White Faces Pay Wages
Language centers want white faces.
Life imitates art through the participation of foreign teachers, who enter classrooms with the Caucasian grace of movie stars and smiling poster people.
Image is everything. Parents are schools’ key investors, expecting certain standards from the places they send their kids. Glossy facilities, smart uniforms and, importantly, foreign teachers, are superficial guarantees of a school’s quality and appeal.
The pursuit of image has driven the recent influx of Westerners to Asia. A university degree and suitable visage are rewarded with a high salary and standard of living, providing foreigners with a viable opportunity to seek an adventure abroad. The ELGazette has explained that many recruiters in Vietnam prefer ‘white teachers’ from the US or Commonwealth. It is common practice to post job openings on targeted sites and to form links with TEFL-training courses, who churn out wide-eyed teachers on a monthly basis.
The preference can be reflected in the salary. Foreign teachers in Vietnam, given the right passport, can earn anything from $17-25 per hour. Filipino teachers earn less, with an average of $12-17ph. Local Vietnamese teachers earn a fraction of this. It’s always going to be an awkward situation when you’re sharing a staff room with highly-qualified individuals who earn less than you do.
The Right Passport
When it comes to race, your nationality can offer some leeway.
For instance, I’m mixed race. My blood runs on the roots of two continents. My mother is Filipino and my father is Scottish, giving me a fair complexion with some distinctly Asian features. If you saw me walking down the street, you’d most likely clock me for my ‘exotic’ appearance.
So when it came to getting a job in Vietnam, my vaguely Asian visage came to question.
This is a genuine phone call I had with a language center recruiter in Vietnam:
HIM: “Where are you from?”
ME: “I’m British.”
HIM: “But you look Asian.”
ME: “I’m British, with a British passport. I’m from the UK”.
HIM: “But you look Asian.”
ME: “Yes, I’m mixed race. Half Filipino, half British. But I’m a British Citizen”
HIM: “So you’re Filipino”
ME: “I’m British”
HIM: “But you look more Asian.”
Needless to say, the conversation didn’t last long after that.
That man’s ignorance is a testament to the pressures language centers face to recruit teachers who offer good PR. It’s not been unheard of for white backpackers to be offered a job whilst sitting in a coffee shop, qualifications or no qualifications.
I’d like to say I got my current job based on my professional ability. My Teaching Quality Manager is a lovely woman who offers praise and constructive criticism on my job performance like a language center employee should. I take it seriously. Yet, when students ask “Where you from?” and I say “the UK”, their faces light up indescribably. My Asian face may be forgiven for having the right passport.
I’m going to tell you the story of a friend who faced the ugliest side of Vietnam’s ESL world.
She is a black woman from Kenya.
We trained together on our TEFL course, graduating at the same time. I found a salaried job within a month of finishing – it took her six.
Language center after language center explicitly told her they were looking for teachers from the UK, US or Australia, who were native English speakers. It wasn’t a race thing, they said (right before hiring French, Dutch and Portuguese nationals).
She met prospective employers for coffee. They liked her qualifications, and the fact she studied in New York. Her English was at the level of a native speaker. Then she brought out her Kenyan passport: “Oh, you’re from Africa. Sorry, we’ll get back to you.” They never did.
We went house-hunting together. We found a place we really liked. The landlord was smiling and being friendly. He then asked where she was from:
HIM: “American?” ‘Cause being a black American somehow justifies your skin colour.
HER: “No I’m from Kenya”
HIM: “Where’s that?”
HIM: “I don’t sell to Africans. They steal.”
We were pretty shocked.
She now works at a school with a good schedule and salary – but only after a great deal of searching and effort on her part. She stuck it out and was rewarded.
Racism like this isn’t all-encompassing in Vietnam. I can honestly say the majority of people I’ve met have been really welcoming and open-minded. My friend’s made deep friendships with local people, and we’ve been invited to countless lunches and roadside beers. There are so many good people here, and I’m not here to tarnish an entire country with a broad stroke.
But prejudice exists in avenues like TEFL-Teaching, where the pursuit of profit and the idealisation of an image cast aside the skills and integrity of a huge number of people.