The roles and responsibilities of intercultural relationships are as creative, dynamic and expansive as the people in them. As a traveller in any country, the onus is on us to learn the local language, develop relationships and adapt to a society which may be welcoming at times and mind-boggling at others. However, as time passes and tensions are ignored, patience and respect can wear thin. Those romantic notions about foreign adventures can rapidly become daily frustrations and excuses for mediocre personal conduct. With the context of prejudice and racism becoming a dominant conversation topic in recent months, it also raises a discussion that needs to happen within the TEFL industry and classrooms across the globe.
Full disclosure; I was born and raised in New Zealand, English is my first language and I have the luxury of being self-employed while enjoying the white privilege of living abroad with my Irish husband. And just like that, you have probably already made several assumptions about me. Prejudices, one might even call them. What you wouldn’t see at first glance is my Thai mother who immigrated to New Zealand in the ’80s with her own biases, perspective and stories. You also wouldn’t see the invisible language barrier that exists between us, filling the cracks of her broken English. And you also wouldn’t see the courage she inspired in me to move back to Asia to teach English as a Foreign Language as a solo woman with little more than a dream to change the world.
The truth is that having a white face which houses a native speaking tongue doesn’t qualify anyone to teach.
Within the TEFL industry, there is an abundance of prejudices and presuppositions. However, I know these prejudices exist outside of TEFL classrooms because even in native English classrooms, we all either learned or learnt about them in our own education. So, instead of focusing on the problem, which is perpetuated by you still thinking about what you learned (or learnt), we need to look at the holders of such attitudes. Because it’s either us or them, and it’s obviously them. Right? Wrong. This “us versus them” mentality is exactly what both causes and deteriorates the situation further.
A more beneficial alternative is to co-create equal partnerships in professional relationships. Empathy, patience and respect are universally expected traits in every professional relationship, irrespective of culture or language. No matter what job, which industry or who you work for, developing these traits will only ever serve your career. As we discussed previously in this series, every human has the potential to be nice and smart. And as humans, we all want to help the nice person and learn from the smart person. We can choose to co-create relationships where we feel safe enough to suggest new ideas, be respected for our own abilities and experience patience when listening. That is the kind of working environment everyone wants.
The only way to create that kind of environment is through open, honest and reciprocated dialogue. We can never hope to fully control a conversation, but we do have control over our own responses. When we choose to respond rather than react to a situation, we show leadership qualities that encourage further reciprocation. Sometimes the most influential person in the room is the loudest, but usually, the most powerful person in the room is actually the one who calmly observes and listens. Of course, that is also subject to context. What might be seen as passion from one person could easily be seen as aggression by another; supporting sports teams for example. In the workplace or classroom, that same passion has been known to arise over who sits where, who used which mug, and even why someone would not choose a particular meal or beverage. And I am not even talking about students!
When dialogue is not mutually reciprocated, it can and frequently does, create conflict. In situations where there is much at stake, tensions are often quick to rise. This can damage the patience and respect in the relationship. Naturally, this can be restored, but both parties must be committed to coming back to neutral ground and maintaining open, honest and reciprocated dialogue. One common scenario within the context of educators is a disagreement with a TA or partner teacher. Different values might hold different weights for the different parties involved. This is likely to create a conflict.
However, not all conflict is damaging. In this scenario Teacher A sharing their ideas about how to make the lesson more efficient might be something Teacher B hadn’t considered previously. If Teacher A observes the tension in Teacher B and chooses to use neutral, simple vocabulary, conflict can be resolved before it even begins. By using the FeedForward thinking previously described, Teacher B would not take Teacher A’s sharing as a negative, personal attack. Therefore, both parties would be able to learn something from this and together they could continue to create an even better plan.
Conflict can also occur during the lesson when the teacher and their TA are not in sync. When teachers model appropriate and dialogue during the conflict, it can be very quickly resolved. This can then lead to students picking up on these conflict resolution skills and repeating the behaviours amongst themselves. I have even observed students willing to question and argue with the teacher using this open dialogue, simply stating “I don’t like it when you do ABC because XYZ”.
