The Arrival

White. White. White. It’s all white around me. I can’t see anything but white. But I feel the gravity change and I know we are landing.

We are sinking through this soft white of nothingness. It seems to last forever. Maybe the earth has gone? As if the time eaters of Stephen King’s book Langoliers have eaten the past, and chase the people of the present. But then, the second we touch ground, everybody opens their seat belts, jumps up and reaches for their luggage, while the flight attendants try to keep order. People grudgingly sit down again, phones start ringing and an undefined mass of noises and chattering drowns the announcements from the speakers. We haven’t even parked yet when the stewardesses finally give up and everybody pushes and squeezes themselves into the isle, trying to reach for their hand luggage and wait for the doors to open. Nobody seems to be bothered by the mad scramble and I wonder how this impatience and indifference go together. I am not in a hurry. Home lies in the past now and I am scared of this unpredictable start into my new life, there’s no rush to leave the comfort and safety of the airplane.

Once through the immigration and the sanitary control, where cameras measure your body temperature to detect a possible SARS or Swine flu infection and with my entire luggage I take the Maglev to town, from there the metro and finally a taxi to the hotel. Did I over pack? I am sure I didn’t. I will need all these things for my new job and life, especially the heavy books, my shoes and a pack of Tamiflu, a flu medicine. Just in case.

I am curious about the hotel, this time I picked it carefully. When I came to Shanghai a few months ago, I chose a cheap option, two blocks away from the Bund, with a bed hard as a wooden bench in church and a KTV next door blearing drunk Chinese Karaoke music all night long. I am learning. This time, the hotel is near the French concession, further away from the tourist areas of the Bund, Nanjing Lu and the People’s square.

Why did I come here? Why did I give up my job, my apartment and my life back home?

I was bored. It wasn’t going anywhere. My life had become too predictable. And my only concerns were how to pay the next rent, the next insurance, the next tax form. I worked as a freelancer for the past 4 years and I felt much more dependent on moody clients than as an employee.

After working and studying in Spain I had always wanted to go abroad again. Pastures new, the grass is always greener on the other side. China was one out of many options and dreams. After years of sending random applications to offices all over the world, I set up some interviews in Shanghai and so here I am.

This time it isn’t just for one week. This time I will stay. I will stay as long as it takes to find a job or as long as can afford it.

China already starts on the airplane: The people, the language, and the smell of instant noodles brought and slurped noisily during the entire flight. I can’t differentiate the sounds of this strange language. To me it is just noise. I am trying to imagine myself being able to understand, able to communicate. Right now, I have no access to the language, and my brain is running hot trying to digest everything I hear and see. It is tiring and gives me a headache. A good piece of advice I read in a forum is to bring an MP3-player to be able to blend out the noise and the stress it causes. It works for me.

The first time I visited China was just a few months back when I came for an exploratory look. Many people, friends, co-workers, parents of friends, pretty much everybody warned me and predicted that I was going to hate it. And then I came here - and hated it.

It was in December and it was cold and dark and rainy, damp, noisy, and chaotic: the traffic with all the cars and honking electric scooters and buses, the weird food and the smells coming from endless amounts of little cook shops, and people shouting at me in their attempt to sell me something. “Please don’t shout at me!”

I can’t understand a word of what people are saying to me, and it is not a matter of the volume of their voice.

 I come to China as an illiterate. Actually it is even worse. Not only can I not write or read, I can’t say a single word in Chinese.

But this time, I decided that I won’t hate it. It will be different. It’s April. It’s warm and sunny, but not too hot yet.

Shanghai is an enormous city. 20 million people are working, living, driving, shopping and eating in one city. The infrastructure is amazing. Water, wastewater, electricity, food, schools, nurseries, hospitals, waste disposal- all these things must be taken care of and it must be an enormous challenge for the planners to keep a city of this size functional. The contrast between the old and the new, the rich and the poor are huge. There are little leftover huts with no bathrooms and chickens running all around them, next to giant towers with shiny façades. Pudong is like a big playground for architects and towers are competing to grow taller and taller. I am thrilled and like a child with my eyes wide opened I walk with curiosity and excitement through the lively streets leading through the towers which are aiming to reach the sky. There is so much new to see: little busy noodle shops and chaotic hardware shops next to a massive shiny shopping mall, new construction everywhere and some buildings are embraced with bamboo scaffolding. Electric bikes silently rush through the streets, and because the drivers honk a lot they aren’t silent anymore. Nobody queues, and I find myself speechless how selfish and rude some people are and how polite, when the cashiers hand me change or receipts with both hands.

