I recently received an email from the school where I was planning to work next school year. After checking out some of my photos online, they told me that my tattoos would be a problem (not the ones on my back, just on my right forearm), since the school has a mandate that teachers can't have exposed tattoos.
Education has consistently been a conservative discipline, especially so in China. Teachers are admonished to have a presentable appearance, since they are role models for the students and should not exhibit any adverse characteristics that the students might want to emulate (e.g., tattoos, funky hair, etc.). However, changing aesthetic attitudes, especially in the West, means that many foreigners coming to China will have an "alternative appearance" that undoubtedly will raise many eyebrows.
China places extreme importance on appearance. The way you look is generally an accurate representation of your job, personality, and social status (in China, you often can judge a book by its cover) and having tattoos is not acceptable for teachers, which have been traditionally associated with criminals and bad boys/girls. Yet China must also realize that in the West, while appearance sometimes can indicate a person's character, "alternative appearances" are becoming more and more mainstream and benign. I have gotten my tattoos simply for aesthetic purposes (and the surprising fact that Chinese girls love them), not in any attempt to be rebellious or draw attention to myself (I'm a foreigner in China- how can I get stared at any more than I do already?). And I am the kind of person that most schools are looking for- young, energetic, and experienced. Yet this school is letting a relatively small issue overshadow my positive aspects.
I'm not mad or offended or even surprised. I knew that when I got my ink, especially on my forearm, that it might rub some people the wrong way, and I have sometimes been initially perceived as a bad boy. But I am always glad when people tell me later that they are surprised that I'm really a nice and gentle guy, and that is what I would like to proliferate in China- that one's appearance is not necessarily who they are. I gave up long ago trying to get people to think of me as a tough guy- I still get called "cute" no matter how much ink I get :-). And to this school's credit, they did agree that I could teach there but they sounded a bit reluctant and honestly, I don't want to be in an unsure environment and more importantly, I don't want to cause offense or hurt the school's reputation. For me, tattoos are not a big deal, but that's because of my exposure to them. For others, they are still an obstacle and it will take a while before they're accepted. Same story with the miniskirt, and now everything's golden :-).
The good news is that I found another school in the same area and all things considered, it seems to be a better deal. My advice to anyone looking to work in China is check with your employer if you have any visible piercings, tattoos, weird hair, forehead implants, etc., especially if you're working for a school (my new school knows I have tattoos and they're cool with it). I've met teachers with full sleeves, pierced tongues, waist-length dreds, but more often than not, foreign teachers are pretty normal-looking and this is what schools expect. If you're inclined to the rock n' roll end of the fashion spectrum, it doesn't hurt to give them the heads up.
Anyone had any problems caused by their appearance in China?
The arm in question. Good thing I decided against the impaled skull design.