Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Straight Dope From the Horse's Mouth

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The most common criticism of the first edition of ETX GUIDE was that I was exaggerating the facts, or that my experiences were unusual because I was such a fuck-up.

To completely and finally silence ANY voices daring to criticize me, I decided to add interviews with random teachers. (I had done this before on my old website.)

I'm happy to say I got a good representative sampling of interviews for the latest edition of ENGLISH TEACHER X GUIDE TO TEACHING ENGLISH ABROAD; experienced teachers and newbies, men and women, young and old, independent contractors and people who work for all different kind of schools.

Not all of them made it in though; here's one that arrived a bit too late to make the final cut. Here's a short interview with an experienced veteran in the business.

1) How long have you been teaching, and where?

Since the mid-1980s, and I've lived in the UK, Portugal, Cambodia, Japan and the Philippines. However, I have been working over the internet while living in Asia.

2) Which places have you liked the most, and the least?

It's hard to answer. I lived in Portugal for several years and really enjoyed it. But when I went back last year for a first visit in years, it just felt like being a tourist who could speak the language. It was a nice break, but I didn't feel any nostalgia, so I suppose the one I like most would be the current one. Moving on has a certain degree of severance.

3) What kind of qualifications do you have?


4) Which have been the most venal and incompetent administration you have ever worked for?

I haven't worked for a really venal admin. I have worked for a few who were a bit dodgy, but never any real bastards. One didn't pay the travel as promised, but that is really about the worst deal I have had. I have mostly worked for myself, so the incompetence would be my own. I have also worked for big schools, colleges and unis and they may be lethally bureaucratic, but they do meet the terms of the contract.

5) Would you agree that most TEFL teachers tend to be kind of fucked-up people?

There are probably slightly higher proportions of fucked-up people in TEFL than in the broader population, but in mainstream ELT, things are pretty mundane nowadays. When I started, the internet was unknown; it could be an isolated life, and salaries were comparatively higher. A job where people would put a lot of bad behaviour down to your being foreign that paid enough to live disreputably was bound to attract fuck-ups by the score, and did. The last staffrooms I was in were more herbal teas and discussions about work than planning the night's debauchery. There are still some Wild West areas and countries, which will bump the numbers of fuck-ups, but fewer.

That said, regardless of your starting point, a career in it may well fuck you up.

6) Which students have been the most difficult and thankless to teach?

Ones who are there under duress.

7) What would you have to say to someone considering a career in TEFL?

If it were a young person, I would advise them to think very carefully. Unemployment is high in most English-speaking countries, so the market's awash with young graduates, which is driving salaries down, and it's almost certainly going to be like this for years to come. In the UK, which is one the worst offenders, salaries are so bad in some places that you'd probably be better off working at McDonalds. I have seen UK job adverts this year offering an hourly rate that is under a third of what I was getting ten years ago.

Europe's got its economic woes. Japan's not what it was. People are still optimistic about Korea and China, but the demographics in both places are not good in the long-term. The trainers will pump out any number of trainees, regardless of how much work there is available. It's a high turnover market so it looks as if there's loads of work out there as there are always plenty of adverts, but when you speak to school owners about how many applicants they have for each position, things are less rosy. Then listen to the owners talking about how hard things are with student numbers- many schools are really struggling. For many thinking about it, it could be a way out of unemployment, but these are tough times and prospects are not good.

8) What's your favorite way to kill ten minutes in class?

Fortunately, I don't have to do this- I haven't been in a bricks and mortar classroom for quite a while.

9) What's your current standard of living like?

It's fine. I'd say it's comfortable- there's more money than month and we can do the things we want. Living in rented furnished accommodation and moving frequently may not suit many people, but we like it. It's one of the positive aspects of TEFL.

10) What are your plans for the future?

I'm a decade or so down the timeline from you, and things like savings and pensions are weighing down - my financial planning earlier in life was non-existent - so my plans are not that big or interesting. I will go and live in other countries first- maybe three or four more countries, which means I am now counting them off rather than up.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Alpha or Omega: A Couple of British Guys

This month on ALPHA OR OMEGA, we feature a couple of notable British guys, Stephen Hawking and David Beckham.

Our first contestant is Stephen Hawking, born 1942:

Ballsy successful theoretical physicist, his awesome intellect still soaring despite a body reduced to a barely-animated skeleton from amytrophic lateral sclerosis. The first person to set forth a cosmology explained by a union of the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Fuck YOU! Knows a lot about black holes, also.

