the no normal

Why You Should Think Twice About Being an ESL Teacher If You Are Mixed Race

Got a job teaching ESL in Asia? As much as I am loathe to rain on your parade, here is why I feel compelled to do so.

If by some miracle you manage to subvert natural social law and, as a fellow yellow-skin (okay: half yellow)[1], have actually secured gainful employment as an English teacher in Asia, don’t think that by having overcome this initial hiring hurdle you are thereby all set and out of the woods, nothing remaining to do but to effect a swift evacuation from bleak Brexit Britain and establish yourself in sunnier climes. Yes, I do congratulate you – don’t think I don’t. I can see you now, already anticipating your forthcoming beach-, bau- and bubble tea-heavy Instagram feed, and buying Frozen stickers (the extent of your behaviour management plan) for all those cute little slit-eyed[2] kids you’ll be ‘teaching’. I merely ask you to pause for a moment and interrogate what it is that really lies ahead of you, and what exactly you hope to achieve. For, though you may think that this step involves nothing more than an excellent opportunity to earn more, spend less, and save for the first time ever (not to mention that you’ll be doing so in your mother’s[3] homeland and so be reconnecting with your roots, communing with the ancestors and all, and affirming your dutiful but belated embrace of your heritage[4]) – it is my inglorious task, as a seasoned and now thankfully retired ESL teacher in Malaysia, to disabuse you of your overhasty but understandable optimism.

Let me first say that I understand where you’re coming from. You were born in the UK, and you’ve never felt anything else but British (even if you didn’t feel entirely British, you were more British than anything else). Your Asian mother – let’s say – moved here in her youth and married your father; however, far from popular tales of other segregated Asian families, rent by a gulf between first and second generations, your mother was not an island within this island: she was a well-integrated member of the community and sounded just as British as you. No wonder – she came from the Commonwealth, and her – Asian – education was itself conducted entirely in English[5]. Now you, you have a degree, and you’re a well-spoken, all-round upstanding example of the UK’s finest issue. You would consider yourself a cultural ambassador, an emblem, no less, of the dynamic reality of multicultural modern Britain. You used that line in your application; it went down well. Your USP, you continued – your ambassadorial prowess – lies in your ability to embody two cultures in your very person. Your presence in the Asian classroom will do its small bit to help enlighten the rest of the world that the UK isn’t just one-colour-fits-all. You’ll be actively disbunking the notion that all Brits are white; you will be bringing cool Britainnia up-to-date for those far from the know. You’ll be a role model – for all those Asian kids who will see, in you, both someone they can relate to, and an achievable figure of aspiration. You, in other words, traverse all boundaries. You will be a dynamo. A teaching whizz kid, embodying One World; a fireball of postcolonial energy. Racism, you believe, is old-hat: something from the past. And so, you get onto Skyscanner, book your flight, and off you go.

(Meanwhile, you put aside all those sneaking suspicions that the interviewer – did she look – no surely, it can’t be – but did she – disappointed? When she saw you? Park that, file those thoughts away. Simply your ludicrous neuroses. Inherited trauma, inherited paranoia, or something. That’s a thing now – you’ve read about it. Like, people who have never been slaves still have slave trauma. Weirdly, you get that. Well, anyway. Not your experience. Not feeling uncomfortable, no sirree! The world is your oyster. You are on your way to assume your membership as one of the respected teaching elite, and nothing’s gonna stop you now.)

And – so. You arrive. And – don’t say I didn’t warn you – this is what begins to unfold:

  1. Your colleagues will ignore you, and your bosses will pay you little heed

It will take little time to discover that the staff room is partitioned by an invisible but obvious wall. That is: on one side of the room, laughing and gossiping, drinking from Starbucks cups and wearing sleeveless tops and tight skirts, will be the white teachers. On the other side, there will be the conservatively dressed locals, in high-buttoned shirts and frilled blouses, eating their packets of rice from the roadside stall (five portions of which could be bought for the price of that frapp). And then there will be you. You will never be sure where to sit or who to greet. Nor will you dependably have anyone to talk to. You will be marooned in a void, a kind of no man’s land, as if no one knows which side you should be on, and as if the effort of looking at you and wondering how to answer this question is too much to bother with. You will be largely left alone, and become embarrassingly enthusiastic should any of the white teachers deign to pay you an iota of attention. Your bosses, if they are Asian, will be proper, but you will notice certain things. Like, they never come to you for your opinion on classes. You are never invited to the education fairs or marketing events. You are never called out to reception to meet a parent and potential customer. You will never, in all of your five years, be featured in the ‘Meet the Teacher’ section of the company newsletter. You may discover, eventually, that your pay is less than the others.

