Spoiled and Confused — China’s new urban generation (Viewed as Single Page)

This guest post by Chris “Foreign Monkey” Bewley first appeared as a four-part series, which started on May 25, 2011 as Spoiled and Confused — China’s new urban generation – Part 1

Chris Bewley has taught English as a foreign language for the past 10 years all over the world, including Japan, Korea, Mexico and Brazil.


When I first arrived in China as an English teacher, I had lofty scholastic goals: I wanted to try a creative variety of class activities and apply a broad spectrum of teaching methods that my students could benefit from to make them competitive in academia and, later, the international job market.

Almost 1 year later, my primary responsibility as a “Foreign Expert English Instructor” has been distilled down to little more than babysitting a bunch of spoiled, undisciplined children who for the most part want nothing to do with English.

At my crowded primary school in a small, semi-urban city in East China, there exists what I have coined the “20/20/20” split in each of my classes (60 kids per class): 20 eager/20 indifferent/20 bad. Basically, I’m teaching 20 while trying to control 40.

To make it fair for everyone, I have to dumb-it-down/ fun-it-up every class. Instead of actually teaching, I find myself playing games with them and jumping around for them like a monkey, which is the only way to retain their attention.

On the positive side, of the eager 20, there are several extremely smart students who I expect one day to be quite successful in what ever they do. Unfortunately, whenever those eager 20 are trying to learn, the other naughty 40 will try just as hard to spoil it for them.

In the past year, I’ve had only a handful of students ever raise their hand and ask ME a question about the English language. That’s 1,200 students/week x 30 weeks, which equals 36,000 (thirty-six thousand) chances for a student to raise a question, but only five ever have. On the rare occasion that my students do ask me questions, it’s usually regarding the price of my clothes or how much I get paid.

Criticism about my lessons that I have received from students, parents and Chinese teachers alike includes “it’s too difficult”, “it’s not fun enough”, “there’s not enough participation/activity,” but never have I ever heard that my classes are too easy, which in my opinion they most certainly are.

By now, I have figured out that English lessons in (urban) China are just a show; a clown show; a monkey show – starring myself as the foreign monkey.

For parents’ week last month, whilst dozens of “concerned” parents and school administrators observed my classes for 5 days in a row, rather than actually teach their children, I just played a bunch of silly games and sang some songs with them, and, guess what? That made all the parents really, really happy!

Most recently, I found myself having to literally, physically, throw out my Chinese teaching assistant (a recent college graduate with no classroom experience hired right off the street for a minimal salary) to avoid a mutiny from within.

You see, she absolutely refused to discipline the rowdiest students, and did nothing to help control their deafening volume when I was trying to teach.

A quarter of China’s rural youth overweight!

When I approached her about this, her response was: “you are not a real teacher!” I imagine that this assistant was once (11 years ago, to be precise) a spoiled, indifferent primary school student herself; how sadly ironic that at age 21 she still indentified with the students rather than with me, the teacher.

China’s universities are being touted with utilitarian promise, a promise that trickles down all the way to the elementary school level. The Chinese’s fear of poverty has undermined intellectual diversity; plagiarism and cheating are rampant and go unpunished, reading books is not encouraged, greater importance has been placed on math than any other subject starting in the earliest years of child development, and there are no other languages other than English offered until university.

English “industry” in China is what I call “C.O.O.C”: completely out of control! There is literally a new, privately run children’s English “school” popping up on every other corner every other week. Nor is it an industry that has grown in a healthy, steady way from its infantile beginning; it is a product for infants in hyper-drive.

A perfect parallel to this is the car situation in China, which is also out of control.

I hate to say it because it has become an international cliché, but, truly, nobody in China knows how to drive or even park properly. Automobile ownership in China has, along with its economy, bloomed at an alarming rate in the past 5 years, resulting in massive congestion everywhere from the smallest towns to the largest cities.

It’s obvious that the people who own these cars use them primarily as status symbols rather than for necessity; it rarely rains in my city and there are no hills, yet every single day, 6 times a day, hundreds of parents dropping off/picking up their children in new, black Audis will cause an hour-long gridlock directly
in front of my school rather than be seen walking or riding a bicycle.

Please don’t get me wrong, I am not a “China-hater.”

