The first time Scott presented to me his argument that English teachers in East Asia should be thought of as economic migrants, I have to admit I was a bit taken aback. Perhaps because it was 2 in the morning at 45 on Heping East Road and I’d had one too many beers, or maybe it was because Scott then used the term “immigrant,” and when I hear the word “immigrant” I think of this historic image:
Not a bunch of recent college grads hanging out late at night at 45 trying to get laid. After all, I argued looking around me, most of these people won’t stay here for very long. But Scott pointed out that many of the immigrant’s who came to America at the turn of the century didn’t plan to stay either. And he’s right. Take, for example, the Italians:
Many Italian immigrants never planned to stay in the United States permanently. The proportion returning to Italy varied between 11 percent and 73 percent. Unlike most earlier immigrants to America, they did not want to farm, which implied a permanence that did not figure in their plans. Instead, they headed for cities, where labor was needed and wages were relatively high. Expecting their stay in America to be brief, Italian immigrants lived as inexpensively as possible under conditions that native-born families considered intolerable.
Even today, many Mexican’s in the United States would go home if they weren’t so worried about not being able to get back in!
But I think my reaction was also inadvertently shaped by my preconceived notions regarding the racial composition of migrants. We just aren’t accustomed to thinking about White Americans (very few of the English teachers in Taiwan are non-White, unless they are second or third generation Taiwanese) as economic migrants. Not just because of the racial stereotypes of “immigrants” in the United States, but also because of assumptions about America’s political and economic status in the world.
Scott makes a convincing argument that English teachers in East Asia should be thought of as “entry level workers in the culture industry“:
The reality is that very few foreign teachers in Asia enter English teaching as professionalized teachers. Instead they enter as industrial workers in commercial schools. They enter not knowing about education, but also not knowing the thousand and one things it takes to run a commercial educational venture in their market. Most of these positions are designed to be temporary, with as much labour being extracted from the teacher as possible in the shortest period of time. If the teacher stays long enough, has the interest, and enough ability to do so, they may continue on to become partners in established schools or more often, open their own.
But, while I agree with much of what Scott says in these two posts, I still have reservations about his argument. Specifically, while I think it is useful to challenge our common-sense assumptions about who counts as an immigrant, it is also dangerous to overlook important distinctions between different kinds of “economic migrants.” There is a big difference between middle class migrants who are young, unmarried, and looking for adventure as much as they are looking for work, and older migrants with families who are fighting to improve their family’s economic and educational opportunities. Scott’s point is that people all too often dismiss the economic motives of English teachers in East Asia, and I agree; but, at the same time, I think that it is important to keep in mind the wide variety of economic motives that drive “economic migration.” In other words, don’t forget to look at the class origins of the migrants!