Teach Abroad

What Teaching English in Asia is like for BIPOC Teachers

Wondering what teaching in Asia is like as a BIPOC teacher? Read some of the advantages and disadvantages an Asian American teacher experienced during her time abroad and her tips for dealing with race-based hiring.

TLDR 👀

  • Race-based hiring is a common issue in Asia, due to preconceived misconceptions of what an “American English teacher” should look like. You may be potentially discriminated against, if you do not “look” like a native English speaker to them.
  • Regardless of initial perceptions, there are definitely ways around first impressions, and fortunately, race-based hiring isn't universal.
  • As a BIPOC teacher, you’ll meet incredible people from all around the world who are all shapes, sizes, colors, backgrounds, and who will form a tight knit community that you will carry with you, always.
  • You'll get out of your comfort zone by living in a new culture, eating new food, learning new traditions, and by seeing how different countries deal with issues of race and identity.
What Is Teaching Abroad in Asia Like for Minorities?

It's no secret in the ESL world: Asia is one of the most popular and well sought after destinations for teaching English abroad. However, if you are a member of the BIPOC community, your journey and experience teaching abroad may feel a little different than others.

Throughout Asia, race-based hiring has been known to be a major issue, especially when it comes to hiring teachers. Folks who don’t match their perception of the typical “American” teacher (Yep, the blue eyed, blonde hair stereotype) may face issues even trying to land an interview.

At the same time, this hiring issue doesn't strictly apply to race. Employers may also choose to hire or not hire someone based on weight, facial hair, or presence of tattoos.

Not to worry though! Regardless of initial perceptions, there are ways around first impressions, and fortunately, race-based hiring isn't universal (*phew*). Ultimately, if you're determined to teach abroad in Asia, we’re sure you'll still succeed no matter what. (Proof that it's possible!)

In this article, we’ll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of teaching English in Asia as a BIPOC and give tips to help prepare yourself against race-based hiring.

Ultimately, if you're determined to teach abroad in Asia, then you'll succeed no matter what.

My experience as a BIPOC Teacher in Asia

Hong Kong skyline

For me, my (half) Asian heritage and near-native fluency in Cantonese actually helped me get a teaching job in Hong Kong fresh out of college while I was still in the midst of an online TEFL course.

However, once I started, I discovered that my job preferred for me to hide my heritage in front of students.

My boss was definitely pleased with my language abilities since it helped during meetings, but if I revealed this “secret ability” to my students, then they would inevitably get lazy and start falling back on our shared language -- so she requested that I feign ignorance during classes (which is actually a pretty common request from language schools since they want to emulate complete immersion as best as possible.)

I was able to do this because my mixed looks gave me enough ambiguity that I could pass for either full white or at least having been so Americanized that I might never have learned my mother’s native tongue.

None of the students suspected that I was anything other than a gui mui (a foreign white girl) and they would be forced to struggle along in English even in the face of confusion and misunderstanding. Or at least, this was how I approached the job at first.

It was not until after I had been teaching for three to six months that I began to slowly reveal my hidden power. It began at first as a way to talk to parents whose English skills were not the best. I would send my students to another room while I hurriedly conferenced with their parents in Cantonese.

Then I began to reprimand students who would use cuss words or derogatory slang. They assumed I could not understand them, and felt free to make inappropriate jokes, punishment-free.

At first I had employed the tactic of no foreign language in the class as a means to stop their rude behavior while not showing my understanding.

But then I cracked. I finally spoke to them about how disrespectfully they had been treating me.

When I spoke Cantonese, their mouths dropped open. And yes, they ceased their rudeness after they realized that I could relay to their parents exactly what they had been saying.

Finally, I began to use Cantonese in my high school classes to explain complex ideas and concepts. These older students understood the necessity of picking up English while appreciating that I could express deeper meanings in a way that they could understand.

I used my “hidden ability” sparingly and only when I could not find a synonym in English that they knew.

