In the 1980s, EFL ‘Eh-full’, (English as a Foreign Language) was a dream job for savvy college graduates. Being a native speaker became a passport to a job, legal visa, often with paid housing and paid airfare to and from foreign lands. After the 1990s, it became too popular. After 2000, its attractiveness tarnished and its wages stagnated.
Colleges, language schools and various English language employers demanded proof of a Bachelor’s or preferably, a Master’s and attestation (a complicated, time-consuming and expensive process.) Eventually, employers began demanding teacher credentials. Adios to the ‘backpacker’ English teacher.
In the early 1990s, Dave’s ESL Cafe, (English as a Second Language), freely provided job postings and comment boards for most countries. But like many of us, after 2015 or so, Dave became enamored with money. Negative comments disappeared to appease paid advertisers. For me, the job was about living and learning about world cultures. Like Dave, I learned to enjoy money: Arabic salaries were golden compared to European survival wages.
Since I retired at the age of 65 from Turkey, I remain unacquainted with ELF/ESL now ELT (English Language Teaching) during Covid.
First, in 1984, British colleagues in Saudi Arabia warned: “The Americans are coming!” After 2000, the alarm morphed into “The Irish/Canadians/South Africans/Filipinos are coming!” In Oman as a white American woman, I was in the minority. And like soccer/football competitions, underlying mutual emotions of jealousy, stupidity, and resentment triumphed over cooperation, kindness and respect.
After a Saudi university unwittingly hired a Jewish person, and an American lawsuit ensued, Saudi Arabia sent new employees a “Letter of Intent”. This accompanied information mailed about visa and air plane ticket acquisition at an airport. The contract was signed in Saudi Arabia, subject solely to Saudi laws. Actually, most countries’ contracts were simply pieces of paper for visa acquisition. Often conditions, salaries, housing, vacation time, weekly teaching hours and other realities could be renegotiated or ignored. Silly me, in 2011, I tried to sue an Omani university for unfair dismissal. Guess who was part owner of the school? The country’s ruling sheikh. You’d think after losing my most lucrative job in the United Arab Emirates in 1990 because I gave one of the ruler’s sons an “F” and his female cousin an “F” too, (both honest, well-deserved grades) I would have learned my lesson. (They colluded, using gossip, to get me fired.)
Three Learned Lessons
First, when fired overseas, you lose your right to remain in the country, to housing, to having a telephone – nearly everything. In South Korea, at a hagwon, (private, after-school institute) I managed to get on the wrong side of the young, inexperienced American male manager’s wife’s side. (Eventually, they divorced.) Lucky for me, I had volunteered as an editor with a Korean and his English newspaper. He offered me one of his studio apartments while I sought work. Taking the subway in Seoul, knowing undercover police were on the lookout for illegal foreign teachers, even tracking them off the subway to their illegal jobs, made me paranoid.
Second, backpacker colleagues, those with fake credentials, or even professionals could cause unsettling problems. One admired and respected teacher’s students always scored high on exams. I was instructed to deliver her some papers while she was teaching. SURPRISE! In her classroom, displayed on the whiteboard, was the entire graph and questions for the upcoming exam! Another teacher, making a test, put the ‘Fill in the blanks with words from the above box’ with the words in the exact order as the questions!
Most Arabic colleges safe-guarded their tests. Selling of tests is lucrative in Gulf countries (Arabian Gulf, not Persian Gulf). While surfing the net for a study skills plagiarism lesson, I discovered just one American university in China closed, explaining more than 90% of students’ work was plagiarized. Somehow the UK, Canada, even Scotland’s branch universities in China never noticed the problem. Even one of the best universities in Oman often overlooked plagiarism.
One Omani teacher demanded us to teach students the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), a language in itself. This was bizarre. Omani students are excellent with speaking and listening skills but weak in reading and writing. (The opposite is true of Asian students.) Another Omani teacher held the same criticisms about the program. I encouraged him to speak up since the administration wouldn’t listen to us foreigners. He confided it didn’t matter who said what. Wasta ruled, wasta being wealth and nepotism.
Third, it’s important to remember, “It’s just a job.” Like jobs in any country, problems abound.
First, teaching English overseas was my compensation for being a failed writer. I wrote tests; not paid stories. I edited exams; not novels. I argued intellectually with colleagues; not editors. Teaching was a profession I took seriously. I vowed to improve students’ lives by being kind, professional, honest and caring. Too often I was a workhorse. But once visiting friends and family at home, my adventures impressed people.
