The Ugly Truth About Teaching English Abroad: Fighting Discrimination Against Minorities

Whoever invented the word ‘Minority’ is getting into my nerves. I thought a lot about this: “Will I put this awful word in the title of this blog post?” I was called one, a lot of times and never did I back down. “Excuse me? Who are you calling minority?” 

I come from a continent where English As a Second Language (ESL) is another world. With its popularity, it can pass to be called a different Universe. ESL is so big in Asia that it’s today’s most popular destination for teaching English abroad.

However, in the Philippines, we don’t have those. Filipinos’ medium of instruction in school is English and we pretty much grew up speaking a lot of English. I remember when I first went to Italy to study, “how can people study math in Italian? It’s pretty difficult.” I thought. I grew up believing that every school in the world instructs in English. But that is not the case. The American colonization in the Philippines is a long story — and we all know about that. Bottom line, we speak English.

Last year, Amy Chavez, a contributor of the Huffington Post wrote that the Philippines have mastered English as a means of communication and just not as a subject in school. The whole country starts learning English at a very young age and uses it in practice. Billboards in Manila are all in English; TV shows are in English; even news are reported in English! The exposure of Filipinos to English outside the classroom is one of the reasons for the success of the country’s English learning tactics.

Every year, the Philippines produces 500,000 college graduates who are all fluent in English. With this, the country’s BPO increased as more and more companies abroad are building call center agencies within the country. Most American clients prefer Filipinos to attend to their needs because of their easy adaptation with the American accent.

Today, it is being debated if the Philippines should be included in the official list of native English speakers in the world.

 

When I first applied in China as an English teacher…

I applied online and  had to finish a lot of paperworks, submit all the legal documents needed and in the end, I didn’t get a response. Why? Because I put Philippines as my country.

I tried again. This time, I put The Netherlands as my home country. Within 24 hours, I received a response and they scheduled a Skype interview. It was the most horrible job interview of my life — as soon as they saw that I am too Asian on camera, they automatically said no. Having taught English in Japan, my accent and teaching records passed however, they emphasised that they need “native” English speakers. Meaning, someone “white.”

 

Let’s take a moment to stop and reflect: What do we really mean when we say “native” English speakers?

The United Kingdom government listed the following countries as majority native English speaking:

[columns_row width=”third”]
[column]Antigua and Barbuda
Australia
The Bahamas
Barbados
Belize
Canada[/column]
[column]Dominica
Grenada
Guyana
Ireland
Jamaica
New Zealand[/column]
[column]St Kitts and Nevis
St Lucia
St Vincent and the Grenadines
Trinidad and Tobago
United Kingdom
United States of America[/column]
[/columns_row]

I wouldn’t even consider Australia or Canada as native English speakers. A lot of Australians are struggling to use the proper English because of their slangs. Can you believe I had 2 Australian students last year who wanted to take an English proficiency exam? Yes, I taught those ‘natives’ to prepare for their International exam and score an English teaching job in South America.

On the other hand, French is also an official language in Canada. During my travels, I never met anyone from Quebec or Montreal who speaks fluent English.

However, I am still learning and I respect the official list. I just need to understand why I wouldn’t be eligible to teach English abroad while a Dutch, French, German, Polish, Slovak, et al, can, just because they are white.

 

Say No To Racism

White people are like celebrities in Asia. Whenever an American walks in the streets, everyone would look and even take pictures of them. In most parts of the continent, hiring is based on physical attributes because parents won’t enrol their kids to an English Learning Centre if a teacher is Asian. The strength of the teacher is based on hair colour, height and skin colour because they think these teachers are more credible than the rest. Asian parents are very much concerned about their children’s learning environment which pushes companies to hire more ‘white’ people. Some can even get away with not having a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificate! As long as you’re ‘white,’ you’re hired!

Bullcrap. I’ve met a lot of Malaysians, Singaporeans, Vietnamese and Indians who are more fluent than any Europeans, Australians or Canadians I met.

I think it’s the same case all over the world. In Peru, I had to pretend that I have an Australian boyfriend just to score a teaching job. Of course, I didn’t push through. I will never put myself in a situation where I have to identify my individuality with another person, let alone a man.

In Brasil, despite my stellar profile in teaching English abroad, my ex-boyfriend (a Mexican but looks like an American) who is new to teaching got accepted and it was his first teaching rodeo. The Japanese immigrants in Brasil is huge and the employer thought I am a Japanese-Brasilian and wouldn’t be qualified to teach. I kept explaining I am from the Philippines and he still ignored it. I am deeply staggered by the fact that the employer was only interested in talking to my ex boyfriend and totally ignored me while looking at my impressive teaching resume.

