How to Navigate Sticky Cultural Issues While Teaching English in Asia

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I have taught English in Southeast Asia for three and a half years (plus an ill-fated six-month-long adventure in 2011 that ended in abject failure). To this day, I fail to understand certain aspects of the respective cultures in this region and I accept — as a foreigner from the other side of the planet — that I always will. Despite the promises of “cultural sensitivity training” or other such academic solutions, sociocultural bridges here can never be crossed.

While it’s important to remember that each East and Southeast Asian culture is unique with its own set of challenges for Western newcomers to adjust to, the member states of the region as a whole do share cultural similarities based on deep historical ties that cut across boundaries. This article will address universally sticky workplace issues that remain true throughout the region.

Conflict due to culture clash is unavoidable when two vastly different traditions, East and West, meet. What is not written in stone is how an ESL teacher handles cultural conflict once it inevitably rises.

Regardless of whether you plan to travel to Asia to teach for a year or to settle down for the foreseeable future, learning how to navigate the complex new cultural realities that you will encounter means the difference between an enjoyable, productive experience working abroad and a frustrating, unfruitful one.

Deference to Authority and Saving Face

Once you’ve sat through enough workplace meetings –which are often as much of a waste of time in Asia as they are in the West — you’ll notice a significant difference between Western and Asian employees in terms of how they approach discussions over issues of concern at work.

Asian culture, still largely steeped in tradition, has historically been characterized by its paternalistic, hierarchical nature that relies heavily on deference to authority figures to dispense wisdom.

As such, leaders of organizations are largely viewed as something akin to demigods whose words are law. Whereas in the West, our freer, more individualistic ideology teaches us that to question authority is not only a right but a mechanism that guides an organization or group to the right trajectory, Asians, especially older ones, do not share this view.

As an example of the deification of authority, the president of the private university where I taught for two and a half years was escorted daily from the front door or her building to her awaiting Bentley sedan – regardless of whether it was raining. This was a performative gesture rather than a protective one – a spectacle meant to reaffirm her status.

You will likely never — even if you live East or Southeast Asia for a hundred years — see an Asian subordinate openly question the veracity of his or her Asian superior’s claims. It doesn’t matter how wrong the leader is; challenging their Godlike wisdom violates the historical function of their societies and the central tenants of “saving face.”

The term “saving face” essentially means the maintenance of social harmony and the adherence to the relatively strict social structure of Asian culture. Through a unified front, theoretically free of interpersonal conflict, the group becomes stronger and more capable. Individuals are simply dutiful components for the collective effort to achieve a greater good.

These beliefs in the infallibility of authority figures can be maddening to Westerners, especially if your supervisor is, in fact, incompetent, as leaders worldwide often are. However, losing your cool is never a good option. Eruptions of anger are considered serious violations of etiquette that will land you in hot water and get you exactly nowhere.

What to Do About Issues With Deference to Authority and Saving Face

A few strategies to mitigate the damage that may arise from the East-West divide in the regard might be:

  • Never air your grievances with a superior at work openly. Instead, if you must, work through back channels. A great resource for this might be a trusted Western co-worker who has more experience in your given environment – and, as a result, likely has more clout and tact in addressing issues specific to your workplace.
  • Whether you mean it or not, demonstrate your deference to your workplace supervisors by crediting them during public recognition of any accomplishments.

For example, if you receive an award and are asked to give a mini-acceptance speech (as often happens), be sure to put in a kind word (or several) venerating your superior. This is a small investment that will go a long way in securing your position in the long run.

In the West, this is called “sucking up.” In Asia, it’s called “surviving.”

The “Everyone Likes Me” Judgment Failure

Coming from the West, you are likely under the illusion that, if someone dislikes you in the workplace, that you can tell. Even if words are not exchanged, the body language and general attitude of a fellow worker might tip you off that trouble in paradise might be brewing.

So, foreign workers coming to Asia may naturally assume, just because they cannot sense any conflict, that it is not there. As the saying goes, assumptions make asses out of you and me. They are potentially massive mistakes to make, as any Westerner who has lived in Asia long enough will learn the hard way.