Every day and every little thing are different and new and strange from what I know. There is so much to discover.

From my hotel base camp I slowly explore the city. Day after day I walk for hours, take pictures, try different food, and discover street after street, tourist spot after tourist spot and park after park. I visit the Jade temple, the “ancient town” and the urban planning exhibition hall with a huge and impressive scale model inside. The Jade temple and the ancient town pretend to be old, but most of it has been reconstructed. The monks in the Jade temple play with their cell phones and the “ancient” town is more like a big market with restaurants and souvenir shops. It is interesting to see, that although the city regrets the demolition of whole areas, such as the Jewish quarter, they seem to have no sense for history and its preservation. Chinese tourists don’t seem to care, they willingly take pictures of all these theme park-like attractions, disconnected from their past.

The schedule for my job interviews is pretty loose, I often have a few days in between interviews and use them to search for jobs online and explore what I believe will be my new home. Shanghai is still under enormous construction, to get ready for the Expo which opens in a few weeks and show its beauty to the world. Flowers are planted all over the city and new taxis show up, meant to cater especially for the Expo. The drivers of the Expo taxis are supposed to speak English, but so far, I can’t say that this is true.

One day I am in a taxi, on the way to an interview. It is late in the morning on a warm and sunny day. When the driver takes a left turn he cuts another driver off and we almost crash. The other driver gets so mad that he throws stuff against the rear window of our car and then drives alongside us, shouting and yelling in Chinese. I am just happy I am not him. He must be really angry. My driver stays relaxed.

Days pass, and with the days weeks. I spend almost six hours each day exploring the city, by metro, by taxi and walking.

If you walk around in the morning, before the shops and malls and restaurants open, you can see how all the employees line up in front of their shop. They wear uniforms and get shouted at. In a chorus they shout back and then do gymnastics together. For me it is rather bizarre to see how obedient employees are here. I can’t imagine doing this myself. Besides the gymnastics of the employees, there are also many other people dancing. They bring speakers or tiny radios and dance. Mostly some kind of Chinese dance, but I have seen a tango group, too.

My regular tour is a one hour walk towards north of my hotel. On the way there is a Starbucks coffee house where I sometimes stop. In the midst of the noisy Chinese world Starbucks creates an oasis for Westerners. It is quiet and clean and enhanced with harmless lift jazz music. It is a place for me to relax. I can just write emails or read a book or watch people passing by. I order an iced cappuccino and sit outside in the shade of a Starbucks umbrella. In front of me are bushes trimmed to perfectly shaped spheres and palm trees in flowerpots. Behind these palm trees is a little fountain and one man sweeping rubbish, a traffic island with a flower bed and underneath three umbrellas people sell sunglasses and clothes. There are power poles with thick bundles of cables around the top, hanging down like ripe fruits. This is Dingxi Road. There are honking cars, scooters, bicycles and pedestrians in the street. On the other street side are shops on the ground floor, shoe shops, a massage studio and a KFC. On top of those there are apartments with plenty of little balconies sticking out of the façade. The balconies are mostly used for air conditioning machines from which the water drops down and creates a wet pattern on the walk way. The lowest buildings are ten floors high, and there are endless air conditioning machines. A fire car passes. A group of sparrows unassertively comes nearer to see if there are any leftovers for them. The determined Westerners come to Starbucks like the bees to the flower. A couple goes inside Starbucks, an older western man, around sixty years old, and a young pretty Chinese woman, maybe twenty five years old. They buy their drinks and come back outside to sit down at the table next to me. She doesn’t speak much English and he keeps talking, while she is busy looking pretty. According to their conversation they must be married. They can hardly communicate with each other, and I wonder why they decided to get married. She probably waits for him to die soon. She wears a t-shirt which says: “I am not here. I am away with my imagination.”

