“Islam is a Cancer”: Prejudice From my Chinese Students

Today was hard… probably one of the most upsetting days in my nine months of working as a college counselor.

Today I read two extremely offensive essays from my students back-to-back.

For those of you who didn’t already know, I work as a college counselor in Beijing, and my job is to help Chinese high school students apply to American colleges. I start working with students in 10th grade (their first year of high school) up until the day they leave for America.

Most of my students belong to an international curriculum program at a prestigious high school in Beijing. They’re studying either an A-level, AP or IB classes in English, and are preparing for the ACT, SAT and TOEFL exams.

Basically… my students are good at English.

Free Guide: 10 Steps to Landing a High Paying Job in China

China prejudice

The hutong alleyway where I live in China

Most of My Students Are Great

Let me preface by saying most of my students are wonderful. There are a few who are lazy, but the majority are extremely hard-working, open-minded and compassionate. I love working with my students and will be so sad to leave them when I eventually move on in another year or so.

However, China is definitely not as “PC” as America, and I’ve been consistently encountering a few extremely problematic opinions from students who have been influenced by Chinese society.

It can be really tough to tell kids their beliefs are “wrong”. How do you know when it’s appropriate to tell a student that a commonly held belief is offensive? How do you say it without making the student feel bad? I’ve been struggling with this in China for a long time, especially now that I have a position of authority.

While I’m going to talk about two very problematic essays today, please do not attribute these views to all of my students or all Chinese people. These beliefs exist all over the world, including my home- the USA.

Get Your 10 Steps Teach Abroad Guide

Beijing high school debate

My students at an NSDA debate tournament

Student Opinion Essays

First, let me preface by explaining where I hear all of these ideas. My company has created an assignment that involves reading an article and responding to a question. The students get a choice of three articles to choose from and must write a written response that is edited and scored by either me or my other American colleague.

This assignment has been extremely eye-opening and I love hearing my student’s opinions. I usually purposely ask pretty controversial questions just to see what students will say.

Well… today I got what I asked for.

Work in China

Benevolent Sexism

Most cultures around the world have some work to do when it comes to gender equality. However, this essay written by one of my students really broke my heart.

His essay, while very well written, was extremely problematic. It was in response to the article “The men who are taking a stand against ‘dude fests'”, which was recommended by my Chinese colleague. The article addressed the lack of women speakers at conferences, and what should be done about it.

Here is his essay:

Question: Why are women sometimes excluded from meetings? Why, even when invited, do such few female panelists decide to attend discussions? On the contrary, are women-only panels inclusive or exclusive?

Nowadays, men are occupying most positions in different organizations and companies including managers, directors and CEO’s. Similarly, panels of experts are usually made up by males, and females seem unnecessary. As the article suggests, more and more people are boycotting ‘male-only’ conferences to promote equal rights among men and women. On the contrary, one of the organisers says women are less interested in these academic conferences. In my opinion, this issue stems from the origin jobs of men and women.

First of all, the generally relatively slightly weak body feature of women has determined whether they should join the high pressure conferences. Historically, males were responsible for hunting and farming because they were relatively stronger than females, and the duty of females was to feed the young. After checking the basis of history, the ratio of men and women in panel teams are not strange. Nowadays, females are the main force in housing including chores like cooking washing clothes and educating kids and the retiring age of females and males are different as well. Take China as an example. Retiring age of Chinese women is 55 years old; however, Chinese men’s is 60. Therefore, it is easily to be concluded that men have more energy than women and man can work longer. Those conferences have high attention and last long so for women, it is difficult for them to keep energetic until the end. Overall, the exclusion of women is a result of sympathy to women from the organizations rather than gender discrimination.

