Have English, will travel

2008-04-01 00:00

Teaching in Asia is now a popular gap year and even a long-term career for South Africans. Clutching my freshly earned degree, it seemed wasteful to me to spend a year as a doorman in a Salt Lake City ski resort or lay bricks for London council housing, as many of my fellow graduates did.

When my travelling companion Ali suggested teaching in Thailand I could not think of a better way to do something rewarding, save money and travel.

We knew nobody in Thailand, so our welcoming committee consisted of three cockroaches. Clearly they had never thrown a surprise party before because when I switched on the lights they jumped back into their hiding places rather than out from behind them.

Our bedroom was hot, windowless and dominated by a round bed. I caught surprised reflections of myself in each of the four walls. A particularly wide-eyed version of me was even staring back when I looked up at the ceiling. I flicked a switch and two red, vertical strip lights flickered on either side of the bed. I looked at Ali. Her eyes, already red from nearly 24 hours of sleepless travel, were stung with tears.

We went to Thailand to get a Tesol qualification (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) and then teach English for the year. We had sold our cars and paid for our course, accommodation and return tickets in advance. We had made our flea-infested round bed and now we had to lie in it.

But it was one of the best decisions of my life to follow Ali to Thailand. Even the brothel, after the initial shock, had a certain charm you usually expect from crime scenes and drug dens. Almost every apartment was being rented by young teachers in our exact situation. We survived the year on the advice of the friends we made there.

Seven out of the 12 foreign teachers I later worked with came from South Africa. I too grew up white and middle class in the twilight of apartheid and was shocked to find out that job offers are not just handed out along with your degree anymore. In Thailand skin colour is still the strongest qualification. Ali’s Thai teaching assistant has a master’s degree in education and 10 years teaching experience and he earned about half our salary.

I worked with Swedes, Belgians, Afrikaans South Africans and even an Uzbekistani, who earned good salaries as English teachers but spoke the language only slightly better than their students. My boss in Thailand, also a South African, admitted to me that English-speaking Filipino teachers earn less and are less likely to be hired because they look Asian.

It’s no surprise that Thailand has a lot of expatriate South Africans who feel hard done by by affirmative action and are not embarrassed to tell you. Once a Swedish man, having spoken to a few other South Africans before me, suggested that I seek political asylum in Sweden rather than return home.

Growing up speaking and writing English does not mean you can teach it. English is a Germanic language pressed into the mould of Latin grammar, leaving behind some very messy edges: try explaining to an eight-year-old Thai child why English has no second person plural pronoun; that the word “you” can be used in referring to either one or several people.

Later I realised that it would have been better to train as a lion tamer when I faced my first class of eight-year-olds. Let me kill the myth that ethnicity is somehow connected to behaviour and work ethic in children. But the course does let you practise teaching under the observation of an experienced professional. Without this, becoming a teacher would be like expecting to be able to practise medicine because you have not missed a single episode in all 14 seasons of ER.

Teaching is not my career. But I enjoyed doing it and got to travel to Cambodia, Malaysia, Malaysian Borneo, Singapore and all over Thailand, and still saved a fair amount of money.

As a writer, where else could I have lived in a brothel-come-youth hostel, where my neighbour was an Icelandic heroin addict being paid by his country to remain exiled in Bangkok? Not only that, but he was married to a 19-year-old trans-gender prostitute who used to clip clop past our apartment every day in man-sized 15-centimetre heels dressed in a tank top and miniskirt.

“Why go back?” everyone asked before we left. “You earn more in Thailand and the crime rate and cost of living is much lower.”

I saw my answer in the way expatriates always tried to recreate the lives they had back in South Africa. They bought satellite dishes to get South African TV, braais were still the main social event (one woman even went so far as to fashion boerewors from pork mince and scraps found in Thai supermarkets) and, even if it was negative, all they spoke about was South Africa.

Travelling is wonderful only because you get to go home and tell the stories afterwards. My feeling is that if I am going to moan about crime, power cuts and corrupt politicians I am going to do it at home where it at least has a chance of making a difference.

Qualifying to teach English as a foreign language

TESOL, TEFL and CELTA qualifications have the same outcome: the ability to teach English as a foreign language.

Combined with a university degree it enables you to teach all over Asia and in some of Europe and South America.

Different countries and organisations recognise one qualification more than the other. For example, the CELTA is compulsory for Cambridge university affiliated schools. I did a combined TEFL/Tesol because it has the broadest options.

An online search will reveal hundreds of courses available around the world. They range in price from about R7 000 to R12 000.

There are several in South Africa, but most people opt to study overseas because it lets you adjust to the way of life and often you will be guaranteed a job in the country where you study. It can get expensive when you factor in travel, food and accommodation, but you can expect to earn the money back in the first few months.

The course typically requires 120 hours of work with 20 hours’ practical teaching included. It can be done full-time in one month, or part-time over 10 weeks.

The very lowest you can expect to earn is about R7 000 per month. With experience and depending on the school and country you are in you can earn as much as R25 000. My experience is that the highest salaries are in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. In Thailand (and China to a lesser extent) you get paid less but the cost of living is exceptionally low.

Visit www.ajarn.com or www.tefl.com for more information on the qualifications, courses, job opportunities and forums for overseas teachers.

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