There are untold numbers of people wandering the world and making their living as English teachers. In its way, teaching ESL is the modern French Foreign Legion attracting all manner of people from the fully qualified professional to the out and out lunatic. They are of every possible and improbable nationality, spreading (some would say oozing) to every corner of the globe and creating an outlandish English teaching subculture.
The world’s passion for the English language shows no sign of abating and according to some with their heads in the clouds, it is the first step to peace as the entire world masters a common language. According to others with their heads firmly stuck in the muck and the mire, it is only the latest nefarious tool of American deviltry: language imperialism.
Whichever side they’re on, all teachers will admit that at heart it is a remarkable opportunity to use their natural fluency in English, which cost them nothing, to visit even the remotest nooks and crannies of the world. They can be found in the highrises of Tokyo, the backstreets of Prague, the steppes of Mongolia, the temples of Thailand, the villages of the high mountain passes of northern Pakistan and even on the white sandy beaches of Bali. Some are paid handsomely in currency and some in simple food and lodging. Others accept the opportunity to meet people from other cultures as payment enough. Others are deadly serious and consider it foreign aid. But most I’m happy to say are not overburdened with such seriousness. They revel in the variety of the world, willing at the drop of a hat to pick up and move on to sample the air under a different set of stars.
The world of ESL even has its own social scale. At the top of the heap (or on the bottom depending on who you talk to) are the professionals with good qualifications and a good salary and who contribute articles to the professional ESL journals. Below them, you find the well-meaning students of the local culture and language, who teach simply as a way to stay longer and learn more about the country. Then there are the itinerants who were already drifting and tired of picking fruit to pay their way and started teaching on the strength of their forged American university diplomas picked up on Khao San road in Bangkok. These last would be very surprised to find out that there are professional ESL journals. And at the bottom are the misfits and the fugitives running away from something or someone. Sprinkled throughout the hierarchy like landmines in a grassy pasture are the lunatics, the drug addicts, and the terminally depressed for whom the ESL classes provide a perfect audience for their tales of woe.
Looking back, I’m not sure where in this cast of characters I fit. I was a bit of a fugitive and a bit of a fruit picker. My behavior in front of some of my classes certainly would place me firmly in the ranks of the lunatics, but all teachers had those days. I at least wished to be a student of the local country and culture even if I found Korea very reluctant to expose anything of its soul and what I did see was often incomprehensible. I even aspired to joining the professional class, going so far as to consult the ESL journals at the British Council looking for help in dealing with my less than cooperative students. Perhaps in another country I would have found my place, but Korea kept me off balance.
I often wonder what would have happened if I’d gone somewhere else. Originally I looked into many countries though I never really considered going anywhere else but Asia. But where in Asia? I had no cash reserves, so I needed a place where I could save some money. That limited my choices to Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea. Of the ex-teachers I spoke to, those who taught in Japan were young and bubbly and freshly scrubbed right out of university. They all seemed somehow too happy. I had some glossy brochures from large Japanese English schools, the big ones that occasionally advertise in North American newspapers. They had pictures of happy smiling teachers surrounded by their happy smiling students on grassy lawns. There always seemed to be someone playing a guitar and leading singsongs in the background. The literature describing their “pedagogical methodology” sounded like a cross between a religious cult, a pyramid scheme and McDonald’s. This happy “English teaching family” routine was too close to the regimented existence I was then enduring and I kept investigating.
Those who taught in Taiwan were heavily into China. They taught just enough to pay for their studies in the Chinese language. And from what I heard, the Taiwanese authorities were beginning to crack down on illegal English teachers. And Hong Kong was too small. That left Korea.
Instantly I thought I’d found what I was looking for. The Korea-based teachers were all kind of shifty. They sidestepped my questions, unable or unwilling to package their Korea experience for me. They’d finally quit trying and say that I just had to go there to understand what they meant. They couldn’t explain it. I’d ask if they liked the place and they’d say that Korea isn’t the kind of place that you like or dislike. Did they like the Korean people? Well, Koreans are different. How? Well,….
What was going on here? I’d finally ask the big question. Would they recommend the experience of going and teaching English in Korea? Again, that shifty look. They’d give me facts, but they’d never actually say anything that would encourage or discourage me. It was as if they didn’t want to take any responsibility for what might happen if I went there. Hey, they all said, go if you want to but don’t blame me or thank me later.
Two of my friends, Bill and Katie, taught English there and had nothing but good things to say. But theirs was a fairy tale story. Bill washed up on the shores of Korea flat broke in the middle of his around the world odyssey and stayed for a year and a half. He got back on his feet financially, met and fell in love with Katie, a fellow Canadian, and had a fabulous time. They married, settled down in Canada and live in a house full of Korean art.
I didn’t credit their raptures too much even at the time. They were probably looking at the country with eyes transformed by love. And they were there in the years before the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. Seoul and Korea have undergone many changes since those happier more innocent times.
What did influence me were Bill’s pictures. He had a portrait series mounted on long strips of wood, which showed dozens of people with beer bottle caps stuck in their eyes giving them a wide eyed crazed Garfield look. As Bill explained it, he was hanging out with a bunch of English teachers and Korean students at a bar in Seoul. Bill is a funny guy and on impulse he stuck beer bottle caps in his eyes, made a funny face and had his picture taken. One by one everyone there posed for a precisely framed portrait shot of their interpretation of a person with beer bottle caps stuck in their eyes. I can understand the party kind of impulse that would make people do this. But why, when you got home to Canada would you have these particular pictures carefully mounted on varnished wood panels and hung on the wall? Bill had taken stunning pictures of Korean temples, close ups of Korean architectural detail and of course the beautiful mountainous countryside. Why weren’t these on the wall? Weren’t those ancient temples and landscapes what Asia was all about? It seemed not. Those photographs were in albums tucked away in bookshelves. In some way this strange beer bottle cap series of portraits was a stronger symbol of his time there. A bit weird but intriguing.
I picked up a couple of books and found out that Korea is the “hermit kingdom”, “the land of the morning calm”, “the best kept secret in Asia”, and “roughly the shape of a rabbit held up by its ears and looking back at Asia”. That decided it. Korea was the place for me. It was enigmatic, politically hot, had an informal working environment for English teaching and was shaped like a bunny.
I saved up the airfare denying myself a muffin here and a cup of coffee there to add a dollar or two to “the fund”. I used my credit cards and hoarded the precious cash whenever I could. And finally at 9:40 A.M. on February 19, 1991, in the heady time of the Gulf War, I somewhat fearfully buckled my seatbelt on the Korean Air jet flying Toronto-Seoul and waited for the jet engines to hurl us down the runway and into the air. I think I can be forgiven a bit of fear. It is one thing to contemplate a step into the unknown and pooh pooh the thoughts of what could go wrong. It is quite another to suddenly be aboard a jet, unemployed, next best thing to broke, and heading to a place of which you know little.