By Antonio Graceffo
You know it’s time to clean your refrigerator when your M&M’S taste like cabbage and cod. The same could be said of cities or of your life, when the whole thing reeks of a musty old man in winter, it might be time to make changes and move on.
If you remember from last time, my Taiwan Canadian friend Pete and I were desperately looking for jobs in Saigon. Actually, Pete was desperately looking for a job, I wasn’t sure what I was desperately looking for. Unbeknownst to each other, we both applied for the same company, Oxford Industries, not affiliated with the much more famous Oxford Water and Tap. Oxford Industries allegedly placed highly qualified teachers in excellent private-school jobs in Saigon.
If I ever find a company that actually does that, I will be really excited.
I knew an American married couple who had already had a terrible experience with Oxford Industries. They both wound up with awful jobs all the way outside of the city, for mediocre pay and a not nice situation. They told Christy, the wife of the couple, that she would be teaching a three-hour advanced conversation class with junior high school students. When she got there, she discovered the kids’ level was so low, they couldn’t even read their textbook, much less have a conversation. It took her two hours to create a dialogue of “what is your name? My name is…”
Pete had his interview on Tuesday. I had mine on Wednesday. On Thursday, we compared notes.
“The interviewer was talking so loud I couldn’t hear the song in my head.” I told Pete.
One of the problems with long-term unemployment is that you stop wanting a job. In fact, you only go on interviews so you can evaluate the interviewer. Why not? After twenty interviews, you’re an expert on the subject. I always wondered if that attitude came through in my answers. Whatever they thought of me, I gave them a very low score.
When I arrived at Oxford Industries, first, a woman interviewed me and we did ok. But she asked, “Would you be willing to work 45 minutes outside of the city?’
“Why would I do that?” I asked.
But she just repeated. “Working forty-five minutes outside of the city.”
“Yes, I understand the words but not the concept. Why would I be willing to travel 90 minutes a day for an ESL job?” The whole reason most of us left our careers in the West and came here was so we wouldn’t have to commute or work ten hour days.
“We pay you a dollar each way for travel.” She added, as a sweetener. Very shrewd. She didn’t show her hand too early. She had been trained well. First feel the prospect out. If he agrees, then no need to waste that dollar. But if not, use it to close the deal.
“A dollar each way? Two dollars for an hour and a half of my time?” That’s a great deal. I was thinking. “That works out to like 1.25 an hour.” I told her. “If you pay me my teaching rate, I’ll do it.”
In Saigon I have a driver who I pay out of my pocket. For him to take me to a place 45 minutes outside of the city and back would be like $10 a day for transport. Also I know from experience that people always lie about their commute. The most honest person you know lies about their commute. Maybe they never lied about anything else in their life but they would shave twenty minutes off their commute, so they could sleep at night.
When I was commuting from New Jersey to Manhattan, everyone else making the commute told me it was an hour. When I did it, it took an hour and forty-five minutes. And we were all using the exact same public transport. They told me I must have done it wrong. Yeah, I commute more slowly than other people.
The railroad from the town in Jersey to the port in Hoboken was exactly one hour. But then, you had to get from your house to the train, then wait for the train. For that you should allow 20 minutes. Then in Hoboken, you had to get off the railroad and walk down to the Path train which would take you under New York Harbor and into Manhattan. The Path train ran every ten minutes. So, add ten minutes. Then the Path train took 14 minutes to get to Manhattan. But it ended not at my office, but at the World Trade Center. Next, I had to take a subway, and then walk to the office. You add it all up and on a good day it was about an hour and forty-five minutes. Sometimes, it was two hours. When I explained that to people, they inevitably replied, “Well, if you want to count it that way.”
So, which way did they want to count it if not by elapsed time?
When the Oxford lady told me 45 minutes outside of Saigon it might really be an hour. And when they say outside of Saigon do they mean from the office or from the city limits, which were already a twenty minute drive.
