Suihua, China: Hostages in Suihua

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Suihua, China: Hostages in Suihua

My wife (Lisa) and I were on our way to China to begin teaching in Harbin, or so we believed. We had been in Beijing for a couple of weeks visiting the major tourist attractions before heading up to the northeast of China to begin working. We took the train from Beijing and arrived into Harbin station at 3.25am, where we were met and taken to our accommodation. After a few hours sleep, we began unpacking believing this to be our new home in the city.

The next few days were spent ‘training.’ This was mostly checking whether our paperwork, visas and education certificates were in order. During this period of training, we had our first surprise when we found out that the company we were working for was not actually a school, but they would be sending us to schools that they had contracts with.

As our training was coming to a close, we were given our second surprise – we were not teaching in Harbin. When we replied to the job ad it clearly stated Harbin, we would later find out that many recruitment companies in China state a city yet you could actually be several hours from that location. We were to travel to a smaller city about two hours away by bus. We were supposed to be ready to leave on Thursday morning, so we had a nice surprise on Wednesday morning when our lay-in was interrupted by a knock at the door.

“Are you ready to go, we go now!!”

Oh! Yes, the lack of communication – hearing a favourable response when you ask a question hoping that answer was the one we wanted to hear and not the actual correct answer – would become a part of our routine.

So we hurried our packing, got into a taxi and went to the office. After the initial rush of packing, we were now waiting for the next instruction – we sat and waited, and waited. Eventually we were ushered off to the express bus station in the city centre and then on a bus to Suihua. It was supposed to be our new home for the next few months and we were eager to meet our new students and begin teaching. We were accompanied on our journey to Suihua by the non-English speaking boss of our company and the guide and translator Erick, who so far had been such a help in Harbin.

Suihua at Nigh PIC: JS

Suihua at Night PIC: JS

We arrived into Suihua in the late afternoon, and then took taxis to the apartment that was to be our new home. On stepping out of the taxis, we stood in the street with our bags as an argument began between our boss and a Chinese woman, who we would later find out was the landlady of the property. We were eventually given the keys and let in to discover our new home and begin the process of unpacking once again. We were taken to dinner at the company’s expense and, after a night’s sleep in our new home, we were taken to the school where we would begin teaching the following week. We were introduced to the headmaster, the head teacher of the English department and the general layout of the school. Our boss was returning to Harbin, but Erick would remain in Suihua for a few more days.

The apartment had some clothing and other items belonging to a former foreign teacher at the school, we had to help pack these and then take them to the post office where they were to be forwarded on. We were later informed that a problem had occurred and the former teacher had to leave quickly and without most of her clothes – we also heard later it was a problem that she had managed to create for herself. After completing this task, we then had dinner on the company again before returning to the apartment and a quiet evening – or so we hoped.

Suihua PIC: JS

Suihua PIC: JS

The argument that occurred on our arrival the previous day had been over the rent. We were later told that the company we were working for had paid in advance, but the landlady had someone else ready to move in that was willing to pay a higher monthly rental fee. The company’s argument was that they had already secured the apartment for the next year, yet despite this the woman wanted to charge a higher rental fee.

So our quiet evening was interrupted by the arrival of the landlady and two of her friends. They started arguing once again with Erick. We sat there not knowing what was going on – just lots of shouting and finger pointing. Whenever there was a break in the argument, Erick would give a rough translation of events. The landlady wanted an additional six months’ rent on top of what had already been paid – until this demand was met we were unable to leave the apartment. If we did leave, she would change the locks so we could not return to collect our belongings. It was now close to 10pm and Erick was trying to contact his boss, who was back in Harbin. The problem looked like it would not be solved quickly. Amongst all the shouting, we were instructed by Erick to put all our belongings into the two bedrooms and discreetly begin packing. We were effectively being held hostage in our own apartment over an issue that had nothing to do with us.

Suihua Road PIC: JS

Suihua Road

The landlady and her two assistants were not leaving. We repeatedly asked them to quit the shouting, she even claimed that we were disturbing other people in the apartment block – yet it was her presence and shouting that was disturbing. Her two friends left after midnight, she was remaining and had no intention of leaving unless her outrageous demands were met. Around 1am, with all our belongings safely in the room with us, we tried to sleep. At 5am I was suddenly awake, Erick’s alarm was going off, I returned to sleeping only to be woken an hour later by the doorbell. It was the headmaster we had met the previous day, it turned out that the landlady was in fact his older sister – welcome to the world of politics in the small city. The headmaster was in deep discussion with Erick, the previous night’s crazy woman was nowhere to be seen. The headmaster was the latest person to begin negotiations into this crazy saga.

Erick now had to accompany the headmaster to the school. As he was leaving, he informed us to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. We were already at that stage – we were more than ready to leave. Lisa and I had our first coffee of the morning; we were accused by the headmaster of trying to steal one of our own pans. Lisa politely told him that nothing in the apartment was worth stealing. We completed what little packing remained to be done and once again sat down and waited.

Suihua Railroad PIC: JS

Suihua Railroad PIC: JS

Erick suddenly arrived back, he was definitely in a hurry, there was a taxi outside and we had to go now. By 8am we were on a bus and heading back to Harbin. On the bus, Erick informed us that he was supposed to accompany the headmaster all day, which was supposed to stop us from leaving the apartment. However, the headmaster had to attend a meeting; Erick saw this as a good time to leave, and we explained the term ‘doing a runner’ to him. Within a few hours we had returned to Harbin, been re-housed (unpacked once again), and a teaching schedule was being devised for us to teach in various schools around Harbin.

We were told that Suihua was not a good contract and we should not worry – it was not a disappointment for them to lose it. So my new schedule began to take shape – but what was this? Every Friday in Suihua? I was told it was just for one month, but it turned to be every Friday for that term. I was up at 5am in time to catch a local bus into the city and the first express bus of the day at 7am. I would not return home until 7pm – oh how I hated Fridays!

John Smither

John Smither

John Smither writes under the pen name of Chinasaint, telling all who are interested his tales about living life as a foreigner in China. He writes about the cities he has lived in, Chinese culture and some of the difficulties of living in a foreign country. You can read about it at