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When you Just Can’t Take Life in China–or Pulling a Runner

Posted by on May 26, 2014
The blog wuluwu captures this phenomena hilariously right.

The blog wuluwu captures this phenomena hilariously right.

So here’s a recent situation of my friend. She was working in a school for little kids and had been there for years. She had to deal with some bureaucratic bull we all go through, but as hers was a private (aka: expensive) school she had less freedom then I do at a public school. Like, parents pay and therefore the parents are the boss (and their precious babies were not allowed to fail no matter how dumb or wild they might be). Also, to get more enrollment she and the other foreign teachers were paraded around a lot more than I am (and they had to do extra work for free, like sample classes to entice new kids to come to the school).

Her school started to change policies, cranked up the pressure on her and other foreign teachers while not increasing the pay or anything. It only got worse and worse until one day when I got a call from her. She was in a taxi on the way to the airport, going back to her home country. She still had more than a month on her contract and was expected in class that monday. But instead she packed up her stuff quietly and left. It was the best option at that point to save her sanity.

This is not at all uncommon for expats in China. In fact, it’s a time honored tradition. There is even a name for this kind of action: Runners. (Or midnight runners for those who live on campus and need to escape at night unseen.)

I have mixed feelings if it’s a good or bad thing. In general, I think it’s bad. A lot of people use it too easily. Like, they have an easy job but don’t feel like dealing with some mundane thing or minor annoyance. Or, they don’t like the food or think China’s dirty. Instead of sucking it up for the commitment they made, they leave. This causes a lot of problems for the remaining expats. Because schools are afraid it might happen they tighten restrictions and might try to do things like keep your passport which prevents people from leaving (which is not legal btw, but newbies don’t know that.) Also, it’s just a baby move. If you made a one-year commitment, and signed a contract, you need to fulfill your duty regardless if you like Chinese food or not.

But my friend made me realize sometimes it’s a good thing. She wasn’t a lazy, spoiled expat at all. She stuck it out for years and it was just getting too much for her. In the weeks prior she called me a few times in tears. She tried to deal with it, but the school was ignoring her and kinda forcing her in an impossible situation. So in that case, I think it’s a good thing. In China, you employer kinda owns you. Your visa is connected to them, and so is your living. They can prevent you from moving, they can prevent you from changing jobs, they basically can really fuck with you. (Which is why it is so important to find a good school.) And many schools do exactly that. Take advantage of newbies who don’t better and make them work under dire circumstances.

So in a sense, being a runner is the one power expats have. It was really the only option my friend had. She could stick it, come home crying everyday for no benefit for her, or she could just leave and maybe give the school a bit of a wake-up call as to how to treat their teachers.

I used to think running was a losers way out, a cheap trick that foreigners used when they didn’t feel like dealing with their problems. But now I see that it can be a useful tool that one doesn’t have in your own country. A kind of “ejector” button on a failing space craft. I hope I’m never in that position to have to make that choice, but I can now understand why some foreigners choose to do it.

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2 Responses to When you Just Can’t Take Life in China–or Pulling a Runner

  1. E-Phoenix

    I think it’d be more accurate to say that the problem is one for foreigners in the ESL industry. Foreigners in other professions don’t seem to need to pull a runner. Generally speaking, the ESL industry in China (and I’m referring to the privately-run schools in particular) is a shady business and the schools are not really interested in actually teaching the kids English; in fact, neither are the parents who send their kids to the schools.

    It’s all about appearances and prestige. The parents like the idea of sending their kids to a school that has foreign faces (ideally white faces) because it gives them status, something to show off, and so the schools oblige by hiring foreigners. The result is that you have a whole lot unqualified schools with unqualified foreign teachers in the mix with the genuine schools that manage to snag the minority of serious foreign teachers. The whole thing stinks.

    Hopefully, in time, the ESL industry in China will clean up its act and ensure that the schools are operating at higher standards, as has happened in Japan.

  2. becky

    Yeah, you’re right. I should have said that I meant this applies mostly to teachers. I sometimes forget that foreigners actually have other jobs. ;)

    I will say that I have begun to notice a small change in the foreign teacher market, at least on a public university level. Uni’s are getting much more strict about getting people with experience which, I think, is a good thing. But it’s hard for someone who wants to come for the first time and might drive otherwise good foreigners into a crappy language mill type situation. They are much more the dancing monkey places who don’t care about experience or quality and just want a foreigner.

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