Thursday, April 19, 2012

The R-Word

When I went to Turkey, some of my students were given substitute/replacement instructors. Some chose to wait. I knew that even when those classes ended, I would not necessarily get them back: generally the trainer who has a class when it officially ends gets first priority in the renewal. I knew and was OK with that.

Recently it got back to me that one of the students I gave up had “really liked me”, but was “happy to keep her new teacher” because “she’s Asian” (Australian of Cantonese descent) and she feels more comfortable with a teacher of Asian heritage – or, to be blunt, in the words I was actually told, “another woman who looks like her”.

Now, I realize that this was secondhand information and there’s no guarantee that my former student’s true sentiments were reflected in this game of telephone. I also realize that the person who told me might well have been trying to protect my feelings by not saying that, regardless of race, she just preferred the new trainer (which, you know, it happens. Oh well). The person who told me is pretty blunt, though, and the student in question and I had a very good, friendly, dare I say ‘close’ relationship. So…who knows.

What’s interesting is the reaction when I mentioned this on Facebook – when it happened, I felt a bit hurt. Not so much at the possibility that a student would prefer another trainer (although that sucks, I figure it’s a lot like finding a good therapist: even the best ones don’t click with every patient and it’s a patient’s right to find one they ‘click’ with. It doesn’t mean that the one they left was bad). More at the idea that, despite liking me quite a bit, learning a lot and enjoying the class, if my intuition that we’d had a good relationship had been correct, that I’d be passed over simply because I’m white, not Asian.

I realize people face this all the time in the otherdirection – schools and other employers regularly discriminate against Westerners of Asian heritage - and it’s a lot worse going that way. I’m not trying to detract from that or trying for a condescending “I know how you feel”. Just adding my experience. A lot of discussion on racism in English teaching in Taiwan is about discriminating against English teachers who don't look Western - while that's a far more serious problem, I do feel a different perspective based on different experience is valuable.

Generally speaking my Western friends didn’t comment much – but my Taiwanese friends sure did!

And here’s the thing: if you take as a given that the student did, in fact like me and there is no missing information, and it is in fact true that another instructor was chosen purely on the basis of that instructor’s race compared to mine, I personally feel that’s a form of racism, or if you want a less loaded term, “racial discrimination”. I mean it’s judging someone and making a decision based 100% on race – how is that not discrimination?

My Taiwanese friends generally felt differently, though -  few chimed in with agreement that it just sucks, and nobody should judge people based on skin tone, and it stinks that people still feel this way regarding race (which many undoubtedly do).

Most came out and said that they did not, in fact, consider that situation to be “racism”. I’m still at a slight loss as to why, because with one exception from one very eloquent friend whom I routinely mistake for being a native speaker of English (she did go to high school and college abroad, though), all of the reasons given still struck me as, well, as racism. Or “racial discrimination”. Or whatever.

Which may be a bit of culture difference I’ll never get over. I’m not even sure I want to.

The very eloquent answer: that, despite this other teacher being culturally Australian despite looking Asian, that with her family roots in Hong Kong, there would be some sort of gut-level cultural synergy between her and the student that I could not pick up on, because as someone with zero ties to “Chinese culture” besides living here for 5+ years, I wouldn’t have it. There might be cultural concordance that, while not easy to articulate, is there on some fundamental level that makes the student feel more comfortable.

OK, I can buy that. Race isn’t just about race, after all, it’s about culture – and even though I consider anyone born in whatever country, regardless of their family history, to be of that country (so a kid with Chinese parents born in Canada, to me, is Canadian), that they will have cultural ties and cultural traits passed down from their parents that I don’t. I mean, I have that, and my most recently emigrated relative is my grandfather. I have ties to Armenian, especially Armenian-diaspora-from-Turkey, culture that are on some level hard to explain to others. Hell, I even planned an entire seven-week trip around returning to Mousa Dagh to see where I come from. Looking out from that gorgeous orange-tree dotted mountain out to the Mediterranean below is and will continue to be one of the most memorable moments of my life. My grandfather practically cried when I gave him a framed picture of me in the last remaining Armenian village on the mountain.

