Every month when payday rolls around, especially around the national holidays when I’m due paid leave, I get an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I know this feeling is irrational. I have a good, stable job, I’m on a legitimate signed contract, and I’ve not once been given a reason to doubt the integrity of my employer. So why is it that I still have this unshakeable feeling that some terrible calamity is surely about to befall me around pay day?

pay day anxiety

Once bitten, twice shy, I suppose. Most expats workers in China, aside from those lucky enough to be employed by reputable international firms, are probably used to the rather unstable nature of working and getting paid here. English teachers in particular usually have a wealth of stories about being fired without warning, having their salaries docked, their schools closing unexpectedly, and their pay delayed. This sorts of thing is, of course, unacceptable, but chances are that anyone with any significant work history here will have had to swallow at least one bitter pill over the years. Finding fighting for their rights fruitless, many disgruntled expat workers in China end up cutting their losses and leaving posts or the country entirely with a bad taste in their mouths.

I started working in China in 2003 at a big and famous university in Kunming. The pay was laughingly low, as was the norm for university work in that area at that time, but I enjoyed my job and didn’t complain about the salary as I knew what I was letting myself in for when I signed up. The drama only came when I decided to leave.

At the end of my contract, I turned my passport over to the university’s Foreign Affairs Officer (FAO) so he could convert my expiring residence permit into a tourist visa while I got my affairs in order. When I went to pick up my passport, however, the FAO claimed that he’d overpaid me since I’d not worked a full month for my final month in the job. Of course this was ridiculous, since nothing was stated in the contract about pro-rating the last month’s pay and I’d already spent the entirety of my paltry salary. Still, the FAO threatened to keep my passport unless I gave him more than 1,000 RMB.

Getting desperate, I threw a fit right there in the office, attracting the attention of the FAO’s boss, who asked what the issue was and told me there was no question of me having to return any money to the school. He gave me back my passport and apologized. I later learned that the FAO was eventually fired for (what else but) embezzling school funds in a rather ingenious scheme that involved taking the TVs from foreign teachers’ apartments on the grounds that they were “broken” and replacing them with cheaper models. He was then selling the “broken” TVs for his own profit.

Although my story had a relatively happy ending, it was only the first of many questionable experiences I had as an expat worker in China. Over the years, I’ve accumulated my fair share of horror stories, although my stories are tame compared to some I’ve heard from other expats.

That isn’t to say that I’ve never had a good experience working here or that the good doesn’t outweigh the bad. It’s simply that bad experiences tend to leave a rather deeper impression. If you read online expat forums, particularly those relating to teaching English in China, it’s easy to get the impression that there are simply no good employers and you’d be nuts to accept a job here. The truth of the matter is that good jobs are a bit like good relationships; they’re not always easy to find and maintain, and it takes some experience to tell a good one from a bad one. It’s also true that the more desperate you are, the easier it is to find yourself in a mess.

The fact of the matter is that all expats, no matter what they’re doing here, are working away from their homes in a society with very different rules. We often enter into situations with rather unrealistic expectations, at least by local standards. We expect high pay, sociable hours, Western standard accommodation and, most of all, superiors we can have an open dialogue with. In all honestly, however, the horror stories of expat workers in China all pale in comparison to what many Chinese workers have to put up with on a daily basis.

Chinese workers, for the most part, take what they can get, do what the boss says and work uncomplainingly. If they find themselves being unfairly treated, they tend to stick with it until the situation gets truly unbearable or they find something better, at which point they will quit. My husband, for example, worked for four years at a large company, never knowing month to month when exactly he would get paid. Pay day was supposedly on the 5th of each month, but sometimes it would be the 1st, sometimes the 15th.

In another example, the Chinese employees at the university I worked at in Kunming would routinely work overtime and through their lunch hours without pay. If they were even a minute late, however, they’d lose 100 RMB from their 1,000 RMB salaries. While expat workers would most likely be irate at either one of those situations, many Chinese employees take this sort of thing in their stride.

Perhaps problems arise when people apply their own expectations to people of another culture; when Chinese employers expect foreign workers to have a more Chinese attitude to their work, and when foreigners expect foreign attitudes from their Chinese bosses. Either way, after years working in China, I’ve never quite managed to strike the correct balance between my expectations and what I know can be the reality.

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