First times the charm
Working full time didn't really give me as much opportunity to devote as much of my attention to studying on the course as I would have liked, nor much of a chance to look up job listings on TEFL.org. In my mind we were a long way off even beginning to think about applications and interviews, but thankfully my fiancé was considerably less patient than me. My plodding approach would have seen us having completed our courses and earned our certificates before I even browsed through the jobs available online, but, if we had been even just a little less impetuous, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. I’m sure we would still be in China, but like as not doing a completely different job to the one we are now.
I’m not a religious man, but something about how smoothly our whole TEFL experience has been up until now (never tempt fate), just seems too coincidental. I don’t want to tell you how easy it is to get the perfect job in the perfect location, because quite often I’m sure it’s not, in fact I strongly believe that we were just very very lucky. All I know, is that our experience at points has seemed too good to be true, and I sincerely hope that is the case for anyone else reading this who might be considering teaching English as a foreign language. Moral of the story, don’t be afraid to apply to ads you like the look of, before you finish the course, it might just land you that dream job.
First application. First interview. First offer. First ever TEFL job. I have no idea what we did in a past life to earn us that stroke of luck - assuming we ever make it home - but that’s how it happened. I can’t imagine our experience will be something that occurs regularly, that would just be suspicious, but at the very least I can tell you about it in as much detail as possible, as an example of when things do go right. As I said before, it was my fiancé who found the job advert on TEFL.org, as far as I’m aware she just looked it over, as she did with other ads, and then we applied for it. We built our CVs, using the helpful guide on the website and then we sent them off. In our case we had a middle man, an agent who passed our information and questions onto the school and vice versa.
This was a less than ideal set up for many reasons, the most prevalent of which, being that the agents were all fairly useless when it came communicating, there really was no such thing as a straight answer. So for starters, we had to use the Chinese social network WeChat, this app, is the key to living in China. They use it for everything, it’s not just a messaging service, it’s for personal life, family life and working life. Here, they use it to pay for everything, from buying vegetables to smart phones, even utility bills. I personally hate it, because it’s not only used by a certain ‘social gathering’ to harvest data, it’s also clumsy and ugly to boot. Think scarily futuristic tech dependency, but without any of the slick razzmatazz of science fiction. But, it makes living here considerably easier, being the main method of payment for everything and having a built in translate function. Gone are the days of drafting up professional, well constructed and eloquent emails to prospective employers, now, we enter the world of emoji, gif loving text talkers.
My fiancé had to spend hours staring at WeChat’s blunt user interface, scrawling though the quagmire of Chinese agents, all clambering to get hold of our CVs and ‘stay in contact as friends’. We found and still find that this is what we in the west would perceive to be an incredibly unprofessional, messy and at times suspicious method of conducting business. When a stranger online named ‘bob’ with a profile picture of a famous white American child actor offers you a job that sounds too good to be true, it might actually be the real deal. We really scrutinised these agents’ every miss spelt, poorly constructed message, unconvinced by the sincerity of their offers. On top of the at times silly communications with these agents, their messages were also constant and didn’t even prescribe to either British or Chinese time zones, making it often exhausting to keep track of replies.
When you're preparing to relocate to the other side of the world, you really want to feel as comfortable as possible in the knowledge of what or who is waiting for you at the arrivals gate. You must remember, that you are going to be in a foreign country, and you’ll most likely be alone. So please, please make sure you find out as much information as you can about the company, school and place you are looking at teaching in, because when the genuine offers look like scams, it gets all the harder to spot the bad apples. TEFL is a fantastic way of seeing the rest of the world, and there are so many brilliant opportunities out there, but you must always be careful.
Our agent, the one who got us here, called himself Benjamin - his western name. He didn’t speak fluent English and lacked any professional structure to his correspondence 😺👍🙀👌🙏💪🌹. His profile picture was of him standing next to a life sized statue of Ronald McDonald. Hardly the vision of reassurance when you’re facing a leap into the great unknown. But, we sent him our CVs and he passed them onto the school we were applying for.
Obviously they liked what they saw and asked us to film a short video in which we had to tell them a bit about ourselves and our teaching experience. - I will never forgive them for that, because I’m fairly sure that bloody video has fallen into the hands of my soon to be mother in law and I suspect it will feature prominently at our wedding. Another difference between our situation and the average TEFL teacher, is that we come as a comedy due, we agreed from the offset that under no circumstances would we accept a job where we wouldn’t be working at the same school, on the same campus. If they wanted one of us, they had to take the other.
