Me No English

“Me no English,” states the girl with enough grammar to ape Tarzan. She does this in spite of speaking full sentences and writing them in her book. I’ve heard her say fluent and complete ones before. She and the others use this as a joke.

“I’m not asking you to speak English,” I growl. “I’m asking you to repeat. I say, you say.”

That’s one of my teaching mantras. I use it in every single class. At least five times a class. Approximately once every seven minutes. All day long. Every weekday since the 17th of September 2017.

“Me no…”

“Nope. I say, you say. May….”


“No. Say. Say. May…” Pointing to my mouth. Counting on my fingers.

This girl is eleven. She’s been in English classes for 2.5 years. Today’s lesson is about future tense. Or was. It is 16:07 and class ends at 16:10. I took her notebook off her at 15:35. It’s taken 32 minutes to get through the bullshit this class has been putting me through. Incessantly talking. Frustrating meanness. A total lack of respect. It’s not that they can’t do what I’m asking them to. I’ve seen it happen.

“Let’s help her out, guys.”

Half the class had to come up and ask me nicely to return their stuff. I took it because at the start of class, I wrote the list of supplies needed for English class. I’ve been writing it on the board for the whole month of December, after a kid tried to get out of taking the English semester test by claiming he didn’t know he needed a pencil. The list reads:

– A pencil
-Your English Book (closed)

I added the ‘your,’ the ‘English,’ and the ‘(closed)’ due to students claiming that the instructions were too ambiguous. Given that my students still repeatedly interrupt classes to say, “What’s your name?” after having me in their school every single day for the whole semester, I believe that they might just forget that I exist when I step out of the room and go to my next lesson. After all, they say that six month old babies think you die when you leave the room. Maybe my fifth graders have arrested development.

“What is it that we have to say, in order to get our things back?”

This student is the fifteenth in line. I’ve repeated the line with every last one of them. I’ve sent people to the back of the line to contemplate their sins for being a jerk and/or picking their nose while they politely asked for their book.

I took the books because I waited for five minutes for my students to comply with the instructions that do not change and have always been the instructions. That’s the limit. I watch the clocks and count the seconds. I punctuate the moments with points for those who are doing as I ask (In this class, there was but one. One, out of 35, who was ready for class after five minutes of waiting.). Once it reaches five minutes, I start to take books.

I put them on the teacher’s desk, and there they stay until I call the students up to ask me politely for their things back. In this class, I’ve created a pile of rulers, notebooks, vietnamese language homework, several open English books, pens, leaking fountain pens, and a book about no-bake desserts.

I pointed out that even the first graders don’t normally have this much of a failure-to-comply-with-basic-instructions mountain. The line to receive the stuff stretched all the way to the back of the room, the final ten minutes of a 35-minute class in which we did exactly zero of the work they are supposed to complete filled with repetitive, immediately-forgotten, false politeness. The last notebook sat in my hands for two minutes, with me repeatedly threatening to eat it (no titters, usually gold material for primary students).

Only when I opened my backpack and put the notebook inside did the eleven-year-old girl race forward, shouting in Vietnamese, “HEY! THAT’S MINE!!!!!!!”

In this class two weeks ago, I rapped my own knuckle on the board so hard trying to emphasise that I was not asking them to generate the words from the ether so much as read the things off the board in a zombified tone. My left ring finger cracked open. I bled. My students laughed at that. It was probably the first time they actually laughed at something I did all month. Haha. Look at that idiot bleed.

“Me n…”

“Let’s all help her, yes? May…….” The class joins in, or rather the few who noticed that I’m asking them to help a girl out.

“May…..” She repeats.

Counting on my fingers to indicate the second word. The two best students in the class chime in with, “I…..”


Counting three fingers. Third word.



Fourth finger.


“Me….”  I let it slide, this minor mistake. Let this girl’s English persona be from England or something. That’s what I tell myself.

I have to prompt about three times with my face contorted and pulling my own finger for comedic effect, emphasizing how much a want them to just god damnit say the fucking next shit-arsed word in this sentence of only six words total. The class has wandered in the 20 seconds since we began chanting “May I have my…” I wonder what they chat about constantly. Probably, “Remember how her knuckle bled? huhuhuhuihuh, Yeah that was the best….”

“Book…” Relief. Thank you, one kid paying attention. Thank you, 2% of the class.


Close enough. It’s a notebook but close the fuck enough. 16:09.