  • You will be treated as a second-class teacher

In short, you will be regarded as insufficiently British. Silently, of course – on the sly. It’s an attitude you can never quite pin down but there are things, niggles, which begin to add up, accruing heft and force until, one or five or three years down the line, you find yourself winded and barely able to make class in time. Because what’s the point? In class, there’s a point – your natural rapport with your students, your sense that they find you approachable and, incredibly, even a stimulating, inspiring teacher. But one of the strange things about teaching is how easy it is to forget what it’s actually like inside the classroom, with your students. 70% of your job is bullshit. Is sitting in the staffroom planning and being monitored by management, other teachers and then – the customer. Ah yes! – the customer. In other words: parents parents parents. Parents who will, until you open your mouth, treat you with disdain, with the slippery eye (as if they just can’t focus on you, as if your being simply cannot, does not deserve to, hold their eye) they normally reserve for the local employ: their maids, gardeners, waiters, drivers. They think you’re the receptionist. Stride in all a-huff, in wedge heels or stilettos, looking this way and that. Even when they discover that you are, in fact, a teacher (and so to be respected; Asian culture demands this, at least), they have trouble integrating the jarring revelation. When you try to convey your disappointment with little Jayden’s persistently disruptive behaviour, emphasising that he has had several chances, several warnings, and has nonetheless refused to amend his ways, they will meet your gentle gaze with wall-eyes. You will watch the stepped shut-down happen in cinematic time-lapse: first the dropping of the smile, followed by the glazing of the eyes, the hardening of the shoulders, and the incremental angling away of their posture. If you dare to suggest that dear Jayd’ will not be able to progress to the upper class, you will be met by a simple refusal. No explanations you provide will be registered, let alone accepted. In vain you will show his sub-par work, his abysmal homework record. You will be walking a delicate line: this is a business, after all. The company pride themselves on their educational integrity, and yet, a business is a business. You must not lose custom. There will, in short, be nothing for it but this: you will defer to your white colleague. To deliver the very same information. Which will then be instantly, magically acceptable. The parent will now be smiling broadly, flicking her hair, and almost – wtf – was that a bow? A curtsey? Almost…and now is she, is she actually reversing out of reception, effecting the subservient backwards crawl demanded before royalty? No, no it can’t be. You will return to the staff room, feeling peculiarly obliterated.

The repeated instances of local ‘deference’ to whiteness will be humiliating, but you manage to sweep them away – for a longer, or shorter while. For a while, that is, until the day when you can’t any more. Until the time when you are both sufficiently confident to know that you are a superior teacher to your colleagues, and insufficiently confident to start screaming in the middle of the room, which is the only response that comes to you as even remotely appropriate. As even remotely linked to how you feel. Which is, in short, invisible – and sick, sick with it all.

  • At the same time, you will be regarded as insufficiently Asian

This, you’re more used to. That old feeling you’d get during all those summer holidays back here with your mum, the aunties cooing around you but, if they ever found themselves alone in a room with you, shying away, too embarrassed to speak the English you knew they were capable of. As if you’d be judging them. As if you were an outsider. As if you were an emblem of some Imperial order beneath which they were but lowly scum (or blushing concubine. In either case, mute.). Of course, you’ve been less-than-Asian your whole life. Always aware of your failure to speak the language-be properly dutiful-hold chopsticks the right way-rest chopsticks on your bowl without causing offence. Of your inability to receive angpau with grace; of what you thought had been a friendly expression to a cousin of liking a bracelet (surely a compliment, a point of connection, in the UK), turning out, to your mortification, to be considered by your mother near criminal (your cousin is compelled to take it off and give it to you).  So yes, you’re used to your insufficiencies, your stranger-status. But now it hurts even more. It hurts because, as you go about your daily life, you will find yourself being spoken to in your mother’s language, and will be unable to reply. To your horror, your interlocutor will look more embarrassed than you. You will both redden, both apologise, both be desperate to get away. And it gets worse. Why? Because as you attempt to establish yourself as a local (of sorts) and feel, instead of increasingly at home, increasingly cut off and shut out, your white colleagues will go about their business blithely. With no expectation of being ‘one of’, they will simply enjoy. They will have everything. They will have their whiteness, their superiority, and their simple one-sided enjoyment of the place. They will soak up your country, drink it in. They don’t need to feel included – because they feel mastery. They have power; the very nature of their power is the privilege to use. They are imbibing your land. Whereas you? You will never be included, and will never be the master. You will feel, the longer you stay, less Asian rather than more. Whilst they will grow from their time abroad, and will go home furnished with a highly marketable ‘insight’ into Asia, even, in some cases, claiming a degree of Asianhood for themselves (?!$!?%?!), you will shrink from it. You will watch them eating local food and learning how to roughly pronounce the names and discovering the good local hawker stalls. And it will piss you off. With every bite, they think they know more; with every mis-accented word they look ever more smug. Whilst you, with every bite, realise only the great gaping gaps in your knowing. They will sit across the table from you and eat and you will tense up and you will be unable to say it. It’s not cultural appropriation, after all, for a white person to eat a bowl of noodles. Well, what is it then. Something. You can’t say. You can never quite say.