CACS Enreach

Halloween with my students

Secondly, women refuse to attend the academic conferences because it is not their interests. Apart from those real iron ladies, normal ladies do not always show their interests in academia, policy and development because these conferences are usually involved violent debate which is disgusting to most of women. Undoubtedly, women are the winners in family quarrels because they are sentimental. They know what others are feeling and that’s why they catch others weakness and make men’s arguments overwhelm. Nevertheless, debates with panels are not focusing on people themselves. Instead, they focus on a specific social issue or scientific issue which is not women’s strength. Moreover, even those iron ladies such as Peng Liyuan, the first lady of China, never interfere with policy and development of China. I remember when Peng met Michelle in Beijing, they mainly discussed about education and health care system and other things about people’s daily lives because their sentimental feature can expand to such realm.

In conclusion, panel teams of males are not an issue because that’s not in women’s favor. Women can help the world as another role. For example, women can create magnificent things in literature and art which can make a great difference in the world. They can make plain world diverse by their unique sentimental ability apart from attending international conferences in academia, policy and development.

this beijing life

Hanging with a coworker

What’s Problematic About This?

While I’m sure my student is well-meaning, this is benevolent sexism in all its glory. What is benevolent sexism? Benevolent sexism occurs when society deems women incapable of completing certain tasks or taking care of themselves, under the guise of helping women. It also occurs when society thinks women are better at certain tasks or activities or possess superior qualities in certain categories compared to men. For example, the belief that women are inherently better at child rearing, or posses superior emotional abilities.

“Those conferences have high attention and last long so for women, it is difficult for them to keep energetic until the end. Overall, the exclusion of women is a result of sympathy to women from the organizations rather than gender discrimination.”

This essay also reinforces 1950’s gender stereotypes about women being suited to certain roles. He states that women are uninterested in things like academia and politics, and are better suited to emotional tasks because of their “sensibilities”. He says these conferences “focus on a specific social issue or scientific issue which is not women’s strength.

As someone who majored in International Affairs, the idea that women should be left out of the discussion of politics, socioeconomic issues, and academia is mind baffling. Does he really think his female classmates aren’t suited to study these subjects in college? Does he really think that women are not rational enough to participate in an academic debate?

Want to Teach Abroad in China?

Lama Temple

Beijing’s Lama Temple


If the sexism wasn’t enough to make you lock yourself in your room forever, just wait until you read this next essay. I started you off easy!

Again, I’d like to reiterate that not all of my students are anti-Muslim. I just read a beautiful essay by one of my students that explained why Chinese people should be less prejudiced towards Islam. Honestly, I think a lot of the Islamaphobia we see in China stems from the West and our media coverage of terrorist attacks. With politicians like Donald Trump saying he will place a ban on Muslim immigrants, how can you blame my students for having this opinion?

Regardless, I had a very difficult time reading this next essay. Firstly, the English is very poor, which made it hard to understand exactly what he was arguing. Secondly, not only did he manage to offend an entire religion, he also pulled mental disabilities into the mix.

The article I chose is: Why Muslims Shouldn’t Have to Apologize for Terrorism. I knew I might get a few controversial answers, but I certainly was not expecting this.

(I edited the English of this essay slightly to make it easier for you to read)

Teach Abroad TEFL

My students in Ningbo

The Essay:

Question: Analyze the author’s argument. Do you agree or disagree? If you agree with the author, please add in your own opinions and reasoning rather than just re-stating the author’s argument.

The author is a Muslim, as you recently known, IS, which is a Terrorism organization, killed thousands of innocent people and it is formed by Muslims, this is the background.

The passage begins with a ridiculous example, it talks about that your wife will blame you because it’s raining outside and coworkers gathered around your desk demanding that you apologize for the printer being jammed, this doesn’t make any sense, at least in my life, this will never happen, unless your wife has mental illness, then you should divorce with her, then she started the argument with this no convincing beginning.

 By the way, I’m not on her side, so I’ll then argue every of her five point.

Yurts in Xinjiang

Yurts in Xinjiang

First: It’s ridiculous to ask us to apologize.

Muslim extremist kill so many people, most of the dead has a family, however their gun just know how to shoot, then who can those families blame for, definitely not the extremist, so it is totally forgivable for them to ask muslims to apologize.

Second: It should be obvious by now that Muslims condemn terrorism.