I pass it over, feigning relief.

“That was easy, no? See, you can speak English! You can!”

Under my black blazer, my shirt is soaked through with the perspiration of a six-word question.

With that, the giant drum rings out and the students instantly start running out the door.

Science Class, Or How I Reconcile My Educational Demons

I’m $$36,711.73 in debt.

It is a huge issue for me and my life.

I made a huge mistake. I believed what people have always told me about education. I went to grad school. I went to grad school in London. Big, big, fat mistake. Maybe.

I cried a lot a couple of nights ago thinking about it. The conversation started because I felt conflicted; I am a teacher now, and yet I feel like I’m a victim of the infiltration of for-profit policies that have infiltrated every single level of education. Around the world. But perhaps especially for my little students.

I taught a class about the Muffin Man today at 10:45. One of my students, Dong Dong, had already been there since before 9:00. Two back-to-back English classes in the morning, during the summer. Did I mention Dong Dong is four? He was tired. Bored. Understandably.

I said bye-bye and let the students out of class at 12:15. I needed to eat something, but didn’t manage it in the forty minutes before my Science class. I’ve been pretty hungry since summer intensive courses began; it’s difficult to plan lessons in a few spare minutes and also have time to stuff some dumplings in one’s mouth. Dong Dong headed out of class.

Five hours (or ‘whores,’ as my students often pronounce it) later, Dong Dong was in class again. I saw him looking confused and bewildered, on his grandpa’s hand. He was too tired to even say, ‘Hello.’

Why. Not a question. Just. Why. What possible benefit could little Dong Dong get from being in English class all day every day, when he is FOUR? Eventually, he’ll have a graduation ceremony for each level of English classes. Someone will play Pomp and Circumstance (Land of Hope and Glory) and give him a certificate. He’ll be preconditioned from the age of four to believe that he’s only accomplished something academically if he does those two steps.

Enter his teacher. For all that debt, I’m not going to get that closure. My graduation ceremony would be next week, if I had the money or the government clearance to attend it. As I’m barred from entering the UK at the moment due to a lack of a family visa, and I can’t get the time off in Shanghai, and I don’t have the money to make the trip since I have to pay off that fucking $36K….I won’t be there. I’m very upset about it. Russell can attest that I cried about it only two days ago for approximately an hour…that’s only one of the many times that I’ve cried about it since I realised what my reality would be in this regard.

But I’m teaching science this summer. I have six teenagers, in a classroom that sometimes cooperates and sometimes doesn’t. I force them to read a shitload of scientific readings. I force them to recite the steps of the Scientific Method at the beginning of every class. I made a compass with a stolen magnet and two paperclips today, and showed them the ionosphere under attack from a solar storm. I made this Earth out of playdough that I semi-drunkenly threw together last night. We talked about magnetism, the Earth’s resources, and BattleBots.

I made the playdough. I bought the supplies. I put together this complicated lesson plan. I am a sucker.

I’ll tell you why.

I’m $36K in debt to a system that constrained me, and constrains my students, to complete a series of educational goals. Worldwide, more people are graduating from high school and college than ever before in human history. More people are literate than have ever been so privileged at any point before now. It’s great! We need this. But the inevitable monetisation of education has taken over everything from my story class to my Master of Arts in Linguistics.

We are collectively making education into a commodity. Hours (‘whores’) over content. Time over substance. Brute, overpowering pressure to perform at age four and at age 26. And graduation ceremonies only for those who are able to pay enough, or jump through enough hoops.

No graduation ceremony for me. No MA hat, so coveted five years ago when I graduated from my BA. No recognition in public. When it comes to my current work, no prestigious letters after my name.

But not in my science class. This is my work. This is my passion. I want those kids to see how exciting science can be, and to learn English by proxy. I want them to get gross thing on their hands. I want them to develop survival skills, like making a compass out of a small magnet, some water, and a paperclip. I want them to yell and scream over scientific notation of the Earth’s weight. I want them to see the videos in class and be inspired to do real science in their own lives.

This is one small step. I may have had to buy the materials myself. I may have not control over how much this course cost their parents (hint: a shitload). I may never be able to afford to send my own child to Science Class at a private academy. I don’t care.

The light in the eyes of my students today was all the reward I’ll ever need. They were running around, screaming, at age 12-13. That, in itself, is a major victory.

