Conversations with Chinese bosses

angry me
This is me telling it how it is in front of a waterfall in Wulai.

I was thinking about my two landlords and also how a lot of the people I work for and with are like my first landlord, the one who wasn’t really bothered about the terms of the lease because he assumed we weren’t going to be dicks, and seemed to think we should have expected him to come to us with six months’ of electricity bills because he was too busy to get in touch with us at any other time.

A lot of my issues with this way of doing things can be explained by an exploration of the differences between high-context and low-context cultures. Chinese culture is high context: they assume every one is on the same page and asking questions is weird. American culture is low context: we assume we have no idea what anyone else is thinking, so we want it all spelled out for us, in writing, with dotted i‘s and crossed t‘s. For example, I’d like some numbers multiplied by some other numbers on a piece of paper showing how many hours I worked when they give me my pay every month, and they seem to think I should trust that they probably got it right. (And if not, c’mon, we’re all friends here. We’re practically family. It’s barely about the money.) (That being said, they are more accurate than the HR at Rosetta Stone who used to screw us all coming and going when it came to recording our pay and benefits.)

I’m not an anthropologist, so I’ll just tell you some of the things that frustrate me less as time goes on, but still baffle me even after years here. Sometimes, you have conversations, very explicit, where you say, maybe, “Okay, but you have to watch our performance rehearsal a month before the show, two weeks before the show, not two days before the show, because if you want us to change something, you have to give us time. We’re working with young learners here, and we can’t change things on them too fast or they’ll get confused and that’s not fair.”

“Of course, of course,” your manager says. It’s nonsense to imply she is not reasonable or that she does not realize how long it takes to teach a class of kindergartners your original choreography for Katy Perry’s Firework.

But then, she walks into the gym two days before the show and the kids are near tears because they are sick to death of being told to smile and sing loudly and dance properly NO NOT LIKE THAT NOBODY TOLD YOU TO KICK HIM FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS HOLY DO NOT I SAID NO I AM SO DONE WITH THIS I HAVE A PHILOSOPHY DEGREE I NEVER WANTED THIS FOR MYSELF and she asks you to change the choreography because there isn’t enough dancing in circles. “It’s boring, they’re just dancing in lines.” No one ever mentioned anything about any kind of standards, let alone circles, and you didn’t think it would be possible for twenty kids dressed as baby zoo animals to be at all boring, so you tell them you have to go to the bathroom and you run to parking lot and flail your arms and smoke a cigarette and wait for a foreign teacher to walk by so you can complain about unfair life is and how she agreed weeks ago not to change anything two days before the performance.

But then, if you’ve lived here a while and you like living here, you knew that was going to happen anyway and you just go with it. You smile and you spend six hours over the next two days begging twenty four-year-olds to please remember to make two circles and turn around for the chorus of Katy Perry’s Firework.

Or you go to a job interview, you tell them you’re available to on Tuesday and Thursday for NT$700 an hour. You do a demo and they tell you “Good, good” and they write down your phone number. A month later you ask your buddy who told you about the job if they are still looking or if they’ve found someone else, and he’s confused because they said they were going to hire you. So he reaches out to them and they say, “Yes, yes, we want her. Classes start in September and we’ll contact her then.” (As in the week before classes start. No need to try to prepare ahead.)

Then when they contact you, they say, “Sorry, how about NT$650 an hour instead of the NT$700 we agreed on?”


“Oh, okay. And did your friend tell you about exercise time?”

“No, what’s that?”

“Oh, I thought he told you everything!”

(Friend: “I brought her in for the interview. It’s your job to tell her what her responsibilities are.” And that made perfect sense to me.)

“You have to come in ten minutes early and lead the entire kindergarten in an exercise routine. It’s unpaid. You have to find your own music.”

“I can do that.” [← That is how a teacher who’s been here almost a decade responds to this kind of request.]

“Okay, great. Exercise time is on Wednesday.”

“I told [Manager] I could do Tuesday and Thursday.”

“But exercise time is on Wednesday.”

“Okay, let me rearrange my schedule with my other school, see if I can accommodate you…Okay, great, we’re sorted. I’ll come in on Tuesday and Wednesday.” [← Ten years of being overruled.]

“Okay, then Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning.”

“I said Tuesday morning, not afternoon.”

“Okay, let me talk to the manager and see if that’s okay.”

Not gonna pretend like I didn’t work at an American office that wasn’t rife with miscommunications and inefficiencies, but they usually came about after meetings where at least some people tried to drag everyone onto the same page. Here, it’s more like the assumption is that everyone is already magically on the same page, or once the boss has spoken, everyone will be on the same page. You can voice your opinion if you want people to know you’re difficult and insubordinate, but then you had better just get on with it.

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