I regularly receive e-mails from non-White and non-native speakers inquiring about what the real opportunities are for teaching English in China and decided the time was long overdue to revisit this concern in a far more open, transparent, and revealing way that I suspect will apply to most prospective foreign English teachers in this situation.
The bottom-line is that non-White and/or non-native speakers can find jobs teaching oral English in China with a great deal of persistence and especially if they are already in China, but it is unlikely they will be competitive for the most desirable teaching jobs or ever be regarded and treated with parity, especially (but not exclusively) at private English language schools. So although it is possible for non-native speakers to find work as oral English teachers in China, I have to wonder why such a teacher would want to. Despite the well-intentioned "cheer leading" efforts of a few, the truth is China does not adhere to non-discriminatory hiring practices: height, age, attractiveness, overall appearance, and especially skin tone are typically and explicitly considered for any job that requires working with the public (and this applies just as much to the Chinese as it does to foreigners, maybe more so). This should be clear to anyone who has been asked to send a photo of themselves along with their résumé, a practice that is entirely illegal in just about all of our respective Western countries. The photo is obviously being required in order to determine if the prospective teacher “looks the part.”
About two years ago, I received an inquiry from a Chinese-American woman who very much wanted to teach English in China as a way of getting in touch with her roots. I more or less told her what I just wrote above. She persisted and recently sent me a follow-up e-mail informing me that she finally made it to China: She is currently working in a third-tier vocational school for bottom wages. I should quickly add she has a master’s degree and, at that time, had five years of English (English composition) teaching experience as an adjunct lecturer at a prestigious New York university.
Then there is my wife. Sonia is a Filipina with a bachelor’s degree in elementary school education and several years of related teaching experience. Her English language skills are, relatively speaking, superlative. It would be fair to say that her listening skills are native-like in that I can speak freely and naturally to her in a way that I never could with any former Chinese girlfriend, even those with far better than average language skills. In addition, she is easily able to understand any movie or Western television program that we watch together, including Criminal Minds, House, Law and Order: SVU and an old classic comedy show from the 1950s called The Honeymooners, which uses a great deal of northeastern American slang and sails way over the heads of most non-Americans, let alone non-native speakers. Her speaking skills are very good, although occasionally she uses prepositions incorrectly (and this is one of the hardest aspects of English for non-native speakers to grasp). For example, she’ll say “he was angry to the boss,” instead of with. But, aside from this and a few well-documented cultural differences in English as an official second language in the PhilippinesFilipinos commonly use the adverb “already” to denote when something has been completed, even if it was behind schedule, whereas Westerners use “already” to refer to something that was completed ahead of schedule. For example, a Westerner might say “It’s only 11:45 am and we’ve already finished our lunch,” while a Filipino who ate a late lunch at 3:00 pm will say “I had lunch already.”, her pronunciation is very good and always clear. It would be fair to say that her spoken English is a lot better than that of most Chinese English teachers. Her writing skills, although problematic at times, are actually better than those of a few posters on anonymous China EFL teacher forums who are presumably native speakers.
So, based on her qualifications and English language skills, you might think that it has been easy for her to find work as an oral English teacher in China—and you would be dead wrong.
That is not to say she hasn’t found work, she has, but in every case it was made clear to me (and her too, unfortunately) that she was given the position solely as a courtesy to me. In one case, she was paid 10% less than a native, White speaker would have be paid and, in the second and current case, the school owner negotiated a deal with her in which I needed to have some nominal involvement (with my prior consent obviously). It’s funny: That didn’t bother her at all (she claims to have grown accustomed to it), but it ate me up alive because I know how good she is.
Another case in point: I am very familiar with a teacher from Kazakhstan who has a bachelor’s degree in education, had many years of distinguished international teaching experience prior to relocating to China, and is probably lighter-skinned than I am (especially after I’ve been in the sun for awhile). Did he find work as an oral English teacher in China? Yes, actually he did, after a great deal of persistence and knocking on many doors with hat in hand. Was he ever treated with parity? Absolutely not. It was made eminently clear to him the entire time he was under the employ of this one private school that his continued employment was an act of generosity and concession (because he had a wife and two kids). I actually watched him in action once and found him to be an outstanding and extremely gifted teacher. There is no doubt in my mind that if he had been a native speaker, he’d still be at that school and probably working in the capacity of the head teacher. And, with all due respect to the owner of that school, he was only representing the sentiment repeatedly expressed to him by the parents of the students. Last I heard, he and his family had to return to Kazakhstan. After so many years of differential treatment, he finally caught a resentment, decided to leave, and was ultimately unable to find work anywhere else in China even with more than five years of very successful experience under his belt.
Is it reasonable of me to attempt to generalize based on four or five isolated experiences I happen to be intimately familiar with, in addition to the dozens of personal e-mails I have received? Who knows? It's hard to say for sure without some prior systematic attempt at having drawn a truly randomized sample from all non-native, non-White English teachers in China (as if that were possible). These may in fact be highly representative cases: I strongly suspect that they are.
I can also tell you how terribly uncomfortable it became for me one May, a few years back, when I foolishly decided to spend the entire National Holiday vacation out on the beach and returned to work a lot darker than I ever had been. I was the brunt of some very offensive “African jokes” for several days and was told in no uncertain terms by my boss that if I didn’t stay out of the sun, I would lose my job, i.e., my contract would not be renewed. It was made eminently clear to me that in the context of teaching oral English in China, the precise tone of my skin was far more important in determining my future success at this university than my doctorate, 25 years of prior university teaching experience and, last but not least, two prior years of sterling teaching evaluations from the students. And, by the way, in case the additional point was missed, this not only says something about racism in China but just as much about the role, value, and function of foreign oral English teachers in China: White native speaker or not, even at key provincial universities.
My best advice is that if you are a highly qualified English teacher who also happens to be a non-native speaker and/or not White, do not waste your time even thinking about teaching oral English in China—unless you have some strong personal reason for doing so, like the Chinese-American woman I mentioned above.
Despite the well-intentioned attempts of some at sugarcoating this and notwithstanding those who grossly understate or even ignore the deep psychological and damaging impact that it has on its victims, racism as expressed in grossly differential treatment of non-White and non-native speakers is alive and well in China. That is not to suggest that it doesn’t exist in other countries, including America: Unfortunately, it does. The essential difference, however, is that racism is neither legally nor openly tolerated as a matter of social policy in America as it is in China. I’d like to believe that the November 2008 presidential election results proved at least that much. At the very least, I’ve never before been ordered by a former dean to “keep out of the sun.”
Related to the issue of racism, the situation is also a financial reality in China based on why we are hired to begin with. I have a good friend, someone whom I both trust and respect for his integrity, who also happens to manage an English language school in China. He has bemoaned to me on more than one occasion about how it kills him to have to turn away applications from overly qualified, non-native and non-White speakers because the parents would never tolerate it. In fact, the parents of my wife's students last year complained repeatedly about how they shouldn't have to pay full tuition for a Filipino teacher as she is not a "real" foreigner. She claims that this doesn't bother her and that she is used to it, but I know better. I could see the anguish in her eyes when her former boss told me (with her in ear shot) that her employment was personal "gift" to me in consideration for all the help I had provided.
If you are a non-native and/or non-White prospective foreign teacher and, despite the reality of the situation as I have just explained it, you still think teaching English in China is the best thing for you at this time (and I understand that this is a possibility), you should follow the following advice:
Best of luck to you.
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