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ESL Article: The Nature of the Beast (2)

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A quick example of how to apply this knowledge to teaching in a collectivistic society like China: As a foreign teacher you should try and avoid singling out students in the class and to have them feel different from the rest of the in-group. A teacher can use this to an advantage for controlling the class by simply having the disorderly student stand up and leave the classroom. I have seen this happen and the child in question will act paralysed unable to move and if forced to leave they will fall to the floor.

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The frustrating aspects of this collectivism is that you will not see an individual striving to break conformity with the group and if the consensus of the group that learning English is boring then those individual students who want to excel will be reluctant to do their best for fear of being set apart from the rest of their fellow students. However, the same collectivism can be a driving force and motivational stimulus to have the student study hard so as to pass an exam and to avoid being the focus of a teacher''s disapproval.

Being a foreign teacher in a collectivistic society is not only dealing with students but also with other teachers and officials at different organisational levels. Let us now look at how collectivism influences the human behaviour in this arena?

It is here that the article introduces some new terms used in cross-cultural psychology: "Power Distance" (PD). Also, "in-group" and "out-group" which have already been mentioned but not defined in depth.

Power Difference is the degree of inequality in power between a less powerful individual and a more powerful other. In the context of ESL teaching in Asia you represent the less powerful and the "other" being your employer. You are also seen as being a member of the "foreign" out-group and this places you at a greater power difference and to some degree you are the underdog. This is displayed by your exclusion from policy decisions, course design, and general meetings.

Asian society is a culture that rates high in PD because of the following reasons: Parents put a high value on children''s obedience -- parents being the more powerful and the child being the less powerful. The significance of obedience is carried over to the teacher/student relationship. The students put a high value on conformity and respect for authority and they are rewarded or punished according to this social norm. In organisations, managers are seen as making decisions autocratically and paternalistically and employees fear to disagree with their superior. (Hofstede, 1980a cited in Matsumoto, 2000 p. 452 Table 17.1)

Whereas in individualistic societies like America and the other countries already mentioned, parents put less value of children''s obedience; students put a high value on independence, and respect for authority is a matter of individual personality. Employees and subordinates have a preference of managers who are more consultative in decision making (Hofstede, 1980b).

We read and hear a lot of complaints from foreign teachers with regard to their working environment in particular their relationship with the Foreign Affairs Officer (FAO) or the Head Principle or Manager of the school where they teach. There appears to be "clashes" over the way they are expected to conform to the behaviour of other native teachers who subjugate themselves to the person holding a more powerful position. This would be tolerated by the foreigner for a short while and unless one becomes flexible to the requests of the other, resentment and frustration builds to anger and it is usually the foreigner who is the loser due to the high level of power difference in the relationship. The Asian superior/manager will not give ground to the foreigner because it is clear that the employer holds the position of absolute power. Unless the actions of the employer are illegal and unless the arbitrator who is called to hear the grievances of a foreign teacher has evidence that is backed up by testimonies from other witnesses or legal documentation then the foreigner has lost the case.

In regard to the in-group and out-group aspects of the two cultures: In the CS context of Asia people are very loyal and attracted to the in-group to which they belong. So if your co-workers are native teachers and they have strong ties to the school''s in-group then their loyalty is to the school (their employer) and not to the new foreign teacher who is distinctly considered as the out-group. What that means is that there will be a transition period before the new foreign teacher is accepted as a member of the in-group. It is during this time that the newcomer will have to show his or her willingness to conform, take what adversity comes their way and to forsake their accustomed individualism. Even this does not secure in-group membership because the teaching position is not permanent in that the contact will terminate with the foreigner moving away. In Asia it is the survival of the in-group that takes precedence over the individual. So you are expected to behave in ways that safeguard the "school" against defamation and lost of public integrity. In western laymen''s terms you "tow the line".

So the point made by this comparison of Asian and Western cultures is that the two entities are poles apart especially in those areas that impact on a foreign ESL teacher.

So you can choose to ignore the signs and differences in cultures and turn up the volume on your hi-fi to blast out the theme song "I did it my way" or you could play a different tune "Try a Little Kindness".

Oh, there is one other option, the one that is always taken too late -- don''t do contractual work in Asia as an ESL teacher unless you are very flexible, you have a personality that is submissive to authority and to be introverted will go in your favour (that is you don''t speak your mind for reasons that it may jeopardise your security). If you are content to have every decision made for you, and you are prepared to suffer in silence when the occasion arises and be qualified to do the job your employer demands then by all means enjoy your new employment in Asia and hopefully you will be successful.

However, if you want to go to Asia as a tourist surprisingly you hold the position of power -- money.

Author''s Disclaimer: When the author describes comparisons between cultures then it is simply a way of conveying an explanation and is not politically motivated to make judgement of any government or it peoples.

Reference: Matsumoto, D. (2000). Culture and Psychology: people around the world. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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Author: Paul A Hodge

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