The Stuff of Nightmares.

On the darker side of teaching English abroad…

‘What are you running away from?’ a fellow teacher asked.  I had only recently arrived in Hangzhou, a fresher on the ESL-teacher scene in China.  It seemed a strange question, and a strange introduction.  ‘You watch these young teachers…  They are not here for the love of teaching English,’ he added. 

And admittedly, he had a fair point.  With a few exceptions of course, for many the ‘teaching-in-China’ episode is hardly part of a well-laid career plan.  More of an option for those in limbo after graduating with a dead-end degree and poor career – or no career – prospects in a home country.  Although I did not exactly fit into that category age- or career-wise, my life certainly felt like the fast road to nowhere and at least a change of scenery was bound to make the ride more palatable.  It was early days and I was filled with the optimism of the novice!  I am discounting India here; being the only white face in a small hamlet in Kerala meant I missed out on any immersion in the world of expats, ‘teaching expats’ in particular.  The few brushes with the wider world beyond the village only happened during my monthly visits to Varkala, the latest hip town with the hippy vibe, an awesome beach and decent coffee…

On the bright side, Hangzhou had a lively expat community, mostly populated by a teaching fraternity and a spatter of businessmen and women employed in the diverse world of manufacturing, engineering, banking or accounting.   In other words, one of the more desirable places to hang about for a while, rather than being farmed out to more rural and remote areas of China.  ESL agencies and schools in Hangzhou had the pick of the teachers’ bunch, preferring white and young above experience, qualifications and even the ability to speak English.  Still, at least most of the undesirables and incompetents were quickly weeded out and replaced from the rich pool of available and keen talent.  Of course, there were stories… but they were far and few between and mostly about contract-related disputes between agencies/schools and foreign employees.  In a country where everyone is under permanent CCTV scrutiny, not much goes unnoticed and unpunished without the leverage of backhanders.  Deportations abound.

Fast forward to working in one of the less affluent states in Vietnam.  On my arrival, the language school had just survived a major staffing crisis and fresh blood had been hastily drafted in to cover the unexpected avalanche of vacancies…  With an hourly pay rate for ESL teachers way below the national average and a workload well in excess of the national average, applications were scarce on the ground.  For me the only redeeming factors were the school’s proximity to the beach and the mirage of a social life: surely communal living on the school premises and organized trips would be conducive to having a bit of fun and interaction?  And of course, there was also the minor issue that I needed a job…

Being a little short-staffed, I had been put under pressure to get to the language school early, five days before I was due to start teaching.  It took me only a few days to seriously consider desertion.  My room was a claustrophobic nightmare with no window to the outside world, the poorly equipped communal kitchen a germ factory of piled up, unwashed dishes and festering leftovers hogging the only two pots at our disposal.  A descent into the horrors of a student life I had left behind decades ago… 

And then there was my first encounter with J, one of the recent recruits and about to emerge from his stint of probation.  My induction kicked off with two days of unpaid observation of J’s teaching.  Unpaid???  Obviously, this was never mentioned in the interview… I let it wash over me, but silently rued the days of exploring Vietnam I had given up for this.  The first day, Sunday, I lived through seven and a half hours of non-teaching, the unmistakable whiff of alcohol intensifying as the day wore on.  Whilst I was asked to supervise the students playing games with balloons and being engaged in other questionable ‘educational’ activities, J. disappeared from the classroom for multiple extended breaks…   

Dread engulfed me at the prospect of spending another four and a half hours in that classroom the next day.  I dutifully turned up but drew the line at being instructed by J. to do some team-teaching, or me teaching and him observing or learning more likely…

‘No way,’ I insisted, ‘I’m not being paid for this…’

‘You will regret this,’ his words blasted across the ethanol vapours. ‘I am a secret manager and I have special powers. I don’t want you in my classroom and I will report you to ‘Xxx’ for insubordination.’  (Xxx being the owner of the language school and our actual boss…)

Granted, I had refused to stay in his previous lesson, a one-to-one.  Instead of focusing on teaching the student, he had proposed discussing the lessons I would be covering whilst he and his Vietnamese wife, Mrs J., flew off to Bangkok for a visa run.  Professionalism got the better of me… Surely talking through a handover should not be done during lessons.  How old fashioned of me…

My suitcase barely unpacked I was all set for a return to Hanoi but a few laughs with colleagues over a beer and dinner persuaded me to at least give it a bit more time. 

