One of the most frustrating aspects of working in China is falling victim to the white monkey syndrome. When Meten hired me as an English teacher, I assumed maybe a little egotistically, that they hired me for my English skills, my intelligence or maybe even my teaching ability. However, as a foreigner in a Chinese company I often feel like they hired me because of my skin color. I’m commonly treated like a novelty item, something that should be paraded around and shown off rather than listened to or used for any kind of meaningful contribution.
Once I was asked to come in for an hour of overtime at one of our smaller centers. When I asked what class I would be teaching, I was told that I wasn’t scheduled to teach they just needed someone, aka a foreigner, to sit in the office to make the center look more authentic. So for an hour I sat at a computer in the office and looked as foreign as possible because that is apparently a good use of my time and the company’s money.
I’ve also been lured into open houses and meetings at our company because, as my boss puts it, I’m an important part of the team and they want to know my opinion. Only when the meeting begins do I realize that once again I’m expected to just sit on the sidelines and look pretty because the entire proceedings are conducted in Chinese and my Mandarin is sub-par at best. My students, colleagues, and bosses are all well aware of the fact that I cannot speak Chinese, so I must wonder ‘Why invite me to a meeting where you know I will not be able to understand anything and therefore I will also not be able contribute anything?’
However, one of the most exasperating examples of the white monkey syndrome happened to me recently during a voice recording session. Our company is building an online game where students can practice their English by going on a variety of different quests and interacting with different characters- those different characters are voiced by my boyfriend Josh and me. The company sent us a script then we were expected to read and recorded the script. Issues arose because there were numerous grammatical errors in the script, and surprisingly it is difficult to fluently speak a grammatically awkward sentence. One that I kept getting tripped up on was, “I don’t like cabbages. Do you want any a cabbages?” I rerecorded this line three times because my tongue and brain refused to say “any a cabbages.” I explained that the sentences was wrong, but was told to just read the script…read the script….read the script. Part of me feels bad because I can picture students playing this game and happily learning the phrase “any a cabbages.” Then I imagine them using their newly learned phrase in real life and the disapproving reaction it will invoke.
After a year of working in Shenzhen I don’t see a way to cure the white monkey syndrome. Working in a Chinese company means as foreigners we are outnumbered and easily overlooked. I suppose every country inherently breeds a sense of superiority among its citizens and calls it national pride, but as the outlier in this society the absurdity of valuing self-superiority over self-growth has become frustratingly clear. I also must admit that I have only worked for one Chinese company during my stay here, so perhaps this phenomenon is localized and not the norm. However, past experience has taught me that my company and my coworkers are quite typical of China so I doubt I am the only foreigner experiencing this. However, my job as a performing baboon does pay well (How can I complain about that?) and during those times when I’m expected to do nothing more than look foreign I have the opportunity to pursue personal projects, like writing this blog (So again, how can I complain about that?).