Gay men, English and desire in Bangkok

Gay men, English and desire in Bangkok

Gay men, English and desire in Bangkok

I have recently begun working on my MA thesis on sexuality and second language learning at the Graduate School of English, Assumption University of Thailand, under the supervision of Kimie Takahashi. She has encouraged me to share my experience in developing this project here on Language on the Move. Funny enough, my research topic is often seen as ‘outside the box’ here, but it came quite naturally, so to speak, and here is why.

In 2010, I arrived in Bangkok as an international student from Taiwan, and since then I’ve been introduced to many fashionable gay hubs, such as the glamorous Telephone Bar or The Balcony on Silom Soi 4 or the always-packed DJ Station on Soi 2.  The city has always been well-known  internationally for its gay-friendliness and sexual diversity (Jackson, 2011), and indeed these places are packed with international couples, especially Asian and Western.

What struck me most about Bangkok’s international gay scene here is that these Asian gay men from non-English-speaking backgrounds, do not only speak good English but also seem very confident and skilful in socialising with Westerners: they so elegantly flirt, joke around and engage in intellectual conversations on the economy, education, globalisation and whatnot, all in English. They definitely don’t fit the image of Asians as deficient or shy speakers of English that is still paramount in the literature that I have been reading since I began my master’s degree in ELT. I’m pretty sure that they’d roll their eyes or be offended if I told them how Asians are talked about as such by researchers.

When I initially started developing an MA thesis project last year, I didn’t know that what I had observed in my daily life could be a research topic. Having read A Passion for English by Ingrid Piller and Kimie Takahashi (2006), I learned that research on the intersection of sexuality and desire in second language learning is actually cutting-edge 😉 I then decided to propose a project that would look into the language learning trajectory of gay Asian men in Bangkok, to explore if they were like the Japanese women in their study who developed akogare (desire) for the English language alongside their fantasy for Western masculinity.

Having decided to model my project on Ingrid’s and Kimie’s work, I looked for similar ELT studies with a focus on Asian gay men’s desire for English and the West. My pursuit was rather fruitless. Brian King (2008) explains that although the fields of ELT in general and Second Language Acquisition (SLA) in particular have investigated learner motivation and learner identities since the 1980s, the literature has suffered from heteronormativity. Indeed, doing my literature review has made me wonder what kind of world previous research has been occupying for the last so many decades – certainly not the one occupied by millions of fellow gay and lesbian friends of mine living side by side with fellow heterosexual folks.

As such the fields of ELT and SLA have failed to address why gay learners aspire to learn English or how such aspirations manifest in their linguistic practices and learning or if being gay really matters at all. Similarly, the fields of Sexuality Studies or Sociology seem to have paid little attention to the language learning trajectories of gay Asian men who desire Western men. My study is thus designed t to fill this gap in the literature on Asian gay men’s desire for English and Western men, and how their desires may impact their opportunities to learn and use English in Bangkok.

As part of the requirements for my degree, I defended my proposal, a critical ethnography of Asian gay men’s desire and second language learning in Bangkok, to the proposal committee in April, 2012. One of the comments by an examiner was “This is an interesting project. It’s like thinking outside the box”. I was flattered, of course, as every new research has to be original and innovative. But, at the same time, the metaphor of the ‘box’ seems to index the very problem I’m going to challenge head-on, i.e., heteronormativity. For me, a gay man belonging to the thriving gay community in Bangkok and beyond, what I’m going to look into is pretty much inside the box.

Jackson, P. A. (2011). Queer Bangkok : Twenty-first-century markets, media, and rights. Aberdeen, Hong Kong; Chiang Mai, Thailand: Hong Kong Univ. Press; Silkworm Books.

King, B. (2008). “Being Gay Guy, That is the Advantage”: Queer Korean Language Learning and Identity Construction Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 7 (3-4), 230-252 DOI: 10.1080/15348450802237855

Piller, I., & Takahashi, K. (2006). A Passion for English: Desire and the Language Market In A. Pavlenko (Ed.), Bilingual Minds: Emotional Experience, Expression, and Representation: Multilingual Matters, pp. 59–83.

Author Shih-Wei (Willie) Cheng

Shih-Wei Cheng is an MA student in the English Language Teaching program at the Graduate School of English, Assumption University of Thailand.

