It’s a familiar story. Apple releases new product, everyone wants one, and then, yes of course, the factory conditions are called into question. The iPhone 5 is here, and with it yet more articles criticizing Apple for not doing anything about the unfair working conditions in their factories in China. Though I am sure that there is a lot of truth to these critical allegations, I believe that this narrow focus on one particular company falls short of the main issue, which is that, in fact, Chinese people work really, really hard. Not just in the factories and not just the fields. I have observed that even teachers in China have been pressed and stretched to their limits just as much as anyone else.
While living most of the last 7 years of my life in China, I’ve spent my fair share of time sitting in a classroom. One particular semester, a small group of us would gather early every morning for Chinese class. Most days, Teacher Li was right on time, but one particular week she had been coming to class at least 10 minutes late each day. On the Friday, she arrived on time, but as usual, she seemed flustered.
“Sorry.” She announces with a smile.
“Are you okay, teacher? Is something wrong?” I ask.
“Oh, everything’s fine. I just slept in. Very embarrassing.” Seeing the room so attentive, a group of friendly foreigners concerned for their cute, petit little teacher, she decides to elaborate. “This week, I have been getting so many phone calls from my students. They call all the time. They always need something. They want to ask questions about homework, they want me to tell them what they should do. Some of them are homesick. Yesterday I needed to take one of them to the hospital.”
“Nothing serious. Just a tummy ache.”
We all looked around in wonder. These were, after all, independent Chinese university students. “Why did you have to go with them to the hospital?”
Teacher Li smiled shyly. “It’s part of my job.”
It turns out that most Chinese teachers work an insane amount of overtime. The longer I’ve been in China the more I find out, and the uglier it gets. The teacher’s job goes far beyond planning lessons and grading papers.
“This week, my coworker went on maternity leave,” relayed Mr. Guang, a friend of mine who teaches in a primary school down the road. He continued, “So I need to cover her work for her.”
“But you get paid extra for that, right?”
From my view, it’s an amazing injustice. Mr. Guang, a family man, has to stay late at the school to cover a coworker’s maternity leave. I see the weariness in his eyes. I understand why he doesn’t have any free time to just relax. He’s just too busy for anything else. The fact that this situation will go on until March is a tough thing for a foreigner like me to think about. For Mr. Guang, it’s just a part of life. There is no place for arguing with his employer. The thought doesn’t even cross his mind. He will work overtime for nothing because that’s just the way things work around here. It’s not about being poor, or even necessarily having no other options. These teachers work a ridiculous amount of hours because that’s the way it’s always been for them.
Chinese children go to Kindergarten starting at the age of 3, though some schools will accept 2 year olds as well. Deborah runs a newly opened Kindergarten and some of the parents were initially asking if it would be running an “all week” program. This means that they would drop off their child on Monday morning and then pick them up on Friday night.
“I could not imagine leaving my 3 year old son at school all week.” She told me. I agreed. Toddlers are for playing with, not for boarding school. What kind of mindset do these children develop when they are parentless all week? What does this say about their value? It’s no wonder these people grow up to be such hard workers; they start the hard work as 2 year olds.
Mrs. Bai is a counselor at the University. In fact, she is the only counselor for the entire school, a school with a population close to 10 000 students. With high rates of depression, loneliness, isolation, and in some cases suicide, it is clear that these teachers need to keep working as hard as they do in order to help these college kids survive their University careers. In many cases, they are entirely responsible for every aspect of their students’ lives.
I talk to Teacher Li again about the situation at the University. She teaches full time, and on top of that, she is in charge of looking after hundreds of students. Many of these students are away from home for the first time in their lives. They don’t know how to clean their clothes, cook meals, manage their money, etc. And, when something goes wrong, it is usually people like Teacher Li who shoulder the blame.
“I’ve had parents call me from other provinces. When they find out their child’s grades are not good, they call me and yell at me. Last semester, one of my classes had a final exam, but only half of the students showed up for it. It turns out that the rest of them were either sleeping in their dorms or playing at the Internet bar.”
When she tells me these things, I can see her frustration. She is kind, so she has patience with the students, but you can see that motherly look in her eyes. She wants to help the students, but she’s run out of ideas. And simply put, she’s just too tired to do anything about it.
“Wednesdays is the worst for me.” She tells me. “I have a break in the afternoon, but Wednesdays are busy time for the students in my department, so I get a lot of phone calls. The phone does not stop ringing. I want to turn it off, but that is not an option. They give me 100 yuan a month for my phone bill, but it ends up costing 400. The rest comes out of my pocket.”
It’s easy to want to point fingers in these situations. Yet, the bosses, the teachers, the parents, and the children are all products of the environment. The knots that have been tied over the years are not easily loosened. With 1.3 billion people, competition is tough. Threatening suicide at the Apple factory echoes across the country, even all the way into the classroom of Teacher Li. They are raised to work hard, and when hard work isn’t enough to pay the bills, things get complicated and stressful for everyone.
Of course, there will always be millions of students in need of good teachers. The teachers will continue to work hard if only for the simple reason that they are needed. The country functions this way, and the system depends on the people functioning this way. China’s success goes as far as its people can carry it, and whether they’re building Apple products or teaching children how to read, the pressure is always on.