I am almost giving up on teaching English abroad to finance my travel because I would never want to argue about my capacity as a human being, as an Asian and as an English teacher. I am good at what I do and you are too! I encourage you to join me in fighting discrimination against Asians teaching English abroad.


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Trisha is one of those people who left their comfortable life to travel the world and learn about life. Her style is to stay in one place she likes for 3 months (or more) to know what it feels like to eat, cook, speak and sleep in another culture that isn’t hers. She'd like to believe she's not traditionally traveling but she just chooses to be somewhere else all the time. Trisha is an ambassador of Girl Rising, a global movement for girls' education and empowerment. In no particular order, her favourite cities in the world are Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong and Tel Aviv. Follow her life adventures on Instagram: @psimonmyway

Comments

  • June 26, 2015

    This is why I am very hesitant to pursue a TEFL certificate. :/

    reply
    • Frantzie
      August 31, 2016

      I wouldn’t encourage you to pursue a TEFL certificate unless you’re in your 20s and returning to America after your travels to pursue a career. You’ll find that TEFL certificate and teaching abroad experience is worthless upon your return to America. You’ll have to sell it (hard) to a prospective employer on your return home. I encourage younger people 2-3 years maximum teaching English and make sure you’re gaining a skill during your travels aside from teaching English. If you’re considering teaching English over 30 and established in your career, ask your employer about working remotely part-time or take a sabbatical. Those were the only ways that I saw it work. Everything Trisha wrote is what I experienced and observed in Asia. I’d never go back to teach English ever again. I think there are much better ways to fund your travels. Get creative is something I would tell my younger self looking back, but not teaching English.

      reply
  • billy
    June 26, 2015

    I just recently moved back to Manila after living in Rio De Janeiro for 6 years. Although I never taught English, being a Currency Trader in Rio, I have a very good Filipina friend teaching English in one of the top schools in Brasil. She did however take her high school and university in San Francisco in the US, and so speaks with a Californian accent. But from what she tells me, she never encountered any problems with hiring preferences in Brasil. I guess because of her American ‘twang’, they considered her a native speaker. Brasilieros are mostly color blind in these situations. And I definitely can’t say the same thing for our fellow Asians who can be very prejudiced at times.

    reply
  • Psylocke
    June 26, 2015

    “In Brasil, despite my stellar profile in teaching English abroad, my ex-boyfriend (a Mexican but looks like an American) who is new to teaching got accepted and it was his first teaching rodeo. The Japanese immigrants in Brasil is huge and the employer thought I am a Japanese-Brasilian and wouldn’t be qualified to teach. I kept explaining I am from the Philippines and he still ignored it. I am deeply staggered by the fact that the employer was only interested in talking to my ex boyfriend and totally ignored me while looking at my impressive teaching resume.

    I am almost giving up on teaching English abroad to finance my travel because I would never want to argue about my capacity as a human being, as an Asian and as an English teacher. I am good at what I do and you are too! I encourage you to join me in fighting discrimination against Asians teaching English abroad.”

    That’s because you don’t have to. You already know your worth in terms of what you can do and who you are in the process. But arguing, and comparing yourself to others, will only lead to lowering that or further degrading the value you possess.

    I’m not an English teacher, but I’m familiar with what it’s like to have clients and getting a client to get you for a skill or a form of service they’re in need of that you know you can deliver. In your case, and this coming from the experiences of many of my friends who teach English abroad, I don’t think it’s something to do with racism all the time, it’s just more of the personal preference of the person. Rejection is a bitch, but it’s also a fact in life.

    Also, what the list refers to as “native” English speakers, I don’t think they refer to “white” people right away. I mean, the list includes Caribbean countries and many, if not all, of its people are people of colour—some almost the same or similar to Asians.

    I know a Filipina (of American citizenship) who teaches English to high school students in Madrid and not a single day since when she started teaching did she get any slack that she’s not qualified to teach because she wasn’t white. My niece who studies in an international school in Abu Dhabi has a Filipina teacher who teaches her class (comprised of Indians, Arabians and many different nationalities) English and not a single parent complained or requested that she be changed because they saw how their kids were comfortable with her and are endeared by her. A bunch of my friends from high school are making careers as English teachers/instructors in Japan (one of the highest forms of profession in that country) from kids at schools to adults in big corporations. And recently, a friend of a friend whom I just met in Bangkok apparently has been teaching English there for quite some time already.

