Friday, September 04, 2015

Going Postal: Repatriation Chronicles / Interview with English Teacher P

English Teacher P had a rich and varied TEFL career, which he recently decided to toss aside in favor of a blue-collar job delivering mail. He agreed to answer a few questions clarifying his choices. 
Which countries did you teach in, and for how long? What did you like and not like about teaching?  

These questions take some answering...and I’ll just mention some of my attempts to escape TEFL on the journey.

After doing my CELTA in Auckland NZ in 2000, I moved to Sydney, Aus. There I worked in a language mill. I still remember my first elementary class: Japanese and Korean students staring at me reticently, not answering my questions. I would feel exhausted from speaking so much. Not what they taught us on the CELTA at all! After Sydney I moved to Tianjin, China (it’s just down the road from Beijing). Tianjin was a bit different to what it is today,, no subway and few foreigners on the streets. The worst thing for me was trying to cross the roads as traffic never stopped, even for red lights. I left my first gig pretty quickly, and went to Shanghai. There I freelanced all across town earning a good hourly rate, but spending up to four hours a day on the crowded subway. I started working at an expat bar too. I got paid about sixty dollars a night and all the alcohol I could drink. The owner instructed me to give out free drinks to customs who looked like they were about to go home. The bar was one of the cheaper ones in town, frequented by the lower-end of expat society. I met a lot of older guys there with good stories and damaged livers.

My next gig in China (in yet another city of some mere ten million souls) saw me earning English Pounds on a International Foundation Year program. The students were rich kids of limited academic ability looking for a back way into British unis. This was for me the high watermark of loony teflers. The other teachers at the school drank hard whether they be 25 or 65, many of them were highly educated with PHDs. They had dubious morals and limited social skills but I found them interesting. The school housed us in a high rise apartment building in a city block which featured about thirty brothels...

Once I'd saved some money I got out of China and headed to Argentina. China has its charms but I then wanted something as different from the Middle Kingdom as you could get. Argie fit the bill. Back then Argentina was very cheap and I spent six enjoyable months looking for a job. I eventually found one in Chile - teaching at a posh high school was a shock...the students actually were bilingual and would answer my questions! The school was a bit right-wing (they loved Pinochet) though. One of the kids had a father who owned a get the idea. I wasn't really learning Spanish living in a gringo bubble in Chile, so I moved back to Argentina. I decided I'd try and get the hell out of TEFL.

I started to work in a hostel downtown in Buenos Aires and went to basically whatever job interview I could. Occasionally I would teach an English class get through till payday. At the hostel I shared a room with the other receptionists, a Chilean guy and a Brazilian...guys with good education but little cash. I eventually got a gig working in the admin of a school which taught Spanish to paid 800 USD a month (just enough to survive on) 9am to 6pm Monday to Friday...I continued to live and work at the hostel too...but that led to a lot of I rented a tiny room in a shared house for 230 USD a month. I was poor but much happier than when teaching. I met a girl at the hostel (you were waiting for that) she was from Sao Paulo, Brazil. She was Japanese-Brazilian, the same age as I was, intelligent and independent.

After getting fired from my admin job ( for reasons not interesting enough to write down) I joined her in Sao Paulo. I found it easy to pick up business classes in Sao Paulo and the pay was OK, but the schedule was bruising: first class at 7am and last one at 6pm with many a gap in between. I liked the Brazilian students. My favourite student was a banker who used tell me about his fishing trips to the Amazon. Walking and public transporting around Sao Paolo was an eye-opener for a guy from little ol’ New Zealand. The neighbourhood I lived in had a crack epidemic going on. When I broke up with my girlfriend I headed back to Buenos Aires. However, I didn't have the energy to fight again for a job which would barely pay for me to survive.