While the woman was doing her best to rationalize the commute into non-existence, like China does with Taiwan, another interviewer, obviously a senior manager entered the room.
A fashionably dressed Vietnamese guy, with too much product in his hair, walked in, and the meeting started all over again. “Where are you from? Where did you teach before?”
I have lived in Asia for a long time, but one thing that I can never get used to is, when the higher ranked person comes in, all meetings, negotiations, everything starts from zero again. There is no concept of “Let me brief you on what we have already covered.” And if you were to defer to the younger or lower-level person you had been dealing with and say, “She already knows, just ask her.” Suddenly, she wouldn’t know.
So, I went through the whole tedious process again, still ending with a job I didn’t want.
Some of his questions were different, however. They reflected some sort of managerial training somewhere, possibly abroad. “What do you want from a teaching experience?” he asked.
“There must be a syllabus and a curriculum.” I said. Then, I told them about the terrible job I had had at the Turkish company who sent me to a government school with no instructions of any kind, “Just go teach and do conversation.”
He agreed, “Yes, you have to have a syllabus.”
Now I thought we were on the same page.
“How can they run a school like this?” He continued. And I mistakenly thought I had him eating out of my hand. “What if you teach fast, and I teach slow, the students won’t be on the same page.”
He was right. That is a problem at schools that lack a syllabus. But that wasn’t the problem had I described to him, or the one I was concerned about. 70% of teaching jobs in Vietnam lacked even a very basic plan. “Just encourage the students to talk.” There are no exams, no homework, no deadlines, and no schedule. For a teacher, it is like floating in space.
“No, I mean there was no program at all. There were no pages….” I tried to re-explain.
He ignored me and prattled on, “When teaching…and syllabus…and planning…and teaching… (luckily, Huey Lewis and the News was playing at full blast in my head. Otherwise, I suspect that he would have bored me to death.) “And some students at different levels…and classroom management…” He talked for twenty minutes. When he was done he asked “Can you work forty-five minutes outside of the city.”
“No.” I said. Finally, we were back to where we had been, a half hour earlier, before the hair-jell man walked in.
“But we have a car that can drive you from the office.”
The office was already 25 minutes from my home. So now the commute was over an hour each way.
“No.” I repeated.
“Can you teach math and science?” The woman asked.
“No, only English, German, and Spanish.”
At this point, the hair-jell man didn’t exactly say, “We’ll let you know.” He said something more ambiguous, like “very interesting…” where I wasn’t sure if the meeting was over or not. So I sat there in awkward silence. Then he repeated his comment “interesting”. And we all continued to sit like statues on a too-hot day. Finally, I figured it was over, but since he hadn’t actually told me, I didn’t want to get up and walk out. That would have been pretty rude.
Finally he said. “That’s it, you can go.”
I was glad to be set free, but it felt like being fired.
I walked outside and my driver, Giao, asked me. “How was it? Did you get the job?”
“I don’t think so.” I answered in Vietnamese. “But I’m not sure.”
“Well come back tomorrow and start teaching then.” He suggested.
Giao had no formal education, but he had a certain wisdom about him. He was right. If I walked in and started teaching, I would probably find out pretty quickly if I had the job or not.
Pete confirmed every aspect of the hair-jell man and his odd command of English. “I never spent so long in an interview without saying anything.” Pete said. “I almost asked him, so, did you want to know anything about me?” At the end of Pete’s meeting they offered him the same crap job I had turned down. And he also rejected it.
Pete spent a lot more time looking for a job than I did. But even he only found the same two leads, the crappy Turkish company we had both quit, and the one at Oxford, neither of us wanted. Giving up on Vietnam, Pete turned his job search overseas. I knew I would have to do the same. For me, it was going to be either Taiwan or Korea. Pete, on the other hand, has always wanted to go back to Japan, so I knew that would be his first choice. But as a fully licensed school teacher in Canada, the world really was Pete’s oyster. He could work at international schools anywhere.
