June 29th, 2010
03:43 AM GMT
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(CNN)Lara Farrar’s story on how foreigners are being hired to portray executives and fake employees makes me mindful that the biggest break I have ever gotten in my career was from being a foreigner in Japan.

In 1997, I was living in rural Kumamoto Prefecture in Japan, teaching English as a second language to high school students in the small town of Hitoyoshi.

The instant celebrity of being a foreigner there was sometimes maddening. Children would run up to you and shout, “How are you?” – as if they were throwing pebbles at an animal to see how it would react.  Or when old people followed me around a supermarket – curious what foreigners ate, I guess.

But mostly – I’ll admit it – the attention was cool. People would go out of their way to make you feel special, and  local journalists would do stories on you. It was on the strength of one of those stories that my life was forever altered. An article mentioned I used to be a newspaper reporter in the U.S., and that attracted the attention of a radio producer for RKK Kumamoto.

He came to our school and sat down with the school’s top administrators and my supervisor and spoke with me at length. There was an awkward pause, and I turned to my supervisor for the translation: “He wants you to join a weekly radio talk show to give an American’s impressions of living in the countryside of Japan. But first he wants to get a sense of how good your Japanese is.”

“I guess he knows now,” I cracked, bursting into laughter that no one else joined. At the time, my Japanese could barely get me in and out of a restaurant.

So began my strange odyssey of learning how to speak Japanese by talking on a live radio show every week. I would prepare a five-minute segment, learn it in Japanese, and pray to God my co-hosts wouldn’t ask me any questions. Often those prayers weren’t answered.

For the first six months when I headed to the remote location where we did our show, I often fantasized of my car rolling off the side of the road – anything to prevent me from getting on the air and making a fool of myself again. But I slowly got the hang of it, and continued to do the program for two years.

More importantly, my language skills improved to the point where I was eventually hired by The Wall Street Journal Asia as a feature writer in 2000 – a gig I would have never gotten were it not for the skills I picked up from the radio show. Which is a gig I never would have gotten unless I was a foreigner living in the countryside of Japan.

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soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. ko

    When I first visted China in1986 foreigners were truly an oddity outside major cities, and it was not unusual to be surrounded by a crowd of curious on-lookers or a line of children following one down the street, laughing, dancing and pulling one'clothes, nose or arm hair. I quickly learned to make the most of this, to have fun and make friends. After relocating permanently in 1988, I often found myself pressed into service as an all-purpose expert on all things foreign, increasing my work load but making many enduring friendships and forcing the shy lad I was to open-up to the world around me, on the sink-or-swim program.

    Anyone that can should travel and seek the street level experiences that are only found by getting lost and finding you way back – if you care to.

    June 29, 2010 at 6:00 am |
  2. John

    Similar experiences have happened to me both in China and South Korea.In China I was often press-ganged into translation service both by the company I worked for and sometimes people would just approach me off the street.In Korea it was more of a "we like your photo,so we're going to use it to advertise" and this was done several times without my consent!!Imagine going down the street in a foreign city you just happened to live in,and seeing your face emblazoned on banners across the road or plastered on telephone poles and fences etc.
    So yes it does happen,and it's all part of the wider experience of living and working in a foreign land,especially when there are opportunities to make a buck or three from using your visage.One of the funniest was when I went to buy a new mobile phone and ended up being photographed with the manager of the shop for a promotional poster, which is still in use to this day, I believe.

    June 29, 2010 at 6:25 am |
  3. Mark

    Prior to 2004 if you came to Japan, it was easier to build work experience in various venues (other then just English) because there were few foreigners. But now if your an entry level job seeker out of college theres nothing except teaching English for minimum wage (unless its JET,) Every year after 2004 the amount of foreigners have doubled and these are "skilled foreigners" who are also fluent in Japanese.

    These days, Job sites are looking for a breed of superman who are not only masters in their own field, but will work long hours for lower pay then what they would normally receive in the US.