I can’t undo my own path through the abusive education system. I can’t make it so that the same system doesn’t crush four-year-olds under it’s profitable wheels like poor Dong Dong. I can’t undo my debt, except through putting my head down and working off my mistake in wage slavery for the next ten years.

But I can teach science. I can bring that light to their eyes.

And that was all education was ever supposed to be.



My Most Chinese Day So Far

Today has been my second favourite day in Shanghai, only to our three year ‘meet-a-versary’ on the 26 of May. I spent my morning at the Chinese Cooking Workshop near Hengshan Road, and had an absolutely wonderful time.

I learned, in meditative silence due to the language barrier with the friendly and helpful ayi (auntie), to make two different types of Dim Sum: sesame-covered red bean dumplings and black sesame dumplings. They are both so tasty!

The workshop is in a residential building with an extremely Chinese network of alleyways behind it. The kitchen where I learned was in a garden, with the rain falling on the roof and making atmospheric noises. I felt so at home and so very much like I was in China at the same time.

IMG_8542My compatriots were Japanese and had much better Chinese language skills than me. I watched in silence, extremely attentive to the ayi. we made a paste on the counter (that freaked out the Japanese girls) and then kneaded sticky rice flour into dough for the Dim Sum. My dough was apparently the best, better even than the ayi’s! She made a small ball of hers and of mine, and pointed at mine to say, “Very good! Mine’s got a little too much water, see?”

It was brilliant to be immersed in Chinese as well, while I cooked. I find myself remaining silent a lot here. Silent grocery shopping. Silent refilling of mobile phones and metro cards. Silent shopping. Charades is very important. I feel as if my language skills have all been stripped away and I am a small child. Still, I pay my dues every single day at work. I am compassionate to my students in English, in the hope that they will learn well and the hope that I will garner some language karma that can be put to use outside class.

I spoke the most Chinese I ever have today. Full sentences. I answered questions and understood when the ayi told me to sit down (if only because I hear ‘SIT DOWN, MIAOMIAO’ in Chinese in my lessons constantly). She said to the other girls that I was really good at cooking. Made my day.

Our landlords both spoke to me in Chinese today, about our gas bill I think. The woman, in her 60s, came up to our apartment and talked to me for about 15 minutes about everything from how I should definitely buy some cling film (hilariously motioning dire diarrhea and vomiting if I don’t cover our leftovers) to when my husband gets home. She spoke very quickly and I tried my best to keep up, repeating everything she said as close as I could with the right tones. She slapped me repeatedly in a good-natured way on the arm if I messed up.

I managed, after practicing in my head all day, to ask her what her name is.

‘Ni de mingzi?” (Not really right. I forgot the question particle and it’s like a two-year-old asking…)

She explained to me that she has a long name, three syllables. She only uses the first two, though. No point in using a last name, she said.

IMG_8535We fixed our fridge, which was wobbling, with teamwork and a bit of folded cloth. I explained that our wall decorations are stickers and can come off. It was very successful.

I’m trying so hard to learn Chinese. It’s coming, slowly. Slowly. As she left, my landlord instructed me in how to say bye-bye in Chinese.

Da I Jie!

I’m so happy. Happiest when I’m learning both language and cooking. Absolute bliss. I signed up for five more classes. Can’t wait!

Like Lambs To The Slaughter, Or At Least To The Multiple Choice

They are looking at me with beads of sweat running down their faces. The sheer exhaustion of the test is running out of their pores and down their noses, falling on desks and tests. The TAs, both of them, are pressing handfuls of paper towels to their wet foreheads, telling them to focus.

This is the first test that they have ever taken.

My sixteen students are largely six years old, but several are only five. One is four. It’s a miracle that any of them can hold a pencil and write, much less in their second (third?) language. They are pulling the very best I have as a teacher out of me, bit by bit. They do not ask for my very best; the demand it. They are the kind of class that leaves your uniform completely unsuitable for the next day, covered as it is in sweat both from exertion and the biazzare metered dance that the flashcards require. The air conditioning is an utter failure. It lazily blows air even hotter than the classroom onto my face and the relatively neat rows of sweating children.

It’s the first test that they have ever taken, a Big Kid test with five pages of white paper covered in English and cartoon characters. The lessons were simple:  “What’s your name?” “How are you?” “How do you spell your name?” We traced letters and we wrote basic sentences. We tried to throw a ball, but they don’t quite have the motor skills to do so. We tried to roll a ball, but they started attacking each other. Right, ball games are out.

