Young students offering cards of thanks to their teacher. Photo?Xinhua
On Monday, as teachers in Chicago stepped out onto the streets to strike out against new concessions demanded of their unions, their colleagues in China sat down at their desks to receive new presents from parents and students.
September 10 is "Teachers' Day" in China. In past decades, perhaps in a more naïve time, it was a day for showing respect and appreciation for current and past educators; students wrote cards, gave flowers, or simply thanked their mentors with honest admiration. In contemporary China, where cut-throat competition begins early in school, it's become an occasion to lavish gifts and money onto teachers.
It is becoming common for middle-income families to offer gift cards of a few hundred or few thousand yuan (perhaps fifty to a couple hundred dollars). Parents of wealthier backgrounds may offer more luxurious presents: a nice watch, a purse, plane tickets for a vacation, jewelry, or cosmetics. Gifts are by and large delivered into teachers' hands directly by the students themselves.
China has always been a culture steeped in the art of gift-giving and favor-getting. The intricate network of social connections that link families and friends, employers and employees, and ultimately companies and officials - which any Westerner who has read a book on China knows as guanxi - starts early and is to be developed over the long term.
But for a culture where respect for education and teachers is a moral duty from Confucian traditions, gift-giving to teachers is creating its own moral conundrums. What does the example show children about life and ethics? Is it showing them that money can be a replacement for hard work and honesty?
"I just expect more attention and encouragement toward my son from the teachers," said Ge Min to Shanghai Daily, in response to a question as to why he would offer a monetary gift.
The more socially conscious (and suspicious) have complained that the day has simply morphed into an excuse for parents to bribe teachers into guaranteeing good grades for their children. For parents who do the gift giving, the excuses are also understandable.
In an environment where the practice is common, failing to deliver may mean less attention (consciously or subconsciously) from teachers. For parents who pile their hopes onto a single child, in a country where academic competition lays the groundwork for the future, how much blame can really be placed on their shoulders?
For teachers, many of whom are underpaid, the process of receiving, and rejecting, presents is creating its own problems. Parents whose gifts have been rejected may worry that teachers dislike their presents, finding them too cheap, or simply dislike their child. That may only cause them to redouble their efforts.
China National Radio surveys on gift-giving for Teachers' Day reveal that some 70 percent of respondents said they would offer gifts to teachers.
Larger social questions about the behavior are now being asked broadly by critics online, in schools, and in the government itself.
Nearly 80.6 percent of more than 13,000 respondents to a web-based survey from Xinhua News said that they opposed the process. However, nearly 63 percent said that the process shouldn't occur - an implication that they were still offering gifts even though they considered it an oppressive and unethical practice.
Since 2010, educational authorities in China have begun creating anti-corruption measures to prevent monetary gift-giving to teachers, but the effectiveness of the new measures and punishments is largely dismissed.
For those who think this is an odd practice utterly unique to China, consider the act of charitable donations to Western schools and educational institutions. How dissimilar is the act of gifting by a wealthy Chinese family to a teacher from that of a wealthy American family who donates grandly to a good private school? Is it only a coincidence when their child is guaranteed admission afterward? And how common is the now-nostalgic American practice of giving a teacher an apple on the first day of school, in this day and age?