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Inquiry Project: Teaching English Abroad as a Person of Color

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            One of my post-undergrad dreams is to find a way back to France, a country in which I had the opportunity to study abroad junior year. I figured that teaching English would be a way to gain experience in a classroom, keep myself immersed in French culture, and have the chance to explore other parts of Europe as well. Gaining an understanding about the White-Savior Industrial Complex, though, had me questioning my initial desires of wanting to teach English abroad. Did I want to teach abroad with the mentality of “helping” and “making a difference”? Did I subconsciously crave this opportunity as a way to please my ego? How might my own privileges as an American impact my pedagogy in the classroom, and relationship with the community? How would they differ if I were not a woman of color? These kinds of questions inspired my inquiry project into the implications and experiences of Americans teaching abroad.

BlackinAsia and English as a Tool of Imposition
            Owning My Truth, a blogger formerly named BlackinAsia, recorded his experiences as a Black American teaching elementary-school level students English in rural Taiwan from 2012-2013. Many of his blog posts reflect his journey of awareness of the socially unjust practices and systems involved in teaching English abroad. When he started his blog, he was called out by some readers for involvement in a Western neo-imperialist movement, promoting and imposing Western culture over Taiwanese culture. However, it wasn’t until several months later that he fully realized the movement he was a part of. Honestly and outright, he cautions people against teaching English abroad because, “it is neocolonial and terrible and perpetuates a subsuming of local identities, languages and cultures under Western and English global hegemony. It causes incredible amounts of damage to local communities and I know this well having been on the inside of the neo-imperialistic machine myself”(Owning My Truth, “Teaching Abroad Reflection”).
            Under the lens of Kumashiro, these descriptive terms of “neo-imperialistic” and “neocolonial” make sense in the context of teaching English abroad, as the system can be interpreted as an oppressive teaching practice because of its possible impact on the perceived value of other languages in relation to English. The need for global English programming reflects the language's immense importance and power. To put an economic spin on this context, “to fully participate in the new global economy, a country is economically coerced into “voluntarily” accepting economic, political, and social reforms that are pleasing to Western democratic principles: Either reform and conform or be left out of the new economic prosperity”(Qiang and Wolff). While English can be a gateway to the consumption and understanding of Western beliefs, values, practices, etc., English can also be used as a tool to impose Westernness onto other cultures. Additionally, as Owning My Truth puts it, English can be a tool to classify local cultures under the shadow a more dominant one (Owning My Truth, “Teaching Abroad Reflection”).

Experiences of Local Taiwanese English Teachers and Native English-Speaking Teachers
            Many English programs are structured so that a local English teacher and a native English-speaking teacher (NEST) teach as a team. "A Study of Native English-Speaking Teacher Programs in Elementary Schools in Taiwan" by Wen-Hsing Luo explores the team teaching perspective from both teachers' perspectives. The six teachers in this study, three local teachers and three native English-speaking teachers come from various levels of teaching certification and backgrounds in elementary education. Interestingly, none of the NESTs were certified as Teachers of English for Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).
            The local English teachers expressed mixed feelings about the necessity of having NEST programs. They noted some advantages, such as the students being exposed to a native speaker's English, as well as their presence as a foreigner. They also suggested that the younger students seemed to be more motivated in learning English when a foreigner was in the classroom. Some of the disadvantages included possible cultural shock for the students when receiving instruction from the NESTs in a different style that they were accustomed to. They also suggested that instead of having the government spend money on foreigners (many of whom receive little training, are not as familiar with the local language and culture) who stay for shorter periods of time, that money could be invested in providing more support for locally trained Taiwanese English teachers. There is also the issue in team teaching of incompatibility among teams due to factors including personality, lack of experience, and conflicting goals for teaching, e.g teaching styles, coming to Asia to experience the culture, earn money, and pursue other personal interests.             The NESTs, on the other hand, also had mixed feelings about NEST programs. Overall, the NEST teachers were much more positive about the necessity of NESTs, especially as a way to have local students feel more comfortable about foreigners, a way to bring more excitement and novelty into the classroom, and an opportunity to make a difference in students' lives beyond teaching them English. In regards to working with local English teachers, some NESTs experienced challenges in classroom support from the local teacher, clashing teaching styles and goals, as well as language barriers. With the small sample of local teachers and NESTs in this study, it is easy to make generalizations about their anecdotal experiences; however, their perspectives do shed light on real challenges and do provide insight on ways that these programs could be further developed.

