It is sometimes hard to tell if the Chinese are generous or very selfish. On the one hand, they are obsessed with making money, by any means. Sales people are often pushy, dishonest and even aggressive; Taxi drivers will refuse to accept you, if you only want a short ride and landlords will lie shamelessly to get out of returning your deposit. On the other hand they are very generous hosts and will fight fiercely to be the one who pays for a meal. What I realise now is that it is all about the perception and face. They want to be seen as generous, but the generosity can be quite superficial. At our end of term office party I was reminded of medieval nobles throwing coins into the street and watching as the peasants scrambled for a share of the money.
The winter holiday in China in centered on the Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival. In China this is a time when everyone is expected to return home, to visit their parents and grandparents. It is one of the longest school holidays, typically between 4-5 weeks long, depending on whether it is a primary or secondary school. If the foreign teachers are not setting or marking exams, then it can be a few weeks longer still for us. For most people working in China, the holiday is only about a week long. It is not a peak holiday season and most of the holiday is a good tile to travel, except for that one week, when China experiences the planets largest mass human migration, when airports and train stations can each have tens, or even hundreds of thousands of people fighting over tickets. If there are delays from smog or ice, like last year in Guangzhou,then even the thousands of extra soldiers and riot police drafted in for crowd control can be insufficient for the task of keeping order.
My last few jobs were at state run institutions. A public school and a university. At the end of the term we would have a couple of thousand as a bonus before the holiday and we might have a meal. At Bao’yi wai the Chinese English teachers and the foreign English teachers went out for a meal, paid for by the school. The head of the English department would attend, but no other school officials. It was just a time to chat, relax and have fun. At Ludong University nothing was provided, but the foreign teachers organised their own dinner. Here I am in the private sector and things were very different.
The first obvious difference was entertainment. Every group of teachers was expected to put on a performance of some sort. My girlfriend, with the grade 2 teachers, was doing a dance routine. The teachers of other grades were singing songs or performing comedy routines. We were lucky that one of our teachers, Andrew, is a semi-professional singer. He often has paid gigs at the weekends at bars around Shenzhen. We had just planned to let him sing for us. Then two of the American teachers also decided that they would also sing. The organizers were clearly taking the entertainment seriously, as the music teacher was trying to get the music that they would use two weeks before the event. Andrew, however, was unwilling to commit and insisted that he needed to get a feel for the crowd and would decide on the night, which, no doubt, made her extremely frustrated.
The dinner venue was a local seafood restaurant, with the typical revolving tables. We did not have a private room, as our group was too big, but we were not enough to occupy the whole restaurant. the teachers took up a little under half the room, with regular customers all around us. The foreign teachers were meant to be spread between two tables, along with the Chinese English teachers, but instead they just took over one table for themselves. As we had not had any real work to do that day, most of them had been at the pub most of the afternoon and were already a bit drunk. Pretty soon they had drunk everything on the table and were three sheets to the wind.
The entertainment was quite amusing. Crystal, Purdy, Mathilda and some other grade 2 teachers started off with a funny dance routine, that went quite well. Andrew has a powerful voice and sang well, despite how much he had drunk. Richard sand a rap song of his own composition and Angela sang along to Valerie. Then there was a “comedy routine” which I couldn’t understand but which reminded me of old stage acts, like Abbot and Costello etc. Then a few Chinese teachers sang very badly.
A major New Year tradition in China is Hong Bao. This translates as red bag, but in this case refers to red envelopes. At New Year relatives give children red envelopes of “lucky money”. In some places employers also give Hong Bao to their employees. For my last two jobs I was not in the private sector. At the end of the year I got a bonus in my paycheck. There was no ceremony. This was different.
Before the party we had been made to attend a very dull meeting, all in Chinese, with no translation. For an hour the principled droned on at us, before giving award to the top performing Chinese teachers in the school. We were then called up one at a time to be given 500 rmb in cash. This was the first part of the Hong Bao. The rest was via Wechat.
We chat, or Weixin, is a very popular social networking app from AliBaba. As well as being used for messaging people, micro-blogging and sharing articles, it is also commonly used for shopping. Many businesses in China offer discounts if you pay online, with Weixin or Alipay etc. It is fast, convenient and not really all that secure. It also has a Hong Bao function.
You can send a Hong Bao on wechat, to transfer money to one person. You can also use it to transfer money to a group of people. You set how much money you will give, how many people can receive cash and whether the amount will be equal or random. The Chinese prefer to give random amounts and usually set the number of recipients to less than the number in the group. Anyone in the group will get a notification that they have HongBao. When they click the envelope, they get a share of the money (If any is left).
This is what was used at our party. When we arrived, everyone scanned a code to join the party wechat group. During the party the head principle got on stage and announced that he was sending us all 8000 rmb of HongBao. People got poised by their phones, ready to click the envelope for their random share of the cash.
At intervals throughout the rest of the party, other principles and school patrons got up on stage. After being introduced the announced how much money they would be giving away and everyone got poised on their phones. Later on a few teachers send small amounts of money to only about the first 10 people in a group of 150 or so. The teachers would be clicking away, only to get a message saying “better luck next time”. In the scramble for the loose change that had been thrown down virtually, they had been too late.
It was these small packets of Hong Bao, where not everyone would bet anything, which made me think that it was like the gentry casting down a few coins for the beggars to fight over, or Jack Nicholson as the Joker. In total I got nearly 1000 rmb from the whole evening, which was a nice added bonus, but even with the 500 in cash it was less than the bonus that I had been given without any ceremony at my previous jobs.
The principles and patrons of our school were no more generous than my previous employers, but they wanted to make very big deal of showing off their generosity and letting everyone know exactly how much money they were giving away. As Thomas Fuller said “Lavishness is not generosity.”