British born Chan Vi grew up in Deptford, London, and moved to China in April 2011 to be with her partner, who is from Guangdong. In this article she writes about the cultural differences she faced and the highs and lows of working as a teacher in China.
I learned Mandarin in London in preparation for China but when I arrived I was thrown completely sideways by local dialects!
I have been teaching English and have a few interesting stories about that too – most notably how during my job search I faced prejudice from schools because I “looked like a Chinese”.
Wait for it… 8… 7… 6… here it comes… 3… 2… 1…
“But you look like a Chinese.”
Every time. Same thing. Never fails. In the two and a half years that I have been teaching English in China, there has never been a new student who hasn’t been surprised by my Chineseness.
“Both my parents are Chinese, which is why I look like this” I say and point to my face. They laugh and all is forgiven. Their disbelief soon turns into curiosity and questions ensue. Then we talk of hometowns, family and aspirations. Every time.
I can’t complain. I am grateful to have a job teaching English as a foreign teacher in China. When I started looking for work back in 2011, many schools and agencies turned me down because I was obviously not a natural blonde. One school even asked me to send a different photograph of myself, as if I might look less Chinese from a different angle. This type of prejudice was new for me. I grew up in Deptford, London, during the 80’s & 90’s so had some experience of racism from the uneducated. In London I could be picked on because I looked different but in China I was being picked on because I looked the same as everyone else. I wouldn’t have put up with this nonsense if my partner weren’t in China.
“We need foreign faces to sell English”, said one email. Sadly, this was, and still remains, the marketing strategy of many schools. I was lucky to find my first teaching job in Handan, Hebei province. It was with a language-training centre that was co-owned by a retired Canadian man. I knew that my only chance of employment in China rested, ironically, with foreigners.
However, I had to make the tiniest of changes before I could start work. The bosses were scared that my real name would cause too much confusion for the natives so I needed something more English sounding. Apparently, the locals simply could not believe that a Chinese looking gal called Chan could possibly be from London. The concept was incomputable. So I borrowed the name of a good friend and for two years I answered to the alias of Elsa.
Why bother with all this madness? Well, firstly I needed the work visa to stay in China. Secondly, I wanted the perks that came with being a foreign teacher – a free apartment, insurance and an above average salary. Across China, Chinese teachers are paid at least a third of what their foreign counterparts get, yet the locals have to do more work. As much as I hated this prejudice, I needed to be on the away team.
Outside of school, I practiced my Mandarin on taxi drivers and shopkeepers. I spent a few months dusting up on my Mandarin skills in London before arriving in China but I wasn’t ready for the crazy accents. When I spoke Mandarin it was obvious that I wasn’t local. Some people would ask if I came from Hong Kong, others would ask what country I came from. Sometimes (out of laziness) I’d say that I was from Guangdong, where my partner is from. This lie was believable because I grew up speaking Cantonese which in turn taints my Mandarin pronunciation. However, if I were in the mood for the same old conversation then I would say I was from London and let the games begin.
I can never be proper Chinese because my thinking, references and expectations are so different. When I first started teaching, one of the local teachers even pointed out that I moved and held myself differently. I straddle a strange line, look like a local but walk, talk and think like a foreigner. On the flipside, I also had difficulty fitting in with the local group of expats. Mainly because I don’t drink much alcohol anymore and this seemed to be the only thing they ever got up to. They liked talking about sport, movies and TV shows. I like movies but not enough to quote the life out of them. Good company was hard to find. I think I have only met a tiny handful of decent laowais during my time in China. Everyone else seemed to be teaching English here because they either didn’t want a ‘proper job’ back home or they were running away from something. Many, but not all, were functioning alcoholics, sponsored by Chinese schools desperate for foreign faces. Well, they set themselves up for it. Another thing that kept me away from the expat community was the mutant-like ability, of a select few, to complain. All this complaining seemed to help them ride some strange high horse and feel superior in a way that they wouldn’t be able to if they were just another average Joe back home.
As a British born Chinese woman living and working in China, I am still yet to find my rightful place. Instead, I have developed a cleaning mojo and a sixth sense for when someone in my vicinity is about to spit. I think the top end frequencies in my hearing range have been battered into next year and my lungs will have to be replaced when I return to the UK. After much resistance, I have also come to realise how Chinese my values are and how British my thinking is. Since arriving in China, I have learned as much about my own prejudices as those of my native and host countries. But which way round is it? Is China hosting a British native or is Britain hosting an overseas Chinese?
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