|Racial profiling is a common practice at English language centres in Vietnam, making it difficult for many Viet Kieu teachers to get a foot in the teaching world. Words by Sarah Johnson.|
It’s a mundane afternoon at the office. Van Anh, a receptionist, sits staring at her computer when the phone rings. She answers, “Hello. Ho Chi Minh English School, how can I help you?”
A girl with an unmistakable English accent inquires about a job.
“Ah, you want to be a teacher here? Well, yes we have plenty of vacancies. Send your CV to our headquarters, we’re always looking for new teachers.”
The caller goes on to explain that her parents are Vietnamese, a preemptive move as she’s had problems getting a job before because she looks Vietnamese.
“But I don’t think you’re Vietnamese. You have an English accent,” Van Anh states.
“No, I’m English, born and bred. But my parents are Vietnamese and moved to England before I was born. Is this going to be a problem?” the caller replied.
Alarm bells ring in Van Anh’s head. This situation has come up before. Vietnamese looking teachers claiming they’re native speakers and then students complaining because they believe they’re not getting the real thing.
“Can you speak Vietnamese?”
“Only a little.”
“Well, we don’t really have any vacancies at the moment. But send your CV anyway and we’ll get back to you.”
A rather dejected voice answers back, “Oh, ok then.”
No call ever came.
Believe it or not, this dialogue occurred and is surprisingly common in Ho Chi Minh City. There are numerous stories, like the one above that skirt and, on occasion, plunge into the realms of racial discrimination.
Take the example of Colin Coats. Born in Vietnam and adopted by a white Canadian family at the age of five, he grew up in Canada until he decided to visit his birthplace 20 years later. He has a Canadian accent and speaks very little Vietnamese. He has, however, faced numerous difficulties in procuring and keeping English teaching jobs despite being qualified and experienced.
He recalls: “When I first applied for teaching jobs, I used to put my photo on my resume. I applied to a load of schools and often didn’t hear anything. ELS was one school that got back to me. They called me and the woman said, ‘My manager saw your photo and we can only offer you US$5 an hour.’ I knew that white teachers were being offered at least US$12 an hour.”
The offer was rejected.
Colin finally got a job and after a good two years of experience behind him, he decided to apply to other schools. This time, he didn’t include his photo on his CV and consequently received a lot of calls.
“I went to interview at Elite. There was a Vietnamese interviewer and when she saw me, she looked up in surprise and exclaimed, ‘You’re from Canada but you look Asian.’ The interview seemed to go well and I asked when I would be able to start. She said she’d call me,” he explains.
There was no call.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Le, born and raised in the US, had been working at IELP for two months when things started to go awry.
He explains: “I’ve always been weary because I’ve heard stories of Viet Kieus being let go because of their appearance, so I worked extra hard to make sure I wouldn’t get called out on anything. Everything seemed to be going ok, my students seemed satisfied with my classes until one week, I went to pick up my schedule and I didn’t have many hours.”
Jimmy e-mailed the person in charge who told him that she would make every effort to give him more classes because “many students loved that [he] was their teacher.” A few days later, he received another e-mail saying that he would not be given any more work because the students didn’t want a Vietnamese teacher even though he was born and raised in the US.
Kerrilee Barrett, an English teacher from the UK, now working in Bangladesh, speaks of these types of problems occurring at Eduworld.
“Viet Kieu teachers seemed to get lower pay as far as I could see, even though they were brought up in the US or Canada,” she says. “I was told not to give them certain classes because they looked Vietnamese. I also got asked if one of their accents was ok when what she spoke was native Canadian. For some contracts we had, I couldn’t send Viet Kieu teachers because of the way they looked. I was always being asked to schedule white teachers for certain things.”
The Students Explain Why
So it’s clear that there is some stigma surrounding Viet Kieu English teachers. But, why does this type of prejudice exist? The students may be the reason.
“Maybe my English will improve more because when I don’t understand something, my teacher can explain in English. Also, when I’m talking and something’s not quite right, my teacher always corrects me. I don’t think a Viet Kieu would be willing to do that,” says Nguyen Thi Phuong, who works with foreigners and states this as a reason for preferring to have a white teacher.
Many of those interviewed thought that Viet Kieus’ accents were not quite right or their pronunciation of certain words was off.
“They don’t talk exactly,” proclaims Dang An Toan.
Meanwhile, Hang Le Phuoc believes a Viet Kieu’s English is “not good for me.”
Adding: “Studying with a foreigner makes me feel good; they’re more professional than a Viet Kieu. A Viet Kieu can understand me even when I make mistakes because they have some knowledge of Vietnamese. A foreigner wouldn’t understand and would correct me until I got it right.”
The Customer is Always Right
Steve Baker, head of recruitment at VUS, has come across these views before.
“The more Vietnamese a teacher looks – whether physically or in manner and dress – the less likely it is students or their parents will accept that teacher as a native English speaker,” Steve explains.
He continues, “Students may feel cheated because they have paid for a foreign or native English speaking teacher. However, if the teacher has sound teaching methods, connects with the students and is noticeably foreign in their manner, appearance and dress, then these issues usually disappear over time.”
So what happens when parents or students complain about having a t teacher?
“VUS tries to move the child to another class rather than dismiss the teacher,” says Steve. “However, if the teacher gets complaints from multiple sources and the problem persists, then the school might have no choice other than to let that teacher go, or to not renew their contract when it expires. At the end of the day, any school has to listen to the demands of their customers and satisfy their needs.”