Wednesday, 29 October 2014



“Whether the weather is good, or whether the weather is bad…” It’s an old, half-forgotten ditty from my childhood, but I’ve just got home from a 30-minute motorbike ride in a tropical downpour, and weather is very much on my mind.

And here is the weather report. From a few different countries I’ve worked in. No, don’t worry, I’m not going to get all technical and start waxing on about global warming, polar jet-streams, El Nino and other meteorological oddities. What I will say is that I’ve noticed the weather in different countries is as different as can be.

Take Indonesia for example. Weather here is very localized. I came out of school one day, stood on one side of the road, and noticed that on the other side of the road was a wall of rain. As I watched, in less than a second the curtain of rain advanced across the road and enveloped me. On another day I was riding along in a bajaj (a 3-wheeled taxi) and suddenly the driver braked violently. Ahead of us, and closing in fast, was another curtain of rain. One day I was driving my car down a street in Jakarta when suddenly a bolt of lightning hit the street not 30 meters ahead of me. It fizzled and crackled as it hit the ground, and left a large patch of dry asphalt. Had I been 30 meters further on, I would have been toast. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the tires insulate the car and leave its occupants unharmed. That’s one theory I don’t want to put to the test; I’ll leave that to the Mythbusters team. Indonesia has two seasons: dry (very dry), and wet (very wet). I was teaching a class one evening in Indonesia at the end of a long, extremely dry season. Suddenly we heard an unaccustomed sound. Big, fat raindrops were hitting the school roof. In an instant the lesson was forgotten and the whole class rushed outside and stood with faces raised to the long-awaited rain.

When it rains in Indonesia, it buckets down. But Indonesia is no match for Thailand and Cambodia. There the rain comes down on your head with the force of a high-pressure water cannon. And with it comes the lightning. Sheet lightning, forked lightning, ball lightning  – you name it they’ve got it. Thailand’s thunderstorms are spectacular. I had a roof-top flat in Bangkok, and during a thunder and lightning session I would go out and marvel at the display. Every ten seconds or so the lightning would illuminate the sky for a split second, then plunge it into darkness once again. One night I had a good idea: why don’t I put a bucket out to catch the rain, thus saving myself of the tiresome task of lugging water up from the tap on the second floor? Next morning I inspected my bucket of rainwater. Floating on top of it was an inch of black grease.
Now, cross to Cambodia.
I arrived at the beginning of the rainy season, a time that the tourist guide-books advise is best avoided. The mornings are cloudless and stultifyingly hot. A twenty minute walk has me dehydrated and panting, and searching for the nearest air-conditioned bar for respite.  In the afternoon the rain clouds gather, and around sunset the first fat raindrops plop onto the roofs and awnings. With practised efficiency the waitresses and waiters snatch up table cloths and condiment sets from the street-front tables, and whisk away the seat cushions.
Then comes the rain.
My god, the rain. Within seconds streets become fast-flowing rivers. As if by magic the endless stream of motorcycles ceases, riders huddling under shop awnings, bus shelters, and trees. Lightning flashes etch freeze-framed pictures of a glistening city onto the retina.
By morning the skies are once again cloudless, the sun as searing and unforgiving as ever.

Next, love in Asia. As I wrote in EFL minus the B.S., a single teacher will have no problem finding a soulmate in Asia, no matter how temporary. But there’s a price to pay when a male teacher hitches up with an Asian girl: he’s expected to become family provider. This may manifest itself in requests for money to help fix granny’s leaking roof, or father’s emergency motorbike repairs, or a loan to see mother through a rocky period. In the case of my current girlfriend, it came in the form of Younger Brother. An affable enough guy with no English and no apparent means of support, Younger Brother was your consummate freeloader. He had an unerring sense of timing and smell. Ten minutes before a meal was due to be served, there would be a knock on the door and Younger Brother would enter. He would help himself to giant portions of food, twice as much as anyone else, eat it, lie down on the floor and sleep for half an hour or more, then wake and leave with a brief “Goodbye”. His visits became increasingly frequent, and I became increasingly pissed off.
“If he were to occasionally come with some fruit or a few cans of beer in hand, I wouldn’t mind,” I protested to my GF, “but he just appears, eats, and leaves without so much as a thank you. Tell him he’s not welcome.”
My girlfriend promised to do so, tomorrow or the day after. She didn’t of course; such a thing would be unthinkable in the culture of Asian hospitality.
 “Look, if you don’t tell him, I will. I’m sick and tired of him feeding his face at my expense.”
“OK, I will, I will. Soon.”
I took to going out as soon as Younger Brother appeared, and not returning until he had departed, but this failed to get the message across. (If he had noticed my absences at all).
The final straw came when I woke up one morning and saw that he’d slept the night. I took him aside and said “I don’t like you sleeping here. I don’t like you eating here.” To reinforce my point I handed him a print-out of a Google translation reading ‘NO MORE FREE MEALS HERE FOR YOU’. Younger Brother said “Oh. OK”, reached for his motorbike helmet, and departed. And has yet to return. Halle-bloody-lujah! Problem solved.

There’s only one other problem remaining. My GF’s mother, a pleasant, likeable lady, comes to visit us from up-country every now and then. She’s no trouble around the place, she helps with the washing up and mops the floor, but her visits do seem to go on and on and on. Now I’m perfectly happy for her to visit for a week, even two weeks from time to time, but a five-week stay does seem to be pushing it a bit. It’s a problem that’s going to take more delicate handling than the last one.