So with my tail between my legs I flew home. On the home front it didn't look like much was happening jobwise. In need of money I again looked to Asia and ended up in Jakarta, Indonesia. Most of the students I had there were rich ethnic Chinese interested in shopping, going to church and not much else. I hated the teaching there - forcing myself to talk rubbish six hours a day. Outside of Jakarta, Indonesia was an interesting place, but having put a lot of time into learning Mandarin, Spanish and Portuguese Indonesian was a bridge too far. Still I had a swimming pool, free gym and girlfriend ten years younger. My colleagues were all in their twenties...they took the job seriously and showed little signs of eccentricity. They were mostly Brits into football and Game of Thrones. They were in general good teachers. In all of this I hit thirty-five and was having much worse withdrawals from drinking binges than before. Don’t get me wrong, there were good times, I went to Bali about four times, but then again Bali is now pretty crowded and my girlfriend preferred candy-crush to my pseudo-intellectual musings…. I did manage a few volcano climbing solo trips in Indo and that’s what I’ll remember.

A ray of light in all of this was that a guy from Argentina who'd interviewed me for a gig in Buenos Aires two years before got in touch via email. He was sending two kids storytellers to schools in Hong Kong in China. In fact he hadn't called the schools to book the tour yet and would I be interested in doing that?

I said yes to his offer and began calling international schools in the mornings before teaching. The price for a day’s worth of storytelling was about 2000 USD and I got a small commision. I was better at it than I expected and when the storytellers went to Asia they needed somebody to look after them...I got offered this job too. So I quit my job teaching in Indo and toured around China with two middle-aged women. Being responsible for westerners who had never been to Asia 24/7 in mainland China was not easy...but the boss dangled the carrot of paying for me to go over to Argentina and do a tour there….and yes he did come through on this. So I went back to South America for a few months and then back to China again for another round of tours. The problem was that the gig was part time. I returned to my school in Indo after being away for nine weeks but the second time I wanted to leave and come back they said no, I would to commit to a whole year if I wanted to teach there again (fair enough).

Enough was enough of this unstable existence...chasing girls and alcohol were no fun anymore, travelling was no fun when you had to look after the needs of a demanding artistic woman twenty years your senior (the profile of most professional touring children's storytellers it seems, yes I didn't know they existed either). It was time to get out of education and the expat life.

I did flirt with the idea of going to live in a small town in Argentina where I’d previously had a good time climbing mountains and dating local women (what more is there to life?). But how would I support myself? They paid peanuts for English classes in such a place.

What made you decide to go back to your home country?  

I was burnt out on airports, big cities and crowds. I was burnt out on teaching pretty much from the word go, and yet off and on I did it for nearly fifteen years! I was particularly sick of being in a foreign country but stuck in a school with a faux 'western' atmosphere. I met many teachers in International Schools (the holy grail of ESL teaching?)...some of them had lived all over, they had long holidays, good salaries...but somehow it still looked pretty awful to me. There were perennial outsiders but without any charming eccentricities and very rarely much cultural insight into the places they were/had been.

I didn’t really relish the thought of signing another teaching contract...another bunch of people around nineteen, twenty having me as the representative of some western paradise of Katy Perry and Bill Gates that they had discovered through their iPhones.

How hard was it to find a job when you got back?  

At first I didn't have a great deal of hope. I wasn't much enthused by the thought of working in the govt or in a company...and with my mottled CV I didn't have much chance anyway. When I saw the Postman job advertised I leapt at it. I have a permanent contract now. I earn more than I did in the majority of my ESL gigs. The job requires you to do more actual work than teaching, but inspires much less dread on a Sunday evening.

What are the easiest / most difficult things about living back in your home country?

The easiest (most enjoyable) thing is being able to hop on a push bike and ride along the coast. I live in a city of 50,000 in NZ. I guess the most difficult thing is that people in their thirties here are into golf, the real estate market and their kids - things I can’t relate too...I can live fine on my  wage but I doubt I'll ever be able to buy a house here. I don't find the women here interesting or attractive and I doubt I'm a catch myself from their perspective. I do miss my South American friends and South American women. I don't really miss much from Asia except the food….oh and I guess the challenge of understanding the place. I like having a public library here - that was something I missed in Asia.

