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Why You Should Not Teach English Overseas

The benefits and rewards of teaching English overseas may be of secondary or no interest to some potential teachers.  They are looking for another excuse to leave their home country, and seize upon English teaching as a means to do it.   Unfortunately, their students and employers pay the price for this, and it rarely amounts to more than a temporary fix for the “teachers.”  These are some of the reasons why you should not become an English teacher overseas: 

Escape.  You may want to get away from financial difficulties (up to and including debt collectors), or a bad relationship (up to and including a spouse and children) or even the law.  Running away to another country may give you temporary relief, but understand that the problems you left behind will only get worse in your absence.  Debts will increase, your credit rating will sink even lower, and your family will resent you even more than they may already.  At some point, you’re going to return home, and that day of reckoning will be far more painful than it is today.

Seeing the world on somebody else’s dime.  This is actually one of the benefits of teaching overseas that we mentioned earlier.  However, that implied a commitment to being a teacher first and being a tourist second.  If your priorities are the reverse, you won’t be good employee or a good teacher, and you’ll soon find that the jobs you can get are poorly paid and for disreputable employers.  There is nothing that lowers the reputation of the TEFL community more than the backpacker who spends a couple of months in one place teaching English and then disappears in the night, only to resurface in another city or country and repeat the process.  These are also the people least likely to get any teaching training whatsoever: unfortunately, many schools in Asia are more interested in a native speaker than in a qualified teacher, so there will always be a job for even the worst teacher if s/he looks hard enough.

Making lots of money tax-free.  This book will examine typical salaries in various regions in later chapters, but a few myths can be dispensed with right now.  First, you have to carefully weigh a local salary against the local cost of living: teachers make a good salary in Japan compared to China, but Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world in which to live.  For most teaching jobs, the salary and benefits are enough to live on in relative comfort, but there won’t be much left to spend on shopping, entertainment or travel.  With rare exceptions, there won’t be anything left that you can put in the bank back home: this is not only because the salaries are commensurate with local expenses, but also because the exchange rate and bank transfer fees will whittle your extra money down to a fraction of what it is worth in the original currency in the local economy.  For example, if you teach English for a company or a good school in central China (i.e., not in expensive cities like Beijing or Shanghai) you can live very well compared to a native Chinese worker in the same town.  You might be able to buy lots of Chinese goods, eat at restaurants most of the time, and even hire a cleaning person to maintain your apartment.  But the minute you try to transfer some of your salary back to Europe, Australia or the USA, you’ll find that the amount is very little in euros, pounds or dollars (especially since you have to pay transfer fees to both the bank in China and the receiving bank). 

Contrary to received wisdom about working overseas, you are not going to escape the taxman: you’ll pay taxes in your home country, or the host country, or even both!  Most employers will deduct health insurance costs and some amount of tax, and may even deduct contributions to a pension fund.  You can have this pension contribution transferred back to your native country’s treasury and credited to your retirement (e.g., the American Social Security system) when you return, but you can’t avoid the deductions being taken in the first place.  Americans who earn less than approximately $80,000 per year in U.S. dollars don’t have to pay U.S. taxes, but only if they can prove that they’re paying taxes to the resident country.  Europeans teaching in the European Union will have their salaries taxed and some of the money returned to their home countries, especially pension deductions.  Many schools advertise “tax-free salaries,” but that just means they’re evading the local laws, and putting you in the position of being a tax evader as well (both locally and in your home country).  Can you get away with this for a period of time?  Of course you can, but at some point one or more national tax agencies are going to require you to account for the money you earned overseas.  At that point, you’ll not only have to pay the taxes due, but also interest and penalties.  Virtually every teacher who has been teaching overseas for more than a year can tell you how s/he or a colleague were suddenly faced with a massive past-due tax bill.  And, since the local government knows your passport number, you can’t run away from them when they come to collect.

Having sex with foreign women or children.  It’s a sad fact of life that some men travel overseas to engage in prostitution with local women at lower cost and risk than they can at home.  Becoming an English teacher is just a way for them to extend a sordid vacation from weeks into months or years.  What those who do this in Africa or Asia forget, however, is that in pursuing anonymous sex away from the prying eyes of family, friends and the authorities back home, they are just the opposite of anonymous in the local environment.  The white Westerner who patronizes brothels in such areas is going to be far more memorable and identifiable than the local African or Asian customers are, because he is the exception to the rule.  Therefore, when he strolls the streets, he will quickly be recognized as the man who likes to buy prostitutes; it’s only a matter of time before that information becomes widely known at his school.  Of course, that’s not the worst thing that could happen: prostitution is often controlled by gangsters and pimps who see the foreigner with something to lose as fair game for intimidation and extortion.  Imagine for a moment being suddenly confronted in a prostitute’s room by a group of menacing men demanding something from you in an unknown language: how much would you pay to get out of there unharmed? 

There are also some Western males who have difficulty relating to women from their native land, and think that Asian women are “different” (meaning more submissive and less demanding).  These men have obviously never met a Korean female, one of the toughest sub-species of Homo sapiens on the planet!  Nevertheless, this myth is widespread, and encourages many Western men to travel to Asia to find a fantasy girlfriend or wife among the locals or—worse—among their students.  Needless to say, such relationships are almost always doomed to failure.  The same is true for men from affluent countries who teach in poorer countries such as Ukraine, Russia or Southeast Asia.  While the women there may be open to dating or even marrying their relatively wealthier suitor, it’s almost certainly because they are looking for a ticket to—and citizenship from—his homeland.  Once there, they tend to quickly divorce the hapless husband and claim as many of his assets as the law allows.  This mutual victimization would be pathetic enough without it also involving the profession of English teaching: as with the itinerant backpacker, the whole TEFL community is tarred with the same brush. 

