Naive Or Dumb? MSNBC Tries To Make A Thing Out Of China’s English-Teacher-Hiring Practices

Will Evans, courtesy Liz Thomas, via MSNBC story

MSNBC has a China blog called “Behind the Wall,” and as the name might suggest, it targets an American audience that may not be as familiar with China as those of us here on the ground (“behind the wall” sounds a lot like “other side of the world,” i.e. a throwaway cliche one scribbles on the back of a postcard). There is a need for websites like Behind the Wall, I suppose, because I do sense a generally healthy interest in China from my friends back home. A problem arises, however, when the people covering China don’t know the country, and try to package stories into a neat, easy-to-consume “China Narrative.” You recognize it when you see it, even if it’s often more subtle than “pollution is bad” and “they eat dogs there!” (though it’s also often not more subtle than this, unfortunately). The China Narrative is the equivalent of media discrimination, or prejudice — journalists would prefer the softer word “bias,” but don’t be fooled: sometimes, editors just don’t care about representing reality; piquing a reader base is so much easier.

MSNBC’s latest post was about teaching English in China. It was exactly the car crash you’d expect. It begins:

Speak a little English and are willing to relocate? Well, you’re probably qualified to be an English-language instructor in China.

As long as you are white, that is.


The story centers around the experience of two prospective teachers, Mike Lee and Will Evans. Lee is the Asian one, fresh off the boat, apparently still unaware that China and America are, in fact, different. He got rejected for a teaching post because, as he was told, “Unfortunately, parents of our students don’t really want someone Asian to be teaching.”

Instead of feeling gratitude at being given an honest reason, his reaction was:

“I was shocked – back home this wouldn’t be acceptable,” Lee told NBC News. “I’ve never been discriminated (against) in that way.”

The story then quotes the Beijinger‘s forum… wait, let’s stop for a minute. The Beijinger’s forum! The same one featuring these people. Someone at MSNBC thought to do research for this article using the Beijinger’s forum.

A post by Vogue on a popular online forum and classifieds site, The Beijinger, explicitly spells out the phenomenon:

“In Beijing this is the general pecking order in terms of a company’s recruitment (by Chinese managers):

1. White Americans/Canadians

2. White British

3. White Australians/New Zealanders and South Africans

4. European Nonnatives/Black Americans/Black British

5. American Asians/Black Aussies (Australians) and Kiwis (New Zealanders)/Filipinos/Africans”

Oh, but what about white British who’ve lived in Nebraska and speak Standard American English, but also understand the difference between Doritos and chips? Would they bump White Canadians to 1b? And why is it that White Americans rank above White British but Black Americans and Black British are on the same level? Hmm, Vogue? Care to explain yourself?

MSNBC continues:

The discrimination comes, Evans said, because Chinese parents simply do not believe a non-white person can possibly be a native speaker.

Actually, they’re well aware that non-white people can be native speakers.

Will Evans, I’m going to go ahead and assume you know this. I’m going to assume the journalist who paraphrased you just doesn’t care that you’re being made to look like an idiot. Because you, Will Evans — like everyone in this type of story — are secondary to the almighty Narrative.

“It makes you feel like crap,” said Lee. “We all came here on the same boat, at the same time, looking for the same opportunity. I didn’t know the color of my skin was going to be an issue. I find it weird to be discriminated against for being Asian, while I’m in Asia.”

I’m going to ignore the ways in which that quote is askew and get on with it.

Despite all the above, what do you suppose the dumbest part of the article was?

In China, English teaching is a whites-only club

That’s right, the headline. Just had to be, didn’t it? It’s so nice to see MSNBC chose to avoid generalizations in its article about the negative effects of generalization.

    19 Responses to “Naive Or Dumb? MSNBC Tries To Make A Thing Out Of China’s English-Teacher-Hiring Practices”

    1. King Baeksu

      Back in the early nineties in the SF Bay Area when I still lived there, discrimination against whites, both in academia and the workplace, was a noticeable and prevalent, but of course you weren’t supposed to talk about it because that would make you an “angry white person.” I took the hint and moved to East Asia in 1994 and never looked back.

