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September 1999 - Issue No. #36 (p.9)

The Woes of a Filipino English Teacher

by Thess Manangan (Pusan, South Korea)

This article originally appeared in Vol. 3/3 (May 1999) of Korea TESOL's The English Connection

Are native speaking English teachers better qualified to teach English than non-native speaking English teachers? Since living in Korea for more than six years, I have asked myself this question countless times. Non-native speakers of English, especially non-white Asians, face a difficult task finding quality teaching positions.

Being Filipino, I have faced many closed doors when looking for teaching posts. It is not easy because Koreans hold certain perceptions of what foreign English teachers should look and sound like. If you don't fit their perception, then you are simply "not qualified" to teach English.

I came to Korea in 1993 to be with my Korean husband whom I tutored at the University of the Philippines. After settling down in Pusan, I decided that I wanted to start teaching again. At first, I started tutoring study groups at my husband's university campus until a more challenging position was offered to me at an institute.

I remember the excitement and expectations I had before starting my new job. My excitement passed when the assistant director instructed me to tell the students that I was American or, at least, went to an American university. I went to my first class shocked, praying that nobody would bring up the subject. As curious Korean students, that was their first question: "Where are you from?" I couldn't lie or betray my nationality so I told the truth, that I was from the Philippines. What ensued was mixed reactions from the class: some were surprised, others puzzled, but most didn't care. Some students in fact said my class was even more interesting because it was unique in a way.

I have worked at many institutions where similar incidents occurred. One director, without my knowledge, told the students I was Filipino-Canadian. I wonder, did that director stop to think about the embarrassment that would occur when the students found out the truth? When the students asked what part of Canada I was from, I simply shook my head and said that I'd never been to that part of the globe.

I pity students who have been lied to by these educators / businessmen. When they discover they've been lied to, they are left with feelings of doubt, mistrust and cultural confusion. One good thing, though, is that I get the opportunity to correct their lies and omissions. When I regained the trust of the students who thought I was Filipino-Canadian, one six year old asked me why I could speak English when I was a Filipino. I told him English is a second language in the Philippines. He then asked me what a second language was. Other students proceeded to ask if people in Manila ate hamburgers and if I knew who Superman was. The innocence of their questions showed me how necessary it is to teach international English and cultural communication in the classroom.

Teaching in Korea, I'm accustomed to people doubting my ability to communicate like a native English speaker. The most bizarre situation was a Korean student who entered my EFL class and mistook a Russian student for the teacher. He said to the Russian that he needed help with English. When I asked what he wanted and informed him that I was the teacher, he blushed and quickly stormed out of the room.

The preference for native English speakers has excluded many qualified and competent non-native English teachers from obtaining good teaching positions. Read on.

A Filipino friend of mine responded to an "English teacher wanted" ad. At the interview, her interviewers were sceptical about hiring her because she wasn't "colourful" (a term she's coined to refer to blue/green-eyed blondes with a white complexion). I recently applied for a teaching position, ignoring the "native speakers only" sign, but am still waiting for a response. For all I know, they've already found a"colourful" native speaker.

It was in Korea that I first came across the term globalisation. People now insist that globalisation is the key to Korea's success. Even though people believe in globalisation, their beliefs and actions don't measure up to their thinking. When employers advertise for native speakers only and conceal the nationality of their non-native English teachers, they ignore the true meaning of globalisation, that is, opening up to new and different ways of thinking.


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Kip A. Cates, Tottori University, Koyama, Tottori City, JAPAN 680-8551
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