“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.
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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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.
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.
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!!!!!!!!!!!
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?
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).
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.
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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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.
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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.
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If you’re looking for a recruiter who works for YOU and not the schools, you can always work with me! As part of my Teach Abroad Squad course and community, I offer job placement assistance.
In addition to the full online course and Facebook community, members of the Teach Abroad Squad get access to my curated Approved Jobs List, which is an awesome list of schools and recruiters that have been fully vetted by me. They all pay well and on time, offer great benefits, and have excellent reviews.
Not only does Teach Abroad Squad help you narrow down your job search and ensure you don’t get scammed, but we also have multiple lessons on signing and negotiating contracts. In TAS I analyze three real-life contracts on the screen showing you what I like and don’t like about each of the positions. You even have a downloadable Good Job’s Checklist to make sure the position meets all your needs!
TAS will also teach you how to negotiate for an extra $3,500 USD per year with our contract negotiation lesson. Talk about getting your money’s worth!
If this sounds amazing to you, then you definitely want to join Teach Abroad Squad!
I open up TAS to new members every few months, so the best way to know about future course openings is to get on the Teach Abroad Squad Waitlist. Once you’re on the list you’ll be the first to know about any course openings, as well as awesome free training and opportunities for free 1-1 strategy calls with me!
Join the Teach Abroad Squad Waitlist!
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If you’re at all interested in teaching abroad in China and want to learn more, I highly suggest grabbing my Free teach abroad guide. This guide is a proven 10-step system to find an incredible job you love and rock your first year in China!
In this guide, I’ll teach you how to find the good schools and avoid scams, how to create a killer intro video, and how to negotiate your contract for a better deal. I’ll also give you the ultimate visa checklist, as well as a list of 8 things you need to do before you move to China!
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Want to meet other teachers in China? Do you have a million questions about teaching abroad? Well, I’ve created the China Teach Abroad Community, a Free Facebook Group for past, present and future teachers in China!
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.
15 comments on “Racism and Teaching Abroad in China: Will Schools Hire Me if I’m Not White?”
I taught in China as a non-white native English speaker. The first disturbing comment I heard was, “But, he’s black. I want white teacher.” I was relieved when the school defended me, openly and went as far as to point out my credentials were more important.
Wow! I’m shocked but not surprised that that happened to you. Thank god your school defended you! Kids (and parents) really need to learn, and schools standing up to them is the best way. Quality of teaching > physical appearance
This is a very knowledgeable post about traveling. This article describes all things very clearly. Thank you!
Thanks! I’m glad you liked it :)
Such a timely article! At a time where more and more people are curious about and thinking of teaching in China, this is definitely info that needs to be made known! Overall, I’d say this is pretty accurate (though I think you’re holding back just a little bit haha), especially the part about the whole nationality/ethnicity thing. When I tell people my surname is of Eastern European origin they almost always say “Wait… I thought you were Canadian?!” I’m practically a broken record at this point. Anyway, great post as always!
Hahaha so true! I mean I honestly can’t stress enough how the nationality/ethnicity thing is such a foreign concept in China, especially if you’re not white. But seriously, the idea that I can be both Irish and American (but in 2 different ways) is mind blowing! But my family had to come from somewhere otherwise I’d be Native American.
Thanks for this great article, but please I have a question; I’m a Nigerian, I’ve been teaching English for two years now, I studied Linguistics and I’m currently trying to get my TEFL certificate to enable me teach abroad. Is there any chance that I’ll be given an opportunity to teach in China? If no, then why are most recruiting agencies not sincere about it? Because I’ve always thought that with my TEFL and my degree, I can teach English almost anywhere in the world. Reading this has really broken my heart.
Hey Esther, are you a certified teacher in your home country? If so, you can legally teach in China. This certification is NOT a TEFL though. What you need to do is get certified to teach in your home country (or another country like the US or UK- you can do this online). Once you’re a certified teacher you can use those two years of experience and the certification to teach in China at an international school. These are actually the best jobs, so it’ll be a great career investment! You can also always teach in China without the legal visa, but you’ll be at risk of getting deported. It probably won’t happen (I have lots of friends who’ve done this) but it is a possibility.
Interesting article. I’m facing a similar challenge eventhough a little less problematic.(I hope so)
Am also a Nigerian and have secured a teaching job in china, but am skeptical due to the fact that i have read articles regarding non issuance of working permit to non native speakers,though both my degree and postgraduate degree are both from the UK,my employer says it could be possible to get the working visa so long as I have these requirements along with a tefl/tesol certificate.Does anyone have some suggestions or recommendations please.I would be glad for your timely feedback.
That is true, some places in China are able to secure visas to teachers who have degrees from native speaker countries. Just be sure to check and make sure you’re on the right visa before you arrive!
This article also applies to Taiwan. People over there have the same type of mentality of Mainland Chinese, can’t tell the difference between ethinicity or nationality. Japan, not so much. I’m British Chinese and currently tutoring in Tokyo, and have no problems… yet. Been here for 7 months already, so far, so good.
i dont see how anyone can make an argument that they are not racist. i looked into teaching in Asia several years back and every job posting site makes it very clear that white skinned people are either preferred or some will blatantly state that people of color should not apply. i was pretty shocked and did not expect what i saw. i completely lost interest in teaching in asia after this.