Nor are these practices limited to men.  Any air force pilot who has been stationed on a foreign base can tell you about the Western female English teachers who work in nearby schools.  Quite a few of these women are anxious to snag a husband who will be well-paid and not around very much when he returns to civilian life!  Fortunately, they don’t usually involve the locals in their schemes, although many Japanese, Arab and other affluent men have similar stories to tell about foreign fortune hunters. 

Finally, if you are a pedophile who is seeking children to exploit outside your home country, nothing I say about ethics or the reputation of other English teachers is going to matter to you in the slightest.  Let me just repeat what I pointed out before: your racial differences are going to attract attention and make you more vulnerable to criminals and the legal authorities than you would be at home.  And you really don’t want to be locked up in a foreign prison and labeled as a molester of native children. 

You hate your country and want to get away from it.  This is, of course, your prerogative.  However, you may be surprised to discover that—outside of Paris—criticizing your homeland will make the natives you encounter lose respect for you rather than applaud you.  Asians are still very much influenced by Confucian values, one of which is respect for one’s country and leaders.  Besides, people who constantly badmouth their own culture and country quickly go from being non-conformists to just being bores.  Your students will be very interested in the differences between your country and theirs as you perceive them, but they won’t be comfortable with you mocking your own culture or countrymen.  Instead, they’ll view you as a loser who couldn’t make it at home and fled to their country; needless to say, they won’t want to have such a person as a teacher for long. 

You’re a bigot or xenophobe.  This is the reverse of the person who hates his/her own country.  Instead, this person is obsessed with all the things s/he sees as stupid or inferior in the host country, and is happy to list them to everyone s/he meets.  Naturally, the reaction of fellow expats or locals will be, “If you hate it here so much, why don’t you go home?”  There are thousands of messages on internet discussion boards that consist of the rants of foreigners who hate various things about the local customs, rules and/or population.  It’s important to understand that culture shock is unavoidable when moving to another country.  Everyone experiences it to some degree or another, and it gets worse before it gets better.  Experiencing another culture means experiencing it in full and adjusting to it: otherwise, you’re not an expatriate, you’re just a tourist who has stayed too long.  If you’re unwilling or incapable of adjusting, then please stay home. 

Fussy eaters.  Living abroad means eating strange foods: the alternative is dining at MacDonald’s every day.  Even more daunting than eating unfamiliar things is not knowing what you’re eating because the menu is in a strange language!  If you plan to move to a particular country, find a restaurant serving that cuisine in your area and eat several meals there before signing any contracts.  Invariably you will discover several things you hate and several things you love—write them down in the native language so you’re prepared for eating in restaurants in your new home.  If, however, you simply can’t live without all the things you regularly eat in your native land, you’re going to be very frustrated and unhappy living for a year or more someplace else. 

You have a very strong attachment to family and friends.  Let’s face it: working overseas means you are going to be away from the people you love the most for extended periods of time.  You can telephone, exchange e-mails, and even use webcams and microphones on your computer to keep in touch; still, you won’t be sharing meals, movies or hugs with the people who are most important to you for a long, long time.  You will be surrounded by strangers, only a few of whom you can even speak with in English.  You are going to be homesick after the initial euphoria of the move wears off, and that condition will only increase as the months go by.  You need to think long and hard before accepting a job overseas and decide whether or not you can cope with such a prolonged separation.  If you can’t, you’re only going to be miserable every single day you’re there; moreover, you’ll probably quit the job and return home, leaving your students and employer in the lurch.  Those with elderly or sick parents should also consider whether they might need suddenly to return home due to a medical emergency or death, and even whether they would arrive in time.

You have misplaced faith in your government to help you get out of trouble.  When I moved to Korea to teach English, I telephoned the American Embassy in Seoul to give them my name and contact information (a prudent step, since South Korea is still technically at war with North Korea).  When I was finally connected to the appropriate staffer, the first words she said to me were, “Don’t call me if you have problems with the Koreans!”  Countless movies have shown a visiting foreigner being arrested and shouting out, “Contact my embassy!”  The reality is that the only thing your embassy can do for you if you get into trouble with the law is to suggest a list of local attorneys who speak some English!  They will not bail you out of jail, try to intervene on your side with the local authorities, or otherwise go to bat for you.  The best they can do is to attempt to stop you from being severely mistreated, but even that isn’t guaranteed.  Nor will they give you money to fly home if you find yourself without funds or under attack from an enemy country: if you’re lucky, they will offer you a loan for plane fare that must be repaid within a few months (indeed, if you need to escape from a war zone and you are lucky enough to get on a military plane out of the country, you will most likely be transferred—for a fee—to the nearest safe country, not taken back to your homeland).

When you move to another country, no matter what your nationality, the assumption is that you will obey their laws.  The last thing your embassy wants is to hear that you’ve gotten into some kind of trouble: it makes them look bad, and puts them at odds with the host government if they try to help you.  For all intents and purposes, you’re on your own.

 

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