What are you plans for the future?

Keep showing up at 7am six days a week, keep delivering the mail. Get in shape, I always wanted to do kick boxing and now have the chance. Beyond that no idea. I don't come home wanting to kill somebody after work...I'm up early in the morning without a hangover, I work part of the day outside and don't have to talk far that's been a great improvement...hey more than this? You know there’s nothing!


Deb said...

I also have hit a point where chasing girls and drinking is less fun than it used to be, I never thought it was possible, I was always to horniest guy in the world and chasing was a pure joy.

My question for teacher P, with his wealth of travelling experience - If you made an income of $3000 per month anywhere in the world, which country/city would you choose?

englishteacherx said...

IF I had an income of $3000 a month, I doubt I'd be able to sit still. Or you mean, the income would be necessarily tied to one city?

deb auchery said...

Yeah I would say tied to one city, otherwise you would just accept nowhere is perfect and alternate during the year

Anonymous said...

Brutal. Thanks for the graet post, X.

Anonymous said...

P here...Deb if we are talking about places I have already been to, then my choice would be one of the medium sized cities in Argentina...such as Tucuman, Salta or'd live well on 1500.

englishteacherx said...

My first response is to say somewhere like Phuket or Koh Chang in Thailand but I'd have to do some research because it might be underwater in a few years.

deb auchery said...

Yes it would probably be somewhere in Thailand for me. Food,weather, local and tourist women. Heard the visa is a struggle these days though. Have not made it to Argentina

Anonymous said...

I haven't been to Thailand since '04. It certainly has its beauty - but its dark side too - it was the first place I ever slept with a hooker but at the same time the only time I've stayed at a Buddhist temple. Tourist chicks and stuff are great...but after a while living in a place and socializing with waves of people looking for their holiday kicks? Could be good, not sure...would you learn much about Thailand? The last tourist island I went to was Gili off Lombok..full of Scandinavians, how come they tan so well coming from the cold north?
The Caribbean coast of Colombia is also another place that appeals.

Anyway life continues not too unlike Bukowski's novel Post Office...but without the drinking and women...I just hope they don't find out that coffee kills you - coffee is as rock n' roll as it gets. I do miss travelling - the observation and food!...P

englishteacherx said...

or maybe Costa Rica, if I had to choose one country, just because it has such varied stuff in such a small area.

deb said...

The gilis were nice, but not sure I could live there Haven't been to C America. Personally I would have to stay in Europe.

There is also the question of whether I would be single or attached.

Deb said...

Off topic - I was have a post - workout shashlik and beer with my English friend at Gidropark,Kiev yesterday and we met a respectable young and intelligent Dutch guy who said he is going to live in Vodkaberg shortly and teach English!

Anonymous said...

Argentina used to be the answer for an independent income in that the fine for an expired visa was a flat 60 bucks and they would let you back in. As a culture it's different but not too different, people aren't pointing out your foreignness to you every heartbeat. Now however they only give you about 65-70% of the value of your money when you use ATMs there when you withdraw from a foreign account (forget getting a local one). Is anywhere cheap and a good time these days? What I can say about New Zealand is that it's not cheap but you don't really have to spend money to get your kicks...and if you want to go to the beach mountains sans the rest of the human race - no worries...all these years as an escape artist trying to get away from it all in Asia and South America...

In Brazil the deal was you could stay six months and then had to leave for six be honest living in Brazil again doesn't appeal although I'd go back there to travel. X you were hanging round in Budapest recently...I've been there a couple of times and toyed with trying to live there...but the locals seem a bit hard to crack and the language is hard. I can see myself retired there at a cafe drinking pilsner and eating salty pastries, alone admiring the architecture....prob prefer that to the alternative future of hanging out at girlie bars with tattooed Australians in Bali.


