The 7 Year Laowai: Part 7 – Safety

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Distraction Free

I had an English class once where this girl interrupted me to ask what I thought of Japan, and without waiting for an answer, proceeded to tell me that Japan had killed many Chinese people, that they hated China, they were jealous of China. Then she went into Korea. Korea “stole our culture”. You’d think imitation the sincerest form of flattery, but not this girl.

I didn’t know what to say. On one hand, listening to this recorded message, it dawned on me that I was 12,000 miles away from everyone and everything I had ever known…and that according to some people, this, this, blind allegiance, blatant censorship, and self-checking all in the name of “harmony”…this is the next superpower.

On the other hand, she was speaking. I take what I can get.

Be sure to start at the beginning with “The 7-Year Laowai: Part 1 – Introduction“, or see all posts in the series here.

I had an English class once where this girl interrupted me to ask what I thought of Japan, and without waiting for an answer, proceeded to tell me that Japan had killed many Chinese people, that they hated China, they were jealous of China. Then she went into Korea. Korea “stole our culture”. You’d think imitation the sincerest form of flattery, but not this girl.

I didn’t know what to say. On one hand, listening to this recorded message, it dawned on me that I was 12,000 miles away from everyone and everything I had ever known…and that according to some people, this, this, blind allegiance, blatant censorship, and self-checking all in the name of “harmony”…this is the next superpower.

On the other hand, she was speaking. I take what I can get.

While not typical of my students, thinking about Tom reminded me of her.

Of Nicole too.

I don’t know Nicole’s Chinese name, nor do I know exactly how her family was “powerful”, suffice to say that she had an aunt in our university’s administration. That despite having no Bachelor’s degree, she was enrolled as a postgraduate student…and that she did not particularly care for laowai.

Or anyone else for that matter.

When Keith wrote “…you can guess what happens next”, he refers to the harassment and subsequent vandalism carried out on Tom’s apartment by our school’s fenqing.

Like Matt, Keith saw fit to give Tom a special farewell. It began slowly at first. Keith started by telling some other teachers that he had read Tom’s blog, that it was “offensive” against China, and with no segue, went into what a “poor” teacher Tom was and how his contract would not be renewed.

Then it gained speed.

I was walking on the backstreet one evening when from behind me I heard a wheezy moan. I turned in time to see Keith rumbling up towards me.

“Did…you hear me calling your name? Where are you going?”

“Just to get some dinner,” I told him.

There was a silence lasting several seconds stretched to forever. I smiled and went up the street.

Keith followed.

We ended up in a Muslim noodle place.

Over dinner, Keith asked me if I had read Tom’s blog. I said ‘no’, although I had, and he told me what he’d told the other teachers, except this time with a little more tacked on.

“He just writes these things…his teaching’s just very ineffective,” Keith said. “We won’t be asking him back.”

I didn’t ask why his teaching was ineffective or how Keith knew that without sitting in on his class. I didn’t know, but what the hell, that made two of us…

Around contract renewal time, Tom got an email:

Subject: YOU

I have read all your disgusting blog articles. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. You have no one to blame for your own problems but you. You clearly do not fit teaching in China. I strongly suggest you resign, effective immediately. I am so disappointed in you.

I shared with the young man what I’d heard, and then got this bit of news:

They wanted Ashley back.

From what I gathered, Keith caught Ashley out alone one day and lassoed her into an early lunch. Over fried rice, Keith kicked things off by telling her that he had secured admission for Xia Yu’s daughter to Middle Tennessee State University. He had accomplished this feat with one simple email, sent to someone very powerful over there. What a coincidence too, as Xia Yu herself was awfully powerful, as was her husband…and of course, Keith knew all of them so well.

Keith also told her what he’d been saying about Tom. Wondered aloud why Tom was getting so angry, as Keith was “just trying to help”.

Because the office didn’t want him back.

Because “they” did not want Tom back, none of this “we” business anymore, and though Keith could do nothing for Tom…he could keep Ashley safe.

Ashley informed Tom. Liking China as they did, the two of them decided to apply for jobs elsewhere. They sent their resumes to some local universities.

Then Ashley got her own email from Keith, reprimanding her for sending her resume out after he had told her she was safe. Admonishing her for not “understanding” China.

I guess getting let down sucks at any age.

They did not tell Tom his contract wasn’t being renewed–he had to call. So he calls our FAO up, and she tells him…

“We cannot renew the contract. Your teaching is ineffective.”

Ineffective. Where on earth did she pick up that word? Ineffective.

Which raises the question, what exactly is effective teaching? Do they know what that is? How do they know his teaching is ineffective? I asked these questions–Tom asked these questions.

After the vandalism.

You see, Tom went to the office and complained about Keith. Xia Yu told him what he wanted to hear, then relayed the information back to her fat, wrinkly, running dog. And Keith?

