Living in Dakar: A How To Guide

There’s a lot about living here that is very different and difficult for a foreigner and non-Francophile (my French is awful, but slowly improving). There are some expat groups on Facebook which can make things easier, but there was still a lot to learn and a very steep learning curve. I don’t often write instructive “how to” blogs because usually I find there’s already a bunch out there, but I didn’t find much for Senegal or Dakar, at least not in English, so  I’m writing what I have learned so far, and maybe someone else will have an easier time adjusting to living here.

The SIM Card

My phone data plan is a high priority when I arrive in a new country. I feel like I can’t do much else without it, and in Senegal you really need that local number to use ride shares, delivery, and digital wallets. There’s a reason it’s first on my list. Pre-departure research led me to believe that Orange would be my best bet, and the Embassy had scheduled a “get your sim card” event in the orientation, so I had not undertaken to get one on my own, but it’s not that hard, especially if you can speak a little French.

Finding the right store: Orange is both a phone/internet company and a money service. Not every Orange store does both, so it’s important to find the correct location. We went here: AGENCE ORANGE DES ALMADIES Of course, you need an unlocked phone, and you’ll need your passport to register your new phone number with the gov’t (I swear this is normal everywhere except America). The SIM card cost 500CFA (about 75cents US) and comes with a few days of data/minutes.

Finding your phone number is a little tricky because it doesn’t just show up in your “settings > about phone”. Instead, dial #237# and hit the call button, you’ll get a screen message showing your new Senegalese phone number. I took a screenshot of mine.

Setting your Orange Money PIN: When you get your SIM card, ask the clerk to help you set up your password (mot de passe). You can change or reset the 4 digit pin by dialing #144# then choosing option 7 (options) and then 3 to modify or 6 to reset. If you’re struggling with all the French, take a screenshot and port it into Google Translate (select the camera icon, then click on the image icon in at the bottom of the screen to access your screenshots).

Be sure you know your phone number and your secret PIN before you leave the store!

Topping up your phone plan: All phone plans in Senegal are prepaid. There are two apps you’ll want to use: Orange et Moi and Orange Money and they are only in French, sorry. Also, be sure you choose the Senegal versions since Orange is popular in a LOT of countries. Orange et Moi is the app for charging up your phone, but before you do that, you have to add money to your account.

Install Orange et Moi Senegal (careful you get the right country) and follow the steps to set up your account. You’ll need to enter your new Senegalese number and choose a password for the app.

Visit any Orange Money kiosk and deposit money into your account – cash only. I started out with just 10k (about 15$). You just say “dépôt orange” and give them the phone number. You should be able to see your new balance right away, but make sure it shows up before you leave the shop! (Image Credit: Minette Lontsie, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I had to put in 200k in order to get the new work laptop and it was nerve wracking walking into a tiny hole in the wall shop with that much cash. Some kiosks are just huts the size of an outhouse, but they are guarded since the worker inside has a lot of cash. Thankfully for my nerves, the guy in the little shop added money to my account before taking the cash which made me feel better. It’s SO different from everything I’m used to and I’m working on finding a way to transfer money into my Orange account digitally because cash makes me nervous. There seems to be a way to do it if you have an African bank account, but the “add money by credit card” function on the app may or may not be permanently unavailable.

Your Pre-Pay Plan Will Expire! It’s important to note that this isn’t the kind of prepay that hangs around until you use it. There are time limits. Some plans are good for a day, some for a week, and the longest for a month. So don’t put a bunch of money on there thinking you can just top up when you use it all. I personally futzed around with the settings until I found the least amount I could add to get the 30 days, figuring if I used it up, I could add more which would be better than overpaying and losing it. I did not use it all.

How to Top Up in the App: The plans change from month to month, so I can’t suggest the best one, but some steps should stay the same: Acheter = buy and will take you to the menu of plan options. Illimix or Illiflex are the best options that mix data and phone (flex lets you choose how much data v phone you get for your money). It will ask you “choix du beneficiare” and you can choose your own phone number or enter someone elses, which if you are travelling with friends/family might make the whole thing easier. Make sure you get something that will last … avoid “jour” (day) and choose “semaine” (week) or “mois” (month). After you buy, you can see your remaining data/sms/minutes in the app by choosing “Conso”.

