Teaching in the Far East: a student’s journey overseas

(paseo)china restauranttanks(courtesy)

As Jacob Rendon passed the large tank, he focused on a single, slow carp that appeared to swim sickly and unbalanced.
He knew he would not be choosing that one.
In the next tank, he watched foot-long, pink sea worms wriggle through the water. He was not ready to see that on his plate either.
Beyond the buckets of live toads, he saw what he wanted.
“In China, it’s all about fresh,” Rendon says as he points to a picture on his laptop. “That day ,I decided to eat crab.”
Rendon is one of thousands of American college students who choose to teach English in an Asian country upon graduation. According to the Asia- Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, the trend is growing. Many college graduates long to see the world before settling into a regular work routine here in the United States. For many, the increasing difficulty with finding work has had them looking to the East.
“My main objective for going to China was to get perspective on life in general,” says Rendon, graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. “I understood that people live lifestyles very different from my own, and I wanted to experience that.” He hoped that the experience in China would help him to be more marketable when he resumed his job search in the United States.
Accorindg to the Journal of Multilingual & Multicultural Development international experience is an alluring idea for many students; however, apprehensions about the process can stop many from pursuing this dream. Those that are interested in teaching English in Asia can ease their concerns by visiting the East Asia Institute in the main building at UTSA. The institute provides procedural and cultural information about the English teaching process.
“Here at UTSA, we work only with government sponsored agencies,” says Mimi Yu, associate director of the East Asia Institute at UTSA. “We work closely with three different programs: EPIK/TALK in Korea, JET in Japan and the Ministry of Education in the Republic of China (Taiwan).”
All of these programs pay a monthly stipend, reimburse one round-trip airfare and supply boarding or compensation for housing. The monthly salary covers expenses for the contract period.
To apply for these programs, candidates need to fill out an application and provide a copy of their passport and an academic transcript. Beyond that, each agency has slightly different requirements and benefits.
Although the ability to speak and understand the foreign language is not a requirement, Yu says, “It is best to study the culture and maybe take a class. Those with knowledge of the culture tend to have a better experience.”
Students who choose to teach English in an Asian country tend to assimilate to the culture easier when they have some background about the area.
“I took a class called Introduction to China. It didn’t really go into the culture; it was more about the history of China,” says Rendon. “I think that course coupled with what I had learned from my Chinese-American friends helped me to assimilate into the culture better.”
“One of my greatest fears was teaching in itself,” says Rendon. “Could I live up to everyone’s expectations?” He looks up for a moment and smiles. “I couldn’t speak, or read, or write or comprehend spoken Chinese, and that’s a huge deal …but I’m not going to be able to change my language and cultural differences. I can’t change who I am and where I grew up or all of the cultural details that make me who I am.”
“But the teaching, I felt that if I’m underperforming that’s directly connected to something under my control.”
A month into his job at the private English school in Shenzhen, China, Rendon’s control of the classroom was tested. He received two new 8-year- old students, Thomas and Ozzie, who were best friends.
“Thomas was a bigger guy, weighed a little bit more, so he kinda got picked on a lot, even by Ozzie. And Ozzie was this stringy, little energetic kid that jumped off the walls,” says Rendon.
“I had asked them to draw one of their vocabulary words, and they got into a fight about what they were going to draw. It started getting physical. The language barrier was just too much for me to try to reason with them, so I had to call the assistant, Qi Qi (pronounced Chi Chi), in to talk them with them.”
Rendon pauses as the scene replays in his head. Then he laughs and says, “Later, during the break, Thomas snuck back into the classroom with a pair of scissors and cut Ozzie’s backpack into TWO parts! We had to tape his backpack together and then explain to his parents why he was going to need a new backpack.”
While the orientations provided through the English-teaching programs will not prepare teachers for every scenario, the training sessions do help to ease the transition.
UTSA graduate Vincent Holmes is currently teaching English in Korea. He says, “The month-long training is amazing! You meet a lot of great people and get to visit a lot of great places.”
The training session for TALK and many of the other programs includes English teachers from Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK.
Countries such as Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China want their people to have exposure to native English speakers from around the world.
“English is a universal language,” says Yu. “These countries want to give global education to all of their citizens including the rural population. They want to have well-rounded citizens that are able to compete on a global stage.”
For many of the native, rural children and their families, the English teacher is the only foreigner they have ever seen. Rendon resided in a city with a population of over 10 million. Even in these large cities, westerners are not always a common sight.
“I was always conscious of people looking at me,” says Rendon. “Occasionally, I would be approached by strangers that would ask if they could practice English with me. Sometimes they would ask me to be in photos with them.”
While some teachers enjoy the attention, there are those who do not want to be in the spotlight. “One of our graduates did not enjoy the attention she received in a small Japanese community,” Yu says. “She was uncomfortable, feeling like she was the token foreigner of the community. She just wanted to fit in, not stand out.”
Standing out in the crowd is not the only variant that new teachers adapt to; they also must adjust to the unique customs of their region.
Holmes says, “In Korea, I have had to get used to taking my shoes off to wear school slippers and, whether you feel like playing or not, faculty volleyball every Wednesday,” he says, “And make sure you bring enough deodorant. They don’t sell it here.”
In countries such as Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan, the transportation system is vast and inexpensive. With speeds ranging between 208 to 302 miles-per-hour, four of the world’s six fastest trains are located in these countries. Many students who teach in the big cities spend much of their time exploring their host country and neighboring countries.
“Transportation is amazing and cheap,” says Holmes. “I’ve been traveling during most weekends and have done various things like hiking Seoraksan Mountain, going to concerts (one in Japan) and going to the indoor/outdoor amusement park, Lotte World.”
Although some of the most modern transportation in the world is located in Asian countries, many residents travel by foot and by bicycle.
“I think I have seen about everything imaginable being transported by bike in China,” says Rendon. He points to a photo of a Chinese teenager on a bicycle. The boy is carrying a mound of folded tarps stacked 5 feet high in the back and overflowing out of the basket in the front.
“You see a lot of bicycles, but I think the craziest thing I saw was this one guy hauling a refrigerator with his bike!” he says.
* * *
Rendon sits amidst a mess of taped-up cardboard boxes, a few suitcases, and his bicycle. He reaches into his pile
of belongings and grabs an accordion style folder thick with papers. From the files, he pulls out his newest Chinese work visa and his invitation letter.
It turns out that the nine months that he spent teaching English in China did make him more marketable. His first-hand knowledge of the Chinese language and culture together with his Aerospace Engineering degree was just the right combination for General Electric Aviation to send their first American engineer to China.