Extra Budget Items for VIPKid Field Trip

While the tour price of the VIPKid is actually quite reasonable, it is only a portion of the budget you need for this trip.  First, you must book your own flights.  Also, my son and I added a few days in Shanghai as well as a quick jaunt to Hong Kong so that I could work on my bucket list of seeing all the Disneylands in the world.  But here is a rundown of some of the “extra” budget items you may have.

Evening shows –  We did two different evening shows which cost 380 and 580 CNY so plan on about another $150 if you plan on seeing the shows.  (Of course, we had to have popcorn at one!)

Evening meals – You have many options for evening meals.  We were able to find a great restaurant just down the street that both my son and I could eat for under $10.  However, there were other places that were not as economical.  I would budget at least $20 per person per meal for each evening.  Add more if you plan to hit the nightlife and do a little drinking.  If you are going farther from the hotel, you may need to add in some transportation costs.

Dino Swag – We were offered quite a bit of Dino swag that is not available in the store at one of the meetups.  I spent quite a bit more than I had originally planned, but hey, it’s Dino!

Souvenirs – You will want to buy some souvenirs.  You may need to add an extra suitcase if you go too crazy.  This part of your budget will vary quite a bit.  There are so many opportunities to buy some very unique items.  You will want to plan on taking enough so that you don’t regret not buying that special item.

Bullet Train Upgrade:  I believe it was an extra $55 to upgrade to first class on the bullet train.  I will say, I really enjoyed the nice, big, comfortable seats.

Free day – This was a place that I spent a bit more than expected since we spent our free day at Shanghai Disneyland.  The tickets to Disneyland are quite reasonable, about $60 a day and the metro tickets were VERY cheap, less than $2 round trip.  Also, consider the meals and souvenirs at Disney are not as cheap as eating outside the park, but there are few options nearby.  We had a great meal inside the park, but it was more than we had paid for any single meal.  Obviously, you can choose a much less expensive option for your free day, but what can I say, I’m a Disney Nut!

Bund River Night Cruise –  You can pay for an upgrade on the Night Cruise that will get you a little snack, a drink (beer or juice) and a nice seat on the upper floor.  (I’m sorry I can’t remember the price, but it was actually not very expensive.  I know it was less than $20 each.

Massage – We also had a chance to get a massage done in our room for 200 CNY ($28) for 90 minutes.  I will say it was absolutely amazing!  This price included the tip and it sure helped the sore muscles from walking so much.

I will say that I had planned on spending $500 extra on the trip, and that went very quickly.  I would have liked to have a bit more for souvenirs (I really wanted a nice piece of jade, but that was definitely out of my budget), but I still was able to bring some many things that I really wanted.  We did end up buying an extra suitcase mostly because my son really wanted it (Avengers suitcase from Disneyland) not because we necessarily needed it.  Just be prepared that you do have more expenses than just the tour package.

Spending Money in China

One of the questions I have been asked several times is how did I pay for things in China?  For the most part, I paid in cash.  This meant I had to order Chinese currency at my bank.  If you are going to order currency, you will more than likely need to give your bank a few days to get it.  Also, my bank charged quite a bit more than my son’s bank.  You might shop around a bit.  Currency exchange may also be available at the airport, but I didn’t want to wait and take a chance (and I have heard that they don’t give as good of a rate).  Once in China, there were ATMs available that you could use to get cash.  Our hotel in Beijing (The Penta Hotel) had an ATM which could even take your US dollars and give you Chines Yuan.  I used the ATM several times at Shanghai Disneyland with no issue.

You can also use your credit card.  I was very hesitant about this because I had my bank debit card with me.  I did feel safe using the credit card to make purchases at Disneyland and at the airport.  I preferred instead of making several small purchases with my credit card, I withdrew cash at the ATM instead.  Others on the trip used credit cards more liberally, and I haven’t heard of any issues at all.

So, long story short.  I tried to pay almost everything with Chinese currency.  We did, however, go over our budget and I took money out of the ATM a few times.

Should I use WeChat?

WeChat is an app available for your phone that is more or less a Chinese government allowed combination of Facebook, Facebook Messenger, YouTube, Instagram, and Whatsapp all rolled up in one.  You can message people as well as call or video chat with them. This is the one service that we found words very well while traveling in China.

If you are planning on going on the VIPKid Field Trip to China, you will be highly encouraged to get on WeChat.   Our tour guide would use it to find us if we got lost and post updates on meeting times and places.  It was very important that at least one person in every room had a working WeChat account.