Personally, I think that any student willing to begin that conversation has an abundance of courage and an ability to see beyond the cultural or language barriers. Perhaps even more than their teachers at times. The possibility which such a simple sentence creates is exactly what Coaching in Education is all about.
“If it’s that hard, why don’t you just move home?” asked a dear friend.
“Because I don’t want to!” came my exasperated reply.
Most expats have had this conversation or a similar version of it.
My life in China has been filled with plenty of things to bitch and complain about. There’s that guy digging up the street at 7AM on Saturday morning. The bread that pretends to have chocolate chips but is actually filled with red beans. The public healthcare that dictates every sickness and injury be treated in a general hospital rather than a local doctors office.
But after 5 years in China, I don’t even know what my life at home would look like any more. Working 50 hours a week just to pay bills? Struggling to find firewood to keep the house warm over winter? Never taking holidays because I can’t afford the time off?
The problem isn’t that life is too hard in China.
It’s that I’m a completely different person, with completely different priorities and a completely different vision for what I want out of life. And the truth is that living the expat experience has helped guide me towards what I really do – and don’t – want out of life.
The guy doing roadworks has taught me about tolerance. That lying bread has taught me to be more observant. And the hospital system has taught me to take better care of my health.
These are lessons that I couldn’t have learned at home because I wasn’t open to learning them. Jumping off the deep end has opened my eyes in a way that I never thought was possible.
When we deal with these simple daily challenges while faced with an entirely different culture and language, it pushes us to adapt. Sometimes for the best, sometimes for the worst, sometimes in ways we didn’t even know we could be pushed! However, it is not even the challenges themselves that are what change us, so much as it is the choices we make. Whether to react out of instinct, pause and respond from a place of kindness or to walk away and ignore it.
This is a life of experience. Most of the time, friends and family at home can’t even imagine what life is like here; the same way that you struggle to explain it, they struggle to understand. My dear reader, please remember to treat them with kindness. The courage to live abroad is not something everyone has, the same way that courage to stay home and live a “normal” life isn’t something that you have. There’s nothing wrong or bad with any of it, just different, and that difference is worth celebrating together.
I have built a beautiful life here with friends who share my hobbies and introduce me to new ones, a business where I can use my gifts to serve and help others however I see fit, and a husband and family that loves and supports me unconditionally.
Happiness varies between cultures, people, and even the industries we work in. But the one consistency in this foreign life is that when you just “allow it, bruv”, joy can come from the most unexpected of places.
And that in the end, all any of us wants is to be happy.
I loved teaching English with passion. And I loved teaching English, with a passion.
I loved spending my days with a bunch of little people, playing games and drawing pictures and seeing the world through a child’s eyes. Sharing my journey with these tiny lives that are so full of love, simplicity and innocence; there are some moments that will warm the cockles of my heart for as long as I live.
There were also all those challenges that I never thought I would have to overcome.
Singing and dancing on a stage under spotlights in front of hundreds of people? Sure just make sure my dress is cute this time.
Explaining my culture to six-year-olds through a language barrier? Hell yes! I taught every one of my classes that in my culture if a woman wants to be a mechanic or a man wants to be a nurse that’s not funny, it’s actually a totally normal and acceptable thing to do because we don’t do stereotypes or limiting beliefs in my classroom or in my world.
Becoming the only female Senior Teacher after just 6 months? Well someone had to step up and help the new teachers when they arrived jet-lagged, culture-shocked and confused. I believe some might even call this “making friends” or “professional development”.
However, as my experience in different grade groups and the job demands increased, the exhaustion began to set in. It stopped being about fun and games and learning. It slowly became more about pressuring every single student to achieve consistently high results and comparing their progress to other students and classes. I hated having to lie about students on report cards and knowing that test scores would be changed after I marked them so that parents would save face and happily continue to invest in the program and I would keep having a roof over my head.
