Racism and Teaching Abroad in China: Will Schools Hire Me if I’m Not White?

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“The school says I look ‘too Asian’ to work there. I’m not even Asian!”

“I’m not a native speaker, but I have tons of experience. Why won’t they hire me in China?”

“How do the Chinese view black people? Should I be worried??”

There is a TON of misinformation about racism in China, and I figured now is finally the time to set the record straight.

Yes, I know this is a super controversial topic. I also know that as a white girl, I’m probably not the ideal person to talk about this, despite my 5+ years of experience living and working in China.

But for now, I just want to answer all the burning questions that I receive on pretty much a daily basis, and then later I’ll be getting a collaboration post together that discusses the issue from the perspectives of other teachers in China with different racial backgrounds.

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So… Is China Racist?

The short answer is… yes. But not in the way you might expect.

China is a very homogeneous country. I mean, they have 56 different ethnic groups, but over 91% of people in China are Han Chinese. There isn’t much of a history of immigration either, so explaining concepts like race vs. nationality vs. ethnicity is extremely difficult. I think I made a few of my students’ minds explode when I tried to explain how I can be white, Irish, and American all at the same time.

No matter what you look like or where you’re from, you’re going to get some interesting questions. Granted, things get much easier if you’re white (unless you’re South African and then good luck with that).

That said, most of the questions actually come from a curious and good-natured place. Things that I would often be upset about if someone asked me in the West, I often laugh off in China. For example, I’ve been asked, “Wait, so in America, you’re not fat???“. Ouch.

What It’s Like to be Black in China

While I could never truly know what it’s like to be black in China (which is why I really want to do a collaboration article with a few other voices), I do want to at least address the topic using the explanations and experiences from some of my friends.

I will preface by saying that I do not have any black friends who have experienced any outright aggressive racism in China (which is more than we can say over here in the US). Many of the frustrating moments they have experienced have come from ignorant curiosity, or stereotypes.

Just to give you an idea, here is the absolute worst example of racism I have. During the Ebola epidemic, a hostel receptionist refused to check in my two Nigerian friends because they “might have Ebola”. Neither of them had been back to Nigeria in YEARS, and even if they had, the hostel had no right to turn them away. Thankfully after a few minutes of me screaming at the guy in Chinese, we were able to check in.

Monks with smartphones

Meeting monks in Wuzhen!

Subtle Questions and Confusion

This example is pretty extreme, and you’re much more likely to encounter more subtle questions and comments. For example, many Chinese people seem to think that all black people must be from Africa, and are super confused if you say you’re from any other country. This makes absolutely no sense to me, considering Obama and the NBA are both super famous in China…. but whatever.

You may also find that people will try to help you lighten your skin, they may make comments about your hair or assume you’re great at basketball.

One of my friends was surprised to find that everyone called her baozhatou (爆炸头) which literally means “explosion head” due to her afro. Another one of my friends had a random old lady come up and start touching her braids.

Overall, I would just expect a few strange questions and know that you’ll need to constantly explain to people that you’re not from Africa (unless you are actually from Africa). Mentioning Obama and the NBA usually does the trick!

What It’s Like to be Asian in China

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, you have the experience of overseas Asians in China. While many Chinese people know that other Chinese families move overseas, the concept of ethnicity vs. nationality is extremely confusing to many in China, DESPITE them even having a special nickname for Chinese Americans (ABC = American Born Chinese).

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Yandang mountains

Hiking the Yandang mountains!

Overseas Chinese

In China, there’s a distinct racial and national link: you can never truly be Chinese if you don’t look Chinese, and you can never truly be another nationality if you are ethnically Chinese. This means, that even if you become fluent in Chinese, have Chinese children, and live in China your whole life, you will always be a foreigner if you don’t look Chinese.

But if your Chinese family moved to the US three generations ago, you’ve never been to China before, you don’t speak Chinese, and you’ve never had Chinese food that isn’t Panda Express, you’re always going to be Chinese in the eyes of China. They’ve claimed you whether you want it or not!

