Monday, May 26, 2008

We're Worried That If You Teach Here, The Students Will Want To Look Like You

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.


Anonymous said...

Uh... sorry to burst your bubble but even in the States I doubt many schools will tolerate such overt display. I don't think it is a matter of intolerance of "alternative appearance", but schools just have much higher standard in the whole "moral character" business and no parents want their kids to have tatoos, pierced tongue, miniskirt etc...

You could certainly lawyer up and sue the school for infringe upon your rights, if u were in US, but you are not going to win much sympathy.

马克 said...

Oh I know that I might run into trouble finding a teaching job in the States but the amusing thing is the reason behind not wanting someone with an "alternative appearance." It's not because it's not professional or has negative cultural connotations, it's that it might influence other kids to follow suit. If there's anything Chinese kids hate, primarily girls, it's pain. My students perceive me as cool but definitely off my rocker to get so much ink, and the schools I've been with before have had no problem because it makes me more popular with the students.

I don't feel that my rights have been infringed upon- any employer has the right to refuse any employee for aesthetic reasons. But in my perception, this is a minor issue compared to the advantages I could bring to the table. It's really not a big deal, just a curious cultural quirk.

Anonymous said...

I have very visible tattoos on my forearms (no sleeves yet. Sometime next year I will, however), from the elbow to my wrist, and several others on my upper arms (usually covered). I've taught in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and I currently teach in China. Not once have my tattoos been a factor used against me in hiring. Of course, I never send them photos where they can see the tattoos. I usually wait a few months before I allow others at work to see them. Once you've been hired and earn a good rep nobody cares.

马克 said...

@ anonymous #2: I usually send a headshot of myself but one the teachers at that school is on a social networking site with me and I have some of my daily life pictures uploaded on it. I wish I could keep them covered while I build a rep but I'm in south China where t-shirts and short sleeves are necessary because of the heat. I could keep them covered in the classroom but someone's gonna see me walking around campus, going swimming, shopping, etc., and the word will spread. Better that the school knows up front, and usually it's no problem since a good resume is more important than skin but you never know what might be an issue with someone.