In­side China’s cul­ture of teacher bribery

An Amer­i­can par­ent in China is pres­sured to bribe her child’s teacher — or suf­fer the con­se­quences

New York Post - - OPINIONS & IDEAS - LENORA CHU Lenora Chu’s first book, “Lit­tle Sol­diers: An Amer­i­can Boy, a Chi­nese School, and the Global Race to Achieve” (HarperCollins), is out Tues­day.

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.

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