The rest of the time I mostly sleep. I need plenty of sleep and sleep almost 12 to 14 hours a day. The excitement and the noises and maybe still the time difference, make me feel exhausted and I am grateful for my quiet and peaceful hotel room. I am not interested in making friends yet, and enjoy being by myself. The first time I came to Shanghai I made friends with people in the hostel. I walked around town with the Australian, and sometimes with the Spanish. Both of them were friendly and outgoing, but judgemental and jingoistic towards the Chinese. It is easier to say that the different culture is wrong than to try to understand it. I want to experience my own impression and not to be influenced by other people’s opinions.

When I am at the hotel I spend most of my time online trying to find jobs or watching films online. The internet is incredibly unreliable and slow though. Even with the free proxy I downloaded before I came to China. It burrows a tunnel through the great firewall and gives me access to Google, Facebook, YouTube and other blocked pages. Sometimes it takes one hour to email my portfolio, or the process stops in the middle and I have to start all over again. How spoiled we are at home!

The only person in town I know is a friend’s friend from Germany. I visit her and her family at their home. They live in a fancy gated community where as a visitor you have to sign in at the gate with your passport, and then be accompanied by a security guard. The compound is mostly inhabited by foreigners in a park like facility with single detached houses. It even has a club house with a children’s playground and a swimming pool. It has been build for government people, but since they have moved somewhere else, it is a popular compound for foreigners. Like in a bubble, I think. My friend’s friend husband is working for a German company and they mostly hang out with other foreigners. I am definitely lucky to have a friend in town, but the other foreigners seem to hate China and are bitter and have so much negative things to say about life in Shanghai, that I prefer to stay away from them to form my own opinion.

They do give me some good advice as well though, for example that I shouldn’t expect employers to understand understatement in a portfolio. That it is acceptable and even necessary to lie about one’s skills and work experience. I decide to review my portfolio, during all this spare time I have.

My friend also recommends a Chinese body and foot massage. She doesn’t explain half of what I need to know, but I know that I should keep my clothes on and that I shouldn’t expect a relaxing wellness massage.

After I read in a German internet forum that pretty much all massage studios offer prostitution I hesitate. I don’t want to be massaged by a prostitute. Prostitution is officially illegal in China, but obviously all over the place. You can find it in spas, saunas, massage studios and bars. The internet forum is full of male expatriates talking about where to find women, the different services offered and how much they cost. If I was married to a Western guy in Shanghai, I would be really careful, they even talk about how they wash and reuse condoms. I ask my friend about it, and she tells me about several women who came here with their husbands and children because of work, to be soon left behind. The husband took off with the young secretary with the little arse. It seems to be a major thread for relationships and marriage. But who wants to be married to that kind of guy anyway?

My friend explains to me that I should go to a massage studio, where the women at the door and the women inside wear rather conservative uniforms and that the massages with extra service are also ten times more expensive than a regular massage.

I could really use a massage and of course, I try it out.

The next time when I pass a massage studio, I walk in. Two uniformed young women escort me to the reception desk. Nobody speaks English. Instead they show me a menu which looks like a card and I pick the 90-minute full body massage. I follow two different women downstairs, into a private room with a massage bed. Another woman comes in and serves tea, puts my shoes aside and gestures that I should lie down. I wait for a short while and the woman who is supposed to give me the massage comes in and talks a lot in Chinese. I can’t even say that I don’t speak Chinese. She looks too tiny and makes me feel like an elephant next to her. I doubt she will be strong enough to give me a one and a half hour massage. I am proven wrong. After 90 minutes of pain and popping bones and several moments of awkwardness, when she wants to massage my breasts or she knees between my knees to massage my buttocks, my whole body feels sore. She massaged my thighs and my back with her elbows and yes, it’s painful and awkward and I am just happy that during a Chinese massage you keep your clothes on. I am so exhausted that I just want to sleep. They offer me a 30-minute foot massage. I decline, and with a calculator they explain to me that it will be half price. Hoping for a half hour rest, I say yes. I have to go to another room, with a foot massage chair and a TV. It is again a woman who will give me the foot massage. The woman which brought the tea now brings a bucket of steaming hot water. With hand gestures she wants me to stick my feet into it, although the water is boiling hot. When she decides my feet, which have meanwhile turned red and are probably cooked through, have been in the water long enough, the massage can start. I have tears in my eyes and regret my decision. The masseuse kneads my feet with her iron thumb and when I groan in pain she looks at me and asks: “ok, ma?” and continues with the same intensity.