    June 29, 2010 at 6:48 am |
  4. Paul

    Yes, I lived in China for 3 years, but I think of myself as a spokesman, like any any celebrity in America would be there.
    Famous movie stars, sports people, that is what I am.
    Just a "famous" person speaking well of their company.

    It is not deceit, it is a form of advertising. if I don't cross the line of truth.


    June 29, 2010 at 6:52 am |
  5. John

    Haha, This is so funny. Being a rock star for being a foreigner. LOL

    June 29, 2010 at 7:05 am |
  6. Matt

    Of course this happens all over East Asia. Foreigners, specifically white foreigners, are window dressing for companies who want to look important. In South Korea this is especially common among the English "hagwons", or after-school cram schools that nearly all Korean children go to in the afternoon and evening. Most foreign English teachers work at one of these. Their main purpose is to be white and a happy foreigner, so that the childrens' parents feel like their child is getting a good "international" education and will keep paying a lot of money to the hagwon every month. Because of this, the industry is very racist. Blacks and Asians, even if you speak perfect English and are from the US or UK, need not apply for such jobs – blacks are "scary" foreigners that no good Korean parent would ever trust their child with, and Asians are viewed on the same level as Koreans who learned English as a second language, meaning they probably don't speak English that well (again regardless of where they actually come from), and what parent is going to pay for their kid to learn from someone who barely knows English themselves? This is why all schools and hagwons require photos along with job applications – foreigners need to pass the "whiteness" test.

    Once I (a white guy) took a three day substitute job at a kindergarten outside Seoul. I was told the school needed somewhere because the previous foreign teacher had quit. Turns out in reality the previous teacher was African-American. The kindergarten had tried to be progressive by hiring him based on his good resume, but all the parents were uncomfortable with that and were starting pulling out their children. The school was losing money, so they lied to the teacher and told him the school was closing, so he had to go home or find work somewhere else. My three days "teaching" were mainly a photoshoot. The school put all the pictures of me with the kids on their website to convince the parents that a "real", "safe" foreign teacher was at the school again.

    Enough Koreans speak English that the high-level charades they do in China wouldn't work there. Within the English teaching world, though, white foreigners are always in high demand.

    June 29, 2010 at 8:13 am |
  7. flip

    ...who was in footloose with kevin bacon

    June 29, 2010 at 9:24 am |
  8. Robert Godfrey

    I would be very surprised if the chinese architectural practice which hired "Brad Smith" to present a design in Hangzhou was successful.
    I belive they are probably very stupid.
    Having worked in HZ for ten years in architecture and property development I have found that most government officials and developers are very aware of this practice and are very sceptical of foreigners credentials. I have been asked many times to assess the companies making submissions and have found that my perceptions only supported the pre-existing suspicions of the client.
    I have personally had some rather embarasing moments when a foreigner purporting to represent a major multi-national is exposed when confronted with someone who knows their language and their business. What do you say to your Chinese associates and to the foolish individual concerned other than the truth?

    June 29, 2010 at 9:49 am |
  9. Gannon

    I got one better, I was a security guard before! That's right, for glamour, high class events. There are a few businesses doing it in Shanghai. The only requirement was to be 6ft tall, have a black suit shirt and tie and not to smile. Imagine that, you are security for Chinese celebrities and millionaires! They preferred white faces, but when they can't find any big enough that are available they will substitute a Nigerian or other African in there. These same companies provide the security for International stars and dignitaries. The boss was showing me pictures of his guys behind Beckham in Beijing. But he said no foreigners for those events, for those he can just pretend with his own guys!

    June 29, 2010 at 10:12 am |
  10. Bryan

    I actually had a similar living in Germany. At first anyway. When I first moved to Germany in 1999 it was almost embarrassing how much the Germans loved Americans. People always wanted to speak English. They would ask me questions about the US. Talk about where they had been, etc. They even asked me why I would ever leave the US and move to Germany. As time went on and the politics between the US and Germany/Europe took a turn for the worse, things were not so rosy. By the time I moved back to the US in the end of 2003 it was not a benefit to be from the US. Although things have improved in the past few years.

