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Eat, Play, Love & Live: Discovering the World Teaching English Abroad
Written by: Annie Chen
Last Updated: January 5, 2021
As a native of Los Angeles, especially one working in the entertainment industry, I get asked constantly, “How could you leave such an exciting city?
Why would you rather be an underappreciated and underpaid teacher than work in Hollywood?” To the casual observer, it’s a fair question. After all, following graduation from UCLA I had numerous internships under my belt, was passionate about all aspects of entertainment and loved meeting new people … so what could be better than a publicity position in the television industry? As it turns out, the fantasy of working that type of job was far more idealized than the real version of it.
After I committed to following my alternate career option of teaching (except this time it would be abroad and not in the LAUSD system as I had previously envisioned) I had a few months to pack up all my worldly possessions and say good-bye to life as I knew it. Whenever my friends found out I had chosen Italy, their instant reaction was that this was my version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” soul search. The difference was, I intended on staying in Italy for the long haul. Apparently, The Powers That Be had other plans for me.
The whirlwind summer in Italy kicked off with an intensive TEFL course in Florence, a flurry of instant friends in my classmates and long nights out and about, exploring the busy nightlife in a city packed with 20somethings determined to drink their way through a semester abroad. My roommate and I headed towards Rome following completion of the course, determined to make it there for the next school year. A tedious job-hunt led me to working outside of Rome though, and I spent the next two months working with two different companies, going from San Remo to Torino, Ceresole, Dogliani, Milan, Tuscany, Naples and Pompeii before heading back to Rome.
With the school year quickly approaching, I was at a crossroads – I could stay, working part-time at numerous schools around the city that paid decent hourly rates, risking getting caught for overstaying my visa and being deported….or I could leave. I opted for the latter and then faced my next dilemma – where to go next. I had numerous peers who had worked privately with families abroad as a private live-in English tutor and when faced with the tough choice between families in Morocco or Turkey, I eventually went with Istanbul since I already had a social network of friends living and working there.
Like many developing countries around the world, in Turkey there is a gross disparity between the wealthy few and the overwhelming majority of people living below the poverty line. All the families who can afford live-in English tutors, however, are most definitely in the former category. I led a very comfortable life there, with a full-time cook / maid who was more than happy to fill our stomachs with stuffed peppers, homemade borek and dolma, along with a part-time maid and ever-present grandmother to hover around as I taught and worked with my 8-year-old triplets. Unfortunately, my Turkish never progressed passed phrases I picked up from them – It’s still limited to words such as saklambac (“hide-and-seek”) and istemiyorum (“I don’t want to!”).
Istanbul is, to this day, easily one of my favorite cities in the world. Situated on the border between Asia and Europe, it is booming with different cultures, religions and tourists from all over who want to experience this unique mix. Many bridges connect the two continents and cheap, easy public transportation is available city-wide along with Turkish cuisine and historical sites from the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires rounding out all the capital city has to offer. I took full advantage of my days off to explore the Princes Islands, the underground Basilica Cisterns, smoky yet authentic shisha bars, coastline palaces and mosques, and massively overwhelming bazaars. Fresh food stalls line the streets, whirling dervish shows are advertised on every corner, and locals and backpackers alike dive into the ocean from any open point, regardless of the constant jellyfish presence among the trash lining the coast.
I knew that eventually I would want to re-enter the teaching world in a more structured manner and accepted a position with English First in Indonesia. Considering my minimal research and wariness upon arrival of what to expect about the infamous Southeast Asia hustle and bustle, I adjusted relatively quickly. Compared to many of my coworkers who had never stepped foot outside of the UK, I had an inherently similar understanding and upbringing of their strong family principles and focus on education and tradition. Many of the more exotic dishes and fruits weren’t as foreign to me, either, though I experienced my first chicken heart, cobra sate, cow brain and tongue there.
My Asian-American background also had other side effects. When being asked about my nationality, I’m well used to people raising an eyebrow or being taken aback when the “American” they see in front of them looks less like Barbie and more like Mulan. Ironically enough, the strongest reactions have come from Asians and some of my more memorable conversations have come from taxi drivers and the like in Jakarta. ‘But your hair isn’t blonde!’ they’d retort, or ‘Where are you really from?” they’ll push. My favorite reply was from a motorcycle taxi (ojek) driver who squinted, tilted his head and gave a knowing smirk, “Are you suuuuure?”
