African American teacher recalls racism in China


Karla Forrest’s sojourn in the Far East left her with enlightenment, disappointment

Karla Forrest, a 2005 College of Saint Benedict graduate, has been a foreign teacher at Xiamen University in Fujian province in the People’s Republic of China for the past two years. Forrest describes her experiences as surreal with the pitfalls outnumbering the perks of being a foreigner.

She gained valuable teaching experience, reshaped her political ideology, made good friends whom she “will have forever,” and enjoyed the food. In summary, Forrest observes that “The necessary attributes to living in China are thick skin and blinders.”

Forrest and her boyfriend, a 2006 Saint John’s University graduate, were two of over 60 foreign teachers at Xiamen University (XMU). They both taught oral English to freshman classes averaging 50 students per class during the 2006 and 2007 school years. XMU with 31,000 full-time students, approximately 5,000 staff, 20 schools and 45 departments offering undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate programs, is nicknamed “Strength of the South.”

Xiamen University is located on the island of Xiamen, a scenic city in the southeast coastal region of China directly across the China Sea from Taiwan. With flowers blooming year round, Xiamen is advertised as the “Garden at Sea.”

After college graduation, Forrest held an entry-level position in a large Minneapolis bank, but her desire to experience a new culture led her to China. The 14-hour work week stated in the contract with the university was also a definite appeal.

A less-than-ideally-supportive teaching environment at XMU, however, caused her “to lose some of her zeal for teaching.” Nonetheless, Forrest says she feels gratified knowing that she has helped some students.

Forrest admitted that because the standard of living is lower in China, she “could afford things she could not afford back home.” For example, she lived in a large three-bedroom, two-bathroom flat in a high-income apartment complex.

Despite the comfortable lifestyle, the most off-putting experience for Forrest and her boyfriend was the attitude exhibited by Chinese people towards them as foreigners of African heritage. She never grew accustomed to the glaring stares, people pointing at her, and many photographing her.

As her fluency in the Chinese language improved and she was able to understand comments made by people around her, her frustration with the people increased and her ability to ignore the people’s reactions disintegrated. Forrest notes that when it’s discovered that she speaks Putonghua (the official Chinese dialect also known as Standard Mandarin), people who spoke disparagingly of her would either express shame or switch to their local dialect.

“On a personal level, I sometimes feel uncomfortable in my skin, and I don’t want to go outside and do anything,” Forrest says. “And I walk around mad all day because I cannot walk down the street without seeing or hearing something [insulting]. And now I’ve become paranoid about what they might say. So most of the time, I don’t smile. I keep away from the prying eyes.”

Under different circumstances, Forrest and her boyfriend would have been very happy in China. “When I go unnoticed — when no one points you out and makes comments about you — I am happy, because there’s a feeling that I belong somewhere. People in my community know me and ignore me,” she says.

However, “When I venture outside of the community I’m no longer comfortable; you’re on the defensive, on the lookout. People will try to cheat you. Even if you know the language, they still try to cheat you. For example, I’m overcharged for items, or given incorrect change.”

Acknowledging that people’s reactions may be due to simple curiosity, Forrest still despised the extra attention that she perceived as being ridiculed. “It may be comedy for them, but it’s not funny for us. I’ve become wary of people,” she says.

Forrest emphasizes, “I am not saying everyone’s experience will be the same. I am not saying every city in China is the same. There is a diversity here that anyone can appreciate. However, you’ll find that if you are different or try to change things, you’ll come across much resistance. If you ask many people why they do things this way, they’ll say, ‘It’s the Chinese way.’ Everything that cannot be explained or changed, the reason given is that it has always been done this way.”

The idyllic setting of XMU’s main campus, which covers an area of over 700 acres, provided a respite for Forrest’s soul. She liked hiking in the hills, jogging around the lakes, walking along bamboo-lined paths, or just looking out at the sea from a quiet spot.

Forrest will travel to Beijing along with visiting family members before going back home to return to a normal life and pursue her dream of studying interior design. Attending this year’s Olympics has special significance for Forrest and her boyfriend, whose younger brother is on the 4x100m relay team representing his country, Trinidad and Tobago.

Forrest is grateful for the opportunity to have lived and worked in China. And, as she prepared to leave, she conceded that she’ll cheer along with the Chinese people for the success of the Games and for the country which has been her home for the past two years.

Jennifer Holder welcomes reader responses to jholder@spokesman-record