Thursday, February 10, 2011

Response to "This Darn Face of Mine!"

A powerful and though-provoking response from my friend, Neil, to my previous post, "Banana Split: This Darn Face of Mine!" regarding my difficulty in finding a Native English teaching job in Hong Kong because I look Asian.

Neil: I'm not really sure what it is, perhaps the colonial mentality or maybe the prestige of having a "white" English teacher? Either way, you are right; it is not fair for any highly qualified non-white teacher.

But then I started to think and analyze after reading your blog.

Here in America for example, would people prefer a Chinese teacher teaching Mandarin over a qualified "white" teacher? Would you choose a German-speaking Bangladeshi tutor or a German from Berlin to teach you Deutche? Would you prefer a Mexican to teach you Spanish or someone from Madrid?  What do you think? This really makes me wonder if what you're experiencing is racism or not...

And now Neil's questions have got ME thinking!

Being a world traveler, I'd like to think of myself as being a bit worldly and the last thing I would consider myself is "racist". But then I remembered one particular instance where my prejudices came into play and from the eyes of a bystander, I could have been seen as a "racist"!

Neil, you'll remember this incident because you were my racist partner-in-crime! I was back in New York in 2009 and Neil and I had signed up for an introductory samurai sword class. The sensai was in fact, a Jewish man in a samurai outfit. Now, I didn't see any physical form of credentials, but the guy knew how to handle a sword! To simplify, he was qualified to teach samurai sword. But for some reason, Neil and I thought it was a bit ridiculous to have a Jewish man teaching us samurai and we kind of giggled and snickered our way through the introductory lesson (though it has to be mentioned that Neil and I pretty much giggle and snicker our way through most things in life). And we never went back. Please note, Neil and I attended this samurai sword lesson with a dear friend of mine who is Jewish. She giggled along with us.

A typical Neil and Connie moment
So why all the titters at the Jewish samurai master? Did we just somehow find it unbelievable that a Jewish man could master a Japanese martial art form and teach it to others? And wasn't that just a bit racist on our parts?

Neil's questioning made me realize that the difficulty I've been having with finding a job is frustrating, definitely! But racist? Not really. Sure, it's prejudice to discount someone's qualifications due to their outward appearance and it's still NOT okay, but I get it.

Neil and I wanted to learn samurai sword and we naturally preferred our sensai be authentic, as in Japanese. Having a Jewish samurai sensai just seemed odd to us.

For Asian parents to feel that they're giving their children an "authentic" English education, they prefer having an "authentic" looking Westerner teaching. That's fine with me. But I'd have been a damn good English teacher to their children!

What about you? Can you admit that perhaps you're a little bit racist too? What's your answer to Neil's questions? Would YOU choose a German-speaking Bangladeshi tutor or a German from Berlin to teach YOU Deutche?

I think this lesson in racism and prejudice is best summed up by the Tony-award winning Broadway musical, Avenue Q. So puppets, take it away and end all this racist talk on a lighter note!

© Connie Hum 2011


  1. You make good points, probably the word "racism" is a little too heavy, maybe prejudice is slightly better :P
    I think language classes are different from any sport classes. You are from the States, in what way would you speak English worse than any other "white" American?
    I think I'm quite fluent in English, but in no way I can teach English better than you, as it's not my native language.
    I'm Italian and French mother tongue because I was born and grew up in Italy but most of my family lives in France, and no matter what, I still think a French native will teach French better than me.
    As I wrote in a comment to your previous post, an Italian friend of mine was constantly refused to teach Italian in the UK. What was the reason then? She's fully qualified, she's Italian (look AND accent), and she's "white".
    I think that the rejections you stumbled on are very likely due to plain ignorance, even without bad intentions, just plain ignorance.

