As someone who has lived in and taught in several Asian countries, namely China, Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, India, and now, Turkey, I am often asked by Westerners who want to break into ESL teaching, “What do I need to know if I want to teach English in Asia?”
Having endured everything on my way to paradise, from wild bouts of culture shock to the wrath of mafia bosses, I have produced several practical suggestions.
Pre-Departure Tips: Choosing a Country
This is perhaps the most crucial part of the planning process – it can make or break your teaching and living experience. While asking your future employer questions, you must also make several inquiries into yourself.
For those with their eye on a job in a third world country, it helps to be realistic about what living conditions you are able to tolerate. If residing in a place where things don’t always work would have you running off stage screaming, then living in a developing region is probably not your best choice. Hot water, heating, and washing machines are not always available in these areas, and neither is comfort, although for me, the feeling of being on an adventure always makes up for it.
Keep in mind that in many Asian countries, most communication is indirect. In many places, emotions such as anger, sadness, and frustration are not openly expressed, and are seen to cause embarrassment to one’s self and others if they are aired openly. For a Westerner, communicating under these circumstances can be extremely challenging. If you are an expressive person, choosing an Asian city where people interact a lot with foreigners, or a Mediterranean country, such as Turkey, may be most satisfying for you.
Certainly, there is a great variation in how people are everywhere, but in my experience, in most of Asia, this is how communication functions. Remember that while we can change ourselves, we can never change others, or an entire Eastern culture, which has spent thousands of years building itself on respect for those in positions of authority.
Finding a Job in Asia
The most essential step for the soon-to-be English teacher is to ask as many questions as possible, and to resist accepting the job and buying the plane ticket until they are answered satisfactorily. You should also have some teaching qualifications, as a bare minimum, a TESOL or DELTA certificate, and in Korea and Taiwan, a university degree in any subject.
Be sure to watch out for “desperation vibes” – a needy tone given out by schools with high turnover rates that promise the moon and the stars, and are likely to give you neither. For example, if you send a prospective employer an email, without any questions being asked of you, and the person writes back, “You’re hired!” common sense should dictate that this is not a good school to work for.
Check the teacher testimonials on ESL job websites. If twenty teachers have written that it is not a good place to work, then one can assume that they’re right.
Don’t hesitate to ask for detailed descriptions of work hours, scheduling, benefits, and compensation, and carefully review the contract before signing. Should the company violate the contract on several counts after you get to your job, and you have done everything possible to peacefully try and rectify the situation, you can always pull what English teachers refer to as “a midnight run” (leaving unannounced in the middle of the night), but this is never a teacher’s first choice, and it should be avoided at all costs.
If you get a bad feeling from a school at the outset, trust that instinct and move on to better prospects. While a great many employers in Asia are wonderful, some, as in any country, are not. Do your homework to help avoid negative situations.
In For The Long Haul: How to Make the Most of a Long-term Stay
After you have arrived at your new placement, you may be going through anything from minor, to major, culture shock. Asia is, in many places, highly populated, and very different culturally. Some Westerners find it difficult to fit into the social fabric of the society and to interact with local people. Westerners may also find products from home difficult to find. Even a trip to the grocery store can seem deeply overwhelming when you can’t read any of the signs, don’t know where to look for what you want, and can’t ask for things in English.
Finding a language exchange partner is a great way to get to know and help a local person, who will in turn, assist you in your cultural adjustment. There will be scores of local people, some of them your students, who will be lined up to trade languages with you. It will save them money, and is likely to enrich your life abroad.
While talking to locals may seem intimidating at first, particularly in that communication is sometimes a struggle, a few minutes of silence is no big deal, as are the small misunderstandings that sometimes come up in this type of relationship.
In addition, the local staff at your school can usually be of help, and most will enthusiastically welcome your questions and concerns. Try to get to know them, and avoid joining “The Expat Club”, an unofficial organization in which foreigners who come to experience life in another country tend to do just the opposite, only hanging around with themselves. While it’s great to become friends with other Westerners, this shouldn’t be the only form of social interaction you have.
Finally, enjoy your stay. Try to embrace the differences you share with other people. Though you may find things to criticize about your new country, try to maintain a positive, respectful and proactive attitude. Living and working in Asia can be a magnificent experience. While it is not without its difficulties, it has been a rewarding and enlightening journey for me, and one that has lasted five consecutive years so far.
Feel free to consult some of the websites below for teaching jobs and other teaching resources:
www.ajarn.com (Thai teaching site)
www.tealit.com (Taiwanese teaching site)
www.eslcafe.com (for teaching jobs all over the world)
Many people choose to go with a recruiter (one I have gone with is Footprints at www.footprintsrecruiting.com) to arrange their teaching placement for them. It’s sometimes helpful for a recruiter to negotiate their job and other details with the school, to avoid misunderstandings and disasters with disreputable teaching companies in the future.