Imperialism in the 21st Century

Today I am going to be covering a topic I have struggled with since deciding I wanted to be an ESL teacher while earning my undergraduate degree. Let me first digress into some personal history…

At the age of 19 I decided that I wanted to pursue a bachelors degree in English Literature, young and idealistic, I wanted to be the voice of change for my generation through the written word, and earnestly believed it could be done (there is importance in being Earnest). As friends followed more “practical” paths, I refused, I didn’t want to be another cog in The MAN’S machine. Senior year quickly approached and I saw my friends selling theirs souls for 9-5’s quickly after graduation and resented them for it, how could you allow yourself to just become another societal slave? I wanted something different, something more, something greater. Teaching English in a foreign country seemed the only logical conclusion. The times in life I have felt truly at peace with myself were while traveling and my options with my (recently realized pretty much useless) B.A in English Lit were limited. There is nothing in the world that could sway me the way of most recent graduates of my profession and selling out to a media conglomerate. Journalists are the scum of the earth, language abusers, I could see no worse fate. So, teaching English as a foreign language became the path I set out on.

A trying two years after undergraduate graduation, I find myself here; living in Taiwan, in my single apartment, Sunday night on the couch staring at my bamboo plant juxtaposed awkwardly next to my Christmas tree, reflecting.

The issue: is teaching English in a foreign country an imperialistic act?

A great supplementary article: http://matadornetwork.com/abroad/how-to-teach-english-abroad-and-not-be-a-neocolonialist/

This is a loaded question, and not the only one that arises on this topic. As a teacher where is my place in all this? And more importantly as an individual how do I feel about it?

When I first arrived, I joked with friends and family back home that I get paid for being white and talking at kids in English. Most days, I feel like that’s not far off from the truth. My school is a private cram school. That means that parents pay a lot of money to have their children attend after their regular school hours. After a full (or half day for first and second grade) day of school kids come to us to have their brains crammed with English. Not every kid gets to attend English school, in fact most do not. It is only for those who are privileged enough to afford it. Here English fluency is a sign of affluence.

There are a lot of smart successful Taiwanese that do not speak English fluently, or at all, but most regard it as a path to success. Creating another rift in the “have” and “have nots” (the income gap isn’t as great here as in the U.S but is still present). Does this bother me? Of course, but I can’t work for free.

We have an English only policy. That means the students are not allowed to speak Chinese at any point during class. It forces students to use their English even when they feel uncomfortable, forcing learning.For the younger students, sometimes it is necessary for the Chinese teachers to interpret.

This I do not like for several reasons. The first is because it makes it really hard for me to practice and learn Chinese! The little I do know I am not allowed to use to help explain. When it comes to abstract words it makes learning particularly difficult. If a student knows how to explain it to a classmate so they will understand the concept in English they are not allowed to do so. This also renders some students mute for entire class periods because they do not understand and do not know how to ask or are not comfortable with their English.

My School is called Principal American School. So not only is it and English language school but parts of American culture are taught as well. Currently, school is covered in Christmas decorations, (as is every department store, grocery market, and 7-11) and the kids are learning a different Christmas carol every week. I asked one of my older classes (5th graders) what Christmas is; all the answers I got included Santa Claus and presents. It makes me sad that this is the part of the culture that has transferred over, the greedy consumerist part. There were some activities for the Moon Festival, and will be some for Chinese New Year, I hope, but for the most part our two big holidays this semester were Halloween and Christmas. I didn’t come with thoughts of spreading western ideals and western culture, and yet I feel like I am. At my school I strongly feel that Taiwanese culture and traditions are overlooked by students and teachers alike. I’m not promoting one over another but I feel like more of a balance should be found.

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I took a lot of poetry classes near the end of my college career, it caused me to look at language extremely carefully. Language is often times connected with identity, especially cultural identity. From my experience teaching refugees in the past, I think one of the hardest barriers to learning a new language is the fear of losing one’s sense of self. Using sounds and tones that are foreign to your tongue, and to hear it with your own ears, coming, out of your own mouth, is a strange sensation of self betrayal.

Living here and not speaking Chinese fluently makes me feel like an oppressor. When I enter someones territory and force them out of their comfort zone to use my language, does not feel right to me. I am a violator of cultural identity, and I am not O.K with that. But here I am, bluntly protruding my English into a Chinese speaking world.

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After getting some thoughts out, I am still left with mixed feelings; am I really pursuing the alternative lifestyle I wanted? Or have I just wound up a cog in a greater machine?

3 thoughts on “Imperialism in the 21st Century

  1. Colleen – it’s me Mrs. Girven, aka Lynn, I so enjoy reading your blog. You are remarkable and your experiences are extrordinary. I am so pleased your mom gave me the blog address. Your insight and compassion towards your students and the country are powerful. You are a fine writer. I am also so sorry about your friend dying this past fall. LIfe is rarely fair. Thank you for sharing your experiences! Don and I look forward to seeing you when you come home.

    Love you honey!

    • This is a really interesting perspective, and one that I have definitely thought about, especially after volunteering in Cape Town a few summers ago. I think in certain situations, you’re right–it’s better to find someone internally within a population who understands the culture to work with their own people to develop skills. Second best I think would be to bring in a foreign individual to work with a population, and then hand over responsibility as quickly as possible (I think Bush missed this memo). I think you’re in a completely different situation. It seems as though your students actually want to learn about American culture and English, so I think you’re providing a valuable service that could potentially help them in their future careers. I agree it would be better if it was more accessible to all, but at least you know that your students (or at least their parents) are there because they want to be–you’re not just some white person forcing them to conform to “better” American ways of doing things. I think it’s awesome.

      On another note, your blog is GREAT and I just spent way more time than I want to admit scrolling through your posts. I am also thinking about doing some traveling in Asia in August, but this is so tentative I almost didn’t even want to put it in writing haha. I’ll definitely talk to you and Trae more about this. Thinking of you!

      • Thanks Kitty!

        It’s really nice to get someone else’s perspective on this. I really do think about it a lot, especially when my students wear American Flag shirts and stuff to school, it just makes me feel guilty almost. As an English teacher it’s not that I try to press my own opinions or anything on the kids, but just kind of my presence is a reinforcement of the idea that English is more valuable than Chinese and therefore better somehow. Idk it is a slightly uncomfortable experience at times.

        If you decide to come let me know!! I have summer break in August!

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