TEFL and the Politics of Privilege

Disclaimer; Before reading this post you should know I am not purposely trying to make anyone angry or upset. You may not agree or like what I have to say, I may piss you off. You may think I am a liberal communist sympathizing hippie, or a China bashing ignorant American. I just want to get my thoughts out there and see if anyone has any opinion at all on what I think are important matters. Agree or disagree I would love to hear from anyone who cares.

I love Taiwan. I love being in a magical mysterious far eastern world every time I walk out my front door. I love being in an economy where I can easily find a steady job and support myself.

Taiwan spoils me. I make 5 times minimum wage, and I am at the lower end of the TEFL salary spectrum. I work an easy 30 hours a week and make enough to save and pay my bills at the 7-11. There is no pressure for me to learn Chinese, since people just see me as white face and immediately try to use English. People are friendly (overly-nice if anything) are always quick to offer help or advice.

This is the rosy world of TEFL teachers. But there is something dark about my job, something truly unsettling, something that deep down I think every TEFL teacher battles; if it weren’t for hundreds of years of brutal western colonialism, I wouldn’t have a job. I am only here as a white face, an exotic pet for the cram schools to show off. If my skin were any other color I wouldn’t be here. Especially in Asia where culturally pale skin = good and dark skin = bad. But I happen to be born a white native English speaker, therefore in demand, born into privilege. And not just for the TEFL market but in comparison to the rest of the world, yes I am privileged for no reason other than luck of the draw. I was born to a white middle class family, in a middle class neighborhood, in a first world nation, that is like getting dealt a face card in a game of black jack.

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Now how does this fit in with colonialism? Well in this post I am going to try to clearly explain the million thoughts that have been flying through my head after reading “From the Ruins of Empire” by Pankaj Mishra. This book presents the western conquest of the world, mostly Asia and the Middle East, from a pragmatic eastern perspective, from when the first French Ambassadors were turned away by the Egyptian Caliphate with a laugh in the 1700’s, to the the Opium Wars, WWI,II up to the “War on Terror” in 2001.

Coming here made me realize my western education left me entirely ignorant of Eastern history. As I learn a little more each day I start to understand how much I don’t understand about the “other half” of the world. The half I now live in.

In school they taught us the glory of colonialism (except for when the English tried to keep America as a colony, that was just pure evil), how the west brought modernization and civilization to the rest of the world, especially the savage far east and Africa.

Modern education, literacy, rights for women (not rights exactly, just a little less likely to get beaten and raped), abolition of various social caste systems, infrastructure like roads and railways, organized government. All positive things brought about by colonization.

My western education glossed over the ugly parts. Violence, mass killing and rape, pillaging, torture, more violence. Upsetting centuries of culture and tradition in only a few decades. Industrialization destroyed the local artisan, and promoted factories, which in turn created new problems of child labor and environmental decay. Western culture promoted value on things, which spread like a disease that now consumes the east even more than the west where it originated. Western culture promotes the self, which destroyed family and village lifestyles from north Africa to Indonesia who didn’t know how to handle this new western mentality.

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Do I feel bad that I am reaping the benefits of this brutal colonialism years later, yes.

Is it my fault that while the United States was looking for markets to dominate in the 19th century that my relatives had to flee from famine to America, and I am therefore American, no?

Imperialism+Map

I have heard several times in my life “You are an American you have no sense of culture” but I always dismissed it as an arrogant European thing. Until I started learning more about eastern civilization, it is so… ancient. My sense of tradition was rooted in homemade anise cookies and gnocchi at Christmas time and taking shots of Jameson after family funerals. I never really understood what ancient was until coming here and every reason for everything goes back for centuries, there is a whole ghost month because people still actually believe in ghosts! Though TAIWAN IS NOT CHINA. Most of Taiwanese culture was carried over from China with Sun Yet San and the Nationalists when they settled here. So many of the traditions, superstitions, and holidays are the same.

