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Section I: Teaching English in China continued

"No Respect" as a Foreign English Teacher in China

American comedian Rodney Dangerfield established a very long and successful career with his standup comedy routine "I don't get no respect," and if you decide to move to China to work as a foreign English teacher, it is highly likely you will find yourself identifying with Mr. Dangerfield's predicament, especially (but not only) if you are unqualified.

Rodney Dangerfield
"I told my psychiatrist that everyone hates me. He said I was being ridiculous... 'everyone' hasn't met me yet."

Remember from our discussion in the previous section that the role of the foreign English teacher in China is de-professionalized, i.e., we are hired almost exclusively as simple facilitators of speaking and listening skills. For public schools and universities, it is a national requirement that has to be satisfied for reaccreditation, very much in the same way they must concern themselves with the physical condition of the campus buildings and roadways. Whether one is a doctor and former professor of linguistics—with a specialty in second language acquisition theories and methodologies—or a 25-year old high school dropout with work experience limited to McDonald's does not change the fact that the foreign teacher's presence at that school or university is viewed as almost entirely superfluous by one's immediate supervisors, as well as by that institution's top-level administrators. The single and meager concession that the value of foreign teachers lies exclusively in their ability to help "perfect" their students' pronunciation in preparation for the next English contest is simply insufficient grounds for establishing a professional relationship that is based on mutual respect or even appreciation.

Of course, there are a few exceptions to the above rule. A university's foreign language department may have a genuine need for a Western faculty member who can teach literature to their master's degree students, but, even in this instance, there will still be a rather pervasive sentiment among one's colleagues and administrators that no one can truly understand and teach Chinese students as effectively as another Chinese can.

This condescending and grossly dismissive attitude towards foreign teachers is far more pervasive and profound at private English language training centers, because the educational goals, assuming the center has ever taken the trouble to even think about them, will always be secondary to the pecuniary interests at hand. Simply restated, private English language schools are in the business of education: They are always businesses first and, then, as a distant second, schools.

Once you appreciate that—irrespective of qualifications and experience—you were only offered a position because you were needed to meet a terribly resented national educational requirement, you have a White face, are relatively attractive, or are simply good for business, it then becomes obvious that one cannot reasonably expect to be treated with respect or gratitude, irrespective of how good the teaching performance actually is. In regard to private training centers, bear in mind that the school is often paying the foreign teacher up to (and in many cases more than) 100 percent more than its bona fide Chinese English teachers (who are generally well-educated and certified). Consequently, and more often than not, you will also be terribly resented by your Chinese counterparts as well, especially if they are far better qualified to teach than you are. For a related discussion of institutionalized disrespect, see the section "Well... at least they don't call me 'boy'" in our chapter on Office Politics and Colleagues.

In closing, we'd like you to consider a personal story we received in June 2009 from a former English teacher in China. It is a very poignant and concise summary of his frustration and discontent over how he was disregarded and mistreated not just by his employers but colleagues as well. Pay special attention to how he laments that "all foreign teachers are lumped together as losers" regardless of education, experience, training, and motivation (in other words, how he was treated with systemic prejudice, i.e., a prejudgment based on supposed characteristics of a larger group). We are publishing this here with permission because we believe that his experience and reactions are highly representative of what many, if not most, foreign English teachers live with on a daily basis in China.

I came to China to teach and learn about the culture. As a guy in my mid 30s I had done enough boozing and skirt chasing to last three lifetimes. Although Chinese women are very beautiful, I always avoided getting into relationships because I knew my time in China was temporary. Many, if not most, Chinese women date to marry and I totally respect that and would never want to lead anyone on like that. I spent about $3000 two TEFL certificate programs, one in the U.S. and one in China. I knew that I could have easily gotten a job with just my BA degree, but I felt like I would be cheating the students if I didn't get at least some initial training.

Unfortunately, in the end none of that mattered. I ended up working alongside several people who had never finished high school and had no TEFL training at all, and we were making the same salary and doing the same exact job. My employer didn't care about quality at all. I was thrown into middle-school classes with no books or curriculum of any kind. The Chinese teachers at the school would hardly even look at the "dirty" foreign teachers, so they were no help at all. For crying out loud it was their class! You would think there would be some collaboration but the fact was that they wanted nothing to do with us. I was there two months and was cheated both times I got paid before telling my employer to stick it where the sun doesn't shine. Luckily I had my own apartment completely separate from my job. I was lied to about the age of the students I would be teaching and was nickel’d and dime’d over everything, including having 10 minutes deducted from my pay for required 10-minute breaks for two hour classes. Gee, what I am supposed to do for 10 minutes? Go play 9 holes?

I also did a couple of jobs for a recruiter and got shafted on my pay as well.