Anonymous said...

Was talking to some aging posties at work today they are reckoning on about 700 USD per person per week as the amount needed to be comfortably retired in NZ. They then advised me to get married and have kids a house quick as this would all prepare me better for retirement. Is it me or is the western world just one big retirement prep school? I deliver mail to three retirement homes...the old do seem to be waiting for something to happen. It's all a head scratcher - almost makes one want to get back to sex, drugs and rock n'roll...or that other western dream - that of the fitness fanatic.


Anonymous said...

Ah, Argentina. Parts of 9 years for me, as well as a year in Chile and lots of time all over SA. It used to be love/like, but now veering back toward like/hate - much like the US. I used to dig the chaos and thought it was cool and I was cool for thinking it was cool. Now I see a dumpster run by a really, really dumb group of daft rich people who couldn’t give two shits about anything other than their next shopping trip to Miami and making damn sure to book the right table in Punta del Este come the first two weeks in January.

The joke was never, ever buy anything, invest or get married. Just rent and fuck and never have anything more than you can fit in your roller bag and be in a cab to Ezeiza in 30 minutes. A good rule, in my opinion - most anywhere in LatAm.

The tenth time you’ve been stranded because of a general strike or miss your flight because they block the highway to the airport - the cool of Argentina looks more like the third-world fuck-up it really is. The crime/security issue really gets old after a while. BTW, nobody uses ATM’s because they dispense at the official rate. The brain trust in Argy has decided to impose capital controls on dollar purchases, so everybody buys pesos on the black market - known as the “blue” market.

Having said all this, BA is still one of the most enjoyable Friday/Saturday nights for a grown up man that I’ve found in 62 countries. Its just Sun-Thursday that are a problem.

Head to the provinces? Maybe. Up north in Corrientes could be doable, but you’re going to be pretty lonely while you’re trying to develop a social circle, not to mention isolated. You could snap a nice chica and lay low, but you better be self entertained

Maybe hide out somewhere in Colombia, like Bucaramanga or Manizales. Maybe even Rio Negro outside Medellin. Cheap and really hot chicas.

Maybe Sarajevo or Tbilisi.

Anonymous said...

I hear you on all those issues. I was in Argentina in 2004 looking for work...but pay was a joke so I headed to Chile for 2005 where I made some OK money. In 2010, 2011 I was earning pesos argentinos and I just kept under the bed...pretty bad leaving the country and you can't change the currency you have...but luckily I managed to covert them to Reais in Sao Paulo. Last year I was back in BA again with a company which could get dollars - I'm not sure how they do it - I think they must just have a safe of cash. I know they have bank accounts in the US, Peru and HK. The HK account I opened for them and I took the HSBC debit card back to Buenos Aires...the card doesn't even work there! as the HSBC and the Argentine govt have some beef...The only way to change your dollars to pesos at a different rate was to go down the main street (Florida I'm sure previous commentator knows it well) and get some Colombian shouting cambio cambio to take you into a dodgy mall to a little booth where they'd dish out the pesos. I could go on - yep the place is a mess.

Last time I was there after I'd finished up my work in Buenos Aires I hung out in Tucuman - city of close to 1 million in the far north. Not really a place overrun by foreigners. I have an American friend who has lived there for years so he helped me meet people... it was an eye opener. Lots of single women with good education who were interested. Ones in their 30s, still looking good too. (I don't get it that in some places there are no attractive women above 25). The scene is not a hop straight into bed one - you need to do a lot of conversation (I didn't mind that after the first half of 2014 in Indo - hop into bed, no conversation)...and for that you need to have Spanish. I never found these girls trying to speak to me in English.

I'm a little over BA - but agreed, great city - the very length of the nights there weren't great for one with a big thirst. Good layers to the nightlife though - from heavy metal bars to all that Latin stuff.

Right somewhere in Eastern Europe a dreamland still exists...Estonia?