    All in all it was a great experience and because of it I was able to start my own localization/SEO firm using my language skills and international experience.

    June 29, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
  11. half

    CNN has some real lousy articles on here.... Can you call this an article? I feel like I could write a better and more thorough reflection on this situation when I was in 8th grade, being half american and half japanese, living in Tokyo. Is Lara Farrar's story supposed to be a conversation starter? The articles, and the comments, shed no light as to the possible reasons why this phenomenon takes place in Asia, and if this kind of employment abuse is even a laughing matter.

    June 29, 2010 at 12:40 pm |
  12. Tan

    I get the finger most of the time in New Zealand for not being white.

    June 29, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
  13. Jon Zatkin

    As one of the subjects of this story, I can tell you that the whole point of hiring foreigners for these jobs is to add credibility – that these companies are clear that they wouldn't otherwise have. And, of course, since it's false credibility, it's a house built on sand...

    June 29, 2010 at 4:06 pm |
  14. Sarah

    I believe one of the real reasons for chinese businesses to hire fake white workers is to falsely portray their company's diversity. Business laws in the West forbid companies to discriminate based on race, color or national origin, and would normally suffer business profits if they are found to run a discriminatory business. Anyone who is familiar with the chinese business community already knows that chinese people will only hire other chinese people. If these discriminatory businesses give off an impression that they run a diverse business they will better their chances to grow international clients , while painting a pretty picture.

    June 29, 2010 at 8:59 pm |
  15. Wen

    I give the finger all the time in Singapore to whites only.

    June 30, 2010 at 12:13 am |
  16. Bart

    I work in Asia, and am not planning to return home soon.

    I worked at a corporate job in the USA for 8 years. We were purchased by an East-coast company, and the pruning began. Our boss slowly cut several of us out. He got bonuses, we got the sack. Seven years later, corporate decided his salary was too high and cut him after he'd cut everyone and replaced them with lower salary workers.

    These days, I'm working in Asia (Korea) making a little more than I did then. The difference is that I pay about 20 percent less in taxes and have a lot more disposable income. I also get cheap national healthcare, and it's good if you go to the bigger hospitals. I am able to save as much as half of my salary if I am frugal. Back home, I was lucky to save 20% if I was frugal. My wife also works, and we plan on retiring in the USA early after purchasing a $350,000+ home in cash– something I never could have afforded on my salary in the USA. Please note, I make an average salary - nothing large.

    Nothing's perfect, but living and working here, being treated better because I'm a foreigner is partially my way of telling corporate America and tax-crazy gov't to go screw itself.

    It's not all rosey, though. There is also anti-foreigner bias and A LOT of workplace problems like late/no pay at many jobs. I've taken my hard knocks and learned where not to work from experience. If you work at a good place, life is good - but it's a difficult road to hoe. Also, the gov't talks out of both sides of its mouth. Banks won't easily allow foreigners to get an ATM card that works internationally, and restrict sending money out of the country unless you use one bank branch for all of your transfers. The gov't runs radio announcements saying that tthere is no law restricting foreigners this way, but the banks refuse, claiming that there is a law. No one will show you the law. They don't like money leaving Korea, so they find ways to make it hard for you to do it. The gov't says one thing, then tells local banks another behind closed doors. Gotta keep up that international "good boy" face!

    June 30, 2010 at 12:15 am |
  17. ID被和谐

    THis is something new. I never heard of it before.

    but I think this has more to do with money than with face.

    because I am a chinese, so I know that if you can convince officials that your company are an international one, you can reap benefits or receive the direct opposite.

    like in green technology or innovative high-tech field, being a global corp can receive government subsidies and have policies tilted toward your favor. while other fields like movies and video games, you are likely to hit solid rock, because of protecting domestic firms.

    so you see, renting white people are for those companies that can benefit while excluding them are for those who can not.

    June 30, 2010 at 12:29 am |
  18. Zander

    You find that being a foreigner is quite often a career advantage, actually, depending on the country you're in and where you're from.