That being said, there are some issues with WeChat.  It often decides that you are an unauthorized user and you have to get someone to scan in your QR code and verify you.  The problem is that it can’t be just anyone.  They have to have had their account for more than 6 months and they can only help one person per six month period.  My first account was blocked and I was never able to get back in.  I had to “borrow” a phone number from a friend in order to open a new account.  (This person will never have a need to use WeChat).  I’m not sure why it worked the second time, but I have a good theory.  The first time, I downloaded the app and opened an account, but didn’t do anything more.  The second time, I did the same, but set up my profile, added a few friends, and had a short chat with one of them.  I highly suspect that WeChat freezes any account that doesn’t complete the profile or add users.  So set up your account when you have enough time to add a couple of friends and add a profile picture.  (I can’t guarantee that this will work, but that is my guess why my first account got frozen).

Also, you need to start arranging with your students in order to meet them.  We had a very small window between when we found out about the trip and the actual trip, that I was only able to arrange one meetup.  I suggest even if you aren’t planning a trip, start adding your students’ parents to WeChat.  It’s fun to get to know their personal lives a bit more and they will appreciate learning more about you.  I struggled a bit with this as many of my students are lower levels and we had a hard time understanding each other.  However, holding up your QR code and saying WeChat usually does the trick.  I also add my WeChat name in feedback (although I haven’t had any additions from doing this yet).  I highly recommend adding a nickname to the WeChat as the request comes through so you can match the student with the parent (and most of my names have come through in Chinese characters).

WeChat is not like Facebook in the fact that you can go back and look at posts from years ago.  The “moments” only last a few days.  I usually get on WeChat a couple of times a week to check up new moments and I usually only post about once a week.  I don’t have a huge following.  I have a few students’ families and some of the new friends I met on the trip (although we tend to use Facebook more now that we are home and away from the Great Firewall).

Some teachers choose not to use WeChat.  I was on that side of the debate until I traveled to China.  Since then, it has helped me develop more of a relationship with the few students moms who have added me.  I love seeing pictures of my students on their trips and doing things with their families, and they always “like” the pictures that I post as well.  As always, keep your WeChat super professional and don’t post anything that would be against the Chinese government’s policies so you don’t cause any issues to your students.  Also, keep your professional standards when talking with parents and always be respectful of your work with VIPKid.  This is not the place to air your dirty laundry.

I still don’t think of WeChat as essential for my teaching.  Nevertheless, it was essential on the trip.  I do feel that it has helped develop a deeper relationship with the families that I am connected with.

Traveling in a Group

The VIPKid Field Trip was basically a group tour with some VIPKid activities mixed in.  The travel agency we used was great and our tour guide was amazing.  However, if you have never traveled in a group tour setting, there are some things that you may need to consider.  I do recommend that the first time you travel to an unfamiliar place, a group tour is a great way to go as you know a bit more what to expect and your tour guide can assist you if you have any issues.  This is especially important if you are traveling somewhere that you do not speak the language.  After you are a bit more familiar with the area, you might feel more confident to take a trip by yourself.  When I visit China again, I will more than likely not do another group trip.  I got a taste of how things work in China and I feel that I could make my own arrangements next time.

When you are on a group trip, it almost has the feeling of a school field trip.  You are more or less expected to stay together.  While it is perfectly acceptable for you to make other arrangements or skip a particular activity, that is your own choice and you will be on your own for that.  (Our tour guide would help us figure things out even beyond our tour, but that is not always the case.)  There will be people who walk faster or slower than others.  There will be people that are louder or quieter than others.  Basically, you will be getting very familiar with your group because you will be in tight quarters on the bus and in some of the venues.  Obviously, there are personalities that you will enjoy being with, and others that you would rather avoid.

Breakfast was served buffet-style at the hotels.  Lunch (on this particular trip) was always served family-style at several round tables with a huge lazy susan.  We did not order our particular meals, rather a variety of dishes were brought out and we could each serve ourselves a portion.  If you have particular dietary restrictions, this seemed to be quite a bit of a problem.  The restaurants cater mostly to the group, not to individual preferences and due to the language issues, it was sometimes hard to get extra service when needed.  (Also, they almost always ran out of forks.  So, be ready to use chopsticks!).

In a group setting, we were occasionally given a bit of free exploration time.  Almost every time that happened, someone in the group ended up being late to our meeting point.  This of course made the rest of the group have to wait until all members are accounted for.  Also, be prepared to line up two-by-two and be counted about 25 times a day (I will say it helped me learn some of the Chinese numbers a little better hearing our tour guide count over and over again).  There is a certain challenge to seeing the beautiful sights you are visiting while keeping up with the group.