People will be confused about why you don’t speak Chinese, and may even be slightly offended by the fact that your parents didn’t teach you the language. They’ll wonder why your family left China, and why you’ve decided to come back. They may also expect you to conform to Chinese ideas of beauty and fashion (eww! how could you let yourself get a tan??), a pressure that they often don’t place on any other foreigners.

Beijing brunch

Boozy brunch in Beijing!

Other Asian Ethnicities

What if you’re ethnically Korean, Japanese, or Vietnamese? Well, if you look ANYTHING like a Han Chinese person, expect people to be really, really confused. Even if you don’t look Chinese, people will still claim that you do.

For example, I had a Vietnamese American friend in China, who didn’t look Han at all. However, everyone insisted that she looked Chinese (she didn’t), and was confused as to how she could look so Chinese, and why she was in China if her family was Vietnamese. They also didn’t understand how she could be from the US on top of all of this.

Every time we went anywhere together, people would look to her to speak Chinese. When I jumped in and explained that she wasn’t Chinese and to speak with me, I would get a look of complete and utter confusion. I then would have to explain her racial background to this person, before they would let me continue with what I was saying. Every time. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

Debate Coach Beijing

Judging a speech and debate tournament through my company!

Racial Discrimination and Job Placement in China

So, does this casual racism affect your ability to find a job in China? Well, the answer is a little complicated.

Yes, SOME Chinese schools will discriminate against non-white applicants. However, these are NOT the schools you want to be applying to. Any school that discriminates against you based on race or ethnicity is NOT a school you want to work for! Any GOOD school will not care about your ethnicity!!

Let me repeat that again: SOME schools discriminate but these are NOT, I repeat NOT THE SCHOOLS YOU WANT TO BE WORKING FOR!!!!!!!!!!!

awkward travel photos

Me: “I traveled to Vietnam with my American friends”, Students: “…… What?”

Why SOME Schools Are Racist

Personally, it REALLY pisses me off when schools have racist hiring practices in China. I do job placement as part of my Teach Abroad Squad program, and I absolutely refuse to work with any school that has racist hiring practices.

That said, I do want to quickly explain which schools are most likely to discriminate and why.

Obviously part of this has to do with the personal feelings of the school or HR department. If the people hiring you don’t understand how immigration and ethnicity vs. nationality works, how can they possibly understand a black British teacher or a Korean American applicant?

Hong Kong harbor

Yoko is Japanese American but speaks excellent Chinese = Mind Explosion

Image = Proffit

However, the main reason why schools discriminate is IMAGE. Many PARENTS don’t understand how ethnicity vs. nationality works, so in order to make the parents happy, they will hire a bunch of white teachers. Some of these schools will even hire white non-native speakers illegally over a legally qualified black or Asian applicant. WTF.

This phenomenon usually happens at for-profit training centers where the parents pay money to send their kids after school or on the weekends for additional English training. These schools are a BUSINESS, and they believe that white teachers are better for their profit margins.

Now, not all training centers do this. The training center I worked for as a college counselor had Western teachers with all different backgrounds (we’re talking black, white, Chinese, Filipino, Bangladeshi, Caribbean, etc.) and also hired teachers with physical disabilities, which can be another issue in Asia (looking at you Korea).

Monks selfies

Expect to be popular!

Why You DON’T Want to Work For These Schools

Even if you happen to be white, you still don’t want to work for schools that have racial discrimination practices for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it’s shitty, so don’t work there out of principle. That said, these schools may not offer a great work environment for teachers in general.

Any school that discriminates on the basis of race, and that puts image over teacher quality, is going to do so in other parts of their business as well. These are the types of schools that will make you move a student up in level that isn’t ready for the material because the parents demand it. They may not train you or care what you teach, and then randomly will demand you start giving your students mountains of homework because a few parents complained.

