Monday, March 30, 2015

Centre Karma

Yesterday was a good day. One month on from taking the reins at my latest centre (which for the purpose of this piece, I'll call centre A)  and now I feel like I've got a better feel for communicating, controlling and accomplishing. This is the same place that three years ago filled me with dread to go to because things were so negative: Any push had push back; Any difference was contested. It was something from a centre culture and intermingled the legacy of things gone by.

Things are so much easier in centre B, which I moved back to manage in September last year. It was my first centre as a teacher in China - generally a happy office, out-there kinda people; systems were never perfect but heart made up the difference. When I returned almost all the people had changed (they weren't strangers because I kept a connection with it) - yet the feeling remained quite similar. Centre A had the same phenomenon: in a centre staff of over 40 people, only 4 had remained but the mood was the same. Even though teachers were placed randomly, centre A seemed to be constantly dealt British teachers.

Centre culture is rather interesting: Just like we change all the atoms and cells of our body every seven years (apparently), centres have particular habits, attitudes and beliefs that are transmitted unconsciously. My own take on this is that there are influencers and events that create these. Centre A for example started with a series of different managers coming and going. Even when stable (when I first arrived), you got the feeling that people were waiting for the next person to come in. Whether by karma or just common misfortune, it had another run of four different education managers in the last 10 months, of which I'm the fourth. In that way, the culture can be quite adaptive, for people to get through and keep themselves moving forward despite the environment.

But centre culture can be a selfish, conservative thing. It doesn't like change. It can be antagonistic to cooperation and commitment. And then the next question how can you change centre culture. You can't just tell people to change their beliefs and attitudes. Leadership, both by the manager and people who can sway by word or example, is the only way to coax things into the direction that is beneficial to achieving the goals of the whole.

Changing topic slightly, I'm usually proud of my ability to retain staff. But I'm secretly happy I'm losing one of the teachers from centre A and in a way I think I've learned from my mistakes. The simple truth is that you don't want to retain everyone; not everyone is good long term for the company. In the past, I've been assertive with expectations but keen not to escalate discipline formally. Formal discipline with written warnings etc. are difficult to do while not affecting motivation, trust and morale. I've had teachers in the past who did things that were not acceptable that I didn't write up because I didn't want it staining the atmosphere and straining the relationship. Maybe I just lacked the confidence to pull it off in an objective yet sympathetic way before.

The teacher I'm losing I heard about when they arrived last year. Her manager came to visit me and my broken knee and mentioned her issue, a common archetype among our staff: Decent teacher, likes helping and chatting with students, too casual though, disregards administration and manager feedback, poor organisation, lacks punctuality. It's a dilemma to teaching managers because students like these teachers; the core business is keeping students happy. And they view work in China differently to the managers: "I'm here to teach and have a good time."

The key of course is that they have the right consistent expectations from the start, and she had had three different managers. Pretty much from day one with me in the centre, I stated to the whole staff my expectations, then did friendly reminders to her when she slipped (which didn't take long, regrettably). And then we went to an action plan shortly after when nothing changed. Then when she failed that two weeks later, I gave a verbal warning, saying that the next step would be to write it up and explained the discipline procedure. The infractions she was doing were small but the mistake is not following through on what she said she was going to do and do the work that all team members were obliged to do. After one month with me, she said she didn't want to renew her contract. We do have a decent rapport although I'm sure she doesn't like me as a manager - too stressful, I'd presume although she'd never tell me. But she was a stress-point for me too. Management life is too stressful to have people cause needless anxiety and stress and I'm glad she made the decision she did. Incidentally, she did everything in her action plan for a whole week - the first time I'd seen it.

I'm happy that I found my confidence in these situations and I've started to be more realistic and direct in situations like this.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


Kaiping has been a familiar sounding town name for me. It was one of the many nearby cities I learned the names of once I started telling people I was headed for Guangzhou. Previously many of my NZ-Chinese friends had claimed to hail from Guangzhou but soon as I asked some of them about good places to live they changed their answer to their real hometowns, the smaller satellite cities around Guangzhou: Foshan, Zhongshan, Kaiping etc. Kaiping is around 2 hours out of Guangzhou, with a different culture and recent history. And it's a gem of a little town to visit.