Nonetheless you will go home feeling bereft, feeling hollowed out, your torso a tensed corkscrew of bitterness and resentment.  They have everything. They get everything. They had there. And now they have here, too.

  • You will be lonely
  • You will feel like a colonialist whore

The very nature of your work means that you are actively contributing to the colonial mindset, and furthering its insidious, but clandestinely really rather healthy, persistence. The fact is that your livelihood depends not only upon your trading on one part of yourself – the British part – but also on your peddling the message that British is better. The British English that your are teaching, the British curriculum you are selling, the British universities that your students hope to go to, once they are armed with the British certificates you are preparing them to secure: better. Your having gained employment as an ESL teacher is, whatever you may think, in spite of your being half-Asian, not because of it. The reality of your wholeness – your mixed, mongrel, myriad wholeness – is, in terms of your job, seen as unfortunate. It is something like a regrettable circumstance which everyone is doing their best to overlook, see through and get over. The unsayable elephant in the room. Everyone is pretending you’re as white as the rest of them. That is, when they’re consciously interacting with you. But there are the unconscious moments, which you don’t fail to notice. The blanks looks and the non-looks and the no-looks-at-all. As time wears on, you will come to feel that the split you have carried since birth is growing, growing so large that it is becoming a canyon. You will become swallowed by the borderline you have always embodied. It will get bigger and bigger the more you deny one half of yourself. You will sense that you are working in service of an Empire which still pertains in people’s minds. You will suffer from a crippling imposter syndrome. Wrestling matches will take place in your mind: Why can’t I sell my Britishness? –  I am British, after all. (But what about the rest of me…) (And do I want to…to be bought for this Britishness that I only half-am, and only half believe in?)

  • British English will feel like a sad, lonely, stuck-up and yet impoverished cousin to local Englishes

Ah yes: the poor relative. And yet you’ll never be able to acknowledge this in your workplace. You will delight in your increasing ability to speak in the local parlance, a strange concoction blending the words from the five other languages used on a daily basis in your new home. Blending and borrowing, borrowing and bastardising – some might say. Your employers do say. As you begin to adopt your mother’s variously used Chinglish, Manglish and Hokklish[6] on your days off, you will become less able to refrain from using them at all times. To the question, ‘Do you want to go for lunch tomorrow?’ you will reply, ‘Can.’ When searching for a word, you will say, ‘What do you call…?’ Enquiring after your students’ comprehension, you will ask, ‘Understand or not?’ and, demanding homework, ‘Got or not?’ At the end of class, you will ask them to ‘off the light’ and to express surprise, you will emit a loud ‘Walao!’

Your students will giggle, relax. All well and good, as far as you’re concerned. Speaking this way – which (finally – something that’s yours, that they seem unable to take from you) seems beyond the grasp of the white people – and makes you feel a little bit more integrated with the community. Your modified English, moreover, is often understood where your colleagues’ straight-jacketed enunciation is not.

All well and good, that is, until you’re in the classroom. Your classroom, do what you want – until you’re observed, and by this time, it will have become reflex, kneejerk action. You will be punished. The company is selling the message that British English is the English – the only real English. This goes against everything that you believe: that language is not an inert object, but a living and evolving thing; if there is any standard of ‘propriety’, it is one defined by context and use. But the fact is, your beliefs will have no place. The fact is, that as ESL teachers, we are required to peddle the line that local, hybridised Englishes are not ‘proper’ languages, and that they are distinctly inferior. We don’t just tell students their English is different, we tell them it’s wrong. You will see other teachers chastise students for using local phrases, and you yourself will be pointedly brought-up on for not doing the same. At the ‘elite’ training centre where you are employed, you will be required to shame the kids by not answering them kind. This is a violence, but you will never quite be able to formulate how exactly. You are wrong, we are right. This English is the only English. The kids you teach will become conceited. They will begin to haughtily correct their friends. You will find it nauseating that they are in fact learning the lessons you are teaching them.

And so, the colonial lives on. And so, and the beautiful, emerging, living, breathing fusion languages which (and why are you so attached? Is it – could it be – because they are – somehow – just like you, these languages, a linguistic mirror of you?) are stamped out, spat upon, sneered at. The process is already happening d[7].

  • You will be furious with your colleagues gated elitist lives

Because your colleagues will behave like tourists. They will eat at restaurants where a brunch costs the equivalent of a week’s meals at a local rice shop. They will buy a block of cheese at the expatriate supermarket that, well, costs the same. They will live in luxurious condominiums, replete with gym, pool and sauna, but still complain about the ants in their kitchen (when they are too dirty or stupid to realise this is a hot country, you need to wipe counters down!). They will appear to have no idea that most people do not live this way.

