If you haven’t figured it out, I’m an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor. In the 21-odd years that I’ve done this, the job has changed a lot. Not in terms of the actual work. I still spend my days going, “This is a cow. Moo. Cow? Come on, you know, MOOOO!?!” But, the status of ESL instruction has changed. It’s been professionalized.
When I started, nobody chose to be an ESL teacher, you fell ass-end backwards into it. We were a merry band of losers, drug addicts, fugitives, degenerates, down on their luck international adventurers, and other assorted unemployables—the scum of earth’s four corners.
I can recall one Canadian who flew to Taiwan with dreams of becoming a gigolo. I met him in my hostel, where the more transient congregated in the evenings to drink. Though handsome enough, I suppose, he had one major problem, he lacked the skills to be a male prostitute in Taiwan. There are bars in Taipei where male prostitutes, or midnight cowboys, as the Taiwanese term them, ply their trade. Unfortunately for him, the midnight cowboy’s job is mostly to act as a host, encouraging women to drink while charming them with elegant Chinese conversation, singing and dancing. Think of a male geisha. He was hoping for more of a wham-bam-put-the-cash-on-the-table-Ma’am type interaction. So, of course, he supported himself as an English teacher while he waited for his man-whoring career to take off.
Another favorite was Pierre who I saw strolling down a beach in South Korea. At that time it was pretty uncommon to meet another foreigner, so I ran up to him hoping to have a conversation. Oh joy! English! Unfortunately, it turned out that Pierre spoke a nearly incomprehensible patois of French and English. He was from Quebec and had fallen on hard times in the economic depression that spread through Canada in the early 1990s. When I asked him what he was doing in Korea he said, as you might have guessed, that he was, “teaching zee Anglais,” in his truly “autrrrageous Franch accent.” At the time I didn’t see anything wrong with it. He needed a job, and who cares if a handful of Koreans ended up speaking English like half-wit Cajuns.
There was a clown car full of colorful characters populating my early days in Asia. They all survived by teaching ESL. No one regarded it as a profession. It was a stop-gap until they could get their lives together. Expat ESL teachers were a counter culture in the truest sense. We were outcasts from our home countries and existed on the peripheries of Taiwanese society, largely ignored by Taiwanese social institutions.
Those days of extreme color are fading. Not long after I started teaching in Taiwan, there began to be a change. More people washed up on Asian shores not because they were running from personal demons, but because they were economic refugees, and they came in droves. Asia is unrecognizable from my early days—there are foreign faces everywhere now.
These new immigrants were a different sort of person. Most of them had one or two degrees. They came because they faced underemployment in their home countries. Without paying any attention to the news, I knew how countries were fairing economically, simply by the people I met at the local watering hole. For the first few years that I was here, all you ever saw were Canadians. When the tech bubble burst, in came the Americans, then South Africans, and Russians, etc. These new teachers had invested a lot in their educations, their futures, and they brought with them a more professional attitude towards and enthusiasm for teaching. People began to think of their jobs as a career.
Some of them eventually went back home and set up professional TEFL (Teaching English as a Second Language) programs in Western universities. When I first heard of such a thing, I thought it was ludicrous. I could not imagine TEFL as a field of study someone would choose. I suppose in my heart ESL instruction will always be something you turn to when you’re down-and-out and running.
But, I have to admit that things have changed, not only for me personally, but also for the ESL teaching community. We have standards now. I now teach at a university. I’m constantly doing professional development. Gone are the days of trying to hustle up one-on-one students on the street, or scrambling from one buxiban (cram school) gig to the next, trying to keep the beer flowing. Most my friends from those early days are either gone—unqualified or unwilling to adapt—or have moved into respectable jobs at universities, international schools, public schools, or as full-time contract buxiban teachers. They now, like me, are constantly doing training, research, publishing, etc. The whole thing is beginning to smell like a profession.
I’m aware as I’ve progressed up the ESL food chain, I’ve naturally fallen out of touch with the more transient members of the ESL community. However, from what I see, it does seem like new arrivals are more trained and qualified. Partly because the Taiwanese ESL market has matured. There is less demand for English instruction, people are no longer being stopped on the street and offered employment simply based on their foreign face. The gold rush is over. Also, the government is paying more attention to foreigners, they have been rationalizing the work visa process. Admittedly, it is a work in progress, but it doesn’t seem like there are as many people here for a decade, or more, on a tourist visa. The attitude of immigration officials used to be, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, you must really love being a tourist here. Indeed, all law enforcement is more willing to deal with foreigners. I used to be able to get out of any petty legal kerfuffle by deluging the cop with a flood of quick-paced, incomprehensible English—not any more.
In general, professionalization has been a good thing. There are standards now. I don’t think Pierre would do well. Somehow I find that sad, like earth’s bountiful tapestry became slightly less rich. Doesn’t it warm your heart to imagine a group of Zydeco Koreans in an international business meeting laying down some Acadian patter? However, those standards also mean there are less stories of some serial pedophile, from whichever country, having been found teaching kindergarten here. That’s good. The counter culture thing was fun, but there is a better chance of integrating into Taiwanese society when your job doesn’t brand you as just slightly above thief, and below gangster. I know that I would have found it difficult to marry if there hadn’t been a professionalization of ESL instructors. Still sometimes I miss the old west feel of being one of just a few foreigners in a country, ignored by local government and law enforcement. Professionalization has brought a certain blandness. I don’t imagine I’ll ever again, as happened on a break from teaching in Thailand, watch as one of my co-workers uses his break time to try to arrange an arms shipment to a tribe of rebels fighting on the Burmese border. Maybe that’s a good thing. But, I miss it.