Friday, March 28, 2008

Tefl Tales: To Live and Die in a Strange Land

The early stages of living in a foreign country are full of surprise and wonder. But as the months turn into years and you start to put down some roots, you begin to form a more realistic image of your adopted home. The realization hits home that their ideas of interpersonal relationships and right and wrong are fundamentally different from what you grew up with.

Together with this awareness comes some culpability as well. You can no longer hold yourself above the less appealing aspects of your host nation. Being a long-term stayer in a country where egalitarian notions are almost unknown makes you complicit to a degree in the ongoing exploitation.

You rationalize, focus on the positives and carry on as best you can. Until something comes along that hammers you in a way you never thought possible. A combination of your good-nature and trust in people (you even knew before it was somehow naive) sets you up for a life-altering bit of nastiness. And that's when the earth truly opens up around you. All you previously thought winsome, quaint and enchanting becomes sinister and loathsome. You enter territory previously unknown. At best you can classify it as a nervous breakdown; at worst a period of temporary insanity. With no support and nowhere to turn, things become dire in a short period of time.

The only saving grace may be if you crawl down into the slime in which you find yourself and see it as a learning experience. Unfortunately, many of the lessons only further darken what has become your corrupted and hopeless outlook on the world. You know with all certainty that the ability of humans to empathize is almost non-existent and is only a pathetic narrative we have created over time in order to convince ourselves that understanding the pain of others is actually possible. It isn't.

You may find some solace in knowing that you are one of the damaged and can never return to the place you were before. It's a twisted brotherhood that holds no meetings, has no support groups and provides no comfort beyond the knowledge that there are inevitably others somewhere who have suffered far worse than you have.

It's not all bad, of course. You still have life.

Facing your own death is of course the worst possible scenario you can encounter in a strange land. Anyone teaching English in a foreign country and with even a mild interest in online activities related to the industry will be familiar with the tragic case of an American teacher in Korea named Bill Kapoun. He was severely burned in a fire in his apartment in Seoul on February 28th, 2008 and passed away about two weeks after that.

Despite the outpouring of grief and donations from family, friends and complete strangers, was he crushed by the weight of knowing that no one could truly know what his final days and moments were like? Or was he too far gone from the pain and medication to really know in the end?

There have been other cases of English teachers passing away under various circumstances while teaching overseas. Another recent tragedy involved a British teacher named Paul Hollen, who fell from the 19th floor of his condominium in Bangkok. The standard response from police was that it was a suicide. That well may be the case.

The death of Hollen rated nothing beyond a few lines in the local newspaper and a handful of threads on various discussion boards for expats in Thailand. There was little outpouring of emotions on those online communities due to the hazy circumstances. Some individuals even used the lack of clear-cut details to form conclusions and belittle him. Whether it was his own personal demons or the reptilian covetousness of some inhuman filth that led to his death is not as important as hoping that he didn't suffer.

I have been teaching in Thailand for six years and entered this game later than most. Still, I never let down my guard nor convince myself that I have this place completely figured out. Then I consider the first-time teachers fresh out of university heading half way across the globe to teach at the age of 22 or 23 and I think about how much more vulnerable they are.

I know that talk of crime, death and potential danger can be tiresome and the vast majority of those working overseas never have any trouble. But it's still important to remember that there are as many, or more, nasty characters and corrupt officials in most of the places you might travel to as compared to where you come from. In many situations that involve crime or treachery directed against you, keep in mind that you will not be given the benefit of the doubt and may for the first time in your life experience the helpless and sickening realization that you are being done over.

Your ability to recognize danger and warning signs given off by others is reduced and may never reach a level that you possess when in your home country. You absolutely have to be willing to do anything in a sudden situation or one that develops over time in a work or living arrangement.

While you are living and enjoying what will no doubt be the adventure of a lifetime free from any tragic or horrible situations, please keep in mind that believing nothing bad can happen because it hasn't yet, is a very misleading and dangerous mindset.

Good luck while teaching English in a foreign country. Trust your instincts and develop new ones.


Anonymous said...

Here's another case of a TEFL deal gone bad ...

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