I’m quite confused whether or not the author knows what “obvious” means. If I were to pick  a person reading the newspaper or watching the news and ask them “what do you think Muslims are”, then they might say it’s obvious that they are most Terrorisms like IS. According to the glancing, there’s no inciting of violence or hatred, however, there are still a lot of Terrorism existing, so every Muslim should resolute the solution for their belief.

Third: Muslims are the largest victims of terrorism.

The author outlines data showing that IS kills more Muslims than non-Muslims, making Muslims the biggest victim., whereas what I can infer is that Muslims are killing each other, and this shows Muslims are very stupid, On the other hand, the data of dead people can not 100% tell us the victims. I believe the are the largest victim, however, most terrorism grown on the place where Muslims live, so that is why they are the biggest victim, and the cancer helps them grow, then the extremist can grow to a terrifying monster. Every Muslim should ask themselves what is this harmful cancer.


Man selling bagels in Kashgar, Xinjiang

Why This is Problematic

I don’t even know where to start.

Basically, in the span of 370 words this student implied all Muslims are terrorists, called Islam cancer and blatantly stated that Muslim victims of terrorist attacks are stupid.

I almost overlooked his usage of the word “mental disabilities” due to all of the other prejudice in this article. He literally says that a person should divorce their spouse because they have a mental disability.

From living in China, I do know that Chinese people use the word mental disability in place of “crazy” (which I also find problematic). People will often joke that they have a mental disability like it’s no big deal. It’s sort of like how many people in the US still say “that’s retarded” regardless of the implications.

Chinese prejudice

What Am I Supposed to Do About This?

The main reason I’m sharing all of this with you is NOT to leave you with the impression that China is a horrible, bigoted country and my students are awful human beings. I want to have a discussion about how we can intervene and educate while traveling, or working as a position of authority in another country.

How do I educate my students without calling them, sexists or racists? How do I teach them life skills without alienating them? When is it appropriate for me to step in and say something?

The boundary is extremely hazy.

Both of these students are scheduled to meet with me in the next week or two. We’re going to sit down and talk about why these essays are offensive. I’m going to teach them how to express their opinions in a socially acceptable manner.

The problem is that the notion of political correctness in China is very different from that of America (and even the USA finds unique ways to be offensive on a daily basis).

Mainland China Tibet

Mainland tourists in Tibet

Political Correctness and China

The idea that white skin is preferable, and my ability to be both simultaneously fat and beautiful in China are both good examples of Chinese prejudice.

Many of you may have seen the washing machine commercial, in which a Chinese woman seduces a black man covered in paint, throws him in the washer with some bleach and he comes out clean and… Chinese? This advertisement was actually copied from an Italian commercial in which a woman seduces a white man, throws him in the washer and comes out black with the phrase “colored is better”.

Honestly, when I saw this Chinese commercial I wasn’t even surprised. White skin, or “light skin” preference in China is the norm. No one questions it, and it’s not seen as offensive, it’s just a fact. Sort of like how in America we often praise a certain body type for women (thin and fit with curves in all the right places), and many of us never stop and think about how this makes very thin, or slightly curvier women feel, especially if that body type is unattainable for them without some sort of plastic surgery.

It’s the same thing in China, except this skin tone preference becomes racism when it’s applied to foreigners.

In the United States, especially the more cosmopolitan cities, we’re constantly forced to interact with those who are different from us. Encountering people of differing cultures, nationalities, religions, and ethnicities forces you to deal with these differences on a consistent basis. Obviously, this isn’t true for everyone, but it is a part of our dialogue, and this issue is addressed in our media, in our schools, and on the Internet.

teach English China

My students at Wuxiang high school

Travel and Open Mindedness

The more I travel and encounter people of different backgrounds, the more stereotypes are broken. For example, I had so many stereotypes about Chinese people before I came to China!

Before I taught in a Chinese public school two years ago, I assumed that my students would be quiet, well-behaved, afraid of creativity, good at memorization, and nervous to speak English. I was SO WRONG.

