Let’s face it, English teachers in China are not exactly viewed as people who have been a major success in life. Often the subject of diatribes on many an anonymous internet forum, it’s time to look at why these perceptions exist.
Perceptions by Non-Teaching Expats
On many internet forums devoted to expat life in China, the term LBH (Loser Back Home) is omnipresent. There is a firm perception that many people employed in the TEFL industry do so because they are completely unemployable in their home countries. Sometimes, there is a deal of truth to this. I myself have worked with people who can barely function, do not take their job seriously, are constantly late, and have a drinking problem that would make John Wayne wince. However, this is simplistic to say the least.
People come to China to teach for a whole myriad of reasons- to subsidize international travel, to make a few bucks whilst studying Chinese, to escape personal issues in their home country, to fund a gap year and even to possibly find a spouse. Some people are happy to simply earn a salary that is enough to live on while working a fraction of a Western work week. I feel that the real reason “professional” expats feel the way they do about English teachers is one of lateral aggression. Common insults include, but are in no way limited to:
You’re smart, for an English teacher
No wonder you’re stupid, you must be an English teacher
You’re an English teacher, I’ll TRY not to hold that against you
Why didn’t you just go and work in McDonalds?
English teaching is indeed the McJob of the expat community. Foreigners in China essentially wield no power or influence, so those foreigners who are perceived as less able or capable are targeted by those who feel more worthy- for want of a better word. This phenomenon has been researched extensively in relation to violence in ethnic-minority communities and to bullying in workplaces among people who want to gain favour with their superiors, but it can be equally applied here. China can be a very frustrating place to live, and expats who are perceived as “losers” are a convenient target for vitriol.
There is also a prevalent belief that teaching English is a very easy job that basically involves singing funny songs and dancing in front of small children, this ignores the massive range of classes that foreign teachers conduct here and the hard work that many teachers put in to improving the quality of their lessons. Though in general from my observation the quality of classes from English teachers in China varies hugely from outstanding to embarrassingly bad.
Perceptions by Chinese Employers
In my honest opinion, I think most Chinese people in general are absolutely baffled as to why any Westerner from a wealthy developed country would move to China to teach English. Many Chinese have aspirations to study or work abroad, eager to get into the same rat race that us Westerners ran away from. Also, language schools in China are businesses first and schools second and most owners employ foreign teachers simply for the purpose of “spending money to make money.” A foreign teacher in the classroom can be used to justify increased tuition fees for the students’ parents.
Most owners massively resent having to pay foreigners what they perceive to be a very high salary, for doing what is in their eyes a very simple job. A Canadian I know in Shenzhen who was recently hospitalized due to e.coli poisoning was telephoned by his boss after inquiring whether or not his school provided medical insurance would pay his hospital bill and was told “The medical insurance won’t cover this, and you’re not entitled to sick pay, so when are you coming back to work?”. I think this sums up the attitude towards many teachers in language schools.
Perceptions of Race and Ethnicity
Much has been made online about the attitude of Chinese employers in the TEFL industry toward non-white and non-native speakers, and how they would rather employ a white person from Russia than a black person from USA. In their defence, this is simply echoing the perceptions of the parents, who are their customers. There is a strongly held belief that white people from USA, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand are the best people for the job, so they are the recipient of favourable discrimination as they are the best for business. I haven’t worked in a school for over four years, but I’ll never forget one exchange I had with a foreign affairs officer:
Her: Alex, can you help me find a new teacher, do you know anybody who can work here?
Me: Possibly, I know of a couple of people who may be looking for a new job.
Her: Oh, I must tell you, they must be white people. Obama black would be ok, but not darker.
Another person I know, who is of Greek American descent, was threatened with having his contract terminated at a university where he held a professorship simply because he had gone on holiday to Hainan and lounged on the beach for a few days. When he returned his skin was very dark, which royally peeved off his dean.
What, if anything, can English teachers do to change these negative perceptions? Or do they really matter at all? I think that the best English teachers in China are successful because they don’t need a pat on the back from someone telling them that they’re doing a good job, and don’t care that the biggest source of resentment is from the very person that pays their salary.
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Keywords: Teaching English China China English Teachers Perception
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this is becoming like a youtube war but anyway nice post, sometimes i get depressed as well as i am not a native speaker but i have been teaching english for more than one and half year and the racist response i get from everywhere...the kids just keep me going. the big smile and shout in the morning -"wai jiao laoshi" makes my whole day.
May 01, 2015 11:45 Report Abuse
I teach English to 6 - 12 year old kids and i don't have a clue about many grammar rules. I was a club DJ for 15 years and needed a change of pace. I'm great with kids and love being in the classroom. I couldn't care less if people didn't agree that i should be teaching English. It's my first language and i reckon that's all that counts.
Apr 26, 2015 18:01 Report Abuse
Yeah as soon as all the other chinese from other parts of the world return home. I went back to America and my landlord and boss were Chinese. The powers that be are forcing us to become more globalized. So you saying go back home is retarded. I have no home yo go back to. America gave the country to China and Illeagals and terrorists!
