"In this global village, will home be a country, a nationality, a physical living space, or a concept? As I cross over from tourist to expatriate, I carry my own private riddle: What is home? I now have a nice roof over my head, but my soul remains homeless."
----- Ken May, From his book "Road Rash: Western Tourists and Expatriates at Play in Asia's Global Village."
"I'm disgusted to be back in this damn country where you see the sun in the sky about as often as a diamond in a pig's arse."
----- Gustave Flaubert, in a letter written as a schoolboy about his native France. (Quoted from "The Art of Travel", by Alain De Botton.)
I like to eat breakfast at McDonald's while I'm home. It's only one of my terrible habits. While eating my egg mc muffin and sipping my coffee one morning, a woman stood out over all others. Also eating an egg mc muffin and sipping her coffee, she sits at the edge of the chair still wearing her winter coat as if she can't wait to leave. She's thin, (rare for a Canadian), and her long golden hair and soft facial features betrays the inner toughness I'm sure she possesses. She's pretty. Very pretty. And I can't stand looking at her. Not because I don't like looking a pretty women. I do. But her beauty and graceful presence, even in a place like McDonald's, is a continual reminder of what a pathetic loser I am. I have seen her many times in the few weeks I've been here and I don't even know her name. I'm sure it's a beautiful name. A name that perfectly matches her appearance. Like Jennifer, or Caroline, or Phoebe, or Samantha. Even with all that beauty and grace and elegance, she is way out of my league and a constant reminder of why I don't like coming home. She personifies everything people tell me I'm missing.
I remember what I told my family and friends before I left for Korea to teach English for the first time in the spring of 1997. I remember telling them about my biggest fear: To end up like everybody else. I didn't want to end up like everybody else. And what is everybody else? Well, I guess it's having a nagging spouse, spoiled rotten children with their iPods and cell phones, a mortgage and a car I can't afford, dental bills, and.... well, you know, the white picket fence and all that. I chose, in the words of the poet, the road less travelled. And although there's been some regrets, although, at times, the road has bumps and potholes, looking back, it's been pretty good to me.
Call me selfish, but I still don't want to end up like everybody else. I'm constantly fighting against that. But now, I'm not sure who's winning. It was easy almost nine years ago. I was naive and stayed close to home. I enjoyed my books and CD's and cable television. I still do. Except for the occasional cold and bout with the flu, I was healthy back then. I didn't know much about the world. I still don't. But I did know what I didn't want.
It's now almost nine years later. For those who read my columns, you already know that my mother has multiple sclerosis. She's still in a nursing home confined to a wheelchair. My father pops pills for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and probably other things I'm not aware of. And as I write, my stepmother is battling lung cancer, and I'm limping around my father's apartment with a bad case of the gout which I inherited from my father. Hardly stellar material to include in the corpus of success literature. The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffectual People. I wrote the book on that.
So who's winning now? I'm not so sure anymore. But one thing I do know. I must continue. We EFL teachers must continue. Bad health and bad family genes aside, those who can make a difference, must make a difference. It's like wherever I've gone in the six weeks I've been home, I've been surrounded by illness, disease, and death. A typical conversation with my 71 year old father goes something like this.
Dad: Did you know that last year your cousin Robert had a heart attack?
Dad: He was 40 years old. And a marathon runner. (An uncomfortable pause.) So don't you think you should stop eating at McDonald's?
Me: I guess so.
Dad: And a good friend of mine had his leg amputated. I don't think you've ever met him. But don't you think you should lose 20 pounds?
Me: That would be nice.
Dad: And your uncle wears a pacemaker. He use to run five times a week. Don't you think you should get more exercise?
Me: Ah huh.
on and on and on. So we must continue to make a difference before life decides to squash us like a bug. And squash us like a bug, it will. And not only will life squash us like a bug, it will squash just about all of us long before our time. Long before we're ready to be useless. This is why we must continue.
So I come home, stay for a few weeks, and leave again. I can't stand to see what I'm missing. And I don't want to stay long enough to really find out because I get the feeling that not so deep down inside, I really do know. And how can I live with the reality of what I think I'm missing? I hear the voices of family behind me, the pleas and echos of familiar messages: "Stay here, you're home now. Settle down. Get married. Find a job here. Save money." And on and on.
