Foreign teachers in China: 老师 who are not too 老

The Chinese word for teacher is laoshi (老师); the first character, 老, means "old" and almost always has an honorific rather than a disparaging connotation. When a young Chinese person would call me 老方 -- Lao Fang, "Old Mr. Fang," Fang being for a while the Chinese version of my family name (story for another time) -- it was meant in a nice way. I don't remember anyone calling me 胖方-- Pang Fang, "Fat Mr. Fang" -- but if they had that would have been complimentary too.

Given the respect for 老师 and 老-ness in general, I noted a report from James Bishop, an American who with his wife has taught English at Baoding University, in Hebei Province, since the early 2000s, that he was being told to leave the country because of his age. He writes:

"China is purging foreign teachers over the age of 60. No new visas. and no exception I know of anywhere in the country. I am on a forum that connects hundreds of teachers here. Smart ain't it? Thus, no retired teacher, those with the most training and experience and the least likely to chase young Chinese women, can be hired into schools that desperately NEED trained teachers who have actually earned their degrees from accredited institutions."

I wrote back to ask how long he had been in the country, and he said:

"7.5 years at the same shop. We were honored with the 'Friend Of China' medal in recognition of our teaching efforts. Many modernizations and upgrades of our department were initiated by Sallie and myself. We have the only room dedicated to the use of English I know of in China (It is equipped with furniture and several hundred DVDs we purchased ourselves, two computers connected to the Internet, a satellite TV system providing access to foreign English language broadcast, and many books and magazines.), nightly full length English language films free of charge to the students, a student newspaper, mid day English free talks, 'seminars,' and an 'English only' rule within the building resulting in acknowledged improvement in oral English skills among the faculty and student body. The decision is being made by people who have no connection with, or concern for, the quality of English language instruction in China."

In the big sweep of China's problems and injustices, this is not that heartbreaking. I mention it partly out of sympathy for the people involved -- but partly too as corrective data for outsiders tempted to think that all efforts in China are seamlessly aimed toward the shrewdest and most efficient pursuit of the nation's developmental goals. A lot happens because of accident, mistake, or foolishness.

Bishop says that he and his wife "are looking for new worlds to conquer."