This article was originally published on Sister Writes’ The Work Issue on November 19, 2019.
The train brought me to a small town, ShungXi, one hour outside of Taipei City. It was still considered part of the Greater Taipei area, even though it is nothing like Taipei. No marvelous towering skyline, no flood of scooters, and no crowds to push through. Not many people knew there was a public high school located in this secluded place. On my way to the school I passed some traditional grocery stores. A few of the owners were dozing on aged chairs outside the front doors. It was a quiet Wednesday afternoon. As I approached the school, I could hear only the sound of a stream babbling on behind the building. Unwilling to break this serenity, I whispered what I just read in my carry-on notebook on the train in my heart. Yes, there was a period when people still wrote things down in a notebook. I tried to memorize that I had written down last week, and as a history student from Taiwan, this was absolutely my super-power.
The school’s security guard was already waiting for me. I felt awkward for a moment. I knew what he was waiting for. He tried to talk to me, but I was in a rush. The guard was very young. He was the first and so far only student from this school to have graduated from a national university. It surprised me that he had chosen to come back here to perform his alternative military service. No one wanted to visit this backwater school, not even parents.
But I came. Not just once, but every Wednesday of my 23rd year.
The school bell sounded. I was immediately surrounded by students who all started talking to me at once.
“What did you bring for us this time?”
“Did you hear someone came here yesterday? But the guard didn’t let him in!”
“Can you help me study history and geography this weekend? I can come back to Taipei!”
I handed out the snacks and looked at those young faces. Well, they were not really so young to me. I was only five or six years older than them. I was a fresh graduate.
There were three classes for grade twelve, a total of 142 students: 86 girls and 56 boys. 45 of them planned to become engineers, and others wanted or could only study the humanities. I knew everyone’s names. I even knew their families’ situations, their hobbies, their secret relationships, their strengths and weakness in their studies, and their desires, which I spent one year listening to and carefully jotting in my notebook so I always had something to talk about the next time I saw them.
Their “desire” was always the same: go to university, go to a good university, go to a national university. Not surprising since we were all taught the same thing: that once you get into university you get your ticket to a bright future. When you are sixteen or seventeen years old, these words are the only effective stimulant which can help you get through the high-pressure but boring life of a student.
I have been there, same as everyone, so I understood all of their struggles and knew how to comfort and encourage them. There were over one hundred different inspiring stories in my pocket, just waiting for the best opportunity to be brought out.
“Don’t let the location of your school limit your future! Every student of other schools in Taipei City are already doing their best to prepare for the College Entrance Examination. You should take it seriously too. A one-hour train ride to Taipei City will have you studying with some of the best high school students in Taiwan. Give yourself a chance to change your destiny……”
Just as the Hebrews believed Moses would bring them to the promised land, all of these students trusted that I could show them the way to university. The ranking of this high school was near the bottom, so neither the parents nor their teachers believed there would be positions in university for these students. Only I did.
“Did you actually believe that?” I was asked many years later, sitting in a café and catching up with Eva, who was working as a student recruiter in a “cram school.” She had been one of those 142 students. I looked into her eyes and kept silent. Whether I believed or not didn’t matter. Whether I answered the question or not didn’t matter. She understood already; she had been doing this job longer than I had.
Eva was the last student who signed up to my cram school. The first thing Eva did after getting into university was to come back to this cram school and ask for a part-time job. She wanted to help her family, and she wanted to become like me.
You might be wondering: What is a cram school? A cram school is where most East Asian students go after their normal school day ends. It’s where they are promised the secret of how to beat all of their peers and stand out from crowd during the intense competition of the entrance exam.
I still remembered when Eva’s mother came to our school with her and asked me if we offered an installment plan for tuition. “Please help her to enroll into a good school.” Her voice was so tired. She left me a bags of greasy coins, because she was too busy at the traditional market and didn’t have time to go to the bank to exchange them. “I’ll figure out how to pay the rest. Please keep a seat for her!” She was a single mother of three children and was being chased down by huge debts. Her only hope in life was Eva graduating from a good university and making enough money to help her.
