I have never been one for planning much in advance, always finding myself enjoying not quite being able to answer the ‘five year plan’ question and frequently dodging my mum’s requests to open an ISA and ‘start thinking a bit more long-term’.
Having said that, I must admit even I was a little bit surprised when after a split decision in a day, I found myself applying to teach in Hong Kong on the basis of a short Facebook mail update-turned-invitation from a likeminded and reliable guy I had lived with for a couple of months in my first year of university.
I’m not shy about rolling my eyes at the ever-present and somewhat condescending ‘quit your life and start again somewhere else’ industry but something felt inexplicably right about a move to Hong Kong and for the first time in a while, I was bouncing my legs in excitement under the desk as I typed out what I could offer a private English playgroup and kindergarten in Tsueng Kwan O, a bay area in the Sai Kung district north of Hong Kong island.
To give some sort of context, I had recently completed my TEFL qualification after a four week ‘on-site’ course in Barcelona and absolutely fallen in love with the way of life it provided.
My class was small and we gelled quickly, I spent lunch times drinking coffee in the breezy October sunshine, laughing with my new friends and digesting my first few encounters of teaching the present perfect tense to students who were far more interested in whether or not I supported Scottish Independence, giving a knowing smile when they saw through my practiced neutral response.
I loved the honesty of the classroom, the agreed willingness to be a bit vulnerable as a 45 year old adult learning from a newly trained 21 year old girl. My natural enthusiasm for teaching English was developed by my course tutors, who had the kind of patience and understanding only those dedicated to what they do, ever can. Also add a seemingly endless internal resource for every teaching query you could think of.
They taught me that teaching internationally will be good to you, but the flip-side of that is professionalism and respect for your work. I learned the importance of thoughtful preparation, time-keeping, open-mindedness and not missing a chance to let the students do the talking. I developed everyday skills alongside teaching ones, all against the backdrop of beautiful autumnal Barcelona.
I interviewed for two jobs towards the end of my course in Barcelona, encouraged by a fantastic career guidance counselor. He was expert in curriculum, documents and paperwork, where you should be looking for work, what your rights are as a teacher in Spain and what particular schools expected in interviews.
I couldn’t have asked for more in terms of guidance and support. With the help of his wisdom and tips, I was offered a full-time job following my second interview. But with an unfortunate turn of events, an illness in the family sent me home to Glasgow with haste and I had, for all intents and purposes, put my new life in Barcelona on hold. Although it was in difficult circumstances, I was home in time for Christmas with the first seed firmly planted on how I wanted to spend my future.
By the time my family member had been given the ‘all-clear’, I had been home for just over six months and had taken a convenient but somewhat soul-destroying job in telesales. My coffee and sun-filled days of meeting learners of all ages, abilities, backgrounds and personalities began to feel like a distant memory and I was most certainly what they call ‘stuck in a rut’.
Lucky then that, out of the blue, my old friend from university messaged me asking if I had considered teaching work in Asia after my stint in Barcelona. What did I stand to lose? Absolutely nothing. What did I have to gain? New friends, new city, new lessons, new love, new opportunities, new stories, new challenges, new apartment, new job, new coffee, new sunshine. I’ll assume you understand me when I say the decision was not a difficult one.
Yes, I’d miss my family and my friends but are they really your family and friends if they don’t say ‘you absolutely must go and do this, it’s your time!’?
To give myself the best chance of stability on the other side of the world (in other words I didn’t take enough money for a quick flight home without making a wage first) I secured a job before I arrived in Hong Kong. After a 20 minute Skype interview at 5:30am, my new boss was a firm, inquisitive but smiley Chinese woman who ran a private early learning center for English as a foreign language. I booked my one-way flight a week before I left and said my goodbyes for a year of Cantonese adventure.
I got a fright when I moved to Hong Kong. It was intense, overwhelmingly humid, unrelentingly loud and I quickly discovered my boss disliked my Scottish accent and thought it was ‘unfair on the kids because they’re used to correct British English accents’. I did try to explain, on a few occasions, that British accents are inclusive of Scottish accents but she was reluctant to give up our weekly ‘pronunciation practice’ in which I would work with her one-to-one and we would repeat the sounds of the alphabet ‘correctly’.
I was making really decent money for my first full-time teaching job, roughly 2000GBP a month but I found myself absolutely exhausted. I worked 9am until 7pm from Monday to Saturday and was given 7 days annual leave allowance. I think my inexperience and desire to get started had landed me in a job I didn’t suit. At all. I had never taught playgroup or Pre-K kids before and I quickly missed fluid two-way conversation, opinions and questions about grammar and vocabulary. I felt like I was performing all the time- for parents, the kids and for my boss.