The first quadripalegic to float in zero-gravity on Nasa's Vomit Comet. Working on quantum proof of the existence of God and meaning in the universe. Rumored to still go out and get lap dances at the strip clubs occasionally, and now on his second wife. This quadripalegic has GAME, friends. Even has a kind of radiation named after him.

Verdict: ALPHA!!!!

Our next contestant:David Beckham, born 1975

Professional pretty-boy and middling soccer player. Paid greatly for shilling cosmetics, cologne and hair products for men; made frosted hair and metrosexuality acceptable for a generation, worldwide. Has his own designer fragrance and tattoos in Hindi. Could bang any girl he chose, yet decided to marry and breed with the scrawniest of the Spice Girls.

Ah well. But then again, he's not yet forty, so perhaps he'll get around to the mathematical quantum proof of the existence of God one day. Until then, keep peddling your perfumes and gels and running around the field in your shorts there, pretty-boy.


Friday, February 15, 2013

Disgusting Barroom Conversation: Sodomy

Here's a disgusting bar-room conversation that took place back in 1999 in Thailand, during my second stint there. I just thought of this the other day for some reason. The Fat Hip English Chick was a new arrival, and had not yet become accustomed to our style of discourse.

One teacher had just returned from a dirty weekend in Pattaya ...


See, we were a very equal-opportunity bunch of degenerates; no matter the race, creed, or sexual orientation, everyone was treated with the same ball-busting, and expected to respond in kind.

(Does it read correctly in the last panel, that we're spitting beer all over the place while laughing? Kind of hard to render that.)

The gay teacher in this cartoon was one of a pair of guys I worked with at this time; they were both from London and I was really fond of them. They were in their 40s at that time and had lived through the Swinging 60s and the punk years of the 70s; they had a lot of stories. One of them had had sex with Billy Idol.

Anyway, they sold a house one guy inherited and came to Thailand in the 80s to keep the party going and even, they originally told me, with the intention of drinking themselves to death in a blaze of glory. (They'd seem to have given up on that plan, though, fortunately.)

Man, I wonder if they're still alive? One guy had gone back to London in the late 90s, I knew that. But they're hardly the kind of guys that Facebook.

Friday, February 08, 2013

My 25th High School Reunion

The 25th reunion of my high school was back in October; I was actually in town, just having returned from Cyprus. A friend said, "I'll go if you go."

And I said, "Well, okay, I'll go if you go."

I was chopping up boxes in the driveway with my new $50 Samurai sword when he arrived.

"Come on get dressed," he said. "We're late."

"I can't wear this?" I asked. I was wearing jeans and a grey hooded sweatshirt.

"It said 'smart casual' on the website."

I grabbed an old brown sports coat and put on a $5 Gap clearance-sale polo shirt.

The first day of celebration included a tour of the high school, but we'd missed that; we went to the second day of celebrations, which cost $30, a sort of reception and banquet. Or buffet, anyway, I don't know if you can could call it a banquet.

I went in and signed up and got a name tag; the three girls sitting at the front table didn't recognize me, despite my having known them fairly well.

"I didn't recocgnize you without your mullet," said one, a girl who I'd had a sort of fling with in middle school. Maybe hers was the second breast I ever touched? Anyway, in the top three. (Or, should I say, top six?) It had never much gone beyond that, though.

She still looked good, despite two children; slim and blonde, and recently divorced; I was particularly impressed with her amazingly white and even teeth, and told her so.

"That's the main advantage of being a dental assistant," she said.

There weren't many people there, although we arrived twenty minutes after the proposed start date. Maybe fifteen or twenty.


I graduated from high school in a small town in the Southern part of the United States in 1987. It was a school of about a thousand students; the graduating class had, as I remember, about 300.

As far as high school experiences go, I suppose it was a relatively decent one. I don't recall being bullied, ostracized, or tormented (except by my friends and girlfriends, of course) and while there were the usual cliques and small-town Southern conservative hypocrisy, it never bothered me that much, beyond the usual teen angst borne of hormones and a diet with far too much refined sugar.

I think I was convinced of my own superiority, and also extremely oblivious to the opinions (and feelings) of others, at a fairly early age. And it was a fairly placid time, in general, in middle America - the end of the Reagan Years.

I was okay-looking, and had a cool car ('83 Ford Mustang convertible); my eclectic group of friends included one of the stars of the basketball team as well as the class president, and a couple of stoner types, so I usually ended up at fun parties.

As far as sex, that happened; I've always had more and hotter girlfriends than I probably deserved.


High school makes a big impression on a lot of people; especially in a small-town like this, where people often marry and settle down pretty young, high school is the best of it.

