Colour blind

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 November, 2011, 12:00am


I am a Chinese woman and I teach English. It is not my first language, but one I picked up out of necessity and survival as a little girl aged six in Monroe, Louisiana, fresh off the boat from China. Yet, it is a language I have nurtured and cultivated over the years out of respect and, later, passion. My love affair with English is filled with the type of zeal others usually reserve for fine wines.

I love English writing, and how a few simple words can transform my mood, society, or history itself. I love speaking English, the way the words roll off your tongue. Most of all, I love the openness and inclusiveness of the language. Unlike Arabic or Chinese, English has evolved to include native-level speakers from so many parts of the world and all walks of life.

When I think of good English, I'm as likely to think of black US President Barack Obama or Chinese American CNN news anchor Kristie Lu Stout as Caucasian former US vice-president Al Gore. In our globalised world, English has become faceless.

In fact, English is so faceless that when I returned to Hong Kong to open an English writing centre, I never once stopped to consider that I am Chinese and how this may influence my job. What I did consider was the fact that I was giving up my law career, and that I hold a degree from Harvard Law School, not Harvard Education School. The last thing I thought about was my ethnicity.

Now, seven years later, it has hit me. People in Hong Kong actually care about the ethnicity of their English teachers. I realised this recently when one Hong Kong Chinese parent told me she preferred her daughter to be taught English by our Caucasian teacher rather than our Asian-American, native-English-speaking, Stanford-educated teacher for no other reason than that the Caucasian teacher is white.

To say that I felt assaulted by her ignorant words is an understatement. Her words hurt on so many levels - is this a form of Chinese self-loathing? Has our city simply become so obsessed with imported goods that it now treats teachers like cantaloupes? Or, is this just leftover sentiment from the colonial days of fawning over Westerners? My entire office, of many highly educated Asian Americans, was shaken, confused, offended and, most of all, disappointed.

And so I lectured the parent. I said her words stem from baseless and discriminatory origins. I told her she shouldn't pick teachers based on the colour of their skin but, rather, on the content of their teaching.

For a moment, I felt quite heroic. Yet I know that parent is not alone. For every one who verbalises their discrimination, thousands more hold onto it in silence. There are thousands more who rush to their child's school on the first day and cringe when they find their son or daughter has a Chinese teacher for English. Those little cringes and sighs may not seem like much. But, added together, they shake the very foundation of many of our best educators - who may take this as the reason to pack their bags.

Without these educators, who then will teach our students the best thing you can teach about English - that it can and should be used to right wrongs?

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.