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Section I: Teaching English in China continued

Office Politics

This chapter describes a few interpersonal obstacles one is likely to encounter at the workplace with one's students and colleagues, both local and foreign. It begins by offering some understanding of the role and typical mind-set of your principal contact in the school's foreign affairs office, what you can expect from your Chinese colleagues, common expressions of how you will be treated with institutionalized disrespect, and, finally, social difficulties centered around resentment that some American teachers may experience.

Foreign Affairs Officer

All public schools and universities will have a foreign affairs office that is administratively supported by three government positions: a director, a deputy director and a section chief. The “foreign affairs officers” that foreign teachers interact with on a regular basis are almost always section chiefs who have relatively little power or influence—in fact, most foreign teachers will never meet the "real" foreign affairs officer (the director) who almost never speaks even one word of English. Private schools usually do not have an official foreign affairs office but will typically just designate one of their long-term employees with reasonable English language skills to serve as a mediator or go-fer between the foreign teachers and the local PSB and foreign expert bureau.

Typically, the section chief in the foreign affairs office will be the school's designated "jack of all trades" ranging from chauffeur, clerk, handyman, shopping assistant, bill payer, local travel agent, and the PSB (public security bureau) and international student liaison. Most of them are neither particularly harmful nor helpful: They feel overworked and underpaid (and, in fact, are as the national average salary for a section chief is around 2500 yuan per month) and will do whatever they can to avoid dealing with additional requests from you. Don't be surprised if receiving a reply from your designated-FAO requires several e-mails, phone calls, and many days of waiting. As a rule, they will not (and cannot) respond favorably to any request that is not specifically covered or mentioned in your contract, although most can exercise a little individual discretion in minor matters, particularly those that do not involve the expenditure of money.

Chinese Colleagues: What's in a Name?

For the most part, your Chinese colleagues will have either a studied disinterest in all foreign English teachers or will attempt to befriend you, especially if their English language skills are decent (sometimes in an attempt to forge a genuine friendship—one that will afford them the opportunity to practice their English—but often because they need some sort of help with a project involving the English language).

Most of us are not going to address a grown man as "Kaka" or a female student as "Kinky."

One peculiarity you will notice is that, although almost all Chinese teachers—in university language departments and private schools—have adopted the use of an "English name," virtually no one but other foreigners are familiar with it (as this is the only context in which they ever use it). Subsequently, if you use the Western name only in referring to or asking for a particular colleague, no one but another foreigner will know whom you are talking about (because the Chinese do not use or address one another by these makeshift Western names). In addition, and in many cases, these "English names" are not real Western given names at all, but either literal translations of their Chinese given name (e.g., sharp), non-proper nouns (e.g., smoke), the family names or nicknames of famous sports figures (usually from Latin America), or even neologisms that are regarded as "cool-sounding" but are entirely forgettable.

When establishing a relationship with a Chinese teacher (or anyone else), go through the trouble of learning his or her proper Chinese name, as this is the only way you will be able to adequately refer to and identify that individual to other Chinese.

In addition, and as a matter of good practice, most responsible foreign teachers do refuse to address their Chinese colleagues, as well as students, by their "English" names if in fact they are not genuine Western names. Most of us are not going to address a grown man as "Kaka" or "Mountain," or a female student as "Kinky" or "Coco." Surprisingly enough, most Chinese will decline your offer to provide them with an appropriate given name, even after you've pointed out the absurdity of what it would mean and convey to them if you assumed a combination of characters in Chinese that make absolutely no sense or, for example, are just thoroughly ridiculous or even insulting, e.g., assuming the Chinese word for "toilet" (厕 所) as your "Chinese name" simply because you "liked the sound of it." In such instances, most of us will only use their proper Chinese names as a matter of principle and we hope this is a stance all of us will assume. (Years ago, when I was teaching oral English, I wrote a brief explanation of Western names in simple English that I would then distribute to all my students during the first class after I had just learned of all their "English names," often with a good laugh all around. Feel free to download and use it.)

