Note: This is a real account of my time in China. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me
Also published at MatadorNetwork.com
It’s easier to get an English teaching job in the far Eastern world superpower than it is to get a interview to flip burgers at your local McDonald’s. All you need is a bog standard degree from any university and you’re set. Even a Level 2 plumbing NVQ certificate from your community college would probably suffice; the Chinese aren’t really overly bothered. They only want a pretty western face to parade around the school in order to please parents who pay lots of Yuan for their kids’ English education. None of the TEFL qualifications that so many teachers/would-be travelers pay copious amounts for is actually needed in most of China.
Thus the idea of a guaranteed job in a far away foreign land of chopsticks, dragons and long walls spoke volumes to me after graduation. Without having to speak the language or enroll on any type of pre-course, it seemed like an opportunity too good to turn down. Working in a kindergarten, teaching little kids the alphabet whilst experiencing a full Chinese cultural immersion – it sounded like a breeze.
But that was the problem, it was too easy. I spent most of my 10 hour days being a spare part, thinking about all the time I was wasting when I could be traveling, exploring and learning how to speak the langugage. The initial novelty quickly wore off as I became bored with the long hours and lack of actual teaching. It seemed my main task was to perform daily Butlins Redcoat style dance routines that the poor Chinese children are subjected to every morning. had to lead over 100 kids in the school yard every morning, doing some kind of sadist routine which was a hybrid of the Macarena, the Hokey Cockey and skanking out to dubstep.
I didn’t recall signing up for Strictly Come Dancing Asia, I mean fair enough I do like the occasional fist pump, but the strange routines just became way too much. Within 3 weeks I’d had enough of the dancing life and boredom of sitting around as a spare part in the kindergarten. Life in the 10 million person strong city of Wuhan soon became a chore, I needed something more interesting. I applied for dozens of other jobs throughout China in different institutions – universities, teaching centers and high schools. None of the potential jobs really excited me that much until I came across an interesting ad for a tutoring role in a neighboring province. Surprisingly, it offered half the working hours of my current kindergarten yet double wage, just to privately tutor two young kids. Oh yeah, along with a free apartment and all bills paid for. Did I mention the personal chauffer too?
This job seemed totally unique, I daydreamed about the possibilities of such a luxurious life but soon came to the harsh conclusion that it was way out of my league since I’d had no real prior teaching experience and didn’t speak a word of Chinese. Still, I thought it was worth a shot as I was due to be kicked out of my flat in Wuhan for departing the kindergarten. I was within hours of booking a flight home to surrender to the ultimate foe of a nine till five graduate job, when, to my amazement, I received a response from the dream job. They seemed really keen to speak further. A Skype interview was arranged for the next day, I was overjoyed but slightly worried as one of the prerequisites for the job had been a “London accent”, something we Yorkshire folk surprisingly lack
I frantically rehearsed my Danny Dyer impression over and over again, don’t judge me, he just springs to mind as the “go to” Cockney accent. Astonishingly, when it came to the interview, they didn’t pick up on my broad Yorkshire undertones as I rambled on about teaching techniques that I’d Googled an hour before. They seemed very impressed and by some kind of miracle I’d managed to wrangle a dream job out of the dying embers of my China adventure. Tutoring two young children in their parent’s house for two hours a day and a lot of money, absolute piece of piss I thought to myself. – hit the jackpot here, pat yourself on the back “my san”. Praise be to Danny Dyer and his band of merry cockneys; watching The Football Factory so many times as a kid had finally paid off.
Transport would be sent to Wuhan the next day to collect me for the 7 hour journey down to Hunan province, I’d been expecting a laborious train journey down but these guys were more than happy to pick me up. I said my goodbyes to everyone in Wuhan and before I knew it I was on my way to take up this obscure role as a private tutor for quite an absurdly high amount of money. I already had my eyes set on a new Iphone and a snazzy camera.
Upon arriving in Hunan I was confused as we drove straight into a large gated industrial complex which was surprisingly protected by camouflaged guards. I was a little alarmed but shrugged it off, you know, its China isn’t it? They like building gates, walls and shit. For all I knew there could’ve been some pesky Mongolians lurking about those parts.
