Wanted: English teachers. Asians, don’t apply

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China is desperate for English teachers. With the Beijing Olympics looming and the exploding middle class eager to prepare their children for a global marketplace, Chinese parents are scrounging for people to teach their kids the lingua franca. Which makes for a terrific job market for, say, a recent college grad hankering to see the Great Wall, get a crash course in Mandarin and make some yuan as well.

Just one hitch: only whites need apply.

The Los Angeles Times has a terrific story today by Kevin Zhou titled “Where English teachers have to look the part: Asian Americans can’t compete with white instructors in China.” It begins:

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.

But that’s…illegal. Isn’t it?

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.

This isn’t true just in China. In Japan, ads for English tutoring services feature smiling white faces–never Asians, blacks or Hispanics. I had a Chinese-American friend who taught in Japan, and she says she was constantly being mistaken for Japanese. It was a problem, she said. Japanese parents are famously education-minded, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they expressed quiet surprise at an Asian teaching their kids a non-Asian language. But the Chinese don’t have the same hang-ups about politeness that Japanese do, according to Benjamin Newbry, associate director of the Princeton Review test-preparation company in Shanghai (who’s white):

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.”

White teachers are such hot commodities that some schools have taken to hiring whites who don’t even speak English as a first language:

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.

Good thing teaching in China isn’t part of my five-year plan. I’d have to dye my hair blond.