Kaiping has only 600,000 people, straddles two rivers and is one of the towns comprising the Siyi region (literally "the four counties"). Their language is similar to Guangzhou Cantonese but it isn't mutually comprehensible (the locals learn Guangzhou cantonese as it's the lingua franca for the Guangdong and some of Guangxi, though). The Siyi region, historically, is famous for a lot of things. For some reason, this stretch of land produced a disproportionate number of people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who search for their fortune abroad. Most commonly it was the gold mines of San Francisco but it's likely that a fair few headed for Otago as well. They left as single men with no dependents and, if they returned, they came back with their fortune to get married and have a family.

But they didn't just bring money; they brought back western architectural ideas. They put a lot of that money into making "diaolou" style houses, often called "watchtowers" in English. During this time there was a lot of banditry in the countryside and these imposing taller buildings ostensibly were to protect. But most people can see a little bit of "keeping up with the Jones" about it - if one side of the town had one of these it obliged the other side to follow suit, if they could. People then gave their homes names, put in all sorts of roman domes and Arabian motifs. Whereas Macau and Shanghai have their western colonial period buildings, Kaiping colonized itself with a mishmash of extraordinarily foreign designs and ideas 100 years ago. One building that we could enter was complete with a sitdown toilet and bathtub on every level.

And for the visitor that's where things start to get interesting. Any bus ride through the countryside results in glimpses through the trees of old, but very unchinese, buildings. Every building a new idea. Walking around. Perhaps even cycling around. Exploring backstreets has never been so much fun.

The visitor-unfriendly side is that people rarely go to Kaiping city itself to see the watchtowers (or go to spas), they'd either drive themselves there or take tours direct from the bigger cities like Guangzhou. After we got there we were appalled that it required a bit of work to figure out transport, which revolved around routine buses. What made up for this was the helpfulness of the people (almost the most helpful I'd seen in China). One guy who worked at the bus station walked us around the streets to different places to solve one of our problems, transportation to a spa. Once we figured out that complicated transportation we gave it a go and it went perfectly with the unexpected help of another fellow: We got off a bus at a town near the spa complex. We'd been told that we needed to catch a motorbike over to the spa but were a little unsure of how to do that. A man from a shop saw us and asked us where we were going. We explained and he whistled over a motorbike, grunted at the driver and he took us there. We took the driver's cellphone number and once we were finished at the spa, gave him a call to pick us up. It went like clockwork, which is always a good feeling when you're travelling. 

The watchtowers, the spas and our chief purpose, to attend the wedding banquet of a friend, were all wonderful. The watchtowers will stay in my mind for a while I think. Nowhere else in China did people go in such numbers abroad at that time. Nowhere else in China did they come back in this kind of style. Originally there were 3000 watchtowers in the region, with 1833 still standing.

May history prevail.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Fourth Uncle

I can remember my first encounter with Fourth Uncle (Sei kaufu, middle of the photo). It was at my brother-in-law's wedding, which was probably my second trip to Qingyuan. I was still very "new" and tried to be as active and sociable as possible. Also I was introduced left, right and centre to all branches of a fairly large family. In a wedding banquet there are multiple rounds of each meal with guests eating in one, seeing the bride and groom and leaving but as I was staying, and also someone different I'd visit multiple rounds.

Anyway, so after my first initial lunch of rice, vegetables, eggs and brandy, I went to rest and sober up a little upstairs. Barely twenty minutes went by when I was called back down because my future wife's "kaufu" (mother's brothers, i.e. maternal uncles) had arrived and wanted to meet me. I went down to be introduced by about seven people, two of whom were kaufu or their nephews. I'd unfortunately already been recognised as having some semblance of holding my drink and had my glass immediately filled with baijiu (稻花香) and told that I should knock it back in politeness. I did and then was asked a multitude of questions in heavily accented mandarin about New Zealand and myself. The most enterprising question asker was Sei Kaufu, the fourth maternal uncle. Always with warmth and with a huge grin (not captured in the photo, regrettably).

And it has been that way ever since. He's always the man to smile and welcome and shake my hand. The one to always come out with a question from left field to fill the lack of topics that sometimes occurs, or rehash the old ones to ply a new angle. He's curious, warm and engaging even though a little glum when not talking. He's one of the ones that makes me look forward to family gatherings, as we've had over the last couple of weeks for Chinese New Year. His home is a certain visit most years as he was born on the sixth day of the lunar year, an appropriate time to double as a gathering day as any, when everyone is in town.