Money, Money, Money

Cash & GAB:
Senegal is a cash based economy. Very few places take cards, especially foreign cards. When I got here, the only way for me to access my US money was to go to a local ATM (or GAB since ATM isn’t a word here). The Embassy also warned us against using any ATM on the street (while also somehow NOT telling us they were called GAB). If they had their way, I’d be schlepping over to the Embassy every time I wanted cash to use their ATM inside. Not a practical solution. I also mentioned in my previous post that not all banks have GAB and Google Maps definitely doesn’t have a complete or accurate list, so it’s a good idea to figure out where your closest safe indoor GAB is before you need the money.

Why indoors? Apparently putting card skimmers on the machines is a thing here and the indoor ones all have security guards who keep more than one person per machine from going in at a time and CCTV (maybe?) to make sure no one does anything nefarious. It’s also easier to put your cash away inside than on the street. You don’t want to have a wad of cash in your wallet or bag. Only keep what you need in a day in reach. People don’t get mugged often here, and then mostly only at night alone, so it’s not a huge risk, but there’s no point in tempting fate.

However, cash is a pain, not only because it’s a germ vector and requires us to open our purse or wallet to get to, but local people ALL want you to have exact change, and no one wants to GIVE change. (to ask to have a bill broken ask: “as-tu de la monnaie”;  to ask if someone has change when you are buying something ask: “as-tu la monnaie”) Even at the grocery store where they have a full register of change they don’t want to part with it. I had to pop into a corner store to get a 1k bill broken into 2 500bills to pay my driver the other day. I have no idea how to keep myself topped up with enough change to satisfy drivers and street vendors. If I ever find out, I’ll update this post.

Digital Wallet:
In the mean time, I’m happy to report that Senegal is working on going cash free in a leap-frog way. (leapfrogging is when a culture skips a developmental step, in this case, going directly from cash to digital wallets without bank cards in between). Google Wallet and Venmo aren’t here in Senegal yet, but QR code based digital payment options Orange Money and Wave are. Orange Money comes built in with the phone package, and the only way to top up (without a local bank account) is to visit a kiosk and fork over the cash. It’s fairly easy to do and there are kiosks everywhere, but it doesn’t eliminate the need to go to the ATM all the time. Wave, however, has a partner app called SendWave that allows you to send money to a Wave user (including yourself) from a foreign bank account with no fees!

Getting SendWave:
Set up is a bit of an ordeal. You have to install the app, sign up, upload your passport photo and bank card then try (and fail) to send some money, and wait for someone to call you back. I hear your concerns and objections to uploading ID and bank card details, but it’s a reputable service. A big part of why it’s such a hassle to set up is that they have security measures in place to make sure no one is being scammed or stolen from. Trying to make your first payment starts the process. You can set up your wave account (separate app) and try and send it to yourself, or you can send it to a friend who already has their account set up. I’d start with just 1$, it’s going to get cancelled anyway.

When they call, they speak English quite well, which is nice. They verified me and checked to see that I really did know the person I was sending money to, then they asked me to submit a copy of my visa stamp to prove I was actually in Senegal since I’m sending money to myself here. I assume for people who are living outside the country sending money to family back home, it is different, but for us expats, they want proof we are really here. I uploaded a photo of my visa, and that turned out to not be sufficient. The entry stamp in my passport was so faded I had to run it through some strong filters to make it visible, but eventually I got a version they accepted. The whole process takes a few days, but once it is set up, the money transfers are instant. 

Pay with Wave:
Shops that accept Wave payment have the Wave Penguin with their QR code ID. You just scan the code, enter the amount you want to pay, and boom. Some retailers want to see your screen to verify, some get a message on their own phones right away. When paying at shops, there’s no fee to use Wave.