Not ME, motherfuckers. In the last twenty years, I doubt I've thought about high school a dozen times. Maybe something about high school would come up in conversation when I was on one of my yearly visits to America. But overall I didn't feel much about high school one way or the other; college made much more of an impression, but even college didn't hold much of a candle to what came after it.


As it happened, I was actually in America in 1997, when my ten-year reunion happened; I got an invitation packet in the mail. It had all been organized by the girls who always organized all the parties and dances and such. Cheerleaders and student council types.

There was an outdoor barbecue picnic, a tour of the school, and some other shit; and there was a warning in big letters, something like REMEMBER, IF YOU DON'T PAY THE $70 ENTRANCE FEE YOU WON'T BE PERMITTED TO ATTEND.

The rubbed me the wrong way. $70 seemed like a lot of money, especially when I could have gone down to the Blockbuster Video store on a Saturday evening and seen most of the same people. I was all full of myself at 28, having just returned from 3 years in Asia.

I stuck all the stuff back in the RSVP envelope and wrote "I see you still like to be exclusive!" on it. I can't remember if I actually got around to mailing it back, though; I was just back in America, as I said, and I had a lot of other shit on my mind. The joke hardly seemed worth the price of a stamp.


Of course Facebook came along in 2006 or whatever; by the time I'd actually started occasionally wondering what had ever happened to various people, here comes a website enabling me to easily answer that question.

In 2007, I was contacted (on Facebook) about the 20-year reunion; I was of course in Russia at that time, and couldn't go.

Pictures were posted; man, did everybody look old to me.


So there we were at the 25th reunion. My friend (the former basketball player, mentioned above) and I mingled and said hello to the people we knew.

My own story - "I just got back from three years in Saudi Arabia" usually got this reaction from people: "Oh wow! Are you in the military or something?" Then they'd look at me with a kind of combination of apprehension and interest; both afraid and eager to hear my perhaps horrifying stories of insurgents and IEDs.

When I told them I'd just been teaching English, most of them looked relieved, but still fairly interested.

It was fine, actually. It seemed like a lot of the dorky kids had becoming either successful or good-looking, or both; or they had cool jobs, like cops or politicians. Some of them were still dorky, but most middle-aged people are dorky, anyway. "I think we're all kind of beyond trying to impress, at this point," said my friend.

The former class president arrived; he'd been living a bohemian stoner / slacker / working-at-the-coffee-shop kind of existence in another city. Another girl we'd known, another former nerd, arrived with him; she'd been working in TV production in NY.

She complained that she'd never been invited to good parties in high school.

I considered it. "I don't think I got invited either, I just went."

"I never felt like I fit in."

"Well why would you want to fit in with small-town doofuses, anyway," I said.

We mingled and discussed job experiences, our hairlines, sick parents, things that had happened in the past. We played "What happened to ..." for a while. My high school produced a Miss America, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, and a guy who I often see in bit parts in films.

Naturally none of them were going to arrive.

They played a slide show in tribute to the half-dozen or so of our classmates who had died.

One girl, a former head cheerleader type, was swanning around in a silver dress; she was ostensibly the hottest girl there. Up close, however, the plastic surgery was showing, as were the freckles from a lifetime of Solarium abuse.

Most of the divorced guys there, more sensibly, hit on the Dental Assistant.


But then after about an hour, it became clear: none of the cool kids were going to show up, anyway, so it would be impossible to see first-hand what had happened to them. The dorky people and the divorced people, and the never married, were the only ones who'd come.

They'd been planning on about 100 people arriving; they got about 40.

I sat down to talk to the Dental Assistant girl with her great white teeth; she said a lot of the popular kids -- the ones who'd always organized all the school activities -- had 2nd marriages or new young kids (as they got to the ragged end of the childbearing years) and couldn't make it, or maybe had been disappointed by the low turnout of the last reunion, and just decided to skip it.

A band composed of (former) dorky kids got on stage and played 80s songs.

The girl who'd put up a lot of the money to organize the whole thing -- a dorky girl who I cannot for the life of me remember from high school at all -- clambered drunkenly onto the stage afterwords to beg for donations, saying they'd leave an envelope on the buffet table. She seemed near tears as she got off; had she been hoping to exorcise her teenage demons with an awesome high school reunion, or now realized that her dreams of popularity were again shattered?

"Whoo," I said. "Sad. I paid my thirty bucks, though, I'm not giving them anything."

"I warned her actually," said the Dental Assistant. "I had a feeling."

"Some people just never learn," I said.

Say what you will about American girls -- they have the nicest teeth.