Eastern Promises

They go abroad to teach English, but really, they go in search of themselves

By Natasha “Yes, I’ve taught ESL” Mekhail / Illustration by Graham Roumieu


1. THE LIFER felt at home the moment he stepped off the plane. By avoiding other expats in favour of flirting with local women, he became fluent in six months. The Lifer quickly laid down roots, marrying and moving in with his partner’s family. At festivals, he arrives in traditional garb and nods politely at (but doesn’t stop to chat with) other expats. After a few years, The Lifer starts a school called “1-2-3 Go English.” After going native, his own English totally sucks.   

2. THE DRIFTER has taught English in Korea, Taiwan, China and now she’s off to the Middle East. The Drifter took religious studies in school but discovered her gift for teaching while abroad. Her bosses praise her enthusiasm while tolerating her pink hair and nose ring. As a loner, she finds easy comfort in the transient world of English teachers. She does the gig for a decade before heading home. Finding it difficult to reintegrate, The Drifter opens an ethnic-clothing emporium.   

3. THE CHECKING-THIS-OFF-MY-LISTER has a serious partner enrolled in a PhD program back home so he’ll only “do the ESL thing” for a year. The Lister wades into the more obvious aspects of the culture but consciously keeps his host country at bay, spending his time searching out American-style burger joints and travelling to the capital to see The Strokes in a small venue. By year’s end he has only mastered the words “please,” “thank you” and “beer.” He recognizes that the experience is prevention against future mid-life crises.    

4. THE SHIFTER goes overseas because he has something to hide – typically a brain injury or unsolved crime. He spends most of his time doing God-knows-what in his Spartan apartment. When he does venture into an expat bar, his overly intense conversation scares off English speakers. That’s OK. He prefers the company of locals. The cultural barrier further shields his dark secret. Still, something in his eyes foreshadows an imminent snap. The Shifter always makes you wonder about the ESL screening process.     

5. THE IDEALIST arrived in Japan with a dog-eared Lonely Planet under her arm. She wanted to learn the language, see the country and study the arts. Her plan: impress folks back home with her Zen-like outlook (learned from the Buddhists) and her graceful movements (from practicing the tea ceremony). But six months in, between the intimidated locals and Japanese-girl-crazed foreigners, a harsh reality confronts her: She will never get laid. Now The Idealist finds her Zen at the bottom of a sake bottle

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