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 my new world. “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 parent-teacher 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.
Gifting has long wielded immense power in Chinese society.
“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 front-row 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 New Year.
Within a few months, you hear jobs are the newest present and that Mei’s father…