Ready the Kleenex

photo by pearson251

So. I teach ESL to southeast Asian refugees. I love my job. I do. It’s amazing and humbling and I spend a good deal of time playing bingo and teaching chants about ‘be’ verbs. It’s a pretty sweet gig.

Several of my students are KaRen, an ethnic minority from eastern Burma. In the past fifty years, the KaRen have made several attempts to lead insurgencies against the military dictatorship and failed. When these attempts failed, the military began to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the country of KaRen, forcing more than 120,000 of them into refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border.Though only intended for temporary use, many refugee camps housed KaRen for 10-15 years. The camps are halfway between a shanty town and a prison, where refugees live in tents or huts, aren’t allowed to leave the camp without a permit and aren’t taught the language of their host country. Refugees bide their time until they are allocated to a new host country, something that they often have no say in.

This is the history of my students. Now that they have been in Minnesota for a few months, they know how to take the bus and where they can buy coconut milk. They’ve experienced snow and escalators are officially old news. Now that they’re experts on American life, they get quite excited at the prospect of new students who they can surely ‘break in’ and impress with their knowledge of this cold, new place. They were all a’fluster when I told them on Monday that we’d be getting new students the next day.

On Tuesday, I ushered three demure KaRen women into the classroom when one of my students jumped out of his seat and started yelling … because thousands of miles away, years ago, in the mountains of Thailand, they all lived in the same camp. And now here they were again, in my tiny classroom in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Needless to say, I had to busy myself with my dry erase markers for several minutes so I wouldn’t weep over the joy of it all.

More teaching fun:
In which the existence of beavers is questioned
English names chosen by my Chinese Students
Adventures in Non-traditional Adulthood: Teaching ESL Abroad

For the love of gravy

“Gravy is the simplest, tastiest, most memory-laden dish I know how to make. It smells of home, the door locked against the night and a stillness made safe by the sound of a spoon going round a pan.”

– Dorothy Allison

Happy Thanksgiving!

A list of lists

photo by jschumacher

You know what I love so hard? I mean, in addition to cheese and kittens and globe-trotting.

Lists. Oh friends, I love them. Not only those uber-productive, plan-making, world-domination-plotting lists, but lovely, hilarious, ridiculous ones. Here are some of my favorites:
  • Favorite songs from 1998
  • Top five animals
  • Best words ever
  • Fictional Characters that would be my best friends
  • Smells that I love
  • Scary things I don’t ever want to touch
  • Songs that can be categorized as “Sparkly”
  • Best songs for air kicks
  • Food to eat when I’m downtrodden
  • Movies that I have seen more than ten times
  • Names that I will never saddle my children with
  • Things about me that are awesome

What lists do you make?

KGB Style

I have had an infatuation with Russia since the third grade, when I found a book stuffed full of bizarre, macabre Russian fairy tales in my elementary school library. I’m fairly sure I was the only one who ever checked this book out, as everyone else was put off by the the cottage with chicken feet on the cover. Babies.This love is compounded by the fact that I’m often mistaken for a Russian when I’m traveling abroad. I suspect it has less to do with my blond hair and more to do with my oddly sulky ambient expression. If I’m not giggling behind my hand, I apparently look like I should be slurping borscht and glaring at soldiers over a copy of ”The Brothers Karamazov.”

So if I was to move to Russia tomorrow, what would I wear?

Okay, so I’m well aware that Russians probably don’t wear sickle and hammer t-shirts. But I’m nothing if not committed to a theme! Please note the lovely riding boots for running over icy cobble stones, the Moscow caliber parka, the hat (probably made from the hide of a Czar’s pet bear) and the babushka-worthy scarf. I would wear this while I read ‘Anna Karenina,’ snuggled against the steamy windows in the Trans-Siberian’s dining car.

Because I’m sure that Russian women often dress in a manner that approximates those delicious little nesting dolls, right? Okay, no. But! This outfit would be perfect for running through fields of poppies during the first days of spring. I suspect it would also be good for making piroshki with my Mommachka or wearing to a party where I would drink too much vodka and do that impressive kicking dance.

And this little ensemble? Well, this is obviously for those nights when my bearded, Mafia boss lover takes me to see Mikhail Baryshnikov dance in Leningrad. We smoke too much, nibble on bliny and loll in the huge velvet seats of our theater box. I am thoroughly exhausted by the other molls, but make pleasant chit chat in an attempt to be friendly.

What country’s couture do you covet?


“I Want To Quit My Job + Travel. Now What?”