‘Watch our words,’ they reassured me, ‘he won’t last.  Xxx knows very well what goes on in the classroom.  She just needs to find a replacement.’   

‘You can move into my room,’ another one tagged on. ‘I leave at the end of September.’  At least her room was spacious and had massive windows with fresh air wafting through. A promise of some improvement on the bleak horizon.

For a few weeks, all was well.  J and I taught in classrooms on different floors and, when our paths crossed in the kitchen, exchanged polite conversation.  Mrs J, aloof and reticent, refrained from chatting to any of the foreign teachers, although her English was deemed good enough to work as an English teacher at the centre, a position she relished. The recycling bin regularly overflowed with empty beer cans and bottles but those of us with a sense of responsibility and community took turns dealing with the debris.   

Nevertheless, the kitchen remained a battle ground as nothing was more irritating than having to wash up other people’s pots and pans before being able to start preparing your own meal.  And as you may well have guessed, J and his wife were some of the main culprits.  ‘Of course we will wash up our things, as and when WE feel like it…  If you don’t like it, maybe you should not be living here…’  So much for being considerate.

It was however in one of such moments that I disposed of a pot of rice that had been inviting bacteria on the counter for a day or two.  Provenance of the rice unknown and in dire need of sustenance and a clean cooking vessel, I put the rice where it belonged: in the bin. I didn’t have the time nor the energy to knock on doors to find out whose rice it was. It was an impulse that would come back to haunt me, but not until later, weeks later…

By the end of October, rumours were rife, J being the source of the whispers that were spreading like wildfire: he had handed in his notice, just a matter of deciding a convenient date; Xxx had decided not to renew his contract; he had better job offers elsewhere.  Versions varied but the gist was clear: J and his wife were in the throes of their last swan song…  The building heaved a sigh of relief!

When a sudden drastic time table revision was emailed to me and I inherited 50% of J’s classes, I logically assumed the gossip was true and J was indeed about to pack his bags.  I did not often find myself alone in the kitchen with Mrs J, but that day I did and curiosity got the better of me. 

‘I hear you’re leaving soon,’ I said.

She looked up, shocked and antagonistic. ‘It’s not true.  Who told you that?’

‘Hmmm….  Your husband has been telling everyone for days now… and I have been asked to take over many of his classes.  I just wondered…’  I continued hesitantly, sensing that maybe Mrs J had not been privy to the information that was doing the rounds.  The rift between the pair over whether to stay at the school or not was very well known to all of us: she wanted in; he wanted out or pretended it was his choice to leave.

‘It’s not true.  You’re lying.  We’re not going anywhere,’ she maintained.

‘That’s great,’ I added.  ‘I will speak to Xxx and ask her not to change my timetable; no need if J is not leaving…’

The conversation seemed innocent enough, but sparked a chain of events that quickly spiraled out of control.

I did indeed have a meeting with Xxx and refused to take over J’s classes.  Had there been any complaints about MY teaching?  I tried to broach the subject of J’s teaching when I observed him in early September, but this was not deemed important and brushed under the carpet. The thought of some of my younger students ending up in a classroom with J horrified me.  Too young to understand the reality, they obviously would not complain to their parents. Nevertheless, I agreed to swap one of my classes with J; parents had threatened to pull out their children unless J was no longer their teacher. 

