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.
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 goldmine...you 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 foreigners...it 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 drinking....so 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 rubbish...so far that's been a great improvement...hey more than this? You know there’s nothing!