Each day this week I’m posting a different story from the university I taught at in China; which I often felt was a kind of microcosm of the country as a whole. It’s hard to say to what extent the communist system has shaped Chinese culture from the top-down and what pre-existing Chinese values lent to the rise of authoritarianism from the bottom. I feel these stories each demonstrate a trend in Chinese culture that can be felt at many different levels. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether it’s politics, imbedded values or something else that enabled these stories.
Part 2: The Bitch
While I was teaching class one day a student received a text and announced what it said. Everyone let out a collective sigh of exasperation. Their “instructor” was supposed to come to our building to conduct a meeting with them but she decided she didn’t feel like walking there. So all 120 of the students would need to walk to where she was on the other side of campus. “What a bitch,” I said when someone told me this. Amused by the prospect of referring to the instructor as an English obscenity she couldn’t understand, the name stuck amongst the students.
Chinese universities tend to have much more structure and stricter rules than their western counterparts. This is perhaps best demonstrated in the existence of this “instructor” who doesn’t actually teach any subject, but is more of a counselor and nanny responsible for students’ lives (called Fu dao yuan in Chinese). Usually there’s a few for each department who have a multitude of responsibilities meant to help students and keep them in line.
However, “the bitch” demonstrated that these responsibilities are highly theoretical. Part of her job was to regularly organize activities and field trips. But she simply chose to falsify documents at the end of each semester showing that she did this and submit them to her bosses. And by “she falsified” I mean she made her student assistant do it.
Part of her job was also to help students find jobs; unless they opted for grad school. So she held a meeting convincing them all grad school was the smart choice. But later the school offered her a cash incentive for each student who signed an employment contract before graduation. So she held another meeting saying a master’s degree is becoming useless and they should all just get jobs. When one student said she planned to study at home for a year, the bitch tried convincing her to use family connections to get a job and then just quit later.
During her junior year, one girl decided to move out of her dorm – something explicitly allowed by the university. She just had to have the bitch sign off on it as a formality. But the bitch felt the girl wasn’t giving her the deference she deserved, so she refused to sign. The girl moved out anyways so the bitch called her parents, telling them that the girl was a bad student. These calls and regular checks of the girl’s dorm room continued until she brought the bitch a 200-yuan fruit basket and showered her with flowery compliments. In order to get permission to leave town or get the bitch to do anything for them, several students similarly said they needed to give her some kind of physical gift wrapped in flattery.
At the end of the year the students were to fill out an evaluation of all their instructors. The bitch told them ahead of time that her scores reflected on them as a department and that they should just put perfect marks all the way down.
As they filled out the forms she walked around conspicuously looking over students’ shoulders. Several arrived too late to fill it out after the bitch had told them the wrong time. They happened to be the students she’d had disputes with in the past.
One girl told me this over dinner right after it happened.
“Don’t you think you should go to her boss and tell him this?” I asked.
“She has a lot of power over us,” the girl replied. “If someone complains about her she’d make their life hell and might stop them from graduating.”
“Just send a note anonymously,” I said. “Or have a friend in another department do it for you.”
“She’d just take it out on all of us if we did that,” said the student. “It’ll just bring trouble for no reason. We’ll graduate soon and won’t have to worry about her anyways. ”
“Then why not tell her bosses after graduation?” I asked. “Don’t you want to see her get fired?”
“Impossible,” said the student. “They’d never fire her. Her job is protected.”
“Jesus,” I said. “Well I think you should do something. If you tell her bosses they at least might be stricter with her so she’s not so terrible to the younger students.”
The girl gave a gentle scoff, closed her eyes for a moment and then looked at me with a resigned smile – as if I were a naïve child not yet old enough to understand the world. “There’s just no point,” she said.