The next day, I walked into the kitchen and found the walls covered in abusive messages written by J’s wife, all aimed at me.  Three weeks after throwing out a small amount of rice, it suddenly became a hot issue… I carefully removed the paper from the wall and offered amends.  Did she want me to cook some rice for her…? The messages on the walls continued and became more aggressive.  What on earth was she talking about?  Was this really about a bowl of rice that three weeks before did not even raise an eyebrow?  In the meantime my food in the kitchen gradually disappeared.  Anything labelled with my name went down the sink and in the bin, the empties left on the shelf as a clear message.  Trying to defuse the situation I did not react and moved anything still unopened, and therefore not spiked or spoiled, into my room…  Could I be sure that my half-filled jar of peanut butter was still fit for human consumption???

Roll on Friday, my day off, when things really started to escalate.  Being in the kitchen on my own, I was preparing my evening meal whilst most of the other teachers were in their classrooms. Windows perpetually open to allow some fresh air, what ensued was witnessed by many teachers and students.  J and his wife turned up in the kitchen.  I stood in silence as I was caught in the middle of their explosive domestic over whether or not they would be leaving soon, whilst J., entirely for my benefit, tried to persuade his screaming wife that the bowl of rice was not important.  Every time I attempted to leave, my escape route was barred by J., looking at me menacingly.   

Feeling uneasy throughout, it was his parting message that made chills run along my spine.

‘Can I have a word with you?’  He stopped me in my tracks and wedged against the fridge, the smile on his lips belying the threat conveyed in his message.

‘You fuck with my wife, I will fuck with you.  We will make your life here hell and you will be glad to leave… You mark my words.’

What I witnessed was not reasonable behaviour by any standards but it was hard to decide who of the two was behaving the more psychopathic.  All of this over a bowl of rice??  Or was it because I inadvertently made Mrs J aware of the fact that all was not well with J’s job prospects at the centre and I was the scapegoat for refusing to put my young students at risk?? 

As the whole episode had echoed within the walls of the school through the open windows and had piqued the curiosity of both staff and students, one of my colleagues sent a message to the boss, who unfortunately was out of town for a few days.  There was no response.  That evening, over a couple of beers to steady my nerves, it was decided that I should never be in the kitchen on my own as long as J and his wife were still at the school.  It was a comfort to know that the rest of the teachers were on my side!

Saturday morning, the circus continued.  My first class was with very young learners, four and five-year olds.  The lesson had barely started when Mrs J burst in ranting and raving and screaming abuse at me.  The previous night’s ambush in the kitchen was bad enough, but this outpouring of venom in front of my young students was not just outrageous, it was also very frightening.  In the end, I had to lock my classroom door and ask the office staff to keep an eye on Mrs J.  She was spending the morning in her husband’s classroom whilst he was ‘teaching’ and concocting the next step of intimidation.

Saturday lunch time, Mr and Mrs J took up residence in the kitchen.  Being one of our busier days, I normally ate out, but had arranged to meet one of the teachers near the kitchen.  Another barrage of insults headed my way.  Luckily J’s attempt to involve other teachers in their attacks were quickly rebuked. 

‘We are quite capable of making up our own mind,’ they said.

In the afternoon, I answered a knock on my door to find Mrs J waiting.  Although she seemed much calmer and composed, the message remained the same.  ‘Give me back my rice, give me back my food!’  ‘’What food are you talking about?  It was a bit of rice…’  I thought it wiser not to mention my food that had mysteriously vanished.  Since I had not actually witnessed it, there was no evidence Mr and Mrs J were the culprits but suspicions ran deep…

Later that afternoon, I went to the kitchen to get some fruit out of the fridge.  Mrs J followed close on my heels and blocked my way to the kitchen sink. 

‘Don’t come near me,’ she warned.

‘I need to get something from the sink,’ I dared carefully. 

She turned to the sink herself, picked up a knife and swiveled around facing me knife pointed…  In fairness to her, at the time she was holding a papaya, so it could have been entirely innocent, but it made my blood run cold. 