I counted those coins and calculated the commission I would get. “She will! She is a smart girl, and our teachers will help her,” I heard myself say. My voice was so sincere and convincing. In that moment, I wholeheartedly had confidence in Eva’s upcoming bright life. So Eva’s mother took my words to heart and paid the tuition, which was five times her monthly income.
“Remember! Nothing can’t be sold,” Eva imitated my previous supervisor’s tone and then repeated this person’s golden rule: “If you can convince yourself to buy your own products, trust me, you can sell a scarf to a dead body in the summer.” Her impression was spot-on, and we both couldn’t help but laugh out loud.
The laughing helped cover up my guilt.
Guilt was one of the words that never showed up in the corporate manual. Outstanding achievement was the only thing that mattered. On the first day of the job, my supervisor, one of the top recruiters in this industry, made sure that I fully understood the essence of how to be a good recruiter: there were no ethical stands, only strategies of how to achieve the goal. “If a male student wants to hold your hand, let him do it! If you have to wear a sexy dress in order to get through the door at the school, then you should. Anything that gets students to sign up to our school is fair game,” she told me.
I didn’t quite understand what I was doing at the time. This was a job in a school, a place for education, wasn’t it?
But very soon, practice made perfect.
The first step, you figured out for yourself. It was: How far are you willing to go? What is your red line? Or more accurately, it’s a question of whether or not you even have a red line. Salary deductions from failing to make your quota wasn’t the worst thing; the teasing from your colleagues was. Every night all of the office workers, including the boss, managers, tortured teachers, and recruiters would eat a late dinner together, dance and sing in a karaoke bar together, get drunk together, and then go back home and chat online about whatever workplace scandal. The next day, work would be a cruel battle of lying, bullying, and infighting. That was just inside office. Outside there were 316 cram schools for the College Entrance Examination. In order to survive in this crazy workplace, I had to use all of my abilities, wisdom, energy, and even my soul if necessary.
“For example, do you know why the school’s security guard only allowed me to enter the school and why your class teacher always welcomed me?” I asked Eva when she first consulted me on how I recruited over 250 students in one single year.
“Because unlike other recruiters who only cared about if we went to the next orientation, you actually cared about us.” I appreciated Eva’s loyalty, but the truth was that I had promised both young guys we might go watch a movie together one day.
Eva looked at me, “but you didn’t.” It was not a question.
“No, I didn’t.”
Which did I hate more? Was it all the ambiguous conversations with the guys, old and young—whether it was a student, a school guard, a class teacher, a colleague in the cram school (for extra tutoring for my potential customers), a father who was looking for an affair (he may send his child), or the boss (for helping me close a case)? Or was it when I sincerely held a high school girl’s hands and listened to all of her troubles, was her friend for one year, and then teared up in front of her and told her I might be fired if she couldn’t introduce new students or convince at least one of her friends to come to our school?
The worst of the worst was I had to fool myself every time I successfully recruited a student. I didn’t mention to my students that I never went to a cram school when I was in high school. I haven’t, not even once, believed that going to a cram school is necessary. Working as a recruiter, I also realized that getting into a good university did not guarantee you a bright future. Some of my students already had good positions waiting for them before they went to university, the lucky ones whose parents were bank managers or entrepreneurs.
But my lie was still successful over 250 times.
Ironically, the traditional concept from ancient times still provided me some status and respect. People believed I was working in the education field, which makes for a holy career.
After this admission season, I left the school –my first and last office job. I bought an apartment in the center of Taipei City without a loan right after I left. The next summer, most of the students I had recruited became university freshmen. Two years later, the cram school where I worked collapsed. I finished my degree and went to Germany to chase my own academic goals. Then, I became a traveler and a freelance writer. There was a period of time I avoided talking about this job to anyone.
Where are those students now? I only maintain contact with few of them, who share the same family conditions and similar life experiences as me. Eva bounced between several different cram schools. Sometime after Eva fell into the debt cycle of student loans and Chanel bags — like many long-term cram school workers — we lost touch and gradually drifted apart.
I don’t struggle too much with how this job affected me anymore. Only when people ask me about my house, which is the foundation of my sense of security and carefree life, does the guilt creep back into my heart.