salary at the time.

Harking from the UK, I am not used to forking out for my reproductive health. A country where the National Health Service is managing to cling to high-expenditure existence after almost 70 years, women get most forms of protection on the house. My only saving grace was that my job provides insurance. All I had to do was provide our International Cooperation Office with the invoice.

Uterus Necklace | image from etsy

My Chinese colleague at the ICO took a few minutes to process the number she saw in front of her. She told me she didn’t think the insurance could cover this cost, that she’d need me to get further paperwork from the clinic, and asked why I hadn’t just gone to a “normal hospital”?

Communication across a language barrier, however minimal, doesn’t help when trying to explain that it felt like an emergency, that I’d tried getting appointments in other places, that I worried about having a male doctor, that I couldn’t explain my pain in Chinese.

She looked back at the invoice and tried to tell me it was the wrong colour for the university’s insurance provider to accept it. I didn’t have to go to the one they’d recommended, but this international clinic was not registered as a hospital and therefore wouldn’t be covered. Additionally, the amount I’d paid exceeded the maximum insurance payment for the year by double. She might be able to get me 2000 RMB, but there was no guarantee.

She mentioned that next time, I should go to a Chinese hospital, that she would recommend a doctor, and that gynaecologists in China are all female.

“Heavy flow” metal cast tampons © Zoe Buckman | image from zoebuckman

Two months later, when I’d returned from a vacation feeling stronger and healthier than ever, if haunted by the Pill that I was eager to finish taking as soon as possible, my direct boss called asking me to come over. He needed to talk to me and he couldn’t explain over the phone.

I sat down in a low chair opposite him in his book-strewn apartment, wondering what on earth this could possibly be about. He explained he’d had a long, winding conversation with our female colleague at the ICO (the only female colleague I had any regular contact with, for I was the only woman among the international teachers at the time). He thought it better if he explain the inner workings of the insurance system to me himself, to save time. I believe that was a genuine concern, since our colleague’s English tended to falter when the subject matter got tough. Still, it did not seem fair that my medical issue had been discussed without my knowledge, nor did I want my older male boss involved in this issue.

He essentially repeated what she’d told me two months earlier (I’d gone back to collect 2000 RMB in cash, thanked her for her hard work, and we’d discussed insurance), thinking he was doing me a favour by initiating a tense conversation about my health.

He stressed again that the insurance would not pay anything towards another appointment of any kind at an international clinic within twelve months. He didn’t want to force me into going to a Chinese doctor, if I believed this was a risk to my health, but I really must try to trust the local system. It works for everyone else here, he told me, and my last appointment had been so expensive compared with the salary.

Suddenly this conversation became a way to assess my ability to assimilate with Chinese culture, and being affected by a “woman’s problem” wasn’t helping the case. My boss did not seem to think me capable of making informed decisions about my own health and my own money. Never before had I felt my womanness was an obstacle in this job, despite having only male colleagues and no-one to ask for help. Perhaps he was worried how this health issue could affect my ability to do my job.

I had not foreseen ever talking to my boss about my ovaries, but there I was explaining the pain and the cyst and the stress and the small likelihood that I would need surgery if it didn’t deflate. And there he was, suddenly compassionate.

I didn’t think I was biased against the system. I would go to a Chinese hospital for a problem with my eyes or my kidneys, but this was different. The mainstream system hadn’t worked for me. I had found a (woman) doctor I trusted and liked, at a clinic that provides the full range of healthcare options I expect as a westerner, and that doctor had my medical records so was best equipped to carry out the check-up later.

I did look into other options, but I ultimately decided to go back to the place I knew and trusted. The place where I knew I could communicate, where they knew my medical history, and where I felt comfortable going alone. That second appointment cost me close to 8000RMB – almost £950 (or $1,200 US). But that’s a story for another time.


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Mostly It’s Just Uncomfortable is feminist artist Zoe Buckman’s response to the attack on Planned Parenthood in the United States. Check out this and other work on her website.


May Thant on Facebook trolls, gender inequality and Burma’s first woman President (interview: part 1)

May Thant works as a receptionist at a popular backpacker’s hostel in downtown Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). She spoke to me in February 2016.

Can you start by telling me about your background?

I come from a very small town, near Yangon. After our matriculation exams, we have to go to other places if we want to continue our education. Our education system meant my options were really bad. I got good grades so I decided to come to Yangon, and attend a university here. I graduated from the Yangon Foreign Languages University, specialising in Chinese. But now I’ve forgotten almost all of my Chinese words [laughter].