Finally and related, if a student or colleague does ask you to assign them a Western name, please take that request seriously by giving it some thought, because whatever name you do offer will probably be used for the rest of their lives (which won't mean very much if they remain in China but will be quite significant if they have plans to study or work abroad). Give yourself a chance to know the person for a period of time before suggesting a given name and treat it with the same degree of seriousness you would if you were naming your own child. Consult websites that list baby names and reflect on the feeling of each name until one strikes you as appropriate for the person in question. In addition, be sure to check the origin or root meaning of the name you assign as every Chinese will immediately ask you for the meaning of the name as all Chinese names do have transliteral meanings. We were appalled to learn that quite a few of these inappropriate "English" names (usually strip-club stage names such as Bunny or Cherry) were actually assigned to our students by former foreign teachers.

Well... at least they don't call me "boy"

Whether you will work at a large public university or a small private school, one expression of institutionalized disrespect you will soon notice is the striking discrepancy in protocol between how foreign and Chinese (as well as other Asian) teachers are addressed, introduced, and referred to. It is historically well-established in China for students to address their teachers and anyone of higher social status by their surnames, e.g., Miss Chen, Dr. Wang, etc. No Chinese teacher of English—or any other subject for that matter—would ever introduce themselves to their students (or allow themselves to be addressed) by their given name and no school administrator would ever tolerate such practice. Nevertheless, irrespective of age, education, or experience, foreign teachers are routinely and systematically referred to, introduced, and addressed by their given names only. In school or departmental directories and faculty contact lists, Western foreign English teachers will be routinely stripped of whatever proper academic initials and titles they are rightfully entitled to while Chinese and other Asian foreign faculty will be afforded them, even at universities and particularly during official events and ceremonies where formal introductions are made.

Personal Note

Over the course of the more than seven years that I taught in China as a content course professor (psychology, statistics, epidemiology, etc.), administration always addressed and introduced me by my given name to all Chinese office staff, colleagues, and students (this included introductions at formal university and government affairs and to other Chinese faculty who were always introduced to me by their courtesy title and family name, e.g., "Greg, this is Dr. Wang").

This practice was continued even after I made a point of addressing it with them. My point would be dismissed as being "overly sensitive." The fact that my corrections were ignored obviously indicates that their disrespect was quite deliberate.

About one-fourth of my mainland Chinese students—in stark contrast to how they addressed their Chinese professors—also addressed me as "Greg" as they were simply reflecting their university's attitude towards Western teachers and faculty. It is interesting to note that my foreign students from the United States and other Asian countries, including Hong Kong and Macau, always addressed me as Prof. or Dr. Greg (at least until such time that a genuine relationship had been established).

In the UAE, all administrative assistants, office staff, and students address the doctoral-level faculty as "doctor" without exception. The phonemes that comprise the English word "doctor" are no more difficult for mainland Chinese to pronounce than for Arabic speaking people.

In the West, even the kitchen and janitorial staff are introduced to the students by their surnames on the first day of school.

Many apologetic and vindicating rationalizations have been offered by foreign teachers for why the Chinese routinely do not extend the same social courtesy to foreign teachers that they do to one another as well as other Asians, e.g., "Westerners are perceived as less formal than Chinese," or "It is too difficult for the Chinese to remember and pronounce our family names," etc., but the reality is this is simply a reflection of how poorly foreign English teachers are regarded by the vast majority of school and university administrators throughout the country's educational system. It is also very clearly an expression of institutionalized racism, jealously, and ethnocentrism. The truth is, even though many Western surnames can be difficult to pronounce, those Chinese who want to convey respect will simply attach a courtesy title to the teacher's given name, e.g., "This is Mr. Bill" or "I'd like you to meet Dr. Mike."

Perhaps if enough foreign teachers went through the trouble of insisting that they be treated with the same public courtesy as their Chinese counterparts, this particular and ubiquitous manifestation of disrespect would soon be eradicated. Unfortunately, as most foreign teachers view themselves as just "passing through," nothing is ever made of it and this practice persists from year to year. We would strongly suggest and advise that those who simply choose to ignore this discriminatory practice are suggesting to their hosts that they don't respect themselves and, therefore, are not worthy of equal treatment. For more information about the institutionalized devaluation of the foreign English teacher, see the next chapter titled "No Respect as a Foreign Teacher."

Western Colleagues and Office Politics

As indicated in other sections of this guide, Westerners are motivated to move to China to teach English for a variety of reasons and with many different goals in mind. For recent college graduates, it might be a way to subsidize international travel and Chinese language study for a year or so. For the elderly, with children and grandchildren back home, it could represent a long awaited short-term adventure. A recent widower with grown children, living on a pension, might decide his life would be far more comfortable by stretching his Western retirement monies in an Asian country every six months out of the year. A divorced middle-aged man with employment difficulties and very little savings may decide a geographic cure and a new Chinese wife are just what the doctor ordered.