      Mike Lee should stop being such a whiner and relocate to where he’ll actually be appreciated, rather than expecting China to be just like the US. Probably Twitter and other enlightened “new economy” companies in San Francisco are still hiring. Or perhaps he can teach Mandarin to white Americans, and more easily trade on his own ethnicity?

      I’ve been in this part of the world long enough to know that you’ll be a lot happier accepting local reality on its own terms, rather than expecting it to be something that it isn’t, and won’t be for a long time to come.

    2. King Baeksu

      Lol, I just looked at the original MSNBC story and realize that Mike Lee is Korean-American.

      That’s sure to boost one’s employment chances in China, am I right?

    3. Logical?

      It’s funny how Tao acknowledges that Lee was given an “honest reason,” but then goes on to imply that Chinese parents have no problem with non-whites as English teachers.

      So if I understand his point: they did him a favour by telling him they weren’t hiring him because their clients won’t like the colour of his skin, but in fact the clients won’t have a problem with the colour of his skin…

    4. The Tao

      I don’t think you read this sentence correctly:

      “Actually, they’re well aware that non-white people can be native speakers.”

      Whether parents prefer white people or native-speaking Asians wasn’t my point. I was illustrating how the MSNBC journalist’s decision to make it seem like Evans said “Chinese parents ‘do not believe a non-white person can possibly be a native speaker’” makes Evans look stupid, and that is further evidence that this MSNBC article is stupid.

      • Logical?

        I take your point that Evans was probably paraphrased poorly. But still, I don’t think the argument that Chinese parents aren’t ignorant, they’re just irrationally biased, is going to do much to improve the “narrative”.

    5. mike hunt

      The writer has admitted that mike lee was given an ‘honest reason’ (his skin colour) as to why he did not get the job yet then goes on to argue that chinese people have no objections to non-whites as english teachers. This whole article contradicts itself. Anthony Tao should consider a career change as journalism obviously isn’t cut out for him.

      • The Tao

        “goes on to argue that chinese people have no objections to non-whites as english teachers”

        Work on reading comprehension, Mike. I did not say that. I’m well aware Asians prefer white teachers.

        • mike hunt

          then why do you have a problem with the title ‘in china, english teaching is a whites only club’

    6. pat kelly

      So what exactly is the reality? Where is YOUR research? All you did was insult people in this “article” by writing generalizations and have absolutely NO evidence other than your OPINION. What a joke.

      • The Tao

        I have taught tutored three different Asian students of varying ages and worked at a school, though very briefly, in Beijing.

        I absolutely hate using anecdotes to counter generalizations though (cause it’s too easy), and — as I’ve said twice now already — the fact that Asians PREFER white teachers was never a point of contention.

        • pat kelly

          I am not sure if I understand what you are implying – are you saying that because you have tutored three students and worked in a school briefly it qualifies you to say WITH certainty that “Actually, they’re well aware that non-white people can be native speakers.”?

          Why are you bringing up the fact that Asians PREFER white teachers? That wasn’t the point you were trying to make in this article right? What you wanted to say was that the journalist misrepresented the reality, used no credible research, and wrote a poor article in general? Well your article violates all three of the points I listed. I didn’t imply or say that Asians PREFER white teachers is wrong – what I am saying is your article is so bad that you should take a moment to read over it again and see what kind of mistakes you made.

    7. Frank White

      Its great to know this reporter thinks Mike Lee should feel gratitude for being openly racially discriminated against in a country where racism is completely against government policy. Shows how little respect he has for his governments laws.

    8. Jay

      Hey Tao, I think it’s quite obvious that you just don’t like white people.

      I say that with no research, no statistic, and knowing nothing about who you are, but your whole blog seems to be just as unsubstantiated so who cares.

    9. Ajarn Dan

      Pat Kelly is bitter because he is over 60 and will probably not be hired as an English teacher where he lives in Hua Hin, Thailand due to his age.


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