I brimmed with enthusiasm at the thought of living in a country I’ve wanted to visit since childhood. China fascinates me in every way, from the rigorous language structure to the diverse and tasty cuisine to the fact that it constitutes the world’s biggest country (1.3 billion people and counting). Once I officially accepted the English instructor position, the intensive preparation began. However, no amount of preparation I did before arriving in Beijing could have equipped me for the real life experience of being a foreigner in a homogeneous place, this time in a megacity (my first time ever residing in a city of now 21 million people).
In the early stage of my life in China, the culture shock seemed unbearable at times. A new workplace with new colleagues, a new apartment in a new neighborhood, and a whole new lifestyle all needed my adjustment. The language aspect did not daunt me too much in that I had previously studied Mandarin; but now I had the opportunity to be linguistically immersed in a language that boasts the largest amount of speakers.
The sheer size of the learning curve at my new job was enough to make me question my ability to maneuver the expectations of my role as a foreign expert. But I had primarily taken the job because I wanted a challenge in my work. And no doubt I received it.
While I worked alongside other foreigners (including other Americans) in my age range at the private language school, I was the only African American teacher in the school. This situation presented unique challenges and opportunities for me as a young black man in the minority class of TESL professionals in China. I had met other black teachers who worked for the same company but at different schools throughout Beijing. We all shared each other’s sentiments, feeling the pressure that came with looking, talking, and behaving differently than our white counterparts. Some teachers had such a hard time with this pressure that they did not remain in China long enough to finish their teaching contracts.
Nonetheless, I purposed deep inside that no matter how tough the going would get, I would finish what I started. Thus, my three-month probationary period served as a testing ground, not only for my work performance, but also for my ability to adapt to and understand my new work environment. Little did I know that some of the Chinese parents of my students would question my qualifications as a teacher when my predecessor introduced me. Neither did I look forward to the ample stares and whispering I received whenever I entered the school every morning or escorted my young learners to the lobby to meet their parents after class each night.
During that time of my life I had “lovelocks,” as I like to call them; undoubtedly, this hairstyle aroused both the students’ and parents’ curiosity about me. But instead of getting annoyed or offended by their fixation on my hair, I saw it as a wonderful chance to educate them on my culture, even permitting them to touch my locs whenever they asked. In an uncomfortable situation like this, it is important not to presume the worst about people but to look for ways to transform a potentially negative situation into a positive one. Eventually I started getting compliments about my hair to the point where students wanted to try the style for themselves. As time progressed, so did the rapport with my students and their parents.
Working for a global company with a Western management style was a new experience for me, while being the only person of color in my workplace was not.
Issues related to diversity and race were, unfortunately, not well managed at this new company. If the African Americans and other minority groups who suffered hardships on the job had received the care, attention and support they needed to cope with stressors specific to their diverse identities, then maybe they would have stayed in China long enough to complete their teaching tenures.
I had many a conversation with my professional mentor, an African American woman who served in a managerial role at the same company, about the need for greater and deeper diversity and inclusion training and cross-cultural awareness workshops for both Chinese parents and foreign employees. Parents needed to be able to communicate with teachers effectively in a manner that showed respect and appreciation, regardless of their ethnicity, age, or religion.
My greatest challenge in China emerged almost nine months into my contract. It involved an action plan to improve my alleged subpar teaching performance and possible job loss if I failed to step up my game. I knew something was not right about this suspicious situation in which I discerned I was being singled out, almost bullied, for no substantial reason. It was as if the powers that be were actively searching for ways to defame my name in order to rob me of employment. But thank God my dignity and my naturally quiet and calm disposition remained intact. All of my coworkers and I made mistakes in our work from time to time, but when my particular mistakes were emphasized, it was problematic for management.
So I heeded the action plan by working twice as hard as my colleagues to prove my value as a teacher. In the long run, the same persons who deemed me incompetent came to me for guidance on how to better manage diversity issues within the organization. In fact, their boss, a senior executive from Shanghai, traveled to my school to meet with me about the situation, also seeking my advice and input on how to enhance race relations across the organization. Therefore, this rocky challenge became an opportunity for me to enlighten, inspire and debunk stereotypes often associated with people of the Negroid persuasion.
In short, living and working in China as a black person certainly had its fish bowl moments. However, those encounters have fortified me so that I can always represent the best of my culture, creed and country.