Crowds on the streets surrounding Yangon University, Myanmar, Feb 2016 © ZhendeGender

After I graduated, I worked in a small company selling medicine for two years. I think this work didn’t improve my ability or my skills. I thought, ‘I can’t improve myself,’ during this time, so I changed my career and I came here.

[May gets up and welcomes a new visitor to the hostel.]

I’m always busy! This work is my family business. My Uncle shares the company with my boss, so I work at the family business. I really enjoy it here – I am really happy and feel successful here. I’ve been working here one year. In that year I’ve had many experiences from guests and I think I can improve my English skills here.

[The telephone rings. May answers in English and switches to Burmese.]

Do you think you will stay in this job a long time? What are your aims for the future?

Yes, a long time. I enjoy my job, for now. I’m planning to attend some more classes, like tourism, business management. I’ve already attended some classes and got a diploma. I think I will stay here for two or three years.

When I was a child, I really wanted to be an engineer. But when I finished school I didn’t want to be an Engineer. Back then I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I really didn’t know. But since working here I know; I want to be a tour guide, and I want to be a traveller.

There are many different racial groups in Myanmar. What does it mean to you to be Burmese?

It means my parents are Burmese and now I am Burmese. My grandparents are Burmese too, and my parents, and me. If my father was Shan, and my mother Burmese, I would be half blood. It doesn’t change my life to be Burmese… I’ve never thought about that before.

Most women don’t travel alone in Myanmar. How do you feel about that?

I feel many things about that. In Myanmar, women don’t travel alone, they travel with their family, and friends. They fear they are not safe to travel alone, so they don’t travel alone.

If I had the time, and enough money, I would travel alone. Because in traveling alone I wouldn’t need to discuss my plans with others; it is much freer. But here, most girls don’t travel alone. At least one or two other people go with them.

I’ve never travelled alone, but I would like to. I don’t worry about bad things happening. But I’d try to go to big towns, not small towns. Because here the men… [laughter]. Here I don’t feel safe to go to places like small villages or small towns. It’s a little bit more dangerous.

Do you feel safe in Yangon?

I feel safe in Yangon. But sometimes, at night, if I walk to my house, sometimes the taxi drivers will stop and talk to me: “Hey, girl, where are you going? What are you doing?” and I feel unsafe. But I walk quicker until I meet with other people, and I feel safe. I think that kind of thing happens everywhere.

Have you ever been threatened?

Here, the threatening is on Facebook and other [social media]. Most men don’t threaten in the outside world. It is mostly online. Most girls like posting their photos on Facebook, and some fake accounts copy their photos. People make changes using Photoshop and post them to another Facebook page. Often the pages are about naked women or something like that. Maybe the threats go further but I haven’t experienced threatening like this.

Most girls talk about this kind of threatening on Facebook. First there will be a private message, where they will discuss with each other like: ‘if you don’t give money, I will post your photos on this Facebook page.’ They threaten to post naked pictures made in Photoshop. It is blackmail. Sometimes they don’t want any money and they just post the pictures.

It is always someone they already have in their Facebook friends. Here, Facebook is very popular, and people think you can make friends very easily on Facebook. If you don’t know him or her outside, you just make friends on Facebook. Many people make friends on Facebook and never meet in real life. Facebook is very new here, maybe a year or a year and a half.

People use Facebook for online dating, too.

Yes, that is common. I really, really don’t like it. Because we don’t know about him or her exactly, it is not safe. It seems like Facebook is less safe than outside on the streets. [laughter]

What do you use Facebook for?

Yes. I use Facebook for information. Facebook is mainly used for work or political and economic information. So I use Facebook for information about our country and some facts about travelling.

Do you feel safe when you use Facebook? 

No. But I only accept friends I know in the outside world; I don’t accept others I don’t know. I use Facebook very little. I normally don’t use Facebook, I just use Instagram because I like photography.

When you speak to people face to face, do you feel comfortable to say anything you want?

Here, it depends on our culture; we can’t always talk freely. For example, if you’re older than me, if it is just you and I, I can’t speak freely to you. It depends on your age. Younger people have to give respect to older people. We can’t speak freely to anyone we want. If you are younger, I don’t need to worry. I don’t need to give so much respect to you, so I can say what I want.

Open air bookstores abound in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, Feb 2016 © ZhendeGender

There are lots of differences between men’s and women’s lives. How has your gender affected your life?

