An Issue of Racism

I wasn’t born yet when the civil rights movement was going on in the 1960’s; I was born into a nation that had put racism behind them in the community and in the workplace. My father is old enough to remember separate drinking fountains, and my mother was in high school when desegregation was taking place. Maybe it’s because I’ve never really seen it with my own eyes, but only heard ugly stories about it, that I am so shocked whenever I witness someone being treated poorly because of their race. It is completely shocking and unbelievable to me that racism is still an accepted social norm in China. 

This past week, we met up with our friend Len and tried to help her find a job. Len’s current school apparently just hires foreign teachers from year to year, and they already secured another foreign teacher to take over her position a long time ago. She seemed interested in getting a job at our school, so we bragged about her to the other teachers in our department, and they agreed to meet with her.

And then, instead of meeting with her, they embarrassed us.

We figured Len would be a shoe-in for the job because 1) she already has the visa to live here, so they wouldn’t have to pay all of the expenses for it. They would just need to help her renew it during the upcoming school year. 2) They wouldn’t have to pay for her plane ticket here or back, because she has been living in China for years and she doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon. 3) She has five years of experience of teaching English in China. She’s experienced and she would save them a ton of money–what more could they ask for? Apparently the only qualification Len is missing is that she’s not white.

Len and me boating on Tai Lake

When we took Len to our English department last week to meet the other teachers, they weren’t there, even though we had already talked to them the day before on the phone and they said they would be. There were only two ladies who we had not really met before who are not in charge of anything, sitting in the office eating lunch. They informed us that the teachers we wanted to speak with would be out of the office for the rest of the day. So that was embarrassing. One of the women called Laura on her cell phone, and we talked to her for a minute, explaining her our confusion about the day that we were going to bring Len by the office. Then we handed the phone to Len so that she could speak to Laura.

While she was on the phone, the two other English teachers asked us questions about Len as if she was not standing right there. “She is not a foreigner. She has the look of a Chinese!” They loudly pronounced, while Len tried to list her qualifications for Laura on the phone. “You said she was from America?” they asked. “No,” Justin explained. “Len is from the Philippines.” They were still confused. “The Philippines?” they asked. “But then she moved to America?” “No,” Justin explained. “She has never been to America.” “But can she speak English?” they asked dubiously. “Of course,” Justin explained. “Len is bilingual. She’s been teaching English in China for the last five years!” They seemed skeptical. And can I just tell you how completely abashed I was that these women were pointing at Len (while she was only three feet away on the phone) and talking about her as if she were a specimen rather than a person? Why couldn’t they just wait and ask her themselves? But maybe it’s better that they didn’t… A conversation like this concerning a prospective employee would never be allowed to take place in America.

In the end, Laura made a plan to meet with Len on Thursday instead, and introduce her to the staff in charge of hiring so she could have a job interview (may I just mention here that Justin and I never had a real job interview or had to meet with the hiring staff? We were accepted for employment immediately, based on the fact that we are white people from America). However, on Wednesday night, Laura texted us (instead of Len!) and told us that the interview was cancelled, that the foreign teachers for next year have already been found, and that Len would not be qualified to take the position on the grounds that she is not a native English speaker. We asked Laura to please call Len and tell her the news herself (why did she want us to do it?) and then I seethed about how Len had been treated.

Len is from the Philippines, yes, meaning that her native language is Tagalog. However, because the Philippines was under U.S. occupation for a long time, English was the medium used for teaching in public schools. This means that since the age of six, Len used English whenever she was in a classroom learning reading, writing, science, math, etc. and she really only spoke Tagalog informally at home with her family. When I listen to her speak English, it sounds like it has a little bit of a Spanish accent to it, which also makes sense since Filipino culture and Spanish culture have such an intertwined history. In fact, back in the 1800’s, the Philippines was under Spanish occupation and Spanish became one of their national languages. Len is not quite as proficient in Spanish as she is with the other two languages, but she is nearly trilingual. And during the last few years, of course, she has been trying to learn some Mandarin Chinese.

