I’m an English teacher. Not the kind that orchestrates discussions about literature in a classroom. I teach English as a second language from my computer to students around the world. I entered this profession during the Bush presidency’s grand finale: the recession. This was after the startup I worked for that helped businesses to be more successful went belly up. I had been looking for work for over a year. Me and millions of others. I was a single parent in the process of filling out financial aid papers for my son. He was transferring to the local public university after the retirement savings I had used to pay for his first year at a private college dried up. Every other home in my town just north of Manhattan was suddenly up for sale, and the families who lived in them owed more than they were worth.
“New York?” one of my first students asked. “Do you jog in Central Park?”
In the beginning, talking to people on an IP phone in my bedroom was a polite cultural exchange. By the hundredth or so time, the person on the other end gave me the bare minimum response. I knew most of my students were taking advantage of education programs that came with corporate benefits packages and were only talking to me out of necessity. I knew that English meant job promotions, pay raises. For others it meant scoring high enough on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to get into top tier American schools. The number of Chileans who speak English is a key indicator of how developed a nation they are. A Saudi fluent in English will earn three times as much pay as one who isn’t. There are about 400 million English language learners in China alone, and many of them are first introduced to American culture in classrooms run by Disney English, a company that produces cartoons.
Even when their names are Soo Min and Ji-Hoon, new students often introduce themselves as Brittany or Justin. It may be a matter of practicality for one, for another, a power move or fashion statement. I let them know that as long as they’re talking to me, English names are not necessary, that with me they can put their distinctiveness on blast.
Recently, I incorporated an image of a woman leaving a meat market in Brooklyn into a lesson I gave to someone in Moscow. The student found it odd that there was a store in the United States with Russian writing. “I want to sample your local food,” another woman in Eastern Europe told me before coming to New York for a brief vacation.
“Try a gospel brunch in Harlem. Dim sum or mangu in Washington Heights.” I recommended these while she stared back, puzzled that what I was describing did not sound like what she’d seen in episodes of “Friends.”
A doctor I speak with every morning asks if the United States is proud of how powerful the English language has become. I explain to him that the average American is unaware of this phenomenon. After I shared the moral exhaustion of being a citizen of a nation that is always at war, I suggested he tone down some of the flag waving.
A macho consultant describes his coworkers as businessmen although many of them are women. I bring up feminism, introduce a discussion about gender pronouns and the role they have played in the American effort to create an equal society.
“100 percent goose down padding,” a student said when explaining what he wore one wintry day. I would be a fool to think that I could pry the fingers of big business from English of all languages, but I advised him to just say that he has on a heavy coat.
Individuals I tutor privately on Skype can see that I’m a black woman. Those I tutor by phone for a large language school can’t. Once a male student I only communicate with using audio mentioned that he felt he needed to learn English from a white person in order to learn it properly.
“You need a qualified tutor,” I responded, and went silent. Later, I mention that the First Family of the United States is comprised of an African-American man, his wife, and their two kids. I explain that “raining cats and dogs” is a text book idiom of zero social value and that he won’t be fluent in the living language if he doesn’t understand what “chill out” means.
It’s common for ESL employment ads to say that they’re only hiring English teachers in the United States, UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. To state that they’re looking for someone female, Christian or white. I don’t just wake up in the middle of the night worried that globalization is turning the clock backwards to the pre-civil rights world of my grandparents. My students are all middle class or wealthy and concentrated in countries that make up only about 14% of the population of the entire world.
For almost a year, I’ve been helping people who randomly contact me on Skype to understand English grammar. One of them is a young teacher at a technical institute in Baghdad named Nabil. Once we connect, our calls drop. The video is blurry. His Internet access comes and goes. Ash clouds and blindfolded corpses are the benefits of America’s influence on his daily life. Now learning English is supposed to help. I’m so broke I won’t retire until I die, but I’m a native speaker and that’s a status symbol. None of this makes sense.
jennifer jazz is a New York based memoirist. Follow her on Twitter @jennifer_jazz.
Image via Eurojuris.