Yes sometimes I think about gender, the gap between men and women. Sometimes if I want to travel to other places but it is not safe for travelling alone, women traveling alone, but for men they can travel alone. So I want to be a man.

Here, men’s lives are different from women’s.

Men are taught that women are for sex and cooking and children. But now, some educated women don’t think like this. Those women can do anything like a man and it is the same for them as a woman.

The majority of students at Yangon University are female. But it is harder for a woman to get a good job because everyone looks down upon women. They think women can’t do some jobs, that men can make decisions, women can’t.

There are some jobs that people say: “women can’t do that,” like driving and business. Very few women are engineers. There are big companies where the general staff are all women and the managers are all men. Women do accounting, though, mostly.

Teachers, accountants, they are mostly women. Most doctors are female, because they get better grades in high school so they had the chance to attend medical university. Most girls in our country are very hard working and they get to attend the medical university. But after they graduate they don’t want to be a doctor because the government will send doctors to really rural areas and they don’t want to go there. So after they graduate they don’t work as a doctor. They only want to work in this area, around Yangon.

They will go if it is Ayarwaddy region, Bago region, like this [near Yangon]. But they don’t want to go very far away. Some girls go to other places, but most really don’t want to go to other places like Rakhine and Chin States. They fear it is not safe to go.

Aung San Suu Kyi won the election last November. What are your hopes for the future of the country?

Now, the government has changed and this government really supports education and training. Maybe children can improve their skills. Aung San Suu Kyi really supports education: she will start by changing the education system. I voted NLD [National League for Democracy] in November. She’s the first time we’ve had a woman in power. We hope she can become president; our first woman President. She is a very good role model, especially for women. Most people love her, very much.

Some people love her because she’s Aung San’s daughter. Most people love her because of what she’s done. If she were someone else, she would still be successful. In my opinion, I don’t care about who she is, because it depends on what she’s done. She has a lot of experience and we trust her, because of what she’s done. She is now over 70 and she could rest at her age. But she doesn’t rest, instead she does so much for our country. She is not going to give up.

In part 2 of my interview with May Thant, we discuss sex, taboo, marriage and gender roles. Coming later this month.

This interview was conducted as part of a larger project named Burma Voices Project: Women of Burma, which began in August 2015

Sarah Silverman’s recommendation to Lenny: Lady Parts Justice

I’m a Lenny subscriber. So I’m treated to intelligent, witty, Feminist writing at the end of every week, when I need it most. Lenny’s weekly letter picks me up just as my Friday evening is setting in (I’m 13 hours ahead of NYC). On the way home on the Beijing subway after 7 hours of teaching last Friday, I scrolled through my emails with one hand, the other gripping the bar overhead and my bag sat on the floor as I overheated in the crush of people.

I was sufficiently distracted from the morass of warm bodies around me that I almost missed my stop.

The first piece last week was Sarah Silverman’s interview for Lenny, by Lena Dunham. Silverman is awesome. As is Lena (I’m going to call her Lena because I want to be her Bee-Eff-Eff. Lena’s the reason I signed up for Lenny, but I’ve stayed for the content). Silverman’s comment, “I lead with my thighs” has stuck with me for days as I strutted around feeling powerful in tall leather boots this weekend.

The big recommendation I took from Silverman was a mention of Lady Parts Justice:

L: What is a moment of overcoming the patriarchy that you have witnessed or taken part in this week?

SS: Lizz Winstead, who started Lady Parts Justice (and the Lady Parts Justice League), made an app called Hinder that looks like Tinder but presents/exposes politicians who are anti-choice. It’s satirical and informative and brilliant. She is an unsung hero of feminism who works tirelessly, and I love her.

I immediately looked up Lady Parts Justice and immediately enjoyed what I found there.

Yes, these interviews are parodies (just listen to the names of the businesses), but that doesn’t mean this kind of thing isn’t actually happening in employee healthcare plans across America. Women’s reproductive rights have long been under fire, but since the Hobby Lobby decision, a woman’s body is all too often subject to her employer’s religious beliefs. The combination of humour and political issues simply makes it even more potent.

The front page gives you 5 reasons to join Lady Parts Justice (LPJ):

  1. Because women decide elections and if we get together, blow this shit up in a smart and funny way, we just may be able to get folks to sit up, take action and reverse this erosion of rights.