My fear of ending up like everybody else aside, here's the real message: In staying at home and settling down and getting married and finding a job here and trying to save money, I may be able to make a difference in one or two people's lives if I'm lucky and if I try really, really hard. In teaching English overseas, we step into the classroom, look into the eyes of all of our students, and, if we're lucky and if we try really really hard, we can make a difference in dozens, maybe hundreds of people's lives. And sometimes, we don't even have to try that hard. EFL teachers who are given the freedom to be themselves seem to make other people's lives better without breaking into a sweat.
It's often been said that education is a lot more about the future than it is about the past or the present. Learn about the past and use the present to equip students for the future. One of the most important things we can do for our students is to look into their eyes and see only the future. This isn't easy, but it's worthwhile. In seeing only, (or mostly), the future, we see their potential. We see what they can do, not only what they have done. The past and present everyday situations may have touched our students in both good and bad ways, we as EFL teachers can help our students touch the future and they in turn can help us. This is how we make a difference in many people's lives. And this is how many people can make a difference in ours.
This job satisfaction is not something we can receive working at McDonald's or Walmart. I've never heard anyone thank the manager of McDonald's for a two for one coupon. I've never heard a customer say, "Thank you Sam Walton for the great prices on underwear at your superstore." But many teachers, including myself, have been thanked by our students. We see the smiles on their faces. We hear their laughter. We see the results. And we feel good. We have made a difference.
I remember speaking with one of the managers at my last school a while ago. I wanted to transfer to another branch and was told to hold off for a while because he didn't want to see the problems I was having follow me to another branch. Fair enough, and I understood why he said it. I understood because having problems, whatever they are, is all too human. But I'm afraid the managers didn't understand because they were far too busy trying to separate the "all too human" from the teaching experience. And that's far more dangerous.
We are not only teachers with textbooks and board markers. We're also teachers with troubles and problems and uncertainties. We're human. All too human. We bring to class not only our knowledge of vocabulary and grammar, but also everything our parents ever taught us, or not taught us.
I've been known to step into class with determination. There are times when I also step into class with a cold; a sore throat; a stomachache; a backache; a headache; diarrhea; the flu; the gout; and, my personal favorite, constipation. And those are just my physical ailments! Don't get me started on my mental problems! It's tough enough being upbeat in class while running to the toilet doing the Bangkok boogie, the Mexican mambo, or the Chinese cha-cha. We EFL'ers get angry too sometimes. I know we shouldn't, but sometimes life's circumstances do that to us. Our parents piss us off; We have an insipid conversation with our father that makes a Seinfeld episode sound absolutely profound; Our girlfriend tells us to go to hell. Our puppy pees on rug; Our cat pukes on the floor; Or we simply miss the bus on the way to school.
Somehow language school managers and directors have forgotten this essential connection between the everyday lives of the teachers and students, and what is learned and taught in the classroom. Hell, don't language school managers and directors experience the same problems and pitfalls of everyday life that the teachers and students do? While I agree that these problems should be kept out of the classroom as much as possible, sometimes some of them are bound to seep in. We are human after all.
So as I get ready to go to Mexico for my next teaching gig, something is happening in my life. It's not like nine years ago when I was terrified that I would remain at home and end up like everybody else. Something else is now chasing me away. Something important and perhaps not so different. At least not as different as I would like it to be.
As I look around at what was once my home, as I walk around in what use to be the city in which I lived, I am surrounded by all the things that could have been. The house that I could have lived in; the job that I could have had; the friends I could have drank with; the woman I could have made love to. It might not have been be much, but it could have been. Ending up like everybody else doesn't seem as terrifying anymore.
But when I think about flying to faraway places, when I walk around Bangkok or Mexico City or any place else the needs EFL teachers, when I step into the classroom and see 10 or 15 uncertain and hopeful faces looking back at me, I am surrounded by all the things that can be. The cozy apartment I could live in; the teaching job that gives others hope for the future; my fellow teachers I can drink with; and the woman. Isn't there always a woman? For some people, this may not be much. But it could be.
Home may be where the heart is. And it may be the place where we hang our hat. But for me, it's a place that holds too many memories. Too many "what could have beens." It's far easier to go to a place where you have no memories than to return to one where you have too many.
So I'm off again to another country. Before I get a heart attack or a stroke. Before I need a pacemaker or Viagra. Before I get really sick or need my leg amputated. Before I'm so bent over, my belt buckle is saying hello to my nose hair. I now realize that one day I may end up like everybody else--- in a wheelchair waiting for spaghetti and meatball night at the Old Folks Saloon.
But until then, there's work to do. And English to teach. Until then there is the endless potential in the hearts of our students; Until then, there are unlimited possibilities. Until then, there is--- what could be. Ah, what could be.