Colorful street life, extremely friendly people, great food, affordable massage parlors, a handful of good friends both Chinese and foreign, and a decent income have been sufficient to keep me reasonably comfortable.

But in the end, I have to ask myself: what am I here for? Because it’s obvious that China doesn’t want me to actually teach anybody anything.


Chris Bewley has taught English as a foreign language for the past 10 years all over the world, including Japan, Korea, Mexico and Brazil.

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28 Responses to Spoiled and Confused — China’s new urban generation (Viewed as Single Page)

  1. Captain Obvious says:

    You’re just a bad teacher!

    • Are you talking about me or the guest author of this post? I have no doubt that Chris is a good teacher. Good teachers are challenged to teach bad students being raised by permissive parents that spoil them. It is almost impossible.

      If you are talking about me, please explain how you know that I was a bad teacher and provide evidence. Were you one of the students that failed my class? After all, there were many that did not do the work or study and earned failing grades, which is the main reason most students fail in school. Not because a teacher is boring or too hard but because the student is lazy and the parents are not doing their job.

      Most usually would say, “You gave me an F.” And I would reply, “No, you earned it.”

      In my classes, the only way to fail was to not work. Exams and tests were only 10% of the grade. Even if a student didn’t do any homework but did the class work, he or she would have passed with at least a D. Then there was the extra credit that helped some students earn an A+ with an average above 125%.

      If you measure my success as a teacher by the number of students that “earned” failing grades because they did not do the work or study, then you would be correct.

      However, if we measured my success by results from those students that did do the work and even those that didn’t, then I would be more than the average good teacher.

      In fact, unlike many teachers, I have evidence that supports that I was was more than just a good teacher. Click on the link and scroll down to the piece that was published in a local paper near the high school where I taught for sixteen of the thirty years I was a teacher. I had similar successes at the Middle School where I taught for several years before transferring to the high school within the same district.


      In fact, if needed in court to sue someone for slander, the district kept records that would prove my students demonstrated (even the ones that failed my classes due to not enough work and not studying) more gains on standardized tests year after year after year going back decades when compared to all other students of the same age and grade a school district with about 20,000 students.

      Even the students that failed because they didn’t do the work or study showed gains because I taught using methods for every possible individual learning modality so students that were visual or auditory learners would have an element of each lesson designed to enhance their ability to learn. It was tedious work for both the students and me and many complained but the results show that it worked.

      The reason I can make this claim is that administrators told me year after year that my student showed more gains in English grammar section of the standardized tests than any other teacher in the district did.

      In addition, there probably are teachers that remember the demonstration at one after school staff meeting for all the secondary English teachers in the district that compared every English teacher with a bar graph that demonstrated the gains in writing skills and how the bar that represented the gains in writing skills among my students, even the ones that failed my class, as several times higher than any other teacher.

      Then of course I have more evidence that could be used in court to prove the results of my teaching ability such as the fact that my poetry workshops in my English class at the middle school resulted in my students winning half the awards in a California state wide contest (the awards were presented on the Queen Mary in Long Beach) or the fact that my high school journalism students were getting published nationally and Internationally while winning and placing high at JEA writing competitions at the regional and state level.

      My average workweek was between 60 and 100 hours during the school year and these numbers hold for most of those thirty years.

      You see, unlike many teachers, I have evidence to support what kind of teacher I was even years after I retired.

  2. merlin says:

    Yea, society is slowly changing. It all depends on the media and the role models.

    As great as it sounds to take a bullet and be a hero, if that’s what I wanted to do with my life I’d sign on in the military and demand to be put on the front lines where if I live I can be happy completing the mission, and if I die, I’d be happy serving my country and defending my friends in my squad. Getting whacked by either some gangster or a kid pissed off about his love life or grades just doesnt sound as an honorable way to go; just like cancer.

    I’m surprised even when they got people selling autos in the parking lot, they still dont equip their CPOs. Yes it is a liability, but what good is a dead body compared to a loaded weapon? Im just saying, isn’t it a better chance to take the liability risk rather than have an unarmed CPO or teacher just stand there and take the hit? What’s gonna happen after they’re down?

