Set Adrift In The English-Teaching Industrial Complex

The millennials who wander the globe spreading English…

If someone threatened to jab a rusty spike in your eyeball unless you said one nice thing about globalization, you could do worse than mumble, “It’s led to a lot of people moving across national borders.” The free movement of human beings is generally acknowledged to be a good thing, whether you’re a Bitcoin-hoarding technolibertarian, a revolutionary Sandersista, or a crusty Clintonite. There’s certainly no shortage of humane and semi-humane arguments in favor of open borders. Journalist Gary Younge wrote a beautiful article in The Guardian in which he said, “As a principle, I think we should all be able to roam the planet and live, love and create where we wish.” Meanwhile, in a blog post for Open Borders, economics professor Nathan Smith advocated for the exact same thing—except his reason for doing so was “there would be a lot less Islam in the world. And I would probably welcome that.

I also believe that open borders are a good thing (unsurprisingly, for reasons that are closer to Younge’s than Smith’s). The urge to move is one of the most fundamental human urges. We’re happiest when we can choose our own environment. Why do people love taking road trips? Why do they love working from home? It isn’t just because of the highway scenery, or the bathrobe-friendly dress code—it’s the autonomy. This is such a rare experience for most of us that we don’t dare to imagine it could be our right.

But when people like Smith advocate for open borders, they don’t do so because they believe it would increase the average person’s liberty and happiness. They’re more interested in the financial implications. Most of their arguments assume that “higher standards of living” are a natural byproduct of increased mobility, though few bother to specify for whom. In the semi-coherent words of Thomas Friedman, this was supposed to create an international class of “globalutionaries” who would overthrow Third World dictatorships by eating at McDonalds, an idea so vigorously dumb it makes you want to swallow your own tongue.

But even the cleverest propagandists struggle to make a convincing case that open borders are truly meant for everyone. The very rich may enjoy gobbling up foreign passports and penthouses (according to Business Insider, there are at least 17 countries where citizenship can be purchased outright, plus many more that offer permanent residency with the purchase of luxury real estate), and the very poor may enjoy having the opportunity to become somewhat less poor (just ignore those pesky reports of forced migrant labor), but for the vast majority of people, the obstacles to living abroad remain as imposing as ever.

Expensive and complicated visa processes are the biggest reason for this, but language barriers can be almost as significant as legal ones. Unless your job is so important that you can dictate the terms of communication, or so menial that instructions can be delivered through grunts and hand gestures, it’s hard to live in a place where you’re not fluent in the local dialect. You can be the world’s greatest Swedish-speaking toaster salesman, but good luck moving product in Senegal.

Language barriers are nothing new, and neither are our charmingly inept attempts to overcome them, Esperanto being the most famous example. The dream of a global tongue has a long, rich tradition of quiet failures: Volapük was invented in 1879 by a German Catholic priest named Johann Martin Schleyer, and Interlingua was developed by the International Auxiliary Language Association during the mid-20th century. The fact that you’ve never heard any of those names should be all you need to know. It turns out that people have little interest in learning a language that sounds as fake as Klingon or Elvish. Perhaps it was inevitable that one day, the more pragmatic of the universalists would throw up their hands and say, “you know what, how about we all just speak English?”

They’d finally picked a winner. Today, nearly a billion people speak English. More than 600 million of them are non-native speakers. The British Council predicts that two billion people around the world will be using English by 2020. The language has gone viral, and like most viral sensations, few understand the mechanics of how it happened. Even fewer grasp the broader implications.

English didn’t become humanity’s de facto Common Tongue solely on the strength of Duolingo and YouTube videos. Capturing such a vast user base requires a lot of personalized outreach, and nobody’s better at personalization than actual persons (yet). If you want people to learn English, you need to give them teachers. 

The problem was solved by a brilliant stroke of capitalism. Just as the superfluous offspring of minor nobles were once enlisted to run the jails and sugar plantations of far-flung colonial outposts, today’s surplus of middle-class cultural studies majors and aspiring novelists could be sent to stand in poorly-ventilated classrooms and lecture bored foreigners about adverbs. Soon a multi-billion dollar industry was born. Globalization had created a demand for English, and a massive workforce was needed to supply this hot new commodity.