Colonialism did a number on China. A whole nation of people completely used and left for dead after they were no longer useful.

I always thought that China was evil. And yes of course China is Evil, Evil with a capital E. They harvest peoples organs, sell baby girls, and eat monkey brains by the spoonful out of live monkeys (I always thought this was just an Indiana Jones thing, BUT I read about it in Maxine Hong Kingston’s “Warrior Woman” also). However, looking at it from a Chinese historians point of view I almost feel sorry for historical China. The west has forced them into becoming the monster they are today. China was shamelessly exploited by the British, destroyed by the Japanese invasion and massacred by the rise of communism, it is not without these scars that the Evil with the capital “E” has been created.

monkeybrains

China today is scary. It is a Frankenstein with a vengeance. Think about it. We know little of what goes on, they have most of the world’s economy in their pocket, they have the highest population of people in the world. They are planning a mass take over,(starting with Hong Kong and Taiwan), just look at the outrage against China in Vietnam. I am not a fear mongering conspiracy theorist, but I don’t think this is a theory, I think it is going to happen one day, and one day sooner than we think. (I’d like to admit here that I do have a semi-obsession with dystopian story lines, but, I think it’s because most of them are so realistic it is one of the things that I legitimately find scary. Orwell’s “1984” is one of my favorite and the most frightening things I’ve ever read.)

This is where I come back into the picture with my white face and modern day colonialism teaching English. I’m helping China. I’ve feared for a while now that I was just another cog in the machine, but this time it is not the western “The Man” I have been trying to escape my whole life. The feeble old eastern aunty opened her arms to me and I jumped into them for escape. Like many of her children years and years ago that fled to the west, I came to her because I could not find work in my own country, I could not survive among my own people. Now she feeds me out of her own palm in exchange for western secrets of sentence structure, syntax, and Santa Claus. But this aunty isn’t so feeble, sometimes when she thinks no one is looking I can see her for what she really is. Like Eärwen (Nerd alert! LOTR reference!) she stands tall and strong assured of her immortality and that of her children. She will get her revenge on the west, I hope that I am not around to be a part of it.

I feel like I am betraying my people by teaching my native language to others. Not to say that Taiwan would ever be a threat, especially to America, who backed Sun Yet San against China and the communists. I would never, ever, ever, in my entire life even if they offered to pay me a million dollars a month, work in China. Disney English is the biggest cram school chain in China, the epitome of everything in the world that is pure evil, is that partnership. I still feel a sense of betrayal when I meet Americans here that lived in China, like how could you do that to us? But I’m sure everyone has their reasons.

Colonialism and imperialism, what have you, brought about a huge change in world history. Globalization. Since the start it has left millions of problems in it’s wake. In this new globalized world, everything and everyone are connected, it is hard to see what country’s problem ends and where anothers begins. Shared fault and responsibility all one big mess.

A few weeks ago at a meetup event, we were discussing eating locally. It is so important to eat locally, not only for the benefit of local farmers and local economy but the terrible environmental cost of shipping goods to the other side of the planet. I really try my best to only eat what is in season and only buy from the traditional markets. One girl said she wouldn’t buy fruit from 7-11 because they have a deal with farmers in America to only get their fruit from that certain farm cooperation. When she said this she gave me a direct accusing look. As if I had control over my countries exports. I was taken aback, but kept my mouth shut. It got me to thinking…

The great thing about democracy it is supposed to give a voice to everyone. In the American democratic system, an individual can make themselves be heard and truly make a difference…at the local level. In a globalized world that feeds technological opiates and consumer induced apathetic comas, is a democracy then really the best system? Where you can make a change at the local level (very slowly, with years of servitude and hard work), but there is so much more concern and importance placed on the bigger picture.

In a country like China communism may be necessity just because of its dense population size. The only way to look out for a group of people that big is to force them into a herd mentality and treat them as one faceless entity. Do I agree with it? No way! Do I kind of understand the good intent behind the original implementation of it? Maybe (just maybe).

