The semester has begun at NYU Shanghai, and I was sitting at my desk staring out the window with a lukewarm cup of Nescafé in my hands. I had just finished reviewing a few chapters on articulatory phonetics and general phonology to prepare for my seminar the next day. And, my mind was wondering from what to read next—perhaps something for the article that I need to revise and resubmit before 1 December—to the colleague that had upset my morning flow by turning a standard greeting into a chance to vent for fifteen minutes. My thoughts were interrupted by the ping of my email inbox. So, I dragged my mind back to the present and took a look at what had arrived. Perhaps, it would be a request for more materials in class. Or Maybe, it would be an invitation to another meeting or to serve on another committee.
Luckily it was an announcement that the September issue of Asian EFL Journal was out. I try to keep up on the reading in my field; so, I browsed the T.O.C. to see if there was anything worth adding to my queue—which is finally under 30. The very first article sucked me in by the title, “Always the Other: Foreign Teachers of English in Korea, and Their Experiences as Speakers of KSL.” I immediately downloaded the article, not even bothering to vet my decision by reading the abstract. I knew I needed to read this piece.
I’ve written a few posts on this blog looking at the life of the migrant (expat) faculty member (the most recent can be found here). I write about this topic for two reasons. First, it is my current lived reality. I shuttle back and forth between China and the U.S. according to the academic calendar. Second, you don’t see that much work done in TESOL or English-facing Applied Linguistics about so-called native-speaker teachers (NESTs) acculturating to a new culture, let alone the NEST as a language learner in their own right. The relative absence of work on this topic is deafening once you realize it’s there. Seeing Grey’s (2017) entry in the Asian EFL Journal, I simply knew that I had to read it.
I can’t say that there was anything overly surprising about what Grey found. His primary finding was that the foreign teachers in his sample actively pursued L2 Korean proficiency to help them acculturate to their new country and to help carry out identity and affiliative work with the socially significant others (e.g., co-workers, friends, potential lovers, etc.). Many of his participants reported that Korean language proficiency was necessary to integrate fully into their workplaces and local communities. Also, they reported still being set apart because they did not phenotypically present as Korean or East Asian. This set them up as constantly other, especially when their interlocutors responded poorly to their linguistically facilitated performance of social identity.
I must admit that there were places where I was frustrated with Grey’s respondents. At times the simultaneously seemed to want to be integrated into Korean society and to enjoy still the rights and privileges of being outside it—and, make no mistake; all of us expats live in a bubble of privilege in our respective host nations. Said another way, they seemed to want to have their cake and eat it too. But, I acknowledge that feeling. There are times that I, too, wish that I had sufficient language skill in Chinese to more fully, and smoothly, interact with my Chinese neighbours, colleagues, and peers. But, I also acknowledge that I am a guest in this country and that I will always—for better or for worse—be American and not Chinese.
What’s groundbreaking about Grey’s work isn’t his findings, which I come to expect as an expat teacher myself. What is groundbreaking is the shift in focus to the NEST as a language learner. This is something that needs so much more attention. This is made even truer when we consider his findings in relationship to teacher-training and graduate programs, which should prepare ELT professionals for the genuine possibility that they may move abroad for work. So, if you’re an expat faculty member, or you’re a teacher-trainer/MA-TESOL professor…read it, now. Assign it to your students. Discuss it. Come to terms with it. Work to extend it.
Grey, S. (2017). Always the other: Foreign teachers of English in Korea, and their experiences as speakers of KSL. Asian EFL Journal, 19(3), 7-30.