Going back to teaching in Taiwan or Korea always means giving up on my dreams of working on TV and writing books. Once you have been on the public stage, it is a hard addiction to break. My first experience of being on stage was when I was pillory whipped on a visit to the Amish country. It seemed the buttons on my shirt were just too proud and they ruffled some puritan feathers, also, I committed an armed robbery. But why were Puritans even wearing feathers? The ensuing corporal punishment was savage. I bled a lot, and it took me months to recover, but that single taste of the limelight laid the groundwork for a lifetime love affair with show biz.
Every time I go back to teaching I get seriously depressed. But at least, it is normally easy to find a job. This time, however, I was thinking, “It’s bad enough that I still have to teach, but now, I can’t even find decent jobs anymore.” It used to be that I could find a job that the employer thought was good, even if I didn’t. But now, I think even the employers know how much these jobs suck.
While Pete searched for jobs, I locked myself in my room, watching boxed sets of American TV shows, and drinking huge quantities of Vietnamese coffee that made me shake a lot. I wanted to start writing again, but it was going slowly. The previous day, I finished a story about the boxing gym I trained at in Cholon. Now, I needed to do one about the Muay Thai team I trained with in District One, but I had something like writer’s block. Writing takes so much out of me, I actually experience physical pain and sometimes I am reluctant to start because I don’t want to feel that way.
Someone wrote to me, worried that I would “try suicide.” But the way I see it, suicide isn’t really something you try. It’s not like you can go, “I guess I was wrong. That wasn’t for me.”
I was too depressed to even bother shaving my toes, much less getting all the way up on a chair, tying a rope to the ceiling fan and touching myself, ala David Carradine.
While I was sick, I managed to do a couple of magazine pieces. The ensuing money I referred to as ill-gotten gains: Money I earned when I was sick. Sometimes I think being able to write is a double-edged sword. You can never make enough to live, but the little checks come in, and you float for a bit longer, watching boxed sets of American TV shows, and drinking huge quantities of Vietnamese coffee that make you shake a lot.
Other than going to the gym, I generally only left the room to go drink coffee with Pete who also writes. He said, “Since you’re so depressed and teetering on the brink, maybe you could help me do a story to make you feel useful.” He wanted me to be the translator for his story on scoring heroin in Saigon. Somehow, it didn’t sound like a very good idea to me, but maybe it was just boredom and laziness that were driving me to say that.
When people heard I was looking for a job, info and offers began coming in from all over. Jeremy, my Taiwan friend, wrote me saying “Jacob is leaving in June, maybe you could take his job.” First off, it was early May, so June was a long way off. Also, shouldn’t Jacob have left already? Four years ago, he said he was staying for two years. I wanted him to leave four years ago. In fact, I wanted him to leave before he arrived. Now, he was preventing me from getting a job.
The Vietnamese government was cracking down on facebook again. Even the internet cafes were failing to get on or get full functionality. I got on my messages and saw a friend of mine was trying to get me a job in a Hong Kong movie, but I couldn’t open the message.
One of the DVDs I watched, parallel to not looking for a job, was “The Green Hornet.” I freeking loved it! It was so funny and the action was excellent. Why did it get such bad reviews? And you know Jay Chow is famous for not being able to speak any English at all and yet he managed to get through that movie. Man, all around great. If you go on wikipedia it basically says that every critic hated it except one.
The Green Hornet made me miss living in Taiwan and fighting crime with my Chinese side kick.
My friend, Idaho Jim, in Taiwan, sent me email telling me to contact America Now English school, ASAP for a job in Tainan, Taiwan.
Idaho Jim, your email sounded so urgent, but I only just opened it. It must have been sitting here for at least 45 minutes before I acted on it…what can I do? I have decided to start a policy of complete honesty. In addition to sending my resume, I went ahead and listed, in my cover letter, my pet peeves and phobias. No new people, no conspiracy theorists, no children, no 9/11 truthers, no jerk-bosses…
Let’s see how this pans out. Also, I need alternate Thursdays off.
