Dear China: So Sorry, but Ms. Kendrick Does Not Accept Bribes

“I told this man in plain English not to send me this jacket.” The jacket is still wrapped in its plastic casing and sitting in the opened shipping box. The rip in the packaging tape shows it was sent to Ms. Ketu Kendrick. I am way pass irritated and not yet solidly livid when I present this “gift” to my boss at the private school where I teach super rich Chinese children whose parents apparently don’t read or understand English enough to fully comprehend the clause in the student handbook that says, “teachers cannot accept gifts” or the words coming out of a teacher’s mouth that say, “No, thank you; please don’t send me a gift.”

“And he still sent it to you?” The principal who has worked in and around China for 15 years actually seems as surprised as I am. “Well, this is a first,” he chuckles. He ponders his reaction for a moment and then realizes he has lied. “Naw, it isn’t. This is China.” He thanks me for informing him of this gift giver’s aggressive campaign to get me to write favorable recommendation letters for his daughter and advises me to return the jacket with as much humility as I can. “Just remember, they think something is wrong with us for not accepting gifts so frame it like you really want to take it, but because of the school policy…”

I consider myself a woman of great integrity and I am also of the firm belief that students, generally, have already shown themselves worthy of a satisfactory recommendation letter when they ask me to write one for them. Although teenagers are not as equipped with the skills for honest introspection as adults (in theory), they can sense when a teacher is pleased with their performance and they know what their report cards show. Only students who do well in my class and have been rewarded with verbal accolades – both in private and in public – from me have asked me to write them recommendation letters. There is absolutely no need for parents to “sweeten the deal” for me. If their child were truly a waste of a seat in my class, I would politely decline their recommendation request and suggest they ask a teacher in whose class they have shown greater promise.  What could possibly be the point of accepting a bribe from a parent whose B+ student works harder than me in my class?

I need someone to tell China I believe in its children. Without qualifiers or disclaimers. They are young people so why wouldn’t I believe in them? I would like for someone to tell my students’ parents I am not any greater or lesser impressed with their children than the children I taught in Rwanda or the ones I taught in the United States. The Chinese versions of student work ethic and academic achievement look no different than the work ethic and achievement of every teenager in every school in every corner of this world. Can someone please ask these parents to stop sending Ms. Kendrick “gifts” with notes that remind her “only two more recommendation letters to send!”

The first time it happened, I naively took it for what it was supposed to be: an appreciation of the extra time it would take me to write a thoughtful letter highlighting the student’s strengths and weaknesses. A student, who in all honesty, was quite mediocre, but still showed promise shyly hovered near my desk after I had dismissed her class. I saw she had a form in her hand that she periodically glanced at before looking toward me and then quickly averting her eyes when they met mine. “Do you need something, Sweetie,” I helped her initiate the conversation. When she sheepishly explained she was applying to a high school in the United States and she was sorry for bothering me, but the school needed a recommendation letter from her English teacher, I told her I would be happy to write her one. I took the form out of her shaky hand and said, “I will try to get it done within the next week or so, okay?”

When I turned to pack up my bag and leave the room, the student pulled out a Chanel box from somewhere and then grinned at me, “Uhm…my mom helped me pick this out for you.” For about two seconds, I hesitated because the timing seemed…convenient to say the least. But, why would this sweet child who I had previously acknowledged in class for improving in her analytical skills have any ulterior motives? “Aww, thank you, Sweetie,” I patted her on the shoulder as I took the box.

And then she gave me this look. I do not have adequate words to describe what I saw in her eyes. Just my gut told me, Ms. Kendrick, this is not what you think it is. When I brought the most fly, perfectly designed sunglasses to my supervisor, my gut was confirmed. “Yeah, this is supposed to influence what you put in the letter,” the Head of the English Department said nonchalantly as she agreed to gently break it to the student on my behalf that this gift had to be returned to her mother. “The girl and her mother have good taste, though; these glasses are so you.” She complained all she had been offered in the past was thoughtless cash. And the parent hadn’t even bothered to make her feel like a lady when he offered it. “Literally, he slid an envelope across the table as he suggested his son be moved up to the honors class even though he was barely cracking a C in the regular class.” She proceeded to regale me with outrageous stories that explained why the school finally had to write a clear policy in the handbook so it would curb the thinly veiled attempts of privileged parents to give their child an extra edge in the competitive world of studying abroad.

“As you can see, even with the policy there are still parents who continue to do what they think works.” The Head of the English Department sighed. “I am not so sure everyone on our staff actually follows the policy themselves.  So, there’s that.”

I get it. There are 23 million people in Shanghai alone. Has the population of China itself exceeded a billion yet? A student being good enough is not enough even within China. If you factor into the equation students who seek to leave the isolated bubble of China and enter a culture and curriculum that, in many ways, is the polar opposite of their homeland’s, well…yeah…what conscientious parent wouldn’t see the need to “sweeten the deal” for his kid who is good enough but may not be as good as the 1000+ other applicants he has heard is applying to the same schools in America as his daughter?

But, I still need one of y’all to tell these people with words and in a tone more convincing than mine that I don’t want their damn “gifts.” I am growing annoyed at being forced to discreetly whisper to a student that I need to see her in the hall and then play like I am flattered and torn as I say, “Your father is very kind and I know he doesn’t mean anything by this, but the school has a policy, so…”

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