Some thoughts on the shadow side of teaching abroad

Summary: My experience and personal thoughts and feelings on the matter of xenophobia

The subject of my piece is a personal reflection on xenophobia. A topic that I haven't seen covered in print in relation to the EFL teaching experience within a foreign context. I'd like to share with you my experience and personal thoughts and feelings on the matter. Perhaps, it may spark some thoughts for you in your context. I've also included some advice on dealing with xenophobia.

My piece isn't meant as a critique of other cultures or as a means to denigrate others but to share and write about my experiences and put them in a context and frame of reference. It's about seeing things in a new light. I've gone abroad to teach English in Asia. I'm still at it and enjoying the challenge. I wanted a change of pace and scenery from living in Toronto, Canada and from working as a social worker. I was drawn to Asia because of my interest in Buddhism, Asian art and culture. When I went abroad to teach, I didn't expect to be welcomed with open arms but nor had I counted on dealing with xenophobia.

Xenophobia derives from the Greek word and literally means "fear of the strange"?. It now refers to fear of strangers or the unknown and is often used to describe fear of or dislike of foreigners. As I understand it, xenophobia is considered learned behaviour and as such is passed down within families, groups, institutions, and societies. Reasons and explanations for its continued perpetuation are quite complex but are due in part to the prevalence of and persistence of negative stereotypes, and inherent cultural values and bias for example. Xenophobia manifests itself in behaviours and practices that are offensive and racist to the stranger.

I have experienced xenophobia on my travels abroad and whilst living and teaching in several Asian countries. Perhaps, you have too. I have experienced locals getting up and looking for other seats on a train or in a restaurant because I had sat beside them. I have had individuals poke fun of my size and facial features. I have been stared at in public spaces. I have been called a pig in class by some of my former students. I have been refused service because I couldn't speak the host language. This is of course anecdotal evidence but let it suffice to say that xenophobia exists. Several of my colleagues have had similar experiences.

How does one deal with it? My advice is not to let it get you down. Easier said than done, right? But really, don't take it to heart. Keep in mind the context and that someone in your shoes would most probably have the same experience. Exercise some detachment by maintaining some emotional distance. If it nags at you, get it off your chest by talking about it with your peers and colleagues. If it affects you on a deeper level, seek out professional help to help you work out the issues. Don't let it interfere with your overseas experience.

I have the feeling that perhaps one's involvement on a personal and professional level in the host society can slowly chip away at and counteract the negative stereotypes that persist and perhaps, make some inroads in reducing these behaviours. I am hoping so.

On a final note, I'd like to leave you with some advice. My advice is to focus on your goals and don't get sidetracked by negative experiences. Remind yourself as to what you are there to achieve. Don't let negative experiences interfere with the enjoyment and pleasure that living abroad affords. Most importantly, think positively. It helped me deal with xenophobia.

Next, why not continue to read the 2nd article in this two part series: Some more thoughts on the shadow side of teaching abroad

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