Inside China’s culture of teacher bribery
An American parent in China is pressured to bribe her child’s teacher — or suffer the consequences
MY son’s teacher had a proposition one morning, except I didn’t immediately recognize the offer behind the words. I’m an American in China, raising a little boy inside China’s state-run school system, and I was always slow on the uptake in mynewworld. “How’s Rainey doing with recorder play?” asked Teacher Song, the master teacher of my son’s Shanghai kindergarten class.
It was odd, manipulative: Teacher Song and I both knew my son Rainey, then 4, hadn’t yet mastered rhythm. Teacher Song continued. “When I pay attention to Rainey, he plays certain notes. He’s not bad when he concentrates,” she said, as she suddenly glanced behind me, as if to confirm the hallway was empty.
“Would you like me to spend some extra time with him?” she queried, searching my face.
“Oh!” Immediately, I understood. It was cultural code: “Extra time” meant a teacher’s attention for a little cash. It was an invitation to step into China’s education grey zone, an illicit world of gifting for favors, gifting for a teacher’s attention, gifting for grades. Once you pass through, you cannot easily turn back. The parentteacher relationship is forever altered. I had a decision to make. Gifting has long wielded immense power in Chinese society. This quality, coupled with China’s runaway consumer culture, has made a greasing of the palms in relationships important to you, a part of everyday life.
Because, in China, education is so important to life prospects — fail a test called the gaokao and a kid won’t go on to a regular college — there’s no more imposing figure than your child’s teacher.
“Louis Vuitton, Prada, L’Occitane, Clinique, Godiva,” one Chinese parent told me, ticking off the Western luxury items she liked to bestow on her daughter’s master teacher.
Gifting inside a schoolchild’s journey might start innocuously, like a pineapple cake to a principal or teacher, which he or she graciously accepts. It’s just a token of appreciation, yet, a microscopic line has been crossed. Then, you hear that Nong Nong’s mother delivered cash in a red envelope, and shortly thereafter you notice the boy got a frontrow seat in math class. (Your boy sits in back, where it’s harder to hear.) Soon, you find yourself shopping for Tory Burch for a teacher gift at Chinese NewYear.
Within a few months, you hear jobs are the newest present and that Mei’s father secured an internship at his pharmaceutical company for the school principal’s collegeage niece.
The desire to gain an advantage, any advantage, settles deep into the pit of the stomach. What started out as a pineapple cake has suddenly become, “I just gave you stacks of bills for outside-tutoring — What will this do for my daughter?” The system favors well-funded parents, whose children might be granted a fast pass onto the highway of individual attention and opportunity. A girl I’ll call Amanda suffered because her parents didn’t play the game. Always the best student, she nevertheless found herself a subject of her primary school teacher’s constant rage. Not once was she selected for class leadership. “We never paid,” Amanda told me, eyes lowered. “Later, did your parents regret not participating? Not playing the game?” I asked. Amanda stared into her coffee and nodded once. My Chinese friend Lauren, a migrant worker in Shanghai, also fell victim to such schemes: Her son’s teachers wanted money for school newspapers that should be free; fees for books that weren’t on the syllabus; cash for classes by homeroom teachers who conveniently de- clared the sessions “mandatory.”
Watching this swirling hot pot of grey money, I found that one word kept whistling in my brain: fubai — corrupt. Over time, I landed upon a simpler truth, one less judgmental and more reflective of China today: Roughly half of Chinese teenagers fail the exam to enter a regular high school. The rules are so rigid and hierarchical, and the education game so zero-sum, that to survive the Chinese had become accustomed to seeking a work-around.
It wasanational gameofKeepingUp with the Wangs, and survival sometimes requires every tool in the kit.
It’s a stretch to say that every Chinese parent gives gifts, or even that most teachers accept them, but the practice is enough of an issue that the education ministry announced a blanket ban on teachers accepting gifts in 2014. Nor could they, the ministry said, offer tutoring services for hire. Yet, the stakes of the game remain, and so the grey areas continue to throb and thrive, fed by the players trapped within its margins. (Also, teacher salaries are relatively low, and earning extra income can be critical to keeping afloat in modern China.)
Ultimately, my husband and I passed up on Teacher Song’s offer.
“A small gift of appreciation is OK,” I said, thinking of pineapple cakes for the teacher, “but to pay our son’s teacher for outside lessons is something else entirely.”
“Let’s do recorder practice ourselves,” my husband concluded.
We sat together for a minute, contemplating our commitment. Teacher Song was skilled at the recorder, which the Chinese consider an early bellwether of musical talent. A longtime piano player, I find recorder sheet music inscrutable. And my husband had spent his adolescence playing air guitar to Led Zeppelin. It would have been far easier to accept Teacher Song’s time.
Pay up, if you want your child to get ahead in China’s school system.