It takes me three days of feeling ill and sore and long and deep sleep to recover.

My friend also recommends a tailor to me, and sends me to a huge fabric market near Nanpu Bridge. It is a street full of fabric shops, tailors and tourists getting their customised clothes. I look at different kinds of fabrics and because it is relatively cheap, I decide to get two copies of a black shirt I brought and one blazer. I ask other foreigners with big bags in their hands if they can recommend a tailor to me and they point to a little shop in the wall, the woman inside is already waving to me. Without being able to communicate with her through language, I am confident she understands what I want. She then measures me accurately and every now and then she points to a sign on the wall which says in English: “Relax!” I choose two different materials for two shirts and pay half of it. She gives me a receipt and then asks the neighbour tailor, who speaks a little English, to tell me to come back in a week, to pick up the shirts.

One week later, I am back to pick up the shirts, and yes, they are finished. But, instead of producing what I thought I asked for she did her own thing. Not only are the shirts way too big, but they also have black and white dotted collars and cuffs. I am not sure if this is the result of a big misunderstanding due to my missing language skills or she just decided that dotted cuffs would look pretty. She realises that I am wondering why she did this and that I am not pleased and quickly says: “New style! New style!” She repeats this over and over and smiles and nods in the hope that I would join in with her enthusiasm. It takes a long time of gruelling arguments and words and sounds I can’t understand until she gives in and promises to change my shirts.

Another week later, she produced two completely new shirts and still tries to sell me the ones with the dots. I really don’t like them. And the shirts I buy are still too big and look like men’s shirts.

I guess I am learning.

And I learn a lot. About food, for example. Where to get delicious “guantang bao”, tasty soup filled dumplings or “zongzi”, sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leafs. When I ate my first “guantang bao”, I spilled the juices all over myself and scolded my tongue. I didn’t know they were filled with hot soup. But I keep buying them, because they are so tasty. Often I just buy fruits and fried rice and eat at the hotel, near the bathroom, which is something I also had to learn. After having had near-disaster experiences where I hardly made it to the nearest public toilet, I prefer to eat in my hotel room. Chinese food sometimes causes unpredictable bowel movements. However Shanghai is a big touristic city, the public toilets a far beyond of what I consider acceptable and “laduzi”, diarrhoea, is one of the first words I learn, after “ni hao” and “xie xie”.

Nevertheless I much enjoy my free time and after weeks of not working, I realise how stressed out I was before. I am losing weight, which is good for me, and I sleep better. Maybe this is not the right time for me to work. Maybe I should go to travel and see a little more of the rest of China.

My interview list is not that long yet as most offices asked me to come back to them once I was in Shanghai, which I do and then some of the jobs are not available anymore. Most of the interviews I find through an agency. The agency never gives me the contact information of the office I am meeting with until the last day before the interview. Maybe they are afraid that I will meet with the office which offers the job without them being there. This makes it difficult to find out more about any future employer.

My favourite job would be at Tongji University. I can already see myself working there. During my masters in architecture, I worked in an office where I had some experience with Chinese clients, and so I feel confident and well prepared with my presentation. I go to the University campus by taxi and a young man picks me up at the gate. We walk through the campus and into a white building with white stairs and white floors inside. Everything is white. We take the lift to the third floor and in a small presentation room with a white table and white chairs around it I meet three professors in black suits. I am dressed in black as well, classic for architects the world over. My presentation takes one hour, during which I show projects, plans, 3D models, pictures. After one hour I finish my monologue, while they were nodding and saying “Hm, hm, hao, hao” and then they look at me and ask:” Is that all you have worked on in the past years?” I am surprised, because I think, I did well. I already lied about the projects I worked on, not completely, but even showed them the projects I was involved in for only a short time. I actually mainly worked on one big project for the last four years.

