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Emissaries of the Modern: The Foreign Teacher in Urban China



Some of the most recognizable urban figures in China today are not even Chinese, but “foreigners.” Foreigners stand out from the crowd, not simply because of their perceived racial distinctiveness, but because they are seen to possess and successfully manipulate symbols of a globalized world that many Chinese desire but feel disconnected from. Based on fieldwork in the northeastern city of Shenyang, this article will focus specifically on foreign teachers, itinerant native speakers of English who come to China for adventure and a paycheck in return for teaching their language to others. They are encountered in foreign language classrooms, the media, and in public, acting as indexes of modernity in a rapidly changing urban landscape. While Chinese urban residents bemoan a sense of isolation and backwardness within globalized structures of power and capital, they identify the interloping foreign teacher—stereotypically seen as white, English-speaking, mobile, wealthy, and brand-conscious—as an exemplar of the possibilities of modern selfhood. Foreigners are objects of desire, curiosity, envy, and resentment; each emotion is linked to their status as representatives of a world perceived to be beyond the boundaries of the local, but which in reality permeates it at every level. While foreign teachers themselves are often oblivious to this wider context, they are implicated in everyday practices of Chinese self-fashioning, from education in global languages to marketing international brands. I argue that the image of the foreigner provokes reflections on the nature of Chinese ethnicity, culture, and national identity. Contemplating the foreign as a potential subject position, sometimes critically, is one way that urban Chinese articulate creative possibilities for their own futures.