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What Is Teaching Abroad in Asia Like for Minorities?

Students in Thailand

It's no secret in the ESL world: Asia is one of the most popular and attractive destinations for teaching English abroad. However, if you are an ethnic minority in pursuit of this popular goal, then you might find your road a little rockier. Throughout Asia, there are biases attributed to the way people look -- especially when it comes to hiring teachers. Unfortunately, this can be an issue if you don't look like a stereotypical image of an American or native English speaker (NET) and can lead to problems getting an interview -- let alone an actual job.

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

Although this is definitely not true across the board, some schools and centers might be more reticent to hire someone who isn't white since they think local Asian parents perceive people of (allegedly) immigrant backgrounds as not native and therefore know less than their white counterparts. At the same time, this looks-based hiring 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. Overall appearances matter more than in the west.

Not to worry though! Regardless of initial perceptions, there are ways around first impressions, and race-based hiring isn't universal (*phew*). Ultimately, if you're determined to teach abroad in Asia, then you'll succeed no matter what. Our intention here is to give you an awareness of what teaching English in Asia is like for minorities, arm you with awareness of looks-based hiring, and prepare you for all the potential pitfalls of teaching English in Asia as a minority.

The Advantage of Being a Minority Teacher in Asia

Teaching English in China

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 would not understand and so felt free to make inappropriate jokes with impunity.

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. Then I finally cracked and spoke to them about how disrespectfully they had been treating me. You should have seen how 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 did this sparingly and only when I could not find a synonym in English that they knew.

Pros of Teaching in Asia as a Minority

  • If you come from an immigrant / bi-lingual background, you'll be able to understand on a personal level people’s struggles with learning English.
  • For Asian Americans, teachers and students might be more comfortable 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, so 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, dressing in a different style (if you are bold), and by seeing how different countries deal with issues of race and identity.
  • You'll champion of diversity and help disseminate stereotypes about what it means to be "American" or a "Native English Speaker"
  • Your sense of humor might grow as you encounter wacky local customs and share your own wacky customs in return.

The Disadvantage of Being a Minority Teacher in Asia

Kids in China

However, not all of my peers were as lucky as I was in their job hunt. There are plenty of would-be teachers who recounted how their job hunt took longer than their "typical American-looking" peers. Stories of people who said "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 minorities need to face our job hunt with patience. Emphasize our credentials. Approach our experience with a good sense of humor. Again, it's important to understand that these notions are rarely malicious.

As one African American teacher who has been teaching in Asia for over seven years said in International TEFL Academy's article An African-American Perspective on Teaching English Abroad: "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."

Cons of Teaching in Asia as a Minority

  • 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, 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 if they think you understand their native tongue.

How to Deal with Race-Based Hiring in Asia

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. “Wow” them with your background.

Students in Manila, Philippines

That means, 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 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.

You might end up having to prove yourself more since they might already be predisposed against you based on looks.

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, or 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 minority 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.

Take Away

Furthermore, my experiences as a minority teaching English in Hong Kong were incredibly positive. I never felt discriminated against and my background and language skills were a benefit to my job. This will likely be the case for most people. 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!

Photo Credits: Fredella Jessy Surjono, Richelle Gamlam and Shelly So Hee Kim.
Cecilia Haynes

Cecilia is a Third Culture Kid who is currently based in Florida. She hopped on her first plane when she was three months old and has yet to stop flying. She has lived in China, India, the U.S., the Philippines, and Turkey. After saving money by working as an English instructor in Hong Kong for a year, she backpacked around the Tibetan Plateau, western China, and northern India.