So. Incredibly. Wrong.

One of the main things I try to do through Adventures Around Asia is break stereotypes people have about China. I want to provide the whole picture. I want to show you the complexities and intricacies of China and Chinese culture that you can only understand by living here.

The fact that I don’t want to stereotype Chinese people is one of the main reasons I was hesitant about writing this in the first place!

Chinese education

Office bonding!

Why It’s Important I Educate My Students

I’ll be honest, I was really upset and angry when I read these two essays. I went on a giant rant to my co-workers that eventually led to us joking that our “generally relatively slightly weak body feature” and lack of energy compared to men should give us an additional day off of work per week and free coffee.

Thankfully, one of my co-workers was able to keep me level-headed and suggested I meet with these students in person. This will give me time to calm down so we can have a real discussion on why these essays are problematic.

I want avoid making them feel like bad people, especially since they’re only sixteen years old; but I also do think it’s important we address this for three big reasons:

Chinese beliefs

1. It’s the right thing to do

Honestly, spreading tolerance and open-mindedness is the right thing to do. As a woman, it’s my duty to nip sexism in the bud when I see it. While I’m not Muslim, as an ally I need to stand up for the majority of kind-hearted Muslims who hate IS and other terrorists who deface the name of Islam with their actions.

2. They’re heading to America

These students are heading to America in two years. They need to know how to be politically correct in order to survive in American society on most American college campuses. While some American students definitely agree with my students, I would venture to say that the majority of American college students do not. These opinions are not only offensive, they’re also alienating and will perpetuate negative stereotypes of Chinese people as bigots.

3. This can impact their career and education

Many employers and universities take this sort of thing very seriously. One wrong post on social media, or one offensive essay in class can lead to disciplinary consequences or getting fired from a job. If these kids want to live and work in America, they need to be careful about what they say in person, in writing, and online.

Enreach Beijing office

We’re going to have a meeting in my purple office

This is Messy

I don’t want to be the white savior that comes in and changes the minds of all Chinese people. I don’t want to be ethnocentric, and I hate telling people their beliefs are wrong.

But where is the line between educating and preaching? What’s the boundary between cultural sensitivity for the Chinese and serving as an ally for Islam and feminism?

I really don’t know.

I’m going to talk to my students, but I’m going to keep things open. They might leave my office with the same opinions they currently hold, or they may leave with a new perspective.

All I can do is keep the door open.

Chinese prejudice

Pin Me!

What would you do in my situation? What do you think is appropriate for an international teacher?



About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

22 comments on ““Islam is a Cancer”: Prejudice From my Chinese Students

  1. Just watched Momondo’s short clip on Facebook and it reminded me of this post – perhaps sharing how connected we are – or just sharing this short clip could be a start! (letsopenourworld.com)
    Also I am curious to know how diverse Chinese people are.. for some reason I don’t think it’s quite the same as other countries, so this could backfire too.

    • Wow I just watched the video and it’s great! I would love to do a DNA test like this. I think so many people in America just assume they are of mixed heritage and nationality, but if you come from a country where everyone is the same ethnicity and nationality I can see how this would be extremely important. I think Chinese people definitely think they are 100% Han when I bet you that is not the reality. There are many different ethnic minorities in China, and through trading and the silk road, the kid may be a tiny bit Middle Eastern in heritage for all he knows.

  2. Very interesting answers on the essays, Richelle. Not surprising, unfortunately.

    I’ve lived out here in the Xinjiang region for a number of years now and I’m consistently amazed by how much prejudice there is – and it goes both ways. Even the Muslims here have prejudice against the Han Chinese.

    • That honestly doesn’t surprise me either. I’ve definitely seen a lot of prejudice towards Xinjiang in Central and Eastern China. I think things get complicated when it’s not just a matter of discrimination but also autonomy. I think it’s hard to separate a normal Han Chinese person from an oppressive Han Chinese government. I definitely noticed that when I was in Tibet and Xinjiang- especially with Han Chinese tourists who were unaware of all of this oppression.

