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In China, English teaching is a whites-only club

Courtesy Liz Thomas

Will Evans, a Canadian who teaches English in China, is seen in his classroom.


BEIJING – Speak a little English and are willing to relocate? Well, you’re probably qualified to be an English-language instructor in China. 

As long as you are white, that is.

Chinese teaching agencies are constantly seeking candidates to teach English to the growing number of children who are looking to get a leg up in China’s rigorous academic environment. The opportunity is quite lucrative and requires little or no knowledge of Chinese. 

But the ads recruiting these teachers come with a catch.

Take, for example, Mike Lee and Will Evans, students from the U.S. and Canada, respectively, who applied to be English teachers through the New Development School, a teacher-placement agency in Beijing. Being fluent speakers of English, both believed they would make competitive candidates. 

What they didn’t know is that recruiters would not be evaluating them just on their English fluency or academic credentials. Instead, they were judged primarily on physical appearance. 

“We want him [pointing to Evans], but we don’t want you [to Lee],” the recruiter told them, as the two stood side by side at the front counter of the school. “Unfortunately, parents of our students don’t really want someone Asian to be teaching.”

Lee, who is Korean-American, was rejected from the school despite having previous experience teaching English as a second language (ESL). Evans, a white Canadian, was hired on the spot. 

“I was shocked – back home this wouldn’t be acceptable,” Lee told NBC News. “I’ve never been discriminated (against) in that way.” 

White, Caucasians only
Racial discrimination is a harsh reality within China’s ESL industry, where recruiters actively seek the blond-hair, blue-eyed all-American archetype (along with similarly equipped Britons, Australians and other native speakers close behind). While brown hair also is acceptable, having a white face is a near-absolute requirement. 

Courtesy Liz Thomas

Will Evans, a Canadian who teaches English in China, is seen in his classroom.

Byron Vogue, who works for the corporate English training company Stanford English, said that Chinese recruiters will always prefer to hire Caucasian applicants over their non-white counterparts.

“There’s this concept that if you send your children to English class, the parents are expecting their children to be taught by a white English teacher versus an Asian-American or … a black American,” he said. 

A post by Vogue on a popular online forum and classifieds site, The Beijinger, explicitly spells out the phenomenon:

“In Beijing this is the general pecking order in terms of a company's recruitment (by Chinese managers):

1. White Americans/Canadians

2. White British

3. White Australians/New Zealanders and South Africans

4. European Nonnatives/Black Americans/Black British

5. American Asians/Black Aussies (Australians) and Kiwis (New Zealanders)/Filipinos/Africans”

The discrimination comes, Evans said, because Chinese parents simply do not believe a non-white person can possibly be a native speaker. Thus, this logic continues, hiring a white person is the simplest and easiest way to ensure that the teacher is truly fluent.

“I was told that it was nice for parents to see foreign or white-looking teachers around the school,” Evans said, adding that he was encouraged to walk outside and greet parents. 

Advertisements for English teaching positions are up-front in their bias. A search for “English teacher” in The Beijinger’s classifieds section reveals dozens of ads that include language such as “Job requires American or Canadian white teacher” or “white color is preferred.”

The ESL teaching industry isn’t the only job market in China where being Caucasian is an asset. So-called “face jobs,” where companies temporarily hire a white person to be a fake employee during an important event or business meeting, also are common in China. 

Wanna sell something in China? Hire a white guy

‘Makes you feel like crap’

The preference for Caucasian employees angers many Asian-Americans and other English-speaking ethnic Asians.

“It makes you feel like crap,” said Lee. “We all came here on the same boat, at the same time, looking for the same opportunity. I didn’t know the color of my skin was going to be an issue. I find it weird to be discriminated against for being Asian, while I’m in Asia.”