... many foreigners you meet tend to be very wary of newcomers and are peculiarly territorial

The point is that as a foreign English teacher in China you will find yourself thrown together with a vast array of people who come from all walks of life: from the poorly educated and formerly destitute to upper middle-class career educators with advanced degrees. In a few instances, you will truly appreciate having had the opportunity to meet people you otherwise would never have known if not for your time in China while, in others, you will deeply regret the experience and wish it could have been altogether avoided.

Obviously, common sense dictates that no middle-aged person who is well-adjusted, relatively sane, and has a thriving non-teaching career or business in a Western country, with numerous family ties and obligations, is going to wake up one morning and just decide to walk away from all that success and a loving family in order to move to China to facilitate the practice of English listening and speaking skills for 4,000 to 5,000 yuan per month, while living in housing that is often considered unsuitable even by Chinese middle-class standards. Related, rarely will someone who has moved to work in China as an English teacher by forced choice freely admit that he terribly mismanaged his life and, at an age ranging from 30- to 50-years old, had no other option but to accept the relatively low salary and poor living conditions that China affords him.

Consequently, many foreigners you meet tend to be very wary of newcomers and are peculiarly territorial, especially in areas where foreigners are scarce. Upon running into a foreign face and saying hello, you should not be shocked if the foreigner you just greeted acts as if he neither heard nor saw you. When all one has to bank on is the fact that he or she speaks English natively, there will be immediate apprehension when faced with what is perceived as a new competitor, especially if the competition has something more to offer than just the ability to speak English natively.

Thus, especially among foreigners who moved to China as a last resort or watershed period, a rather fiercely sophomoric competition often ensues and finds expression in several notable ways. Foreign teachers will be particularly sensitive to an incoming Westerner’s salary, especially in regard to his total number of weekly teaching hours. The particular apartment he or she is placed in, especially if it is larger, nicer, or more conveniently located, can immediately become a major bone of contention among the incumbent foreign teachers. Those without real degrees will feel compelled to prove something to the teachers who legitimately have them, and veteran "old-timers" with real bachelor degrees will generally resent those with master’s and doctoral degrees—particularly if they are earning more money or receiving better conditions. If you have the grave misfortune of being seated at a different or special table during a provincial or municipal banquet, you can count on being the brunt of envy and resentment on the part of many.

Aside from the more obvious forms of competitive behavior, be prepared to listen to well-rehearsed tales of remarkable past achievements as well as boasts about the myriad of personal favors that have been accumulated with powerful Chinese officials, ranging from the school’s administration all the way up to the province’s very own governor. If you are a particularly generous person or perceived as a soft-touch, expect to pay the lion’s share of the bill every time you dine out together as a group. More advantaged foreigners with particularly desirable skills, such as computer expertise, can expect to be exploited as much as possible by those who feel less fortunate, as if it was an entitlement or mandated reparation of sorts. In the context of such a variable array of unknown entities in China, and often based on a history of unpleasant experiences, it is not surprising that many long-term foreign teachers report a social support group that consists almost entirely of Chinese friends and family (Mavrides, 2009a).

The following is an illustrative vignette submitted to us by a foreign teacher about his unpleasant experiences with a Western colleague that poignantly underscores most of the aforementioned points:

Lenny thought we needed "laowai unity."*

He was pushing sixty, an overweight Western expat with red veins on his nose who announced to me the first time I met him that the Chinese are “more civilized than you.”

“They look at you like you’re a barbarian...” pausing for a second to dramatically emphasize, “which you are. You totally are.”

I strongly suspect this is how Lenny views all foreigners, himself most of all. But I never told him this.

We needed laowai unity because the foreign affairs office was xenophobic. "They are against us." He based this on a story he told every single new teacher about how they tried to scam him out of money. And when he wasn’t telling us this story, he was giving us others: about the millions he’d made back home, about how he invented a form of concrete mixing, about all the beautiful women he’d slept with, about how the professors at a prestigious local university conspired to have him fired because his lectures were too intelligent for them.

He told stories that all centered around one theme: He was a god among ants who chose to come here because he "objectively" decided that China is sooo much better and sooo much nicer than the dreadful West.

Step one to laowai unity was a dinner with all the foreign teachers.