  3. Thank you for sharing this experience, Richelle. This resonates with me so much, even though I am not a teacher. I have unfortunately encountered many people with sexist and racist opinions in my travels and at home in the U.S.

    I am currently living in Mexico, and I recently had a pretty shocking experience with someone I met at a bar. (And a history graduate, no less!) He told me, “I don’t want to believe that black people are less intelligent and more violent. However, I see how violent black neighborhoods are in the U.S., and how underdeveloped African countries are, and all evidence points in that direction.” I tried my best to present evidence to the contrary, but found that I got a little too upset about having to even argue this in 2016. Instead, I took his contact information and am planning to send him a list of books about international development and why certain countries have developed faster than others. Hopefully he will be open-minded enough to actually read and consider the books and articles I send!

    I am happy to hear you are sitting down with your students to talk to them about their opinions. Hopefully you can spread a little more tolerance in the world! I would love to hear how your conversations go.

    • Wow that sounds surprisingly like the conversation I had with my student yesterday. He pointed out how there are more men in leadership, policy, economic and engineering positions, and just said he assumed those positions weren’t suited for women’s skills or that women had no interest in them. As for emotional intelligence and child rearing, he used history to justify his opinion. I think it’s important to point out that correlation and causation aren’t the same thing. Men aren’t naturally bad at child rearing, we just raise them to think they are, and teach them it’s not their job. That way when they grow up a lot of men aren’t as good at child rearing because we never taught them to value it or how to do it. Thankfully my student was really interested, and left with a different opinion than the one he came in with. it sounds like the guy you met really wants to learn and grow, so hopefully you can do the same for him!

  4. Wow, Richelle. This is some really tough stuff! I’m glad you’re exposing it, because I think that while these beliefs are upsetting, they’re probably more common than we like to think. Even amongst travelers I’ve run into a few strange instances where I find myself biting my tongue or else “educating” someone on why what they said is racist or sexist when maybe it isn’t my place to do so. I hope you write a follow up to this letting us know what you ended up saying!

    • Yeah I agree, I’ve definitely heard some interesting opinions while on the road too! I was going to just do a quick update about how the one kid went, but now I’m thinking I should write a post on how both of the conversations went once I chat with both of them.

  5. Ohh, that’s tough! I feel you Richelle. I think when people live in a country that is closed from external world and delivers them the filtered information it results in one-side development. People need to go and study/work or do other stuff abroad to meet other people and understand that there are good and bad people everywhere!

    • Yeah thankfully all of my students will study in the US or UK. I just want to prepare them before they go, so that they don’t accidentally get themselves in trouble with these kinds of opinions!

  6. I remember watching this unfold on snapchat and how upset you were about the whole thing, and not knowing what to say. But then I saw that you did have the conversations with the students and that it went well. I think it’d be a disservice to them not to talk to them about since they are coming to US college campuses and are going to be faced with many different points of view and types of people. If they went in saying things like this out loud, they’d probably end up in heated debates or confrontations with people not as nice as you. Great job.

    • Thanks so much LaMesha. Both the conversations went really well actually. I’m thinking of writing an update explaining what we talked about and how everything went.

  7. I don’t intend on starting any arguments or to come off as trolling, I’m not. I just don’t think it’s intellectually healthy to discuss things in an “echo chamber”, for lack of a better term.

    You seem to be the type of person who is an egalitarian. That’s great, I admire that about you. I don’t really “hate” any group myself, but at the same time I can’t help but notice some of the backwards practices of Islam. Have you never heard any of the stories about Muslim women having acid thrown in their faces just for wanting the simple civil right of getting an education, or learning how to drive? What about this:

    “When a man calls his wife for sexual intimacy and she refuses him, thus he spends the night in anger, the angels curse her until morning.” (Sahih al-Bukhari & Sahih Muslim, See: Riyad al-Salihin, no. 281)

    I know not everyone is religious, but that kind of sounds like a hateful thing to say about someone’s wife.