As my Chinese sojourn reaches closer to an ending, I start thinking that it might be one of the last that I see some of them, like Sei Kaufu. He's not young, probably close to seventy. He's probably too fond of the drink at that age too. I've stayed long enough to crave the closeness to people here as I do with people in my home country. I wish Sei Kaufu longevity, happiness and health.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015


We sat down together in a small classroom together:
"Are you feeling OK?"
"I'm really embarrassed. I don't know where it came from, really," he said.
He'd walked into the office that morning. It hadn't been a bad start to the day. There wasn't any conflict with the wife. There was cooler weather, too, pleasant and refreshing. But arriving on his first day of work, his computer monitor didn't work. Beyond his belief, rage burst from his mouth. His fists struck the desk. He swung the office door back open and still anger coursed out of his mouth.
I missed the eruption – not even hearing it despite being next door. But coincidentally I came into the office just after to see his colleagues doing everything they could to make sure there was a solution: an alternative computer wasn't taking his log-in but they kept trying; another staff member was checking another computer still; and another one was fiddling with his monitor. I went to his computer, bent down and noticed the plug had come out from the powerpoint, plugged it back in and started his computer.
Back in the small classroom, he talked about his frustration. Just like me his wife had been applying for immigration but it was still on the immigration service system as "Received" despite having been received 8 months ago.
"I'm just sick of being here," he continued. He'd been in China for almost four years, had adapted well, had got married. I haven't been ever sick of being here but perhaps the bigger problem making him sick was just not being in control of the future, to continue life to the next step. He was frustrated but didn't want to tell his wife as she was tense enough about the big move as it was (she was the one being uprooted) and couldn't tell friends who wouldn't understand. And it was awkward to talk to me because I was his boss, and worse, I'd already got out of the same terrible limbo which he was stuck in.
Our two immigration processes have been a huge contrast. Ours was shorter (we applied after them but received approval before him) but was high on torment; his is only getting longer but has complete systemic indifference and apathy – he hadn't heard a word.
We submitted our application shortly after coming back from Bali last year but from the start it was a special kind of administrative torture. We'd gone to an office specialised in immigration to get one document only to find upon application it wasn't up to requirement and having to repeat it. Then having formally applied, we had to prove our documents and ourselves again and again. In two of the oddest demands, I had to provide my half-siblings certified birth certificates to confirm that they weren't my children, and my wife had to prove her birth, because her certified birth certificate wasn't enough.
We were asked to provide correspondence for our residential address for 2013 which we didn't have: "Correspondence is mandatory evidence," "Without correspondence it is difficult to proceed with your application," our case manager told us. It didn't look that way in the Application Guidebook we had but her reading of it was all that mattered. And this mantra of hers set in motion an ill-advised series of communication. I gave more evidence and then asked in a stream: what more we could give to make up for omission, if it was difficult to proceed could we suspend our application, or if we could withdraw our application would we get the money back to apply at a later time. She said she was considering the application and then ignored all previous questions and replied to only the final: "Withdrawing the application would forfeit the application fee" (a not inconsiderable sum). Considering the application, I thought, we waited intently. When we were in Hong Kong we received a curt e-mail: "Are you withdrawing your application? Please respond by 9 January." 9 January was the next day. Gladly catching the e-mail in a timely fashion, we replied in the negative.
Then shortly afterward on a weekend in December we were asked:
"Please go to the consulate to get a statutory to explain why your sponsor cannot get an original proof of non-criminal record for China. Please respond by 28 February." The briefer the sentences the more astonishing it was: We'd given a certified proof of non-criminal record for me, the sponsor, 6 months ago and the case officer had said nothing. She'd never asked us to get the original so why would I go to make a statutory declaration to swear I couldn't get something I'd never tried to get. We were apoplectic and we did the common sense thing – we tried to get my original proof of non-criminal record, going upstairs and downstairs between departments when suddenly I realised: Our case manager knew we couldn't get the document. So she'd decided to ask for a statutory declaration without any explanation. So we went and got a statutory declaration, exactly what she asked for and submitted it that day.
Needless to say she was hopeless at communicating. Her first e-mail to us promised "If you have any questions please call… please e-mail…" We called three dozen times without answer. And our e-mailed questions were never answered selectively and incompletely.
Yet, after all the administrative death of a hundred papercuts, completely against the run of play, at the beginning of February, while I was running along the side of the Pearl River, my phone rang to hear that we'd been approved. The battle was over.
And yet my colleague hasn't got any response, any question, any jab or any obvious scrutiny yet waits. It is hard to know which treatment was better. Neither has been a great process to undergo.Which would you prefer?
Of course this whole tale should be happy: WE'VE BEEN APPROVED!! And we're happy. And excited and nervous and confused. And thinking about whether we want to write a formal complaint.