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Oppressed Group Behavior Among Foreign Teachers in China


While searching for some information about a completely different topic, I came across an old thread on an Internet forum for foreign teachers about how exploitative and cheap many foreign oral English teachers in China can be. It is titled “Foreign Moochers and How To Deal With Them?” and I’d like to share an excerpt from the original post with you:

We all know at least one foreign teacher who can be termed a “moocher”, “freeloader”, “freebooter”, or “parasite”.

This is the person, the master manipulator, who never seems to pay for anything. He or she travels at the expense of some poor Chinese person ( a student or other non-business person) who extends an invitation to visit their hometown, eat dinner, visit a cultural event, or visit a local scenic attraction.

The freebooting extends to the foreigners they know. When three or more foreigners dine in a restaurant and the bill arrives, the parasite will say she is broke and could someone ante up the 20 RMB for her part of the dinner and she will pay next time. Someone pays for her share while she barks orders at the waitress to put any leftovers in doggie bags to take home. The next time she does the same thing, having never paid back the money.

The freeloader will often enter a local bus with another foreigner to discover he only has a 100 RMB note. “Can you cover this, I’ll get it on the way back.” he says. He doesn’t cover it on the way back. Kiss the Kwai goodbye.

Expert freebooters create a network which allows them to travel anywhere in China without ever having to pay for a hotel. Before leaving for Hecksha or Hellsha, the freebooter asks all her Chinese acquaintances if they know anyone in the destination city who can show her around. Of course they do. Arrangements are made, the freebooter will get a free tour guide, a stay with a local family, and free meals to boot.

Parasites love riding in taxis with other foreigners who just happen to be going their way. The parasite always gets out long before the last passenger will. He goes to point C, while the other foreigner is destined for point G. Never is an offer of cash made for the portion of the trip they took, nor will they ever extend the courtesy in the future to someone else.

Aside from having had my own fair share of experiences just like these over the many years I’ve been in China, I recently suffered a series of three notable disappointments over being let down by people I thought I could count on—and these served as the impetus for this article.

These disappointments, combined with my rereading of the aforementioned poster’s submission about “moochers” in China, led me to wonder if there is something about being a foreign English teacher in China that somehow induces people to be cheap and selfish, as well as exploitive, envious, and sabotaging of other foreigners. Then I thought maybe it was the other way around: that teaching English in China somehow specifically appeals to or attracts people who already suffer from these attributes. Far more likely, I reconsidered, it must be a combination of the two. And then, all of a sudden, it hit me like a ton of bricks: All of these behaviors can be understood and explained as manifestations of oppressed group behavior.

Oppressed Group Behavior

Oppressed group behavior is not a new concept. It has been studied for many years and is often used to explain the types of behaviors, such as those described in the above post, that can be observed among members of minority groups as well as what are referred to as the “semi-professions” (the most notable of which are nursing, teaching and social work).

According to one scholar, oppression exists whenever a powerful or prestigious group controls and exploits a less powerful group.1 If we look at this from the perspective of the power and status differential of foreign oral English teachers, such that they are a relatively disenfranchised and financially exploited sub-group or minority within China, the oppression model certainly fits and it fits well. Furthermore, it is probably also true that many, if not most, Westerners who come to China to teach oral English at 4,000 to 5,000 yuan per month, comprise the lower socioeconomic strata within their own countries of origin, which is why they came to China to begin with and then remain here for years thereafter. Obviously—barring the backpacker, older retiree and that ever-so-rare (in China) career EFL teacher (meaning someone who earned a tertiary diploma or degree in TEFL or a related field)—absolutely no one who has a successful career and strong family ties is going to just walk away from all that in the middle of his or her life to teach oral English in China for less than what the minimum wage is back home.

Lateral Aggression

The main characteristic of oppressed groups is that members often exhibit self-hatred and dislike for other members of their own group.2 An absence of respect for one’s own group often results in a desire not to be associated with it (and this phenomenon is readily apparent among new middle-class Blacks in America who do all they can to distance themselves from the Black community-at-large). This characteristic is particularly apropos in understanding and explaining—what I refer to as—”lateral aggression” among foreign English teachers in China and it is one that is readily apparent among many Westerners who are working in China as foreign oral English teachers. Consider the following recent interaction between two members of an Internet forum for foreign teachers in China:

Member A: I spend almost NO time with westerners if I can help it, and I take the bus and the pedicab when I can.