  2. Because neanderthal politicians are spending all their time making laws that put YOUR body squarely into THEIR hands.

  3. Because extremist goon squads exist in EVERY statehouse in America and are sneaking in tons of creepy legislation. We’re staying on top of this shit so you can stay on top this shit.

  4. Because you use birth control.

  5. Because you like sex and it’s not all about having babies. Think about it, if it were there would be no room to stand.

If that’s not enough to convince you, try this:

Sarah Silverman’s got it down! Again, humour and politics combined with just a hint of satire. I genuinely think LPJ could make a huge difference to the lives of American women, and, later, women around the world.

As Silverman mentioned in interview with Lenny, Lizz Winstead and LPJ have just released Hinder – an app that looks like Tinder that exposes American politicians who are anti-choice. Check it out:

So, of course, I immediately downloaded Hinder. Unsurprisingly, Hinder hasn’t branched out into Chinese politics just yet… but if I weren’t already excited about my first trip to the US this summer, this has got me bouncing in my seat. I can’t wait to use it.

Read on

In reaction to Hobby Lobby: On Choice, Contraception and Woman Power

In reaction to media sensationalism surrounding abortion: ‘If you got a bit ol’ butt? Shake it’ Nicki Minaj’s abortion

On Teaching

Education is the most valuable tool we have access to.

I have long believed this. But for a huge portion of my life, I didn’t understand the impact this belief should have on my working life. My own education is my most valuable asset. It anchors me, allows me my freedom and never stops growing. Why did it take me so long to begin sharing that passion with a captive audience?

Undergraduate students Andy, Abner, Christina and IUndergraduate students Andy, Abner, Christina and I

Two weeks ago, upon absent-mindedly checking my university emails, I was surprised to see an email with the subject line:


I was mortified. I had managed to award one of my most promising undergraduate students with a big fat zero for both of her final exams. I burst into tears. Frantically, I riffled through my notes until I discovered how the error had occurred.

Solving the problem was complicated but I managed it before the end of the term, receiving an email just a week later from that unlucky student, who was overjoyed at seeing her true results on the official system. My prompt actions may have improved her chances at changing her major from English to Physics (though I will be sad to see her go).

Beside my frustration at both myself and the chaos that is the university grading system (bearing in mind that frustration is an almost daily emotion while living in China), I felt two things:

A profound sense of responsibility for my students

Overwhelming delight at being a teacher (and an appreciated one at that)!

I never imagined myself as a teacher. The truth is, I always refused the idea. When I was a student, telling new people I was doing a drama degree was often met with an initial reaction something like this:

“Drama? So you want to be an actor?”


“Oh, right. You want to be a teacher.”

I reckon the student demographic surrounded with the most (and most often incorrect) stereotypes is Theatre students. (We’re all flamboyant, pretentious, lazy and haven’t a hope in hell of a decent job after graduation… which is why we will all resort to becoming the quintessential eccentric high school drama teacher.) And of course, we were all trying our damnedest to break from those stereotypes and prove we have unique (if theatrical) individual personalities.

Teaching was (and is) so often treated as a cop-out, the easy option. “If you can’t do, teach.” I wanted so badly to ‘do’ something, and do it well. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was so concerned with ‘doing’ something I only ever declared utter detest when it came to teaching.

That detest was only fuelled by meeting ex-pat teachers in Korea who proudly proclaimed they didn’t have any relevant qualifications, didn’t make any effort to learn or speak Korean and didn’t show any concern whatsoever about their students’ education or about doing their job well. I distinctly remember one teacher in her thirties (and possibly a little drunk at the time) declaring that her life in Seoul was like constantly being on Spring Break.

When a good friend announced she would be doing a PGCE after she graduated, I quietly thought it was a cop-out move and that she simply didn’t know what else to do (how very prejudiced of me). I had no idea that teaching had been her ambition since before we met. A year later, listening to her talk about the challenges of teaching 14 year old students in the UK, I wasn’t jealous of the difficulties her job posed, but inspired by her joy at overcoming them. I seem to remember her shedding a tear of determination as she recounted the progress she’d made, and feeling an empathetic lump form in my throat.

Yet another 6 months later, confused that my 40-hour weeks spent staring at a computer screen in a North London office weren’t satisfying me, I finally began to reconsider my position. Having decided that my future lay in East Asia but owning little money to get me there, I applied for my first serious teaching job. I realised I had perhaps seen a less desirable side of ex-pat teachers in Seoul and that I could make the simple choice never to be a teacher like that. I put my priorities straight, got myself a teaching qualification and booked a flight. I would be a “Foreign Expert”, teaching English.