  2. @AngelaCorrias Angela, I don't have the answers for you. I doubt there is just one thing that we can peg this as, whether ignorance, racism or prejudice. It's not fair but I guess the world just isn't fair unfortunately. I do think that this dialogue we're all having is a great thing and perhaps can help us change our current views and understanding of the world we live in. And maybe that's a step in the right direction. I certainly hope so.

  3. When I told my mom I wanted to teach abroad, she told me straight up that even if I did find a job as an English teacher, my employer would not pay me as much because I'm Chinese.

    I understand where the Asian parents are coming from and be to frank, I would probably have the same reaction as you did about the Jewish samauri (minus the giggles). I would have thought it to be a bit odd and not as "authentic".

    However, if I were in your shoes looking for a teaching position, I'd highlight the benefit that you have as a bi-lingual teacher. You can teach the children English and also be able to fully communicate with their parents about their child's progress. In addition, you are not only teaching their child how to speak proper English but you can explain in Chinese what it means so that they fully comprehend it. These are advantages that a white American doesn't have.

  4. @Connie – I think it’s human nature to have a little bit of expectations, seeing white person holding a samurai is unusual, but not uncommon nowadays. I have to admit it was only the first impression, but when the class started, we totally forgotten that the sensai was white, and we just started to enjoy the class. Our focused wasn’t the teacher anymore, but what he was teaching us. I remember the teacher mentioned that he also choreograph sword fights in films, so we must have had one damn, kick-ass teacher, and yes, he’s white!

    As a person who loves to eat, this also applies to me whenever I eat in Asian restaurants. I sort of expect Vietnamese cooks, in Vietnamese restaurants, Japanese preparing my sushi, and Mexicans making my guacamole. Okay, this is another story :)

  5. @Monica Monica, you're right! I should be using my bi-lingual language skills to the full advantage! Thanks for the helpful tip! I think I was focusing so much on trying to convince people I had excellent English skills that I completely forgot my Cantonese comes in handy too!

    @neil After this episode and hearing everyone's thoughts on this topic, it's made me realize that is in human nature to have these types of expectations and just because we all have these little preconceived notions about things, it doesn't mean we're racist or prejudice.

    I think this helps me feel a little better about my job situation...But I'd feel better if someone would just hire me. =)

  6. People are just innately judgemental i think. Not racist or prejudice, more like...huhh interesting, an asian woman teaching english? or a mexican man cooking japanese food?? But once you get to know the person, you totally forget what they look like on the outside and appreciate who they are. Like the saying "Don't judge the book by its cover" they should not NOT hire you because of your look, at least give you a chance and see your capabilities!
    Good luck! many blessings!

  7. whoa. i've been brewing up a blog post in my head about racism and was thinking of that same avenue q song! get out of my brain, traveling twin! :)

    thank you connie and neil for shining a light on this angle.

    when i was in nepal, i was so looking forward to a tibetan meditation retreat in the mountains.

    our guru was an american. like, the whitest american american you've ever met. and i admit, i was disappointed. i would've taken more seriously a "real" tibetan.

    i realize this doesn't help your situation at all - 'tis human nature! but i wish you all the best connie!

  8. @milania dela cruz, md. You're right, sometimes what we can perceive as racism is just merely sheer obvious curiousity.

    @traveling thy That is amazing, we ARE like the same person! =) But yes, coming to this realization doesn't necessarily help my current situation but it does help me understand it better and not feel so bad.

  9. I think there is still an element of racism attached to the non-hiring of English teachers who aren't white. Regardless of race, the person being hired would still have been born and raised in an English speaking country and being a citizen of that country. The race of the person shouldn't factor into it.

    I do understand the reasons, but for example in Korea, parents prefer a white American over a black or Asian American. However, all 3 teachers in question would still be American - not one of them would be from a country where English isn't the primary language.

  10. @Tom You are correct that all teachers would be equally qualified. Unfortunately, appearances do count in some respect which places everyone at a different vantage field. I agree that race shouldn't factor in, but I'm afraid there's little I can do about it.