    I like the idea of that principal having connections with the gang to keep the violence off school grounds. Even if it’s a little strange, it’s always good to have the extra hand. It keeps violence out of school, and gives the gangs something to do. It gives them a better face for the city and hopefully the city can begin accepting them back into society. There are good and bad gangs. Those that are good operate to help the needy because the many people they support will help the gang get more powerful and richer. If you want to be President of the US, you need all the support you can get. What better way to get that support than help those in need? Obama was a lawyer before and had big promises to bring big change to America. Stop the falling economy. Bring the troops home. Change was his campaign slogan, and the people were desperate for it. Desperate enough to even make viral videos and post them on youtube where millions can stream them online. Those videos echoed around the world because in China I had friends asking me who is Obama and why are these girls singing about him. All they knew is his name, but it was so repetitive that it stuck in the minds of even the Chinese. I’m not trying to be political, but I’m making my point that doing good has far reaching effects. The problem comes when the person/organization screws it up and forgets it’s good actions to pursue own greed. In the case of the gangs, I believe this is where they focus solely on their own drug business and forget the common people around them. That’s when innoncents get hurt such as during a turf war. They are unskilled marksmen that jump out of their cars guns blazing, or perform drive-bys. In reality, what SHOULD happen is it’s a business. An easy solution to this would be if the city draws the borders for their sales boundaries. If sales are down…find another way to boost sales rather than jumping onto another territory. Rather than create a “war” with guns, battle it out in the court system with business lawyers like any normal business does. Government taxes shouldn’t be much of a problem for a business that rakes in a few thousand or more on the sale of a small bag of their product.

    Anyways, just the idea of making their business safer and saving the lives of innocents. I’m really wondering now how this legalizing drugs as medicinal benefits is going to effect these drug cartels? I believe in it’s medicinal purposes and like alcohol that once was illegal, it all comes down to a person’s own decision on how they make their life. Drinking a beer is not illegal, of course you gotta have the common sense not to get in a car when your drunk to the point thinking the big person with a mustache sitting at the bar next to you is a hot supermodel babe.

    Everything is about having common sense, which apparently kids dont have it and neither do the lawyers claiming providing CPO’s and teachers with the proper equipment for their job is a liability risk they wont take. It’s like giving a guy a stick of dynamite and tell him go work in the mine without a hard hat or the wiring/ignition box for the TNT. But hey we’ll give you a match!

  3. Bob in China says:

    I refer to many such people in China like Chris Bewley as “English teacher-refugees.” They aren’t necessarily qualified to teach back home, and often couldn’t get a better job there either.

    As one of the comments noted, things ain’t so different back in America. My impression is that kids there give frequently give teachers shit — including threatening violence and occasionally carrying it out. No Chinese school would allow students to carry weapons or use them in school; and if they misbehave, they are OUT. Period. None of this “every-child-has-a-right-to-an-excellent-free-public education” bullshit.

    EVERY one of the schools in Shenzhen has been knocked down and rebuilt in the last 5 years, and the kids in the building where I lived till recently generally went to study hall at 6:30 am. These new public schools are very well built and designed, with great facilities, and the kids seem — to me — to be studying their hearts out. Their English is phenomenal.

    Hey, life is tough! If you don’t want to teach these little monsters — which is what they are — get a better job. Surely China is not responsible for helping well-educated Westerners find meaningful, well-paying work.

    • Bob,

      You are right about teachers getting shit from kids in the US. I taught for thirty years in the California public schools in one school district and was threatened almost every year, which usually went like this, “What would you do, Mr. Lofthouse, if we jumped you?” This was usually from a member of a local street gang. The schools where I taught were in the San Gabriel Valley (Rowland Unified School District and the schools on the east side of the 60 freeway were mostly surrounded by barrios with multi generational gangs. The schools on the west side were in blue-collar middle class neighborhoods. I taught on the east side except for three years when I taught at a middle school in that middle class neighborhood. After three years with those mostly self-esteem, my kid can do no wrong and is perfect, parents, I transferred back to the barrio on the east side where at least I knew what to expect and didn’t run into as many self-esteem boosting, permissive parents.

      My stock answer to being jumped by a gang was, “I wasn’t trained to fight. I was trained to kill by the US Marines and I learned how to kill in Vietnam. So, if you or someone else jumps me, I will do my best to kill the first jerk I get my hands on before I go down.”

      The gang banger would reply, “You can’t do that.”

      “I don’t care what you think or what the law says,” I said in response.