In conclusion, I thought I was a pretty decent teacher but dealing with the surrounding lies, backstabbing, and lack of respect is what drove me from China. What sucks is that my only intention in coming over there was to teach. It seems like all foreign teachers are lumped together as losers who couldn't get jobs in their own countries, pedophiles, drug addicts, and rapists. It's like we are all guilty and we have to work to prove our worthiness. All this for USD$1,000 or less a month? No thanks.

So Why Do Some of Us Stay?

With work environments that could—in most cases—be generously described as challenging, why then does anyone bother to stay in China as a foreign teacher? There are several answers to this question.

For starters, many do leave after completing their one-year contracts and, often, well before that, which is why China recruits more than 100,000 new foreign teachers every year. Obviously, if everyone who was already here stayed forever, recruiting efforts would be far less rigorous and competitive than they currently are.

There is an enormous sense of satisfaction that comes from establishing long-term bonds with one's students that is very difficult to explain...

Second, many foreign "teachers" in China (as illustrated in the vignette above) are unqualified, never taught one day in their lives before leaving home, and are accustomed to working in blue-collar or entry-level white-collar positions where they were treated just as poorly or even worse. They no more expect gratitude and respect from their Chinese employers than they did from their former company foremen or assistant managers back home. It is more than enough for them that they can approximate a lifestyle in China that is similar to (and, in many cases, even better than) the ones they had grown accustomed to back home by working only a fraction of the total number of hours per week.

The answer is quite different in regard to those who moved to China as qualified career educators—or, in the alternative—are nevertheless naturally talented at teaching: They stay for the students, pure and simple. The genuine warmth, high positive regard, and lifelong appreciation they receive from their students more than compensate for the absence of same from one's administration. Professional educators who remain year after year are generally people who operate from an internal locus of control: They simply do not need a pat on the back from their employers to nevertheless know that they are doing a good job and are serving a valuable role here—even if the importance of that role is not recognized by the very people who pay them.

Class Photo

Many of us who remain in China, especially at government senior middle schools and universities, do so because we know that, as foreigners, the students are able to approach us with personal and other problems in a way they would never even consider doing with their Chinese faculty or close personal friends. Our greatest contributions to our students—and, therefore, to the people of China—are not realized in the form of class content, or even in helping them to "perfect" their pronunciation of the English language, but in making ourselves available to them as mentors and advisors. There is an enormous sense of satisfaction that comes from establishing long-term bonds with one's students that is very difficult to explain to those who have never had that experience.

We are aware of a foreign teacher, an older middle-aged woman with years of former experience as a high school teacher in her native country, who was approached by one of her students when she became terribly concerned about one of her girlfriends. Apparently, her friend had stopped eating, attending classes and was crying all the time. The teacher agreed to meet with the student to ascertain what was wrong as the despondent girl had refused to talk to anyone else but, as is often the case, felt that doing so with a foreigner would not incur any negative consequences (as, for the most part, we exist outside the social and academic mainstream). During their meeting the student spoke of how she wanted to die and seemed quite determined in that resolve. The teacher was eventually able to encourage the student to trust her with whatever was disturbing her. It turns out she had allowed her boyfriend to talk her into premarital sex and after she gave him her virginity, he then informed her that he wanted to see someone else. Humiliated, guilt-ridden and dejected, the girl had decided that suicide was the best solution to her problem. Although the foreign teacher had no formal training as a counselor or therapist, she did have years of experience dealing with depressed teenage girls, not to mention two grown daughters of her own.

She was able to approach the situation from the perspective of her Western culture in which virginity is both demystified and relatively unimportant. In just a brief period of time, she was able to help the student come to terms with the fact that her life was not over simply because she was no longer a virgin. It is our firm belief, based on what we know about this situation, that had it not been for the availability and intervention of this foreign teacher, the student would have most likely ended her life. That took place more than five years ago and today, that teacher is treated and regarded by the student as if she were her second mother. This foreigner was hired to teach oral English and yet, as we see it, she probably saved a life in China.

This is just one of several examples of why many of us do remain in China year after year even though we find ourselves having to fight tooth and nail during every contract renewal period just to hold onto the already meager salary and accommodations afforded to us from the previous year.

Another point worth mentioning—and it is one that exists in stark contrast to how we are regarded by our schools and language departments—is that, in general, especially outside the three major international cities, foreigners are treated with a certain type of celebrity status. Businesses will compete with one another for your patronage and you will often be seated in a prominent position—literally on display—in restaurants and other public places. It will not be unusual for local Chinese to stop you in the street and especially at places like parks and beaches to ask if they can have their photo taken alongside of you (irrespective of your age and overall appearance). In cities where foreigners are relatively scarce, many will stare at you as if they have just spotted an international movie star and, when shopping, those next to you on the cashier's line will carefully examine your cart to see what you have selected and then will often run off to pick up and return with the same items. Some foreigners feel enormously flattered by this abundant showering of attention while others feel terribly imposed upon by their excessive curiosity, frequent gawking and the neverending chorus of "hellos" from passersby.




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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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