I’ve been changing schools a bit lately. One school didn’t offer enough hours, one school’s confusion and mismanagement defied description, one school did nothing but complain about the teachers’ performances. I’ve now got two jobs: 14 hours from Monday to Friday, and a second school offering a 10-hour block at weekends, teaching tiny tots and children. To top it up, I’m doing two hours private lessons a week, and a third school is calling me in to substitute once or twice a week. I’m working seven days a week (not an unusual situation in Asia). It’s not a perfect state of affairs; with a seven-day workload you’re liable to lose track of the days, and the hours are antisocial, but it’s the best I can manage for now. I’m not the only one; my fellow teachers report just as many frustrations and unsatisfactory employers as me. Ah well, nobody promised us a rose garden, I guess.

Here’s what readers have said about EFL minus the B.S.: “This book is about as good as it gets.” “So, you have checked it all out and decided to go teaching overseas. Now listen you fool… don’t even think about it until you have read this book!” “Excellent book.” “This book is spot on in giving the basic lay down of teaching overseas.” “The book is a quick read and should be read by every EFL teacher.” “Definitely a good read while on your flight to whatever country you are going to teach.”
 So there you have it. Buy your copy of EFL minus the B.S. today. A quarter of a million readers can’t be wrong! (OK, OK, I have exaggerated a teensy bit there.)

Tuesday, 7 October 2014



Here’s a run-down on what you’ll get when you buy EFL minus the B.S. There’s a country-by-country breakdown on teaching in all the Asian countries, and a vaguely alarming chapter on how many hoops you need to jump through to secure work permits for those countries. There’s a chapter on living and working overseas – not all wine and roses. There are the chapters where I’ve roundly criticized school management (mostly mismanagement), language teaching theories (mostly mumbo-jumbo), and linguistics (wholly mumbo-jumbo). Plus some tips on teaching children and teenagers, and on how to fine-tune classroom dynamics. I rail on about bosses I have met (nine out of ten of them all-round ass-holes) and teachers I have met (nine out of ten good to work with, the others undeniably weird). There’s a chapter about how to start up your own school, and another about sex and the single teacher (based on extensive field-research on my part). 

There are no chapters on pedagogy, or the meta-cognitive paradigms of second-language acquisition. You’ll have to look elsewhere for info on those subjects. When writing the book, I didn’t overly concern myself with political correctness. Some readers have taken me to task for this, accusing me of insensitivity, chauvinism, racism, negativity, and just plain ignorance. Gulp, I’ll try and do better in the sequel.

Now here’s something not related to teaching, but something that’s been on my mind lately. Associations. No. I’m not talking of the Automobile Association or the National Rifle Association here, I’m talking about the weird associations our minds make with specific places and specific events. Associations that will stay with us until the end of our days. You with me here? No? OK, let me give you a few examples.

I’m in New Zealand, I’m in a supermarket queue, and I overhear the lady in front of me saying “Isn’t it terrible about Princess Diana?” A moment forever frozen into my memory. Another example: In New Zealand once again, but this time in a small, isolated West Coast hamlet, and I hear a customer remarking to the shop assistant “It’s sad, isn’t it? And he was the twin of Robin. I never knew that before.” My heart gave a bit of a lurch, and I hurried outside to tune into my car radio and await the news. As I had feared, Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees had died.

I’m sure you all have similar associations. Most people can tell you the time and place where they first heard news of a beloved celebrity’s death, whether it be JFK, Lady Di, Amy Whitehouse, or Elvis Presley.

Most of my mental associations, I’m happy to say, are not connected to the death of someone, but to music. I’m in Katmandu, I have an eye infection that’s keeping me closeted in my dingy hotel room day and night, and the guy a few rooms away is playing the Bee Gees “Tragedy” over and over and over. I’m teaching in Seoul, not enjoying it all that much, and AFKN (American Forces Korean Network) is incessantly playing Randy Vanderwarmer’s “Just When I Needed You Most”. (Great song, great voice; I wonder why he sank into oblivion immediately thereafter. Perhaps it had something to do with his choice of name.)

Whenever I hear the old Bee Gees hit “Holiday”, I’m instantly transported to a flat in Gloucester Road, London, that I shared with 14 other people. Whenever I hear Cat Stevens sing anything at all I’m back in London too. “Knights in White Satin” puts me back in the Atlanta Hotel, Bangkok. I hear Bob Marley singing “I Shot the Sheriff”, and I’m wandering down Notting Hill Road. I hear “Disco Duck” (a horrible song that enjoyed brief popularity in the mid-seventies) and I’m transported to the Kings’ Club in Itaewon, Seoul, where a hundred or so sweating, off-duty GIs are singing and quacking in unison. And whenever I hear The Eagles “Tequila Sunrise”, I’m sitting in a hostel dormitory in Jakarta with my best friend who insisted on playing the song non-stop.

Yes, funny things, associations are.


Here’s what readers have said about EFL minus the B.S.: “This book is about as good as it gets.” “So, you have checked it all out and decided to go teaching overseas. Now listen you fool… don’t even think about it until you have read this book!” “Excellent book.” “This book is spot on in giving the basic lay down of teaching overseas.” “The book is a quick read and should be read by every EFL teacher.” “Definitely a good read while on your flight to whatever country you are going to teach.”

 So there you have it. Buy your copy of EFL minus the B.S. today. A quarter of a million readers can’t be wrong! (OK, OK, I have exaggerated a teensy bit there.)