More posts by Shih-Wei (Willie) Cheng
  • Hanna Torsh

    Hi Shih-Wei

    You make a fantastic point – who defines what the box is and why should we accept their definition? Sexuality in ELT is something I have long been interested and was fascinated to come across an article by Cynthis D Nelson called Vanishing Acts in Language and Culture: reflective narratives and the emergence of identity, where she discusses the invisibility of the queer community in language teaching and the heteronormativity of much teaching material and approaches. What I found particularly interesting was her point that her relationship was made invisible in a ‘simple’ language exercise where the teacher ‘corrected’ her pronouns so that they represented a heterosexual couple rather than her and her girlfriend; in other words the ideological process of language teaching became at that moment particularly visible as such. I’m sure that your research will be extremely valuable in making visible how language learners resist and approriate such domination for their own purposes.
    All the best with your research!

  • Alwin

    Hi Wille, I strongly support your points, and I think you can crash those boxes. I think we don’t need to set a gap between ‘inside the box’ and ‘outside the box’, we can just jump out of the box, then you can see a ray of sunshine go through the cloudy sky, just let the dreams lighten the reality.

  • Agi

    I agree, lets do away with ‘the box’ so there won’t be a need to be inside or outside of it 🙂 That would make a real change. Great project!

  • Mario

    It is an interesting topic, way to go! Since you seem to know already what you will conclude in your thesis, the following article might be of help – it does not tackle the issue of gay men’s desire to learn English in particular, but the concept of “sociolinguistic consumption” it introduces and discusses might serve you well in reflecting on anyone’s desire to learn a language. Good luck!

    Stroud, Christopher and Lionel Wee (2007) ‘Consuming identities: language planning and policy in Singaporean late modernity’. Language Policy 6(7): 253-279.

  • Shih-Wei Cheng

    Thanks Hanna Torsh. I have read the article by Cynthis D Nelson called Vanishing Acts in Language and Culture: reflective narratives and the emergence of identity. It is fascinating. Thanks.

  • Shih-Wei Cheng

    Hi Mario, thanks for the reference. I really appreciate it 😀

  • Jee

    Hi Shih-Wei, Your blog has brought back my old memories when I was one of those people roaming the places you mentioned. I do support your venture into this academic interrogation of the relationship between gay sexuality and English learning. I have many gay friends, some speaking English well, some average, and some maybe not at all. — Jee+

  • Buddy McIntire

    Years teaching ESL in China. Girls make up 95% of the students (English majors at unis) and of the boys, I estimate, about half are gay. What’s this all about? I don’t know but you are looking at something interesting….

  • Brian King

    Great to hear about your research Shih-Wei. I’m looking forward to seeing your results when they’re ready. You might be interested to hear that Rodney H. Jones is publishing an article that’s related to your current interests:

    Jones, Rodney H. (2013) ‘Verbal hygiene in the Hong Kong gay community’. World Englishes 32(1): 75-92.

    I’ll try to get you an advance copy if Rodney’s able. Best wishes – Brian

  • Brian King

    Verbal hygiene in the Hong Kong gay community


    ABSTRACT: This paper explores the status and function of English among gay men in Hong Kong through the analysis of postings about English on a popular gay internet forum. The forum,, while mainly featuring discussions about sex, fashion, entertainment and relationships, also contains a surprising amount of discussion about the English language, mostly taking the form of what Cameron refers to as ‘verbal hygiene’ – the enforcement of language ‘standards’ through the criticism of the language use of particular individuals or groups. The analysis of these postings sees them not just as evidence of language attitudes within the gay community, but also as tools with which Chinese gay men in postcolonial Hong Kong position themselves in relation to one another, in relation to ‘foreign’ gay men, and in relation to the wider population of Hong Kong.

  • Shih-Wei (Willie) Cheng

    Thank you so much, Dr. King. It is my pleasure that you are willing to see the results of my research!
    Rodney H. Jones’ article looks very interesting. Hopefully, I will be able to read it. While doing my research, I totally understand what you meant about ‘heteronormativity’ in King (2008). Therefore, it is always so good to see any researches about English language learning and sexuality.

    King, B. W. (2008). “Being Gay Guy, That is the Advantage”: Queer Korean Language Learning and Identity Construction. Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 7(3), 230-252.

  • saf

    I assume lots of people (including me) want to hear the progress (as well as the result) of your thesis writing 🙂 Update us, if possible!

    a fellow international student in Bangkok