I formed a solid respect for those who dedicate their time to children and their development, because at the end of the day, the kids deserve someone who can genuinely sing the days of the week once every hour and know it’s helping them in some way. However, I am not that person and it took me a while to realize that doesn’t make me a bad one either.
On the flipside, I had found some of the best adults I had ever met in Hong Kong and that’s what kept me going. They were a group of friends who had just started a magazine, they listened to great music and reassured me it was all going to be okay. I spent my first few months in a hot sticky summer punctuated with typhoons and some of the best food I had ever eaten with some of the best friends I’d ever make.
I would finish work late, head out to Temple Street market for fresh crab and cold beer and uncontrollable bouts of laughter. I would dance and sweat in the streetlights of the bustling city with tiny hidden speakeasy bars and clubs that felt like someone’s living room in the best kind of way.
We’d venture out to the amazing beaches I never knew existed. I couldn’t believe the diversity Hong Kong offered in terms of lifestyle. You could hike in places that felt like deep, lush Vietnamese jungle or have free flow champagne brunch on a rooftop above the sleepless streets of Tsim Sha Tsui.
You could rock-climb and swim to deserted beaches and in an hour be back in time for fast-paced dim sum lunch in Central. I had found my people, I was slowly finding my place but my work had to change if I wanted to find a home.
And so after really giving it my all and beginning to feel like a weekday zombie in one of the most exciting places I had ever been, I bucked up the courage and made my plea to terminate my 12 month contract 5 months early because it’s what was right for me and for the kids.
My boss was furious and told me I was irresponsible and childish for not ‘keeping my professional word’. She told me she would charge me my salary for every month I failed to work, and suggested I leave her office and think about what I was doing.
After an hour of doing tearful laps around the shopping mall where the learning centre was, I received a message from my boss saying she understood and agreed it was the right thing to do. And just like that, my ‘half-life’ in Hong Kong began to open up like a flower.
Through a friend, I landed a new job with EF Englishtown and was happy to take the pay-cut and 9pm finishes for a life spent around people who valued me as a teacher and as a person. My role was full-time NET teacher, which meant I also took part in ‘lifeclub’ activities, events all over Hong Kong that brought the ‘real-life English speaking experience’ to the students.
We would have beach days, hikes, movie nights, dinner nights, parties, kayaking, cycling, art and craft events and we were paid to help organize and enjoy them. I taught for 4 hours a day and the rest was sharing ideas, lesson planning and hosting events in our center with some of the best colleagues I’d ever had.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t always easy and the 9pm finishes and weekend work (I started at 1pm) often wreaked havoc on social plans or any kind of dinner routine.
One of the biggest challenges I found whilst teaching adults in Hong Kong was that many prioritized when they could come to class and not what they were learning so it wouldn’t be rare for me to be teaching an advanced level class and somehow half of them were elementary level confused but often unwilling to voice their frustration.
I began to understand that teaching was a personal thing to me, be that good or bad, I was determined to have my students learn something in my class in an engaging way and got very upset with myself if I felt I hadn’t achieved that.
The next two and a half years FLEW by. They flew by. My new job at EF had allowed me far more time to take trips abroad and I managed to visit New York over Chinese New Year in 2014 where I fell in love with an Englishman who moved to Hong Kong to join me. We got scooters in Malaysia, onsens in Japan, sunsets in the Philippines, wildlife in Sri Lanka and bicycles in Guilin. I would often close my eyes, open them and thank whoever or whatever told me to take a chance on Hong Kong. I said thank you for it not always coming easy, because it felt all the more valuable.
I learned that teaching is what I’m about, so I carried it on after I left Hong Kong. It was time for something new. I’m now teaching at an academy for international students (mostly from Europe) in East London alongside studying for my masters in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching.
The money and hours are decent because of my experience in Hong Kong. Teaching is the first thing I did professionally and felt like the hours didn’t drag because I was engaged in something I honestly felt was important for me (the travel, the opportunities, the lessons, the new people) and for my students. I think perhaps it’s too easy these days to say ‘I only started teaching because I didn’t know what else to do and I wanted to travel’ but is that really enough? Are you giving yourself, and your adventure, credit where credit is due?
The main elements of teaching, especially teaching a second language, are exactly how I’d like someone to describe my adventures; challenging, communicative, sometimes frustrating, fun, surprising but above all else – worthwhile.
So what’s left to say now but a quote from Mandela that I remind myself of often; ‘There is no passion to be found in playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living’.
By Erin Docherty
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