Two days before Teacher's Day, which falls on September 10 in China, Zhu, a Chinese teacher at an elementary school, started to feel an awkward mixture of anxiety and embarrassment. He still has not learned to handle the occasions where his students' parents call him out of his office and show their apparent gratitude by offering him presents, ranging from moon cake coupons to gift cards worth up to 1,000 yuan ($156).
"I feel embarrassed when parents privately slip a card into my hand. It makes me feel like some sort of thief," the new teacher said. "However, if I turn them down they will very likely be upset. Also, I'm afraid to ostracize myself from my colleagues, as most of them will accept such presents."
At the same time, Zhang Linlin, whose daughter was recently enrolled in a top elementary school in Shanghai, was also apprehensive about the upcoming Teacher's Day, though for a different reason. "It drains me to try to figure out what to give. A box of chocolates? Is it too meager? Or a 500 yuan gift card?" Zhang said in frustration. "It is the first time that I have decided to 'bribe' somebody. Although it feels weird, I do it for my child's sake. I don't want him to be neglected as one of the few students whose parents declined to give presents to the teacher."
Both teachers and parents have been disconcerted by an unspoken convention that has turned Teacher's Day into a campaign for parents to send under-the-table "bonuses" to teachers. Presents in the form of paper, especially cash, are commonly given enclosed in a red envelope, or hongbao, the traditional manner of presenting gifts on Chinese holidays and at weddings. According to a survey by sina.com, 55 percent of 3,797 people responded that they had given presents to teachers. On taobao.com, China's largest online shopping platform, there are over 600,000 items tagged as "presents for Teacher's Day," ranging from fake flowers to jade jewelry worth hundreds of thousands yuan.
The practice has drawn widespread criticism. Last August, a nationwide survey conducted by the China Youth Daily showed that over 64 percent of 4,083 parents favored the idea of schools or educational authorities initiating regulations to ban teachers from receiving gifts. In the same year, 10 top elementary and middle schools launched initiatives calling for teachers not to take advantage of their positions to seek illegitimate gains. The Shanghai Education Commission has commenced a policy intended to purify the school atmosphere, in which teachers who accept bribes receive a lower mark in their ethics assessments, thus impinging on their yearly bonuses and job stability.
However, such initiatives and policies have yet to be particularly effective. Before this year's Teacher's Day, the media reported a middle school in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region asking parents for money in the name of an allowance for Teacher's Day. In two hours, they collected 131,600 yuan. After the school's action was exposed by the media, all the money was returned and the headmaster was fired. However, this event merely constitutes the tip of the iceberg.
During the approach of Teacher's Day, some parents posted online the list of presents they had given. As the CPI continues to rise, so do the prices of presents. Moon cake coupons, fruit baskets, and gift cards are too common to be noticed, compared to luxury bags and international trips worth over 10,000 yuan. A parent living in Huangpu district complained in a post circulated over 100,000 times that one teacher found a 1,000 yuan gift unsatisfactory and had to be given another 1,000 yuan.
Huang, who has a son in kindergarten, refers to the list as a guide for selecting presents for teachers. "I just want to keep up with the majority," Huang said, adding that since most of the parents in her son's kindergarten are wealthy, she has to make a special effort not to fall behind in the yearly hongbao campaign.
Huang said that last year she sent 1,000 yuan gift cards to teachers, though her offerings were completely trumped by a fellow parent. "I heard someone sent luxury bags. As was expected, that child received more attention and got the chance to play the lead in the kindergarten's Christmas performance." She added, "Of course we hate such a practice, but we do not have a choice. This is the trend and this is the reality. If I do nothing while other parents are bribing the teacher, I'm afraid my son will not be equally treated. I cannot risk that."
Like Huang, most parents take it as an unpleasant duty to present a teacher with some form of valuable gift. According to a survey on sina.com, 95 percent of parents who send gifts to teachers do so not out of their own will, but rather to follow the crowd and to make sure their children are not neglected in the classroom.
The parents' concerns are not unreasonable. "Teachers are more likely to show a bad attitude to children whose parents never send gifts," said an English teacher from a middle school in Shanghai, who prefers to be identified as "Ms Wang." "If two children make the same mistakes, the student whose parents bribed the teacher will get a milder punishment than the one whose parents did not. The teachers feel they owe the parent something if they accept the parent's presents, so it is natural that they will treat the child differently."
According to Ms Wang, the bribing phenomenon is more serious when students are younger. "It is most commonly seen in kindergartens and elementary schools, where students are too young to take care of themselves. For their only child, parents are willing to pay anything," she said.
Bribes or supplements?
The connection between bribes and unequal treatment of students has led many parents to recommend to the government that the practice be prohibited or that Teacher's Day be abolished altogether.
"But Teacher's Day is only the date on which parents have chosen to bribe, not the cause of the bribe," said 33-year-old Li, a mother of a 3-year-old mixed-race son. "Teacher's Day is still a happy memory for me from my student days. We made cards or crafts to show our gratitude to the teachers. It is a Chinese custom to show special respect to them."
Though Teacher's Day only has a 26-year history in China, the country, with the influence of Confucianism, has a long tradition of showing teachers respect.