    As an American (and even more so as a New Yorker) living in Australia, I'm often told that my accent makes everything I say sound more professional and credible, for whatever reason. I'd go as far as to say that I've gotten a couple of jobs here due, in part, to my American accent.

    And if you think about it, the voice of authority in so much media and entertainment, if nothing else, is American. Therefore you can see why the association might exist.

    June 30, 2010 at 3:15 am |
  19. kaka

    This is the usual in China
    I am an African working here in China. I like to play with people here around whenever they ask me where I am from, I ask them to guess. And the interesting thing, they will only guess the country which is the news. Currently they always guess I am from South Africa because of world cup fame. When there is a major incident in the horn of Africa, they will tell me I am from Somalia. When there is an incident in the Delta of Niger, they say I am from Nigeria,etc. Recently there is one who told me I am from Jamaica.

    I have been living in this country for almost ten years. In the beginning, you get bored and annoyed of the way you are treated , but at the end you get used and aim for what you are doing.

    June 30, 2010 at 5:28 am |
  20. scott

    I'm an American currently living and working in Kumamoto Prefecture. Kumamoto is probably more used to "foreigners" now, but the "how are you" and supermarket experiences are still quite common. I can't complain, though, because they make great stories for friends and family back home.

    I really appreciated the story as I've also had some chances to be on local tv and radio programs. Recently I was interviewed by a tv station wanting to get a foreigner's perspective on life in Kumamoto. This included being interviewed and filmed at both work and home. It was quite the nerve-racking experience, but it did have its funny moments. Like when the cameraman told me he wanted to film me washing dishes and opening and looking around in the fridge.

    June 30, 2010 at 6:52 am |
  21. Josh

    I've lived in Asia for the past 3 years and have to say this happens a lot, both unusual attention and random offers of work. In rural Thailand you'll hear a drive-by "Hello!", "Happy Birthday" or even "I love you!" almost every day. It's mostly just people being curious and wanting to get a reaction (in a good way if you can take it). As the article says the attention can feel cool too, you sometimes have to remind yourself that you really aren't all that special and you aren't actually a celebrity.

    In Taiwan where I am now the only people to give you any special attention are kids and old people, and for the most part they might just look at you for awhile then go back to what they were doing. I probably stare at people here more than they stare at me. I was hired to do a few corporate advertisements though, they often like to mix foreigners and Taiwanese on some ads. It's weird to be going into a shop to buy some tea and on that month's menu is a giant picture of some random English teacher you know.

    June 30, 2010 at 8:41 am |
  22. samuel blais josph blaise

    Congratulations, my dear, you're really brave and I like the whole world knows the success is a source of courage, good continuation

    June 30, 2010 at 8:43 am |
  23. P.D.

    I like the idea ! European Passport -

    Good looking 69 / 1.85 white, perfect German,English, Spanish and Hebrew.

    How do you apply ?

    June 30, 2010 at 11:20 am |
  24. christy

    as i read this article, i remembered many foreigners working in korea (i am korean, living in korea) as english teachers. some of them really enjoyed working in korea, treated well and welcomed in everywhere they go like celebrities as someone mentioned. but some acted weirdly because they know they will get a highly paid job anyway. i think this is because of a lack of knowledge for asian countries about foreigners and need to change our attitude and also i hope foreingers to have professional minds for work, not just come and make money. (i have no offense, i just felt pity on some parts.)

    July 1, 2010 at 4:43 am |
  25. lisaweyn

    Me too was was made to feel special in Taiwan. After all, Asian countries show a lot of respect to foreigners unlike in the West.

    July 3, 2010 at 6:23 am |
  26. Marc

    I think Mr. Voigt ought to be more precise when he employs the word "foreign". In the examples provided for China and Japan, it is pretty clear that in almost all cases, singling out a "foreigner" for special positive treatment only applies if the subject is white. Brown, black and certainly asian foreigners don't quite cut it as far as most Chinese and Japanese are concerned.