After my first term as a Professor in China, I see how much of a good choice this was for me. There are daily challenges to this job. There is learning to be done, relationships to build and a tonne of responsibility. What I do five days a week affects the future of 85 students at various points in their university education. I try to be a good role model, provide inspiration and challenge them. I am their primary source of non-Chinese opinions and ideas. My relationship with my students is extremely satisfying. They surprise and delight me in almost every class. In the final weeks of term, I left every single class with a huge grin on my face, declaring to the cold Beijing sky “I love being a teacher!” Between getting cards, emails, requests for help and being given apples on Christmas Eve, I can only guess that they like me, too.

The hellish job interview I bailed on (but should’ve bailed earlier)

It’s taken a long time for me to write this down, but I hope I can do it justice: this was the worst job interview of my life. It’s laughable now, but at the time, I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. The experience shook my confidence and undermined my faith in humanity (just a little). I’ve shared a short version of this story on, that you can read here. If you want the detailed version though, keep reading!

Girls(Image via)

Newly graduated and having returned home from a hectic summer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I finally made a (half-hearted) start to my jobsearch in early September 2013. I’d been home just a few weeks, and on the dole just a few days when I was invited to interview at a company I’d never heard of before. I had no way of knowing how they’d got my contact details, but I’d signed up to so many job-sites since signing-on that I’d lost track. I didn’t realise you could be invited to interview, out of the blue, without applying for anything… I was a tad worried it was a scam.

Quintet Group brand themselves as an “outsource marketing” company. I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, but I gave them a fairly thorough googling before I went along to my first interview. Their website wasn’t exactly enlightening, nor was it well-designed. But I went along nonetheless, wary but curious, and aware it could be good for interview “practice”.

It was pissing with rain and I was wearing Bella’s lovely velvet jacket (Bella was wearing one of my jackets while she and Felix went to explore Norwich Castle). I completed various forms and questionnaires as I waited to be seen – the receptionist said she loved the jacket, while I decided not to comment on the height of her heels. When I finally went into the office, it was was cold and the boss, Mr Morton, conducted the interview at high speed. He neglected to provide an explanation of the actual job, but instead talked his way round it, explaining that this was one of several branches of Quintet Group, each branch representing one of many clients… blah!

Later, eating Fish and Chips at the pub with Bella and Felix, I got an email inviting me back for a second round interview, at 11am the next day. It said I should dress in business attire, that I should cancel all other plans and be prepared for adverse weather conditions, because we would be out of the office. It was phrased to sound like there would be various rounds throughout the day, and only successful candidates would be asked to stay until 8pm. Hmmm…

My curiosity had not been quenched; I still wanted to know what the job involved, so I went back. Returning to the office the next morning, I was struck by how many people they claimed to employ, and how little space there was to accommodate them: there were only two offices side-by-side, and a drafty hallway… in fact, there was nowhere to go to the loo!! My request was met with surprise, and the receptionist had to “check” before giving me a definite no. This was seeming less professional and more like a scam every second…

Oh! the situations we get ourselves into:

I was one of only two interviewees on day two. At the time I thought that might be an indication of my calibre as a candidate. But I realised later that everyone else had probably seen through the thinly veiled desperation – badly concealed as professionalism of the whole scenario. Although I can’t remember the exact details, I want to say the other candidate was called Gary. In my mind’s eye, he looked like a Gary. Greasy, grimy, Gary. Gary and I were called into Mr Morton’s office to meet our interviewer. I think this guy’s name was Christian. He was a bit of a sleaze. More than a bit. We were going to be ‘out of the office’ under Christian’s watchful eye for most of the day, and would only come back for a third round interview with Mr Morton “if we were successful” during the day.

There were various moments at which I felt uncomfortable, but the worst came early on. The first thing we were required to do, was follow Christian and his lard-arsed colleague to this fatso’s car, and to get in. We stood in a wet car park with Christian who smoked and told us about all the company’s clients (LoveFilm and various unheard-of charities, among others) while greasy colleague (let’s go for desperate Dan) cleared the back seat of children’s car seats and food debris. We were then told to get into the car. For the sake of a job I didn’t know I wanted (or didn’t want, as it turned out), I got into a greasy stranger’s car with three unknown men and no idea where I was being driven or whether I would ever see my family again. I could have been raped, pillaged and killed. Luckily, I wasn’t. But that’s the kind of situation no-one wants to get into, and one I shouldn’t have let myself get into.

