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Travel, Teach, Live in China

An African English teacher in China

Although in this very competitive country - China, people do everything it takes to break through in business, I am very strongly against malpractices like bribery, dishonesty, discrimination, etc.

1. It is wrong to think that an English teacher MUST be a native English speaker. (Being a native speaker of a language doesn't qualify one enough to teach that language.)

2. It is even worse to think that an English teacher must be a white man from some shortlisted countries. (Teaching a language has nothing to do with the colour of one's skin)

3. It is wrong to think that people whose first language is not English can't teach English. (Some of the best ESL teachers, trainers and ESL course book writers are not native English speakers. Not all Americans, British, Australians, etc are native English speakers.)

Unfortunately, this is the mentality, less educated, ignorant and sometimes purely prejudiced persons have and pass on to the younger generation. We are not simply English teachers. We are educators and models. It is our duty to correct this way of thinking instead of encouraging it by getting involved in bribery and lies about people's origins and identities. By doing so, educators that we are, help in promoting social evils like racism, discrimination and prejudice. We ought to prove the society wrong.

My story: (A little long, read if you have the patience).

When I arrived in China many years back I was shocked at the prejudiced ads online with phrases like 'whites only' 'No Africans please' 'you must be American, British, bla bla bla.' With 5years ESL teaching experience before arriving in China, I felt for the first time like a fish out of water. I called my mom and told her I wanted to go back home because I felt like an unwanted person. My mom felt so bad that she talked to my dad about it. My dad on the contrary was not that worried. I remember his words so clearly: "Son, if you meet darkness, do not run away, light a candle." He said and hung up on me.

I was still in Guangzhou, my one month L visa was running out. The guy I was temporary putting up with was putting pressure on me to leave or pay rents. In this desparate situation I fell in to the trap. I got duped by a visa agent who promised both a job and an F visa. That's how I found myself in my first teaching position in China - a small village school in Xi'an.

At first things looked promising. I was sharing a two bedroom apartment with a fellow teacher Tony from the Philippines. The students loved me. Soon the enrollment doubled. Then came the bomb. The boss asked us to lie to the students as well as their parents. Tony was asked to say he was from New Zealand and I had to say I was from New York. In fact the boss had already lied to the students and the parents. He was just telling us to be sure his lie would work. As the enrollment rose students started asking us to tell them about our respective countries. Tony knew nothing about New Zealand neither did I about America let alone New York. I managed on for a few months and quit after six months without telling the students the truth for the sake of the school and my friend. Tony accepted it and stayed on. The boss was red when he received my resignation letter. He promised me hell in China. He said I was never going to get a job in China with the mentality I had. Tony also warned me because I told him I was heading to Beijing. As he saw me off at the bus station to Xi'an city he said I could get a job in the smaller cities but asked me to put Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen off my list.

While in Xi'an I called my parents again and told them about the situation. My mom was really ok with me going back home for my return flight ticket was still valid. But my dad pushed me on. In my mind I really wanted to go back home but I thought, it would be better to give it the worst shot before leaving. One of the reasons was also the curiousity of seeing Beijing. I boarded the train to Beijing. The city of Beijing fascinated me. The hustling and bustling, the nightlife and everything else. I spent everyday in the internet cafe next to the small place where I was staying responding to ads online. I got calls everyday from schools but who all hung up on me after the first question "Where are you from?" It grew more and more frustrating so in anger I rewrote my CV. (My first CV had the nationality line omitted deliberately as advised by friends in Guangzhou). This time I included the following lines after the introductory paragraph in bold: "I am not from America, Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, I am from Cameroon - Africa. I am a trained ESL teacher, give me a chance in the classroom and watch what I can do." Four days passed, no calls from any school. I was sure that was it. I was ready to leave. In fact what kept me was the plan to visit the Tian na men square I had heard so much about. I really wanted to take some pictures for my brothers.

Then one morning I got a call from a Canadian, Chris Cotter. He was in charge of recruitments at the Aihua Foreign Language Academy. My CV had struck him. The demo lesson was nothing to me. In 40minutes I got the kids chanting English songs. They hired me. At the end of the summer camp they asked me to sign full time. I turned down the offer because my resume with the bold lines was still circulating and calls were still coming in. I got a few more calls but turned them down. They were all part time hours.

Gary Young Allen, the KISB native English teachers supervisor stumbled on my CV on some of the numerous websites I had registered in. He called me, interviewed me and that was it. I got the job at the Korean International School. I was the first black and African to be hired by the school.

Tears gathered in my eyes as I received boos from students the first day i was presented officially in the auditorium but I held them back, put on courage and waved at them. So because of doubt, they hired me as a part time teacher. After the first semester they got me to sign full time. The students quickly became fond of me. I took up responsibilities; the school newspaper, directed a play for kids, etc. That impressed the school. Another black guy was hired. Today as I write this post 5 Africans teach in that school, 2 Zimbabweans, 1 Kenyan, 1Nigerian and a guy from Equatorial Guinea. Many things marked my stay in KISB but the one I will hardly ever forget is about a fellow brother from Cameroon.

