Expatriating: Part 1
By Dave Fox
[I promised several weeks ago to start blogging on a regular basis about my plans to move overseas this coming summer. I also promised to stop being a raving perfectionist when it came to my bloggage. However, two weeks ago, I attended a life-altering conference that was so chaotic, my attempts to explain it have left me banging my head on my computer keyboard, which has resulted in several megabytes of unintelligible garble.
Heavy editing of said garble has resulted in a long-winded tome the length of a book chapter. It’s too long for Internet consumption, where the average reader has the attention span of a goldfish. A highly intelligent goldfish, yes, but a goldfish nonetheless.
So I’ve decided to spread this story out over two days… and to just put the damn thing online without further editing. I have been trying –- really hard –- to write about the experience. Succinctly explaining the mayhem that transpired has not been easy….]
My fiancée, Kattina, is a middle school science teacher. I had gone with her to San Francisco for an international school hiring fair. I wasn’t applying for jobs myself; nevertheless, the conference was the most nerve-racking thing I’ve been through since I interviewed for my job with Rick Steves 15 years ago.
The main difference between my interview with Rick Steves’ company and my attendance at the international school conference is that when I interviewed for my job with Rick, I did so in my boxer shorts, drinking a beer. That’s a convenient advantage of telephone interviews. At this conference, I had to wear a tie.
As Kattina’s pending spousal unit, I was instructed to attend the conference with her. Unhappy spouses are the number one reason teachers abandon their two-year contracts with international schools. If a spouse freaks out and wants to go home, the school loses their teacher too. So my job at this event was to persuade schools I would not freak out while living abroad.
I thought this would be easy. I’ve lived overseas numerous times myself. I’ve traveled in nearly 50 countries. But it’s hard to convince school recruiters you will not freak out overseas if you are on the brink of a nervous breakdown in San Francisco.
Our mayhem began with an orientation session for us and roughly 2,000 other job-hungry teachers. This was followed the next morning by an interview scheduling process that was kind of like a cross between rugby and speed dating.
At 8 a.m. sharp, we were all herded into a large room. Waiting inside were recruiters from 60 or 70 schools in faraway lands. The recruiters sat behind tables with signs listing the positions they were hiring for. If you wanted to interview for one of these positions, you would wait your turn in that school’s line. When you reached the front of the line, you had around 60 seconds to sell yourself, and convince the recruiters you were interview-worthy.
This was a moment we had been waiting months for. If all went well, we might know in 48 hours where in the world we’d be moving. (If all did not go well, our backup plan was to audition for “The Amazing Race.”) Reality television backup plans aside, we had this big honking dream we were pursuing, considering four different continents for our new home. As speed-dating rugby began -– and it did not begin well -– we started having to face the fact that if there were no overseas job offers, there would be no overseas move.
At the start of the conference, a note was waiting for Kattina from a school in Aruba. They had seen her résumé and were interested in talking to her.
I don’t know much about Aruba, but it sounded more pleasant than some of the other countries looking for teachers, such as Nigeria, Myanmar, and Egypt, which was in the throes of revolution on this particular day. The Aruban recruiters were very nice, but their smiles faded as it dawned on them the person hovering behind Kattina was her future husband, who was planning to come with her. I would not be allowed to work locally, and Kattina’s salary would be barely enough for one person to live on. And while my freelance work is more-or-less portable to anywhere in the world, it became clear that life in Aruba would mean life in poverty. Tropical poverty, but poverty.
Over the next hour, this scenario would repeat itself in other delightful sounding locations.
In other places, we would not face these problems, but there were different sticking points. Schools had already filled positions at the grade levels Kattina teaches. Or her areas of expertise didn’t quite match the schools’ needs. Or they would not interview her because she does not have a penis.
The penis issue came up multiple times. Schools on two different continents said they already had enough female science teachers. They needed more men. One told Kattina she could check back in an hour. If they hadn’t found enough male candidates to interview, they’d slot her in.
It seemed to me like gender discrimination. I was incensed until Kattina explained there were legitimate reasons. There’s a shortage of men in the teaching world, she explained. Adolescent boys need male role models.