For most of my adult life, I’ve been one of those workers. The search for a decent paycheck and cheap rent has led me across Asia and Europe, where I’ve taught classes for everyone from Korean kindergarteners to Vietnamese policemen to Andorran retirees. Along the way, I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon, which is that people in the U.S. tend to conflate teaching English abroad with saving the children, protecting the rainforest, and other selfless acts of ambiguous do-goodery. They have a mental image of the typical foreign English student as a bright-but-impoverished young kid of interchangeable ethnicity from a 1990s infomercial. American acquaintances will often say that, by teaching, I’m helping to make the world a better place.

Most of the time I’m too polite to roll my eyes, but not always. The truth is that most of my students are from upper-middle-class families. Private English lessons are expensive and time-consuming. And while I’m sure that some of my students came to class because of their toe-curling love for grammatical structures, the most common reason given for enrolling in class was “to get a bigger salary.” Having a formal certification of English competency, usually in the form of a standardized test score, is now a prerequisite for most university programs and high-level jobs around the world.

As a result, it seems to me that being an English teacher abroad is similar to being a yoga teacher in the U.S. We enrich the local communities we’re in, but only the segments of the community who can afford it. At the same time, there are moments of real, genuine human connection with the people we do reach. I still have the handknit scarf a Korean mother gave me after I taught her son’s class the lyrics to “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” My Vietnamese students would celebrate the end of every course with dinner at a nearby hot pot restaurant, which often involved an overly-enthusiastic young man feeding me a plate full of goat brain. On more than one occasion, I’ve downed shots of tequila with a classroom full of geriatric Andorrans. The vast majority of students I’ve taught have been kind, curious people with open minds and generous hearts. Just because they’re not poor doesn’t mean they’re unworthy of empathy, compassion, and friendship.

It hurts to think I’ve been scamming them. I try not to think about how all the kids I’ve taught will one day be competing against each other to provide contract labor for the Musks and Thiels and Zuckerbergs of the world; or about all the money my adult students have spent on overpriced books and CDs that are cranked out every year by National Geographic and TED Talks and a hundred other educational content corporations. I do my best to rationalize my role in this system, and to minimize its anxiety-inducing effects on the people I care about.

Illustration by C.M. Duffy

But maybe I’m being scammed, too. The same faraway language academies that produce such bountiful quantities of multilingual hotel receptionists, customer service reps, and low-priced software programmers also make convenient holding pens for people like me: the dregs of the middle class, described by the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin as those “fervent, energetic youth, totally déclassé, with no career or way out.” Hundreds of thousands of would-be revolutionaries, the kinds of people whose reckless dreams and dreary futures could be the spark that sets capitalism ablaze, have been reduced to glorified mimes and babysitters.

Most of us seem fine with it.

Colin LaGesse left Ohio State University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in English, thousands of dollars in debt, and a dim sense of his future prospects. Unable to land “a real job” after graduation, he spent the next six months trying to cobble a mishmash of part-time gigs into something resembling a livable wage. An unpredictable mix of retail shifts and door-to-door fundraisers was the best he could manage.

At a Thanksgiving party, he mentioned his struggles to a friend. She suggested that he consider teaching English in South Korea. “I knew almost nothing about Korea,” says Colin, but after a quick internet search he was sold. “They were offering a free plane ticket, a free apartment, and on top of that, the salary it offered compared to the cost of living was amazing.” Even health care, a dreaded topic for most American millennials, was practically free. Colin smiles when you ask him about it. “I never paid more than $20 for a doctor’s visit plus the prescription,” he says.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, you just didn’t find jobs like that in the United States, especially if you were a recent college graduate with little work experience. But certain foreign countries were overflowing with cushy teaching gigs, provided you knew where to look. All you needed was a passport, a criminal background check, and a bachelor’s degree, and the last two were sometimes optional. Word spread fast.

