Things are never black and white

Our inhouse educator acknowledges a taboo, having provided an account of his personal experiences with regards to racism in teaching. He asks that readers remember this before criticizing the column.

Tt was early summer of 2003, and I was put in charge of organizing the largest summer camp of my career. We planned to enroll nearly 300 students so, one of my most important duties was finding and training the teachers who would work during the camp. Having read Elizabeth’s outstanding resume and had a satisfactory Skype interview with her, I offered her a position. She would fly over from Shanghai four days before the opening ceremony in order to join the camp’s training sessions, so I had arranged for my Chinese boss to pick her up at Shenzhen Airport on said date. Everything was developing smoothly until the day of her arrival, when I received an unexpected call from my boss, who was outside the arrival gate holding Elizabeth’s name on a sheet of paper and had seen her wave at him before she exited. Without any salutation whatsoever, he had blurted out in a combination of surprise and anger, “Is she black?” Suffice to say, she was the only foreigner on that domestic flight. I had responded, “Yes, why? What’s wrong?” But he had already hung up.

Elizabeth was a young African American with a degree in linguistics and three years of experience in education. She had spent the last year teaching at a university in Shanghai. My boss cunningly pretended not to speak English during the drive back into town. He dropped her off by the pavement of our shared teacher’s apartment and took off immediately after shutting the car door behind him.

I cursed my boss and hated myself for needing the damn job, for not standing up to injustice, for being a coward. She had obviously been through this before.

I was helping Elizabeth get settled in the apartment when I received the message from my boss, “She must leave, I do not want her working at my summer camp.” I went to my room, dialed his number and then proceeded to strongly address his racism for a few minutes. I ended up telling him that if he wanted to fire her, he would have to do it himself. He retorted, threatening to fire me, claiming that I had hired her knowing she was black and therefore it was my responsibility. He hung up on me, again.

Elizabeth pushed the ajar door and quietly entered my bedroom. She had overheard my poorly cloaked angry yelling. She apprehensively enquired about what had just happened, and I slowly turned on my heels, angrily clutching the mobile phone, my face buried in my chest, unable to look her in the eye. We stood there in silence for what seemed like an eternity until I suddenly burst into tears. She gracefully walked up to me, held my hand and softly said, “It’s not your fault, you fought for me and I am grateful. I understand.”

I cursed my boss and hated myself for needing the damn job, for not standing up to injustice, for being a coward. She had obviously been through this before.

I finished my contract and at the end of that summer, quit the job, and immediately moved to Thailand to become a scuba diving instructor.

After 10 months, my savings had been squandered after having paid for endless courses, so I decided to come back to Dongguan, but this time, with a plan to start my own training center. For my birthday, in February 2005, I established “EZ.” I initially engaged the services of two white Australians, Rowan Bestmann and Natalee Hilton, and an Australian-born Chinese girl, Sunny Lai. Both Rowan and Natalee had long and profitable stints working for me, while Sunny never got to teach a single paid lesson at EZ, despite scheduling numerous demo lessons. Over 15 years, I have employed teachers from Brazil, America, Colombia, Canada, Russia, Britain, the Philippines, and China. The only thing that mattered to me—before the stringent visa regulations—was a teacher’s language skill and the ability to assimilate and apply my teaching methods.

From this experience, there are three things I can share with you: Financially, I have never been able to keep paying the salaries of any of the three black teachers I have trained (one American and two Canadians) because the customers never choose them. Similarly, I have not been able to keep paying the salaries of the two Filipino teachers I have hired, for the exact same reason. And, neither of the two Chinese teachers I trained to become EZ teachers have ever taught a lesson that was paid for. Perhaps it is time we talked openly about certain topics in China’s ESL…