Recently a Kunming language school I have taught at in the past asked me to recommend a foreign English teacher. As it happened, an American friend of mine was looking for extra work. He’s in his mid-30s, speaks some Chinese, has years of experience, and even has a proper ESL teaching certificate. It seemed like a perfect match. There was just one problem.

My friend is Chinese-American.

When I mentioned this fact to the head of the school, she frowned and looked down. She then said that while she herself harbors no grudge against English teachers who look Chinese, such a teacher would be unacceptable to the parents of the children at the school. She then, in an futile attempt to be helpful, suggested I recommend a white friend for the job, even one ‘who doesn’t speak much English’.

When I broke the news to my friend, he took it better than I expected. ‘It’s nothing new,’ he said, adding that even when he lived in Shanghai he encountered similar discrimination.

I was reminded of this story this morning while reading this post in Foreign Policy magazine’s excellent Passport blog. The author, a Chinese-American like my friend, recounts the derision, discrimination, and just plain confusion he encountered as a so-called huaqiao in China.

At first, the difficulty of many Chinese to deal with foreigners of Chinese ancestry seems quite peculiar. Millions of people in China know of relatives who live outside of the country and are well aware of the ubiquity of Chinatowns in just about every major Western city. When I tell people in China that I come from San Francisco, they often immediately bring up the city’s famously large Chinese population.

Yet despite the great numbers of Chinese who have traveled and lived abroad- much less emigrated- the vast majority of people in this country inhabit a very Sino-centric universe. In the rural hinterland, where roughly three-fifths of the population resides, many people have never left their province, much less country. Many have never spoken to a foreigner in their life. For these Chinese, the only trappings of Western culture they are familiar with might be tin cans of Sprite and Coke.

We Americans are often accused, with some justification, of being unworldly. This trait stems from the vast size of the United States, the fact that one of our two neighbors is culturally similar Canada, and the convenience of being native speakers of the world’s de facto lingua franca. Yet most non-aboriginal Americans, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders can clearly trace their ancestry back to various ‘Old World’ countries.  In my own case, being of mixed Italian/Norwegian blood carries as much significance to me as being born and raised in the United States.

As a result of our ‘new world’ mentality, we are able to differentiate ethnicity and nationality without much difficulty at all. In China, a vast, largely poor nation that has sustained several periods of complete isolation in its history, ethnicity and nationality are knotted together firmly in the national psyche.

Slowly, things are changing. Greater numbers of Chinese nationals are able to study and work overseas than ever before, while simultaneously greater numbers of foreigners are choosing to live in China. The net effect of these movements should greatly alleviate the notion that people, like my friend, of Chinese appearance are necessarily Chinese.

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About Matt

Matt spent six years in China, mainly based in the beautiful spring city of Kunming. During that time he worked in consulting, journalism as well as English teaching. Matt studied Chinese for 2+ years and loved exploring the mountains of Yunnan by mountain bike). He now lives in New York City where he is pursuing a Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University.

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  1. Yeah, I work with a Chinese guy, grew up largely in the states and his English is fluent, as in, same as a Laowai. I feel for the guy (though he seems to except it), as his pay packet is a fraction of his white co-workers.

    I’m waiting for a post now on how white guys are being hired to act as businessman.

    Chinese say the darndest things.

  2. Right, this is nothing new. Experienced a similar thing when I was looking for a language partner in Shanghai. Though I’m not saying my English is perfect (because it is not). The Chinese students prefer that I am “white”. My teacher herself was embarrassed to tell me this. At least she was embarrassed for her picky wards.

  3. Great post, Matt. Very insightful.

    I feel terrible for your friend. What a miserable reason to be turned down for a job. Good for him for not becoming cynical about it.

    I try to keep in mind that there is a clear difference in China between racism and xenophobia. Most folk don’t seem to be actively racist, but solidly xenophobic. There’s no KKK, but we all know how long it takes to build guanxi as a foreigner.

    There also seems to be a wide range of opinions about Chinese folk who work or study abroad, the “Sea Turtles”. I’ve had students who’ve said that going abroad weakens the Motherland.

    Hopefully opinions like these will change with time. Over the past couple decades, China has quickly changed from a nation all but completely closed to foreigners to a thriving international hub. It’s in the world’s spotlight right now, so the xenophobia can’t realistically persist. China’s got some famous walls, but they can’t all stand forever.

  4. Quote:
    “She then, in an futile attempt to be helpful, suggested I recommend a white friend for the job, even one ‘who doesn’t speak much English’.”

    What if your friend were African-American?

    It’s both halo effect (“外来的和尚好唱经”) and racism.

  5. Pretty ridiculous stuff. And it happens all over China. One of my friends was recruiting for an English training school and they turned down a Harvard graduate with a TEFL certificate just because she was Asian American. I lived in a small town in the Hunan province for the past year, and even when one of my Asian American friends visited, my Chinese friends refused to believe she was an American. Granted, they hadn’t heard her speak much, haha, but still, it’s all about appearance. I, also, write about many of these types of experiences in my blog…check if out if you get a chance:

    • A friend of mine from Ireland had a similar experience. Her parents are from Hong Kong, but she’d lived her whole life near Dublin and her Mandarin is awful. Every time a group of us would go out, Chinese folk would speak to her and she’d just shrug “dunno man” and defer to us. We’d translate for her and speak to them but they would ignore us and keep speaking only to her. Even when she informed them of her predicament, they would just laugh and keep jabbering at her as if she would suddenly snap into understanding. Bizarre.

  6. This is just fair. Overseas Chinese discriminate against mainland Chinese too, even in Chinatown.

    In fact, Chinese discriminates against Chinese period. Of course they like Africans, Southeast Asians, South Asians, Filipinos, Indonesians and Koreans even less. They hate Japanese, but admire them. Strange.

    • and in the mainland, a person who tries to cheat foreigners will also quite likely try to cheat Chinese from other areas of China

    • “This is fair”?

      Your reasoning is FUCKED UP. Discrimination is never fair.
      Mainland Chinese people discriminating Overseas Chinese is not fair. AND Overseas Chinese discriminating against mainland Chinese is not fair either.

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  8. I remember a coworker of mine having a similar difficulty. He was a Chinese-American, spoke with a New Jersey accent and was as American as apple pie. His heritage was still a difficulty because of the association with foreign equaling having a foreign appearance. But this is all changing. In the big cities, the overseas returnees – especially the Sea Turtles – are changing the face of the economy. Chinese of all extractions are getting an increasingly fair shake.

  9. While I can’t say that I’ve faced outright discrimination in China, I can say that people’s attitudes towards me once they find out I’m an ABC changes quite a bit. It ranges from being completely surprised because I “look Chinese” to rejecting my “Chinese-ness,” even though I speak the language and grew up in a heavily Chinese neighborhood. While I can’t say that I’m not surprised huaqiao are treated differently in China, I am surprised that it actually negatively impacts their ability to find work. Hopefully this will change over time, as China is exposed to more and more people from all over the world (and hopefully though people travelling there, not through television like MTV).

  10. Actually I am a huaqiao living in southern China. My girlfriend is a Chinese studying overseas. I was lucky to have family with companies already set up in China and a lot of gongxi. I was placed in a pretty large company to help interacting with overseas (US, Europe) suppliers. I actually asked about what would happen if I wanted to teach American in China. My girlfriend told me that the schools want foreigners, because they want their students to get used to talking to foreigners.

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