Seeing the same people at work all day and then getting on a van and travelling back to our shared apartment building together made work/ life/ social balance a whole lot more… intimate. I didn’t make many friends outside of work because of my own language and accent barriers. Don’t get me wrong, at any given time there were about 20 foreign teachers on staff, but in reflection, it made it too easy to not push myself to develop my social network a little further.
Eventually, the pressure in my life made me realise I didn’t want to be in the classroom anymore. I didn’t enjoy the expectations on my workload, the relationships with my colleagues, or anything apart from the smiles and lightbulb moments from the students I worked with.
I was exhausted, burned out through my bones, my heart and my soul. This was not the life I wanted any more and I knew it with every fibre of my being. But I had been living this life now for 4 years, and it had been 3 years since I had even visited home. I wasn’t the same person as when I left searching for my happiness, and I wasn’t the same person as when I arrived and found it.
Yet again, I found myself in this position of being unhappy with my life. I was closer to reaching my potential, but still not quite there.
So again, I quit my job, the life I had spent years now setting in motion, thinking I was doing the right thing. But by this time, I was married to an amazing, supportive partner who fully believed in my dreams and was willing to carry both of us financially while I worked on the big picture goal to build an empire for us that would sustain us for the long term so that I could gift him the time and space to build the business online that he was interested in pursuing.
I am still working on building my coaching business, and perhaps always will be. I love coaching people, partnering with my clients to achieve their goals. I love specifically working with expat women who, like me, want to change the world in some way. I love helping people become happier with their lives because I think the whole world could use a little more happiness.
And that starts with quitting the things that make us unhappy.
My story really begins in one of those small towns; the kind where being born there could mean marrying your high school sweetheart, popping out a couple of kids, growing old and dying there. Or being the victim of child abuse with survival likely leading to teen pregnancy, domestic abuse and drug overdose. Some of the greatest people I know will never leave my hometown, and I don’t judge them for it but I think we all knew I was never going to stay when the world is so big and the romantic notion of adventure will always call.
As soon as I possibly could I left my home town to move to the bright lights of the big city. I worked a few different jobs from hospo to retail and eventually found myself working in a corporate call centre.
At 23 I had everything I could theoretically want; a stable job, a car, a gorgeous Michael Hill Jeweller rock on my finger, a craft room filled with all the tools for all my hobbies.
But I wasn’t happy.
I knew I wasn’t living up to my full potential. I wasn’t clear on what exactly I wanted out of life, but I knew it wasn’t the life I saw in front of me. I wanted adventure. I wanted to travel and reunite my long lost family. I wanted to find a greater purpose in my life.
So I quit my job, sold everything, and bought a one-way ticket to China to do an internship teaching English for 6 months.
You know in cartoons when the boss gets mad, goes red and the steam goes out of his ears? That’s exactly how my boss, my mum and most of my friends reacted. They questioned, they pleaded and they tried to hold me back.
“I can’t tell if you’re joking or having a mental breakdown??”
“But you don’t even speak Chinese!”
“Kiwi’s only fly as far as Aussie, you can’t move to CHINA!”
And the more they protested, the more empowered I felt. Because no one packs their shit and moves to China… That makes me a pioneer!
I became a master at flipping the script on them, laughing off their fears and using them as fuel to keep studying my TEFL course.
It was great.
Until the plane started descending
What the fuck was I thinking?! NO ONE MOVES TO CHINA! Especially the first time they leave the country! Extra especially when they don’t even know where they are going to be living for 6 months! But I had the moxie to buy a one-way ticket. I trusted that whatever life threw at me, I would handle it. I wanted to push myself because I knew that the challenge would force me to grow as a person.
And logically, the plane was going to land anyways.
So I didn’t really have any choice but to keep breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. Follow the crowd that was also going through immigration. Fill in the Arrival Card. Hand over my passport. Get the stamp.
And that was it.
Well okay, not really…