Although, I couldn’t help but think when we discussed it, that if you’re going to learn a foreign language then you’re kinda-sorta obligated to interact with the culture that comes with that language. In my heart of hearts I do feel it’s sort of a cop-out to want to learn English but interact with other Asians, avoiding the Big White Other as much as possible. It’s really not any better than foreigners coming to Taiwan to learn Chinese and then hanging out almost exclusively with other foreigners (except for maybe a local girlfriend). I can almost-sorta understand that, though, as many people in that situation would probably like to make more local friends, but havetrouble doing so.

On the other hand, I’ve said a few times that I’m going to leave my job fairly soon (this is an open secret so I’m not worried about saying so here), and one of the reasons is that I would really either prefer to work for myself, or have a foreign boss – I just can’t take the constant sandpaper-like scratchy-scratchy culture clash of having an overseas Chinese (not Taiwanese) boss who treats foreigners like they’re Chinese employees and then gets flustered when we don’t act in accordance with that. So…OK. I kind of get it.

Otherwise, I do have to say, I got a bunch of stuff I’d still label as “racist”.

One friend said “if I were a Chinese teacher in the USA and a student wanted an American teacher and not me, I would not consider it discrimination.” Really? Because I would.

One said “Maybe she wanted the Asian teacher because her English is not good” (it is, but that’s not the point) “and she thinks she can speak Chinese with the new one.” Nice try, but I speak far better Mandarin than the new teacher, and is it not racist to assume that someone who looks Asian will necessarily speak better Chinese than someone who does not?

(To digress a bit, but in related news, I do seem to have a few Taiwanese friends who, despite knowing I speak Chinese, still have this idea that I don’t speak Chinese. Not in a malicious “we don’t want you to learn our language” way, but in a really hilarious, although also slightly annoying, “I have to prove to you more than once that I do in fact speak Chinese even if I am not perfect” way. One said “Oh yes, [Cangjie] is too hard for you.” “Come on, I’m not stupid.” “No, you’re not stupid, you’re a foreigner.” I called him out on that and we had a good laugh. Another asked me if I could read a basic Chinese menu after seeing me typing and replying in Chinese on Facebook for months. I was really heartened when yet another – finally, in a show of faith – told someone else I’d be fine at Taiwanese opera because they had Mandarin electronic subtitles and I could read those. THANK YOU SASHA).

Another said “with other Asians we feel comfortable. With foreigners, we like you and we’re friends with foreigners, but sometimes there is a ‘sense of distance’, and maybe she doesn’t feel that with the new teacher.” (translated from Chinese)

OK, but feeling a ‘sense of distance’ based solely on the fact that I’m Big Whitey – how is that not also a subtler, and also sadder, form of racism (even if it’s not the virulent ‘I hate foreign people’ kind)?

I mean, honestly, I wrote yesterday about not having a "best friend" in Taiwan - I mean a female best friend, not in the way that my husband is my best friend - and while I value my foreign and local friendships equally even if we interact in different ways, I have to say I feel far greater chemistry and intuitive understanding with my Taiwanese friends than with any other random foreigner who is not my friend. Maybe I'm weird. Maybe I just don't feel that synergy or that "cultural connection" (although I feel that on some level, I must. I'm not that special after all). I don't feel a "sense of distance" with my Taiwanese friends even if we don't always have the same sort of interactions I do with other Westerners. In Chinese there's this idea of an 'unspoken understanding' or 'chemistry' (默契) - and I do feel that many locals expect that foreigners will feel 默契 with each other. I mean, maybe on some level, sure, but I feel more 默契 with my Taiwanese friends, especially my female friends (my male friends are great but it's a different sort of friendship), than I would with any given foreigner if I didn't know them - because it's based on friendship and knowing someone, not on race and how someone looks, or even entirely on their cultural background. 

So...I dunno. On some level I can sort of understand this but on another I just don't get it. Or I don't agree. I'm not sure which - still processing my thoughts there.

In the end, all I can say is that there really seems to be a difference in how we Westerners perceive racism vs. how it’s perceived by many Taiwanese. This is what I was trying to say in an earlier post – especially the fact that while we might see all foreigners as “foreigners”, locals often group us into “high income white people” (regardless of whether we’re high income or not – I feel we’re generally not, but then most of my students earn six figures NT per month) and “service and factory working Southeast Asians and foreign brides”. It’s fairly common for locals to say 外國人” and mean “white people” – Koreans are Koreans, Japanese are Japanese, Chinese are Chinese or “Mainlanders”, and – surprisingly – Africans and African Americans (or black people of any other country) are not 外國人 but “black people”.  Anecdotally, my friend’s girlfriend has done this, and another local friend confirmed that yes, a lot of people do think that way.

