Where English teachers have to look the part

Special to The Times

When Douglas Lee started searching for a job as an English instructor in Chengdu, he seemed just like any other American to his potential employers. He was raised in Oklahoma, enjoyed listening to jazz and was a big fan of Woody Allen movies like “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

But when he submitted a photo of himself, the 26-year-old graduate of San Diego State University discovered that he had one blemish on his application: He looked too Chinese.

By the end of a two-month job search, Lee had been rejected by seven employers, and for no other reason, he says, than being a Chinese American.


“Some of them just straight up said they wanted someone more foreign,” said Lee, who settled for a job as an administrator at North America ESL School in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province in western China.

Lee’s experience is hardly unfamiliar to many Asian Americans who have ventured to China in recent years to explore their roots, visit relatives or seek work opportunities.

With the Beijing Olympics just a year away and a flood of Chinese families sending their children to private language institutes, one of the hottest jobs in China is English instructor. But Asian Americans are finding it tough to break into the industry because many schools prefer to have whites as English teachers.

“In previous jobs, I’ve had to deal with Chinese parents who have the mentality of ‘White is right,’ ” said Benjamin Newbry, associate director of the Princeton Review test-preparation company in Shanghai, who is white.

“It’s just the idea that somehow if you’re white, it qualifies you, and skills don’t really matter. Being white becomes a plus on your job application.”

As in the U.S., there are laws in China prohibiting job discrimination based on sex, race or religion. But in practice, many Chinese employers place hiring ads with specific requirements on age, gender and residence. Companies routinely ask applicants for photos.


“Most of the regulations are just general principle. . . and not enough to protect against discrimination in real life,” said Liu Haobin, a labor lawyer in Beijing.

Newbry, who is responsible for hiring teachers at his center, said it was difficult not to consider race when adding a member to the faculty.

Most Chinese consumers expect a white teacher at a foreign-language school, he said. And when the teacher isn’t white, Chinese parents aren’t shy about complaining.

“A lot of them were up in my face,” Newbry said. “They’re pretty aggressive when it comes to their kid’s learning environment.”

The feelings among both parents and students were apparent at the Newave Education Center in Shanghai. Shortly after his lesson had ended on a recent afternoon, a wide-eyed 8-year-old ran out of the classroom to show off what he had just learned. He went up to a secretary at the front desk, and -- with a big smile on his face -- proudly spelled his new English name, Steven.

“I like foreigners,” he said to a visitor, pointing out that his teacher was a white Australian. “White people can speak better English.”


Later, a dozen toddlers, some clad in Snoopy and Mickey Mouse T-shirts, crowded into a small classroom at the school. “Of course I’d rather have a foreigner” as a teacher, said Lu Mingzhen, who had taken his 3-year-old granddaughter to the class. By that, he meant a white foreigner. “Their pronunciation is more precise.”

The demand for white teachers has led some schools to hire people from France, Germany and other countries where English is not the primary language, said Maosi Yan, program director at Interlingua School, a small, privately owned center in Guizhou province, in south-central China.

In years past, people in Guizhou, Gansu, Sichuan and other remote areas of China often learned English from foreigners such as Peace Corps volunteers and others whose arrival and work were arranged through the Chinese and American governments. For many of them, teaching English was a side job.

Nowadays, privately owned schools -- not the government -- bear the primary responsibility for bringing in English teachers. Although some instructors said they wanted to come to China primarily to learn about the culture, the perks of the job are now attracting many more applicants.

In an online ad posted by Chengdu Meishi International School, native English-speaking teachers were being offered a fully furnished apartment along with a monthly salary of about $700. That’s enough pay to live comfortably in this laid-back city famous for its giant pandas.

“Chengdu is a good place because everything is cheap, the pay is pretty decent,” said Paul Traynor, a senior tutor at English First Chengdu. When asked about hiring for jobs like his, Traynor agreed that race is a factor. “You wouldn’t get the ugliest woman in the world to advertise makeup,” he quipped.


For some whites, finding an English teaching job in China is almost effortless.

Matt Froude, a white, 27-year-old Australian who teaches at Newave Education Center, didn’t even have to apply. He said a Chinese employee of Newave approached him on a bus in Shanghai and asked if he wanted a teaching job. And just like that, Froude joined the faculty.

But for Asian Americans who have spent their whole lives speaking English, the difficulties of landing and keeping such a job can be frustrating.

Jennifer Ashley, who graduated from Cal State L.A. in 2004 with a degree in English, believes race was a key reason she was dismissed from an English teaching position in Chengdu.

Though you wouldn’t guess it from her name or her appearance, Ashley is half-Chinese. Though she lacks the stereotypical Asian features and is commonly mistaken for Latino back in California, she still didn’t meet the expectations of her students and employers at the vocational school where she worked.

“It seems like there is a prevailing notion that foreigners and Americans have blond hair and blue eyes,” she said. “Oftentimes they would ask me, ‘Why don’t you have blond hair? Why is your hair dark?’ ”

When her term ended, her contract wasn’t renewed. Ashley’s employer didn’t offer any explanation. She stayed on in Chengdu, co-founding an English-language magazine.



Cao Jun in The Times’ Shanghai bureau contributed to this report.