…If Michele Obama and Melania Trump go to teach English in China

This article highlights how race and skills are viewed in the Chinese job market



This article touches on an issue that is hardly ever in the news in China but is always discussed among friends and in expat circles. To some discerning readers what the title implies is quite obvious but we will still dig into the issue a little deeper to see if we can understand why it is as it is. How and when such a matter will be a thing of the past we all want to know.
In the next few days the presidency of Barack Obama will come to an end and a new era will begin with Donald Trump. Social media has been quite emotional lately especially since the farewell speeches Obama and his wife Michelle gave separately, his in Chicago on Wednesday the 11th of January while hers was at the White House five days earlier. The hash tag #FAREWELLOBAMA has been trending on social media with people expressing their emotions by sharing pictures of the outgoing presidential couple, and creating all kinds of social media memes. There is no doubt that first lady Michele Obama added to the spark and magic of her husband’s presidency. Theirs was a story of love, hope, hard work, determination, style and class. This was the first time in a long time that a first family came and went without scandals.
Michele is a Harvard trained lawyer and former hospital executive whose speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2008 introduced her to the world as a smart and intelligent woman. That speech was so inspiring that it was plagiarized by incoming first lady Melania Trump at the Republican National Convention in 2016 in what was supposed to be her own introduction to the world as America’s next first lady, an incident that was embarrassing and almost brought the Trump campaign to its knees. Melania as we all know is a former fashion model from Slovenia.
So now back to the title of this article, if Michelle and Melania came to China to find work as English teachers who will get hired first? If you live in China then the answer is quite obvious.
Now let us imagine how the interview will go. They are both interviewed via the most popular messaging app in China. This is how I picture it will happen and most will agree because I am saying this from experience.
Michele’s interview goes thus;
Michele: hi, I just saw your post in a group that you need one female native English teacher in your school
School principal: yes, are you native speaker?
Michele: yes, I am
School principal: where are you from?
Michele: I am from America
School principal: do you have teaching experience?
Michele: no, but I have a degree from Harvard University and I have two lovely daughters I teach every day. Above all my accent is clear and good
School principal: send a video demo
Michele: ok, I have just made one and sent
School principal: I see, I will discuss with my school boss and get back to you
Michele: alright then, I will be expecting to hear from you soon
Enter Melania Trump, her interview goes thus;
Melania: Hi
School principal: hello, how are you?
Melania: I am English teacher, your agent Mr. Khan tell me you want English teacher
School principal: yes, where are you from?
Melania: Europe
School principal: which country?
Melania: Slovenia
School principal: That is good
Melania: how much do you pay?
School principal: we offer 10,000RMB + accommodation, visa and yearly bonus.
Melania: I want 15,000rmb
School principal: too high now, may be later we can raise it
Melania: ok, I want 13,000rmb
School principal: I will have to discuss with my school boss and reply you later
Melania: ………….no response
The school principal promises both candidates to discuss with the school boss about their employment and give them feedback. Somehow the school principal forgets about Michele and only discusses Melania with the school boss and their conversation goes thus;
School principal: we have found a teacher from Europe but she is asking for 13,000rmb
School boss: show me her picture
School principal: here it is
School boss: she is beautiful but she doesn’t have blonde hair
School principal: yes, that was why I offered her 12,000rmb but I like her eyes. I also think the parents will not have problem with her looks
School boss: ok, offer her 12,000rmb if she refuse raise to 13,000rmb
School principal: ok
And so Melania got the job without an interview or a demo video while Michele never heard from the principal. Notice how the conversation between the school principal and the school boss never mentioned the native speaker requirement neither did they discuss her qualifications or experience. This is a scenario that plays out all too well on a daily basis not just in teaching but in many other jobs across China or much of Asia as some would say.
Now the question is this, is the native speaker tag a myth or reality on the job market in the middle kingdom? As the story shows Michele is a native speaker while Melania is not but she got the job instead. Another question is, do employers actually have the skills to measure the quality of job done? The answer is either they do not or they just do not know a real thing when they see it.
China’s economy no doubt grew not on innovation but on imitation of the west and they became successful. So this has probably entrenched the notion that a product does not have to be original, as long as that product looks like the original then it is okay and this unfortunately is now being applied to people and jobs.
I am an African and most African countries are not as developed as China but in Africa just as in other parts of the world the most qualified person may not always get the job based on several other reasons but certainly not based on looks alone. Assuming a Chinese and a Westerner applied for the same job and the Chinese is more qualified he will most likely be the one to be employed. Before I came to china a fellow African who was a freelance writer here once said me that he only had western clients, I found it strange at the time. He told me that he had been looking for writing jobs in vain until he met an American client and it was this American that introduced him to many other clients who were all western nationals. They gave him jobs and whenever he saw a job advertisement he wanted the American would apply for it and hand it over to him without the Chinese client knowing who actually did it.
Some say the attitude towards black people is racism while others say that it is ignorance but I believe it is a cavalier disregard to the diversity of professionalism. The reason I think so is because the relationship between the Chinese government and African countries is not new and has been that of mutual respect. Back in 1950s China supported African countries in their bid towards independence while African countries welcomed China into the United Nations. In 2007, against the backdrop of the U.N. General Assembly meeting the then Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi said;
“The attempt of the Taiwan authorities to join the U.N. was once again foiled, this would not have been possible without our African friends’ staunch support to China”. (Source: Chinese foreign ministry, 2007/09/26)
That statement signifies the strong mutual support China and African countries have shown one another but this could now be hanging on a string. With the increasing number of African students coming to study in China experiencing baseless discrimination there is every possibility that this relationship might be jeopardized by the time these students begin to hold leadership positions in their countries and decide to tow the path of reciprocity. As Africa is industrializing and China is transitioning, both certainly need each others’ resources more than ever. The time has come for the Chinese and the Africans to fully embrace one another as they look towards a future of shared interests that is built on mutual trust.
I have to mention that my experience with Chinese people has been pleasant and memorable outside of work but once I step into the job market it becomes a nightmare. I end this by saying, as Obama steps down as the first black president of the United States and with many other black professionals still blazing their trails in medicine, law and academia across the globe, that it is high time the Chinese realize that ability is in the head and not on the skin, if they really want to be taken seriously.
And finally Michele gets a reply….
School principal: sorry we do not need new English teacher now. Good luck!