When workplace conflicts arise, the natural tendency of Asians is to ignore them due to the heavy emphasis that Asian cultures, generally speaking, place on maintaining social harmony at all costs. If a co-worker has an issue with you, you may never know it until the issue becomes too far-gone to repair.

When I (very briefly) worked at Buranat Christian School straight out of college in 2011 and had yet to comprehend the nuances of Thai culture, I had assumed that one of the lower-level administrators in the school liked me because she asked me lots of questions (in English) about what I was all about.

Little did I know: her cousin owned a teaching agency that recruited Western teachers. I had been hired through a rival agency, which she resented. As I found out later, her prying (which I took to be friendly conversation) was an attempt to extract information that she could use against me to persuade her higher-ups to switch agencies – which she did.

Most discomfiting, she did it all with a smile.  

For your own sake, never assume, just because nobody at work has outwardly expressed dissatisfaction with your behavior or performance, that everything is hunky-dory. Everything might be fine and you might be genuinely treasured by your coworkers and supervisors, or there might be festering social conflicts that remain unaddressed, sacrificial lambs at the altar of “saving face” and maintaining the façade of unity.

How to Avoid the “Everyone-Likes-Me” Fallacy

The best ways to mitigate against the “everyone-likes-me” judgment failure:

  • Stay on your toes. Stay open to subtle hints in body language that might go overlooked in many situations but that might clue you in to how a coworker really feels about you if you pay close attention.
  • Do not assume motives (positive or negative). In a similar vein, don’t be surprised when you discover that a coworker’s personal sentiments towards you are less-than-warm due to some long-forgotten, often petty conflict.  

You Are Not Special (Not Everybody Gets Trophies)

Being a millennial myself, I can confirm that many in my generation as well as Generation Z are indeed, as the critics allege, “special snowflakes” who believe that we deserve praise when we do a good job at work. We are conditioned to expect some sort of social recognition for hard work from our superiors — i.e., the “everybody gets a trophy” phenomenon. When expected pats on the back never come, we can get bitter.

The reality is that, in Asia, workers are expected to work hard. There is no special recognition for hard work because hard work is the norm. Asian societies have been described as “work cultures” by many observers. That is an understatement both in terms of how they view work and how they account for workers’ responsibilities to the company.

As an example, when I lived and worked in Vietnam at a language center, my boss routinely asked me and the other foreign teachers to do hour-long “demo” lessons in front of the watchful eyes of a dozen school administrators and Vietnamese teachers – for free. Offering compensation was not even on the table. Refusing (which I did, actually) was not well-received. The only saving grace for me at the time was that the school was in desperate need of foreign teachers and could not afford to make a bigger deal out of my refusal.

You won’t get bonus points for showing up during holidays or after hours. In fact, giving your all to the company, even to the point of self-sacrifice, is so ingrained in the Asian psyche that most employers will not even warn incoming Westerners about their expectations because they assume that being on call whenever the school needs an employee, day or night, is implicitly understood to be a part of work-life.

How to Avoid the Work-Life, Personal-Life Balance Dilemma

  • Talk, if possible, to employees who have previously worked at your establishment. Ask questions about the culture and expectations. If they give you red flags about working after-hours often, take it as a warning that you will be expected to do the same.
  • If this is a serious concern, consider seeking a reputable agent to lobby on your behalf for reasonable working hours. A good agent acts as an effective liaison between the employer and employee.

Vastly Divergent Humor

Asians, generally speaking, do not appreciate sarcasm, satire, or irony – at least not the Western understanding of these concepts.

Case in Point:  In 2011, in rural Taiwan, some coworkers and I headed south on a highway somewhere, on the way to an Asian amusement park. Along the way, a hundred meters from the road, two smokestacks vomited yellow smog into the sky. The yellow swirled against the blue and obscured it.

On each smokestack, the company had painted beautiful, bright, vibrant, healthy, regal, honest-looking unicorns against a backdrop of serene blue, and equally vivid, skies.

The horrendous juxtaposition of thick smoke drifting into the atmosphere emanating from the smokestacks with the lovely unicorn paintings was perhaps the most vicious and visceral irony that I had ever seen before or have ever seen since. I literally laughed out loud in the car at the jaw-dropping sight.

