The Description of the World, also know as Adventures of Marco Polo or The Travels of Marco Polo, written around 1295, was the first exposure much of Western civilization had to information about the mysterious lands lying far to the east of Europe. While there is an ongoing debate among scholars and historians as to whether Marco Polo ever actually traveled to East Asia, whether Marco Polo was a real person or a fictional character, and whether the book credited to Marco Polo was written by a single person or was a composite of tales written by multiple authors, there is no debate over the impact the writings attributed to Marco Polo have had on Western perceptions of foreigners living and traveling in Asia.
The book is filled with improbable tales, and Marco, being a merchant eventually becomes an invaluable assistant to the world's most powerful emperor. For the story to be believable requires the reader to assume Marco was a remarkable individual and he was treated as special by the Chinese due to his cultural background. What if the roles were reversed, and we had heard a tale of a Chinese merchant who, in the 13th century, had traveled to Europe becoming an indispensable aid to the Pope. Would it be as credible?
Literature showing the special place of Westerners in Asia was common throughout the colonial era. Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim is a classic example as it appears to the only notable thing Jim did to earn the title of "Lord" was to be born in Europe with Caucasian features. Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King is another example as in the story two English loafers and ne'er-do-wells head off to a far-off land where they become kings, at least temporarily. In addition, much of the non-fiction writings of Asia during the colonial era also expressed Western cultural superiority and dealt with subjects such as teaching the one-true religion and civilizing the natives, which has often been called the "white man's burden".
Although the colonial era needed, the representation of Westerners coming to Asia and being affording high status based on nationality did not end. In the movie, The King and I, Anna Leonowens was portrayed as becoming an important advisor to King Mongkut even though she was only an English teacher. It would appear her only qualifications were her race and nationality. It should be added, Anna Leonowens always acknowledged her book, which the movie was based on, was a fictionalized account of her role and she was never an influential advisor as she was portrayed, this portrayal was made up to sell books, not to tell the true story. In more recent times, we have seen movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where the hero falls out of the sky and then saves the day for the Indian villagers implying the locals were not brave or smart enough to do this themselves. And let us not forget Kickboxer, where Jean-Claude Van Damme comes to Thailand and saves the Asian damsel in distress, again implying the local lads lacked the courage and daring to protect themselves and their women from the bad guys.
In addition, many of us who have been engaged in Western business education have been exposed to the notion the Western expatriate manager is expected to go off and manage and teach the "natives" when going abroad. In fact, the words "expatriate" and "manager" often seem to go together as if they were synomyns, yet little education is provided on how to work with individuals from different cultural backgrounds as opposed to managing them.
The reader is probably wondering by now what this has to do with teaching in Thailand. While the out and out racism from the colonial era is no longer with us, there continues to be a subtle reinforcement of colonial ideas in the Western media and education which can lead to unrealistic expectations. When expectations are not met, dissatisfaction occurs.
Most old hands have heard countless tales of Western teachers having trouble with their Thai (or Korean, Cambodian, Malaysian or Japanese depending on where the teacher is currently working) bosses. Much of this may have to do with unrealistic expectations. In general, English teachers are hired to teach English, not to manage the school or to develop curriculum. How often has a Western teacher with a degree in business or a technical field after taking a four-week English teaching course and having six months experience run into trouble when the teacher's attempts to completely change the entire Thai educational system are rebuffed by the Teacher's boss who most likely has both a graduate degree and years of experience in education within the Thai cultural context?
The Western teacher often becomes dissatisfied with having a limited role at the school, which can lead to poor performance, high turnover, and often unpleasant working conditions for others. Often the teacher feels he or she is not respected as the unsolicited advice given often goes unheeded. Part of the problem may be the subconscious expectations Western teachers may bring with them when coming into Asian educational systems to teach.
The world is changing, and the technological, educational and economic gaps between East and West are shrinking all the time. The most dynamic and fast growing economies in the world are here in Asia, and alongside this comes increasing Asian pride and confidence. Naturally with this growing pride and confidence comes less tolerance for what can be perceived as arrogant behavior on the part of Western teachers.
I was once asked by the manager of a Thai institute of higher learning, "Why are farangs so hard to work with." I found this an interesting question, and I think she had a point that some, but surely not all, Western teachers in Thailand can be difficult for Thais to work with (Just as some Thais can be difficult for Westerners to work with). After reflection and research I came to the conclusion it was partially due to the "Colonial Paradigm" that those of us from Western countries were raised with.
This is not a defense of the Thai, or any other educational, system. However, the average English teacher will neither change Thai culture nor the Thai educational system single-handed. But each teacher does have control over how to handle his or her own personal situation. More realistic expectation of the role of an English teacher and of local co-workers may go a long way to creating more satisfaction with work and life in Thailand. Instead of thinking of Thai co-workers as natives to be taught, Western teachers should think of their Thai colleagues as being intelligent professionals who also have lessons to teach that are worth learning.
Being aware of this bias based on culture background can help each and every one of us working internationally become more satisfied and successful in our chosen careers.
Scott Hipsher is the author of
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm
The Nature of Asian Firms: An Evolutionary Perspective
Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An interdisciplinary analysis of Theravada Buddhist countries
and numerous articles in academic journals, academic conference papers and contributions in other books.