Which was great for me, because I am most definitely the second half of the ‘buy one get one free’ (although they do still have to pay me). My fiancé has a philosophy degree, a post graduate module in religious studies, a module form the PGDE course and teaching experience in both a classroom environment and on a one to one basis. Me? I’m the guy that showed the new staff at work how to log onto the company computer system. Which in our shared video, I tried to pad out a bit more, never telling a lie, but not being quite so blasé about my nigh total lack of proper teaching experience. So, after a couple hundred takes, we managed to run through our dialog without laughing, bickering or tripping over our words (not the best quality in an English foreign language teacher), we finally had our video ready to send. Then before we knew it, we had an interview via WeChat.
To give you an example of how poorly this was all orchestrated, we didn’t even know who we would be interviewed by, or even if it was an actual interview or just a filtering process by the agent. At one point we thought it possible that we could sit down to the WeChat video call and find Ronald McDonald on the other end of the line. We had after all only assumed the Chinese guy next to Ronald McDonald was Benjamin. We made some notes, read over our CVs several times and talked about the questions we would like to ask the interviewer regarding the job. Then it was time for the call.
It was 8am, 3pm China time, and suddenly our situation had become very real. A woman from the other side of the world was asking us questions about our experiences and attitudes toward teaching, with the intention of deciding whether we would be suited to work for their school. Before then, it was all just hypothetical, a fantasy almost. But now, we were looking at the blurry face of an interviewer (with really bad wifi) and the possibility of living and working in China. Once we had run through the schools questions, we had an opportunity to ask a few of our own. The most important being clarification on whether my fiancé and I would be working at the same school and on the same campus? Would we get the same days off each week? Would we be able to take the same holidays off together? What kind of accommodation was there and would we have to share with other people? - the answer to this question was along the lines of ‘we have teachers accommodation on site.’ Leading to further probing along the lines of ‘Okay, can we see pictures of the accommodation before we fly out?’ Resulting in the rather ambiguous and slightly shifty answer of ‘no, we’re actually building new accommodation right now’ - so no you can’t see it. The interview ended well, with most of our questions being vaguely answered and we were left with a lingering, generally positive vibe from the conversation.
By this time we’d received another couple of requests to see our cringe worthy, self introduction video, which yet more people got to laugh at and obviously found so funny that they offered us interviews. Of the three or four video calls we had, none of them had a decent connection and none of them really instilled a great sense of confidence or security after they pretty much all danced clumsily around our questions. I’m just glad that from my previous experience, I knew this to be the Chinese way. Don’t ask me why, I’ll never understand it. It’s almost like they run on a permanent ‘need to know’ basis. This will be a recurring theme as I’m sure you’ll see. Of all the interviews we had, we both agreed that the first one had the edge. Despite my fiancé’s belief that there was something dodgy going on with the accommodation, given that the video feed just happened to cut out at the point when the interviewer told us we couldn’t see any pictures of it.
Back home, in the bustling commuter town of Dunfermline, we often escaped the humdrum repetition of my work life, by going to the pictures. (I seriously miss our limitless cinema cards.) It was on one such visit that we received the emails, containing both our job offers and the contracts that we would be signing. Sitting in the back row - not my choice, my fiancé refuses to sit anywhere else incase someone tries to assassinate her - we quickly tried to read over the documents before the trailers ended. I remember, that just as the age rating for the film came up on the screen, a silence having fallen over the quiet, mid week audience, I finished reading over our offer. Now let me tell you, it’s not every day you get a fantastic job offer and you get to watch the Lego movie 2 on the big screen. It really was too good to be true, except for the bit about working the occasional Saturday. But despite that, the job seemed almost perfect. So perfect in fact that we didn’t believe it was real. For the next 24 hours, the time they gave us to decide on whether we wanted to accept the offer, we searched and nit picked, looking for the fly in the ointment. But there wasn’t one. Except the Saturday thing, but that was more like a tiny fruit fly than the blue bottle we had expected. All that was left to do, was sign the contract...
TEFL.org. That was it, we had begun our journey to the other side of the world. A call to a grandparent, an email to a family friend, then a 120 hour online course and here we are today. It really was that simple. Well, not quite, it was a journey in and of itself. I’m going to continue on the assumption that you have no idea what I’m talking about, because if you don’t, then our experience might come in handy - and if you do, you can just skip this bit if you like.
We looked over TEFL.org’s website and tried to absorb as much information as possible, to help us decide which course to go for. We decided on the 140 hours course, because that way we had the basic 120 hour online course most employers look for, plus a 20 hour ‘real life’ module, which we figured, that apart from anything, would give us a better idea of whether we might actually enjoy doing what we were setting out to do. We signed up and that was that, we had access to the guided online course instantly. It took a good few days for it to sink in, the understanding that we were actually doing this, before we felt ready to start. My fiancé began immediately then, being able to devote almost all of her attention solely to the course, whilst tutoring high school kids in National 5 and Higher English on a one to one basis in the evenings. I on the other hand, had to return to the glitz and glamour of retail work.