So democracy and communism both are failing. Totalitarian and military dictatorships don’t work. So what do we have? What do we need?

In conclusion I hope I got across at least a few points;

  1. Colonialism was not good, not purely evil, but brought some good and a lot of bad and left a whole big mess behind it.
  2. Should I feel guilty for being privileged?
  3. China should be feared.
  4. Materialism is destroying mankind.
  5. I am terrified of the future.

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7 thoughts on “TEFL and the Politics of Privilege

  1. I’m glad that you’re exploring this topic. I often wonder if TEFL teachers in Taiwan understand that they are a privileged part of Taiwanese society, especially when it comes to economics. Items may be cheap when converted to American dollars, but that is using the American sense of money, not based on Taiwanese finances.

    But, I would really take care to learn about Taiwan. “Most of Taiwanese culture was carried over from China with Sun Yet San and the Nationalists when they settled here” is not accurate. Most of Taiwanese culture was brought over from China during the 1600s. These immigrants brought the languages we now know as Taiwanese and Hakka. They also built the oldest temples currently on Taiwan. The Nationalists may have brought over items that are now in the National Palace Museum, but the culture had been in Taiwan for centuries before that.

    • Hey yt,
      Thanks for the correction, I have to admit I am still trying to learn the complicated history of Taiwan and it’s present day relationship with China!
      And yes I really do feel privileged here in Taiwan and I try not to take it for granted. I hope that learning Chinese will help me feel like more of a contributor to Taiwan and not just a colonial!

  2. Randomly found your blog today, hope you don’t mind if I comment 🙂

    I struggled with some of these issues while teaching ESL in Thailand and Burma. Still do, actually. I wrote a lot of posts, especially in Burma, about feeling guilty for being born with the “advantage.” Keep thinking about these things; its nice to see ESL teachers being reflective because so many aren’t. And remember the children you teach are just children, and you can really be a positive influence for them despite all the meta-issues surrounding their education 🙂

    • Hey Alyssa,

      Thanks for the comment! I am glad to know that I’m not the only one who has thought about these things while teaching abroad. How was Burma, I am definitely going to check out your blog!

  3. Coco,

    A few comments I have in no particular order:

    -You are very good at taking note of peoples/country’s downfalls and all the evils of today. Please don’t forget about all the great things fellow humans have done and can do.
    -You are such a gifted writer. omg.
    -(ref. your #2) You should not feel guilty at all. Feeling grateful is sufficient. Like you said, it’s the luck of the draw. You have many many many many (x a million) reasons to be proud of who you are and where you come from.
    -That last picture is my favorite.
    -I love you.

    That is all!!!! TTYL

  4. I’m a little bit disappointed with the direction this post took. I am considering becoming TEFL certified and I have been wrestling with my conscience. Not about betraying my “people” as you put it, but rather, furthering the destructive path whiteness and colonialism has already taken on so many civilizations. Perhaps I have a different viewpoint as a poc.

    • Hi there,
      Thanks for the input!
      I am not sure I conveyed this feeling completely in the post, but I do touch upon feelings of guilt for being born into a position of advantage. Being born into a position of privilege is something it is hard not to feel guilty for. I think all westerners abroad in post colonial countries struggle with this. It is a part of TEFL that one has to come to terms with, that you are not part of some neocolonial institute.
      It is a touchy subject that can be argued for both sides. This is where it is important to find a particular job that is not of the cramschool kid factory variety (the one I was working when I wrote this post), but a job that treats English as a foreign language as we would learn French or Spanish in high school (like the job I have now).
      I am not sure what you mean by “poc”, but “whiteness” and “colonialism” have indeed been destructive in our relatively recent history. I can’t do anything about being born a middle class white U.S citizen, other than make sure I don’t use that privilege to hurt or disadvantage others. If my TEFL career ever got to the point where it made me feel as though I was hurting someone or putting someone else at a disadvantage I would not hesitate to quit.
      I hope this cleared things up!

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