But when we drove further into what seemingly felt like a fortress, it dawned on me that that I was just slightly out of my depth. The driver told me that the children’s father, or the ‘Big Boss’ as they call him, owned this entire enormous complex. Within his grounds I was told he had a private zoo, restaurant, hotel, lake, football fields, a huge car garage and round the clock security patrolling the perimeter.
Initially I was pretty overwhelmed and confused as to why on earth had he employed me? This Big Boss fella must have a lot of money to invest his children’s education, yet here I am, the newbie teacher who couldn’t speak the slightest Chinese. Surely he could’ve found a more suitable candidate?
During my briefing I learned that his kids were due to be sent to Harrow, a renowned upper class public school in London, where the likes of Winston Churchill attended. This was contrary to my preconception that I’d be helping out here and there teaching the children of a well off middle class family. Instead I was tasked with prepping the likes of the Chinese Richie Rich for his future at one of Britain’s most elite education institutions. Just a little bit of pressure then?
I soon had the pleasure of meeting the infamous Big Boss, we were lavishly wined and dined in one of his immaculately furnished buildings. My common as muck working class eyes had never set upon anything like it. Huge oriental paintings adorned the walls with sculptures and other kind of artifacts that I don’t even know how to describe making up the rest of the decor. This was wealth on such a ridiculous scale; I felt that I was among royalty. It gradually became clear that he had easily amassed a greater volume of money than most people could save in 100 lifetimes in China.
Strangely, I could sense an air of tension in the room even before I’d even taken my seat at the dinner table. There I sat in silence, looking pretty gormless in my tattered travel worn t-shirt alongside the bunch of smartly suited up managers. The Big Boss sat at the helm of the table, next to a translator who was there for my sake. Whilst tucking into my hot pot it suddenly became incredibly difficult to handle my chopsticks in a room with such an unnerving and serious atmosphere. It seemed as if nobody was allowed to speak unless the boss spoke to them. I just kept on wanting to crack a joke to lighten the mood but I wasn’t too sure everyone would appreciate the one about a man from China who wasn’t a very good climber.
The managers, who were spread round the table, quietly ate their food until Boss decided to address them. At that moment they would have to drop their chopsticks at once, stand up to attention a break neck speed and bow their heads whilst solemnly listening to his every word. It was much akin to a mischievous child getting a good telling off from their angry father, however these were meant to be grown men; managers in his company for that matter. Yet in the presence of the Boss they were all degraded to a seriously low level of servitude.
These men weren’t even allowed to drink their wine unless the Boss was drinking at the same time, or toasting them with his very own special glass that was thrice the size as everyone else’s. It somewhat resembled the fancy chalice the greedy Nazi chooses in the closing scene of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.
I couldn’t decide whether I approved of this culture of endless and sometimes irrational respect that the Chinese seemed to advocate towards people who have amassed enormous wealth. Obviously it was really interesting to observe, but I couldn’t help thinking how much it echoes the mindless obedience and subordination of one’s self, somewhat reminiscent to the way in which so many people are duped into holding a hereditary monarch, dictator or even Justin Bieber in such high esteem. Already I could see that the Boss similarly commanded his own strong cult of personality within his realm.
I snapped out of your typical everyday philosophical analysis of contemporary hierarchical structures in society and carried on drinking more and more of the limited edition 30 year old fine French wine. Eventually, after shouting at the managers, the Boss turned to a very drunk me and started to lecture via the interpreter.
I was pretty pissed but I remember him stressing how my loyalty, dedication and character would all be rewarded in due course. He told me I was part of his family as well as his friend, assuring me that he would look after me accordingly whilst promising a bright future. I just smiled and nodded like the Churchill Dog as my eyes became heavier and heavier with each glass of wine I was forced to neck as he ended every sentence with a toast.
These toasts varied between the potential benefits of working for him or to the fulfillment of my duty to teach his Oxford and Cambridge bound kids the highest standard of the Queen’s English. It made me chuckle, the kids were going to be learning the finest Yorkshire dialect and end up at Leeds Met if I had any say in the matter.