I designated swathes of my sporadic days off to following the course, the bit by bit structure easy to slip into, allowing you to learn without being at all overwhelming. Though I found that I eventually did most of my learning during the fifteen minute breaks from work, standing under the eves of the big, blocky retail outlet, sheltering from the rain and wind. I Would find myself running through the various points of grammar or the teaching techniques I had just learnt, whilst I stocked shelves and sat about waiting for customers to turn up. Between often mind numbing shifts, I would drop in and out of the short videos, mulling over the assignments and drafting up lesson plans on my phone. The course very quickly became an oasis amidst my day. Even working full time, the structure of the course allowed for both drop in learning as well as devoted study like my fiancé had the availability for. Needless to say, I kept my ambitions a secret. I don’t think any employer takes too kindly to having staff inform them of their intention to leave in the near future, especially not if they are desperate enough to fly half way round the planet to escape their current job.
Soon, it was time for our 20 hour weekend course, and I’m not going to lie, we were dreading it. The online course was great, really approachable, really clear and concise, though never lacking in information. But from previous experience and a general stigma, neither of us were particularly keen on the idea of spending an entire weekend playing ice breaker games and practicing trust falls with a bunch of strangers. But, we figured that if we intended to nip over to China for a year, we should probably make sure we could cope with a little social awkwardness closer to home. We booked an Airbnb to stay in (I had preemptively booked time off work, I believe it was for a ‘city break’) and we braced for the inevitable ‘tell us an interesting fact about yourself’ group introduction.
But, after the first hour of the two day course, it became apparent that our reservations were unfounded. I can honestly say that I haven’t had that much fun in a professional group setting for a long time - if not ever. I couldn’t believe how happy I was, exhausted after two full days of intense learning, but seriously happy. It felt good to be back in an environment where you could share ideas and soak up knowledge, listening to other peoples experiences and not having to worry about the corporate giant looking over your shoulder. It was the first time in a year and a half, that I felt like I was myself again, doing something I actually wanted to do. Being able to put into practice some of the knowledge we had learned from the course really helped consolidate a lot of the information we had been absorbing from the online videos and assignments. Then of course, having someone as experienced as the instructor, to harass with questions, was invaluable. She managed to not only put us at ease very quickly, but to keep us engaged and maintain both momentum and enthusiasm from the start, right through to the finish. Although we were a little delirious by the end of the second day, that just made it all the more fun. I would seriously recommend that extra 20 hour module to anyone thinking of doing TEFL, it made the whole experience feel so much more real. It was hard to return to the monotony of retail work after that weekend, having had a taste of what we soon hoped to do instead.
I do confess to one thing though. Standing there, in the cold and wet. Watching as people passed by, as the headlights of cars swept across the empty car park, the orange hue of the street lights reflected in the rippling water of the growing puddle outside the shop door. I couldn’t help my mind from drifting away from the course, looking past what was before me, no longer hearing the sound of the TEFL video in my ear. Instead, I was on the other side of the world. In those moments, I would lock my phone and simply gazed up at the deep pool of the winter sky, smeared with dark clouds and speckled with stars. I was wasn't just doing an online course on a whim, I was striving toward a new horizon, I was working toward pulling myself out of the dead end retail job I had fallen into after finishing university. I was finally, after two years, on the move again. Onwards and upwards. And that was all thanks to TEFL.org.
It’s the second of October, the day after National day and there are still a few of the red and yellow flags hanging limply from poles and window ledges far below. I’m sitting here, in an air conditioned bubble, looking out from the 29th floor of our stunning new apartment in Shishan, trying, and failing, to relax and enjoy our week long holiday from work. Beneath the hum of the swanky, Sci-Fi air conditioner, the omnipresent sounds of hammers, drills, angle grinders and the occasional honk of a car horn are the only real intrusions from the outside world. This is our 49th day in China, we’ve been TEFLing (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) for a month now and I finally have time to sit and write this blog...
This isn’t my first time in China. In fact, that’s probably the reason we’re here now. It was 2016, as part of a university student exchange program, and I, along with my friend at the time and three others, made our way to the other side of the world - only to be nigh totally ignored for four bloody months. It was a difficult time for me then, I pretty much hated almost everything about it. The heat, the smog, the food, the constant staring of passers by, the drudgery of being neglected by the university, and the occasional hectic visit somewhere else that was also too hot, too polluted and void of a descent meal. The boredom, the knowledge that I was paying to essentially fall behind in university, having to share a hotel room with a friend I contemplated throwing out the window on more than one occasion and being so far from the woman I love, it was all too much for me.