      No one ever jumped me. However, I had kids in my room that were known killers of rival gang members. One named Gonzalo had a thousand dollar price on his head for killing more than a dozen rival gang bangers.

      The campus where I taught had its own squad of campus police patrolling the halls on bikes and linked by warlike talkies. At lunch, there was a police squad car parked in the mall with an armed officer in it where all the rival gang bangers could see them. We had several riots.

      A few times after school while I was still in my room, there would be shootings in the streets outside the school fence. Once a rival gang banger was shot outside my room around 7 PM as he cut across campus taking a short cut from his girl friend’s house to his house. The rival gang seemed to know his habits. He died on the spot from a shotgun blast to his torso at point blank range while I was in my classroom working with the student editors of the school newspaper.

      The first school I taught at was an elementary school and most Mondays, the teachers couldn’t park in the school lot since someone usually shot out all the lights and the pavement was littered with broken glass. One Monday, we arrived to find bullet holes in the doors to the classrooms and someone had used a sledgehammer or some other blunt object to beat off all the doorknobs so we had to call a locksmith to get the school open so we could let the kids in.

      In the city of Los Angeles (we were not in the city limits so our street gangs were not included in this number), there are an estimated 100,000 street gang members and about a million in cities across the country.

      The thing is, it didn’t matter what socio economic area a teacher taught in from barrios to upper middle class, every teacher I met and knew during the 30 years I taught had stories to tell about the challenges and stress of dealing with spoiled kids from permissive usually self-esteem boosting homes or the violent sort that lived in barrios. The high school where I taught my last sixteen years of thirty bordered the barrio (on the flat side) and upper middle class homes (in the hills on the other side of the high school) so I taught (well, struggled to teach) kids from the barrios and the middle class and had a mix of violent and spoiled by the self esteem movement in most of my classes.

      Being a teacher in the US should come with combat pay. I read a study that said three professions come with the possibility of getting PTSD — teaching, flight controllers and combat veterans. However, the only difference between combat in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam is we had real weapons but in the US public school classroom we were not allowed to carry firearms for defense.

      I’ve read that an average of 5,000 public school teachers are physically attacked by students every year in the US. I knew one teacher that was knocked out by a student. After that girl came back from her five-day suspension, she was transferred into my class since I had reputations for being tough and controlling even the most violent students.

      • merlin says:

        Now I’m finally understanding why some places wanted to enact a law allowing teachers to carry firearms. I guess though the biggest problem teachers in those situations have to face is themselves. If in an emergency situation, can you honestly put aside the thought of this KID being a harmless kid and step up to defend yourself and your classroom? I think that’s what surprises a lot of people is the fact that some students are faced with a real battle zone everyday in their lives. Even at age 10, they’re not the cute little harmless person playing in the dirt anymore. Even from my experience at Walgreens I learned this lesson when rough kids would come in to grab a few snacks for the movie. Some paid. Others would act as scouts while their friends loaded their pockets. If I were in China, jumping them wouldn’t be a problem. But sadly in US where people conceal weapons on them everyday they walk out their front door, I’m not taking the risk over a candy bar and soda. Another thing I happened to witness was 10 year olds stealing condoms.

      • Merlin,

        The youngest girl student in the district that I taught in (during those thirty years) that got pregnant was a nine year old. Her family was from Mexico. They sent her back to their village to marry a man in his late twenties.

        Then another time an eleventh grade girl at the high school where I taught my last sixteen years left one of her classes (not mine although I had her for English when she was in 9th grade) to go to the bathroom and was later that same period caught by the CPOs having sex in the boys bathroom in one of the toilet stalls. When the prinicpal called the mother of the girl, the mother told him he was a liar and her daughter would never do that. In fact, the CPOs had to pull the boy and the girl apart since the boy refused to stop when they were caught in the act.

        There is another reason why teachers and campus police (CPO) are not allowed to carry weapons such as pistols—the risk of a student taking the weapon away from the teacher and/or campus police officer then the legal liability if other students were shot with that weapon. The district felt it would cost less to just have a teacher or CPO shot by a student that brought his or her own weapon on campus–less liability that way and if the teacher or CPO died protecting students by using his or her body as a shield, the district could generate positive public relations due to the heroes the district had working for them.