After the food he gestured to the door and I was ushered down a long corridor to see where all this wine had spawned from. I felt like I’d just walked into a little French winery, bottles upon bottles were shelved up in the exotically lit room. Apparently, according to the Boss, everyone from Europe was a seasoned wine connoisseur so I spent a lot of time pretending I knew which wines were prestigious by giving them a ridiculously pissed up nod of faux-enthusiastic approval. Little did he know that my knowledge of wine stopped dead at that familiar cheap student-friendly bottle of rose I used to buy from the corner shop before a night out.
A couple of days later (once I’d got over the wine hangover), I decided to Google the city I lived in along the name of Boss’s company. I was eager to learn more after being introduced to the all powerful father of my two students.
The first 3 results were posts on English Teaching forums from a guy called David. Apparently he was the teacher employed there before me. I was startled to see that he had posted several rants and stern warnings that no English teacher should take this job. He went on to describe the Boss as nothing more than a ‘mobster’ whose whole business is based on ‘corruption, expulsion, crime, murder and intimidation.
Adrenaline began soaring through my veins as I read David’s words. ‘Mobster’, ‘murder’, I didn’t really know how to react. Part of me was quite worried but I was so captivated by the prospect of working within such kind of an organization, was I working for the Chinese Mafia? I was pretty excited that I had the chance to pretend I was part of some sort of Mafia myself after spending nearly everyday of the summer watching the Sopranos box set start to finish. Just swap pizza for noodles and you’re nearly there.
I read these posts with a pinch of salt anyway as it was clear David had some issues with receiving his last pay from the company and I could sense the clear bitterness in his tone. I convinced myself he must’ve been exaggerating. It was clear that the Boss wanted to do things right this time, instead of going through the same problems which arose during David’s employment. Thus I was spoilt rotten – everyday for a week I was blind drunk whilst ‘teaching’ his kids. I was quickly drinking the contents of his wine cellar along with pretty much all the seafood that China had to offer.
I felt like a king, all the employees tendered to my every need and there was nothing else that I could really want. The teaching was incredibly easy – only 2 hours a day and really basic stuff. I quickly started to forget about the negative posts I’d read about the criminal element of the Boss’s business and doubted them as everybody seemed so nice. However during the next two months several events unfolded which really served to reinforce these accusations as fact.
Firstly, I had a driver who would take me to work, shopping or anywhere I really desired for that matter. He mysteriously disappeared without a trace one day. I asked my new Chinese assistant, who interestingly was a Mormon, what had happened to my driver. Mr Mormon looked at me worryingly and told me that I wouldn’t be seeing my driver again. Fair enough, I mean he did drive like a dickhead and always played Chinese EDM at an unbearable decibel level in the car, so I wasn’t overly bothered. I truly didn’t think there was anything overly sinister going on.
Mr. Mormon had studied in Australia for several years and was mostly a serious guy who hated the Chinese government and the way in which the country operates. Religion is frowned upon in China so it’s actually considered quite edgy to be a Christian. So I guess in his own right Mr. Mormon was a bit of a little rebellious holy hipster, ironic right?
One night we had dinner together and I decided I wanted to delve deeper into the goings on in China as a whole, along with the Boss’s business. Mr. Mormon glanced around the empty room, double checking there was nobody around. He then told me in a quiet nervous tone about the Tianamen Square Massacres decades ago, the deaths of thousands of students and how corrupt the Chinese government actually is. It sounded terrible, I knew about the student uprisings but it had totally been swept under the carpet in China and little is even known about what actually happened in the west.
Eventually he got onto the subject of the Boss himself, giving me his own perspective on the Boss’s business and lifestyle. – With huge compounds selling his product in nearly every Chinese province, the powerful Boss had a history in the military but now runs his own industrial company, employing thousands of people nationwide. With his father being a Major and high up in the communist party, the Boss was able to rise to such prestige through the omnipresent corruption that exists within Chinese society. He used each of his industrial compounds around the country as headquarters where he would run his illegal activities from, these included bribery, racketeering and extortion.
The structure of the organization was somewhat similar to the old Chinese feudal system, in this system the Boss acts as the almighty Emperor with everyone paying tribute to him. He ran his business militaristically, the staff were all ranked simulcast to that of an army, if workers didnt meet sale targets or are under-performing they were severely physically punished or humiliated by being disciplined publicly.