I left China, with an overwhelming feeling of relief. I knew that when I got off that plane, I would find a dreich Scottish afternoon, a portion of chips and my now fiancé waiting for me. But as my flight taxied across the runway, as I forced myself to stay conscious - I had stayed up all night in the airport in an effort to combat jet lag - I looked out of the small window by my side. I was finally going home, I was finally escaping what had come to feel like a self inflicted exile. I understood then, that I had been well and truly defeated by my experience here. China had beaten me and I was running home, a good kilogram or so lighter and with my tail between my legs. But deep down, although I would have never admitted it to anyone then, I knew that one day, I would return to China. One day, I didn’t know how or when, I would make things right.
Over the Horizon
Our story begins with a spontaneous decision to spend a long weekend, in the old city of York, in the north of England. Now, both having graduated from university more than a year previously, I working as a kitchen designer for a well known DIY retailer, and my fiancé having recently decided to switch career trajectory, from training to be a high school teacher to something much less dangerous. We had spent so long working toward her getting the qualifications she needed to get onto her PGDE course, and then actually studying on the course, that in the absence of that ever present goal, we found ourselves somewhat cut loose. I had long since turned my back on the world of Product Design, the course I had studied at university, and spent the previous year and a half scaling my contract up from a measly twelve hour check out job to a full time post in the kitchen design department. My sole aim had been to earn rent money whilst she went through her teacher training - with the intention of retiring early and mooching off her for the rest of my life.
Now, with a little time to spare and lots to think over, we decided to go for a trip, to escape the ever shrinking confines of the small town of Dunfermline and to visit somewhere we had long hoped to see together. So one night, against the beautiful backdrop of York, to the well worn sound of Christmas music blasting its way through a fairly empty Slug and Lettuce, our conversation turned to ‘the meaning of life’. Or something to that effect, either way, we were trying to figure out what the most important quality is, to instil in children. The world is big, and it’s filled with all kinds of weird and wonderful people and places. And we both agreed that it doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you are happy. Which is true for all walks of life. I would never judge a person for being born and raised, to then live and die in the exact same place and never leave. With the exception of the occasional holiday to Majorca. All that matters is that you are happy. But sometimes, we aren’t lucky enough to find happiness on our doorstep, sometimes you have to peer over the horizon to get a glimpse of a better life. A sense of adventure. We agreed that the most important gift you can ever give a child, is a sense of adventure and the confidence to follow through on it.
My fiancé and I met when we were seventeen and eighteen, through haphazard circumstances whilst we were both at university - different universities I might point out. For five years we’d been together and never once looked back. We were engaged and happy. I could write a book about how lucky I am to have found her and several more on how happy I am to be with her. But when we were younger, we had both foreseen adventure in our lives, to take a peek over that horizon and see what else there might be in the world. Adventure, although by no means the swash buckling escapades of the past, can be a dangerous path. Not one often taken by married couples. Saddened, but by no means regretful for this twist of fate, we accepted that finding one another sooner rather than later was a fair trade to make for a missed chance to travel the world. Instead, it would be our responsibility to instil a sense of adventure and confidence in those around us. I don’t know about her, but I certainly felt contented with this resolution.
Until later that night, when we returned to our hotel room and there, a thought occurred to me. There was one frontier yet still open, one frontier that was by no means risk free, but all together safer than volunteering in South America. I knew one place where we might still eke out a little adventure for the both of us. China. China has an insatiable thirst for people willing to fly to the other side of the world and teach English. We laughed at the ridiculousness of the thought, then hypothetically voiced a few other countries where similar opportunities might present themselves. And then laughed again at my having suggested our living and working in China for any length of time. Given I had seemingly had an allergic reaction to my last visit. Besides, how on Earth do you even go about getting a job like that?
Over the next week or so we gave it no more consideration, only the vague impulse to peer at the distant horizon and wonder ‘what might be’, lingering in the back of my mind as I stood in the car park outside work during my fleeting breaks. Later that month we traveled north to visit my parents for Christmas, all thoughts of the future on hold for the holiday. Until one evening we were in the kitchen, helping my mum make the dinner (dad cooks just as much as mum, I’m just saying). We were talking about what we might do now that my fiancé had decided against risking life and limb in a high school classroom, when my mum mentioned that a friend of my grandparents knew about a company that helped train English language teachers. I was standing at the sink, washing dishes, gazing out the window at the darkening grey water of the North Sea, when a flicker in my chest made me turn. I looked to my fiancé for the briefest of moments, seeing the slight twist to her lips as she looked back at me, knowing she had just had the exact same thought that I had. Here was our answer. Here, was TEFL.org.