  11. WHAT?! I completely disagree with your argument here. Yes, you were being prejudiced with the Jewish samurai, but let's be clear about what we're comparing.

    Let's assume we rate people's fluency/skill from 0 (no skill) to 10 (native/fluent). My dear, dear friend Daya was born in Bolivia and moved here when she was about 25. She's now 33. She "fluently" speaks English. To someone that doesn't speak English, she would be EXTREMELY helpful, but to an American, she still speaks with a slight accent and makes some grammatical errors here and there. I would give her a level 7 (I'm being VERY harsh here with these levels). Simply because you and I are intelligent and American and this is a native language, we are level 10s. Could all three of us teach English? Yes. Would both of us be significantly better than her? Absoluteleigh.

    The same could be said for the Jewish samurai. Yes, he may be skilled at using a sword, but he might be a level 7, 8, or 9. (I don't know how to compare). But if I were to hire someone, I would hope I would be intelligent enough to decipher if someone is a level 7 or a level 10, regardless of what they looked like. You're 100% American and level 10 English!! That's all there is to it! If they're discriminating on how you look, it's plain not okay!!!

  12. @puhhLEIGHze You have a strong argument there Leigh and you're right. I am 100% American and a "level 10" English but the fact still remains that there is discrimination based on my outward appearance and although I can't say that I'm 100% okay with it, I realize I have to accept it. I'm not sure what else I can do about it.

    Do you have any suggestions?

  13. The things about language teachers that bothers me the most (here in Italy at least) is when they will hire a 'qualified Italian' over a native-speaker. I don't really think that is what you are referring too but for me, as long as the teacher is a native-speaker it doesn't really matter where they come from. I mean if that Bangledeshi German tutor was born and raised in Germany, he's going to have the same accent as a German (maybe he doesn't even speak Bengali or any Bangladesh language).

    I had a Mexican woman as my Italian teacher and to be honest it was great because she spoke fast and with a completely different accent (she's been in Italy for 10 yrs). I am however not a parent choosing a teacher for my child and who knows if I would think differently in that situation.

    Since you are American, to me it seems silly that they wouldn't hire you but I suppose I would have to have an experience like your Jewish Samurai teacher to understand.

    Either way, it's a bummer that you are having a hard time!

  14. @Annie You're right, a native speaker is a native speaker. The accent and everything will be the same so it shouldn't matter. But you're right, we're not the parents in the situation and who knows how we will feel if we were in their place. It's a bummer but I'm still sending out my resumes and keeping positive. I just need ONE school to see beyond this and I'm sure there's at least ONE that will! Just gotta find it! =)

  15. I've got to start "subscribing" when I comment. I just saw you asked a question. Oops! Well, now that you have a job, it don't matter no mo. SCREW IT! Get wasted!!!

  16. This is the same experience I had when I first moved to Taiwan and was looking to teach English here. I can speak English just as well as any "white" American. But time and again I was turned away because they were looking for someone who is "white". I always asked for another reason why they don't want to hire me besides this "white" issue and they always replied with "it's not you, we are just looking for Caucasian teachers." It was very frustrating.

    I also had Asian friends who eventually did find English teaching jobs but had to lie to their employer that they don't speak any other languages other than English and that she was born in Canada. In reality, she wasn't born in Canada but actually immigrated there when she was 3, but her English is perfect and her credentials are impeccable. I just think this is ridiculous. Just because someone can speak another language doesn't mean that they can't speak English well and without an accent. There are lots of children being raised as bilingual or trilingual everywhere in the world! Sorry for all this ranting but I just want to say "I feel you on this one."

    On a lighter note, when I took a Mandarin course in college, my teacher was a white male and he even had a slight accent. I wonder how he got the job?

    1. Hi Kimberly, I don't mind the rant at all. I mean, that's what I did in the first place. Although there's little we can do to change the way societies and human nature works, at least we can feel strength in numbers.


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