Apr 20, 2016 05:26 Report Abuse
"Let’s face it, English teachers in China are not exactly viewed as people who have been a major success in life." Success Definition n. noun 1. The achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted. attributed their success in business to hard work. 2. The gaining of fame or prosperity. an artist spoiled by success. 3. The extent of such gain. ___________________________ Ummm, couldn't it be said that the majority of people on the planet aren't really "sucessful" per se?
Apr 13, 2015 09:25 Report Abuse
I just don't see the purpose of this article other than to stir up a firestorm. When teaching in China, I take pride in my work and try to do the best job I can. I have no control over teachers who do otherwise, only how I conduct myself. The bottom line is that unless we internalize prejudices others have against us, what do they matter? During my last stint in Shanghai, I had a generally low-stress job with good earning potential, nice apartment, ate well, and enjoyed my life. So if someone decides I'm a LBH, it's not something I'm going to lose sleep over. Instead I just deal with more worthy people.
Apr 12, 2015 08:59 Report Abuse
I think it's very easy to see this story in a one-sided way, oh, ESL in China is such an easy job, such losers, why don't they get a "real" job at home, etc. However, it takes an extremely thick skin to do this for more than about a year!!!
Apr 10, 2015 08:49 Report Abuse
Since the OP made it so clear that he is not a teacher any longer, and this fact had absolutely nothing to do with the post, then doesnt the OP share some of the same biases? Poop article. Didnt say anything new, didnt offer any insight. But good job, you did give alot of people an opportunity to claim they either dont care or share that they are not teachers. So you made alot of people feel good about themselves. That alone is reward enough.
Apr 09, 2015 21:48 Report Abuse
People who work hard for a degree, leave their country of origin to try and make it in China, losers? Seems bizarre to me. Even if they don't have a degree, leaving your country of origin to join a foreign land is a big risk, takes guts. I wouldn't consider someone like that a loser, ever. It can be an easy job, but if you're putting a lot of effort into it and trying to do the best you can, it's not easy.
Apr 08, 2015 20:17 Report Abuse
What type of jackass feels the need to write an article like this? I find many of the people who changed from ESL into a non teaching(if indeed they actually did) make surprisingly inflammatory statements about their former occupation and the people who still teach? It's a crude form of showing face just like the peasants.
Apr 07, 2015 05:30 Report Abuse
In my experience this starts with expats who are themselves afraid of being 'losers back home' and in particular ones with more advanced degrees and goals that haven't paid off. They, for petty reasons that are the reason they're failing in the first place, need to cut down, insult, scoff and the usual 'fake teacher' lines. This get's far too many copycats who pretend to be 'real teachers' sick of 'fake teachers' (even though they themselves are no more qualified) and all of them love sneering this to Chinese employers who couldn't be more delighted to run with it. The other thing here - lots of people start off like me leaving better jobs back home for combos of adventure, renewal, love of teaching and whats the consequence of that - in fact, I go back home and find myself getting passed over for even menial jobs paying LESS than I'd make in China! So can I call this a 'self-fulfilling prophecy' after all? It will become true that you may not be able to return home to anything but 'loser jobs' or whatever we are calling our working poor these days. This might sound crazy to a few people but believe it or not I STILL enjoy winning big the handful of kids who I inspired and won over. It's still not mitigated by the monster kids who'd happily throw a bottle at my head and laugh. Then again, that kid gets to that point from the "Im a real teacher" douchebags and the disrespectful directors who pass that to the scornful teaching assistants and so on. But I get a handful of 'wins' and yes that makes it worthwhile. So far. That might change. *****..and I really don't know who thinks its easy to handle 10 year olds all morning, hustle across a campus to do 3 hours with Uni students.. eat.. get back to kids again.. get home and prepare for IELTS exams with adults the next morning. Is that really so easy? Compared to what? Any teaching job in my hometown's public school or college? Anyways, sure, 62 screaming 13 year olds. Easy. anyone can do it.
Apr 07, 2015 02:49 Report Abuse
I worked in China for about three years and I had a similar experience. I felt useless working as a teacher and most students, parents, and co-workers looked down on me in one way or another. I do think you are missing a larger piece of the puzzle, Chinese culture really looks down on outsiders, whether you are a waiguoren (外国人）or waidiren（外地人), it doesn't matter. If you talk to some of the Chinese people who aren't local they have just as much as a problem as you do in regards to respect and work. There are also great reasons to stay and make a life there if you can swallow your pride. Think about it, if you find the right job you can make as much as 15,000-20,000 RMB in a medium sized city. This kind of money in the local economy makes you a king and the amount of hours you're working is a joke. Believe me I returned home and I am now working for 30$ an hour with Chinese tourists and students and I can barely afford to live here and sometimes I wonder why the hell I came back. Also, if you're someone like me who really has deep seeded hatred for the 40 hour work week and corporate slavery it's even more difficult to readjust here.