“What happened?” my coworker in the backseat asked.

I pointed to the noble unicorns on the smokestacks under the yellow smog.

“They wanted to make it beautiful,” she replied, genuinely confused.

Then I realized that — rather than ironic savagery that had prompted the artist — the impetus to craft the illustrations was a sincere attempt at an expression of beauty on the part of the artist.

My Taiwanese carpool friends in the two front seats were as confused as my Taiwanese friend in the back at the humor I found in the Swiftian-level satire in front of our eyes.

C’est la vie.

How to Navigate the Differing Conceptions of Humor

So, how can you adjust to shifting humor in the Far East?

  • Don’t be offended when colleagues don’t get your jokes – it may not be that you’re not as funny as you think; it could simply be a cultural divide.
  • Observe interactions in your workplace to better understand your coworkers’ sense of humor. You can learn a lot through simple observation about which types of humor flies in the Far East and which falls flat.
  • Save the sarcasm for your Western friends. Chances are your Asian colleagues won’t get it or, even worse, may take your off-handed sarcasm literally.

Concepts of “Citizenship”

As every nation in Asia that I’ve ever lived in conceptualizes citizenship, membership in the nation is reserved for born members of the nation – that is, a group of people with a shared language, shared culture, and, above all, a shared ethnicity.

Thais alone can be considered “Thai” and no one else. In the eyes of the average taxi driver in Bangkok, a Burmese immigrant could never, ever become Thai. This rigid concept of nationality flies in the face of Western liberal dogma regarding what “citizenship” means, In the Western view, people from divergent backgrounds and races meld in a cultural melting pot of mutual appreciation and communal amalgamation into a singular, eclectic hodgepodge. 

The melting-pot theory of third-grade American civics curriculum has no traction here. No number of visas, permanent residency guards, language skills, cultural appreciation, or intermarriage could ever make a Westerner less of an outsider in the eyes of Asian societies. Ever.

Asian cultures conceptualize citizenship in their own way. However you feel about their exclusionary attitude as a foreigner does not matter at all. Decry these concepts of citizenship as “racist,” write a blog post about it, complain on social media, whatever – none of that will change reality. Asians will not alter their cultures because a Westerner thinks they are discriminatory. Why would they?

A German gentleman I know, for example, speaks native-level fluent Thai, has lived in Southern Thailand for nearly 20 years, has a Thai wife and a half-Thai daughter. Barring a decree from the king himself, though, there is no chance of him ever becoming a Thai citizen.

How to Deal With the Citizenship Issue

You might think it’s unfair. You might be right. Most foreigners from the West have no plans to become citizens of their East Asian destinations (which they are often residing in only temporarily).

However, if you do plan to stay for an extended period of time, consider long-term visas. Depending on the country, they are relatively easy to get provided that you have enough financial assets to prove your ability to support yourself long-term.

Open Racism

It would be unfair, inaccurate, and racist itself to lazily categorize all Asians as “racist.” Depending on how the term is defined, most Asians are not. They are generally friendly with all foreigners, regardless of ethnicity, and many will go out of their way to help them in times of need, native or outsider.

There is, however, an undeniable undercurrent of openly practiced racism in each Asian country I’ve lived in – especially directed at blacks.

Once, while teaching in Thailand, my supervisor asked me to find a Western ESL teacher for the school. I made an advertisement for a few job boards that I had used as a job seeker like ajarn.com, posted them, and waited.

Most of the respondents were Filipino (whom my supervisor said she did not want) until a gentleman from Texas emailed me. He had lived in Thailand for years, taught English since he came, and had a TEFL certificate and a master’s degree. Impressive, right?

I forwarded his details to my supervisor, telling her that I believed we had found an ideal candidate.

In our first email exchange, this guy asked me if it would be a problem that he was black. I was taken aback — not because I was naïve enough to think racism didn’t exist in the world but that he would bring it up in the second email I ever received from him, even after I told him that his resume was impressive.

I informed him that, far from his race being an issue, he was a shortlisted candidate for the position and that I would pass his details on to my supervisor. He replied with another question about whether his race would be a problem for the school. I assured him it would not, and chalked his concern up to a personal hypersensitivity about race.

