When living in a foreign country, there is a fine line between integrating into a culture, and forgoing one’s integrity. In Cameroon, my rule was to never to pay a bribe, no matter what. After just one month in China, my rule is definitely going to be – never lying to a client, or helping them lie, no matter what.
Last night, I watched a special on CCTV covering a high school graduate, whose life was forever altered because he had gone through an agency to help him go to college in the US. His parents sold their house to afford him the fees, and he gave up China’s National University Entrance Exam, all for his US dream. As it turned out, his information submitted for visa application was fraudulent, and as a result, he was refused visa for life, not only to the US, but also to all US allies.
Unfortunately, this story is not the first of its kind. My LSE roommate from China told me all the ways people cheat to score well on the GRE. He scored higher on the verbal section of the GRE than I did, and well, let’s just say his English was nowhere near mine. People have told me that I could make mad money writing college entrance essays for students wanting to go to the US. Agencies will do anything (make up family income, grades, essays, extracurricular, etc.) to make some money, and to help these kids obtain their own American dream.
Watching this story hit home for me as I thought about the episode that happened last week. I had signed up with a tutoring agency and had been meeting potential students. After my very first meeting, one of the agents wrote me an email and said that she thought I was a very good teacher, but perhaps too honest. TOO HONEST? What? I read on, and she proceeded to give me the following “interview tips”:
The client is looking for an experienced tutor. If you are very young, it is wise to add several years to your age.
2. How long have you been staying in Shanghai?
If you are here less than 6 months, it is wise to say you have been staying for 6 months.
3. How long are you gonna stay in Shanghai?
It is wise to say you are planning to stay here for at least 1 year and perhaps longer. Being stable and reliable is very important.
I was beside myself when I read this. In all my years of receiving interview tips, lying was never one of them. I took it as a culture thing, and decided to promptly ignore it. A few days later, I was meeting another client and another agent was prepping me for the meeting. He said, “you should tell the lady you were born in the US”. Ahem, that was the final draw for me.
I proceeded to give him a stern lecture on integrity. I said, “Listen, this is not how I do things. If this client wants a white person, get them a white person. If they want someone born in the US, then find them someone born in the US. Don’t waste my nor the clients’ time. Do not ask me to lie. My integrity is worth more than some tutoring student. This is ridiculous.” All done in Chinese, by the way. I wanted to make sure none of that got lost in translation. I am pretty sure most foreign teachers are just confused at this “culture norm” and either go with it, or ignore it. Somebody had to put the foot down and confront this practice. I probably scared this poor guy half to death. But someone needs to be teaching these young people a lesson.
When you live in a country with 1.4 billion people, the idea of rat race takes on an entirely different meaning. Everyone is trying to make a living, and trying to get ahead. People will do just about anything, and lying your way through life is not only not frown upon, it’s socially acceptable. “It’s the way thing are done.”
Naturally, with 1.4 billion people, there are bound to be some honest people. Unfortunately, those who lie and cheat their way to get ahead leaves a bad name for the rest of them. It’s sad that Chinese students are often known as “master cheaters”. It’s a vicious cycle. You cheat to get into schools that you aren’t qualified to attend, and then you can’t keep up, so you have to cheat to graduate. But what about the Chinese who worked hard to earn their success?
I can’t change the way things are done in this country, but I am sure as hell never lying to anyone to get them to pay for my services. That bit, I can do. Maybe it’s too naïve, but they don’t say honesty is the best policy for nothing. And, I am fairly sure this is a rather universal value. They teach this in schools here, too.