We were three young guys, one young girl, and two older men. We sat around the table, more or less shooting the bull, and when I brought up teaching freshman English, Lenny had something to add to it.

“The first time I taught freshman English..." a grin stretched his lips wide, "...all the girls asked if they could come back and fuck me.”

We never had another dinner together again.

*Lǎowài is Chinese for foreigner

The point to all of this is that you need to choose your teaching positions very carefully with the goal of placing yourself where you are more likely than not to have a legitimate peer group. A 55-year old early retiree, who had a fairly successful career in his country of origin as a corporate attorney and was a part-time lecturer at a law school, would simply be asking for trouble going to work for a private English language school that hires mostly uneducated and inexperienced 22- to 28-year olds. Not only will that teacher not find a reasonable peer group (chronologically, emotionally, intellectually or educationally), he will quickly become the object of envy, petty backstabbing, and childish games of one-upmanship, especially if he was brought in at a considerably better package than most. If you are a qualified educator, you absolutely need to pursue a post at a hiring institution that is not only in need of what you have to offer, but also one that hires only qualified and well-trained people (much more easily said than done in China).

For additional sociological and psychological explorations of this phenomenon among foreign English teachers in China, it is highly recommended that you read "Oppressed Group Behavior Among Foreign Teachers in China" as well as "Psychopathology of Anonymous EFL China Teacher Forums."

Recent graduates with certifications in education (especially in the hard sciences and math), and retirees, who led and had meaningful and successful lives and careers back home, should only consider working at international schools, those that absolutely require certification, or graduate schools where you will teach more than just oral English, e.g., reading, writing and Western literature.

Finally, quality of life has to be factored into the equation when considering remuneration: although private English language schools tend to pay considerably more than public schools and universities do, the latter typically provide far more rewarding teaching experiences as well as the potential for a genuine peer group. If you possess a master's or doctoral degree in any field, you have absolutely no business working for a private English language school in China in any capacity other than administration, perhaps.

Anti-American Sentiment Among Nationals of Other Countries

Another phenomenon worth mentioning, in regard to politics, pertains to a rather significant anti-American sentiment among foreigners from other Western countries.

Americans are, to this day, isolationists and have very little awareness of the world around them. The vast majority have never traveled outside the United States and, in fact, less than 25 percent of all Americans even have a passport (USA Today, 2007). Most who do travel outside the U.S., do so primarily for vacationing in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America (e.g., Costa Rica or the Dominican Republic) where pro-American sentiment, due to the tourism dollars the country provides, is quite strong—and, consequently, they are treated as highly revered guests because these foreign economies depend heavily on American tourism dollars for their survival.

Aside from which Club Med resort one should stay at while vacationing in Jamaica (assuming one is fortunate enough to be able to afford such a vacation, which accounts for less than 20 percent of all adults over the age of 18), most Americans are simply uninterested in world events and even in their own current domestic affairs as well. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed that only 66 percent of all Americans surveyed knew who the governor of their own state was and only slightly more, at 69 percent, could provide the correct answer when asked to name the Vice President of the United States (2007), as incredible as this may seem to nationals of just about any other country.

The reason most Americans don't know what is happening in the world today (whether that be in their own backyard or halfway around the globe) is because they simply don't care all that much about anything other than their immediate families, friends, neighbors, and colleagues: things that directly affect them in their day-to-day lives. For example, virtually every American can tell you what his increased tax burden will be when he receives his next pay raise, how much he'll need to save to put his kids through college, how he doesn't know if he will be able to come up with the 20 percent co-pay he needs for his daughter's operation (assuming he is not among the 17 percent of all Americans who have no health insurance at all), or how he'll never be able to retire because the principal due on his mortgage is more than his home is worth on the current market. In fact, one might accurately describe this national daily preoccupation—with trying to maintain one's existence in today's ever-shrinking middle-class—as the new American Way of Life of the 21st century. In light of these pressing and stressful concerns, who the present governor is or, for example, what the rest of the world happens to think of their government's international policies, is just not foremost in the minds of most Americans when they wake up in the morning.

Consequently, most American foreign teachers who move to China are in for a rather rude awakening as it will very likely be the first time in their lives that they encounter nationals from other countries who will not only be quite vociferously critical of their government (as if any "Yank" in China can speak for or represents the U.S. government's executive and legislative branches), but who also harbor and express—what often is—a considerable amount of resentment towards anyone who just happened to be born in any of the 50 states.