In Bahrain, there was a different gender issue. The school there said they’d love to interview her, but only if she were single, or willing to abandon me for two years. Under Bahraini law, a male teacher can bring his wife into the country on a dependents’ visa; however, a female teacher can’t obtain such a visa for her husband.
In Sri Lanka, gender was not an issue. Sri Lanka’s recruiters thought Kattina was great. They loved the note she left the night before, informing them that (this is true) she was probably the only conference attendee who knew how to safely feed an octopus. Not that octopus-feeding is part of the Sri Lankan school curriculum, but you have to admit, it’s a cool-sounding skill to have. They needed a science teacher for eighth through tenth grade, however. Kattina’s certification goes through eighth.
Finally, a school in China reluctantly agreed to interview Kattina for their fifth grade position -– reluctantly because it had been several years since she had taught elementary school. They wanted someone with more recent elementary teaching experience. They’d interview her, but they told her not to her hopes up.
Then there was one school that shall remain nameless. Its recruiter liked Kattina, but when Kattina mentioned in passing that I’m a writer and teach writing classes, the recruiter launched into a stern lecture that her school was a quality school, and if I didn’t have a teaching certificate, they would not hire me because they were a quality school. Their students’ parents expected quality teachers. As humbly as we could, we explained I wasn’t applying for jobs; I was self-employed, and just along for the ride. I slithered away from the table and the recruiter signed Kattina up for an interview.
This episode left us thinking maybe I should go away. I was cramping Kattina’s style.
So I prowled the room by myself in search of compatible jobs we might have missed. There were several in Kuwait. There were others in Central and South America, with Aruban-style salaries. I found one school recruiting an English teacher. Only their sign said they were recruiting an “Englis teacher.” Kattina does not teach English, which is too bad. She could have helped with their spelling.
The room was crowded. The collective stress was palpable as other teachers started facing similar disappointments. I rounded a barrier to another set of tables and collided with a woman who looked flustered.
“Sorry,” I said. “Please. Go ahead.”
She managed a deflated smile. “No. You go. This is insane.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of intense.”
“I’m going to vomit,” she said.
I advised her not to do that. It would not play in her favor.
Eventually, Kattina and I reconvened. While I’d been away, she had scored interview number three with a school near Medellin, Colombia. Yes, the same Medellin that, in 1988, Time magazine called “the most dangerous [city] in the world.” But supposedly, its drug-fueled violence was a thing of the past. We’d have to look into that.
“Did you spot anything else?” Kattina asked me.
“There are schools in Kuwait and Qatar looking for middle school science.”
Kattina squinted. “You want to live in Kuwait?”
“You might as well talk to them.”
And so it was. Interview number four: Kuwait.
We were frustrated. Only one of our top-choice locations was interested, and it was the school with the lady who hated me.
“I’m going to go check back with the Singapore table,” Kattina said.
I hung back again. I didn’t want to blow it. While I watched from a distance, a lady ran up to me. “Where’s Kattina?” she asked. “We want to talk to her.”
“She’s over there,” I pointed.
I watched the lady scamper toward the Singapore line. I recognized her. Who was she? Aruba?
Maybe she had come up with a brilliant plan to increase the $13,000 starting salary!
Wait, no. She wasn’t the Aruban recruiter. She was from the Sri Lanka school.
At the end of the two-hour scrum, Kattina had lined up six interviews:
1) The school whose recruiter hated me.
2) China: Told Kattina not to get her hopes up.
3) Colombia: We made a note to research the pesky drug violence.
4) Kuwait: The Middle East was not high on our list, but the school liked Kattina.
5) Singapore: One of the schools with a shortage of male teachers still had a time slot available. They reiterated, however, they really wanted to hire a man.
6) Sri Lanka: Kattina’s qualifications weren’t quite what they were looking for, but they were intrigued by her octopus wrangling skills.
Then there was a school in Paris with a one-year position. Having spent the last 15 summers working in Europe, I was wanting to live a different part of the world. Then it dawned on me, every time I arrive in Paris, I have the same thought: “I would love to live here.”
Paris liked Kattina’s qualifications. They said they’d be in touch.