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Section I: Teaching English in China continued

Abrupt Scheduling Changes

... it appears that even the most mundane facts, such as holiday schedules, are treated like highly-classified State secrets

One of the biggest irritants and most common complaints among foreign teachers in China is the lack of "proper" notification of schedule changes, meetings, holidays, and even dinner invitations, among others. Changes in plans and schedules, as well as social invitations, are almost invariably announced at the very last minute. This practice is countrywide and is not exclusive to foreign teachers: Chinese employees receive the same treatment.

The sudden news regarding changes you hear about can be accurately thought of as a domino effect. For example, imagine you work at an English training center that holds classes all day Saturday. It is early Saturday morning and you are just about to leave your apartment to head over to your first class when, all of a sudden, you receive a phone call from the office manager telling you classes have been canceled today and that makeup classes will be scheduled "later." You are frustrated over this complete lack of advanced notice because what you don't know is that the office manager received that notice just ten minutes before you did. The school owner made the decision late the previous evening after receiving a phone call from a friend. The friend is a public school teacher and only just heard the news herself, along with her students, when an announcement was made over the loudspeaker Friday afternoon that classes would be held on Saturday so that students would have the opportunity to cram for an upcoming exam. Knowing this would severely interfere with her friend's school, the teacher called the owner shortly after finishing dinner.

The public school principal, more likely than not, received notice just before noon Friday when notified by local governmental education officials that they should hold extra classes the next day. The local governmental officials made that decision Friday morning when called by a provincial-level governmental official advising that all the schools in the province were going to hold classes the next day and that they were expected to follow suit.

From a Western perspective, it appears that even the most mundane facts, such as holiday schedules, are treated like highly-classified State secrets. Owing to the rather complex nature of Chinese government bureaucracy, this is an ingrained part of the culture and nothing you can do or say is going to have any influence. Complaining repeatedly about how you expect to be given advance notice is not going to change the system, so it is best that you simply remain flexible and learn how to roll with the punches, so to speak. In fact, many long-term Western expats report that they have come to actually prefer the Chinese system of etiquette in regard to time management and scheduling over their own.

Abrupt Invitations

Finally, abrupt notifications are not limited to the work environment: You will often receive dinner invitations during the afternoon of the same day you are expected to appear. This is common practice in China and is not intended to insult you or to suggest that your time is not valuable. Although this would be considered very poor form in our respective Western countries, by extension and for example, it would be entirely appropriate to call a woman you liked with a dinner invitation just three or four hours before the proposed meeting time.

In fact, attempting to arrange a meeting or appointment days in advance is commonly viewed in China as a potential source of inconvenience or conflict because you are placing that person in the possibly awkward position of having to cancel on you (or, more typically, come up with a face-giving lie) if a last-minute request or invitation comes in from a boss or person of much higher social rank. As a rule, it is best not to try to schedule an appointment with a Chinese national more than one to two days in advance.


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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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