Personally I'd like to have the option of trying some of these smaller places in Argentina, Colombia for about 2 months a year and then spend the rest of the time in NZ earning money, staying sane and healthy.

Anonymous said...

P: "Is it me or is the western world just one big retirement prep school?"

Yup, and that's why it's about to be taken over by Islam and Mexico, whose people have had the great idea of having the kids we don't have, then breaking in and getting us to pay for them! I reckon I'll be kicking the bucket (thank god) just as Europe implements Sharia law and the US changes its official language to Spanish. Though it might come sooner.

Deb said...

Life is good here in Ukraine,the living is extremely cheap. I'm sitting in Palata Nr 6 restaurant in Kiev, I just ate a huge Borscht for 1.5 USD, big Rib Eye steak, fries and salad for 3 USD and half a litre of beer for 69 cents.

If you have even a modest foreign income in this country $700-$1000 a month, then you are living the high life, you don't need to look at prices at all unless it's something imported.

Moving on to the women, this country actually suits the 30+ guys, at that point they have the confidence and bank roll that the women desire. Although foreigners have status here, don't expect them to drool over your passport and throw themselves at you

Ukraine is addictive, I've been here for 4 years and I find it hard to leave. But I find myself thinking of going somewhere wih warmer people and more vibrant atmosphere

Anonymous said...

Mexico and Islam are not going to take over here -- if you go to our biggest city you might be scared the Chinese are taking over...but I try to resist that hysteria within in the back blocks it's very much farmers in utes who rule. A French novel called Submission in which the Muslims have taken over France is causing quite a does seem like great premise for a novel.

Ukraine sounds good, although bad for the diet. I remember being in Sofia, Bulgaria and falling in love with even the girl who worked in the convenience store. Here on my postal run I also deliver parcels and so get to see the occupants of hundreds of houses - out of about 2000 places I've encountered about 2 women I found attractive - both were part Maori...One thing is running around after girls - leads to trouble...but how about the innocent(ish) appreciation of female beauty...ah how I miss it.

englishteacherx said...

I found Kiev depressing, but maybe that's just me. All the chalk outlines and memorials in the main ploshad didn't help. In Odessa we saw two old German sex tourists get in a fight because one called the other a sex tourist.

I just spent Labor Day holiday with my dad in the new retirement community he's living in, I'll have some input on this issue to blog about soon.

Anonymous said...

As for retirement there is a guy who always sticks in my brain - I saw him in Eastern Promises, an expat pub in Jakarta - he must have been 75 and not much more than five foot tall. He was dancing with a girl in her twenties in a black dress - obviously paid company. He was quite keen on his beer too. The look on his face was pure bliss. I thought wow! Where did he get the energy, how could he be bothered with the party and girls game at his age, I was 34 and already over it. Now I deliver mail to people the same age as him...they come out as quick as they can to get the mail off me...hoping to receive something interesting...waiting for the mail, the one thing which happens in the long days of watching TV in their comfortable little flats with tidy gardens. I hope there is going to be a third road...kind of like Steinbeck riding around in a camper van listening to classical music.

Most people around here see retirement as something to plan for and look forward to(?) Sometimes hard to figure out why. I think the Chinese have the answer where the old people are all down in the park playing badminton and mahjong. My own parents are on the verge of retirement, despite having lived a healthy hardworking life...I'm afraid they are going to be too physically decrepit, stuck in their ways and addicted to worry to enjoy it. Then again we could be refugees camped out in Budapest station waiting for the train to Austria (a part of me suspects I'd enjoy that)...look forward to X's retirement home observations...P

Anonymous said...

"I reckon I'll be kicking the bucket (thank god) just as Europe implements Sharia law and the US changes its official language to Spanish. Though it might come sooner."

Donald Trump is that you? Can I borrow some money?


Anonymous said...

Great comment thread. X, you should build a travel site for grown ups/gentlemen.

