Where am I gonna go today?

The Internet is a great way to explore the world of teaching English overseas from the comfort of your desktop -- and it may even land you a (real) job!

Published September 16, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

This is getting serious. My eyes ache, and I'm collapsing into my chair like a spent accordion. Every morning now I check my favorite sites dedicated to jobs teaching English overseas while my first cup of tea is brewing. I dress while the computer downloads the overnight traffic in e-mail. Breakfast is a bagel or a bowl of cereal at the desk. This hunt for a new job has become more than a job itself. It has become a modem-enabled obsession for speed and distance.

My schoolwork is suffering. The apartment looks like hell. I probably look like hell, too, but there is no one around to tell me. My travel companion has fled to Europe for four months without me. For a change of scene, she says. Yeah, right.

Just my laptop and me.

Maybe it's the lack of nicotine to my brain. Or maybe it's the idea of traveling the world, hunting for work in exotic locations with less effort than it takes to put on a pair of pants and walk all the way to the corner newspaper box that makes a virtual job search so compelling.

My first stop of the day is usually Dave's ESL Cafi and the job page there. There are other sites for those with lots of degrees and credentials behind their names, but Dave's offers solid entry- and mid-level positions. Besides, this site hosts other perks, including a job discussion forum on which I have killed many an hour lurking, reading posts on everything from tax advice to working conditions in Korea to getting laid in Japan.

Everything an expat needs to know.

Today Dave's Cafi is fat with prospects. Even discounting the usual leads for Korea, and the part-time, summer, volunteer positions, etc., 15 promising links will direct my CV to schools in Brazil, Guyana, Finland, Poland, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, China, Taiwan and the United States; from South America to the Middle East via Eastern Europe, with a stopover in Southeast Asia before a final leg on to Northeast Asia and home again. A plane ticket to die for. A beggar's banquet for a restless traveler.

Two posts catch my eye right away: Guyana and Finland. Let others teach English to kindergarten-aged kids in Taiwan, overworked high school students in Hong Kong and salarymen in China. I want to go where the sun always shines and life is cheaper than a bottle of rum. I want to go to Guyana.

A quick search on Yahoo turns up a page on the Lonely Planet travel guide site dedicated to the South American nation of Guyana. The anonymous author of this page suggests that Guyana's "the place for independent, rugged Indiana Jones types who do not mind visiting a country that everybody else thinks is in Africa." What use, I wonder, do the Guyanese have in learning English as a second language? Word published an article that draws me in with the lead "Voyage through the tropical rainforest ... while cyanide poisons the water and a Kentucky Fried Chicken rises from the jungle mist!" Bob Braine's photograph "Reclining Catfish No. 2" does little to convince me that time in the Guyanese rain forest would be good for my body or soul.

But then, there's always ... Finland?

A page by James Mitchell-Henderson on the TEFL Professional Network ProView takes me from tropical rain forest to the home of Santa Claus. David Paul's essay leads me to fantasize about tripping across the "Land of the Midnight Sun" -- pursuing Laplanders and their herds of reindeer with offers of lessons in conversational English.

The other posts are less inspiring. My fantasies start to break up on the rocks of mundanity: local salaries, awkward start dates, nations burning up with political, economic or environmental troubles. There are reasons, after all, why entire graduating classes of English majors have not left to seek their fame and fortune elsewhere -- although a walk through downtown Seoul on a Saturday afternoon or through the booze- and testosterone-fueled clubs in Itaewan might lead you to think they have.

Fortunately, I'm no more committed to any one destination than the time it takes for my modem to download the next site. Links lead to links, and it's easy to disappear into a thread that becomes an endless association of tenuously related sites. Around the world in 80 days? Around the world in 80 clicks of a mouse button. My history file reads like the passport of a James Bond -- or his nemesis.

It's as easy and noncommittal, as visceral and satisfying, as cruising porn sites or "X-Files" chat groups.

Asia. Latin America. Europe. Islands in the Pacific. The Middle East, if it doesn't blow itself up first. I go to bed every night with visions of exotic schoolhouses dancing in my head.