And it will get worse. Worse, because your colleagues will behave like owners. They will lord it around the streets of your mother’s hometown like it’s all a quaint theme park designed and performed with their entertainment and Instagram feed in mind. Their presence and their appetites are not benign. It is not an ‘also-‘ presence. It is an erasing presence. The proliferation of people like your colleagues means that prices go up and chain stores open and traditional shops are turned into boutique hotels and cold-brew cafes. You will watch the landscape changing. And you will hate it. And you will start to loathe the place of your ancestry as it transforms into yet another non-place, yet another non-space anonymity, which could be anywhere at all.

You will watch and you will listen and you will see some of the white people start to fall in love with your place as it changes to serve them. You will hear them say, ‘I thought it was a shithole at first, but now I love it here.’ You will watch them use their whiteness to hold sway over the local scene, becoming themselves minor celebrities, known to everyone. You will hear them say, ‘I am a Malaysian’. And you will want to smash your fist into the wall, or preferably somewhere closer to their face. No you’re fucking not. (You mean you’re going to take this too? Lay claim to an ethnicity that even I have never really had? Commandeer this land as an artist writer singer photographer because you can’t make it in your own? Garner renown because you’re white and everyone pays you attention here?) You will become inchoate with a rage which will never leave you. You will carry it around, to work, to the market, to the mall, back home again, to bed, to the shower in the morning. Rage will become all you feel. It will blanket itself over everything. You will feel elbowed out. And oh, how you will hate. And how you will hate yourself, too, for the contribution that your very own job makes to the mindset that is making it possible for this theft to happen.

  • You will learn to see ethnicities

Everywhere you go, everyone you meet, the first thing you will notice about them will be their race, their skin colour. To your Asian family, it is be unremarkable to begin a story, ‘I was with my friend, she’s Indian[8] ya,’ but when you return to the UK for Christmas, this information will be regarded with horror. You will understand, though they don’t say so (the British never say so) that they think you are racist.

  • You yourself will wonder if you are becoming racist

You are sure you never used to register ethnicities the way you do now. Hell, you grew up in London, where everyone is ethnic! But now you it’s all you see. Other Asians, to whom you look with recognition and longing. White people, who you disregard, even treat with suspicion. Black people, with whom you feel a strange affinity. What is this? Racism? Or the desperate creation of a communal sense with others whom you imagine feel like outsiders too? Is it the gaze of someone who, by seeking has homeland, has been taught just how bereft she is and, unbeknownst to her, always has been?

In conclusion:

I understand why you have gone for this position as an ESL teacher. It seems like the perfect solution – work, earn, save, and connect. Return. I understand. I do. I know what it’s like. Don’t we all? The haunting of the mixed race child: for we have all been born into an absence. Born into a spectre, into the ghost of an unknown home. For people like us, for whom our mother’s land is but a phantom presence, the yearning to access it, to be in it, to be of it, is one that tails our entire childhoods. For myself, Penang in Malaysia was the homeland, the homeland which was not mine. Which didn’t belong to me and yet which had somehow created me simply be being absent. By being present, throughout my childhood, with its absence. By being the Beyond that provided my framing. It was the Without that gave me form. Penang never quite announced itself – it was like the content of a novel, but one which never announced itself in the title or in the blurb. I knew it was there, inside me and beyond me, simultaneously. Always not there. Always there by not being there. Always there because it was not there.

These homelands that are not our homelands – but they call to us. They are in our consciousnesses, nebulous, unarticulated, but loud. A strange baseline to our lives. They are the constitutive absences – like the hole which defines the nature of the doughnut. They are us, even as they are not us. And so we go. Will this solve our dull, our persistently gnawing ache? We go, and we teach[9]. And we think it’ll be fine.  

But all the things we have always felt eluded us do not, by our relocation, fall within our grasp. The off-the-page-ness nature of our lives continues. Penang continued to elude me even when I was in it. It felt as if it was being stolen from me, even as I seemed, to all extents and purposes, to hold it in my hands. I lived in Penang for seven years, and the haunting, the longing for home, but for a home I’ve never known, never had, remained. Remains.

 I just wanted you to know this before you go.

[1] Or banana, or BBC; whatever your appellation of choice.

[2] Gasp! I know. I can’t say that. Except I can because, you know, I’m half- one of them.

[3] Or father’s, or both.

[4] Which you fear your mother believes you to be rejecting.

[5] You haven’t yet given thsi much thought. But you will over the coming months, and with increasing ire.

[6] Malaysian-English, Chinese-English, Hokkien-English, respectively.

[7] Manglish: ‘Already’.

[8] Or Malay or Chinese or Bangladeshi or Indonesian…

[9] Well, we need visas. Another offront: our mother’s lands will not have us. We are, in terms of red tape, no different from the white people.