    There are also dozens of verses in the Quran about killing anyone who is a non believer.

    But on the flip side, of course I know not everyone who practices Islam wants to die as a martyr in a terrorist attack. When I was in Army basic training, one of my best friends was an Iraqi Immigrant named Hawez. (full name left out for privacy reasons) He was hilarious. He was a Kurdish Muslim that joined the U.S. Army so he could help against the more radical Islam sects. If I remember correctly some of his family were victims of the Halabjah chemical attack in 1988.

    I know that sounded like a “I’m not racist because I have a Muslim friend” comment, but I was trying to point out that his own people, his own country didn’t seem too keen on trying to police the bad guys. He had to join the U.S. army to do it.

    In closing, maybe your students weren’t trying to be openly racist, it’s just that whenever you hear about another terrorist attack, and you assume that it was radical Islam, and it turns out that you were right, then I think that’s what makes people afraid of Muslims. Some racism that is viewed as hate, might actually be fear.

    • I agree and disagree with what you’ve said here. I definitely think he wasn’t trying to be racist, and what he said was just replicated from what he sees on Chinese news. We actually talked about this together already (I’m going to do a second post where I discuss the conversations we had) and he told me he genuinely thought all Muslims were terrorists and supported terrorism.

      As for the first part of your comment though, I completely disagree. If you look at the Bible, you’ll also find a ton of sexist content (especially in the old testament). As for throwing acid in women’s faces, just look at India where it’s an epidemic. As I get older and travel more, I’ve begun to realize that religion doesn’t make you bigoted, bigots use religion as an excuse for beliefs they want to have an actions they want to take. When there’s no religion to use as an excuse, people find other ways to do it. For example, some Christians use the bible as an excuse to be against homosexuality, whereas in China they don’t have religion to blame it on, so they use biology to say it’s not natural. In China, Confucian thought is actually extremely sexist. In America, we don’t have religion to justify sexism, so we use biology instead. People will use whatever they want to justify their actions, religion is just one of those things.

      • This is so true, thank you for this comment. I would say though that while hatred and mistrust come from something deeper and more fundamental in the human brain than religion, the impact of religion cannot be ignored – while the underlying hatred is the cause of inequality, religion is a remarkably effective tool for perpetuating it. It’s hard to deconvolve better education, access to media and declining numbers of hardline religious types, but it could be argued that reducing the influence of religion is a necessary step in improving equality.

        • Ahh, it’s hard to convey what I mean – essentially I agree with you, I just think perhaps, maybe, possibly religion is a particularly difficult obstacle to overcome in the fight for equality when compared to other arguments used by bigots.

          • That’s definitely true. Although in this case neither of these kids are religious. There are many different forms of bias and unfortunately religion can create a big one.

  8. Pingback: This Beijing Life: Month 10 - Adventures Around Asia

  9. “In the United States, especially the more cosmopolitan cities, we’re constantly forced to interact with those who are different from us. Encountering people of differing cultures, nationalities, religions, and ethnicities forces you to deal with these differences on a consistent basis. Obviously this isn’t true for everyone, but it is a part of our dialogue, and this issue is addressed in our media, in our schools and on the Internet.”

    LOL. Encountering different people isn’t the same as interacting, or getting on with them. Just go on any news story on Facebook related to the Chinese and read the comments by white people. Enough said. If anything, it is the Chinese who are shocked when they go to the US or any “civilised” western nation and encounter racial abuse. There have been assaults, rapes and deaths. Can the same be said of white people in China?

    • Are you Chinese? Your comment is super biased. This goes both ways. Every year foreigners get stabbed in Beijing just for being foreigners, and last December there was a terrorist threat sent to all of the embassies in Beijing saying they were going to kill all of the foreigners in Sanlitun. China does have racism and racial abuse, but it’s harder to see in a homogenized society. With more ethnically diverse countries like the US, that conflict is front and center. I would never say the US is perfect or that we practice full racial tolerance, because that would be naive and completely untrue. The difference is at least we talk about it.

Leave a Reply: