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Chinese encounter discrimination at English language schools

By 13 June 2009 One Comment

When Chinese citizen Karen Dang took a job as an office assistant at Learn First, an English conversation school in central Beijing, her goal was to parley her impeccable language skills into a teaching position. This past May, however, she quit when she says she realized the school’s unwritten policy of hiring only Caucasian foreigners as instructors would prevent her from ever getting the job she really wanted.

In talking about her experience, Dang expressed polite disappointment: “They didn’t offer me a better future,” she said.” [And] I’m a good worker.”

At the same time, Dang’s experience reflects the complaints of a growing number of young Chinese speakers of English who claim they are denied job opportunities in Beijing’s burgeoning foreign-language teaching market. The bruised feelings are understandable. A foreign English teacher can make as much as USD 30 an hour. Chinese teachers aren’t likely to make nearly as much but they would still like the opportunity to participate in this new growth sector.

The problem is that schools often make their hiring decisions based on instructor qualifications unrelated to work experience, such as ethnic background. Dang said that applications at Learn First routinely ask candidates to list information on eye color, hair color and nationality, but when employers at the school were asked about their hiring policies, they declined to answer. English teachers with knowledge of other schools in Beijing said that, in their experience, while many schools did not use such practices, they were nonetheless widespread. Dang said Caucasian foreigners, particularly those from the US or Britain, are hired because Chinese students assume they will receive a better education from someone who had English as their first language. As a result, a local Chinese person usually finds difficulty in acquiring an English teaching position even if their work experience outstrips the foreigner being hired.

“Foreign teachers are more qualified,” Dang said. “Chinese people’s pronunciation is not perfect and when a Chinese person spends money to improve their English they prefer white people with good pronunciation.” Dang said, in her experience, schools don’t discriminate as along as the teaching applicants are Americans, Canadians or Australians, and not Chinese.

When schools discriminate against nationality, many instructors hired are working illegally and are often deceptive about their background. Sara Johnson, an English teacher from New York said that foreigners are often asked to lie about their age and where they graduated from college. According to Johnson, many Chinese students prefer to hear that their teacher is from New York and that they attended prestigious schools like Harvard or Yale. The Chinese institutions exhibit leniency on the type of visa a foreigner may have as well. A typical acceptable visa is a tourist visa, as opposed to a work visa, which is required by law to work in the country.

We’re necessary for them to learn good English,” said Johnson. “Chinese might know good English and be a good teacher but [the likelihood of] their pronunciation being good is very slim.”

Craig Jenkins is an American instructor who has been teaching English in Beijing since 1997.  He currently works at Wall Street Institute School of English. This school has more credibility than schools like Learn First because it does not tolerate illegal labor. Jenkins said that work experience takes precedence over nationality during the hiring procedure at his workplace; however, he has had Chinese students hesitant to work with him because he doesn’t fit the Caucasian image.

“I am a Black American and I face discrimination to some degree, but not as bad as what a Chinese native would face,” said Jenkins. “Qualifications are based on training and experience. In their perspective [Chinese students] would prefer a white face to teach them English.”

Jenkins and Johnson both said that they are unsure how long foreigners will be able to continue working illegally. For now, numerous Caucasian English instructors are available to satisfy the Chinese preference, but if the government begins monitoring this unregulated market, the Chinese may have to start choosing more instructors like Jenkins and Dang.

One Comment »

  • Wil Uecker said:

    Rebecca, good article on an important topic. Good to see you in print!

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