Pulse Point Oil is for Wimps
Whether it be by means of cheap and cheerful package tours with thrombosis-inducing economy-class plane seats, or globe-trotting from five-star hotel to five-star hotel, stretched out in your own flying ‘apartment’ (complete with pillow mist and pulse point oil, whatever they may be, if you travel with Etihad), seeing the world as a tourist ‘only’ requires money. Different sorts of money, of course, though these days even package holidays don’t come cheap.
Up Close And Personal
Living and working in another country, however, is another cup of tea altogether, and most definitely earns you a place among the hallowed ranks of ‘travellers’. You may miss out, for the most part, on fawning waiters and receptionists bending over backwards to cater to your every desire, but you, as a resident-worker, will get the chance to take an up-close and personal look at the reality of a place, its culture and its people.
From The Mouths of Babes
It’s not just the fact that you will spend a much greater amount of time in your destination country than your average tourist; the job itself facilitates a deeper understanding of a people than whatever can be gleaned by ordering your lunch from a few of them. Working mostly with a nation’s youth, a TEFLer is in the privileged position of being able to interact with the age-group with the least notions of the potential benefits of the tourist trade, and who, consequently, will not be so hell-bent on selling you the place at all, much less the Ministry of Tourism version. The younger your students are, the more spontaneous they will tend to be, and if you teach children or teens, you’ll get a chance to see a myriad of unfettered, unguarded manifestations of what constitutes local culture.
To Sir With Love
Not only that, but as their teacher – a parental figure in almost all cultures – you may easily end up in the flattering position of being the focus for a great deal of enthusiastic affection, which can translate into flowers or little hand-decorated notes with words of appreciation left on your desk, constant requests for selfies with you (which will get shown at home, so lay off the silly faces), and lessons being interrupted with “Teacher, we love you!” declarations. And that’s just at college and university level! However annoying those interruptions can be, you would have to be of the particularly hard-hearted variety of human being not to be touched, and if it happens to you, you can bask in the certainty that it is a genuine display of affection (unless it only occurs around exam time, of course), and not of gratitude for a generous tip left on your dinner table – and what better catalyst to truly get to know one another than the open curiosity generated by real affection?
You’ll also get bombarded with questions, for you may well be the first Westerner they have ever come into contact with. Aside from the kick you’ll get in being a sort of cultural ambassador for your own country, if you read between the lines of what piques their curiosity, you can get just as much information about their attitudes and beliefs as they will worm out of you.
A Pinch of Philosophy
Lest the picture being painted start to resemble one of those stock photo images of beaming teachers against rows of adorable, well-behaved students, used in TEFL recruitment sites to convince hapless ingénues that teaching classes of 40 pupils in Chinese primary schools, for 40 hours a week, for a miniscule wage and shared accommodation will actually be a blast, the fact of the matter is, even when they behave badly (and they will), if you manage to take it all with a pinch of philosophy, your students’ worst behaviour will reveal vital snippets of information about their mind-set.
Analysing the Antics
While you’re stuck in the middle of a classroom melt-down, the silver lining can be a tad hard to distinguish, but, since ‘bad behaviour’ often reveals the fears of our pupils and students, their lack of confidence, the effects of the pressure to excel, or simply their need for a little attention, a few years down the line, you may look back and acknowledge that through those temper tantrums (and yes, I’m still talking about college and university level) you got access to many important clues as to what really goes on in the heads of another nation’s youth.
Although it’s unlikely that you’ll ever socialise with your young students, you might just be teaching Business English in companies, or English to adults in private language schools, or have, among your colleagues, some who are not fellow Westerners, but locally recruited staff; in which case, you could easily get included in a spot of wining and dining in Italy, France or Spain, karaoke-ing in Japan, or camping out in the desert or a wedding in the Gulf with actual locals. Not to be sniffed at, such experiences really do make for the most precious memories.
Close Encounters of the Irksome Kind
Of course, you’ll also get close encounters with local bureaucracy, the local health service, even the local law enforcers on occasion, which, it has to be said, rarely tend to be experiences worth Instagramming or Facebooking about. Still, they’re an integral part of the 360-degree vision of the place, and the TEFLer, with his or her adventurer’s spirit, will not disdain experiences merely because they’re lacking in the picturesque factor.
The Real Deal
Sometimes the experiences can be downright stomach-churning – it’s pretty much mathematical – the longer you stay in a place prone to earthquakes, camels wandering into the middle of unlit motorways at night, or bag-snatching, the more likely you are to be involved in such occurrences first-hand. Unless they have truly dire consequences, once you’re in a position to look back on your overall experience of a place, the fact that you dealt with and survived the nitty-gritty and the downright awful will fill you with a certain amount of self-satisfaction based on the firm knowledge that you know what that country is really like. You’ve seen it without its make-up on, before its gone on-stage, before the performance has begun.
The Whole Truth
The prettied-up version served to the tourists is almost never authentic; cookie-cutter hotels and resorts, and shuttle-stop sight-seeing tours crop the reality of a place, just as a dedicated Instagrammer micro-selects that tiny sliver of picturesque in a scene in order to impress his friends. However, the fact remains – it’s often what gets left out of the shot which tells the truth.
The TEFLer gets to see the truth, and although it may not always be pretty, and although at times we might appear and feel rather lost, at the end of it all, we come away having accumulated a good bit of actual knowledge and understanding, rather than memories of illusions.