There were already more than a quarter of a million English teachers working abroad when Colin landed at Incheon Airport in March 2010. Over 3,000 academies had been established in Asia alone, where the burgeoning middle classes of “tiger economies” like Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea were becoming connoisseurs of Western almost-luxuries like Outback Steakhouse and H&M and low-cost airlines. The globalization of the world’s economy kept chugging along as planned. Even communist countries like China and Vietnam started to develop a ravenous appetite for English.

That was how Ed Weinberg had found himself sitting in a Saigon hospital one day in early 2011, recovering from a nasty motorbike wound on his leg. The only child of a middle-class Jewish family from New Jersey, he passed the time by writing calming emails to his parents, omitting any mention of stitches or infections.

Ed had arrived a few weeks earlier to enroll in a teacher-training course offered by the University of Cambridge. He chose to do it in Vietnam because of the price. “They teach the same curriculum at centers around the world,” he says, “but the course I took in Ho Chi Minh City was half the price it was in New York. When you factor in living expenses, it’s kind of a no-brainer.”

An average Vietnamese worker earned about $200 a month back then, working six days a week. By comparison, a foreign English teacher with decent qualifications could earn almost $2,000 a month. However, Ed was drawn to Vietnam for more personal reasons.

“I was a bartender in Philadephia,” he says, “and when people would ask me ‘what do you do,’ I would kind of shrug and tell them I worked at Restaurant X, but I did a little writing on the side. I was disconnected. When I was about to turn thirty, I got this superstitious feeling that whatever I was doing at that age would be a good indication of what I’d be doing for the next decade. And I decided I didn’t want that life.” To Ed, the best part of living abroad is “having a life story that I’m proud to have. Now when I tell someone my elevator pitch bio— hi, I’m Ed, I live in Vietnam—I feel like I’m talking about a life I’ve chosen, not just the situation I fell into.” He thinks that leaving the States helped him look at the world with more hope and curiosity. “Living in a place like this, the little rejections of life matter less, because you identify with them less. Whenever you’re in a shitty situation, all you have to do is add ‘in Vietnam,’ and it kinda takes the sting out. Like, ‘I got gonorrhea… in Vietnam,’ becomes this absurd and amusing thing, not a straight-up disaster.”

For many expatriate English teachers, this cheery parallel universe is a welcome relief from the disheartening half-lives they were living back home. Although nobody gets rich as an English teacher, and although it’s just a matter of time before they’re all replaced by high-tech Babel fish, the global ESL industry does provide an appealing bail-out option for young middle-class Westerners. It’s their escape pod, their last shot at flying away from the whirring metal jaws of capitalism. There’s a certain dignity in the work, which is more than you can say for most modern industries.

Best of all, teaching abroad is irrefutable, Instagrammable proof that you’re Doing Something With Your Life. It gives you a different way to measure your self-worth, a new metric that says that you, not your high school classmate with the garage full of Porsches, are the one worth envying. The only way to win a rigged game is to change how you keep score.

Still, the life of an ESL expat comes with some unavoidable pitfalls. Many teachers, like Sara Fowler, 26, worry about their relationships with distant loved ones. “Going home to Baltimore, I realized how much I missed my family,” she says. The former Fulbright scholar has lived in Andorra for the last two years, where she skis in the winter and visits the beaches of nearby Barcelona in the summer. She loves the culture, the affordable cost of living, and the opportunities to travel. But if all things were equal, she’d prefer to be home. “Stepping foot in my hometown and knowing exactly where everything is, how everything works, what to expect, all that stuff… it was comforting in a way I hadn’t really appreciated before. I joke about living abroad until Trump leaves office, but I think in the long run I want to be with my family and friends.”

Other teachers, like 24-year-old Emilie MacShane, bristle at the industry-wide tendency to treat its workforce like tossable tissues. “I actually love teaching,” says Emilie. “Growing up I always wanted to be a teacher.” She took her first job at a school in Moscow a month after graduating from university. A harsh awakening soon followed. “I’ve struggled to find companies who treat you with respect for the work you do, because they think you’re just there for a year before flitting off to the next place. In a lot of companies you’re disposable, since most people just teach English as a means to an end, to stay in an exotic country and do some travel. Which is totally understandable, but it’s not my deal,” she says.