Below are some of the pros of teaching in Asia as a BIPOC:

  • If you come from an immigrant/bilingual background, you'll be able to understand on a personal level people’s struggles with learning English.
  • For Asian Americans, teachers and students might feel more comfortable working with you, since you seem familiar.
  • You'll stand out to students and become instantly recognizable, which can be difficult in a room full of hyper elementary schoolers. (In my opinion, this is a definite positive!)
  • You'll meet incredible people from all around the world who are all shapes, sizes, colors, backgrounds, and who will form a tight knit community that you will carry with you always.
  • You'll get out of your comfort zone by living in a new culture, eating new food, learning new traditions, and by seeing how different countries deal with issues of race and identity.
  • You’ll help the BIPOC community take strides to disseminate stereotypes about what it means to be "American" or a "Native English Speaker"

Disadvantages BIPOC teachers may face while teaching in Asia

While my Asian-American background and near-native fluency in Cantonese helped me with the job hunt, not all of my BIPOC peers were as lucky as I was.

There are plenty of applicants who recounted how their job hunt took longer than their "typical American-looking" peers. Even stories from peers who were told by interviewers, "well, you just don't look like you're good at English."

Although these assumptions and roadblocks are more often caused by ignorance or lack of exposure to diversity, they still exist and mean that we as BIPOC need to face our job hunt with patience, emphasize our credentials, and approach our experience with a good sense of humor.

Again, it's also important to understand that these notions are rarely malicious.

Edward Young, an African American teacher who has been teaching in Asia for over seven years explained this pretty well. He wrote about his time abroad and said, “Personally, as an African-American teaching English abroad, I observed that it is generally not an employer’s deliberate intention to discriminate and, more often than not, it just boils down to their preconceived misconception of what a native speaker should look like."

Some cons I learned while teaching in Asia as a BIPOC:

  • You may be potentially discriminated against since you do not “look” like a native English speaker.
  • You might be on display as an ambassador for your ethnic group, which some people might find awkward.
  • You might be on the receiving end of racist remarks that might not even be intended to be insulting, as the local people might just not have a great grasp on English and what is (and not) appropriate.
  • Local teachers and parents might get frustrated with you if you look similar, but don't understand the local language.
  • Students might not try as hard to speak English in the classroom, if they think you understand their native tongue.

Ways to deal with race-based hiring in Asia

“Wow” them with your background.

Unlike job applications in most western countries, adding your photo to a resume or job application in Asia is a common practice. That means, your potential employer will be able to see what you look like, before they even meet you. For this reason, it's important to compose an exceptionally stellar teaching resume and emphasize your credentials as a native English speaker and certified ESL teacher.

If you've had prior teaching experience or a TEFL Certificate, place those credentials right at the top. While some white applicants can get away with not having a TEFL Certificate, you should definitely get one just to ensure your competitiveness as a candidate. Double standards are incredibly frustrating, but a positive way to look at this process is that you are just becoming an even more skilled instructor.

Apply to various institutions.

Apply to a variety of schools, education centers, and tutoring halls to ensure that you are tapping into the widest possible market -- our Teaching Job Board is a good place to start your job search. Be prepared to take a grammar test during your interview and dress professionally.

Work with empathy, humor, and an open mind.

After you're hired, you might want to tap into a deep vein of humor of yours. You'll probably face some awkward situations based on other's ignorance -- try not to take it too seriously, and embrace the opportunity to teach others about diversity. After all, even though our main role is to teach a foreign language, our role as teachers abroad also makes us cultural ambassadors and spokespeople for a more global outlook.

However, if this isn't enough don't be afraid to discuss any issues you're having with your employer or fellow employees. Try to find a fellow BIPOC teacher and ask them how they dealt with miscommunications or misbehaving students.

There's an incredibly diverse group of teachers out there in the world, and there'll always be someone to reach out to who can understand what you are going through and give you some helpful advice.

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Don’t let doubt discourage you

Negotiating Teach Abroad Salary

Furthermore, my experiences as a BIPOC teaching English in Hong Kong were incredibly positive. I personally never felt discriminated against and my background and language skills were a benefit to my job.

However, it is important to be aware of the possible issues and uncertainties that you may face while applying for jobs and during your time teaching. With that said, any problems you might be confronted with can be easily mitigated by a careful application that emphasizes your talents and by open dialogue with your boss.

No matter what, don't let doubt discourage you. This is still going to be an experience of a lifetime filled with amazing memories, new friendships, and a profound gratitude that you don't have to relearn the surprisingly complex language of English!