This is my single worst experience in China. Arbitrary violence in my workplace, without apologies. Here’s the story.
I came to Tianjin to teach at Alliance Francaise, where my old friend Juliette is the director. Alliance Francaise is an international network of French cultural centres, giving French classes, organising French cultural events, and offering a French hub for expats. In short, a nice, quiet, home away from home environment.
In general, they operate under local association laws, with support from the French government. In China, there is no legal status for associations, so they are set up as partnerships with a Chinese university. In Tianjin, the partner is Tianjin Normal University, which is hosting Alliance Francaise on the second floor of a pink fifties building in the BaLiTai campus. For whatever reason, the relationship is tense.
After about a year of existence, Alliance Francaise Tianjin is becoming popular. Twenty-five beginner students registered for the summer session – double the number expected. Juliette had to find an extra teacher and, in the meantime, borrow a room on the fifth floor that could fit a large class, since Alliance Francaise only has four smallish rooms on the second floor.
Each floor has its concierge, a person in charge of locking the rooms, turning on the electricity, looking after the equipment, etc. Before starting my work on the fifth floor, I was introduced to the concierge, a woman in her fifties, who seemed reasonably nice. But I was aware that the room was a special favour – although it was empty at that time – and diplomacy was needed.
We had classes over the week-end, and Juliette told me there had been incidents. The concierge complained of students being rude with her, not helping her change a water bottle in the water dispenser, and leaving mess in the toilets. I was a bit suprised – my students were all professionals in their twenties and thirties – but thought they might have a hidden dark side to them. Then on Thursday, I had classes there again.
Class was from 6h30 to 9pm. At 9.00 sharp, the concierge came in to turn off everything. Two students were at my desk, asking questions. At about 9.04, the students left, and I had to take out a CD from the desk computer. The concierge had already turned off power from the main switch on the wall. I asked her to turn it back on, so I could take out my CD. She started shouting and waving her arms around, then left the room abruptly, ovbiously angry. I packed up my stuff, and waited, talking to the cleaner in the room, trying to make my meaning clear – I needed the power on to take out a CD from the computer. The concierge came back, and I asked again. She shouted more, aggressively. I decided I couldn’t handle this situation with my limited Mandarin, so I left the room, went down to the teachers’ room on the second floor, and wrote a note for Juliette there. I explained that there might have been a misunderstanding which I couldn’t get out of, and that she should try to get that CD back somehow.
When I walked out of the room, I saw the concierge approaching in the corridor, waving a CD. I thought it had all been just a misunderstanding so, with a smile, I thanked her, while trying to get the CD from here. She wouldn’t give it to me, but jerked it back and pushed me aside. Apparently, she wanted a word with the director. Juliette had left, but a Chinese teacher was here. She handled the matter, and pacified the angry lady. Then she told me ‘I think it’s not important.’
I disagreed. I was part of the equation, and I was feeling awful. I wrote an email to Juliette, saying that I would not stay in a workplace where I could be shouted at for no reason, without warning or apologies. Juliette explained to me that the situation was tough. Work relationships are hard, and people regularly suffer abuse from those above us. She was abused by the Vice-chancellor of Tianjin Normal University. Some of the students, although very respectful with me, abused the woman at the front desk. Worse, she said, if you never threaten, if you smile too much, people will never respect you. For some reason, in the subtle hierarchies of university life, I, a simple teacher, was under the concierge.
I understood, but I didn’t accept, so Juliette and I negotiated a solution: I would give all my classes on the 2nd floor untill the new teacher arrived – packing students in the room – so that I would not have to see the shouting concierge again. Involving that woman in the solution was not a possibility. There could be no debrief, where the two of us would have a quiet conversation, and look for some reconciliation.
I reflected about this. Why could this woman arbitrarily shout at me, without any mediation happening afterwards. Why was it not problematic for a floor keeper to vent her frustration at a teacher working in the same institution? It made sense from her point of view. At a first level, this woman was rebelling against orders given to her – who knows if she got any extra pay for staying up untill nine? If she made things difficult enough, maybe people would stop annoying her, and she could leave early. At a second level, this woman was defending her own status. Her role is pointless. If the university trusted cleaners and teachers enough to give them a key, she could be dispensed with. Her role as a concierge is a sheer expression of control. Creating problems was a way of asserting her own necessity. Or, at a more primal level, of defending her own turf.
I reflected further, and started seeing that woman, her job and her reaction as a pure expression of despotic power. The Chinese regime is authoritarian. Powers are not clearly separated, and although there are some cultural and social counter-powers, the people in power pretty much rule everything at their will. Under a despotic regime, fear rules. I had read enough Montesquieu to know that. People obey because they’re afraid of what will happen if they don’t. If your threats are convincing enough, people will do what you say. The rule of tyranny ripples down from the centre of power to all spheres of society. I started observing, and saw that people were indeed often acting angry, as a way to scare off the enemy, threaten, assert their power. Like lions and dragons at the front of their houses, growling to scare off the demons.
After a while, I guess people start finding it normal, and ignoring it, even expats. Juliette had inducted me to the job, but she never warned me that I would have to play power games with the people in the building. Of course, there were superficial cultural differences – maybe that woman’s tone was not that aggressive, I should have interpreted her better. But there were a deeper, and more radical, cultural difference: no collaborative spirit. This woman did not attempt a dialogue with me so that we could reach a common goal – provide a good teaching environment for students learning foreign languages. She was only protecting herself and her own situation. That was an aspect of Chinese life I had never read about in the guides.
That was a bad experience, but I think I learnt from it. And I’m glad I resisted it – demanded a debrief, negotiated a solution, did not accept it, simply, as ‘the way things work here’. It made me realise how good it is to live and work in a country with regulations and processes, where bullying is taken seriously, where people don’t just accept arbitrary violence, in the workplace, or anywhere, as something normal. I came to deeply value the way Australian organisations try to build a ‘safe working environment’. Reducing the fear of arbitrary violence, making threats void, may be the best way to enforce democratic virtue, and the possibility for collaborative dialogue.
And I was thinking – but was I right? Or ridiculous, and homesick? – this would not happen in a democracy.