Finally they make me an offer, which is far lower than what I am asking for. I explain my salary expectations again and they say that they need to think about it. I know university jobs are not as well paid as commercial jobs, but this particular department does mainly commercial projects.

I am deeply frustrated, I really want that job even though I don’t like the campus, the white building and the location. They probably made such a low offer, to avoid telling me directly that they aren’t interested. Another thing I will have to learn. Chinese people find it extremely rude to be direct and the nuances of their different ways to say “No” are subtle.

Taking taxis is another thing I really enjoy. Sometimes Taxi drivers practise their little English with me. Or they turn up the volume of the radio when there is an English song playing. And then the drivers watch my reaction in the rear mirror. I am not a good singer, and most people try to stop me from singing, but if I know the lyrics I try my best and they seem to enjoy it.

One time, on my way to an interview, the driver gets a magnifying glass out of his pocket to read the address. I usually ask the hotel to write it down for me in Chinese or I print it out. I learn to print it big enough. Many people have difficulties reading my little notes when they were too small. After studying the spider legged glyphs on the little paper he says “hao” and then he drives like hell. He races through little alleys filled with pedestrians, bicycles, tricycles and electric bikes, while continuously honking. Our outside mirrors are almost scratching the walls and everybody has to jump away, even the people with their carts of street food or fruits. I am trying to tell him, that I am not in a rush, but it is hopeless. I arrive to the interview sweating and having just survived the worst ride ever. I don’t like the office already. The decoration is too tacky, and it looks rather like a hotel than an architecture firm. The receptionist doesn’t know about my appointment, so she puts me in a huge meeting room with a brown and orange patterned carpet and serves me green tea in a paper cup. Somebody comes to look at my portfolio. It is not the person I was supposed to talk to and he seems bored and forces politeness. My printed portfolio is an A3 black leather map with laminated pockets, which I neatly filled with plans, renderings and photos. The guy I am supposed to talk to shows up late says “hello”, walks away and doesn’t even talk to me. How rude. It was a total waste of time. Although having an international reputation, they don’t seem to have international manners.

I go back to the hotel, this time by metro instead of a crazy taxi as I have time again.

The University has already sent their rejection. We don’t match. Maybe I did ask for too much money for this job, but I can’t work for less than what I earned years ago as an intern. Apartments in Shanghai cost more than back home, and as an Expat one also needs to consider the costs of plane tickets for flying back home every once in a while as well as enough money to go out and enjoy oneself. So, ok. I agree, we don’t match, but what if I just don’t fit in anywhere?

What are my options? Going back is none.

I wish I wouldn’t depend on money. I wish there were no visa problems. If I was free to choose to do what I want to do, I would not want to sit behind a computer. It seems like a nightmare to sit all day long in a highly polished and shiny office to design even more shiny and profit driven architecture. I would rather be a painter and paint in a studio. With the smell of paint, and colours and canvasses around me all day, I could work as much and when and if I like. And if I want to meet someone for coffee, I can just go for a coffee.

Isn’t it ridiculous, that some boss is there to tell you, that you have to sit from nine to six, and it’s not possible to go get a coffee, and then come back and stay late? One time, when I was a student, I worked in an office back home, a friend called me to tell me that she had a stopover at the train station for two hours, and asked me if I would like to meet for a coffee. We weren’t remarkably busy and our office was just a ten minutes walk away from the station. I told my supervisor about it and asked if it’s ok to leave for one or two hours. I was paid by the hour, so an hour or two less work would also mean less pay, but I hadn’t seen this friend for years. The supervisor was upset that I even dared having such an idea, and didn’t allow it. When I worked in Spain, it was actually recommended to take a break and go for a walk and a coffee.

