Alex Case’s Six things about teaching as a foreigner in Asia

When I first started blogging people told me to go and look at several sites, including TEFLtastic, the TEFL.net blog run by Alex Case. Alex gave me some advice about getting started in the blogosphere. I suggested a while back that he contribute something to this blog. Since a lot of Alex’s work brings him into contact with British or North Americans going to Asia, I asked him for some advice for new teachers . He came back to me with the following six pieces of advice for those choosing to move “out East”…

… meaning here East and Southeast Asia. I have loved most of my seven years living and teaching in Thailand, Japan and Korea most of the time, and 90% of people find something to love about Japan for at least the first 6 months, but living long term in Asia isn’t for everyone and it certainly isn’t an extended Thai beach holiday. You may also find that understanding what is really going on in Thailand could mean that even Thai beach holidays are never the same again!

1. Teaching style

If you are already a teacher or can already guess what your teaching style will be like, there are certain approaches that will be a struggle to make work in the typical Asian classroom. For example, debates and other kinds of lessons on controversial issues will be unlikely to produce a lot of speaking from the majority of students, and the same problem is common with topics that rely on the students’ knowledge of the outside world or willingness to speak out. These kinds of things are, strangely, what many students expect to be doing in English classes and so they will be appreciated if you can somehow make them work (or even sometimes if you don’t, but you aren’t likely to be happy with the uncomfortable silences and lack of learning).    

One thing I still haven’t been able to adapt to the usual Asian pattern is my apparent deep psychological need to link smoothly between one part of the lesson and another, e.g. going from a chat to the grammar point without any clear transition. This is guaranteed to throw most of my classes here for at least the first month. Another thing is using new games and variations all the time, whereas in an Asian primary school or kindergarten teachers can get away with playing identical games and singing identical songs every day for years.    

2. Personality

One type of person who does well in the stereotypical Asian classroom is the kind of character who can come into a house party with no atmosphere and get everyone going with their jokes, friendly banter and general energy level. Another, by contrast, is the “good listener” who finds ways to get the students doing all the talking (however difficult that might be) and finds that the quietness of the students lets them express their own personality in the classroom more than they might be able to in other countries.

Another vital aspect of the personality of someone who successfully deals with living in Asia is an ability to deal with the unexpected. If you plan a day out and everything you planned proves to be impossible, do you think “Well, at least I saw something new (even if it was the scummy parts of town)” or can you hardly contain your frustration? Being the first kind of person will help no end with Thai bus “timetables”, approaching a language that never matches your expectations, or cross-cultural dating.

If I can be forgiven even grosser generalisations than in the rest of this post, it is probably also relevant to talk about the personalities of the people you will teach and meet. Kids will generally be well behaved (except maybe when the local teacher leaves), but very young kids will be incredibly indulged. Students might have problems mixing with the other gender and speaking out in front of the whole class. Status and losing face will be more important than in a Northern European class, and they are likely to be happier with silence than you are.

3. Appearance

If you got into English teaching in order to avoid a shirt and tie, Asia may not be for you. Although there are schools where you can dress down a little, I still wear a suit because I know adult and teenage students will be more likely to accept my game-filled classes if I look like a “serious teacher” for the important first few classes. Ditto for piercings in places that have become totally standard in Europe but are still the sign of a dropout from society in most of Asia, and tattoos that will get you banned from almost all gyms, swimming pools and hot springs in Japan and should be neither visible nor mentioned by teachers who have them almost anywhere in Asia.

A less easily understandable part of appearance is the obsession with teachers “looking like a native speaker”, meaning the prejudice against black or Asian teachers. Even for white teachers, anti-Americanism, nationalist history classes, resentment of people with local girlfriends etc can be a first ever introduction to racism from the other side. I see that as a positive experience, but not all do!

4. Distance and travel

This mainly means your willingness to be many hours away from home by plane and to cope with many hours of time difference when you want to phone home. Unlike some places, there will be absolutely no popping back home or people visiting you during their long weekends. You may also experience the third trip home in a year proving impossible for reasons of time, tiredness or expense- however important it is. Add to this the Asian culture of putting work before family and not even taking the holidays that are due to you, and you can find an attitude to requests for extra leave from “You want to fly home in the middle of the year for your cousin’s wedding? A close cousin, you say? Sure, how long do you want? How about forever?!” to the guilt tripping of “Sure. Don’t worry, we will all fill in for you somehow. Maybe we can get my wife out of the hospital a little early and get her to sit in reception so I can teach” (exaggerating a little).

So, lack of opportunities to go home or even phone home when you need to obviously suck. At least you can fly to lots of other interesting Asian countries on your holidays cheaply and easily, though, hey? Well, yes, but not as much as you’d think. Flying from Japan to Thailand is sometimes more expensive than flying from the UK, and if your holidays are the same as the rest of the country (common), there might be not a single seat available anyway. Domestic travel is usually cheap, comfortable and/ or varied though!

 A third factor connected to distance and travel is some very long commutes in the Asian megacities.

 5. Language learning

If you thought learning Spanish verb tables was a load on the memory, try learning the 2000 kanji needed to read a Japanese newspaper. If you like a challenge, it is certainly that! Ditto for trying to pick up tonal languages for the unmusical like myself. However, reaching a basic day to day survival level is often fairly easy (and easier than languages with cases like German and Greek), and going further can be fascinating for the few who really get into it. Imagine your French teacher saying “I’ve decided to switch to teaching you the Russian alphabet for a while for a bit of change”. If you would’ve suddenly perked up, Asian languages are for you. If you would’ve groaned at the prospect of starting again from zero, Rumanian might be a better choice than Chinese.

6. Blending in

You can’t, unless you look East or Southeast Asian- in which case see above for the racism thing plus having people speak to you in a language you can’t understand all the time. Not being able to blend in means not just being stared at in the street or on the train, but also that there is no chance of being accepted as an equal part of the local society however long you stay there and however well you speak the language and act like a local. This isn’t a problem for me as I didn’t leave my small hometown to find somewhere else I could be like everyone else and I enjoy being a star for a day as the only foreign face in a kindergarten out in the sticks. You might also decide you don’t want to be just like everyone else when you see how the locals are treated by their mothers in law and bosses!

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Published in: on February 18, 2009 at 10:27 am  Comments (1)  
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