Americanness and White Privilege
            Many of Owning My Truth's blog posts about his experience in Taiwan reflect on the intersectionality of his identity as a black man and as an American. Way before Owning My Truth was aware of the impact that he had on his students by coming to Taiwan to teach them English, he was aware of the local culture's impact and perception of him. Owning My Truth was the recipient of numerous unwanted gazes, the subject of unwarranted photos, regularly referred to as Lebron James, and once even his skin was rubbed by students to see if “the black” would rub off. Just as pervasive as anti-black sentiments were in Taiwan, was white privilege (Owning My Truth, “Lebron,” “Black Rub Off”). In one account, he compares a typical day for him with a day that he walked around with his Swedish white-passing mother by his side. Owning My Truth's mother immediately received warmth, was offered aid, and was showered in compliments by people that would normally not acknowledge him, even when he would purposefully reach out to them (Owning My Truth, “On Hospitality”). He frequently saw white people, like his mother, receive without question the type of respect he'd tried to hard to earn by learning Chinese and really making the effort to understand the culture.
            Owning My Truth provides numerous other examples that reflect the way that many Taiwanese people conflate Americanness with being white. Because he did not represent the stereotype that people had of Americans, a lot of people had difficulty believing he was American. A similar type of discomfort/distrust can occur towards other American people of color who are not able to pass as white. An article Taipei Times entitled “English teachers wanted: must look Western,” highlights the presence of a preference from schools and parents for English teachers that are “native foreigners only,” in other words, white (Jan). There are parents who believe that their child will learn English better from a person who is white, and this ignorance may affect schools' hiring processes. There are also schools that offer more money for “foreign-looking” teachers than for teachers who are Asian, even if they are Asian American . In Taiwan, there are no laws prohibiting racial discrimination of foreign English teachers. It is also interesting to note that certain accents may also be more privileged than others. A study on three South African English teachers' experiences in Taiwanese elementary schools highlights challenges in which students had difficulty in understanding South African English accents. One teacher was asked to modify hers to a more American accent, as it was more desired in the classroom than her own (Chen and Cheng). It appears that teachers whose appearance does not match a stereotypical “Western look,” face quite a few challenges.

Missing Voices & Reducing the Damage
            There is a lot of research focusing on the teachers' personal experiences, on English language programs, as well as research on the parents' interests for their children; however, one area in which I would have liked to find more research is from the students' perspective. Another layer for exploration could be how English teachers from abroad affect how students value and perceive their local culture as well as the cultures of their foreign teachers.
            If foreign teachers teaching English abroad can be seen as a movement that can prioritize Western culture and language over local cultures and languages, what can be done to reduce the damage? A starting point can be, as Young Pai is cited in Huang's piece, through “know[ing] about their cultural backgrounds and their historical heritages. In addition, we must also be sensitive to the degree of conflict these children may be expecting in relating to the cultures of the mainstream and their own community”. For any classroom, it is important to understand the societal context and what kinds of forces affect students' lives. One way that Owning My Truth worked to understand his students lives and communities was through a photography and multimedia art story-telling project, in which the students could present themselves without their stories being told for them, (“Teaching English Abroad: Problematic). Owning My Truth is one teacher out of a sea of English teachers who has a consciousness of oppressive systems and social justice issues, and had the opportunity and the resources to conduct this collaborative project. When teaching contracts end, new teachers enter the classroom. What happens to the work done trying to repair the potential damage?

            There are so many different layers to the experience of teaching abroad, especially in terms of race. It was hard to read and sometimes believe Owning My Truth's posts, but they do reflect his reality, and the harsh realities of what information you don't see on English abroad websites. As a possible response to repairing damage, I think damage is inevitable. At the end of the day, teaching English abroad will always be a business. However, English abroad programs could provide more training and support for their teachers of color.


Chen, Cheryl Wei-yu, Cheng, Yuh-show. “A case study on foreign English teachers’ challenges    in Taiwanese elementary schools”, System, Volume 38, Issue 1, March 2010, Pages 41-          49.

Huang, Chia-lin. “Professional Actions Echo Personal Experience.” Becoming Multicultural          Educators: Personal Journey Toward Professional Agency. Ed. Geneva Gay. Jossey-Bass.        170-193. Print.

Jan, Tracy. "English Teachers Wanted: Must Look Western." Taipei Times. 2000. Web.

Luo, Wen-Hsing. “A study of native English-speaking teacher programs in elementary schools in             Taiwan.” Asia Pacific Education Review. Volume 8, Issue 2, Pages 311-320.

Owning My Truth. “Speaking of Taiwanese Hospitality” http://owning-my- Tumblr, (2          June 2013). Accessed 15 April 2014.

            “LEBROOOONNN!”  that-all-the-time Tumblr, (28 December 2012). Accessed 15 April 2014.

            “Does the Black Rub Off”.    the-black-rub-off. Tumblr,(26 December 2012). Accessed 15 April 2014.

            “Teaching English Abroad (Reflection)”. http://owning-my-             Tumblr,(23 August 2013). Accessed 15 April 2014.

            “Why Teaching English Abroad is so Problematic (Audio & Text Post)”. http://black-in- Tumblr,(28 December             2013). Accessed 15 April 2014.

Qiang, Niu; Wolff, Martin: "Is EFL a Modern Trojan Horse?" English Today: The International   Review of the English Language , (21:4 [84]), 2005, 55-60. (2005).


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Discrimination in Asia

Yeah there is definitely discrimination in Asia. There is a preference for Caucasian teachers as well. White skin in Asia is considered pretty desirable even if you are Asian.