For many (although certainly not all) foreign teachers in China from countries other than the U.S., it appears that when an individual is born into the world’s most powerful country, they do not need any further justification from the American government to resent or even despise its citizens—but, certainly, the recent Bush administration had done more than its fair share to incur the rancor of many.

Aside from whatever effect world politics play in these set of dynamics, there also appears to be a reality in the world of China EFL today that fuels and perpetuates the resentment as well: Americans are, by and large, extremely well-received and sought after by the mainland Chinese people in general, and especially by school owners and foreign affairs officers. There are two principal reasons for this, not unrelated to the attraction Chinese women have for foreign men in general. First, (and this may just be the justification for the real, second reason), American English is the international business standard in the world today (e.g., U.S. English has been adopted by the China Daily). Thus, many private English language schools, particularly those that run corporate or business departments, do prefer and seek out native American English speakers (although this is less a factor in public schools and universities). Second, the Chinese both admire and respect the prosperity of the United States, especially as it is such a young country, and hope to emulate it as much as possible (with Chinese characteristics, of course)—and, in this respect, every American foreign teacher—especially those who enjoyed meaningful careers back home—is viewed as a potential conduit to business, academic, and other contacts in the United States.

Related closely to the second reason is that virtually all affluent parents in China have dreams of sending their children to America for a college education. Although, years ago, the British IELTS exam was the sine qua non in China for preparing oneself to study abroad (as student visas to England were considerably easier to obtain than to America), the year 2008 has seen a proliferation of advertisements from schools—ranging from New Oriental to virtually every newly-opened private, mom and pop English language school there is—boasting their expertise in providing the TOEFL (Testing of English as a Foreign Language), SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and ACT (American College Test) exam preparation courses. One former American university professor we know, receives at least one dinner invitation per month from parents of senior-middle school students who are hoping that he will write a letter of recommendation for their son or daughter when the time comes.

Although there are no available sociodemographic data on the characteristics of foreign teachers in China that we could find, strong anecdotal evidence does suggest that Americans are grossly underrepresented in China as foreign teachers, which has three main effects. First, the ones who are here are in great demand; second, they are resented for that fact by many who are not Americans, and; third, as they are a minority in China, they make for both easy and convenient targets. Although most adults are mature enough to eventually "forgive" a particular countryman for whatever "extra privileges" he may enjoy because of his birthplace (at a whopping 4,000 to 5,000 RMB per month)—especially once they get to know the person as an individual (if they allow it)—the initial “acclimation period” can be a difficult and particularly alienating one for the relatively naive American whose only prior experience with politics or political turmoil was limited to arguing with his wife over who she should vote for in the next presidential election (assuming they were even registered to vote and only about 67 percent of all Americans are [Bowen, 2008]).

Most American foreign teachers, especially young men, do receive a lot of guff, even open hostility, from nationals of other Western countries (usually, but not exclusively, from those who are just as young), especially in the context of the bar scene: “Oh, you’re an American. I’ll try not to hold that against you.” For those who have already read through and participated in various Internet forums for EFL teachers, you will notice a great deal of anti-Americanism being expressed by at least a few there as well. Even far better educated and more sophisticated non-Americans will often harbor the same feelings, but they will be much better disguised, far more subtle, or (usually) publically hidden.

If you are an American foreign teacher in China and you encounter such antagonism or hostility disguised as humor (or not)—and it is likely that you will to some degree—it is best to just laugh it off. Do not respond in kind, as difficult as that may be. Try not to take it personally (because, in reality, it isn't personal at all) or allow yourself to be goaded into acting out the stereotype that regards all Americans as arrogant, overly sure of themselves, or “know-it-alls.” If you are a nice guy, generally speaking, then most people will eventually see you for who you really are, regardless of where you were born, and if they won’t give you a chance simply because you are an American, then just walk away from them because they were never worth knowing to begin with. By all means, don’t fall into the (typically) heavily baited trap of defending government policy you don’t agree with (or don't even care about); nor should you attempt to win friends by identifying with the aggressor, i.e., by disingenuously and indiscriminately demeaning your own country or by being personally self-defacing as an American citizen just because you happen to be greatly outnumbered in China (and this mechanism of defense, quite sadly, is readily apparent on many Internet EFL forums today).

Reader responses to this section on Anti-American sentiment have been published on a separate page.


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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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