Section I: Teaching English in China continued
The quality of the housing provided to foreign teachers by schools and universities varies considerably and can range from being put up in a dingy 2-star Chinese hotel room (particularly common with short-term summer teaching positions) to being provided with a fairly new, 3-bedroom, 140 square meter (approximately 1500 square feet) apartment with a bathtub. Despite the fact that every school and university has a sizable cleaning staff, the apartment you walk into—often just after having traveled up to halfway around the world—will often be dirty and in a complete state of disrepair: It will appear as if you were never expected. You will either need to be psychologically prepared for this before you arrive or, in the alternative, you must explicitly state in writing that you expect the apartment to be inspected, repaired and painted if needed, and cleaned before you arrive as a pre-condition of the contract (if you do not specify this, they will not bother to do so). Related, if you are applying for jobs from overseas, ask to see representative photos of the same apartment you will be provided with.
Shortly after arriving in China, make certain that you ask to see your apartment before signing the contract (often you will be taken directly to the school’s main branch for contract signing prior to being taken to the apartment). The apartment provided to you by the school is the single strongest predicator of how you will be treated by that employer over the course of your contract. If the school presents you with an unsuitable apartment (controlling, of course, for that particular city's housing standards), ask to see another apartment or, in the alternative, for a monthly housing allowance so that you can procure suitable housing on your own (and make certain this stipulation is added to the addendum before signing the contract). If the school denies these reasonable requests, you should then refuse to sign the contract until you are provided with suitable housing.
Unfortunately, even if you are successful at forcing the issue of suitable housing, this usually results in a lose-lose situation. If the school finally and begrudgingly acquiesces into providing you with a better (i.e., more costly) apartment than they had originally planned (or, far worse, a housing allowance), they will in turn attempt to have you compensate them for that in other ways, and you will find yourself struggling with them throughout the entire duration of your contract. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that you speak with at least one current teacher at any school you are considering for the purpose of asking explicit and detailed questions about the quality of the housing, as well as the school’s response time to reasonable requests for repairs. If you receive any indication that there are significant housing problems or that teachers are basically left to their own devices if anything goes wrong with the apartment after they move in, you should immediately walk away from the offer.
If you will be living off-campus, there are two possibilities here: First, the school is renting from the landlord or, second, you will be (with or without a housing allowance). Either way, it is very likely you will have problems. In fact, you should probably count on it.
Standard rental contracts in China place the full responsibility for arranging and paying for all repairs squarely on the tenant’s shoulders! Thus, if the ceiling caves in on top of your head shortly after you have moved in, the tenant, not the landlord, is responsible for assuming all repair costs (whether that be the school or you).
If the school is providing you with this off-campus apartment, such that they are technically the tenant of record (as opposed to owning the apartment), you will have two basic options if something breaks or needs repair: You can arrange to replace or repair it out of your own pocket , in which case everything will be completed in a timely fashion, or you can call your foreign affairs officer and inform him about the problem. If you go with option number two, then be prepared to wait an awfully long time before the problem is attended to unless it is considered to be an extremely serious problem by the school, e.g., no water, burst pipes, etc., as opposed to just a "minor" inconvenience, e.g., windows and doors that won't close or open all the way, or no mirrors in the entire apartment, including the bathroom. One foreign teacher we know (a middle-aged Western professor teaching oral English at a key government university) was required for months to literally hold the door to his bathroom shut every time he needed to use the toilet (that is, whenever he was not alone in the apartment) before this "little problem" was attended to.
In the end, for minor things such as a broken bathroom mirror, missing doorknob, or a faulty exhaust fan, you will probably find it to be far more expedient and considerably less aggravating and emotionally disruptive to simply incur whatever minor repair costs you need to pay in order to be comfortable in the apartment. Keep in mind too that in China, the labor charge is virtually free, so all you will be paying for is the cost of the part plus a negligible surcharge. It's not like in the United States where you take your car in for an oil change and pay $15.00 for the oil and filter, and then another $55.00 for the labor charge. Basically, there is no such labor charge in China. Particularly when you consider the relatively lower cost of parts in China, the total repair costs involved for something like fixing a clogged toilet or a leaky faucet are usually not worth losing sleep over.