Nicole was one of Keith’s students. Tom had posted Keith’s email on his blog, mocking it…and Nicole, she “just found” Tom’s blog by googling Keith’s name…like she just found Tom’s “uncomplimentary” writing.

They vandalized the wall outside Tom’s apartment.

“Tom, you suck. Go to hell!” was splashed in black paint. “Jerk Ass”, on his door.

All over some writing, most of which they could barely understand? Warm. A racist attack? Getting warmer. Horrendous xenophobia, with an inferiority complex to match? Exactly! Don’t knock the Century of Humiliation. It gives your life direction, purpose. Miserable little emperors have so much time on their hands.

As do foreign teachers.

Keith sent Nicole the link to Tom’s blog and told his classes that Tom was writing “bad” things about China. This, several students readily admitted. Nicole, little nationalist, little racist Nicole, she organized the whole thing on the BBS. The school said they would investigate what happened, so of course they did not. Tom raised hell. But Tom…

He forced a meeting. With Xia Yu, our FAO, and Keith. It was like forcing a meeting with the principal and his son, when the son had beaten you up…and the principal had helped him. In the meeting, Keith started wagging his finger at Tom, accusing him of writing “bad” things about China. When it came to Keith’s email, why, he was “just expressing” his “disappointment” with Tom. As for the blogs, why, Keith never mentioned them in class. He “just replied” to the “many emails” he’d received about what TOM posted on HIS BLOG about Keith. You know, the blog, where Tom had written such “bad” things about China.

Later, Keith simplified the story: Tom wrote bad things about China, the students googled him, found it…and you can just guess what happens next. Poor Keith just can’t understand why Tom keeps blaming him. As Keith put it, “It’s so typical of a young American. He made all kinds of problems for himself and by himself – leading to nasty comments posted outside his apartment by some irate students.”

And would you know it, right after this, Keith caught Ashley outside, and said they wouldn’t be renewing her contract after all. “They say you’re mean to your students,” Keith told her.

So what was Tom to do now? What could he do? Who could he turn to? No one is here to help foreign teachers in China…but I couldn’t tell the kid this.

Keith “recruited” through university career services email lists in America. So I told Tom his best bet would be to email the career services Keith had recruited him through and file a formal complaint. Include pictures, write everything you can remember. I told him all this, keeping my suspicions to myself, and Tom did it. He wrote a lengthy, professional email, detailing what happened, Keith’s behavior, how it represented a threat to the teachers he’s supposed to be “helping” in this very foreign country. Tom even mused on what would’ve happened if he or Ashley had been hurt. It was long. It was professional.

It was cathartic.

And that’s all it ended up being. They sent Tom back an email saying they would “keep it on file”. That was it. Tom and Ashley are in Shanghai now, Ashley interning somewhere, while Tom’s doing a Master’s degree in Chinese.

As for Keith, well, he got to recruit “twenty” new teachers, “real” teachers as he called them. Not young Americans who just don’t know how to teach, who just don’t belong here.

Fortunately, I missed this particular extravaganza.

DISCLAIMER: While drawn from real life, this post is fiction.

Talk on The 7 Year Laowai: Part 7 – Safety


11 Comments
  1. I’m sorry to read this… As a Chinese,I wish everyone could be happy in China.
    Undeniable, lot of people are too “sensitive”, they can’t/won’t tolerate any different opinion or criticism. It may be caused by complex historical and cultural factors. They just have no idea how to act themselves in this new age which they haven’t got used to yet.
    On the other hand, there are a lot of good people in China too, they are trying hard to learn English and other foreign cutures and values.
    Sorry for my poor English, I just want to say, don’t be disappointed at the entire China.
    Best Regards.

  2. This is awful, but I agree with Masa, I don’t think everybody in China is like this. I also teach English in China, and have been at the same university for several years. I don’t know why Tom’s students had such a bad reaction, but I’ve said things in class that I think are probably much more provocative, and I’ve never seen any negative backlash from it. Maybe it’s because my students know that I hold China in such high regard, maybe it’s because they know they can challenge my opinion in class, that if they truly feel offended they can bring this up to me face-to-face. I make sure that we discuss such problems thoroughly, I make sure they know that, sometimes, I’m only saying things I know will provoke a reaction because, with some of them, that’s the only way they’ll get up and speak out in class. I actually love it when a student stands up, points at me, and says, “Teacher, you’re wrong!” They will always have an opinion to express behind that. Maybe my students take everything I say with a grain of salt–they know I didn’t come here to start a revolution or to denounce the Party. Any discussions with more sensitive issues happen after or outside of class. My students know they are always welcome to disagree with me. My first year here there were a couple of moments that I was a bit worried that some student would get the wrong idea and report something I said in a skewed way, but nothing has ever happened as such. I am even careful, after I say something I think might be misconstrued, to discuss with class and ask if anybody felt offended. If they are, they tell me. I’m by no means saying that my method is superior, because it may bite me in the ass in the future. I may say just the wrong thing and get myself into trouble that I can’t talk my way out of. Until then, I’ll keep a fairly open class discussion, because if my students don’t feel completely free to express their opinions, maybe they won’t talk at all.