When a training center puts image and profit far above education, it’s going to lead to a super frustrating job experience.

Christmas Enreach

Our office Christmas party!

How Do I Find Racially Inclusive Schools?

For the most part, public and private schools are pretty inclusive and rarely have issues with racial discrimination. Training centers are a mixed bag, but the high-level training centers that prioritize education (like the one I worked for!), are going to be much more likely to hire a diverse staff.

If you are applying for a training center, try to look at their promotional materials and website. Do they feature teachers of color? For example, the training center I worked for featured my Filipino-American coworker on the front of all of their office brochures to advertise their Western college counseling department (which made sense considering he was the head Western counselor).

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China talent show

International Student Performance in Hangzhou!

What About Non-Native Speakers?

I’m a member of a ton of different teach abroad Facebook groups, and every few days I’ll see comments and posts along the lines of: Stop discriminating against non-native speakers! This is racist!!!

Well, here’s the thing: it’s not racist.

China has a law stating that in order to teach English, you must be from one of the seven approved “native speaker countries” (US, UK, Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa). If you’d like to teach in China but aren’t from one of those seven countries, you can still teach a SUBJECT in English if you have 2+ years of teaching experience and are certified to teach in your home country. For example, I have a friend from Denmark who teaches math in English at an international school.

Read Me: Am I Legal to Teach in China?

teach abroad non native speaker

I literally saw this yesterday

Why Can’t Non-Native Speakers Teach English?

There are so many non-native speakers who speak incredible English, so why can’t they teach? Well, this is a tough one. While I do think that there are some more countries that should definitely be on the native speaker list (cough Singapore), I do understand where they’re coming from with this law.

Basically, the thought process is: Why would I hire a non-native speaker when I can just hire a Chinese person to teach this class?

There are plenty of Chinese people who speak English well enough to teach it, so the idea is that either schools should hire a native speaker, or use a Chinese person.

I’m not saying I 100% agree, but I do understand where they’re coming from. Imagine you wanted to move to the US to teach French but your first language is German. Even if you are excellent at French, the US visa office might be confused why a school should hire you over an American who is also excellent at French.

My Russian friend totally lied and told everyone she was from the UK

Working Illegally as a Non-Native Speaker

There are a variety of reasons why a school might hire a non-native speaker to work on a tourist or business visa (you can read more about those here).

Some schools may not be able to afford to pay a native-speaker or don’t have the permits necessary to legally hire a foreign teacher. If you’re going to be working illegally, THESE are the schools you want to work for.

The other group (the kind you DON’T want to work for) are the schools that will hire non-native speakers as long as they’re white and European-looking. Most of these schools lie to the parents and claim you’re British, or American, or whatever nationality they want. This way they can charge the parents full-price while paying you a lower salary. Ouch.

Obviously, the best way to get a job in China as a non-native speaker is to get your teaching certification in your home country (not a TEFL, we’re talking a certification that makes you qualified to teach in your home country). Then you can work legally in China and make a great salary at an international school! If that’s not possible for you, then just be careful and follow my suggestions to avoid getting scammed in China.

Fourth of July Beijing

Celebrating the 4th of July in Beijing!

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Do you want to teach abroad in China? Are you worried about racism and discrimination as a China expat? Here's the real story about what it's like to live in China as a person of color! #China #teachabroad #expat #racism #discrimination

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Any Questions??

I know this is a lot to take in and I’m sure you have a million questions. As always, the best way to ask a question is to either join the Facebook Group (I’m in it every day!) or to leave a comment right here!

Also, if you’d like a post featuring the voices of people from different races and ethnicities, please let me know and I’ll get to work on it! I’m always checking back for comments, so be sure to get in touch with me below!

Note: I will only be keeping productive comments that foster discussion. Any racist anti-China rants will be removed.

Do you want to teach abroad in China? Are you worried about racism and discrimination as a China expat? Here's the real story about what it's like to live in China as a person of color! #China #teachabroad #expat #racism #discrimination

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