The final issue is that after several days of strenuous walking, many of us were not as pleasant as we could have been.  I know that I was pretty cranky on a couple of the days when I didn’t think I could possibly walk another step.  However, I try not to let my exhaustion wear off on anyone else, but there will inevitably be some people in the group who are not as pleasant.  This can cause some unnecessary tension.  This group was especially challenging as most of us did not know each other at all before the trip and we are all independent contractors who work from home, so we all have our own particular ways of doing things.  This just means that we are usually all accustomed to doing things in our own way and not necessarily conforming to a group.  (Honestly, this brought back nightmares of some of my elementary school field trips!)

With all of these things taken into consideration, I will also say that I highly value the friendships I made on this trip!  I met some amazing people who share the same passion as I do (and the crazy, early morning work schedule).  While we may not be in contact often, I consider them now my friends and hope that our paths cross again soon.  So, traveling in a group definitely has benefits that outweigh the challenges.

The Realities of Jet Lag

I had always heard of jet lag and had experienced it when I traveled to Europe, but the jet lag I experienced on this trip to China was extreme.  I’m not sure if this had to do with my age, the shorter travel stay while I was away, or the different direction I was flying, but I experienced extreme jet lag after this trip.  I spent two days pretty much only sleeping and waking up to eat and use the restroom, but it took almost 3 weeks for me to get back to a more or less normal feeling.

The jet lag when we got to China did not seem as bad.  This may have been in part due to the excitement of seeing such new and interesting places.  I do highly recommend that you sleep as much as possible on the plane (I even took melatonin to make sure I slept) so that you can get on the Chinese schedule as quickly as possible.  We did, however, experience waking up wide awake at crazy hours and difficulty going back to sleep.  To combat this, we continued using melatonin for a few days and even if we couldn’t sleep, we did not get up and do anything.  This got better after the first three or four days (probably due to the fact that we were walking so much and we exhausted).

I have read some tips to help with jet lag.  First, make sure you are well hydrated both on the plane and as soon as you arrive at your destination.  This may have been part of my problem.  I took advantage of the free wine offered on the flight, and that, of course, can make your body not be well hydrated.  I did try to stay up a bit longer on the flight home so that I would be closer to the US schedule when we landed, but I was not very successful.  Thankfully, we had a couple of days of recuperation after the trip before we were expected to return to our “normal” routine.   If you are a VIPKid teacher, give yourself a few days of rest before you open your schedule.  If you are wide awake and can’t sleep, you can always open up some short notice classes.

Just be aware that you will experience jet lag to some degree.  Be prepared and take care of yourself.  Give yourself the time you need to recuperate so that you aren’t miserable.

Extreme Bargaining in China

Bargaining in China is an expected part of your shopping experience.  While I have visited other cultures, they did not seem as extreme as what I experienced in China.  So be prepared for a very unique experience.  We had a few minutes at the famous Pearl Market in Beijing to do some shopping.  There were many stores offering “high-quality reproduction” handbags and sneakers.  I was not really interested in shopping much as I was on a very tight budget, but I did watch some of our fellow travelers make deals.

We did see some building block sets (think Lego) that were very interesting.  There were sets that haven’t been made by Lego and not in their licensing.  There was one particular set that caught my son’s eye.  It was a book built of Lego and when you opened it, there were probably 40 or so Iron Man minifigures.  My son really likes to collect minifigs and customize them so this was right up his alley even if they weren’t legit Lego.  We had a quick discussion and decided that they weren’t in the budget and we didn’t have enough room in our luggage to get it home (besides the questionable quality of building blocks that aren’t actually Lego).  Just for the fun of it though, I asked the price to see how it compared to a Lego set at home.  I don’t remember the exact price, but it was about 1900 CNY (about $275 US dollars).  I really was just curious and did not want to haggle as we were not trying to carry this thing around all day.  I thought I’d throw the salesperson off and told her we were only able to spend 200 CNY….so no, thank you.  She lowered the price to 1000, then 800, then just for us she would do 500.  I kept trying to be polite and tell her we weren’t interested, then she said she’d give it to us for 250.  As we were walking away, I heard her say 150 (about $22 USD).  I don’t know the exact exchange rates for all those numbers, but that was a HUGE drop in price.  I don’t think the ladies with the purses were that extreme, but it gave me a new strategy for bargaining.  I throw out the lowest low-ball offer possible and see where they land.  As an online seller, this just goes against my morals, but I found that it was near impossible to find a reasonable price otherwise.