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      I think it’s completely a roll of the dice. While it’s been a few years now since I was in the ESL game, when I first came to China I came on the ESL ticket and was specifically hired at a school that needed a teacher because the last one had absentmindedly made an off-handed suggestion that a certain island was a “country” and not a “province”. The entire episode was stupid, got totally blown out of proportion by some hyper-involved and hyper-patriotic parents and when the news was called, the teacher had to leave the school. So, while Tom’s story is a “fictional” account, it most definitely could happen. And in this case, I think the point of the story is to illustrate that the student’s actions were stoked by a vindictive and petty fellow laowai teacher.

      You’re right though, this is certainly not the norm in schools.

      • Ah ah, okay, I didn’t realize it was a fictional account. I haven’t been on this site or any blog site for awhile, so I completely missed the whole point of the 7-year laowai thing I guess. I also missed that Keith was another laowai teacher, I thought that was the English name of a Chinese guy in the department. I really need to stop responding to these things when I first wake up hungover… :P

        You are right, however, in that this situation is completely plausible. A friend of mine taught at a school in Heilongjiang a few years back and made a distinction of sizes– look, China is big, Taiwan is small–and lost his job over that.

        Gossip surely is a big part of it all, and I don’t mean guanxi. I mean, rumors being passed around that change the story however people see fit to mischaracterize a laowai. You may have heard about the foreign student that was killed by a Chinese student last week. What happened was, the post-grad law student snuck into the foreign students’ dorm, knocked on random doors until somebody opened up. The unfortunate kid that opened, to see who it was, was stabbed to death. The gossip that spread among the students said that the foreign student had actually drugged and raped the killer’s girlfriend. A bunch of students went on RenRen (the Chinese facebook clone) and tried to get a petition signed to release the killer from jail. They said something like “if you arrest the Chinese student, that means you treat foreigners like they are gods.” I have had quite a few Chinese students since who want to challenge me, simply because I am a foreigner. It doesn’t matter that the victim was from Bangladesh and I’m from the US. They are angry that a Chinese student couldn’t kill a foreigner with impunity and want more blood. Just yesterday, however, the University released a public statement indicating that, through a careful and in-depth investigation, they discovered that, not only had the killer and victim not known each other, but the killer did not have a girlfriend to be drugged or raped. Unfortunately, many students won’t accept this, and insist that the school is lying. I expect there will be quite a bit of backlash. As long as China doesn’t lose face, I guess.

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          That’s insane. I’ve not caught this in the news at all, though I’ve not been paying much attention due to the glut of “Hu Visits the US” headlines. Has it hit any major news outlets?

          Re: the 7 Year Laowai — from what I gather from the author (and Travis please feel free to chime in and correct me) it’s stylized fictionally, and the names are changed, etc. etc. — but the events largely happened. But yeah, Keith is a “character” introduced in the last segment I believe.

          New (and final) segment out this week.

  3. Ryan–yeah, I’ve seen it on CCTV and a Shaanxi tv station. Apparently, though, people have heard about it as far away as Beijing. It happened at Yangling Northwest A&F University–杨凌西北农林科技大学. I have friends that are foreign students in the same dorm and they have been scared shitless for the past week.

      • Yes, this is the discussion I was talking about. It was originally posted on Renren, as I said. I can tell you personally that this is a farce. I have met almost everybody in that picture and it’s not like they said. They picked this photo to make it look like the Chinese folk are humble in front of the arrogant foreigners. That wasn’t happening at all. Fact. There is great respect between both parties. The problem is that there is still a great deal of racism coming from the Chinese students.

        There’s so much racism in this discussion–“foreign devils should hold their tails between their legs when they’re in China.” “Law means nothing here.” This primitive, ignorant bullshit is what’s holding China back from doing anything serious on the international scale, holding them back from developing. This school is a prime example–many foreign schools are now refusing to send their students there and are likewise refusing to accept either students or teachers from Yangling. When will it stop?

  4. That is very, very scary, not least for the other int’ students at Yangling. I hope and pray that the nutters calling for more 洋人 blood on the internet are in a small minority. One wonders if it had been a white student from say USA or Europe, whether or not more would have been made about it in the press. I must admit I had not heard about it until Meng commented on it – then again I don’t read the Chinese press everyday.

  5. It is funny how there are so many stories on foreign teachers getting into trouble over Taiwan. although I support their right to free speech, I do wonder why they can’t just keep away from mentioning the issue. If a Chinese teacher came to the UK to teach Chinese and constantly made off-hand remarks about how Northern Ireland should be independent, it would probably not be well received, and everyone would wonder what right they had to comment on the matter. Having said that, they wouldn’t lose their job over it.

  6. Pingback: The Outdoors Poetry Exercise ~ Lost Laowai China Blog

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