Volunteer work in China and how I was a scam-victim

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So I spend four and a half weeks of my summer vacation doing volunteer work in Northern China. Overall I found it to be a nice experience, I met some awesome people, did work I enjoyed overall and lived with a nice family, thought this does not change the fact that I was a victim of a scam.

After looking through several volunteer companies on the internet, I found the company called IFRE (please note this name if you ever decide to volunteer). They had the cheapest rates and when I looked them up they had relatively good reviews – though I did not find any reviews from people who went to China.

This was my job description in short: 

– Teach poor and underprivileged children in rural cities of China.

– Have time to travel around in China and get help from staff concerning any information.

– Free mandarin Chinese lessons.

– Don’t have to be a native English speaker.

– 3 Meals a day and a host family will be provided.

The problem was the lack of promises they actually kept when I finally arrived in China. I did get a host family. A family of a father, mother and a daughter and they did everything to make me feel at home, so I only have good memories from my stay with them, the problems started when I had to start my work. I was assigned to work in the northern city of Dalian, nothing rural or underprivileged about this city. They put me in a private English teaching center – not a school. It was a company that sold English lessons to especially high school and university students. These classes weren’t cheap either, I was told that this is one of the most expensive English companies in China and one hour could easily cost between 50 to 100 USD. So basically, I was teaching some of the richest people of the city without getting paid, which where the next problem arose – since I might not get any money from my work, but somebody else did.

Before I arrived in China I got contacted by a Chinese guy from the China department of IFRE called “Jeff” – he explained me some of the main aspects of my work and arrangements. When I arrived in China I was told by the school that they actually paid this “Jeff” money to have me – he was getting money for the work I provided, money I never saw because I was supposed to work there as a volunteer – simply: I was working for free. I was told by other foreigners of the school that this “Jeff” was famous for doing these kind of scams, he would help people with finding a job in China, but then get half of their salary. So no poor children to teach and according to the school I wasn’t working for free either.

Where I lived in China

The apartment complex where I lived in Dalian, China.

Then came the next problem, the school weren’t told that I wasn’t a native  speaker of English and it ended with them asking me to don’t tell the students that I’m from Denmark and make of some kind of lie when it came to my nationality. “You have such nice English, easy to understand and no accent – it won’t be a problem” they told me. Exactly – I have no general accent, meaning I neither speak clean US English nor do I speak clean British English. I was taught British English and when I talk with British people my English to also sound very british, but if I talk with Americans or other English speakers, suddenly my English starts sounding more like US English.

Another problem with this concept of lying was the fact that the students liked asking questions about your country. If I told them I was from New Zealand, but suddenly couldn’t answer a single question about this country, how believable does that make me as a teacher?

Dalian City

Dalian City

The next problem came when I came for work on my second day. Another volunteer from Switzerland had been causing problems. He was from the same volunteer company as me, he had been lied to as well and was quite angry about it. He had tried contacting Jeff to get his money, he tried to cover up his non-native English by telling the students he was from England, but the students complained about him. Saying that his English was hard to understand (seems like a had a strong accent) and that he had attitude problems. My supervisor at the school told me he refused to do English Corners and he would angry at people around him. All these problems made them fear that I would cause the same problems, so they decided that I shouldn’t come to the school anymore.

“You can learn Chinese with your host family” – how they’re hardly home and doesn’t speak any English at all.

“You can travel around China” – I paid the company to come here as a teacher, so if you’re going to send me away I want a 100% refund!.

After long discussion they decided to give me a chance and instead they fired the other volunteer – who was the one causing problems anyway.

I decided to stay, even though my husband told me to quit the school since I was clearly a victim of a scam. I had come to China to get teaching experience, so I was going to stay, but I decided to tell my students that I was from Denmark and not an English speaking country. I wasn’t going to tell them lies.

Then came to promise of time to travel around China. I was given 2 days off a week. I worked from 1pm to 9pm in the weekdays – 8 hours a day and then I worked from 9am to 6pm in the weekends – 9 hours. I had to beg the school to give me 3 days off in one week so I actually had a change to go anywhere. I did get 3 days off, with only 2 days notice, meaning I had to hurry home and search for flight tickets to Beijing and find a hostel to stay at. The fact that I got these 3 days off came back to bite me in the ass later since I only got one day off in my last week in China, meaning they made me work 50 hours in one week. Yes, lots of time to explore the Chinese culture!

My trip to Beijing

My trip to Beijing

This was not my first trip to China, since I before had been to Nanjing and Shanghai which also made me prepared for a lot of things – especially the fact that there’s no toilet paper in public toilets and the fact that people will push like the next bus will be the last bus to ever come. I was also prepared for the Chinese food which is very different from non-China Chinese food and I must admit I still prefer Japanese food over Chinese food. I was used to the almost non-existing traffic rules – that cars love honking, especially if you got the silly idea of crossing the road when it’s green light (for you).

From my trip to the Great Wall of China

From my trip to the Great Wall of China

I had some really good experiences in China. I had some nice co-workers at the school, both Chinese and Foreigners. I had a lovely homestay family. I had an amazing trip to Beijing and I had many lovely students, who always seemed overjoyed so see me and always told me how much they liked my classes. Though this does not change the fact that I was scammed. I did not do volunteer work – I was working for free for another person’s benefit. I tried writing complains to the main branch of IFRE (in the US). First they talked about giving me partial refund, but first they wanted to ask Jeff about the situation – I never heard from them again. After I returned home I wrote them again saying that they worked with a liar (Jeff) and I was a victim of fraud. They contacted me again and apologized for the situation and told me they had let Jeff go – though I have no proof that this is true, instead I want to warn people on the internet and tell them to not trust the organization called IFRE – find another company!

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One response

  1. If you want to immerse yourself in Chinese culture and learn Mandarin Chinese, teaching English in China is the perfect opportunity for you. Reach To Teach currently works with many reputable schools offering ESL jobs teaching English in China. Your salary as an English teacher in China will be enough to live a comfortable lifestyle and save for trips around China and to other countries in Asia!Travel abroad is a unique and special experience. Truly living that experience is even more rare. There is no better time to teach and live in Asia. As China continues to open itself to the outside world, a case can be made the uniqueness of the experience may quickly be fading!

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