To my shock, after I forwarded the man’s details to my supervisor, she informed me that he could not teach at the school because he “would scare the children” – all in broad daylight, in the middle of the office, in full earshot of other English-speaking Thais.

To be clear, racism exists everywhere across all cultures. I expected it as much in Thailand as I would anywhere. The most appalling aspect of this encounter, though, which left me literally speechless in my supervisor’s office, was the brazen, open nature of the discrimination.

Faced with a tough decision about how to proceed, I emailed the guy and told him that his apprehensions about his race had been correct. I imagined getting that email myself if I were him and how demoralizing it could be. Here was a guy who, by even the strictest standards of the top private schools in the region, was overly qualified to join the team. None of his achievements, though, were enough to overcome deep-seated racism.

There is certainly a plethora of black (African and Western) English teachers in Asia. Many of them are happy in their positions. But if you ask any of them who have spent any significant amount of time in Asia, they will likely have a similar story to share of unmitigated, unapologetic racism, even from unexpected sources like high-ranking, presumably highly educated school administrators.

How to Handle Open Racism in the Far East

No one will be helped if you decide to embark on a personal crusade to end racism in the Far East – not the individuals whose attitudes you seek to change, not whomever you are trying (however earnestly) to help, and certainly not yourself.

There is nothing to do except to accept that, as an outsider, you cannot effective positive change at scale for an issue as deeply ingrained as endemic racism – nor is it your role to do so.

The “This is Our Culture” Routine:  A Classic Rouse

If you spend any significant amount of time interacting with the local population in whichever SE Asian country you choose to visit, you will inevitably encounter the phrase “this is our culture,” a baffling response to what Westerners may perceive as nonsensical social norms.

Most “cultural issues” are legitimate. As an example of a fully legitimate one, walking into a Buddhist temple looking like you just came back from a half-naked suntanning session on the beach is a major no-no. Dressing immodestly while visiting temples is a serious social faux pau that will likely upset the locals who will perceive it as a show of disrespect, even if you did not intend any.

Now, onto the bigger challenge:  the illegitimate “this is our culture” tactic to shut down conversation. The unfortunate reality is that, although there are certainly social norms unique to SE Asia that Western expats should be aware of, many natives weaponize outsiders’ poor understanding of their ways as a cheap negotiating tactic.

As a prime example of this, I once had a conflict with my Thai supervisor over the arrangement of desks in the foreign teachers’ office (not a classroom!). Whereas the desks had previously sat in a double-file line facing forward as they might in a conventional classroom setting, we had rearranged the furniture so that our desks sat in a semi-circle to better facilitate communication.

Our supervisor, a Thai woman in her 70s who quite honestly should have retired a decade ago or more, visited the office. She, in her geriatric stubborn ways, insisted that we revert back to the old schematics for the furniture arrangement. When pressed on why, she simply replied “this is our culture.” We all knew that there is no bit of Thai culture that informs desk arrangement in an office – but the comment nonetheless had its intended effect of shutting down discussion.

How to Navigate the “This Is Our Culture” Routine

There is no way around this dilemma. It is crucial to

  • Tread lightly on “cultural” issues to avoid becoming a pariah in your new community, regardless of the sincerity of the claims of supposed transgression.
  • At the very least, do not openly challenge or mock false or questionable “this is our culture” routines meant to shut down a foreigner’s avenues for petition – especially not to your boss.

Surviving the Asian Workplace as a Westerner:  The Footnotes

If every bit of advice for a Westerner arriving in Asia for a new job could be distilled into a single, powerful sentence, it would be: Understand that you are walking into an entirely new world. Do not make the fatal assumption that Asia will be like your Wisconsin hometown because it will not be. In important ways, your Eastern hemisphere destination might even appear like an entirely different planet.  

Not only is attempting to make Asia look like America or anyplace else morally questionable, but those ambitions are also foolhardy. Asians, like people anywhere, value their traditions and they respond poorly to outsiders trying to dictate how they should live. Demonstrating respect for the cultural modus operandi, most importantly initially by making the effort to understand it, is a crucial gesture of goodwill that you must extend if you hope to thrive here.

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