Monday, October 24, 2011

Baxter_Territory_Communities of Foreigners

Evolved Foreign Worker (and student) Communities

What used to be a vivid split between the ex-pat who worked with a major corporation or the government, and the migrant worker who was willing to cross the border and take low wage labor, the current situation is seeing the gap is starting to close (or reverse due to the west’s difficult economic situation and the move of most industry to Asia).

For a variety of reasons, major cities around the world have experienced an influx of foreign residence. Where the term “migrant” worker might inspire thoughts of the Hispanics in our fields and restaurant kitchens, I’d like to argue that the phenomenon stretches around the world and involves a whole array of industries that extend far beyond the farm, factory, construction site, and nanny. This has led to the growth of communities of foreign resident communities in places that we haven’t traditionally thought of as attracting migration.

One example community and 3 "territories" that result:

With over 20,000 ESL teachers in the country in 2010 (statistic based on an L.A. times article, I think there are many more than 20,000 though), the community continues to grow and establish its own economic centers. Three sites in this situation:

English Academy

The ESL Academy is fascinating, because it essentially takes advantage of an economic anomaly caused by the idea that every Korean child should speak English fluently in order to be relevant in the future global economy. The insecurities of the parents and older students mean that there will be an almost guaranteed income from every Korean in the country under the age of 40. Many older Koreans spend enormous amounts of many on conversation classes for themselves in addition to the cost of sending their own kids to school. Structures of educational and professional ascension have made the continuous attendance of an English class an almost continuous requirement.

The result of the mass demand has been the proliferation of often semi-shady business operations that claim to provide a better program than the next guy. The intense competition between small businesses that often lack sufficient legitimacy based on their program alone have made it part of their branding to seek the most “native English” looking teachers for their school. The result is thousands of as white as possible native English speaking college graduates preferably from North America being recruited to hold the position for terms that turn over every 12 months. The school itself then, due to the lack of experience and training of the “figure holder” teacher(s), becomes an awkward community of desperate, over worked students absorbing not English really, but more often the youthful attitude of the American 20 something. Creative bosses have started to think creatively about the business and the architecture as a way of establishing pockets of “western culture” within the fabric of Korea.


The “one room” or “office-tel,” as they are referred to in Korea, is where the English teacher often ends up living. It is literally a dorm room with a one-burner gas stove. This housing situation is proliferated across Korea not only because of the foreign teacher population but more so because business in Korea has begun to require so much of the population to uproot itself during the work week or for extended retreats to the big cities. This means that whole neighborhoods of dorm style apartment blocks have been built up where the temporary inhabitant can crash for the oft-repeated business trip.


Koreans are not shy about drinking. There have been enough generations of mandatory military service and low wage exploitation of labor to keep everyone drinking far into the future, so there is an established nightlife for everyone in the country who is over 19. This has not prevented the creation of the bar I’d like to speak about though. The bar that sprouts up as a result of the increased population of foreigners and temporary travelers is often as foreign as those who frequent them. The teachers coming from western countries or places like the Philippines, have drinking and leisure cultures that differ from the local culture. This leads to the creation of entirely new establishments, communities and economies that cater to those unique cultural practices. This may make one flash to a scene from a Vietnam War movie with Asian prostitutes everywhere but this bar must be considered in an entirely evolved global situation where the Asians are exploiting the westerner who is providing a limited service and at the end of the day has no other place to be.


  1. So, this is a bit funny to me because I have a small fascination with ex-pats living abroad. (My current obsession is with Americans/Brits in Chile, so things may be a bit different in Korea) It turns out that many of these folks are young, looking for a bit of adventure after college before getting bogged down in bills and routine, and a lot of them are ESL teachers. And I know about them solely because I read their blogs.

    The thing I think you could further consider in your "territory" is the situation for that person. The travelers seem to be seeking an authentic experience - authenticity itself, maybe - by going abroad. They don't want to be tourists, they want to live in a place, eat the food, know the people, etc. So, it is somewhat odd that from the host country side that the amenities being developed are geared to be more like "home". I’m wondering if you could examine the existing places - ESL Academy, the “one room”, bar – further as they currently stage illusive ideas of “home”. By the way, what is “home”?

  2. I like that you pointed out the intent of the traveler as a way of analyzing the situation. My attitude about travel has always been that one doesn't truly experience a place as a tourist, by treating place as temporary spectacle. In order to understand the life of another place, it has to be lived. In my opinion actually, this type of travel would not be looking for "authenticity" as much as an alternative to the rule, or life that can be multi-dimensional. I guess what I'm saying is that the ESL teacher who is looking for authenticity is in effect still a tourist imagining exotic differences exist between places. This means that those in Chile who get bogged down in the bills, etc, actually do get past tourism and authenticity by deeply understanding the mundane life in Chile.

    Also, "home" has become a really interesting topic for me because of how I've experienced it and because of how it feels like its necessity is in decline.

    What is most interesting to me about the Ex-pat experience is how there are different depths of authentic experience that different types of ex-pats get, and then the simultaneous reality that every group of ex-pats is helplessly isolated in their own exported world regardless of how authentic their experience is because they are a foreigner and can never truly integrate into the host society because of that fact.