    July 5, 2010 at 7:18 pm |
  27. TRUTH

    The title of this article should be "When is being WHITE a career advantage?" – to more accurately reflect the phenomenon.
    Japan has plenty of non-white foreigners and I would assure you that not many of them have been treated "special" or have local papers do stories on them. (eg. Koreans, Chinese, Brazilians)
    I've lived abroad for years, but while I've been subject to racial epithets and stereotypes – I've never been accorded preferable treatment – I'm sure the blind man's answer is that I wasn't foreign enough.

    July 7, 2010 at 12:16 am |
  28. nice

    lol, TRUTH is right ..

    this happens in UAE and other arab countires. These people are very racist. They do not like non arabs even if they r muslim and they love white people.

    Once there was an ad for a job in an UAE newspaper and my friend who is british applied for it, he didnt get the job...u know why?

    coz when he reached for the interview, the people were like ur not british, hes like yea i am, they r like, but we want white skin...your dark (his parents were from pakistan).. how nice isnt it :D

    July 7, 2010 at 9:04 am |
  29. James Wang

    Wow, I wish I was white.

    July 8, 2010 at 1:47 am |
  30. Joeffrey

    Thank you so much to tell the truth. The white is being considered God in Asia, even in countries of war. Instead of taking advantage of the fact US people are wasting their time fighting among themselves for small issues.
    Here in Asia they want to be operated to be considered white. Beauty is define as " white, tall, high nose, blue eyes". For asians to become beautiful just imagine. That is the inferiority complex. I see them beautiful as they are but they disagree.

    July 8, 2010 at 9:19 am |
  31. K-dub

    It is an advantage when you are American, especially White, in a foreign country. It doesn't work in reverse, if you are brown people think you are Al-Qaeda. If you are a yellow, you're North Korean, even if you are a "different kind of Asian".

    July 8, 2010 at 5:03 pm |
  32. Wilkine

    I've survived in Jeju, South Korea with my long dreadlocks, tattoos, and Haitian-American bloodline. It is true of the white privilege in China, Japan, and Korea...nothing new, just the perpetuation of the notion of white purity, appropriateness, and assumption of more educated seem to dominate the mind-set of east Asians.

    One must realize though, that a foreigner is a foreigner in Korea. Whites, Blacks, Browns...are pretty much in the same realm.

    The celebrity status is definitely true, especially in rural areas and even parts of the main cities. As for black male or female teachers, the celebrity status is even heighten, because most foreign advertisements use white faces to establish universal rapport with their product.

    Ultimately, the positive energy that I've put forth has returned tenfold. Its the character of the individual that can sway the mindset of parents and students, both in the public and private sectors of education.

    The celebrity status is amazing though. lol It'll still be difficult to get used to the "ajumas" on Korean buses pulling on my locks and asking if it's real or offering fruits. lol

    I'm also thankful that a documentary was shot on my experience. I came shortly after the Earthquake rocked Haiti.

    From South Florida to South Korea! Oh yeah, I represent just one of the many foreigners with amazing experiences.

    July 14, 2010 at 4:24 pm |
  33. Gr8fuldude

    I lived in Vietnam for a time and I can attest to this...Spot on accurate. I kept getting asked by women if I had any brothers I could bring back for them. Cute.

    August 26, 2010 at 8:56 pm |
  34. Gena

    Oh, sweet 80's and 90's. Those who were clever and lucky enough to go Japan about twenty years ago really could do huge profit out of being a foreigner... Now it is much tougher then before.

    November 9, 2010 at 3:38 am |
  35. PB

    That's such a neat story.

    I'm an expat teacher in the Mid East. I enjoy it, and would guess it will help me in the future. If I were an employer, doing anything overseas would be a big plus for me maybe hiring the person. Cross-cultural experience is invaluable in this globalized world.

    November 14, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  36. Thomas A

    Sorry, I meant there are few unsafe "ghettoes" in Asia!

    June 7, 2012 at 1:38 pm |

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