The Obligatory Annual Kiss-up Ritual

My former Chinese company’s annual year-end banquet brought to mind two things: cheesy church services, and a story from my junior high history textbook about a speech by Lenin, after which the applause went on for several minutes because everyone was afraid to be the first one to stop clapping.

(I wrote this after my first semester working at a privately-owned, local English training centre in Tianjin, but waited to post it until now. It captures a North American’s reaction to his first vivid encounter with the Chinese-style boss-employee relationship.)

I know China is a “kiss up, kick down” society where might makes right, but it was surreal to see it in action at my former place of employment’s year end banquet. They worshiped the boss of the company — in song — clapping and singing along, raising their hands, swaying to the music like I was having a nightmare involving a horribly mutated Evangelical worship service.

The Boss — Germany v. China:

It was bizarre. The whole evening was this giant ritual revolving around people kissing up to the boss by affirming his (inflated) position, with the subplot of each table having to get up and go toast every other table with China’s infamous hard alcohol that my previous Chinese boss admitted to hating — actually, every Chinese I’ve ever asked admits to hating it. But it’s professional in China for all staff to drink copious amounts of hard liquor — they have to. Who’s idea was this? It’s like junior high peer pressure didn’t get left in junior high and became culturally institutionalized. Everyone appeared to have a great time. But then I don’t know why they needed to take attendance or save the door prizes for the very end of the night.

They put us foreigner English teachers all at one table in the front row beside the big boss’ table. Our local counterparts, the Chinese English teachers, were placed at the far back of the large banquet hall — that’s where we foreigners would rank if we were Asian. But as the right kind of visible minorities, we were window dressing for the photos and videos of the event. There was a lot of karaoke to applaud from various departments (each department had to do some kind of performance), but it seemed suspiciously obligatory and alcohol-dependent. We couldn’t even think about leaving until after the big boss sang his big number and multiple encores for the crowd of sycophantic employees who’d rushed to the front of the room when he began singing like it was a pop concert. The video guy made a special point to come over and capture the foreigerns clapping and smiling along to the boss’ songs.

This was a privately owned local company. One of my Chinese coworkers (also my language tutor) says the butt-kissing is way worse at SOEs. As a North American, accustomed to slightly more subtle methods of butt-kissing that are covered by a token fig-leaf veneer, seeing the more ‘honest’ Chinese approach in action was striking and memorable, but painful to watch.


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