Information provided by organisations are not always reliable, and mishaps on issues such as visas may incur serious consequencesanonymous

If you checked social media this Summer, it might have seemed like half of your Facebook friends were volunteering in schools in China. From January, our Facebook feeds were spammed with promises of easy work teaching English and cheap travel. I signed up, like hundreds of other Oxbridge students, to spend a month teaching in China, with the bonus of a living allowance, free flights and cheap travel around Asia afterwards. To this extent, I got what I signed up for: indeed, these summer schools provide great opportunities for both students and teachers. But the genuine risk involved needs to be understood.

What I didn’t sign up for was spending a day in a Chinese police station and narrowly escaping deportation. These organisations need to be more transparent about what they offer, and they need to be held accountable for the consequences of reckless measures.

On the last week of our camp, it had been mentioned that problems with some students’ visas meant we had to hand our passports over to the police. We thought nothing of it until we awoke to a knock on our doors, asking us to get ready as quickly as possible and to bring all alternate forms of ID that we had with us. Once we arrived, I was taken to an interview room. Inside, there was a silver metal chair with hand and ankle cuffs and two police officers smoking. Once my translator and I sat down, they commenced my interrogation. I was asked questions such as why I was there, how much I was being paid, and if I knew that teaching English on my visa was illegal. I did not.

Our camp organisers only added to the stress of the situation, and the growing seriousness of the day made me choose to ignore their requests to lie about the nature of our payment. The fact that I was put in a situation where I felt pressured to lie to the police, and uninformed about the potential implications of my answers, is unacceptable. My first interrogation lasted two hours.

Immediately after, I was led to a room with more police officers, who proceeded to take my fingerprints, my mugshots and a sample of my blood. It wasn’t until they requested my phone and its password that I hesitantly asked my translator what they needed it for. It was reluctantly revealed to me that they wanted to copy all my messages and contacts to their system. At the risk of coming across as extraordinarily millennial (take my blood but not my phone!), this felt extremely personal and unnecessarily invasive. All my private photos, conversations and the data of my loved ones would suddenly be available to a government with a particularly shaky human rights record. The more I expressed my resistance, the more officers they brought in to argue with me. When I asked for help from the camp coordinator, the only advice given was to hand over my phone immediately. After half an hour of me, near tears, trying to defend myself against 10 increasingly aggravated police officers, I handed over my phone and password.

Halfway through the sync a police officer came in and unplugged my phone: a command from the police chief meant that the foreign teachers would not have to give their phones.

It was the organisation’s failure to protect us in such a situation which I find most troubling. It was, in fact, their misinformation about the visa process which put us in such a vulnerable position. Only after the rest of the teachers had been interviewed, did the camp coordinators step in and do some negotiation on our behalf, and after signing some forms we were given our passports back and allowed to leave. It wasn’t until that night, when my friends and I had moved on to our next destination, that we found out, through a message sent to the wrong group chat, the severity of what had happened. The school had had to pay a fine of £500 per student in order to get our passports back and to avoid deportation. To the best of our knowledge, there are no lasting consequences or issues, but the fact that the school never fully explained this to us reflects the dangerous lack of information given to us throughout the process, an issue which may leave current students vulnerable.


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Students need to remember that the information provided to them by their organisations may not be reliable. We were misguidedly told by our recruiter, who was the link between the English student teachers and the Chinese school, to get a cultural exchange visa. And, as far as we understand, this is where the problem arose. To us, the need for a cultural exchange visa made sense, given the camp was advertised as offering lots of trips and activities, with relatively few working hours. It seemed a matter of technicality that they advised we “don’t mention the 3000 RMB allowance” at the visa centre, since it “might be misinterpreted as a salary”. When we arrived, more misinformation meant that what had been promoted to us as a cultural exchange had been communicated to the school as a full-time job, and we ended up working a lot more hours than we’d expected. I think through our interviews, and their interviews with the school, the police realised that we had been taken advantage of. We did what we were told by the organisation and had no idea about the risks associated with this.

I don’t regret my experience teaching abroad in any way. Despite everything, I really enjoyed teaching and made lifelong friends. It gave me a very inexpensive platform from which to travel to and around Asia for the first time, and it certainly gave me a story to tell when I got back home. What I would regret, however, is if I didn’t get the chance to express to future students the danger that some of these camps can put you in. Whilst our experience was an anomaly, this visa arrangement is very common. It is imperative to research the company you choose meticulously, to ask the organisers questions about the exact nature of what you will be doing day to day, and to talk to students who have completed the camp previously.

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