Brittany Lyons offers us an interesting perspective on English teachers in Taiwan who are using their art to help themselves create a sense of home. ~EMP

Although teaching English in a non-English speaking nation has become a popular short-term career choice for many recent college graduates and even those with PhDs, it is far from a walk in the park. Depending upon the location of the particular teaching assignment, English teachers often find themselves faced with culture shock, difficulties in communicating with students, and general feelings of homesickness. One of the best ways for teachers to combat these feelings of loneliness is for them to connect with other teachers in similar situations.

Regardless of location, simple differences in cultures can create frustrating boundaries between these teachers, their students, and colleagues. For example, an English teacher working in Cambodia would not only need to adjust to a completely different diet but also to a different transportation system. Additionally, abnormal climate factors and rampant insect populations are among common differences that teaching in foreign countries will yield.

To further complicate the issue, the educational systems between two countries usually vary to some degree or another. Teaching methods, rules for student-teacher interactions, and even disciplinary practices are three ways in which teachers can run into cultural differences. Due to this, English teachers find that their struggles in their new classrooms are often more challenging than others that they faced while working in their home countries.

Interestingly enough, while an English teacher in a foreign country might find themselves focusing on how to teach the English language to a group of students, they must also be aware of how the native language affects themselves. In Effects of the Second Language on the First, Vivian James Cook describes how regular exposure to a second language can actually “erode” the first; in other words, an English teacher should be careful that they do not forget the grammatical structure or vocabulary of his own language when he is constantly being exposed to the native language.

However, many English teachers working in Taiwan have succeeded in forging friendships within their communities while finding creative outlets at the same time. Through building a multi-cultural community that expresses itself through various forms of artwork, these teachers have successfully found ways to not only cope with adjusting to life in a foreign land but also thrive in their home away from home. The artwork gives them a way to express their feelings (often about missing their native countries) and also provides a supplemental income to their teaching salaries. This arrangement works particularly well for teachers who have always wanted to express their artistic talent; friendships are forged, art is expressed, and creativity is released.

For example, a young teacher from South Africa could be found selling paintings of African men and women–an uncommon site in Taiwan. Other teachers in Taiwan have found a market for their hand-painted t-shirts, while still others are receiving commissions from local Taiwanese customers for specific sketches. Through a common bond in artwork, these teachers are finding that they are not only becoming friends with each other and coping with feelings of homesickness through artistic expressions, but they are also forging friendships with natives of Taiwan (as in the case with the commissioned sketches).

Unfortunately, these teachers are finding that they cannot simply fore-go their teaching work and pursue their art full-time. The local market where they sell their creations provides a small income in comparison with what they earn as teachers. Furthermore, most of their work is purchased by other expatriates instead of the local Taiwanese population. However, some of these teachers in Taiwan are noticing that they are slowly gaining more of a following from native Taiwanese art collectors as a result of a blossoming Taiwanese economy. Some of the artwork for sale is also focused more on themes from their home countries instead of concepts that readily blend into Taiwanese culture. While this allows the teachers to express their feelings about their homes, it might not provide enough income to sustain themselves.

Other ESL teachers working abroad can definitely learn from the model that these Taiwanese instructors have pioneered. While not every country will have a “cultural market” where they can sell artistic creations, artwork can still be used to bring together strangers into a caring community. Through art (whether poetry, painting, photography, etc.), teachers can find ways to express how they feel about their current positions and realize that they fully relate with others in their teaching community. Building a community in a foreign place can take time, but art can be used to help forge that community, as the EFL teachers in Taiwan have aptly demonstrated.

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