Saturday, September 17, 2016

TEFLpocolypse: Day of Reckoning

"For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?" - Revelation 6:17

The TEFLpocolypse abides. 

Oh, me? I'm fine. Don't worry. My job seems to be going well enough, and I really dig Beijing. 

But I narrowly dodged a bullet at my last job, and some of my colleagues there weren't so lucky. 

Fucking contracting companies. 

I am referring in this case to government contracting companies, not plain old recruitment companies. (The term is sometimes mis-used.) Contracting companies provide personnel for government contracts, usually military / industrial in nature. I worked for one last year in America, and I worked for one in 2013 / 2014 in the Kingdom.

Basically, they provide employees so that the government don't have to provide employees with full time jobs, permanent contracts, full security clearances, and full benefit packages. While your salary might be good or even great, it is the result of a formula designed to provide the lowest bid on the contract. 

And you're fucking expendable. 

My first contracting job, in which me and maybe a hundred other people provided our TEFL skills for the state-run oil company in Kingdom, was to me very unpleasant though highly paid, and I left after a year. I didn't have any particular problem with my contracting company, but I saw many others -- people being suddenly let go for little reason, paperwork being bungled, money not getting paid, people being forgotten about after being promised jobs

Most of the hundred or so people I was hired with were let go in summer of 2015, when the low price of oil caused major repercussions in the economies in the Middle East. Most of them were older guys who had been hoping to ride that gravy train until they retired, and most of them had been constantly reassured they would be offered another contract. 

My last job, in America, struck me as a half-assed, tentative deal from the very beginning.  I was interviewed, then didn't hear anything, then offered a different job, then offered a part-time job, then finally offered the job on the condition that I could start in a week. 

Needing to stay in America to help my Parkinson's-stricken father, I took the job, but I could tell it was no sure thing. The HR guy who met me on the first day was a cynical retired military guy who said he doubted the job would last until Christmas. (The job did, but he only lasted until March of the next year.) When my boss, the manager of the program, came to meet me, she was in tears, having just been bawled out by her superiors (government folks, I guess) over something she didn't want to discuss. 

As the months passed, I was appalled by the e-mails full of corporate nonsense-speak about teams and goals and leveraging our sensibilities, which were lengthy but said very little. I was required to watch something like 5 hours of videos of training in things unrelated to my field. They even once sent out an e-mail asking if we had previously worked on any contracts that they might be able to bid on and poach. 

The students at that job could not care less about learning English; there were nearly 200 when I arrived and they were being sent home in droves, for discipline violations and occasionally completely criminal acts, while none were arriving. 

I expressed my doubts to my colleagues. They were a mixed bag -- mainly retired public school teachers and a lot of younger TEFL refugees bounced back from whatever jobs abroad. 

Usually, I was told to stop being so negative. 

The whole government contract world is extremely complex, with a lot of regulations and rules, and anybody who has ever dealt with the Kingdom will tell you that things rarely get done quickly or accurately. Everyone knew the original 2-year contract was going to end in September of 2016 -- that is, the original contract between the government and the company. (The employees were all on at-will employment agreements, which could be ended at any time.)

In the spring of this year, we found we had few students -- less than 50 remained from 200 --  and a lot of doubts about what would happen next. 

Fortunately I got this job offer at a Chinese international school in May. I continued working in the USA until a week before I left, because mainly we were sitting around doing not much. (My favorite kind of job.) 

About the same time, the boss told everybody that a new company would be taking over the contract in September, and sometime after that, "at least 800" new students would be arriving. She promised everyone they would have their jobs, and she even thought she could get everybody a bit more money. 

Maybe she even believed it. 

All week long, I've been getting panicky, horrified e-mails  from people working there. 

The new bosses came  -- and said that since they have not yet received orders for the arrival of new students before the end of the year yet, they would only be hiring 2/3 of the staff. 

One colleague was a guy who I worked with in the contracting job in the Kingdom. He is in his late 50s and had been terribly relieved when he was hired to replace me in May. Now he's at least hoping he'll be eligible for unemployment. 

One guy, who had relocated from another state with his wife and new baby, got an offer -- $2000 less a year than he'd been making before. 

One colleague had developed a brain tumor which was being successfully treated; she will be unemployed and out of insurance at the end of the week. She is thankful for Obamacare. 

"Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is." -- Mark 13:33. 

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Far From Home

I am far from home in a new country.

I don't speak the language. Many things are different and unfamiliar. 

I live in an apartment that somebody else furnished, and my own things here could easily be fit into two bags. 

So why do I feel so comfortable? 

I'm sure there are probably volumes of psychology to be written about it, but it all gets back down to the fact that this is what I do. I have spent most of my life teaching English in other countries. It's just ... what I do. 

I feel far, far more comfortable walking around in the streets of Beijing than I did in the small town in America I was living in last year. 

So how is everything?  

The apartment provided is nice enough, roomy, bright, and well-furnished. The area around me is mostly a work in progress, but there are shops and a decent restaurant. 

I live outside of Beijing, but it's easy enough to get to the center with frequent buses. Beijing seems a bit nicer than I imagined, although I am aware the brutal winter will soon be upon us. 

The job? 

So far no problems. Classes have been okay. As at a lot of international high schools in China though, there are a lot of annoying extra activities that involve sitting or standing around more than one would like. 

But I'm teaching some fucking English, baby. 

That's what I do. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Few Suprising (To Me) Facts About China

Week one in China finished; no teaching yet, just a week of orientation and getting settled in. Some first impressions: 

1) Turns out they really do eat Kung Pao chicken in China -- One of the first things people I knew who had worked in China before me said was that the food would be completely different than the Chinese food I was used to. Full of bones, I was warned, and different spices, and putrid fish, and perhaps cat meat instead of chicken. 

Well maybe somewhere, but in the local Szechuan cafe near my apartment, I'm happy to say it's an exemplary version of the Chinese food I grew up with. (Although, I haven't seen egg rolls yet.) My school thoughtfully provided us with a translated menu to point at, and they have a picture menu as well. 

Having said that, though, I'm amazed at the number of people at the school I work at who say that can't or won't eat Chinese food. (Usual fucking brilliant English teachers.)

2) Beijing and the area around it is surprisingly green -- I was surprised how many parks and green areas there are in and around Beijing. I live about an hour from Beijing and it's positively fucking verdant out here. 

Now, you'd think that would go a long way towards mitigating the 800 ppm pollution, but apparently it doesn't. There is still a lot of construction in progress around where I live though, also, so it's full of dust. 

3) Cheap Chinese stuff costs less in other countries than it does in China -- So my new employers took us around to supermarkets and shops to get all the stuff we'd need for our apartments, and all that stuff that's made in China -- toilet brushes, mops, etc -- costs a little bit more here than it would in America or Saudi. (I mean, still not much, of course.)The same seems to go for all the electronics that are made in China. I paid $50 for a coffee maker that would cost $25 in America.

So there you go. The hard-hitting investigative journalism you've come to expect here at ETX. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Girlfriend 2016

We just spent three weeks in the Canary Islands.

We have in the past visited Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, the Maldives, Dubai, Thailand, Italy, and Malta.

We live in separate countries, but we go on vacations together. 4 to 6 weeks per year, so far.

And we've been doing that for SEVEN YEARS, and our relationship has not really moved forward any.

Crazy, right?

Well. Maybe not crazy.

In this day and age when any number of people of all different nationalities are waking up and thinking it's a great fucking idea to bomb, stab, shoot, run over, or set on fire groups of random strangers, you can't say that two people going on vacation together is crazy.

Can you?

Talk about the love that wouldn't die, no matter how hard you tried to kill the fucking thing!

Anyway, as Constant Readers will know, I tried to bring her to America on a student visa in 2012. She was turned down. I offered to take her to live in Cyprus or any country of her choice, but she was extremely suspicious of the gypsy lifestyle. I offered to bring her to America on a fiance visa last year, but I was unsure about the future of the job I had and she didn't want to leave her mother, who had just been given early retirement and wouldn't be able to afford to live alone. (It tends to take between 9 months and a year to get a fiance visa.)

I have remained mostly faithful to her. She says she has been faithful to me, and I believe her -- I know she's on Skype most nights at 9:00pm her time.

We don't talk about that sort of thing much though. We both have a sort of "it is what it is" attitude about it, at this point. I'm 47, and she's 32 -- it's probably not too far off to say that 32 in provincial Russia is about the same as 47 in the Western world in terms of dating prospects for a woman.

