BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (Part II)
In the first part I aired my thoughts on life and work in Indonesia, Thailand, and South Korea. I’ll now venture a little further afield and give you my spin on what I experienced working in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and New Zealand. Now I must stress that my impressions of every country I’ve worked in are subjective. It’s almost impossible to be objective in situations like this. Ten people can work in Country A, and end up with ten entirely different perspectives on that country. Also, my forays into many of the countries I describe were quite a few years ago. And things do change, usually for the better.
First, China. I worked there in the early eighties. This country can be summed up in two words: crowded and busy. The Chinese are often too busy to waste time exchanging pleasantries or getting to know you. They’re far more intent on wheeling and dealing, and planning money-making ventures. There’s plenty of EFL jobs available in China; every Tom, Dick and Hally is intent on acquiring English; the better to execute their money-making ventures with. In a Chinese EFL school, it’s rare that you’ll be asked to teach a complete lesson. The native-speaking teacher’s role is to teach listening and speaking skills only; stuff like grammar and writing is the Chinese teacher’s role, and this makes the job less satisfying for most EFL teachers. Work contracts are not always honored; managements view these as general guidelines, not necessarily indicators of your actual working conditions. You’ll find the school bosses and your fellow Chinese teachers remarkably taciturn and uncommunicative. That’s not because they are taciturn and uncommunicative, but because they are reluctant to expose their own poor speaking and listening skills.
One surprising revelation for me when I was teaching in China was how far apart our cultures are. It’s hard to find any mutual reference point to base a conversation on. Britney Spears, Elvis Presley? Nope, never heard of them. The Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, Greenpeace? Huh? Who? What? Bill Gates? Yes, we’ve heard of him. And Ronald McDonald, too. But JFK, Sean Connery, and the Beatles? Nope, sorry. Another thing. Chinese kids are cute and cuddly, but most display the ‘Little Emperor’ syndrome; a kick-back from three decades of the ‘single child’ policy. The kids are loud, demanding, and spoilt, and determined to make themselves heard no matter what.
You’ll need a thick skin to survive a year in China. While China isn’t my top choice for a place to work, there are old China Hands who wouldn’t agree. They’ve worked there for years, and absolutely love it. I mean it’s all subjective, ain’t it.
Next, Hong Kong. I did my stint there in 1982. A beautiful, fascinating place. The weather isn’t much to get excited about; drizzly, humid days are as common as hot days. Your first problem on arrival in Hong Kong is finding suitable accommodation. Tiny, unfurnished, cramped apartments can be found at a price, but it will take days or weeks of frustrating hunting to track one down. I set myself up in the International Youth Accommodation Center, (I don’t know if it still exists), a cramped hostel with tiers of bunk beds spaced a foot apart. Privacy was non-existent, noise was at a premium, and my clothes kept disappearing from the washing line. At this hostel were four other EFL teachers, two Africans, one Indian, and one Brit. Through them I was able to get myself a number of teaching hours at various hole-in-the-wall schools, but no school that was offering a sustainable number of hours at a stretch. Students in Hong Kong come across as rather confrontational. There’s nothing they like better than to challenge the teacher on small points of complex grammar.
As I mentioned before, Hong Kong is a beautiful and fascinating place, but after a few months you might find the beauty and fascination starting to pall. The night-life, at first tantalising and promising, is expensive and much of a muchness. And it’s only a matter of time before the Star Ferry ride from Hong Kong island to Kowloon becomes hum-drum.
Next, New Zealand, where I’ve worked on and off for a dozen or so years. Here, (as in any English-speaking country), language schools are well regulated – in fact some might say over-regulated. Everything from school facilities, student guarantees and insurance, complaint procedures, fee protection schemes, to teachers’ working conditions must meet minimum quality standards; standards which are rigorously monitored and enforced by various government watch-dogs.
Unlike overseas EFL classes, in the West you’ll have multinational classes to teach. This can be an advantage, as the students will be less inclined to revert to their native language in class; their fellow students could well come from half a dozen different countries. Occasionally you’ll get a little strife when these nationalities are mixed together, (once during the Iraq-Iran war I taught a class that had an Iraqi and an Iranian in it), and Chinese and Korean students rarely see eye-to-eye, but usually these little conflicts are manageable. Mixed nationality classes can be very rewarding for the students; I have seen many lasting cross-cultural friendships blossom. Perhaps the first step towards better inter-cultural understanding and world peace.
Now, Vietnam. (I came six years ago, and I’m still here.) Beautiful country, friendly people, horrifying traffic. Vietnam is a communist country, but there’s little to remind you of that fact. Capitalism rules. Every second Vietnamese has converted his front room to a coffee shop, or built a little mobile shop on wheels to sell trinkets, grilled pork, seafood, or noodles from. And those not engaged in peddling their wares are intent on learning English. There is no shortage of work for the EFL teacher, especially in Saigon and Hanoi. Or any biggish city, for that matter. However, there is a shortage of well run, reputable schools. Three out of four are slip-shod, disorganized, and intent on separating students from their money, and shafting their expat teaching staff while they’re about it.
Vietnamese students are mostly eager and hard-working. They bear no grudge against the country that bombed the hell out of their country three decades ago and left them the legacy of agent orange. The Vietnamese population is mostly under 30 years of age, and for them the Vietnam War (or American War as they know it) is ancient history. If you can rise above the preponderance of badly run schools and fix your focus on your students, you’ll find Vietnam a charming place to work.
In my book EFL minus the B.S. there are chapters on Teaching Methodologies, Linguistics, Students I Have Met, and Bosses I Have Met, along with teaching tips for different age levels.