Anyone familiar with the Richard Pryor film, The Toy, will recognize the status in which foreign English teachers are held in China.
During my morning breaks at the Foreign Langauge Kindergarten in Yichang, I used to visit the Canon store. There I would look at the lenses I couldn't afford and consider switching to a mirrorless camera. I made friends with one of the sales reps who worked there. I was considering renting a lens for a trip I was planning. Once I learned that I had to put down a deposit for the full price of the lens, I saw a potential con and backed out. One day the sales rep asked if she could give my phone number to her boss. i said that it was no problem. The next day he called me and invited me to dinner. I told him I was off on Mondays but this coming Monday I was busy. Every other day of the week I had to work during normal dinner hours and so the best day to schedule something was on a Monday. He told me that would be ok and I looked forward to hearing back from him.
That Monday around 5PM, I got a telephone call. I was instructed by him to meet in front of the Canon Store at 5:30 where he was going to come pick me up for dinner. I told him that I simply couldn’t. I had something else to do. Reminding him of our conversation came to no avail. I finally relented and told him that I could meet him but it had to be a little later as I had not expected to hear from him so soon after our initial conversation. But when I asked him where the restaurant was, be began acting coyly. We were speaking in Chinese and so there was no language problem to be had and I was very familar with the town and so there was no good reason why he simply couldn’t just tell me the name of the restaurant so that I could go there by myself. But he was adamant, refusing to give me the directions. I simply had to rendezvous with him at the Canon store.
As a man unaccustomed to people telling him no, he became flustered. Hanging up on him sent him in panic mode where he would call me again and again. He stubbornly refused to take my “no” for an answer. I stubbornly refused to submit to his demands. Refusing to pick up his call didn’t help. Not wanting to be treated this way, I decided that there was way I was going to meet this asshole. Beyond wanting to make a point, I sort of wondered what could possibly be so important about tonight that I had to meet him at some undisclosed location?
By 6:30 I decided to answer his call to finish him for good. Rules of Chinese decorum have no limits on harrassment. Harrassment is a sign of caring, friendship, and earnestness. On the other end, refusing an invitation is a sign of manners. And so this man was clearly understanding my refusal of his “gracious offer” as a sign of my not wanting to look greedy. We were clearly misunderstanding each other and the only way to solve this misundertanding would be to go along with whaever he wanted to do as to avoid conflict. But I was not afraid of conflict as I have no interest in a future relationship with him. This lack of fear took him to the edge.
When I gave him no options he finally threatened—and I will never forget this—“But my son will be disappointed!”
I like to think that at that point, I told him to just go fuck off but I probably let this revelation of the real purpose for the meeting sink in and let the silence hang for a moment before I hung up up on him.
He didn’t ring back.
Any foreigner who works in China long enough will find themselves in a similar situation. For the first couple of years such a situation might be welcomed and you might find it to be a pleasant surprise to be invited to a dinner only to realize that you have been selected to tutor some random person’s son. Over time you might become increasingly annoyed at this ambush style of making agreements. The host is hoping that you would be more embarrassed to say no than to go along with the situation. They are hoping that you are more concerned with being cut off from a relationship than you are with being pained, inconvenienced or worse.
But this kind of relationship is hallow and completely dependant on the whims of a 10 year old child and so you had better believe that no matter how diplomtic you are or how well you want to make a situation work, you are one new toy away from being forgotten about.
I am not suggesting to always reject invitations. There are Saturday lunches of dumplings to be had. There are concert tickets to acquire. There are VIP events to attend. There are even trips to be taken on. Most certainly you will never have to buy green tea ever again as some of the finest tea will be re-gifted to you. Such arrangements do occasionaly come with access to sides of society that otherwise you would be shut out of. Sometimes it feels worth it. Othertimes it doesn’t. Taking shots of Hennessy XO while eating shark fin soup is a rare but special occasion. By the way shark fin is tasteless and gelatinous and cooked in chicken broth. Cognac is not best enjoyed as shots throughout a meal.
As an avid photographer, a trip to the countryside is something more than just a consolation. I got to expeience life as a second string foreign-toy for a little empress. The previous year I was invited to a concert and got a great seat. The following year I got to go along with the family with the new foreign teacher who obviously was the new toy. The new teacher was not at all excited about going along as she didn’t speak any Chinese. Angel didn’t have great English but her parents didn’t know the difference. Her English was better than most of her classmates and she knew it. She knew what the bare minimum of work was so that she appeared to be outstanding. She did that. She could talk about basic things which made her look like a genius among her classmates. But once a teacher started introducing new words she became cranky and performed low. She couldn’t be motivated to learn anything and why would she, she lived in a little castle and had a life much more privlidged than anyone she knew. Sure she was in a gulided cage but she had no interest in exchanging that for the options she could imagine. And of all her many blessings in life, she was not blessed with much of an imagination. She quickly bored of what she had as so to others she seemed quite boing.
There is no way that I could have kept her entertained for very long as so I was not offended when she exchanged me for a younger prettier teacher. Still I got to accompany them on a trip to the countryside.
After all of the years in China, I never got tired of seeing the countryside. The infrequent trips to a farm or hillside, were some of my favorite days. Never able to escape the grey skies which school children would insist were blue, the decomposed vegetables hidden in the tall grass were welcome sights to see compared to some of the things I would see that were still fresh in the city streets.