Foreward: mansuscript for overseas teaching guide

It was the early 2000’s and like most Americans in their mid-20’s, I was marginally employed and drifting. A move clear across the country had been my first extended venture outside of my zip code, and the West Coast was like Mars. Free minded individuals, unburdened by outdated mores and blasé life ruts. Artists running naked in the streets. Free love anarchist communes and bicycle armies. Unfortunately, poetry wasn’t paying the bills. Foodservice and call centers offered little as far as stimulating work environments are concerned. It was time for a change.

“You should become a teacher.” This was about the seventieth suggestion offered by my father on one of our melancholic Sunday phone calls. I had always entertained the idea, sure that I could trump the hacks who had collected salaries in the sad, sorry school districts, teaching me to hate novels and world history. But then, I had also always wanted to be an international spy, a hard-nosed journalist, a syndicated cartoonist, and a ring-tailed lemur. Wanting something don’t necessarily make it so.

Still, the idea grew on me. Especially when I heard about this whole overseas teaching scheme. The school flies you out, pays your rent, and… did we mention the whole overseas teaching part of this deal?

Life transitioned quickly from Dollar Beer Tuesdays at the local punk dive to Thirsty Thursdays in the university district to falling asleep at 8 o’clock on a Friday night with a glass of wine in my hand, grading spelling tests at my kitchen table. All those naked bicycling anarchist free love artist friends faded away to Never Never Land as teaching became my new life. The plan was to put in three or four years in the American Public system and then nail down a dream job in someplace exotic.

Someplace they speak Spanish. Someplace full of beautiful women who have never met — and therefore never been disappointed by — an American. Someplace without “hipster irony” and other phrases people invent to sound clever. Someplace that delivers white rum drinks on a chrome platter to your beach chair while a teaching assistant grades your spelling tests.

It bears repeating. Wanting something don’t necessarily make it so.

Halfway through my second year, one of my administrators quietly approached me.

“So… you’ve been talking about going overseas sometime down the road, yeah?” he began. “Here’s the thing. We’re looking at the budget for next year, and while I can’t officially tell you what this means for you and the other new teachers, I can unofficially tell you… start looking for that overseas job now.”

Reading into his subtle message, I signed myself up for what would become the most insane yet rewarding decision of my life. With some hesitations, of course. Just two years in the field, I was unsure of my abilities to start teaching in the big leagues. As it turns out, that hunch was absolutely accurate.

What I wish to present in this book is an accurate as possible portrayal of overseas teaching. If you have read this far, you are probably considering it yourself. You may have even attended a workshop about it, where rosy cheeked 50-somethings sing a happy song about the amazing, easy life overseas teachers enjoy. If it is anything like the workshop I attended, they left out the bad parts and replaced them with a slideshow of badly dressed people in front of international landmarks. Or shouldering parrots in the Amazon. Or riding rickshaws in Bangkok. I am here to tell you that is all pretend.

The life of an overseas teacher is gritty and cruel. It is rife with people who spit in the street and generally have detestable hygiene. It is an uncomfortable world of drunkards and hooligans, confidence men and opportunists. Mouth-breathing simpletons and arrogant racists. And that’s just your fellow expats.

Though you will be thrust well out of your comfort zone, there will also be moments of pure bliss. You will work with some of the finest teachers in the profession, and you will work hard and you will work with great enthusiasm. You will behold sights that in your past life existed only in the pages of National Geographic. Yes, that beach exists, and though there may not be an assistant to score your spelling tests there will be a gilded serving platter. Cuban rum even.

Enough pitching. You want to do this thing? Then here is everything you ever needed to know about overseas education, but didn’t think to ask.

Enter the Fixer

Camel-killing temperatures bake the asphalt as my shirt cakes in salty sweat, soaking in the kind of humidity that you don’t think exists in desert climates but let me tell you, it does.  Surrounding me, a mob of migrant workers, queued (in the loosest possible interpretation of that word) to enter a tent marked WORKER ENTRANCE.  An ant-line of laborers files out of the exit a few meters away, bandage on each arm, official-looking government document in each hand.

The men around me look puzzled, talking at me simultaneously in Nepalese.  Gutra-clad Qatari men break into the crowd, shouting orders in Arabic.  The men immediately push into the tent, leaving me in a now-vacant parking lot.  A bus pulls up and what appear to be hundreds more migrants disembark, filling the musky vacuum in which I stand.  I’m confused; this is confusing.

That’s when I see him.  He approaches like a phantasm, his flowing dishdasha swishing in the air despite the lack of breeze.  He seems not to walk but rather to drift, drift like Saudi teenagers in Mercedes Benzes.

He gently grasps my elbow, removes his too-damn-cool-for-a-name-brand sunglasses, and says with the gentle authority of the universe itself, “Mister Sam.  Come with me now.”

His name is Nidhal and he is my fixer.  He is going to fix all of this for me.

I have no business by the WORKERS ENTRANCE, he tells me.  I must instead use the EMPLOYEES ENTRANCE, which apparently is for foreign professionals such as myself.  He seems to crack a smile, perhaps amused at my naivety, but I cannot be sure.

We walk into a building that, while not resembling a tent in any way, is at least halfway as topsy-turvy inside.  Lines, arrows, and ropes form a labyrinth, reminiscent of my bygone hours spent in DMV’s.  Nidhal gestures for me to follow him right past the crowds of puzzled businessmen, engineers, and other foreigners who were told this process would only take an hour.

He pauses outside a door marked only by a number, deep in thought, conspiratorial, like George Clooney right before he does anything.  Now that I think about it, with that close trimmed beard and square jaw, Nidhal looks an awful lot like George Clooney.  Except taller.

Nidhal quietly pushes the door open and motions me inside.  A clearly overwhelmed doctor sits at a desk, piles of files scattered about him.  Speaking in a voice like the wind whirling the desert across the dunes, Nidhal says a few words in Arabic that, like so many words in Arabic, speak volumes more than English.

The doctor responds immediately by taking out an ink pad and stamping insignias across a document with my name on it.  Nidhal thanks him.  We leave.

Nidhal leads me to another door.  Inside, a Filipino orderly takes my document and passport, studying both carefully.

“A TB shot?  Really man?  You’re a white guy from America.  You don’t have TB.”

I reply that he is of course correct, that this whole process is an unfortunate consequence of having irregular chest x-rays due to my Beijing-airborne-toxin-tattooed lung.  He rolls his eyes sympathetically and takes out a needle.

“So,” he asks, “what’s the latest on the airstrikes in Syria?”  I tell him that sadly my citizenship does not make me privy to insider information.  He jabs the needle into my arm.  “Come back in two days.  If it looks infected, I guess you have TB after all.”

Nidhal is not impressed.  He would prefer to see everything wrapped up sooner.  If he could coerce my cellular biology to play by his rules, I know he would.  But a fixer can only fix so much in one day.

This is my first week in Qatar, and my first week back in the Middle East after leaving so frantically in 2008.  I must say, everything is going much better this time and I cannot wait to see what comes in the years ahead.