Some of our friends purchased other items.  I saw them literally being dragged across the aisle to a different stand.  And if you let them put a hand on your arm to direct you, watch out!  They would not let go.  In general, the store attendants will pull out a calculator and show you a price and often calculate the US dollar conversion.  These calculations rarely were the same as my conversion app on my phone.   Of course, they always let you know that you can use your credit card.  One friend was giving advice to another and the lady thought she was convincing her to not buy the handbag, so she shooed the first friend out of the area.  Of course, when we all got on the bus and compared prices some of us had gotten great deals while others were taken advantage of.  I generally keep my head down and walk quickly in these kinds of shopping malls, but that doesn’t work in China.  The salespeople would still approach very aggressively.  While I did buy a few souvenir items from a quieter salesperson, I felt like it was a battle to leave the store.  My son and I gave up quickly and went to sit out on the front steps while our group reassembled.  This kind of shopping is not for me!

Some stores are not into bargaining.  Typically, they have the prices clearly marked on the shelves or on the products themselves.  If you see price tags, then it is probably safe to say that the store does not typically haggle over their prices.  You might still ask for a slight discount at the register (especially if you buy a number of items), but generally, the price is what is marked.  I much prefer these stores.

This being said, the tour arranged with the VIPKid Field Trip is not really a tour that accommodates shopping.  There were a few occasions that we were given a certain amount of free time and we could find shopping opportunities if we wanted.  Many of the travelers arranged shopping time in the evenings on their own.

Restrooms in China

One of the major concerns I had before the VIPKid Field Trip was the restroom situation.  First, in case you haven’t heard, the majority of the toilets in China are what we lovingly deemed “squatty potties”.  In actuality, they are more like urinal type holes in the ground.  Some can be quite fancy, but most are just a basic hole in the ground.  I visited one restroom that had TV monitors in the doors for you to watch as you squat.

I was seriously worried about this!  I am a country girl, so I can squat if necessary.  However, my knees are really getting to the point that they don’t believe that is necessary.  This became even more of an issue after we were walking miles each day and my feet, legs, hips, and everything else was worn out.

That being said, in most places there were at least a few “normal” Western-style toilets.  These are usually reserved for the disabled (or us Americans who can’t squat).  Obviously, there was often a wait for these special thrones especially since we were traveling with a larger group of mostly women.  There was only one tourist area that I don’t remember finding a “regular” toilet, and that was at the Olympic Park (ironically, the one with the TV in the door).  That may have just been because I was pretty desperate and didn’t look very hard before I decided to just bite the bullet and squat.

In the end, this really wasn’t as big of a deal as I expected it to be.  I did end up squatting rather than waiting in line a few times, but there were also a few days when my legs were super tired that it wasn’t going to happen even if I wanted to.

Tips:

  •  Practice squatting and build your muscles before your trip.
  • Go to the restroom at “off” times, not when the whole group is going to be waiting in line.
  • The “regular” toilets may be labeled handicapped.
  • Our tour guide did a great job of letting us know what to expect (she even showed us the proper way to squat….Cactus if you read this, you’re welcome, I’m not posting the picture!)

The Great Firewall of China – Using Your Phone in China

Since China’s government is very careful about what information the citizens can access, internet usage is censored and monitored.  Sometimes, this is jokingly referred to as “the Great Firewall of China”.  Many sites and apps that we take for granted here in the United States are either severely limited or completely blocked.  I will list some of the main ones but realize that this information can and does change at the whim of the Chinese government.

Blocked Access:   Facebook, Google, Gmail, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but these are the sites and apps that I use consistently that are not normally accessible while in China.  Since you are not a Chinese citizen, you are not subject to the censorship completely.  You can access these sites if you have VPN that shows your location as somewhere outside of the Firewall (many people choose Singapore as it is less busy than US servers, but I used US servers most of the time and had no issue).  So what is a VPN?  A VPN is an app that you download onto your phone and it makes your phone appear to be in a different location.  This is great for privacy and security even if you aren’t traveling in China.  IMPORTANT NOTE:  You MUST download the VPN before you leave the United States.  You will not be able to download it once you are in China.  I also suggest that you download a couple of different VPNs as they fluctuate between which ones are best.  I used Express VPN which you can easily find on the app store.