It is incredible to me that a trilingual person is being refused a job on account of those first six years of her life when she was only speaking Tagalog. But let’s be honest…Len is being refused a job because she’s not white. I doubt anyone in the English department knows anything about the history of the languages of the Philippines, or even bothered to ask Len about her cultural background. They took one look at her and decided that she didn’t look “foreign” enough to be their foreign English teacher, and turned her down. They explicitly told her that they are looking for native English speakers from America, Canada (what if their native language is French? Who cares?), United Kingdom, Ireland, South Africa, etc. She was born in the wrong place, basically.

And how strange is it that the universities in town will continue to hire Chinese teachers to teach English courses, while Len hands out her resume to everyone in Huzhou, struggling to find a job even though she is vastly more qualified to be teaching English. It doesn’t make any sense. And it doesn’t make any sense why they require job applicants to attach a thumbnail photo of themselves to their resume before sending it in. Now I understand. Laura agreed to give Len a job interview based on the brief phone call they had in the English office, but after looking over her resume (and picture), and hearing from the two other teachers in the English office, she *suddenly* realized that the foreign teachers had already been hired and there could be no interview. Good thing she had that photo…Len was almost given a fair shot at the job! That was a close call, guys!

Amazingly, Len makes more money teaching in China that she would teaching English in the Philippines. So much so that she goes to the Western Union office once every few months and sends a portion of her paycheck back home to support family members who could really use the money. When we visited Hong Kong, we saw a similar situation. There were dozens and dozens of Filipino women hanging out in the park on Sunday–the one day of the week that they have off from nanny duties. They move to Hong Kong to work, and send the money back home to the Philippines to support their families. Many of them even leave their own children behind so that they can go overseas and raise someone else’s children, simply because they are desperate to earn a living. Is this what Len is supposed to do? Quit teaching university students and become a really overqualified nanny?

I hope not. I hope that in the coming weeks, she’ll be able to find a university in Zhejiang that is not too racist to hire her. They would be getting a really incredible lady who is nearly trilingual, has no visa paperwork to hassle through, and has five years of experience in teaching Chinese students. That’s a lot more than they got when they hired me.

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5 thoughts on “An Issue of Racism

  1. That’s China for you. It’s one of the biggest gripes I have with Chinese culture in general – the ethnocentric way of thought that is so inbuilt and prevalent, even among the younger generation. I’ve heard stories that Italians and other Europeans are hired to be English teachers even though it may not be their native language – they just happen to fit the bill of being white.

    Coming from Hong Kong, I see so many Southeast Asian women – mainly from the Philippines and Indonesia – sacrificing their own family lives to raise money for their kids back home. It breaks my heart to see how desperate the situation has become. What makes it even more ridiculous is the fact that every single Filipina nanny has a university degree!

    • The Filipina nannies hanging out in parks in Hong Kong has actually been going on for so long that they listed it as a “fun thing to see” in my Hong Kong tour guide book….can you believe that?

      It makes me so mad! I don’t enjoy be given special “privileges” any more than I enjoy Len not being able to find a job. My husband Justin actually had a Chinese lady come up to him and offer him a job by saying, “Our school really needs more of the foreign face!” Thanks, but no thanks. We would rather not be used as poster boy or poster girl for your school just because you want to plaster our white faces up and down your hallowed halls. We would rather a school want us based on our actual credentials, and I hope that a school will snatch up Len soon based on her credentials!

  2. I pray that GOD’s will be done in Lens situation and must unfortunately remind you that America still has racist challenges that you hopefully will never see evidence of. Thank you for helping Len and your erudite articles.

    • Thank you for your prayers! And you’re right…racism is definitely not gone from America, but I feel like it is dying more and more all the time. Our country has come a long way in their fight aganist racism, and when I compare it to the overt racism that is going on in China still today, I feel proud to be an American! 🙂

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