Member B (to Member A): Just sending you my thanks…

Member A: Quite welcome, dude. In your case, I’ll make it a promise.

This brief and acrimonious exchange between two members of the same group very nicely illustrates the disdain that most foreign English teachers in China hold for each other. A very common form of avoidance and expression of disdain, as suggested in the above exchange, is the failure of foreigners to acknowledge each other’s presence in public. Upon running into a foreign face and saying hello, it is very likely the foreigner you just greeted will act as if he neither heard nor saw you.

Another very common form of aggression can be observed when those who have been in China for awhile boast of all the “high-level” government officials they have at their personal disposal. Such foreigners claim to be personally exempt from whatever usual inconveniences are faced by other foreign teachers and how they are the sole Western beneficiaries of special favors or privileges in their particular city or even province. The intent, obviously, is to aggressively or competitively show how they are more valued by the dominant group than any other member of their own group is. Every time I am in earshot of such pronouncements, I am reminded of scenes from Alex Haley’s book Roots in which he described how the slaves used to compete with each other over whose master had the more successful farm or biggest crops. Common sense dictates that no high-level government official in China is going to squander his guanxi, which is more valuable than money here, helping out some foreigner who is thought of (quite accurately in most cases) as just a transient worker.3

Westerners, as a rule, hold a subordinate and relatively powerless position in China and foreign oral English teachers, in particular, are especially devalued by the Chinese educational system. Thus, it is not surprising to observe frequent acts of sabotage as well as other forms of lateral aggression among foreign English teachers because these behaviors are quite common and even predictable among members of oppressed groups. Common forms of lateral aggression include devaluing, discouraging, scapegoating, backstabbing, cheating, exploiting, and conspiring, among many others.

By way of a rather descriptive illustration of sabotage and conspiracy, I am very familiar with a situation in which a well-educated foreigner was brought into a private school system as that school’s vice principal. The vice principal, knowing that her presence there would be deeply resented by the preexisting long-term foreign teachers—especially the head teacher—did everything she could to encourage open expression of that resentment in several face-to-face meetings. The two teachers with the longest periods of seniority chose not to respond to her in a healthy and mature manner. Instead, they humored her and espoused all her virtues to her face, and then did everything they could behind her back to undermine her with the school’s owner and Chinese staff. When that failed, three of them conspired to pull off something of a coup d’état in which the owner was given an ultimatum: “Either she leaves or we do.” Much to their amazement, that too failed and all three were told that their contracts would not be renewed. This type of attempt at sabotage is quite common among foreign oral English teachers in China.

Obviously, oppressed group behavior doesn’t completely explain why some foreign English teachers in China are cheap and otherwise withholding of their resources and time while they have no difficulty freely accepting the same from others. Some people, even those with ample supplies of money, are just cheap: some even pathologically so. Perhaps they were weaned far too early, prematurely and punitively toilet-trained, or lack the innate ability to establish healthy relationships with others, such that their belongings and assets are all that define their self-worth in their minds, down to the last jiao.

In addition, it is also true that some Westerners in China do have it better than others. A few originally came here as foreign English teachers and now own successful private English language schools. Others—especially those who are able to offer the country more than just a White face and life experience—are teaching in fields other than English or working as expatriate managers employed by Western companies or schools with a presence in China. Of course, they are probably going to be resented by those who have achieved far less in life, whether those green with envy can accurately be thought of as having been a member of an oppressed group back home or not. As a rule, only those who really feel good about themselves can feel good for others—and the truth is, most foreign English teachers in China do not feel good about themselves nor had they ever before arriving in the Middle Kingdom.

Nevertheless, I do think oppressed group behavior—both in terms of the life of the foreign oral English teacher in China, as well as in regard to the lower socioeconomic statuses of those who move to China to begin with—does go a very long way in explaining so much of the pathological behaviors I, as well as the poster above, have been observing here for years.

Related Guide Topics:


  1. Duffy, E., “Horizontal violence: A conundrum for nursing,” Collegian: Journal of the Royal College of Nursing, Australia 2 (April 1995) 5-9.
  2. Roberts, S.J. “Oppressed group behavior: Implications for nursing,” Advances in Nursing Science 5 (July 1983) 21-30.
  3. Guanxi loosely translates to the word “relationship” but with a far greater and richer meaning.

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