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I know you already have at least an inkling that wherever you are, independent of the country, things are bound to go wrong even after they look like going well. In this post, I only want to add to that roster of experience about the fickleness of life in various countries. I’ll start with the country that may be my favourite. Actually, I don’t have much to add after the Chinese Language Blog of Transparent Language has posted a discussion of bad things, and also of good things about China.

This is the correct attitude, but these post are general, whereas my examples are concrete, something that could happen to anyone on floor level. Although I could obviously add items to the negative list like there’s no real nature in China, all parks are fake, trees are mishandled, environmental pollution is rampant and growing faster than economic development, I’d like to tell you about an issue that a local leader I worked for experienced.

He was the Department Leader at the Economics Department of the university where I worked back in those days. He decided that at the rate of 16 hours of teaching a week, the ‘foreign experts’ cannot do enough preparation and provide enough quality for the students that he required, so he hired one more foreign teacher and unofficially reduced the number of hours allocated for each of us.

Actually, his plan worked well for me as I felt obliged to satisfy my students’ need and request for some extra activities, so we enjoyed watching and discussing several films over several weeks.

However, the Dean of the university found out about it in the middle of the second half-year, reprimanded the department head, and radically reduced the number of foreign teachers the following year. It didn’t have much impact on me as I was moving on, but it impacted the following year’s students substantially. Quality-wise, which is difficult to assess of course. I wholly enjoyed my following year at another branch of the same uni, but this case left a warning impression on me. Besides the lack of internet freedom.

In the Netherlands, I’ve been enjoying my life quite freely. A quiet country (if you forget about the rampage they go on on Queen’s (now King’s) Day, or at a football match, or about the sense of proprietorship concerning their own property even without fences), they smile at you a lot in the street except in Amsterdam, where people behave just like everywhere else on fashionable territory, well-organized, people behave, offices work efficiently, provide social security benefits for the needy … Fine, ain’t it?

It took some time for me to discover, through a friend, that I’m entitled for help for the money I pay for my rent and social security costs. I applied, got it and was happy. Ever after, right?

Not exactly. At the beginning of this year (2014), I was informed that I had to repay almost a thousand euros (the whole amount) that I was given for 2011, because I had lived at the same address as some other people: the person whose room I was renting back then, and his adult daughter, and another person who also rented a room there. So the office reckoned we were all the same happy family, our incomes were put together and, as a result, I had had no right for housing allowance. I should pay back. For those not really aware of the weight of money, this is an amount to the value of a teacher’s three months’ net monthly salary in Hungary.

This is insane enough, since I’ve been renting another room for more than two years now, I’m a man of Hungarian origin with my own son back in Budapest, not with a Dutch daughter of 22, who is from the owner’s deceased wife who had died a year before. Not to mention that I had no income during the period in question due to severe illness. And not to mention the fact that I never married that man after his wife had died …

But no data had been checked except the address. I was allowed to apply for redress. We had to explain the whole situation with a lot of documents about the family situation and the situation of the house. On top of this, although they wrote to me that, until the case is decided, I don’t have to pay, I haven’t received a decision until now – instead, I received another order to pay up two weeks ago. No reply yet to my second protest.

If this is not enough, my last case involves Hungary. Nobody may be surprised that when I had graduated and then applied to be trained as a Geologist, I was told I should be happy to have been educated enough at the cost of the working people and now I should be happy with it and work myself. No further education in the socialist system for me.

What did I have to do? I did what I had room for and became a teacher trainer, and a project member with the British Council, with a lot of excellent students in my schools along the way, quite a number of whom became English teachers themselves a couple of decades ago.

After three decades, however, the appeal I used to have for my students, and also the interests of students, have changed dramatically, and I have ended up with the same work I started to do more than two decades ago: I became a translator. I can’t complain about it, but I still don’t have the education about it, no degree, only experience, but with very little feedback, which I had very much rather get.

So I entered a university course in Budapest this autumn. I began the course, but before that, I had talked to the department head in July, who encouraged me to apply for an individual course of studies, practically doing the course over the internet. I live in the Netherlands, and I would like to stay here among my best friends instead of paying for my room and health insurance while living elsewhere. I was told to collect the signatures of my teachers allowing me to do it over the net, so I reckoned I should first go to lessons, then ask them to sign.

At that point, the head told me I should ask for a form to be filled in from the Students’ Office, where, however, I was informed that the application deadline had expired – at the end of the first week! I am still flabbergasted! At the best university of Hungary, one is expected to apply, as an unknown person to them, for special treatment by unknown teachers, who may even be absent in the first week, thus unavailable (one was in fact absent for two weeks).

Now it is my fault not to have checked upon the deadlines, but when you go to buy a chair at IKEA, do you check if they had packed all the screws and screwdrivers in the package right after you’ve bought it? I had been told by the department head that it’s alright, go for it, and when the deadline had passed, she told me I should just go ahead, she would help me with my application with the university leaders, I can quietly leave. Case closed with success.

After all this, she went to the deputy dean for students’ affairs and wrote a letter to all my teachers to scrap me from the roster because I “hadn’t even paid the fee”. Which I had paid two weeks before her letter. When she talked to the deputy dean, she didn’t even check whether I had paid my dues. I may even not get back the fee I had paid, let alone successfully finish my studies. I’ve been in limbo and in a lot of doubts ever since.

Up to this point, I didn’t have time to think about my application for writing my thesis. The rule is that this must be submitted before half-time of the last-but-one semester when the thesis is to be submitted, in our case, one-and-a-half months after we started the one-year course. Then I realize now that with the same sweep of her mind, thinking I hadn’t paid, the department head refused to sign my application earlier this week, so by now, I have also missed this deadline. Even if the dean consents to my request to carry on with my studies after all, it does not seem feasible for me to finish it on time.

This is not a system geared to work badly – this is only a system of formalities, keeping to deadlines no matter what. I can only personally re-claim the fee that I don’t need any more, and only a part of it. I’ve been told to behave like an adult by a clerk in the Students’ Affairs department, whereas it is the Department Head who has behaved like a child to me. I’ve been acting in good faith and am looking to loose almost as much as by the Dutch department for housing allowances. If only the department head had the guts to go ahead with what she told everyone, her teachers included, to do.

All in all, it’s usually not the system, but the participants in the system who make it feel …

by P.S.

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