PS I just sent him my resume. Do you think I should call him? Or should I wait like twenty minutes till he has a chance to read it?
I was glad Idaho Jim had found a job for me. I had been filling out online resumes and applications for jobs in Taiwan and I sounded like a very strange and improbable candidate. One of the online forms asked “What was your ESL training” And I told about four years of applied linguistics studies at University of Mainz, Germany, and a year at Trinity, in England, followed by years of field research under the direction of David Long, the world’s leading expert on ALG, and publishing hundreds of articles in the field of second language acquisition….
I could just see them reading that and either thinking I am just lying, or asking, “Who the hell is this guy? Why does he want to teach kids at a bushiban (language center)?”
Next, it asked if I had ever lived in a foreign country, “please give details:” four years at university in Germany, ten years in Asia…various countries
The same application asked if I had experience learning a foreign language. I said that I spoke nine languages at the intermediate level or above…Who does that? Who would believe it? I think they would just throw my application out the window.
Another question asked: Have you ever had to fit-in in a totally different culture, and if so, tell about it: I talked about living in the Shaolin Temple and being embedded with the Shan State Army…
That application was for a large English chain which had a mandatory two month training program, which I was already dreading because it was highly unlikely that the trainers had more education or experience than me. I have been teaching for 14 years now. And they definitely haven’t spent years in the field, studying, and reporting on second language acquisition. Not to mention that they were most likely 20 years younger than me.
Looking back over my application, I realized I must of have missed something. I wasn’t supposed to be doing this anymore. With qualifications and experience, I should be doings something better. If I were the manager I wouldn’t hire me because I would anticipate Antonio not jelling with the young kids (meaning the teachers.) I would anticipate Antonio rejecting the training and being set in his ways as a teacher, and he would make young teachers cry. This last bit I would only expect because I have known Antonio for a long time and have seen him do it.
I was actually worried that I was slowly becoming unemployable
To escape the failings of my real life, I had begun playing Second Life. I created a character, named Antonio Graceffo, who is a penniless martial arts author, living in Southeast Asia.
Watching Ture Crime on TV, I learned. An outlaw on the lamb obtains a fake birth certificate, creates a new identity and then starts a new life. I don’t see that as a solution for me. If I created a new identity, that would just be two people who were unemployed.
Watching Discovery Channel: A multiple felon, attempted murderer, on the lamb for twelve years, finally gets busted by US Postal Police. What a let down!. That’s one step above the Sanitation Police. I bet the other inmates make fun of him.
Getting busted by the Postal Police is one step above the Sanitation Police. I bet the other inmates would make fun.
Pete stopped by my room with good news. He had landed an excellent job in Japan, a University gig, over 3,000 USD a month, in Tokyo. I was so proud of him and happy for him. Tokyo would be great.
Reading up on Japanese culture, Pete told me about an online video game in Japan where you are the conductor and you have to get the commuters on the train during rush hour. It’s like they have made a video game out of civil service. I wonder if the game worked on weekends and holidays.
When I checked my email, I had my own good news, sort of. They gave me the job at the America Now School. Pete was headed to Tokyo and I would be flying back to my tiny, disinteresting village in Taiwan, to teach children. And luckily, the school was a 45 minute motorcycle drive outside of the city.
I read once, “Success is not measured by heights attained…” I think there was more to the saying, but I got that far and simply said, “Thank God!”
This story is not about a defeat or about me quitting. It is about my Peaceful Withdrawal with Honor, from Saigon. The story continues with my return to Taiwan, coming next month.
Antonio Graceffo is self-funded and needs donation to continue his writing and video work. To support the project you can donate through the paypal link on his website, www.speakingadventure.com
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at amazon.com. The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army.
Brooklyn Monk fan page
Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE
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Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)
Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)
Brooklyn Monk in 3D
Order the download at http://3dguy.tv/brooklyn-monk-in-3d/