This guy was a God in his own little corrupt mini-state. Everything revolved around him. His brigade of servants tended to his every need and his foot soldiers carried out his dirty work. You had to be worthy to be in his presence – most employees never even saw the man. But if you happen to bump into him and speak when not spoken to or commit a trivial error, he would see to it that you are suitably punished.
As I was being told all this, I realized what Mr. Mormon meant when he said that I wouldn’t be seeing my driver again. Had it been my fault? I’d made a comment prior to the driver’s disappearance about how he had been late picking me up for class on a couple of occasions. This was the truth, I didn’t want me employers to look like it had been me slacking.
Maybe this was why I wouldn’t be seeing him again? It became clear why the Boss’s complex was surrounded by armed guards and I began to understand why grown men would quiver in his presence around the dinner table. At first it seemed so ridiculous to me that this rich businessman demanded so much respect and honor, but now it was absolutely clear that he was much, much more than that.
Apparently the police had probed and arrested the Boss before but when you’ve got a lot of cash in China the police aren’t a problem. When the boss was arrested for being part of a football betting scandal and for the death of a footballer, the charges which included blackmail, torture and burying somebody alive – all amounted to nothing. It’s worth mentioning that the Boss owned a couple of Football teams in China so game fixing wouldn’t have been too much of a problem for him. What I quickly came to understand is that there seemed to be two types of police in China, the ones who don’t care and the ones who can be bribed.
It also dawned on me that the Boss must’ve racked up a nice little tally of competitors, unruly workers and dissidents in his time. It was shocking to hear all this about a man who had been so nice and warmhearted to me personally and had left me wanting nothing. I began to feel quite anxious as I realized I was teaching the kids of such a powerful man who was responsible for terrible things.
The next few days were strange as I plodded along with all this information in the back of my mind. No longer could I smile, carry on and pretend everything was normal. Not even the copious amounts of wine at my disposal could really reverse what I’d been told. Then, a few days later, I experienced a brief glimpse of the Boss’s tyranny for myself.
An English speaking manager from the International Sales Team forgot to take me out for dinner. I wasn’t fussed. I didn’t even know he would be taking me out for dinner, whatever. However the Boss was more than bothered. According to Mr. Mormon, he was so bothered that he put the well respected manager in his private jail with scarce food and water provisions. Yeah, this was a new revelation, the Boss had his own jail. What the hell? Maybe I was just used as an excuse to punish the manager and he had in fact done something else to piss off the Boss? I kept on telling myself this must’ve been the case.
Surely the naughty step or a slap on the wrist could’ve sufficed for not taking me out to dinner. I felt really unnerved and guilty to be indirectly responsible for somebody suffering such misery. I really didn’t like it one bit and made Mr. Mormon send the manager a sympathy KFC bucket for when he finished doing his time in the Boss’s ‘big house’. I mean, what else could I do? Call in a SAS rescue mission?
I’d been looking for a fun adventure when I came to China and by all means I’d had some great times. However I never expected to be embroiled in the darker side of the country. The further revelation that a state-run labor camp existed within the city limits, on top of everything else Mr. Mormon had told me, really brought home the brutal nature of the Chinese government and the pressing issue of corruption in Chinese society.
I began questioning the ethics of working for a man that pretty much went against everything I believe in terms of morality and ethics. He just wasn’t a good bloke and once I became aware of his true colors, no amount of oysters or sauvignon could hide what he was – A prime example of the corrupt capitalist ruling elite bourgeoisie in modern day China.
The seething irony astonished me: the country’s ruling party is labeled as “Communist” yet people like the Boss live a polarized life of unimaginable luxury that your average Chinese person could never even dream of. In order to stay on, I tried convincing myself that being able to work within his operations was a unique first hand experience of how the ruling classes operate in China, along with an exciting look into a criminal enterprise. At least that’s what I thought I’d keep telling myself until perhaps one day my new driver would dissapear after forgetting to pick me up.
You know, maybe the kindergarten dancing gig wasn’t so bad after all…
Follow Marko on Twitter: @markorandelovic
If you enjoyed reading this then please enter your details here.