Mum said later that she thought it was very interesting that I noted my own discomfort at the time, and yet still went along with the instructions. I could have stated my outrage at the time, told them all to go fuck themselves and walked away from a shit job about six hours earlier than I did. But, alas, I got in the car.

We parked up on the side of the road. Greasy colleague Dan left us in the back of the car to be lectured by Christian. He then began the most analogical explanation of the job, using the example of a restaurant-owner employing someone to take over the business in his absence. It was highly convoluted, but his point was that you must train someone small task by small task, until they can do everything well enough to train someone else. It was sounding like there would be a lot of learning and also a lot of training other people in this job. There was also a mention of pride, pride that must be put aside to make significant progress in this job.

We walked to the target area for the day and Christian finally explained the first level of the ‘training scheme’ as he was now calling it. The first ‘stage’ of the ‘scheme’, which takes most people between ten days and two weeks, was door-to-door sales. He demonstrated, asking Gary and I to watch from a distance of two houses ahead and behind respectively, going through a spiel of crap about some charity and trying to persuade unsuspecting people to donate money. This was what their website had meant by ‘outsource marketing’ then. Right.

It got to a point at which I had been standing outdoors in the cold and drizzling rain, I hadn’t eaten for several hours, I was desperate to pee and I knew I didn’t want the job, but I stayed anyway. I could see now why they say curiosity killed the cat. Finally, as we had lunch sitting outside a booky’s, Christian explained how the ‘training scheme’ worked. It turned out to be a pyramid scheme, working on commission. And door-to-door sales was not only the first few weeks of the job but the first eight months! Imagine doing that day after day after day throughout winter. It would be shit even if it wasn’t cold. Not only is rejection incredibly demoralizing anyway, but you don’t get paid unless you can convince someone to give you their bank details and sign up for monthly payments towards something they neither want or need. I don’t believe there are enough people stupid enough to do that in the whole world ever to make a decent living out of it.

Christian chatted away, all the time stuffing his mouth full of homemade cheap-white-bread-and-spreadable-cheese sandwiches, telling us his plans to set up an office in Norwich, then five around Marseille, then five in another area of southern France. As if he will ever make enough money to do that, doing this job. How on earth was fatso Dan making enough to support children, run a car and pay rent? Christian told us about a very clever, business-minded young woman who had risen through the ranks and was now making upwards of “twenty grand” a month, or something mad like that. I didn’t believe him, and nor did I want to focus just on making money in my first job out of Uni.

After lunch we went into the Booky’s to go to the loo. I took my time, enjoying the shelter and also trying to work out what on earth to say and do next. Now I knew what I would be signing up for, I could finally make an informed decision. Unfortunately, my choice would have been no different had I followed my gut instinct as much as 24 hours before. I asked Christian for a quiet word, and told him I didn’t think it was right for me. I said it as politely as I could muster, saying I wanted to go straight into the arts. He tried to dissuade me, saying he had been planning to recommend me to Mr Morton as a good candidate, and reminding me of what I could do with the money that was just out there, waiting to be made.

Sorry, what? I have a first class degree, andyou think this is what I want to be doing? Yes, I could be good at this job. I could be brilliant at a million jobs. But I would get bored as hell after two days of door-to-door sales. Moreover, I’d rather shoot myself in the foot than commit to working alongside such ignorant, misogynistic dolts for the next year. I didn’t say that. I simply said I had made up my mind, thanked him for the opportunity, and walked away.

Minutes later I burst into tears on the phone to my Dad from the Lidl carpark, shaking with anger and adrenaline (and probably cold, too) asking him to pick me up. Bella, who was staying with me at the time, couldn’t believe I had stayed as long as I did – everyone was impressed with both my staying power (curiosity) and my leaving power.

I never wanted to see any of those men ever again. Alas, Bella and I saw them again on the Megabus from Norwich to London, four days later. They were sat right behind us but we didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves by moving seats, so we just kept pretty quiet. I had two job interviews lined up that week (and actually got both the jobs)… but seeing them was enough to get me seething nonetheless.

The moral of my story, I think, is trust your instincts, and follow your heart. I’m hardly the best role model – I get sucked into things all too easily – but don’t get talked into doing something you’re not interested in, or that conflicts with your morals and sense of self.