And – for whatever reason, because I still don’t get it, not really – there’s an idea that it’s OK to prefer people of your own race, regardless of their cultural upbringing, simply because they look like you, and that’s not racism. Other things we’d probably call “racist” would not be called so here. It’s not quite as bad as the infamous Lonely Planet China quote from a Chinese person: “There’s no racism in China because there are no black people in China”, but still, it’s there.

I don’t deny that there does seem, in any culture, to be a certain “understanding” between people who have similar ethnic heritage and it makes sense that people would gravitate to those who share a common cultural background, but, I don’t know, I still feel that making business decisions based on that is, on some level, racist. Even if it’s the way of this very unfair world. I am not sure I’d go so far as to say that people – regardless of any language they might be learning – are racist if they make moves towards surrounding themselves with their own race and culture, and don’t exhibit an interest in interacting with, much less befriending, anyone outside of that bubble, but I do question it. And I do wonder.


Brendan said...

Regarding Taiwanese friends seeming to 'forget' you speak Chinese -- I think that's human nature, where if you speak two or more languages but you interact with a specific person all the time in just one, then you subconsciously come to think of them existing only in that language. The reason you don't find ourselves thinking the same way about them, is that you're speaking your native language, while they're clearly not speaking theirs. (And they're the locals in this Chinese-dominant linguistic environment, of course.)

The cure for this? Make Chinese the dominant language you speak with them. There, problem solved. Force your husband to keep up.

Jenna Cody said...

Using Chinese as my dominant language would make it hard to continue as an English-language corporate trainer.

Otherwise, I totally would do that. I try to with Taiwanese friends although it ends up more like 50/50. This particular friend is a former student so is used to interacting with me in English.

cephaloless said...

I was going to suggest mixing more chinese in your social exchanges so you're not locked in as "english speaker" but I guess you're already doing that. For the former student, besides being used to speaking to you in english, perhaps they're sneaking in extra practice time with you too? The teacher's job is never finished :-)
BTW, sucked that a student switched teachers for such a poor reason. And you speaking chinese better the asian teacher, nice ;-)

Jenna Cody said...

Yes, I do! I have friends with whom I mostly speak Chinese. With former students, he certainly does try to sneak in more speaking practice. I don't mind. I do mind that some dont' seem to realize, despite seeing me post and reply in Chinese on Facebook and deal with others in Chinese, that I *do* speak passable if not perfect Chinese. After seeing me order in one restaurant in Chinese, chat with a mutual friend in Chinese and handle myself fine on Facebook in Chinese, one asked me at yet another restaurant, referring to the Chinese menu, 'Can you read this?' At this point I just laugh.

It's not surprising that I speak more Chinese than the Asian teacher - her family is from Hong Kong and I've been here considerably longer. She speaks great Cantonese, but that isn't much help in Taiwan!

ella said...

This is an interesting post. I would say, as hard as it may be, to try to absorb this. You have an unusual opportunity, as a white western person living in an East Asian country, to experience a variety of racism from the receiving end. It sucks. I'm sorry. But *maybe* thinking of you being replaced by an Asian (background) woman as being a point in favour of equality rather than an insult might help a tiny bit?

I really am not trying to diminish how crappy this must feel. I've done a very similar job (in a different place) and I do understand how personal any kind of rejection from the students can feel.

Jenna Cody said...

Dunno, to me that just seems like racism in the other direction. A lot of people think of racism as "white people" (or majority-population people - like Hoklo against aborigine) against "other people", and it's true that some (but not all) people in Asia think of "racism" as "white against black".

But to me, while it does matter in discourse and discussion what the power structure is and who is in the majority or who has the power, at the end of it racism is still making decisions or assumptions based purely on race, whatever race may be favored or unfavored, and that's never a point in favor of equality even if it's going in the other direction.

Which is not the same thing as programs to help minorities who are still recovering from a system that works against them (as happens in the USA and towards aborigines in Taiwan, among many others), and not the same thing as making choices based on cultural synergy, which I can sort of understand even if it stings sometimes.

I also do realize that as much as that experience sucked, generally speaking I can't compare it to the racism that others are subject to regularly. It was a one-off incident, not a lifelong problem, and it lacked a certain hatred or vitriol that many others face.