        This issue came up in Rowland Unified since the CPOs requested of the school board the right to carry firearms. The school board sought advice from lawyers that pointed out the liability risk and the request was denied.

        There were several incidents that led to the request. At one of the other high schools, CPOs caught students selling automatic weapons from the trunk of their car in the school parking lot. That even made the newspapers. Then there was an event at the high school where I taught when a CPO chased a teen that was not a student at our high school off the campus at lunch and halfway down the street, the teen turned and pulled a pistol from a pocket and aimed it at the CPO, who quickly gave up the chase and turned around to return to the campus.

        At one middle school I taught at in the late 1970s and early 80s (in the same district), the staff was warned not to chase a student into the neighborhood, as there was a high risk of being shot or jumped.

        At one after school basketball game where a rival school where a rival gang lived, the gang that dominated the neighborhood around that middle school climbed over the fence and walked across the campus in a skirmish line and it was obvious that had come to do battle. The principal, expecting this sort of trouble, had asked several of the staff members, that were also veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, to be at the game so I was there to witness this.

        Ralph, the principal, was a Korean War veteran. When he saw the gang, he walked across the field by himself from the basketball court and confronted them alone. When he finished talking to them, the gang reversed course and left the campus. Later, we discovered that Ralph had spent months developing a relationship with the adult leaders of this multi generational gang and had gone to dinner to their houses. As he made friends with these adult gangsters that once were teens in the same street gang, he asked for their support to help keep the violence off campus and gained it.

        He mentioned the names of these adult gang leaders to the teenage gang bangers that had invaded the campus during that after school basket ball game and the teens decided it was best to leave and not face the rath of the gang’s generals.

        After thirty years of teaching in that district, I have many stories such as these, and the White House, Congress and critics of the public schools expect teachers to teach these types of students and get them to be on or near grade level by high school graduation when in fact, it is a success to just manage to keep the peace in those classrooms.

  4. Zee says:

    I haven’t read all of the comments and replies but I just have a quick response.

    I feel really bad for Chris. I taught middle school English for 3 years back in the 80’s. I had the same shock: I learned that it was not about teaching the kids English, but about keeping order in the classroom. I was also a master teacher (similar to “homeroom” teacher in U.S. but with more responsibilities) with 56 kids under my watch. So I had the added duty of making sure that the kids behaved. So imagine the shock I had when I found out one day that two of my “star” students were really bullies and they had done all sorts of cruel things to a smaller boy. I walked into the classroom with that knowledge and simply broke down in tears (I was only 21 then). I sobbed and asked the kids why they did those things. For one moment, the classroom sobered while I cried.

    In college, I only studied English and I had all sorts of dreams as to how to make learning fun for my future students. And they turned out to be monsters that I could hardly relate to. The school I taught in was even a magnet school which means only the best kids could go to. When I went to visit my then boyfriend’s classroom in a regular school, it was like a war zone. It definitely took more than the two of us to keep the classroom in order.

    So I recorded the sentences the students had to chant, gave him a tape, and he just played it really loud over and over, instead of really teaching.

    By the way I was not a crappy teacher either. I was publishing summer exercises and teaching model classes for teachers from all over the province. It took me a short time to realize that my passion was in language, not in child psychology or educational theory or classroom teaching methodology.

    I got my graduate degree and started teaching in college – a much more rewarding experience.

    So if you are “teaching English” in China, be sure you are teaching college English. Otherwise, you need to have a pation for education for a specific age group. I have seen teachers who enjoyed all of that.

    The only input I have for Chris: Don’t be too loud or too excitable in front of these kids. Have a couple dozen tricks in your pocket to “catch their attention” and use your “indoor voices” 90% of the time. That way, when you are loud, they will hear you. I know nothing about elementary school kids, but I’m sure there are books about that age group and what works to obtain and maintain their attention span. If things like this doesn’t excite you, then this is not your cup of tea.

    Do something else, quickly.

    I did teach one year of college freshman composition. Comparing my experience to China, I would say Chinese college kids are a lot more mature. At least back in the 80’s.

    • Zee,

      In the US, half the teachers quit in the first two or three years of teaching and never return to education. The reality of teaching bites hard. I survived 30 years, because I was a combat Veteran that served in Vietnam and a former US Marine. Without that experience, I would have left too. Teaching younger children and teens is war.

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