Outside of the tourist trap that is Bali, Indonesia has a divided reputation amongst travelers. Whilethere are great nature escapes to be taken on the smaller islands, and tons of opportunities to escape the modern world in more remote villages, Jakarta is a whole other beast. Filled with malls overlooking the ghettos, Dutch-inspired-but-unsuccessful dam structures, polluted waters and streets, and every type of vehicle crammed into the messy infrastructure leading to round-the-clock traffic, it was truly a sensation-overwhelming-city. I lived with 7 other teachers in a house provided for us by EF, and loved my job and students, bonding with them more than any other students to date. The privileged expat community led a cushy and elitist bubble of existence that was very easy to get sucked into, and though given the opportunity to stay with a guarantee of career advancement, I knew I had to move on.
It was harder than I thought to leave my friends, colleagues and students there, especially since like my Turkish friends, they didn’t have the same opportunities to travel and numerous visa complications if they wanted to visit the US. However, I had also traveled to Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines in my time there, and was feeling the Itch again to globe trot in a different region. A previous colleague, who had since left Jakarta, had volunteered with a non-profit organization in India and highly recommended the experience, regularly referencing it as a life-altering experience and I decided to take her advice.
Following the cockroach-infested kitchens, nightly rat gatherings in my walls and noise pollution generated by the bajajs (that are clearly unregulated) in Indonesia, I shrugged off all the warnings about India’s standard of living, “How bad can it be?”
Famous last words.
My fellow volunteer teachers and I taught a ta school in West Mumbai and lived walking distance down the coast from it. We taught street children, ranging from ages 2 to 16, and it was the most daunting position I’ve ever accepted. We were working under harsh conditions, with stone and wooden fragile structures that had nails and frequent dust storms coming out of the drawers, along with a variety of crawling insects, an unbearably stifling heat and massive constant crowd of people everywhere you turn- there were so many people on even the smaller streets that it seemed no matter which side of the street you were on, you still felt like you were walking on the wrong side. In the school, there was a lack of supplies and resources, as the non-profit organization relies on donations, so we had yellowed and tattered books and papers, gnawed pencils and cap-less pens, recycled plastic bags and hand-made, occasionally painted boxes to use as chairs and desks in the otherwise bare dark door-less classrooms of the school.
Because of the low to non-existent levels of motivation and discipline among the students, the teachers and volunteers were responsible for not only teaching them English but also a broader cultural and social awareness. The younger children were endlessly fascinated by iPhone games and digital cameras, while the teenagers liked to marvel at the foreign teachers’ fascination with the weekly drum-pounding and flower-filled weddings that would take place up and down the street we were on. Even the local teachers were regularly pointing out the clothing we would wear, and vendors and bystanders would openly glare at the strangely dressed foreigners holding hands and walking loudly and unashamedly with the barefoot and lice-ridden slum kids.
Since it was an unpaid position, I gave myself a time restraint before my funds would run out and after a few bouts of inevitable sickness from a heavily vegetarian diet, excursions to Goa, Pune, Delhi and Agra, and more failed attempts at learning Indian dance than successful ones, I accepted a position with International House in Moscow. After more than 2 years of living in essentially ‘summer’, I packed my bags again and headed north. Because of the timing of the contracts, I was given a 6-week break in between and managed to visit Oman, Dubai, Jordan, Israel, England, Northern Ireland, and Ireland before landing in Moscow.
By this point, I was pretty accustomed to negative reputations preceding the countries, no matter which one, and Russia was no exception. In my weeks of travel leading up to this next destination, I grew to expect a long and harsh winter ahead, a downtrodden society with a hostile mentality towards foreigners, and a condescendingly narrow-minded perspective of women. I was pleasantly surprised – though the reminders of harsh Soviet times are evident throughout the capital and country, I’ve been lucky to have open and friendly students, both young and old, who are curious and eager to meet foreigners. The city is riddled with theaters, music venues, dance and art shows, historical sites and a myriad of museums, authentic and expat-catered eateries of varying prices and a public transportation system and apartment that is comfortable, convenient and fully-functioning no matter what the weather is.
Having just returned from a vacation in Northern Europe, covering Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, I am reminded that the world holds unlimited possibilities. I’m currently still in Mother Russia, and enjoying every minute of it- in one month, I attended a friend’s birthday picnic at Catherine the Great’s old palace grounds (since it is a toasty 80 F now and Moscow is in full bloom), watched “Much Ado About Nothing” in Russian, attended the “Swan Lake” ballet at the Bolshoy Theater and visited the Gulag and Matroyshka museums. I have no idea when I’ll be spurred on again to uproot but until then, I’m living life to the fullest, minute by minute, with a full heart and no regrets.
Annie Chen was born and raised in Los Angeles, where she attended UCLA and studied Psychology and Sociology. One day, her overwhelming urge to travel and meet people from all over the world took over, and without a second glance, off she went to see the world. Since earning her TEFL certification through International TEFL Academy, she has taught & volunteered in Italy, Russia, Turkey, Indonesia, and India.
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