Despite the glamour of overseas living, after five minutes, most Americans were unable to process new information. To my shock, they returned to everyday topics. I attempted to replace their misconceptions with truth. Fruitless. Superficial comments about riding an elephant in Thailand, or a visa run to Tokyo were much more appreciated than in-depth discussions.
Second, for me, being a failed writer was respectable because I lived in exotic locations. However, although most humans usually have similar body parts (legs, arms, heads, etc.) and need to eat, sleep, mate and eventually die – cultures around the world are not all the same.
Paved roads, red-octagon stop signs, as well as blue and white expressway signs are ubiquitous, but not the day-to-day everyday unwritten rules of a culture. Professionals argued what a ‘culture’ was and that no culture was better or worse than another. This encouraged acceptance rather than censorship of female genital mutilation. When married to hypocrisy, sexuality in a foreign country keeps everyone tottering on the edge of confusion. In Asia, Taiwan’s ‘love hotels’ and red and white rotating barber shop signs – brothel advertisements – were legal, but dildos for women were illegal. No, American soldiers from Vietnam ‘resting and recuperating’ in Thailand did not cause the Thais to introduce prostitution, as once expounded. R&R in Thai became more lucrative. Tradition pushed one woman in every family to abandon her village for a year’s work in Bangkok to provide her relatives with a new home, made with bricks. AIDS seriously harmed the entire country because of Thai sexual practices.
After much social failure, I realized that human beings emotionally were similar, but governments chose which emotions to reward and which to punish, creating a culture. I thus looked for the ‘reward/benefit’ in what I had assumed were bizarre behaviors. Asian sleep deprivation hampers hormonal and cognitive development, shaping Asian mass slave mentality. Upon death, Muslim men enjoy many virgins. (Their wives? Their husband.) This encourages males to follow the religion’s rules. Christianity learned late to honor Mary as the mother of Jesus. For me, Catholic churches seemed predominantly female-attended. I am ignorant of Protestants’ cultural messages, but admire their swift adaptation to birth control.
Deciphering cultures was a fulfillment of my childhood dream ‘to know everything’ by living, and not by being a bookworm.
Third, teaching writing, one young Muslim wrote about her first time trying to wear an abeyah, the black silk body covering required at puberty. She hated it. Over time she enjoyed it because it made her feel womanly. Learning from my students was sometimes confusing. It demanded extensive cognitive work on my part which I found incredibly rewarding.
Finally, the marvelous adventure about living overseas is that it challenged my inner self. Like an Olympic competition – my entire being and way of looking at the world evolved. Life overseas showed me how cultures solved problems and how people, around the world, daily decide to be kind or unkind.
In conclusion, being an EFL teacher was both exciting and terrifying. When AIDS arrived, AIDS tests were needed along with applications. Nowadays with Covid, living overseas is a life or death decision. As I once wrote on Dave’s ESL Cafe, would I do it again?
If I could find an honest, professional international private school, with a workable curriculum already in place, along with proper colleagues, books, and materials, yes! I failed at that once in Cairo, Egypt with a fake American high school. I then returned to teaching at colleges. Hindsight has taught me I should have tried harder to find my dream academic institute.
Do I regret having done it? No!
Every life has nightmares, every job has unpleasant idiosyncrasies and co-workers. Every culture sanctions its preferred behaviors. As Lisa Feldman Barrett shows in How Emotions Are Made, the same can be applied to dreams and nightmares – we construct our realities ourselves, by balancing our external and internal stimuli to maintain our body budget (physical survival/sense of self).
To this day, I recall when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, informing my mother, who was washing dishes in the kitchen, that I had dreamt I was going to be famous. She corrected me, “Infamous.”
I used the universal word found in nearly all cultures: “Huh?”
“Look it up in the dictionary.”
I raced back to the kitchen and ran up to her. I pummeled her backsides with my tiny childish fists, “That wasn’t nice!” I screamed.
She turned, knelt, and hugged me, “You’ll probably be both.”
PS https://www.reddit.com/r/TEFL/ has replaced Dave’s ESL Cafe.
5 thoughts on “Teaching English Overseas – Dream or Nightmare?”
You did not fail as a writer…
Sounds like you’ve had some time to reflect. Sometimes people will talk about wouldn’t it be nice to go back in time and re-decide a decision they made. They don’t stop to think, they are who they are now, and are where they are, because of those decisions. Good and bad. Just where are you now?
Hi, Alice! Interesting insights. Barb and I often peddle past your old house on Spruce Street when we bike to Lake Opeka. Those old and golden days.
Alice: So enjoyed your adventures of teaching. You have had a riches of life experiences. Thank you for sharing. Stay safe and continue to enjoy life!
You are still teaching, you just don’t know who all your students are.