P; I never made it to Tucuman, but I dated the most beautiful woman in my life from there. Blond, blue-eyed and one of the best racks I've ever encountered. I never went because I was told by friends in BA that is was pretty conservative and would require a commitment of time to make social inroads. Corrientes was the opposite; i rolled into town on a Friday night, had a good steak at a parrilla and asked the waiter where to go - the best nightclub was next door. It was very nice indeed. You could find the same gig in Posadas, Parana or Rosario (save for the new narco-war danger there). Nice people, pretty girls, good beef and wine and cheap living.

Can you expound on your gringo friend in Tucuman?

Anonymous said...

My friend in Tucuman worked in the semiconductor industry whatever that means...anyway he had some cash saved moved to Buenos Aires, bummed round and then got a job for an American company which published online financial advice (of the you need a subscription for kind)...he did the formatting of the website etc. Eventually he moved to Tucuman to be with girlfriend and freelances making websites...and has some way of accessing his dollars in Argentina although he too gets ripped off on the exchange rate. He lives like a local - knows every good street corner bar in the city to ease back and check out some chicas -- but he does have the girlfriends family over all the time...various cousins sleeping on his couch etc. After two weeks of staying with him I was sick of his girlfriends family...mind you he isn’t the misanthrope I am. Outside the city of Tucuman are some real great places in the mountains to lie low...not too many international tourists...cacti and more indigenous culture -- very cheap living.

Agreed that the outskirts of Rosario are Pablo Escobaresque...but I had a great weekend there once. I got shitfaced at a bar on the riverside and then went for a wander, found a pumping disco and paid about five bucks to go in. When they didn’t have beer at the bar something clicked - it was a ‘menores’ place - an underage disco. I was thirty-one. I went back to the bouncer and explained to him I hadn’t realised - he was fine about it and gave me my money back. I then hopped in a taxi - the driver, in his thirties, told me it was to early to party and recommended a convenience store which sold beer. Sit tight there he said until the over thirties disco over the road opens at 1am…(I would have been fine with an over 20 disco) the convenience store a lot of people not so young were preloading group took me under their wing and I headed to the disco with them. (That would never happen in Buenos Aires).

I’ve always wanted to go Posadas, the women from there are mythic. Argentina lacks at the exotic immediate gratification of Brazil...but with a bit of time a lot of places there could be for the food - I have to say once you’ve had enough steak and pizza its pretty bad...all the cooks in Italy obviously got on the ship to New Jersey not Buenos Aires...agreed X could probably set up a forum on his website for various would be a lot better that Daves ESL cafe or reddit....P

Deb said...

As I understand it the Russians are more fun. I wouldn't recommend Odessa to anyone to be honest.

I'm thinking of spending a month in St Petersburg or Kazan, failing that just go to Thailand, guaranteed whores, good food and weather

englishteacherx said...

I always thought the old guys who were having so much fun in the bars full of whores were probably guys who led very serious / hardworking lives for much of the time. (Uncle Cool from the book Vodkaberg was mostly that kind of situation.)

But then I guess some people are lucky enough to just have fun no matter what. But such people are rare. So many of this new breed of traveler / PUA Game / Self Improvement experts are clearly not fun guys at all, despite their insistance and efforts to the contrary.

Anonymous said...

There is a place in Rosario called "Rock&Fellers" - a shameless knockoff of the Hard Rock. It is one of the only real mingling'friendly places I've found in the country. A place with a proper bar that encourages people to drink and mingle about. It is also the best bar I've ever been in to check out stunning women. I was there one night and sat down to two lovely Rosarinas, who later invited me to a club in the north end, called "Lotus". It was packed with well over a thousand people - who were so approachable it was hard to believe i was in Argentina. Like your experience - a place/scene that could never exist in BA.

Strange lot the Portenos of BA. I liken them to the M&M candy; hard on the outside, while soft and melting on the inside. Once you crack the shell, born of massive insecurity - you can eat all you want, assuming that you dig the flavor of "hysterica".