There is so much information, so many recruiters offering free apartments, air fare, medical insurance and excellent "local standard" salaries that I can't take any one seriously. For the first time in my working life, my background in English literature and writing actually seems to give me a competitive advantage, although I have started to notice a number of "real" teachers heading overseas lately. Still, for the moment at least, I can pick and choose job offers in an overheated market that seems to deliver what I'd believed to be a fantasy until now: having my cake and eating it too.

There's an aura of fantasy that colors the search for work overseas, that sets the imagination free to wander, to infer from the few sketchy details of a job ad and the information you can pick up on the Internet.

At least until you get off the plane.

One month later: This unreality can be dangerous, as I discovered recently on arrival in Korea. "Teach in the 'Land of the Morning Calm,'" the job postings read. "Experience the 'Land of the Morning Calm.'"

The setting of my one and only interview, in the office of a bankrupt music school in a suburban strip mall, should have been the first clue. The firm job offer after a 20-minute interview should have been the second. But, I reasoned, these people are Korean. They do things differently. You can't judge the Asian way of doing things by Western standards.

Well, sometimes you can.

Besides, I was desperate. I had finished the first year of graduate school and run screaming from town the minute I handed in my last term paper. I was flat broke, sleeping on my mother's couch, and had no idea what to do next. I wanted to write, but it's not as if that was going to earn me any money. Korea promised the best of all possible situations: a short, highly paid work week that would leave me with the time and money to write and travel.

I should have known better. Korea didn't shake off its postwar blues by indulging in the kind of free time I've made it my life's quest to seek out. Korea is capitalism, naked and raw.

Still, despite the alienation and lack of communication across language and, more important, work cultures, I prospered and even flourished teaching in Korea. Halfway around the world. In a city that seemed so familiar on the surface, so like cities everywhere, but deep down was fundamentally strange and mysterious.

Actually, the culture of work wasn't that different there. The difference was one of degree, really. We have learned to apply a patina of civility to a power dynamic that was, ultimately, what so many of the teachers I met in Korea found offensive: the greed of a boss who saw me and the other teachers, and the students, only to the extent that he needed all of us to fulfill his real ambition -- to make as much money as humanly possible in the shortest period of time. Yeehaw! Of course, many -- though not all -- of the teachers I met were there for the exact same reason.

Still, my gig in Korea beat working as a coffee agent, or a clerk in a chain bookstore -- even, in its own way, teaching at a school, community college or university here at home. There's something addictive to exploring foreign places, after all, to having a stake in the local community in a way that no tourist ever could. To having people really, really want you to understand them, despite language and culture barriers. Even if it's just so that you will sort your plastic from your glass recyclables properly.

Almost as addictive as playing on the World Wide Web. So I continue to search the various Web pages for recruiting organizations that flood the Internet with job offers. And almost daily I come up with a new opportunity. Something that sets my heart tripping lightly over the telecom wires, that connects my imagination to remote computer terminals and school directors sketching out the details of their position openings, in the hopes of drawing me to the Middle East or Eastern Europe or Asia or Africa.

And, when I describe the latest offering to my girlfriend, she even sounds like she's going to come back to me after all.

It's exhausting. My mental passport is full. I am permanently jet-lagged. We discuss abandoned or lost job prospects the way travelers kept too long at home remember their adventures. In detail, but with the kindness of sentiment.

In some ways, the Internet is the perfect medium for prospective ESL teachers who crave some adventure, who may put more faith in the particulars of the adventure than in where it takes place. Once you learn where to start from, it's easy to trace a route from link to link and end up somewhere other than where you had every intention of being before setting out.

The Internet allows you to flirt with several careers at once, in parts of the world that, for most people, remain mysteries wrapped in the back pages of the international news section, or as the real-life setting for some thriller or romance novel.

But as much fun as job hunting on the Internet can be, the scary truth is that somewhere at the end of the line there will be airports and customs agents and taxi rides through foreign cities and school directors who may or may not speak any English and new neighbors and a hundred other things that back home you took for granted daily and that suddenly are fresh and new and exciting again.

It's as good a reason as many I have found to get me out of bed in the morning. Better than most.

By Aaron Paulson

Aaron Paulson is traveling and writing in Asia.

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