The Letter Home: The Secret Teacher Part 2
Chairman Mao Zedong is an oft-quoted figure in Chinese culture. The most prominent of his sayings was ‘Good good study, day day up.’ Which, when you clean up the direct translation, roughly means: ‘Work hard every day and you will reap the rewards.’ Every person in China knows this saying and most are quite happy to quote it to you. You notice its effect in their day-to-day lives. They work harder than us. Simple as that.
The average working stiff in China starts his day at around 5am, beginning work soon after that and some will not clock out until 8pm. While coming home at 1 or 2 in the morning, I’ve even noticed on the city’s various construction sites builders are still on the go. Such is the rush on these new shopping malls and apartment complexes. Construction goes on 24/7 with builders working around the clock shifts.
To me and thee, that would seem like a harsh life, and while I don’t know the exact wages I can assure you they’re a lot lower than that of a foreign English language teacher. To the Chinese, it’s a means to an end. They simply work and don’t gripe about the conditions in which they do so.
I would speculate that this is another reason for the mentality of your average boss in China. I’m also sure that any person in a position of power that would be abusing said power from our point of view would have no malice in their intentions. As I said, it’s simply normal and second nature to them. So when it clashes with a Western mentality it’s difficult to feel anything other than bemusement at how they do things in their country.
When I wrote the first Secret Teacher piece, I was back in Ireland, instead of getting married in China. My girlfriend stayed here, in the apartment that was provided for us by the school. I am the only teacher in this school so my girlfriend living with me was never a problem, even though she is not employed by the school (most school apartments are shared accommodation with another teacher). The teacher covering my classes while I was away was asked to stay in our apartment for 3 days, as commuting from where he lives would be highly taxing on him. This is something I was not asked about, not that I would have minded – if a guy needs a place to sleep, he needs a place to sleep. Being asked is always nice, however.
My gripe wasn’t this; it was the fact my local boss rang my girlfriend and instructed her NOT to go to our apartment for those three days. Although having typed that sentence, I can now see the local boss didn’t see it as ‘our’ apartment. I found this extremely rude and unnecessary. I know the teacher that covered for me, a very simple guy with a Chinese wife of his own with whom he also lives. I can’t see how he would have had an issue with my girlfriend being there. For some reason my local boss obviously thought this would be a problem for him, as if another human being may inhibit his teaching ability.
Naturally my girlfriend was quite upset. She too had a job to go to over those three days, but it was the rudeness and shock that got to her, especially considering she is a big help to my local boss. At this school, there are four staff members including myself: the local boss, her younger cousin and a young man. Of those three, only the local man can communicate in English, and not well. Usually I am relying on my Chinese to communicate matters to the rest of the staff and my Chinese is unfortunately far from fluent! So on numerous occasions my girlfriend has stepped in to aid our staff conversations. The idea that my local boss would not even contemplate that I would be offended by this baffles me. I always say to other foreigners here that every day, and I do mean EVERY day, you see something in China that wouldn’t happen in a million years in the West.
For the sake of balance I should point out that Western superiors in English schools in China can be just as bad. At my old company, my director of studies (DOS) was quite an outspoken gentleman. He was from the U.K. and the hearsay was that he hadn’t been back there in 20 years for tax reasons. He always reminded me of General Melchett from Blackadder series 4, in the sense that he was loud and overtly racist. Whilst that may not be too shocking, his meetings would be enough for an uninformed Western onlooker to wonder ‘how is this man is a boss?’
What would be intended as a training session for teachers (and teachers with his company company are often inexperienced due to their high staff turnover) would evolve into the DOS simply complaining for 2 hours about how terrible China is. He would regale all present with some similar stories to the ones I’ve told you, using far more expletives such as ‘pussy’, ‘nigger’ and ‘hooker’. This kind of language doesn’t shock or offend me anymore but, and forgive me for being blunt, WE’RE IN A FUCKING MEETING MATE! Why he thought his complaints about 20 years in Asia would aid us new bloods in becoming better teachers is beyond me. They were not isolated to one or two meetings either; it was every meeting. In fact, the other teachers and I would struggle to recollect the odd time where the DOS actually gave helpful training.
During one year with that school, 4 teachers were fired (for the record, I wasn’t one of them). The first to go was always a sacking waiting to happen. The teacher was a nice guy, but it was clear he was not in China for teaching. His passion was learning Chinese and it became a problem work-wise. I saw him teach and it’s fair to say the boy wasn’t very good, but it is hard to be perfect when you’ve only been teaching for 2 or 3 months.
He was fired by the DOS because his students in his public school classes hadn’t been writing in their books. The DOS discovered this one day while I covering for him; he actually burst into my class shouting at me why was there nothing written in any of the books. He glanced over some of my students’ books; thankfully, the little tykes had scribbled a little bit in them. He was in full-blown angry mode at this stage, insisting he wasn’t angry at me and saying it was the other teacher he was angry with. I deduced this because he continually said ‘fucking’ before saying the poor guy’s name.
The DOS went on at some length that day about why he was so upset over this by making the argument that the public school that hired our company will see that nothing had been written in the students’ books and not hire our schools teachers the next semester. The DOS also told us in the midst of his rants that he had to fire the teacher. Again, not incredibly professional to tell a man’s co-workers you’re going to fire him before he even has a clue what’s going on, but that’s how it happens.
The DOS did fire the teacher; to be fair, it was not only down to that incident, but I found it harsh. 2 months into a new job and you’re fired for something as innocuous as all the students not writing in their books yet. Bear in mind when you teach at a public school, you have 50 children to educate. It can be very hard to make sure any write in their notes, let alone all of them. Our DOS also emphasised that the goal of the classes in public schools was, and I quote, to ‘Just get them speaking. We need to make it look like they’re learning English. Just make it fun and make them speak.’ Prior to that day, very little was mentioned of the importance of their books, for which I might add our school charged an extortionate price. Needless to say, every lesson after that I made sure some students had written something in their books.
However my DOS’s argument that the public school wouldn’t hire us again for the next semester turned out to be false. I speculate that because of this teacher’s general casual attitude towards his job, the Chinese boss of our school wanted him gone, and when my DOS found a reason he jumped on it, which may be why he was so public with his anger and intentions on how to deal with the teacher.
What may surprise you: I am planning to work for my old company again. In comparison to my current company, they are far better. Better the devil you know, if you will. Since the incident with my local boss evicting my girlfriend for 3 days, we have since decided to move. I will be quitting as soon as I find another school. This is information I also haven’t disclosed with my current school because if they learned of my intentions, they simply would stop paying me for any work I do between now and when I get a new job. They would likely evict me as well, or find other ways to make working life generally difficult.
If I was in Ireland I wouldn’t dream of doing this but China is different. Very different. It’s a great country, some of the things you see and do here are amazing and I feel I have grown as a person being here. However, precious few places on this Earth are perfect. Wish me luck.
The Secret Teacher
The author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous, though we can tell you that he is Irish and ‘a delightful chap’.
The featured image for this piece comes from renowned documentary Last Train Home, which examines the effect of the rapid growth of the Chinese economy on individual families.