They are looking at me. They have the eyes of utter confusion. I made them move their desks into straight rows, five of them, stretching through the classroom so that there is almost no space in which to circulate and monitor them during the test. I put up three rules on the interactive board (which, for whatever technologically karmic reason, actually cooperated tonight).

1- No Talking
2- No Sharing
3- Be Quiet

Rules one and three overlap, but then, I thought it prudent to say it twice. Being quiet is the most important part of a test, and this is so different from our normal classes. They are struggling to copy the names of the characters. They are struggling to read and check the right person or sentence. They are struggling most of all with listening. It makes no goddamned sense to a four year old that you must “Listen and number.” What the hell is a number? What the hell is listen? He, and the others, sweat more profusely. I can practically hear his little gears turning in his head.

This is the first test they’ve ever taken.

And it might as well be kindergarten. I didn’t feel the full weight responsiblity until the next morning. Sure, I covered my bases. I set out my expectations. I was clear. I showed instructions. I showed consequences. I modeled how to take a test. But the weight is a lot bigger than that.

You may not know about exams in China. In Northeast Asia they are a huge deal. I once had a thirteen year old student in Korea tell me  in pristine English that her life was over because she scored 98% and not 100% one (ONE!) of her middle school exams. The girl read Tolstoy in Russian and could already speak Chinese, too. She scared the living shit out of me as a teacher because she is so smart. One exam, and she thought she would never go to college.

Exams in China are a big deal. They have been since at least 655 AD, although some sources suggest that the Imperial Exam system was in its infancy 200 years before Rome began building its empire. Only those who achieved the highest possible mark (jinshi 進士/进士) were able to hold public offices or take a place in the imperial bureaucracy. This system is no longer in place, because, duh, their is no imperial system anymore! Still, learning to sit an exam is essential in China.

This is the first test they’ve ever taken.

They struggle through the test, marking indiscriminately. Some of them write their names on the paper. Some of them don’t write their names on the paper. Some of them begin hitting each other with pencil bags. I’m sweating harder than ever now. Come on kids, come on. I know that you’ve been sitting for 35 minutes. I know there are no stars awarded during the test. I know that your pencil is broken. Here, take this one. Finish. Finish. Write. Write. Write.

They are taking their place in an educational system that may reward those who do well on a test. They are taking their place in the many millions of Chinese students who sit exams each year. They are taking their place in school, real school. They have not yet been to primary school. This is the first of six tests in this class. This is the first of 48 tests if they follow their classes at my school from here to the end of the elementary school classes. This is the first of the many hundreds of tests that they will take in the education. The first one that leads to the Gaokao (高考), the entrance exam for universities.

They are looking at me and sweating, still.

“Teacher, finished!” The chorus begins.
“Teacher, finished!” “Teacher, finished!” “Teacher, finished!” “Teacher, finished!” “Teacher, finished!” “Teacher, finished!” “Teacher, finished!”

They slowly file up to put their tests on my box. Two have no names on them, even though this was the lesson.

They sit down and we patiently wait for everyone to finish. It makes no goddamned sense to a five year old that they have to wait for the test to finish, silently, and without talking. I am a broken record, “No talking. No talking. Wait. Wait. Wait.” I am participating in the practice that will make them ace test-takers by the time they reach middle school. I am making them into test-takers. I am participating in that system. No, I am that system.

This is the first test they’ve ever taken.

The Results

The Results

How to Quit Your Job and Move Abroad

I haven’t lived full-time in the USA since 2009. Each new adventure seems to be longer, and to pull me further away from staying permanently in the States. I now have a binational marriage, and moving abroad will always be a part of my life.

It’s been readily apparent recently that this lifestyle is unconventional. I’ve been hanging around in my hometown, waiting for a visa for China and then waiting to heal from shingles so that we can actually go on said visa! I often get asked how we do it. How do you just go and live in another country every year?

Question: How do you quit a job and move abroad?

The answer: Just do it. 

I know that sounds like an oversimplification. It can be really hard to see the layout of a lifestyle that is chosen, or out of a career that seems to be set in its path. Maybe you’ve been doing the same things since high school, always banking on the fact that if you just keep doing what has always been told to you as the way to happiness you will find it. And maybe you will!

But travel is an essential part of any life. Living abroad is obtainable for more people than ever in human history. The world is smaller and safer than ever. It doesn’t have to be forever. Just go and see the world.

A good bit of advice from my mid-February self...