Luckily, the next day Xxx arrived back into the office, and alerted to the volatile nature of happenings in the teachers’ block, she called me into the office.  If I had expected any sympathy from her, I was in for a surprise…  Whilst I had waited for the storm to pass, Mr and Mrs J had been busy feeding their side of the story to the boss and suddenly the inflammatory outburst from Friday began to make sense…  I was no longer accused of throwing out a bowl of rice, but food Mr and Mrs J bought in the supermarket Friday morning. 

‘What food??  I threw out some rice a few weeks ago that was left on the counter.  We needed to cook…  I haven’t thrown anything else out.  By the way, my food has been disappearing…’   But Mrs J was Vietnamese, and I was not.  Ultimately, saving face would always prevail over honesty and apart from Mrs J’s vile intrusion into my classroom, most encounters had happened when no one else was in sight.  J was clever, a master of manipulation and his wife perfect putty in his hands.  I had to give them that…

‘I cannot get involved in what goes on in the teachers’ block.  It is not my responsibility…’ Xxx maintained.  Really?  None of us other teachers had the means or authority to ask Mr and Mrs J to leave.  ‘Anyway, keep your cool.  J will be leaving at the end of November, he has been given notice…’

‘Another whole month?  In any Western country, the police would have been called and Mrs J would have been removed from the premises with a restraining order to keep her away from me.  Especially after barging into my classroom and scaring all the students…’  

I resigned myself to the situation. Ironically, just a few days before I had finally, against my better judgement, signed the contract and tied myself to the school in the spirit of ‘better the devil you know, than the one you don’t.’ But then again, I am not the type to be allow myself to be bullied by the likes of Mr and Mrs J, so I decided to keep my head down and ride out the storm.

I can only thank the quick wit of one of my colleagues that the whole episode had a speedy and positive outcome.  The next day, another encounter happened in the kitchen when both Mr and Mrs J cornered me yet again.  On hearing the noise and shouting, N came to the kitchen and videoed part of the altercation on his phone.  As soon as the warring couple were aware of the camera, they retreated to the privacy of their room.  

Incensed at being caught on camera, Mrs J took action and demanded a meeting with Xxx where she insisted the police be called to deal with the matter of the video.  As most of us were in our classrooms at the time, no one witnessed the discussion that took place between Mr J, Mrs J and Xxx.  Suffice it to say that Mrs J’s way of acting resulted in the immediate dismissal of both Mr and Mrs J…  Maybe once Xxx had had her own measure of the irrational behaviour at first hand, she could understand my point and what I had been subjected to.

In our subsequent meeting that evening, Xxx explained the situation.  Of course, she had needed to intervene, she had a care of duty to her foreign teachers.  This clearly had not been a pressing matter the day before…  Could it have been the spectre of a less than flattering video circulating on social media and potentially harming her and the school’s reputation that made her change her mind??  Or am I being cynical?  N was also called into the office and was requested to delete the damaging footage…

On his last day in the building, J. came to see me.  He apologized and brought me a present: a calendar for 2018.  It was the 31st of October and Halloween.  Did I, in the coming year, really need daily reminders of the events of the last few days?

About a week later, around midnight, several teachers received an email from J.  He would be visiting town shortly, bringing some friends and showering us with presents..  We all sensed the Clockwork Orange shadow of Alex.  J was a knowledgeable film buff after all.

Luckily there was no visit, but it took several weeks before I felt safe enough not to look over my shoulder when leaving the cocoon of the school’s premises and my home in Vietnam.

PS.  Please rest assured that this tale is an aberration.  The majority of teachers are honest, hardworking, law-abiding and sane.   But of course, there are the ‘characters’, life would be boring without them.  Luckily their stories are more often than not hilarious and have become the legends we reminisce about.  Just this one had a particularly nasty and personal streak to it for me.

Unfortunately, although the ESL teacher scene is sobering up as government requirements and checks increase, the demand for suitably qualified and experienced foreign teachers outstrips the supply.  Some dubious individuals still manage to slip through the net, especially in jobs with less attractive terms or in less desirable locations…

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