Nobody likes to be reminded of their own disposability. And despite our genetic predisposition to complain about family members, most of us don’t want to completely abandon our kinfolk. Yet a willingness to be both disposable and isolated is a prerequisite for life as an expat English teacher. The fact that so many young people still choose a life of this kind hints at the deep-seated hopelessness of terminal capitalism. We know that the party can’t last forever, but we also know that there’s nothing waiting for us back home.

For the better part of a decade, it’s been fashionable to suggest that millennials are a lost generation. Everyone from the sweaty-palmed thoughtleaders of HuffPost to the slightly more respectable panic-mongers  at Salon can agree on one thing: life sucks when you’re born into a bad economy, and there’s a good chance it’s not going to get much better. But these iPhone-addled Snapchatters aren’t the first generation to be considered lost.  A century ago, another Lost Generation of expats—the one that gave us Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and those goddamn fedoras—slumped across the bars of bohemian Paris and wondered aloud, “Christ almighty, how’d things get so bad?”

The answer, then and now, is capitalism.

Under capitalism, every generation is lost. In some decades it’s relatively easy to ignore this, though these lulls are always followed by an unpleasantly long wakeup call. During these years, we’re much more conscious of the sensation of being lost. While it isn’t enjoyable, it does have a pleasant numbness to it. You may not be on the path to success, but at least you know there is a path. We all expect that someday we’ll find ourselves.

And sometimes it works! Sometimes you stumble into a life that feels like it means something, like Anthony Morreale did. His story is an encouraging one for people who have nothing to lose by running away. “Looking back, I think living abroad really helped me get out of a rut,” says Anthony, who started a Ph.D. in Southeast Asian history at Berkeley after returning from a year in Ho Chi Minh City. “I needed an adventure of some sort, but at the time it wasn’t clear. I’m not actually out of the woods yet, but I feel like it was good for me.” While living abroad, he learned Vietnamese, got married, and had a son. It’s hard to imagine any of that happening had he stayed in the U.S.

For others, going abroad is a chance to make up for lost time. Carl Beijer left the United States in March 2017. Back home, he’d been a frequent contributor to outlets like Jacobin, Chapo Trap House, and the Baltimore Post-Examiner. He now works 60 hours a week at a language school in Kiev, Ukraine. He’s frank about the impact it’s had on his writing: “Usually I just don’t have time,” says Carl, “and when I do write, I’m often out of sync with the immediate concerns and controversies of the American left.” Still, though the weeks are long and the money could be better, he says he’s happy. “There are a lot of reasons I left the U.S., but a big one is that I wanted to do something that directly helps the poor,” he says. “It can be surprisingly hard to find full-time work doing that in D.C., especially if you don’t want to live in poverty yourself.”

According to Carl, a teacher’s life isn’t for everyone. “It depends on what you want to get out of it,” he says. “If you spend too long teaching English abroad, it will probably diminish your prospects back home. On the other hand, a lot of the work you can find overseas is a lot more fulfilling and productive than what you’ll get in the U.S. So it really depends on what your opportunities are, and whether you’re the kind of person who will thrive abroad, or the kind of person who will be miserable.”

It’s an interesting question to ask yourself: what kind of person am I? How much would I sacrifice to find out? Can I imagine what my new life would look like?

For most people who go abroad to teach English, there’s a level of complicity in greasing the gears of global capitalism. We can counteract this, to some degree, with small acts of rebellious humanity —teaching lessons about topics like the Israeli occupation of Palestine, photocopying textbooks to give away for free, encouraging students to question the systems into which they were born while also acknowledging that we, as outsiders, are not the ones who have the right to demand changes. We can make a conscious, sustained effort to treat our students, neighbors, and friends as fully formed human beings, and not exotic extras in our own globetrotting saga of self-discovery.

And, when the time comes, we can come back to join the fight. 

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