A good bit of advice from my 2012 self….

Step 1: Plan Your Escape

You will need to begin planning several months ahead. Start by setting a tentative date for departure about six months in the future. Begin putting away money for the move, while you still have the job. Make sure that you take into account extra expenses like student loan payments.

Step 2: Choose a General Direction 

Do you want to teach abroad and work while you live in another country? Start looking into TEFL options.

Do you want to have more flexibility and travel for a shorter time? Look into longterm visa regulations for any countries you intend to visit. For example, in the Schengen Zone a US Citizen can only travel for 90 days without a visa. Some South American countries have similar limits on tourists.

Do you want to study abroad? Even if you aren’t currently in school, there are many options for short and long-term courses in other countries. I studied abroad three times, twice in college and once at the IFALPES institute in Annecy, France. Studying a language abroad is a unique opportunity, not to be missed.

Once you choose the general theme of your travels, you can begin taking concrete steps to move abroad.

3/14/2011 Puerto Natales, Chile

3/14/2011 Puerto Natales, Chile

Step 3 (Optional): Get A Criminal Record Check  

For many work and student visas, you will be required to submit a spotless criminal history from a national police record check. In the US, this can take up to four months!!!!! Get a move on and submit this before you even have job interviews.

How to Apply For an FBI Background Check 

While you’re at it, apply for your passport. That way it won’t get down to the wire, and you won’t have to use this guide to get your passport ASAP. 

Step 4: Job Interviews/Study Applications 

Take professional photos for applications. Awkwardly.

Take professional photos for applications. Awkwardly.

Begin to apply for jobs or study. You may need to gather a lot of documents, so get in bureaucratic shape. Don’t be surprised if you have a lot of job interviews before you find a place that’s right for you. When I went to Korea, I had about eight interviews. With China, we had a weeklong slog of interviews in our last week in London. I applied early for my MA programme in the UK, and that helped with loan applications. This is where things will begin to look solid, but…

Step 5: Get Comfortable with Ambiguity 

A lot of waiting will happen. A whole lot of not knowing what’s going on. A whole lot of guessing about visa regulations and where specifically you will be working. In my experience, you may not know where you will be living in the new country until about a week before you leave. In the case of China, we couldn’t buy our flights until the week before we were supposed to fly out.

Think of this as Zen training. And try not to get shingles from stress. 

Yeongtong 2012

Yeongtong 2012

Step 6 (Optional): Get Your Visa

Depending on the country, you may need to apply up to three months in advance. Sometimes, it will be much shorter. use these guides to help you if you are going to Korea, China, or the UK (student).

E-2 Visa for Korea and ARC 

Tier 4 Student Visa for the UK

Work Visa (Z visa) for China 

If you are planning on just travelling, check to see if you need to apply for a tourist visa before you leave. It is necessary for India, but most places let you pay a fee on arrival and step on through the border.

Step 7: Give Notice 

When things are in place, and you have enough money to travel, hand in your notice at work. Make sure that you keep things friendly, despite how happy you are to be moving into adventure mode. You never know when you might need a job!

Eat delicious food!

Eat delicious food!

Step 8: Fly Out

Get on that flight! Eat well and rest before you go if you can. Don’t pack too much; you really won’t need five shirts and a toilet brush. You can buy shampoo everywhere in the world. Just leave it. Travel light.

Prepare yourself for some serious weirdness on arrival. You might get taken directly from the airport to your hagwon in Korea! You might get robbed your first week in Chile! You might have to turn your flight around and land in Houston because of a drunken Brazilian! Anything can happen!

Step 9: Don’t. Give. Up. 

Travelling is a beautiful and fulfilling lifestyle. It’s life-changing. But you will have days when you get sick. You will have days when you just want to eat some real pizza. You will have days where you just don’t understand what the hell you are doing in The Great English Teaching Machine. You will have days where you just want toilet paper to be in every stall, damn it!

It feels like it looks. Underwear strapped to your face.

It feels like it looks. Underwear strapped to your face. Two type of influenza, at once! Korea, 2012.

These are the days that make the best stories later on. Keep a journal. Find local activities. Push yourself to get outside, even if it’s just for a walk. Whatever you do, don’t waste this opportunity by sitting around ‘saving money’ by playing WOW all weekend, every weekend. 

Quit your job. Move abroad. Nine easy steps. Are you up to the challenge?

Contact me directly with any questions you have about the international life. Direct access to my email!!