As for your cellular service, you should have good reception in most of the cities.  However, you should contact your provider and find out what International options they have available.  You will be paying extra to use your cell phone in China, but if you do your homework before you leave it will be not too expensive.  Be sure to know what your data limits are.  There is Wifi available almost everywhere, but remember you will not be able to access certain sites.  So if you plan on using Facebook or even Google, you will be using your data.  It is very easy to go over the data overage (at least in my case) as many of the sites I use regularly need the VPN.  I did not realize that uploading photos to Facebook would use as much data, so I used my limit quickly and had to pay an overage.  It wasn’t horribly expensive, but just be aware…anything you use on the VPN will be using your data.

These are the options I used to keep in contact with home.  There are many other options, but this was the quickest, easiest, and most reasonable for me.  If you have any further question, please feel free to comment or contact me.

Tipping in China

For the most part, gratuity is not accepted in China.  Our tour guide explained to us that she had seen Americans leave a tip at the lunch table, and the waiter chased them down the street to give back their money.  It is not culturally acceptable to give a tip for service.  If you had amazing service, you might tell your server that you would like to give him or her something extra, but don’t be surprised if they refuse it.  During our trip, we arranged a massage.  The price of the massage had already included a generous tip.  I also noticed that when taking taxis, the drivers did not give me back the correct change.  Therefore, I just took that “mistake” as their tip.  I did not have the language skills to make sure I got the correct change, and it was usually an amount that I would have considered a good tip.

If you are going on one of the VIPKid Field Trips, you will have a tip that you will need to budget for the tour guides and the bus driver.  You will get information about this before you leave.  (Ours was about 450 CNY  which is around $65 US.)  We had one person that was chosen to collect all the tips from the travelers and divide them out to the tour guides and the drivers.  Just be prepared as this is an “extra” budget item you will need.

Is something happening in China? What is wrong with my bookings?

Today I have seen these questions repeatedly on the ESL groups I am in.  I will say, last night/this morning was the worst booking frenzy I have experienced so far.  I had only 3 bookings and 9 cancellations!  What is happening in China?

Well, this week is the beginning of the “winter holiday” for Spring Festival or Chinese New Year.  This is similar to the time our kids get off in December for Christmas.  They usually have a week or two of pretty intense exams leading up to this time (so you may have already seen lower bookings recently) and then they get a few weeks off.  This is a time when many Chinese families travel for family reunions.  I must say from the little bit of travel that I did in China in a non-holiday time, one thing you can expect is delays.  I’m sure that parents err on the side of caution and do not book any lessons for the days surrounding travel.  Also, who wants to be taking an English lesson when the whole family is gathered for a family reunion.

That being said.  I still have several classes and based upon my experience on other holidays, my students will show up for class.  I have been the “entertainment” of the hour for the whole family a few times, and often a cousin or a friend may join my student for the class.  While the general policy at VIPKid is to only teach one student for a class, I feel that this time of year is a bit of an exception.  Imagine the family is gathering and your student’s parent is boasting about the wonderful experience their child is having with your classes.  Wouldn’t it be reasonable for them to book a class so their family members can see what a wonderful experience it is?  I see this almost as a super-effective trial.  (I do make a note to the Learning Partner, but I teach the class as usual and try to make it extra fun in case the observer is considering signing up).

Will this affect my income?  Maybe.  But I don’t suggest that you have all your eggs in one income basket.  This is a great time to take some time off (sleep in!) and relax.  The students will be back!  You may need to plan your budget accordingly in order to make the numbers work, but don’t stress out.  Things will be back on track very soon.  I also have found that I can open short-notice slots (often in the evenings) and get bookings.  I think parents don’t book because they know they are traveling, but when they get where they are going they realize that their baobao could in fact have time for some English.  I don’t like to do short-notice in the morning as much (I fully take advantage of sleeping in the few days that I can), but I do open slots in the evening.  During the last holiday, I had several nights that were fully booked!

When I saw today that I had a couple of days with absolutely no bookings, I closed those slots and have officially declared them “vacation days”.  I doubt that I will travel as I have been traveling quite a bit recently, but maybe I will take a short trip to visit one of my friends or just simply enjoy sleeping in!  I will also spend some time in these next couple of weeks working on my other income streams to help build them a bit, and I probably will even add in a few extra Uber hours.

So the most important take-aways:

  •  Enjoy the break!  Sleep in and rest assured your baobaos will be back.
  • Plan your budget accordingly.
  • If you are looking for a perfect vacation time from ESL teaching in China, this is it.  (That being said, I don’t think there is any way I would attempt to travel in China during this holiday!)
  • Open up short notice slots (especially in the evenings).
  • Things will return to normal soon!  Your students will be back (and you can have lots of extension conversations about what they did over the holiday).