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Friday, October 11, 2013

Overseas ESL Teacher: The Year of Living Extemporaneously

"All is clouded by desires."
                                    Passage from the Bhagavad Gita

I have long felt that living overseas might very well be perceived like a long-term visit to Disney World. Your entrance fee entitles you to see the world through a child's eyes. Every day, or in this case, every minute, puts your senses on steroids; the smells, sights and sounds spin you round and round until you are in a new and different reality. Surely, it's not for the faint-of-heart--that's why they checked your height at the ticket counter and asked if you had any health issues.

Once your ticket is punched, teaching English overseas can be the thrill of a lifetime. In this case, once the passport, visa, apostilled criminal check, application and interview stanchions have been successfully hurdled, you are free to open your classrooms to the world and to make your world your own personal classroom.

Set in Indonesia,
The Year of Living Dangerously
In her award winning role, in the 1982 film, The Year of Living Dangerously, Linda Hunt's character, a male Chinese-Australian dwarf, Billy Kwan, declares, "In the West, we want answers for everything. Everything is right or wrong or good or bad..." The challenge as the foreign teacher of English is to let go of judgment and allow oneself to enter a world of incredulity. As one of my professors in graduate school once told me offering up some personal wisdom, "Education is moving from cocksure ignorance, to thoughtful uncertainty."

In the bare bones utilitarian existence of an ESL teacher, one doesn't have the plethora of material possessions one has back home. Those things are, of course, distractions. My life's essentials have been whittled down to whiteboard markers, a memory stick, lesson plans, a backpack, a translation app and whatever map I'm wearing out from overuse. My university has me covered-although I harbor a certain skepticism about the thickness of the ice I'm skating on. They've provided my apartment, an office and computer, a living wage and plenty of vacation time. For all those ESL teachers without such accoutrements, I offer you a humble me-ahn-heyo (미안 해요)Korean for, I am sorry.

The time between classes is a golden chalice. I fill it with various wines, sometimes the vintage is a local destination, a delicious house wine, like a nearby Korean city with a history worth knowing more about and a reputation for a particular culinary speciality. For example, from here in Daegu, Jeonju (전주), with its rocking Korean Historic Village (한옥말) is a 3-hour bus ride away. Its local bib-em-pop, a mixed rice dish, is to die for. Other times, the cup is filled with a more complex taste, like a bike trip through rural Vietnam, or perhaps a rarer vintage, say a sojourn to North Korea--no doubt, not a taste suitable for everyone's palate.

That of course, is just the point. Some ESL teachers choose not to carry the travel baton so wide afield. Their adventures more often take place locally, including within their classrooms. There, they strive to transport their students to other worlds. But for me, any gift of time is a chance to boogie on down the road. Billy Kwan's words, while living dangerously in Indonesia, work for me, "Don't think about the major issues. Do what you can about what's in front of you. Go add your light to the sum of all light." So, I'll grab my passport, then it's off to the races.