When It Hits the Fan

Article by Thabo Jaffe

Life is good. You’re in a foreign country. You’ve learned the language (or haven’t). You’re familiar with your surroundings and have travelled beyond the confines of your landing city. You’ve joined some chat groups with similar-minded people and have made tons of friends. You go to bars and/or parties every other night – far more often than you would in your home country. You are, in a word, comfortable, having found your apparent niche in the world. You’re happy.

Life can be truly rewarding, and we like to think we have total control of how everything turns out. We like to think we’re captain of the ship. You can’t control the weather though. Some of us even know the weather forecast and still go full-steam ahead, headlong into the storm. Throw caution to the wind. Whether it’s of your own doing, or just some darn rotten luck, things go wrong. What’s worse is that you’re thousands of miles from home, in a country of different laws, language, and culture. What do you do when the proverbial excrement hits the fan?
The short answer: You won’t really know until you come face to face with a full-on crisis. Experience is the best teacher, and preparation makes sure you’re in the right classroom.

Let’s run through some of the common reactions: You freeze, do nothing, like a deer in the headlights. You panic, and do the first thing that comes to mind. You totally shut down and disconnect from reality, literally unable to believe what is happening – denial. You let your emotions take control of the situation, be it sadness, anger, or hopelessness.

A key word you might’ve noticed is missing from that list is “react.” You shouldn’t react; instead, you should respond. Here are some crucial steps to an effective response.

Assess. Take a reasonable amount of time to accurately assess the situation. Fight every instinct to react or overreact. First, take a step back; take a few deep breaths, whatever it takes to restore your calm so you can think clearly. Then get all the facts, get objective guidance and develop a clear picture of the situation.

Engage.  Engage all key stakeholders. Here is where you call on your reliable, trustworthy friends and colleagues. Involve key people who either have a stake, have knowledge that will help in analysis or planning, or will be significantly impacted. That will make decision-making and communication far more effective. Also, those with a vested interest won’t feel like they were kept out of the loop.

Plan. Once you have all the info and people to support you, develop best, typical, and worst-case scenarios and plans based on what you know. By that I mean you should have a mindset of “when x happens, then you do y.” Planning enables you to act quickly, confidently, and effectively when the time comes to act.

Act. Be proactive, not reactive – obvious in theory but difficult in practice. That’s because the line between proactive and reactive isn’t always clear. If you follow the above steps, however, you should be able to tell the difference. Objective assessment and planning leads to calm and confidence. You’ll know when you’re ready to act. Then it’s all about execution.
Communicate. Communicate transparently and honestly, or at least appear to. I know that sounds dodgy, but it’s absolutely critical that you appear honest and transparent. Perception is everything, and you need to consider and respect your audience to know how best to tell them what they need to know, when they need to know it.

As you may gather, the issues we’re focusing on here are more the “Titanic” kind, not your little boat named “Problem.” The following are just a few examples of what I deem a “China Crisis”.

Serious health issue

If you are here legally, you almost certainly have health insurance. This is a legal requirement for employers and universities. The problem though, is that the coverage varies significantly. It is on you to find out what is covered under your plan, and which hospitals are included. For example, you’ll probably be covered in a public hospital, but could be risking paying out of pocket at an international (i.e. English-speaking) hospital. For emergencies, you should probably keep an ICE (In Case of Emergencies) card in your wallet with info about who to call when you’re unable to communicate, and some medical info, including your health insurer or, at the least, which hospital to take you to.

Your Visa is about to expire, and your company/school has made no mention of it

The key here is to be extremely proactive. If your employer is slacking, it’s unfortunately still just your problem. You should be 100% aware when your visa expires. If you’re up for a renewal, this process must start 30 days before expiration. You, in person, at the Exit and Entry Bureau (Public Security Bureau/PSB) with all relevant documents. Luckily, in Xi’an the renewal process has been whittled down to about ten days. If you don’t get a renewal or a new job (and start the transfer process), then you can apply for a temporary visa ahead of time, or leave. There is no grace period in China. The penalties include 500RMB per day overstayed (up to 10000RMB), detainment up to 15 days, and blacklisting (you can’t re-enter China) up to 10 years.

Your school is going under/you got fired/resigned

It’s always good to know what’s going on around you. Sometimes the rumours are false, but don’t be deaf to them. Your visa is tied to your employer, so it’s not unlikely that if things are unstable at work, you could find yourself on the way back to your home country. If any of the three situations in the title apply to you, you need to get a release letter from your company, and they are compelled to give this to you. If you are having trouble getting this, you should contact the SAFEA (State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs). With the release letter in hand and your other personal documents, you need to then cancel your work and residence permit within 10 days. When this is done, you can apply for a temporary visa, humanitarian visa, or another work visa with a new employer (if they’ll have you).

You got caught breaking the law

When it comes to breaking the law, you’re extremely lucky to be a foreigner. For most offences, we get off with a much lighter penalty, although of course this varies with the offence and your behaviour. In this regard, it’s a good idea to have friends who are Chinese or can speak Chinese well. The language barrier can be either your saving grace, or another nail in the coffin. You MUST have someone reliable as an emergency contact, and you should know their number by heart. When it comes to behavior, it’s best to be compliant. Do as you’re told, be apologetic, be honest, be humble, stay calm, even in the worst possible situation. If you need to pay a fine, pay it. If you need to do time, do it. It’s not the end of the world, but it could be one hell of a challenging period, to say the least. Oh, and it must be said – know the local laws, and don’t dare to break them.

In the end, the best advice is probably what your parents told you. Take a deep breath, think things through. The best way out of a problem is prevention. Keep your wits about you, don’t let ignorance steer you into something easily avoided.