Memoirs from a Decade in China


This writing is an excerpt from the book Dragons, Donkeys, and Dust: Memoirs from a decade in China, published by Bing Long Books (

By the late 1990s Chinese society at large had changed considerably but many institutions retained aspects of the Communist era, some of which continue today. One of the first shocks for the Canadian teachers was the week-long military training that the students suffered through at the beginning of each school year. Military “training” was really no more than marching drills practised outside under a scorching sun. Marching competitions are still held in the elementary schools. The Chinese teachers train the students to march in elaborate patterns, like the RCMP’s musical ride minus the horses and music. The kids even learn to kick out their legs, Soviet-style.

Author’s daughter leading her class marching. The sign reads: grade three, class three.

Another leftover in the schools is the Communist Youth League, which acts like a student council but without elections. I don’t mind the Youth League, but what really struck me as odd when I first arrived was the propaganda at school. I would have expected as much in public schools but my school was a private school, and to me it was a symbol of the transformation to a market-based, or capitalist, society.

Our school newspaper was a multi-edged tool that balanced Communist party propaganda and school promotion. I learned quickly that propaganda does not have a negative connotation in China as it does in the West. In fact, it is seen as a positive force in society. I recall the first sports day when teachers were encouraged to “join in the propaganda.” It all seemed a bit ironic when at that same sports meet the students were awarded stars and stripes Budweiser hats as prizes. The speeches suggested we must “Love the Motherland” while the prizes promoted youth drinking American beer.

From a teacher’s perspective there is one absolutely fantastic aspect of working in China and that is the students. When I entered the classroom, the class monitor yelled out a military command and the whole class rose to attention and called out in unison “Good morning teacher!” We also had to train the kids to stop calling us “teacher” and refer to us by name. This habit came from their Chinese schooling where teachers were simply referred to as lao shi. If a name was used Mr. Wang became Wang lao shi—Teacher Wang.

The kids treated their Canadian teachers with so much respect. We seemed to represent their future dreams and aspirations but unfortunately they didn’t always show their Chinese teachers the same respect. Walking the halls past classrooms when Chinese classes were in session students could be seen slumped over asleep on their desks while the teacher carried on with their lecture.

I have a great deal of respect for many of my Chinese colleagues. They work exceptionally long hours compared to their foreign counterparts but don’t teach nearly as much. There is a lot of downtime and sleeping on desks but they are frequently expected to go well beyond the normal call of duty for a teacher. For the lack of respect from students, the long days and the superficial curriculum that many of them are stuck teaching, they are rewarded with pay about one fifth that of the Canadian teachers they share office space with and face salary garnishment for all sorts of things. This is surely unlawful in a so-called Socialist state but the dictatorship of the proletariat doesn’t require, or allow, unions, so there is little that can be done except to quit.

The discrepancy between the treatment and pay of the Canadian and Chinese staff often causes Canadians to feel very upset. There are always those Canadians who want to “do something” for their Chinese colleagues and friends but in the end little can be done. I have learned that the system, indeed the culture, can not be changed overnight and certainly not by a single or several foreigners working in a school. We too are expendable.

Indeed, I was nearly fired at the end of my first year in China. Relations with our Chinese boss were strained when he upset us over two major issues. We were told we would all be forced to move apartments even though we had been moved forcibly just five months earlier and promised we would not have to move again. And then, only after being prompted by her direct question, he told the Chinese wife of our Canadian colleague that she was being let go for no reason. I couldn’t believe my ears and when I looked around the room everyone had hung their heads, embarrassed and not sure how to react. I reacted strongly and said, “this is a slap in the face.”

The next morning my Canadian boss came in, slammed his huge fist down on my desk and bellowed “don’t you ever speak to the boss like that again!” Thankfully, my principal had gone to bat for me, convincing the Chinese boss not to fire me, which he evidently wanted to do for challenging him like that in front of the other staff. I learned a lesson and checked my emotions much better after that. Strangely enough, just two years later when the Canadian administration was returning to Canada I was promoted to vice-principal. I heard the news from a Chinese teacher who greeted me on my return from summer holidays with, “congratulations!”

“For what?” I asked.

“You are the new vice-principal!”

I pranced around campus for the next half hour, elated at my promotion. I was only 28 years old and truth be told, wasn’t qualified for the job but in China it is often a case of “big fish in a small pond” so I accepted the news at face value. But when I arrived at my first Canadian staff meeting—by then we had grown from five to about 35 teachers—I heard the new principal say that they were trying to hire a vice-principal from Canada. And just like that I was demoted. To keep me happy the new Canadian principal threw me a bone: I was appointed Academic Dean.

Most of the time, relations with our Chinese colleagues were good but occasionally things got weird. On one occasion a very persistent and demanding Chinese colleague who had got a bit power hungry came with another last-minute demand. I got upset and with a raised voice said something along the lines of “how many times do I need to tell you that you can’t treat the Canadian teachers like this?” We had just gone through the same thing a week or two earlier. When he responded with “Oh, it’s just a misunderstanding,” I snapped.

“Misunderstanding?! That’s what you Chinese always say. That’s a lame cop-out and a piece of crap!”

The poor fellow had lost face. This interaction took place in our office with several Chinese staff members present. I was wrong to lash out, but I had been pushed too far. The next day I received a typed letter in my mailbox. The best line read:

You hurt my feelings and insulted the whole Chinese nation when you called us a piece of crab.


Rudy Kong
Rudy Kong is a penname for the author of Dragons, Donkeys, and Dust: Memoirs from a decade in China who has recently returned to Canada after twelve years teaching BC curriculum social studies and geography at BC’s first offshore school in Dalian, China. Dragons, Donkeys, and Dust: Memoirs from a decade in China is a book about his experiences in China raising a family, playing hockey, driving, and many other features of life there, including teaching.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Mar/Apr 2011 issue.

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