Saturday, 8 June 2013



“What did you do yesterday?”

It’s a question guaranteed to get your students brows furrowing and their lips moving in silent anguish. The question is as taxing for them as if you’d enquired: “What did you do on August the nineteenth, 2007?”

However, I’m not afflicted with such linguistic barriers to communication. What did I do yesterday? Stick around, and I’ll tell you.

I woke up at 10:30 am. I brewed coffee and downed three cups of it. I opened the curtains and saw that it was a glorious, cloud-free day. The same as it was yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. I check my school schedule, and see that my first class is not until 5:00 pm, so I have six hours to fill in. Lovely.

Let’s check out what’s on TV. Of my cable-TV’s 84 channels, four are watchable. Nat Geo is running “The World’s Biggest Mega-Constructions”, Discovery is running “The World’s Smallest Mini-Constructions”, and on Animal Planet it’s the final of “Master Chef, Albania”. (A cook-off between potato & gristle, and cabbage & gristle – it’s a cliff-hanger.) I toss aside the remote, and pick up the newspaper. The lead story is “Latvia pledges closer ties to Vietnam”, and on page three there’s news of a new bridge to be opened in the Dong Nai district. Exciting stuff. Whoever dubbed this newspaper “The Two-Minute Silence” knew what he was about.

Anyway, it’s too good a day to stay cooped up indoors, so let’s go for a ride. The sun is well into the sky when I wheel my motorbike out onto the street. I’m the only thing moving; any self-respecting Vietnamese is indoors, sheltering from the sun’s unforgiving rays. I kick my bike into life and head out on the main north-bound highway. It’s a good road, it’s deserted, and I have a full petrol tank. I wind the bike up to 70 kph and savor the cool breeze on my face. Could life get any better than this? The road follows the coastline, an endless stretch of white, gritty sand and gently lapping waves. No good for swimming, but a visual treat for the eyes. 

A brief stop and a walk along a small, empty beach. Tiny sea shells crunch under my feet. God, this land is lovely. It’s times like this when the frustrations of work fade into insignificance. There’s a solitary food stall at the end of the beach. The vendor, with a winsome smile except for two missing teeth, chatters away to me softly, not knowing and not caring that I don’t understand. She seems to be extolling the virtues and unbeatable value of a bag of crisps she’s holding out to me. I’m not hungry and I don’t like that brand, but her smile is so engaging I buy it anyway. I pay way below what I’d have to in town, even though the vendor has elevated the price on account of my foreignness.

Back onto the bike, and by now the motorbike seat has become so hot I have to ride half-standing up for the next few minutes. (Red-hot motorbike seats are a traditional Asian treatment for piles. The heat cauterizes them, I hear.)

At half past four in the afternoon I walk into the school, get out my books, then sit down for a while to listen to the light-hearted banter of the staff room.

“Fuck. I feel like death warmed up.”
“Oh no, not SB31! It’s like getting blood out of a stone.”
“You think you’ve got problems?”
“Does anyone know what day it is today?”
 “Roll on payday.”
“Does anyone know a good way of teaching relative clauses?” (No, I made that one up.)

First lesson of the day is class A21, advanced level. It’s a great class, my current favorite in fact. Ten students in their late teens, five of each sex, all switched on, motivated, and fun. They all get on well together, love throwing insults at each other, and are there to have a good time while at the same time advancing their English.

By the time the first class is over, I notice that it has started to rain. Quite heavily.
I have a thirty-minute wait until the start of the next class. The rain is increasing in intensity, and I send up a silent prayer that no students will turn up. I’d be able to flee back home, and I’d still get paid, (some schools will do this, some penny-pinching schools refuse to pay for no-show lessons).
And then, inevitably, depressingly, at three minutes past, one student bursts into the classroom, shaking off the raindrops. And – wouldn’t you know it – it’s only the most boring, personality-less student in the class. In a situation like this some teachers will invite a lone student out to a coffee shop – a practice which some schools are comfortable with, and some aren’t. But I decide that an hour in a coffee shop making halting small-talk with this boring fuck-wit is more than the human body could stand, so I elect instead to conduct a lesson of sorts.
I start it off with a bit of light chit-chat to get the ball rolling.
“So, what have you been doing this morning?”
He reflects on this for some time. It’s not every day you get asked such a searching question. “I stayed at home.”
“Oh yeah? Interesting. So what did you do at home?”
“Watching TV.”
“Uh huh. So… what’s your favorite TV program?”
A long pause. “Ah… movies.”
“Oh really? And what kind of movie do you like?”
Another long pause. “Tom and Jerry.”
“OK, well open your text book to page….”

Nine-thirty, at long last. “OK Harry, it’s been interesting, and I’m really glad you could make it. I’ll see you next time.” He searches his vocabulary for how to respond, then finally says a weak “Goodbye.”
And goodbye to you too, Mr Excitement.

The rain storm has finished, thank God. Time to eat. Most of the restaurants have sent their kitchen-staff home by now, so that leaves me with two alternatives for dinner: the Ukranian restaurant, or the outside seafood stalls. I opt for the seafood. The woman whose stall I patronize knows me well, and trots out a Tiger beer and starts cooking my dishes of choice without me having to open my mouth. I’m seated on a low, uncomfortable plastic chair at a low, not very clean plastic table, and thinking to myself that I wouldn’t change my circumstances for all the money in the world.


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  1. How on earth do you survive those deathly boring 1:1 classes. Any tips?

  2. No tips really. I find these one-to-ones sheer purgatory. Just grit your teeth and keep smiling, that's all.