I feel like I want to be free and a painter. Maybe that’s why nobody hires me, they sense it.

30 days have almost passed since my arrival to China and I have to extend my visa at the PSB, the Public Security Bureau in Pudong. Oh all these forms to fill out! The PSB is a huge and intimidating building. Inside there is a row of at least twenty windows with counters. Behind each window sits a person in uniform who handles visa applications. With their uniform they come across very authoritarian. The scene reminds me of a Stasi film, and I am dependent on one of these uniformed bureaucrats’ mercy. They will decide if I can stay in the country, if I will get a 30 day tourist visa extension or not. It is all really serious and formal. There are many foreigners accompanied by Chinese, probably Visa agents. I am not using one of these expensive agents and fill out the forms by myself. It takes me a whole hour to fill out all the questions, and finally hand it in at the counter.

A few days later I go back to Pudong to pick up my passport from the PSB, and find out that they cancelled my current tourist visa to replace it with a new one, which expires at the exact same day as the old one. Really? What a waste of time. I don’t have much left. My Visa now expires in two days, and then I have to leave the country. It is seriously critical and I am scared my dream of living in China might be already over. I desperately need a solution. The only chance I can see at this point is to use of one of those many agents. One gave me a business card at the PSB and I call him. The name on the card says Magic Cheng. For this magician, getting visas for foreigners is his business. He lives off desperation and my personal situation leaves him cold. I meet him in his office, with the right amount of money in cash, as he told me. The office is in an apartment block and I have difficulties finding it. In the staircase I run into an Indian guy, and without even asking him he says:”Fourth floor.” Indeed. The magic happens on the fourth floor. Magic Cheng takes a picture of me in front of a white wall, or a wall that used to be white and probably would be happy to look white once again. I hand him my passport and the money, and he will take care of the rest. He promises me a three-month tourist visa and I have to trust him. It’s magic!

It’s a beautiful sunny day, I am at Zhongshan Park, and buy one of these “zongzi” at a street stand, these sticky rice balls wrapped in bamboo leafs. They always have a surprise inside, and this time I am lucky, it is filled with mushrooms and cabbage. Sometimes they can be quite awful, fishy or filled with sweet meat or bacon and half cooked egg inside. I heard so many horror stories about Chinese food, half bred eggs or chicken, dogs, cats, snakes, naked newborn mice, I am always afraid to be given something terrifying. Until now, I just don’t like sweet ham and eggs inside the rice balls. Most things I have tried so far were pleasant and tasty.

The park is crowded on the weekend, many people bring tents, umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun, and only a few people have these beautiful Chinese paper parasols. People are drive through the pond in pedal boats, going back and forth, eating or feeding each other. It’s curious, although most Chinese are rather skinny, they seem to eat all day long. Even the thinnest girls eat sausages and noodles while walking through the streets. Other people in the park just sleep on benches. Huge and colourful butterflies pass by, and children play badminton or run around with kites. Some of them just use plastic bags tied to a thread as a kite, and they work! The little babies don’t have nappies. Their trousers are wide open at the business end. If they have to go to the toilet, parents just hold them and let them pee into the bushes. There are plenty of pregnant women and at least as many babies. The year of the tiger seems rather popular for starting families. Sometimes people pass by and stare unabashed at what I am writing or take pictures of me with their phones. A teenage girl just blows soap bubbles at me and several bridal couples get pictures taken in front of the picturesque scenery. It feels like Wonderland to me.

I am getting more and more nervous because I can’t find a job and Shanghai is relatively expensive for China. I could probably live cheaper and spend less on taxis and the hotel. It has been almost one month now. But what else can I do, other than wait and see. And drink tea. Green tea. Maybe I should look for an apartment to save some money. There must be a job out there that suits me.