How to quit your job and travel instead

Want to quit your job and travel? If you’ve been dreaming of quitting your job and traveling, last week I received this email from an awesome girl who’s struggling with a mean case of wanderlust you might identify with:

I’ve done a bit of traveling in my past years, but in August I decided I was going to go to SE Asia for 7 weeks … I had an incredible time, but am now itching to go back!! I’ve been looking into English teaching programs in Thailand even though I’m a bit hesitant…you know, I worry that I won’t be a good teacher, etc. I also just want to see more of Asia as I think the people, the land and the cultures are absolutely incredible. Many people here, including my family, don’t understand this or why I would ever want to go back there long term. They have many preconceived notions, which drives me crazy! I guess I just like the independence and dislike the way corporate America works and want to learn how others around the world live and work. Maybe I’m crazy? Maybe you’re crazy? What do you think? Any tips for English teaching? Any other suggestions?

Why Quitting Your Job to Travel is Okay

I think, if we are being honest with ourselves, that it is the rare person who truly thrives in corporate America. Two-week vacations, dress codes and cubicles are not the things are things our childhood selves dreamt of. Studies show that one in three American workers is chronically overworked and less than half of Americans are satisfied with their jobs. So it’s not too crazy to hate your job, find it unfulfilling or want to leave it.

But we all have the option to make the unusual choice to do something about it.

Leaving a comfortable, reliable paycheck for the unknown is always scary, especially in our current economic situation. But you know what’s more scary? Waking up on the eve of your 45th birthday and realizing that you have not lived the life you want and that you’d like a do-over, please.

How to Quit Your Job and Travel Instead

As someone who bailed on her fancy event-planning job for a life in Taiwan, teaching the alphabet to Chinese kindergartners, here’s what worked for me:

Get some teaching experience

If you don’t know much about ESL or you don’t have any teaching experience, it’s a good idea to some class time under your belt. Because it would suck to move to a foreign country and discover you hate your job, right? A great way to do this is by volunteering at an ESL school in your area. Many schools even provide training for their volunteers. A good place to start in Minnesota is at the Minnesota Literacy Council. That being said, don’t feel that you need to complete a CELTA or TEFL certificate to get a job teaching in SE Asia. Most schools just require a college degree and a good attitude. If you really enjoy your job and imagine that you’d like to work in ESL for years to come, you can always get one of these certificates later.

Do heaps of research on your country of choice (and be prepared to present all of this information to any and all nay-sayers)

Many Americans have no idea what day-to-day life in SE Asia looks like, I know I didn’t before I became interested in ESL. When I told people I was moving to Taiwan they asked me
a) if I planned on eating cats
b) if I would be living in Bangkok
c) If I would live in a pagoda

So it’s really important that you can correct these misconceptions and point out the similarities between life in your two countries. The importance of family, the emphasis placed on education and a great work ethic are all great parallels to start with. It’s also good to point out how developed and technologically advanced a lot of cities are … it’ll help allay those fears that you’ll be riding a water buffalo to work. Lots of people don’t know that SE Asia is one of the safest places to travel as a single woman or that the capitol cities of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong have great health care facilities. Taiwan has four Ikeas for Pete’s sake!

Line up a job ahead of time

Your family will feel a lot better if they know that someone is picking you up at the airport, helping you find housing and generally looking out for your best interest. It’s actually quite common to find a job before you go. I would recommend frequently the expat message boards for your country of choice and seeing what people have to say about the different employers. Pay, benefits and expectations vary greatly between employers so it’s important to find a school that’s right for you. It’s even a good idea to correspond with current employees at the schools your looking at. They won’t shy away from giving you the unvarnished truth.

Convince your family to chill out

Of course, your family is just concerned because they love you, they’ll miss you and they’re worried about you. All of this ground work and information should go a long way to calm your family’s worries. It might also help to involve them in the process – invite them into your ESL classroom, take them out for red curry at Tom Rum Thai, talk to them about the amazing things that happened to your during your last trip to Asia. Enthusiasm can be contagious!

Even with all this work, it’s possible that they’ll never cheer your decision with cymbals and streamers. But at the end of the day, it’s your life and you need to live it in a way that makes you proud and makes you happy. I have a good friend whose mother cried and cried when he told her he was moving abroad. However! This same mother regularly bragged to anyone who would listen about her brave, adventurous son and his globe-trotting life. I think there’s often a difference between what our parents want us to do for them and what they want us to do for ourselves.

Your family will surely miss you while you’re abroad, but I bet they will also be incredibly proud of you and your bravery. I know I am!

What other advice would you offer our globe-trotting lass who wants to quit her job and travel?

Got the travel bug?  Check out my ebooks and podcasts on making long-term travel a reality!  Only $15 forpetessake!

photo (without added text) by Kai Zau for viewing here