Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Thursday, July 15, 2010

"Undercover" Missionaries 

Read an article by Eric Fish in the Global Times some time ago about "undercover missionaries." The article presents itself as an expose on teachers who are not what they claim to be, but, in fact, the article itself is not really what it claims to be, and contains a number of inaccuracies.

Mr. Fish starts out by telling a story about an English teacher who shows a Mel Gibson movie to her students. Nothing so unusual about that, but the incident is presented as if it were a subversive act. I am not really a Mel Gibson fan (although I saw him in Man Without a Face, and thought he did a decent job), but I don't see any real harm in showing one of his movies to a group of students. The movie Mr. Fish is talking about is The Passion of the Christ. I also saw that movie, and I admit, the beating scene was a bit overdone, and it might be upsetting to someone who had never heard the story. But, after all, it is a part of American culture that students want to know about.

Eric Fish then launches into a diatribe about non-profit organizations who are sending "thousands" of teachers to China. He goes on to say that these organizations maintain "huge cash reserves," and that they "pay the teacher's salary directly and only receive a small payment from the university, letting the school spend a fraction of what they would normally pay for a foreign teacher." This, I think, is the real source of Mr. Fish's ire. Eric Fish is an English teacher by profession, and he is understandably miffed by the fact that non-profit organizations are able essentially to offer English teachers in bulk at a significantly reduced cost. Although I am not an English teacher, I have heard this kind of complaint from English teachers several times in the past. I always point out to them that English teachers like Mr. Fish, who prefer to contract independently (presumably because they can make more money), cannot begin to fill the demand for English teachers in China. So these organizations that Eric Fish's article vilifies are actually providing a badly needed service, but in a manner very different from the way he describes.

In the first place, they do not have huge cash reserves. What they do, is to recruit English teachers, and then show those English teachers how to raise their support from churches or civic organizations. This support money will then go to the teacher, but a small percentage will be taken out by the organization to cover their operating costs. So the organization doesn't need huge cash reserves as long as they can continue to recruit teachers. But the part that really upsets English teachers like Eric Fish is that the organization then takes these English teachers they have recruited and offers them at a significantly lower than average cost, in exchange for a commitment from the university to take a specified number of teachers from the organization. Again, given the huge demand for English teachers in China, this is really a win-win situation for both the placement organizations and the universities. The organization can afford to do this, because, contrary to what Eric Fish says in his article, they are not paying the teacher's salaries out of their "huge cash reserves." The teacher is supported by a combination of what the Chinese university pays them, and what they can raise as support themselves. Since the teachers are raising support under the auspices of a non-profit organization, they are able to offer their supporters receipts for tax deduction. This makes it easier for them to raise money. The universities gain, because they are getting teachers for a pittance, whose salaries are being subsidized by American contributors. The only "losers" in this equation, are the independent English teachers like Mr. Fish, who feel that this arrangement makes it harder for them to compete for a living wage.

So we find that what purports to be an expose on "undercover missionaries," is, in fact, a rant by an angry English teacher who is upset by what he views as unfair competition. But what would he prefer? That many, many Chinese students be left without English teachers so that independent English teachers like himself would be able to demand a higher salary? Some of the organizations Mr. Fish refers to specialize in bringing expert teachers at a very low cost to students in remote areas who would not have any foreign teachers at all without the help of these organizations.

But what about Eric Fish's charge that these English teachers are actually "undercover missionaries?" Is there any truth to this? Do foreign teachers who happen to be Christians ever act in a way that is offensive? Do they ever take advantage of their position to "push" their religion on vulnerable students? Eric Fish again:
"A teacher, especially in China, is a highly respected profession [sic] with much influence, and foreign teachers are especially intriguing to many Chinese students. So when unsuspecting and naïve students meet these teachers with ulterior motives, they become easy prey."
I have a couple problems with this statement. Mr. Fish seems to be under the impression that these organizations are all operating as mini CIA's, sneaking missionaries into China. No doubt, there are some who do that. But the largest and most successful organizations have very open relationships with the Chinese government. They inform the government that many of their teachers are drawn from churches, because in countries like America, it is much easier to recruit volunteers who are willing to work for limited compensation from Churches than from the general public. Most American teachers would not even think about working for the kinds of salaries Chinese universities usually pay. But these non-profit organizations then ask the Chinese government to tell them what kinds of behaviors are appropriate for a Christian in China, and they have very strict rules for the teachers they recruit, telling them what they can and cannot do. To be sure, there are English teachers who occasionally violate these rules. But characterizing English teachers from non-profit organizations as "predators" is very, very unfair.

I am a Christian. I go to a regular Chinese church every Sunday. I always encourage foreign Christians who are living in China to get involved with a local Chinese church, and to work in cooperation with the local Chinese pastor. He will be able to guide them in learning what kinds of behaviors are appropriate for foreign Christians. And since he will have a relationship with the Religious Affairs Bureau, he will be able to ensure that foreign Christians know what is expected of them.

I do not believe I should push my beliefs on Chinese young people, but I also do not believe I need to pretend I am not a Christian. China has freedom of religion. People know I am a Christian. Occasionally students will ask if they can go to church with me, especially since the Three-Self church I go to now has an English service. I think I have seen one or two become regular attenders, but the majority do not. That is their choice. The government does not prohibit students from going to church.

But there is something else about Eric Fish's statement that bothers me. I do not like to hear Chinese students described by a foreigner as "easy prey." Mr. Fish does not seem to have a very high opinion of the thinking ability of Chinese young people. Does he think that he is easy prey? I have been teaching Chinese students in China now for several years. Granted, I am a specialist, so I have been working with a very select group of students. But I have found them to be bright, intelligent young people. They have their own ideas about religion. Sometimes, I get into discussions with Chinese students about religious subjects, especially at the English Corner. I find that Chinese young people are very open minded, but not necessarily interested in becoming Christians. Naturally, when large numbers of Chinese students interact with Christian English teachers, some of them will become Christians. But most of them will not. They will be a little more informed about what other folks believe, and they will become proficient in English. Most English teachers who are sent out by non-profit organizations are given very clear instructions about what is appropriate behavior for them. They have a wholesome influence on Chinese young people. And they are bringing expert English language instruction to remote communities most English teachers would not want to go to. Would China really be a better place if the only foreign teachers Chinese young people ever encountered were the cynical, Godless types who don't believe in anything, and who joke about violating Chinese law, buying illegal CD's, and engaging in unlawful money exchanges? I don't see this as a laudable alternative.

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