I call Amanda, who constantly announces rooms in an English speaking forum. I want to take a look. She tells me the address, near the “ancient” town and because I have time I take a two and a half hour walk. The area seems all right, but I can’t find Amanda at the meeting point. I call her, “Go take a look by yourself” she says. ”The person in the apartment will let you in.” She gives me directions that lead me into a backyard of an old Chinese building made from prefabricated slabs. In the courtyard there are skinny and filthy cats digging in the rubbish bins, and chicken are running around. In front of each entrance there is a stone trough with little goldfish in it. I wonder why the cats haven’t fish them out yet. I can’t find the entrance, not sure if I want to find it. It’s all pretty run down, too private, people are staring at me and I feel terribly uncomfortable. Amanda sends me a message with the address in Chinese. I ask and older woman in a revolution-blue apron and short bowlegs, I show her the glyphs on my phone. “Hao, hao” she says, and something else, and walks me towards one entrance. We walk upstairs through a bare concrete staircase and at the second floor, she knocks on a door. The smell of urine in the stairwell and the rubbish all over make me want to turn around and run away. But it is too late. An old man opens the door, and we enter a corridor that is used as shared kitchen. Close by the window are several sinks, all full with dirty dishes. And some electric cooking plates with dirty woks on them. The corridor has four wooden doors and I am assuming the apartments are behind them. The man leads us into one of them. It is one room, with a small TV and a mattress on the floor. I can see a teapot and mugs, laundry on a line, and I still have the smell of urine in my nose. I say “xiexie, thank you” and leave. Amanda calls me to ask if I like it. Like? “It’s not really what I am looking for”, I say and think I was clear. She will persistently call me again and again.

Tomorrow I will have a phone interview for a job in Kunming.

I don’t remember sending them my application and I don’t even know where Kunming is. But if you don’t know where you are going, it doesn’t matter which road you take, right? The job description sounded ok, and they’ve sent me a video about the project, which looked more like an exciting computer game. I am more excited about their 3D department than their architecture to be honest.

I get up really early in the morning to make sure I don’t sound sleepy on the phone. They call me nearly one hour late, and I almost didn’t expect them to call anymore.

First I speak to an English woman who explains me the situation. They want to start an international team, and just started recruiting. Later I speak to the boss, I assume, who has a Chinese name I can’t pronounce. Both, the English woman and Mr. Unspeakable are talking a lot and I let them talk. The Unspeakable’s accent is so strong, that I can hardly understand him. After a few times of asking “Pardon?”, I give up and pretend to understand.

He wants to see more pictures of a certain project I have worked on in the last four years. I am not allowed to email him the pictures, because the project hasn’t been published yet. I offer him to show them on my computer in an interview.

He won’t give in, and I have to stay strong. I cannot send these pictures around. I email him again and try to explain the situation to him. It seems like confidentiality isn’t appreciated in China. Surprise.

I am already tinkering with the idea of living in Kunming. Yunnan should be beautiful and Kunming is called the city of eternal spring. There’s a big lake and it lies at 2000 meters altitude and Kunming officially has only three to four million residents, which is a rather small city in China.

I have a few days to think about it. And I use the time for pimping and printing my portfolio, pay my hotel for another few days and bring my clothes to the dirty snowflake laundry. The woman is annoyed that I count each item in front of her, but this is another advice I follow, to make sure nothing gets lost.

It is raining again but it isn’t as refreshing as I would wish. It is just becoming more and more humid and this is just May! My pregnant friend is suffers carrying her huge belly and her extra weight in this heat. And it is so brutally humid. Like a sauna.

The boss with the unpronounceable Chinese name is in a hurry and calls me the next day to book a flight for me: He wants me to come to an interview in Kunming the next morning.

I don’t have my passport. It’s at the magic office or in Beijing to extend my visa. The Unspeakable will have to calm down and wait.

But he doesn’t. First I don’t hear anything for days but then he calls and emails me daily to ask for the pictures and whether or not I have my passport back. For his impatience, I name him “the White Rabbit”

In the meantime I find out, that somebody I know from a previous job spent three months in Kunming as an English teacher. He was travelling through China on his way back to Europe from New Zealand and took a teaching job from a friend. His friend got kicked out because of his dark skin colour. The parents of the students didn’t want their children being taught by a black American. They seem to be pretty racist.

My friend only stayed three months. He says he liked it very much.

So Kunming, let’s take a look at you.


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