Wow this is horrible! How many years ago was this? There are so many jobs in China right now that are racially inclusive. At my last position as a college counselor, less than 50% of the foreign teachers at my school were white. They even had my Filipino-American coworker on the front cover of our brochure. Any school that specifically looks for white teachers is definitely not a school anyone should be applying to, because not only is this super racist, it also shows that the school values image over education.
Brilliant Article! I lived overseas from 1999-2016, living and working as a teacher, musician and teaching martial arts Aikido. I am originally from Texas and moved back in 2016. I am black. I lived and worked in South Africa for a year as a missionary intern teaching, South Korea for 3 years at conversational schools, Indonesia for 11 at International schools and Europe 3 different times.
Indeed, I have seen my share of human nature.
One BIG part really is MARKETING.
In Asia, Education is Business.
Business if Money. Money $$$ rules in Asia.
When, I first arrived at my first long term job out of college, the guy who I took her as at my conversational school said, “Koreans are all about money. That guides all their decision making process.”
As a early 20’s something kid, I didn’t think much of it at the time nor truly comprehend what he meant. But it stuck with me. Now 20 years later, I get it.
(on a side note: I heard the same about U.S. Education from Asian businessmen year ago. The Data + Assessments with Lawmakers + Assessment companies bring in $$$$ (not for teachers)) I started in 2017 and quit in 2019. That’s another story.
It is an unfortunate practice, but as you mentioned in the article, racism is NOT in terms of, “There is a Russian teacher or a person of color. I can’t stand having seeing their kind. I hate them. How can we hurt them.” Instead, “Ohhh, a pretty young barbie, white teacher. Parents see that stereotypical image and that brings in big money. Hire her. She will easily bring in more money and I don’t have to convince parents of the process.”
YES! The practice is wrong and a very RACIST practice (that leads to subconscious distrust), but meeting and interacting with people, for the most part, many loved people of all colors because they are so DIFFERENT.
For me in Asia, I was a mini-celebrity. They hugged me, they touched me hair, invited me to their house, took me out to dinner when having just met me on the streets, loved touching me skin and took my picture together. I even stayed in some people’s houses.
Our wonderful planet Earth is amazing at times!!!!!!!!
Children, people on the street, walking in to stores, grown business men . . . loved it. Not all the time like paparazzi, but often enough it was encouraging that was not worn out by the effect. But you are on constant display like a caged animal at the zoo. Good and bad.
In fact, I would during my stay in South Korea, I had virtually no daily issues as compared with my caucasian friends. We discussed about it at the church. I was surprised by it. Running towards elevators, my European, Canadian and other friends would be running for a door and they would close it on them. They had some rough stories on race.
South Korea and North Korea are among the world’s most ethnically homogenous nations. Even more so than China. That does create a, “we are better mentality.” Didn’t see it my 1st year. I saw it after my 3rd year there. Very subtle.
(Also, I ran into that coming back to the U.S. after 17 Years, “U.S. is better” mentality at everything. We have so much to learn from one another.)
In South Korea, I was told my 2 of directors, they did not want to originally hire me. After I had gotten to know them and Once I started bringing in clients, students and making money – that all changed, they shared with me: They did not want to take a risk on parents not liking me at first by not enrolling their students and not bringing in me.
2 different people, who I believe were genuinely honest, One was a Pastor, Both said, they were very concerned about the parent response. But both gave me a chance. One school was a brand new school and the other needing a teacher before students starting leaving and I was already in the country and I didn’t want kindy age students.
It was not about the color of my skin in term of hating me nor did I FEEL hurt by them. The practice that I saw YES. Trust me, I’ve felt, have been called and experienced HORRIBLE racism at its worst!
Many Koreans, absolutely HATE, HATE, hate the Japanese for what happened during the war. The Korean Pastor shared with me about he hated he had those feelings, and wished they weren’t there, but he struggles with that. He knows they did nothing to him personally today, but struggles.
I heard and saw Racism from that level multiple times with: racism from their neighbors. Like the the U.S., in Europe and all over the world, We have deeper racism and hatred for people the same skin tone and our next door neighbors than those around the the world.
In South Africa, I was the first black person some black had seen that did not speak their language. But most, welcomed me with open arms. I was a SHOCK to Many Africans. I listen to classical music, jazz, study martial arts, speak with an ambitious vocabulary in the everyday language. I did not match the “Stereotype” black American. I was out-casted do a degree from some others with the same skin tone.
But good, I was able to expose them to something different. Like South Africa has the largest Indian population outside of India. Amazing Indian culture as well. Rich history of Gandhi as well, hearing and reading personal stories about Mother Teresa. I missed meeting Mandella by just a few weeks. His wife when to the boarding school I worked at. We have so much to learn from one another.
Thank you for the article. It was refreshing for you to share. Thank you for having the courage to speak up about an injustice that should not exist, but does. Let’s keep sharing so one day, this becomes just a story with how those people acted in the early 21st century.
Wow this is so great, thank you for sharing your stories with me! If you ever want to do a guest post I would be very interested in having your share more!
I definitely agree with you about the ” Parents see that stereotypical image and that brings in big money. Hire her. She will easily bring in more money and I don’t have to convince parents of the process.” 100%. That’s why I have an issue with some for-profit training centers. If they care so much more about money than they do about education, you’ll see racist hiring practices and educational policies that aren’t good for anyone.
I understand that some of your other jobs were worried about convincing parents, and I’m glad they still hired you anyway! Hopefully, you convinced them to hire more diverse staff in the future!!