It was during my second year as a full time teacher in KISB. I had been appointed to assist Gary in the hiring of new teachers. We had to read CVs, run interviews, train newly hired teachers, etc. One busy morning Gary told me we were expecting a new teacher for interview. He was a South African Reading (British) University Graduate. Gary had already had a first chat with the guy. He was therefore coming in for a second round interview. On that busy morning Gary asked me to receive him while Gary went in search of the school general supervisor. I received the new teacher (sorry, let's keep the name secret). I introduced myself to him and guess what...he was Cameroonian. At first he looked embarrassed but shook off the embarrassment and told me the truth. He was a Cameroonian university graduate. He had lied about his origin and bought a fake certificate online from rascals just in order to get called up for interviews. There we stood looking at each other not knowing what to do next. The biggest pressure was on me. Was I to help him keep the secret? Tell Gary the truth? Well, I told him I had been hired as a Cameroonian and the school trusted me. I told him I was not going to let out his secret but I wasn't equally going to be there during his interview. That way he had to manage his mess himself. I left, he had his interview later and wasn't hired. I had a mix feeling of sadness and relief.

These are some of the consequences of the biased mentality here:

- Fake teaching certificates and college degrees are everywhere at very affordable prices with prestigious names of universities on them. Recruiters believe them. The business is booming because recruiters are not looking at whether or not the teacher is qualified to teach. They are looking at the name of the university and the country.

- Out of the frustration of being marginalized, many of my African brothers and sisters have taken to unworthy means of making a living in China because it's the option the society here has given them.

- Cases of Africans with expired visas abound in China because a visa from an African country for extension is considered "a bad case" both by visa agents and the immigration office while back in African countries citizens of many other countries around the world walk in and out freely.

- For an African in China to date a Chinese girl, during your discussion, face-to-face or online, you have to say something like "you know I am African but I grew up in London, New York, Canada, bla bla bla" Then you can be considered. If it's online simply say, "I am American" her pictures and phone number are all yours in a minute. (No offense Chinese sisters, I have a chinese girlfriend who loves me very much as a Cameroonian. She also loves Africa).

BTW, here is some laughter for you. It happened to my friend from South Africa. She introduced herself to be from South Africa in class and one of her students hurriedly asked her: "Then why are you white?" Now don't rush into saying it is ignorance, no no no, it's a mastery of the lectures about Africa parents give their children here. My friend and have jointly started a website called Bridgeafrik.com aiming to show the world the other side of Africa you never see on your TV.

Back to the story.

I left the Korean International School in quest of the next prejudiced city - Shanghai where I work now. Guess my next destination. I teach business English to graduates. I have started and online coaching program called My Everyday English - MyEE which is growing and expanding with a fascinating ESL learners and teachers community. My best friends in China are my students. The most prejudiced persons in China are the recruiters. They polute the society and especially the young generation with this way of thinking.

So dear Chinese friends, prejudice is a social evil. Think of all the chinese investments in Africa, all the Chinese living in African countries (7000 in my country - Cameroon), think of all the diplomatic ties that have been made with numerous conferences and friendship slogans and then think about the way we are regarded here; the cold stares, remarks, mockery laughs, etc.

In China foreigners who are white are referred to as 'wai gou ren' while foreigners who are black are refered to as 'hei ren.' It hurts to be reminded all the time of one's skin colour and the fact that one is a foreigner here.

*Imagine if people started calling chinese people "Yellows" or "Yellow men."

*Imagine you in a foreign country sitting on a seat on the bus or on the train with the two other seats to your left and to your right deserted eventhough the bus is packed.

*Imagine you walking in the park just to relax, a little child sees you and says 'hello' happy to meet you and the mother grabs him and carries him away in her arms as if to say "how dare you go near that .... (I don't know what)".

*Imagine you walking on the street and every time you approach people someone is saying "Kan kan Kan yi xia" or elbowing the other to see what kind of person is coming.

*Imagine students' parents saying "My daughter's teacher is black but he can teach well."

*Imagine all the ads online carrying hurting phrases like: 'we don't do visas for African countries,' 'teachers from Africa - don't apply please' 'I want a boyfriend - no blacks'

I could go on and on naming them and may be you will just say like some friends have said to me before: "This is China, you can not change it, if you are not happy go back to your country." No no no no no and no. I am a teacher and I am an educator.

Educators, it is our challenge to mould the society. Dear black brothers and sisters. Do not run away from the darkness, light a candle.

Denis DNT.

Shanghai, April 2009.

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