    I think we throw the term “racism” frequently these days without really grasping fully its definition and its occurrence. With every rejection or form of criticism comes an opportunity to rise above it, brush it off and take the steps to further improving yourself and your craft. And you have become a pro at it since you moved to South America. Losing one student or client doesn’t mean you’ve lost the whole continent or the whole world for that matter. 😉

    reply
  • June 26, 2015

    Just to give you the heads up it’s not just in Asia… where i work now in Saudi Arabia it’s exactly the same. Being white is the key to a job. I’ve seen American with a BA in whatever (not English or Education related) get offered a job while a North African (dark skinned) with double nationality (from the UK), with an MA in English, a postgrad diploma in TEFL, more than 20 years of experience and perfect English can’t find a decent job here.
    One day those countries will suffer…. the next generation won’t have the level to power the country. I’ve seen it in Libya where i also worked, the current work force is all foreign as Libyans have tons of degrees but no skills! What goes around comes around… just you wait

    reply
  • July 13, 2015

    Hi Trisha,

    I enjoyed reading this. I love your authenticity, really taking this issue with all honesty and without sugar coating.

    A few months ago, I was planning to resign from my job. I was not happy anymore. I’ve had enough doing sales and gave notice to my boss of my imminent resignation.

    One of my plans at that time was to take certifications and probably teach English while traveling. Sabi ko bahala na. I made that decision because a lot of my friends are taking certifications. It was like a fad. People are thinking that it is just easy to do it. Well, taking the certification is definitely different from the real world that we all gonna face out there.

    I mean this doesn’t mean that Pinoys should be afraid of reaching their teaching goals or back out. But this is a good reality check that It’s a tough world out there and you have to be prepared and be tough enough when you decide to push through.

    I was one of them. I wasn’t prepared. Makikiuso lang dapat ako LOL! Good thing pinigilan ako ng management namin to resign and even offered me a better position. I am still lucky hehe Now I consider myself as still a corporate worker who blogs and travels.

    In reality all of my friends who took the certifications are also having difficulty getting a teaching job in SEA. Some even resorted to teaching in a local English teaching school sa Manila muna.

    Thank you for this post and I think everyone who plans to teach abroad should read this, for them to assess if they are ready and tough enough to go ahead.

    Regards,
    Jon

    reply
  • September 9, 2015

    Hey,

    I found this article really interesting and informative as someone who is looking into potentially teach English in the near future. I would however like to point out that even though Canada does have two official languages, English is by far more widely spoken. Yes it is true that those from the province of Quebec identity French as their native tongue, and I will not argue the fact that most of them cannot speak English properly, but the majority of Canada identifies with English. In fact for more of the western provinces like BC or Alberta it would be almost more wise for us to learn languages like Spanish or Mandarin over French as a second language.

    reply
  • James
    May 1, 2016

    Pretty biased view in my opinion. While I agree that there is a preference in schools for white teachers, the much larger preference is for American, Canadian, UK, etc. citizens. This preference is pretty easy to understand; that’s where native English speakers come from. Sure people from India or the Phillipines might speak pretty decent English but A. why take that chance as an employer? and B. Most of them still make errors that native speakers never make. Knowing more about English grammar or rules doesn’t make you a native speaker. Speaking fluently without any mistakes in sentence contuction and without it requiring significant forethought is what labels one a native speaker.

    reply
    • James
      March 22, 2018

      There’s also the issue of foreign accents. Clients want an American accent. FIlipinos do speak excellent English, but most people from the Philippines have a a Filipino accent, including those who have lived for years in the US.

      reply
  • Miss C.
    May 28, 2016

    You are correct. Those who think it’s not about race are operating from privilege’s vantage point

    reply
  • Lin
    August 5, 2016

    I’m interested in getting a TEFL certification as soon as I finish university. But the thing is, I’ve lived my whole life in The Netherlands – among “white” people (ew I hate using that phrase) – but my motherland is China (I’ve been adopted when I was a few months) so I have a Chinese appearance. Do you think this will be a disadvantage if I’m going to apply for a TEFL job in China?

