Mismanagement & The Peking Opera: Part 1

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I have never before worked for people who seem to be at such odds with their own good. It’s an interesting thing to witness.

Were that I only a witness.

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Shanghai: Distant beauty, but up close?

Mismanagement. It’s become such a part of life that it gets lumped in with all the other bits that don’t make sense: The whole “T.I.C.” or “This Is China” mantra that so many here repeat, its meaning simply that nothing here makes sense. I suppose if you walk around with that realization, then maybe nothing will surprise you, or you won’t get your hopes up. It’s a coping mechanism, and as a verbal shrug, I guess it works.

Anywhere that you go here, you’ll find something being mismanaged. And, like most places, the root of it can generally be boiled down to two things: money and stupidity. Money was the reason my school here tried to get out of paying for my visa costs, health care expenditures upon arrival (they run you through a dozen different tests to make sure you’re relatively healthy), and hotel stay during orientation and training. These things should be a given–you’re asking someone to uproot their lives and come across the ocean, deal with a tremendous amount of legal and medical rigamarole, to say nothing of the language barrier, and then you want them to pay for the experience?

They didn’t want to pay, but the contract left them with little room to maneuver. I suspect the unsteady ground of having a completely new cadre of foreign teachers also made them a little wary about any dustups. Nobody wants to look a complete fool in front of a new group of walking, talking ATMs–you and I might refer to them as “students”–especially here where the concept of face is everything.

China Construction Cranes
No room to maneuver

But it isn’t just the school, of course, that lets money get in the way of common sense. It’s a part of everything. Money could also be at the root of the traffic fuckery : The constant roadway construction that seems to accomplish nothing but shifting rubble from one side of the street to the other. Maybe it’s the reason why giant, empty cities have been constructed here with populations that are less than a third of those created during a sold out Razorback football game. Perhaps money is the reason so many sidewalks have been mangled, leaving open pits that have to be leapt, single file, along the sides of busy roads. It could be behind the lack of insulation in buildings. The locals seem content enough to wear four layers in their homes in the winter instead of relying on any R value whatsoever though, so maybe I shouldn’t judge. I suspect money might also play a role in why the air isn’t breathable, the water isn’t drinkable, and some of the food isn’t edible.

Money issues are easy enough to spot and deal with in a small setting (given that you have a halfway decent contract and you aren’t afraid of kicking up shit and/or finding a new gig). Stupidity though, unfortunately seems to have no cure nor method of treatment.

Stupidity, as you may have surmised, has been on my mind quite a bit recently. You see, at my school the stupidity generally comes in the form of assuming that because you know something, everyone does. My mother is fond of saying, “I’m not psychic.” As much as we may disagree on certain things, on the subject of our metaphysical abilities, we are in accord.

The scenario generally goes thusly: The school plans some event at which we, the foreign staff, are supposed to do something but fails to inform us of either the event or our something until we are unable to do what’s required or until it is extremely difficult for us to do so.

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Now, you would be forgiven for thinking, “But what good can come from not informing your foreign staff (the #1 reason students are actually paying $20,000 a year to attend) about events that are meant to be a boon to the school (enrollment, retention, and outreach opportunities)?” You would be right for thinking that an informed and well-prepared staff make a better impression on potential students, current students, their families, local faculty, and the community than an uninformed and unprepared one. But again, this is a war against common sense. This is China.

Peking Opera
By Hans Bernhard (Schnobby) (Own work)

In the past, these types of events have included parent/teacher conferences where the teachers were unaware of the conferences until the morning of. This meant that our choices were either (a) disregard any other plans we’d made and stay at the school until 8-9 pm or (b) not attend and then look bad in front of the parents (who would not be informed that we weren’t informed). We’ve also had holiday events where we were told to prepare a traditional meal from our home countries. A difficult enough task for some of us without hamstringing us by (a) living in a country where most apartments aren’t furnished with ovens and (b) not informing us of the need to prepare something until the night before. There have been inspections that they knew about for months but for which we were informed the morning of. We’ve been told to change lessons at the last minute to look better for inspectors/visitors — visitors who’d booked airline tickets months in advance. Leave alone the fact that changing lessons at the last minute doesn’t actually accomplish the goal of looking better.

But the latest incident goes beyond merely looking bad for some parents or a couple of inspectors and instead begins to border on the type of idiocy generally reserved for Dr. Oz, “Jackass”, or the G.O.P. — that is, idiocy on a grand scale.

I’ll leave you with this question and a tease/hamfisted reference to the title for part 2: Who has 2 thumbs, 8 foreign colleagues, and only a week to prepare to do this in front of 5,000+ people?

*gulp*

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James Wilson is a writer and educator from Little Rock, Arkansas. He is currently working as a literature teacher in an international high school in Shanghai. His previous international travel has taken him across Europe and parts of Asia, including Korea where he cut his teeth teaching English as a Second Language. He sometimes tweets from @TatumSmash.