If I'd stayed another year in America, she agreed to come on a fiance visa, but of course a new job in China has come up, which offers more salary and holiday time and general prospects. And it will be much easier for her to come there.

I'm writing this at the airport in Madrid, waiting for my flight to the Magic Kingdom. If my VPN works, my next entry will be from China. Onward and upward!

Monday, August 08, 2016

Fat City

While living in small-town America, I always had an idea that I was going to go sit in some public place -- Starbucks, the Mall, a bar -- and live-blog humorous observations about American people.

The idea never bore fruit, despite numerous attempts.

Because, basically, there's only one observation you can make about people in small-town America -- why is everybody so fat?

And of course there's a global epidemic of obesity. This isn't just an American problem. 

I'm not going to sit here and make fun of fat people, or sing the merits of fat shaming. (Although I might point out that many of the bloggers who spend a lot of time fat shaming women on the internet are themselves not exactly svelte.) These videos by this guy are pretty eloquent and moving statements of the problems faced by overweight people:

And then there was my martial arts class I took, where the instructor and several of the black belts could be dscribed as a bit fat -- shaped like silver-back gorillas, they were nonetheless strong, fast, and had plenty of endurance for 90 minutes of martial arts training that left many thinner people completely exhausted.

So yes, advertising and Hollywood and porn probably give us unrealistic body images, sure. Everbody doesn't need to be rail thin.

But that's a seperate problem from how fucking fat so many people are in America.

The strange thing is that the obesity epidemic is always couched in terms of personal choice in a way that I don't quite get. It seems pretty clear to me that the obesity problem is an issue of addiction, pure and simple.

This article in the New York Times offers proof that food companies exploit the addictive qualities of sugar and salt (and advertising) to make us eat more of it, and numerous studies recently have shown that sugar is about as addictive as any other powerful drug. I see the enormous amount of sugar consumed by my nephews and my father (who are not fat) and it makes me realize that obesity is just the visible end of a larger problem of the incredibly unhealthy food most people eat now (Obviously, diabetes, stroke, cancer, etc, are the other visible ends.)

 And this is not just personal choice, but a public health issue of people with addiction problems.

And what are we going to do about it?

So we could take a War on Drugs approach -- make it completely illegal and declare military war on users and dealers of sugar.

Or we could take the much more sensible War on Smoking approach -- simply tax the shit out of sugar, forbid advertising and use in films, and perhaps also forbid use in public places.

And I personally wonder, is there a connection between the decline in smoking and the increase in obesity? All those pople who would have been out having a cigarette are instead having a Frappucino or a doughnut instead.

Addiction shapes the world in ways I never really noticed when I was fucked up all the time. More on that next entry.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Worst Shit Ever ... Or Not

People occasionally ask me what's the worst thing I've heard in all my years abroad.

I've certainly heard and seen some very blood-curdling shit, so I don't know if this is the worst, but this is the thing that I always tell people about when they ask.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Nothing Paradox

There's an inherent dichotomy in teaching Saudis -- they are some of the most difficult students in the world ... but at the same time, working with them, you are most likely going to be paid to sit around and do nothing a lot.

My first job was at a college, and I only actually had to teach about 32 weeks out of 52. My second job was at an oil company, and the trainees came and went at unpredictable intervals due to the complications of bureaucracy there; there were whole weeks and months we were sitting around the office doing not much.

This job, working for a government contracting company, is now experiencing that same "bureaucratic lag." We had 200 students when I arrived, with 35 teachers, but most of them have already been sent home or graduated. Now we have about 35 teachers and 20 students. New students are coming in September -- supposedly.

Needless to say this makes the work day a bit leisurely.

Last Friday at work I played "Don't Starve" for a couple hours and watched the original Conan on Crackle. (Sure, Conan, it's a pleasure to see your enemies destroyed and hear the lamentations of their women, but it's also nice to get paid a full salary for watching movies.)

My replacement is a guy I worked with in my second job in Saudi; I'm supposed to be mentoring him, technically speaking, but there's not much to do there, either. Show him how to fill out some paperwork, and warn him about how to deal with trouble-makers.

My visa for China is being processed, and next Friday will be my last day here. The three weeks in the Canary Islands with the Girlfriend and then I start work in China the last week of August.