Apr 06, 2015 20:40 Report Abuse
I don't mind sharing my personal story and take on the industry - I feel I can represent perhaps Mr. older-than-average expat teacher. Before coming to China, I had (among others) a very decent job as a office manager and martial arts instructor; I went back in college as a non-traditional (older/working) returning student. Others witnessed for the years while I'd faithfully worked, I would often also play all sorts of international music at my work stations as dreamed of travelling abroad again, since my military days. I had previously divorced and settled into mundane life... Once back in academia, I suddenly found we had a cultural history class trip to visit Tibet, and I embarked on it. I didn't think about what others thought of me - I've done a lot in my life, and have a world of experience. Since coming to China, I rarely worked with nor arbitrarily befriended other foreigners just because they were foreigners, since I deemed that's not why I went overseas. When I do meet others, I may be curious, but do not judge who also is here; I am only interested in those who seemed to be nice people and interested in me as a person, regardless of background or nationality. In these many years, I've met ALL KINDS across the spectrum. And, as I tell my students, "In life, there is no single kind of anything!" Yes, I've been here maybe a little too long! – now worried about survivability in possible return to the States; and, here, as well as in my past, I’ve seen and experienced all sorts of ups and downs; but, in the long run, I really teach and do a pretty good job. I can see the results I get, and the favor and respect of many I’ve dealt with. Yet, I can't say I am proud to be in this field either. I don’t glamorize it, nor look down on it. I just do it for a living while initially gaining exposure to contemporary life and research as part of my global studies major – One day I’ll have to write a book. I had personal reasons for leaving my home country – mostly just tired of the rat race. I don’t work for schools requiring all day (40 hour weeks) – I figure I could have just stayed back in my home country for that. I like doing less than 20 hours, and having my own freedom after that, and for me it’s been that way for several years. I refuse to commit to full time management or bigger roles or other that would preclude having a personal life. We cannot know of everyone's own story. And we shouldn't judge. Perhaps I could be called a “loser” for having a previous life with lots of experiences, ending up with a sports injury that slowed me down, tiring of a robotic life-style to make ends meet, and chose to explore life here. Besides, I envied my former college professors’ work schedules, and fancied a teaching job like theirs – such as, conducting a morning class, then an afternoon or evening class, preparation on my own time, housing, pay and benefits. It simply was a new life for me – mid-life crisis, if you will. Restarting in voluntary simplicity, or so I thought. Now, I’ve finding I’m becoming too old for some of the openings posted. Let’s face it. That will be the case wherever I go from here. Even in China, when people learn about others it may in fact help open up hearts and doors!
Apr 06, 2015 17:46 Report Abuse
Sounds like your military background helped you dealt with the shits in China. 'Even in China, when people learn about others it may in fact help open up hearts and doors!' This is true elsewhere, not with the majority of communists/mainlanders though. With understanding they baited thousands of multinationals into China, the bait being 'we got 1 billion prospects' (truth: 1 billion 'prospects' who have no decent toilet paper to use, waiting to steal your technology, benefit from it, suck you dry then kick you out). The bait was filled with poison. Now, the understanding they seek is the kind that enables them to find immigration loopholes to break into your country so they can stash and spend their loot, not to mention laying eggs. En masse their understanding don't open hearts (how can you open something you don't have?), they open doors, sure, the ones to your bank and country of origin. So when mainlanders say to you, "I want to understand you, my friend", scream hell and run!!! I'll end this comment with "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." Jiddu Krishnamurti (thanks to the commenter who put this out). Bon voyage wherever life takes you.
Apr 06, 2015 20:58 Report Abuse
Thanks. Yep, spot on, mainland girl using typical you-misunderstood-china arguement to fool 'dumb laowais'. 30 years ago that might work. In front of guys like you and the shitbombs detonating themselves globally, not so easy. 'Could it be that in China, if you put free stuff in public, it will all disappear instantly?' LOL You can call this THE Expat's MacDonald (China) Quiz. If there ever is a China Expats Exam this HAS to be one of the questions, which you along with many in this forum are obviously well qualified to set. Talking about books/movies, have you ever thought about which character(s) best fit mainland chinese en masse? Hannibal Lecter is my pick. Look at the title of Thomas Harris's novel, Red Dragon, then the date of publication, 1981, 'coincidentally' that's about the time china 'opened up', 30+ years ago. Where was Hannibal from? Lithuania. We all know what political system Lithuania had. Then the second novel, Hannibal Rising came out in 1989. To be honest, the sychronicity is a bit hair-raising. Red Dragon, Hannibal Lecter the Lithuanian, pure, cannibalistic sociopath, China. See the theme/archetype? The subconscious mind can be uncanny accurate. Failed at home try China? Sure, failed to find sufficient Hannibals at home to study try China. LOL
Apr 07, 2015 06:43 Report Abuse