    I honestly love your blog, even though I only found it today!

    reply
  • Ian Geron
    March 27, 2017

    Hello Trisha – I am currently working as a Comms Trainer in a BPO here in Manila for over 2 years now. I am planning to take TEFL to enhance my skills but I am having a second thought coz I dont have a degree.

    reply
  • Ian Gerona
    March 27, 2017

    Hello Trisha – I am currently working as a Comms Trainer in a BPO here in Manila for over 2 years now. I am planning to take TEFL to enhance my skills but I am having a second thought coz I dont have a degree.

    reply
  • Lee V.
    March 29, 2017

    Hi Trisha, thanks so much for this post. I’m currently working on teaching in Korea, but I know my chances aren’t as high because I’m Asian American. My recuiter even told me that. It’s really heartbreaking that my appearances will define my offered skill set, but even so, I’ll still try.

    reply
  • Gret
    May 26, 2018

    I feel you. I have been in the same situation, too. But after getting a terminal degree from one of the top 3 universities in Japan, I got a job in a university here. We have people from native speaking countries, too, teaching EAP classes. My Japanese colleagues think the native speakers are better teachers, but students flock to my classes. 🙂 The students told me the content of the native speakers’ lessons seemed not academic. They just give ‘hollow’ lectures which make learners feel frustrated. I think it’s because they are asked to teach classes which they’re not qualified to teach. Teaching research is different from teaching an ordinary English class. If you don’t have a graduate degree in an appropriate field, research is a difficult class to teach. However, many Japanese people in universities think that native speakers, even if they’re just MA degree holders in ESL can teach research in graduate schools. Sometimes I do get frustrated because it’s difficult to undo the errors that they impart to students.

    reply
  • Sean
    September 5, 2018

    “I just need to understand why I wouldn’t be eligible to teach English abroad while a Dutch, French, German, Polish, Slovak, et al, can, just because they are white.”

    Huh? None of those countries are on the majority native English speaker list either, so those white people would have trouble teaching English (say, in Japan) as well. And I would understand why somebody might be wary of a Filipina English teacher. Many of them are obsessed with American pop culture, but a lot of them exaggerate how much English they do actually know and when they do speak English their accents are very thick. Anyone who’s Filipino-American has at least some relatives who can’t pronounce the “v” sound or the “th” sound (which are both common in the English language) and I have some Filipino relatives who have been living in the United States for DECADES and their English grammar is absolutely terrible. My mom actually got upset when I implied that a lot of them don’t know English, so I told her that if somebody goes around saying, “I know English,” people will assume they’re FLUENT. She just said, “Oh, well I meant they all know beginning English.” Knowing beginning English is not worth announcing to anybody. I could call myself a BEGINNING Mandarin student and not know a single word of Mandarin. I would never brag to anybody that I know Mandarin if I was only a beginning Mandarin student.

    reply
    • Adrian M
      October 11, 2018

      Then you must not realize there are quite a bit of European-looking people who do not speak neutrally accented English and are hired, say, in China as an English waijiao….

      reply
  • Jack
    October 24, 2018

    This is unfortunate, and yes it happens, we all hear about in the “teaching English abroad” community. However, I will say two things. First of all, I think using teaching to fund travel isn’t always a good idea. It’s a demanding job that will keep you in one place and not pay well. You’re better off saving as much money as you can at home, and then going to travel. Second, it depends where you’re applying, on both the school and the country. You were applying in China, to begin, which doesn’t surprise me at all. They only care about the color of your skin. The fact is, if you’re going to work with the Asian community, you will find most are quite racist. I don’t say this to condemn Asians, I simply state this as a fact, it’s cultural, though not pleasant. I’m in Cambodia (as an American). When I was looking for a place to live, landlords would tell me they’ve had several Asian applicants, but were waiting to approve anyone becuase they wanted an American. A lady told me she was ready to deny two perfectly qualified applicants to give me the place, just because I was a Westerner, and they were Korean and Chinese. Talk to people in Asian countries, the locals, and you will see everyone hates every other Asian country. Cambodia talks bad about its neighbor Vietnam all the time, Vietnam thinks it’s the best, Japan thinks it’s the best, every country thinks its culture is better than any other Asian culture, and it’s just a ton of racism everywhere. And it’s usually racism against other Asians. White people signify money to them (for better or worse), so tend to get better treatment. With regards to teaching English, in appearance, you are a far more qualified school if you have Americans or fluent Europeans working for you than another Asian who learned it from someone else. Just the way it seems to go for now.

    reply
  • Sheryl Taborada
    January 24, 2019

    Wew this is a sad blog. I am so inspired to resign in BPO and go back to teaching so I can continue to have more experience and be qualified but oh. this is so sad:( I really wanna teach abroad.

    reply
  • Chris
    August 14, 2020

    Absolute dribble; I’ve taught all over the world and I found Filipino teachers to be great when it comes to classroom management, but their verb conjugation is appalling, as evidenced in the above tantrum.

    reply

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