Foreign English Teachers as Economic Migrants

The bushiban along with its Korean and Japanese counterparts have always been available as forms of education. There were entrance exam preparation schools in the Meiji Period. There were foreign teachers teaching in these schools even back then. But they were not a form of mass education, as they are today. How did this come about?

In a posting on the foreign teacher as traditional education, I described how I believe that their use makes some sort of cultural sense to Asians. It is beyond me to explain why that would be the case, but the permanence and stability of the use of foreign teachers as language instructors, even in the face of government censor seems to point to some extremely powerful source for the demand. But this is only half the story of how foreign teachers could become mass education. The flip side of this is the supply. Where have all these foreigners come from? And more significantly, why?

The rise of affluence and democracy that Asians experienced beginning in the 1980’s coincided with a downturn in the employment of certain types of university graduates in the Anglo-American, English-speaking world. Beginning at this time, it became extremely difficult for liberal arts graduates to find work. The market that had always existed for foreign teachers of language suddenly had a huge supply of teachers. The flow of liberal arts graduates gradually became so great that even the vast markets of Japan and South Korea were not large enough to employ them all.

The suggestion that foreign teachers of language are fundamentally economic migrants seems to be very disturbing to many foreign English teachers. When confronted with this suggestion, almost no one will admit that they are teaching in Asia for economic reasons. Reasons I am frequently told when discussing this topic include a desire for adventure, interest in Asia, or romantic companionship. None of these are the reasons I have told when interviewing foreign teachers about the details of their lives before teaching English. I have also posted questions on major Internet bulletin boards asking this question. Under such circumstances, I have never been told anything other than economic reasons.

This is not to say that the foreign teachers I interviewed were unemployed before they came to Asia. This is also not true. While I have not interviewed the youngest teachers working here, the teachers I spoke to were all working, but indicated that they felt either underemployed or that advancement was blocked for either personal or market reasons.

The significance of this is that very few individuals who end up teaching English ever thought of themselves as educators or even of becoming an educator. This is particularly important in understanding the situation in Taiwan and South Korea where the vast majority of work involves working with young learners. I have met very few foreign teachers of language who had anything to do with young children before they became language educators in Asia. In fact, the large number of males working with young learners here stands in sharp contrast with the demographics of young child educators in North America and Europe.

March 24, 2004 in English Teachers as Migrants | Permalink

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I would like to talk about myself and the reasons I came to Asia. But first my observations are in total agreement with what you have written. Which leads me to conclude that an awful lot of teachers are deluding themselves about why they are here as well as why the continue to remain despite the many “horror” stories of mistreatment and lack of payment or breaches of contract.

I came to Asia to fulfil an ambition to get more than book knowledge about Asian culture. My degree is Asian Studies and I felt that book knowledge was insufficient compared to actual experience. I did however get sidetracked, when I moved to Vancouver, with a pretty good job and the need to maintain my student loan payments. However I ended up being irrevocably “promoted” to a position I did not enjoy and was forced to resign from the company. At that time I made plans to go to Singapore but ultimately ended up in Korea where I have been ever since.

I guess part of the reason I am here is economic, it would’ve been very difficult to find a good job quickly without defaulting on my loans. So I came back to the original plan of living and travelling in Asia. I figured I could teach to support myself while I decided what I wanted to do for a living. However I discovered I love teaching (not kids: they are the devils spawn but I did for 1 year anyhow) and had a knack for it. Since my first month I have been reading books on teaching theory and practice and have finally gotten around to doing my Masters in Applied Linguistics (TESOL).

While in Korea, I found a career and love (wife and child), otherwise I would not remain here. If I did not enjoy what I do I could not live here for seven years. I do think that most long-term English teaching ex-pats have found a niche for themselves and enjoy teaching. If you do not enjoy it, how could you possibly stay longer than one contract at most two.

There are definitely a lot of cowboys teaching and if you ever read Dave’s cafe you will know who they are by the way they talk about their life and teaching in general. We all know there are crap jobs, but if you have the right attitude and try hard you can be the cream on the top of the cup and not the coffee ground at the bottom.

I’m sorry, this post has sort of rambled a little off-topic but I wanted to share.

Posted by: Blinger | March 24, 2004 at 17:09

Spot-on article.

I completely agree with your premise – working here (Japan, Korea or Taiwan) is an economic decision. Yes, there are many secondary reasons to teach in Asia (asian women being #1). More socially-acceptable reasons abound (foreign culture, gain a world-view, and so forth) – but they are all secondary justifications.

I came to Japan because the job situation in the USA was/is poor. I’m 32 and luckily I had/have enough maturity to deal with the many issues that the younger teachers found to be major problems. Almost all of the ‘problems’ associated with living in Asia are variants of the same problem back home. But the problems in Asia are writ large by the young worker’s assumption that the job/life-style would be almost effort-free.

The secondary reasons to live in Asia only apply after the first test is passed: “Can I live in Asia with an adequate life-style?” And compared to the USA right now – the answer is yes.

Posted by: Scott | March 26, 2004 at 23:09

Two years ago, while working on my Masters degree in Counseling in Florida, I met a wonderful man from Taiwan and we got married. After graduation, I came to Taiwan to join him (only temporarily), that was almost two years ago. Still in Taiwan and will probably be here for the next 3-4 years (his military obligations prevents us from going back to Hawaii) and then return to Hawaii to begin our new life.
My military career allowed me the opportunity to travel all over the world, including South Korea, Middle East and the Philippines; I have never had the problems I’m now experiencing in Taiwan. I just cannot pathom how foreign people (who are familiar with a much more organized society) can live here for any lenght of time! Sure, jobs in the U.S. are sometimes tough (depends on where you are and your qualifications) but at least you have rights. As an American (human being for that matter), I must have the basic necessities in life met(e.g., clean air and basic human rights)to be happy. I have never been anywhere where a man can openly chastise (yelling in public and finger pointing) a woman without knowing who she is–seem to be a norm among Taiwanese people. As far as for economic reasons, $15.00 per hour @ 20 hours per week will definitely not make me a rich person. Even if you work for a public university making NT70,000 per month, that equals to only $2,000 per month in the U.S.–that’s about how much I made every two weeks sans benefits.
Many people come to Taiwan for many reasons and I respect that; however, if you come here thinking you will make tons of money, I’d say, think again.

Posted by: Liza Li | March 27, 2004 at 11:30

While I appreciate everyone’s comments and contribution to this discussion, I would like to steer it away from personal testimony. What I mean by the term ‘economic migration’ is perhaps not as clear for others as it is for me. Let’s take a break on this one until my next posting this week, which is aimed at clarifying what I mean.

Thanks for input.

Scott Sommers.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | March 28, 2004 at 19:48


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