The Letter Home: The Secret Teacher In China
Horrible Bosses was an average film, the sort of comedy where audiences are expected to get the bulk of their laughs at Jamie Foxx introducing himself as ‘Motherfucker Jones’. The main reason people went to see it, and perhaps the only reason they will remember it, is because the story’s plot is about average men killing their bosses – a fantasy every one of us has dreamed about and can relate to. Whilst you watch the various ‘horrible bosses’ acting obnoxiously, rudely and downright unprofessionally, you feel safe, safe because you know deep down, your boss isn’t that horrible, and in the real world, very few bosses could be.
Colin Farrell’s request to his subordinate to ‘fire the fat people’ is unheard of in our reality. Kevin Spacey’s character denies Jason Bateman a promotion by giving the job to himself. A boss giving himself a promotion would actually entail said boss doubling his work load, defeating the whole purpose of being a boss. Jennifer Aniston and her escapades see her flash Charlie from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia in an attempt to seduce him into cheating on his fiancée, also later drugging said fiancée in the doctor’s office where they work. In real life, that entails a medical malpractice lawsuit and, if we’re being realistic, had Jennifer Aniston appeared naked and lusty in front of regular straight men, she would get her way 99 times out of 100.
None of the above is all that unusual in China.
You see, in China, bosses are different. As I said, in our world a boss is above the regular employees in the food chain and can get away with some things, but not quite what is portrayed in Hollywood. At the end of the day, they are still accountable for their actions. In Mao Zedong’s communist paradise, a boss might as well be Mao himself.
Generally how it works at English schools is there is a Chinese boss who handles the marketing, financial and day-to-day admin of the school. Then there is a foreign boss known as a DoS (Director of Studies) who handles the foreign teachers. This makes sense – Chinese boss for the Chinese staff and a foreign boss for the foreign staff, but the Chinese one remains the authority. Since moving to China in August 2011, I’ve worked with two English schools (I won’t dare say which) meaning I have had two Chinese bosses in my time here.
I was with my first school for exactly one year. During that time the turnover of Chinese staff was amazing. Around 15 staff positions existed and I would estimate over the year that they employed over 50 different locals for those positions. Some left, some were sacked. It became so normal that after a while the foreign employees didn’t bat an eyelid. Among the stories we heard were that the boss refused to pay them for sick days, wouldn’t give time off for family emergencies and so on.
I also learned that, should a parent demand a refund for one reason or another, the money would come out of the wages of the staff member who marketed the course. A full course with that school could exceed the equivalent of €900, and a single employee’s monthly salary might be as low as a tenth of that.
Not to mention that if you’re Chinese, you work six days a week at the school. There was even a time during which they were short-staffed and those six days turned into six and a half.
Meetings allegedly consisted of all employees remaining silent and nodding, only to agree with whatever their overlord was saying. I only witnessed one, after a special activity we put on for the children at Halloween that I felt had gone extremely well. The Chinese staff were being bollocked and torn a new one by the woman in charge. She had a voice like thunder smacking a bass drum – terrifying, and incredibly awkward to walk in on. At that stage my Chinese was in its infancy but the language barrier was broken by the expressions on the faces of the employees, each one forlorn and lifeless. All for 2000 Yuan (€237) a month as well.
Upon moving to my next job, I needed to extend my working visa using the same work permit I had at the previous school. This is only possible if the old school gives the new school a letter to present to the visa office basically stating that ‘said teacher doesn’t work for us any more, we have no problems with him working for this other school’ and so forth. Not to my surprise, the old school would not issue this. The boss would see it as strengthening her competition, so why do it? Completely ignorant and unsympathetic to the fact I had made a life in the city and wanted to stay there with my girlfriend (also a former employee of that school).
My new boss (yet another ex-employee of that company) began to think of ‘creative’ solutions to the problem. He suggested that I marry my girlfriend. This would give me the equivalent of a ‘Chinese green card’. With working visas, there are rules and regulations that have to be followed, but if you’re married to a Chinese local then you just have a simple visa requiring very little paper work, and then a work permit is a void issue. Being 24, marriage was not top of my list of priorities and I was not about to take that on just for a job. Certainly not one that pays me 6000 Yuan (€711) a month, even with a free apartment. My new boss insisted that this was the only way. Thankfully, he was wrong.
I simply suggested I return to Ireland to wait until the work permit with my old school expired, then I could come back to China and start with a fresh visa and work permit. This meant when we had the conversation I would be away for a mere two weeks. He said ‘perfect’. My girlfriend clarified this with him, speaking in Chinese just to make sure, and he hadn’t suggested I return to Ireland because he didn’t think I’d want to pay for the flight, as well as he would be without a teacher for a whole fortnight, hence why he suggested the best (or in his mind ‘only’) solution was that I get married. This boss is definitely a nicer character than the old one. His company doesn’t turnover so much staff and he is a reasonable man with regard to other aspects of our work together, but for the sake of convenience, he would have had me marry a girl I’ve been with for six months so his working life could be a little bit easier.
Suffice it to say, these aren’t the sort of situations you expect to encounter when you go abroad. It can be truly shocking what happens in China sometimes. If I were to be completely honest and publish 100% of what goes on there, I doubt any school would ever hire me again if they caught wind of it. What I’ve divulged here is maybe only 30% of the bizarre happenings of what goes on in English schools with foreign teachers. Keep it in mind when next you hear a casual moaner say ‘this country has gone to the dogs’, or ‘Ireland is a joke’. China is so very enlightening in every sense of the word.