You could try bringing in all your repair receipts to the FAO and asking the school to reimburse you for them during contract renewal time, especially if the employer is eager to retain you. However, most foreign teachers don't even bother if they are content enough with the school to sign up for another year. If the apartment requires improvements (as opposed to necessary repairs) such as, for example, a new paint job, that is something you will have to firmly negotiate as a condition prior to signing the new contract (and you will absolutely need to get it in writing if the improvement is not completed prior to the expiration of your current contract). As a rule, most schools do not want to incur any costs whatsoever for what they view as unnecessary improvements for an apartment they don't own.
Related, if you are the one who is going to be the tenant of record, then you need to inspect that apartment as if you are going to buy it before you sign anything. You need to check every faucet, every doorknob and lock, the toilet, the shower, bathroom and kitchen tiles, exhaust hood, fan, and lights, every stick of provided furniture, every electrical outlet, the air conditioners, appliances, etc. and especially the walls and ceilings very carefully for possible problems, leaks and water damage. It’s not fun and it's quite different from what we are accustomed to back home. The other thing worth mentioning is that within the three international cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, you will need to pay the equivalent of three month’s rent (first month’s rent plus two month’s security) in order to move in. Generally speaking, outside these three cities, you’ll just need the first month’s rent.
A few teachers have also reported problems with landlords storing their possessions in the apartment as if it were a storage locker to be freely accessed at will. You should ask the landlord to remove any personal belongings that he is storing there and you should also establish that he will not enter the premises without prior notice. If the landlord or his agent makes a habit of dropping in while you are out, for whatever reason, change the lock at your expense (an inexpensive thing to do at 40 to 60 RMB). Your school has a right to a key since if they are legally the tenant of record.
China has a severe shortage of skilled laborers and artisans. You should not be the least bit surprised if the "plumber" shows up with only a screwdriver in one hand and a pack of cigarettes in the other. More often than not, it will take no less than two visits to fix anything correctly with electrical or hydraulic components. Repairmen will also freely smoke in your apartment and will leave all the repair debris behind for you to clean up. Make sure you have thoroughly tested whatever it is they’ve just repaired before letting them go.
Also, tradesmen often simply gather at "work corners" and people requiring their services pick them out early in the day. So don't be shocked if they show up at six-thirty in the morning. Since tradesmen are essentially picked at random and are unknown entities, they should never be left unattended.
China is a very noisy place. Of the 11,000 complaints received by the local Environmental Protection Bureau in Beijing, 40 percent were about noise pollution (China Daily, 2005). People will set off firecrackers under your window before dawn, you will hear "banging noises" late at night and early in the morning in the apartments adjacent to yours, as well as outside on the street. Construction work (and there is always construction work being completed everywhere in China) will go on at all hours of the night and, occasionally, there will be very loud musical promotions of new products and services just down the corner from you (that can be heard from as far away as a half-mile).
In addition to the aforementioned, the decibel level inside of all restaurants is near-deafening. Whereas Western diners usually make a concerted effort to keep their voices down inside of public eating establishments, patrons in China actually seem to be competing with one another over who can shout the loudest. For this reason, business meetings and intimate dinners are usually booked inside the restaurant's private dining rooms (all the better establishments maintain several private dining rooms called bao1 xiang1 that range in quality and size for accommodating parties of anywhere from four to twenty guests. Many of them even have a private bathroom and a television set).
There is nothing your school can do about the ubiquitous noise pollution problem in China. Just bear in mind that noise pollution is a big problem, especially from the perspective of foreigners who had lived in the suburbs prior to moving abroad.