The Sendwave/Wave combo not only saves me from excessive GAB visits and foreign transaction charges, it also saves me from the problem of exact change. I ordered delivery the other day and the guy didn’t have change. It was 12 and I had a 10 and a 5, so I gave him the 10 and sent the other 2 by Wave. Same thing happened in a Heetch car when the driver couldn’t break my 5. I kept my cash and paid him the full amount by Wave. This is a little trickier, since the drivers and delivery folx are not “vendors” they’re just people. In that case you pay a 1% fee to transfer, so you have to take that into account when entering the amount to pay and check the amount they receive. At first I thought they should take the hit when they don’t carry change, but then I remembered my place of privilege and paid the pennies myself.

There’s a way to buy Orange phone plans with your Wave account, but it only applies to your phone/data plan and does NOT appear in your regular Orange Money account, so don’t send a bunch of money to your Orange account thinking you can spend it through Orange Money. In fact, don’t use these services for large amounts of money until you’ve tested them on small amounts and feel comfortable with them, because if you mess up and you don’t speak French, it’s going to be hard to get help resolving it.

The Electricity

Woyofal is the electric company and there’s a link to them in both Orange Money and Wave apps. Like all things here, electricity is pre-paid. When your credit runs out, your power goes off. There’s a little meter that plugs into an outlet (which is really annoying since the outlets here already only have one plug instead of two) and you can see how many kwh you have left. The little light goes from green to red when you’re running low, and starts flashing just before you get cut off.

The tiny text at the top is all the codes you can enter to get various information. To top up your credit, you first need your unique account number, which you get by entering 804 + the blue button and waiting to see the number. It’s long and takes two screens, so be patient. I took photos of mine to keep it in an easy to find place. Once you have your number, you can go to your Wave or Orange Money app and follow the directions to pay bills, and open Woyofal. It should ask for the account number and the amount you want to add. When it goes through, you get a message with another really long string of numbers that is your confirmation code which you then go back to the little box plugged into your wall and painstakingly type in, followed by the blue button.

It sometimes takes a moment to catch up to itself. If the green light doesn’t come back, try typing 805+ the blue button to prompt it to display your remaining credit. It forces the machine to send and receive the signal. As far as I know, you can put as much as you want on there and unlike the phone minutes, it doesn’t expire. I have so far only put 10k on mine because I just got here and I wanted to test it out before doing a larger amount of money just in case I made a mistake in the process while learning. Again, with all these digital wallet things, do stuff in small amounts until you’re comfortable with it so you don’t lose much if something goes awry.

The process isn’t particularly difficult, but it is in no way intuitive to anyone coming from a country where utilities are post-paid and the bills are all online. Here is a more detailed blog about the Woyofal counter.

Shopping

This isn’t tourist shopping at the souk advice, it’s daily life stuff. There’s actually plenty of “how to shop at the market” advice out there (also I haven’t tried it yet), but not so much on “how to buy a new pillow and a coffee pot for your apartment”.

Food Delivery:

I’ve been using Dakar Food Delivery, but there’s also Bring Me and Yassir (I have not tried this last one yet). The hardest part of this is that apps are stuck in French (unlike websites which you can run through Google Chrome to auto translate) and that there are no addresses. Also the exact change thing. Some restaurants have online ordering through Google or their own website, so if the French is too much of an obstacle you can try that way, but you will still have to speak to the driver. Every driver is a new challenge. Somehow even though I live across the street from a pharmacy (which are excellent landmarks here because they all have unique names) my driver the other day ended up at the supermarket down the street, then said I didn’t speak French very well (which ok, yeah I don’t, but “pharmacie” and “supermarche” are not words I mix up).

Grocery Delivery:
You can get basic stuff at most corner stores, but sometimes you don’t want to cart heavy stuff home and sometimes you want stuff that’s not at the corner store. Bring Me has grocery delivery for the same day, but a fairly small selection. I am now using Club Tiossane which has to be scheduled for the next day (or more for some items) but is really easy to use and the delivery guy only had one question about my written directions, he wanted to know if I was to the left or right out of the elevator. They even called to follow up on my first order to make sure everything went well! I know Auchan also has a delivery option on their website, but I haven’t tried it yet.

Home Goods:
The larger grocery stores have some (as do the grocery delivery apps), but I had a bit of a search to figure out where to get new pillows since there’s no box stores here (Target, Wal-Mart, E-Mart, HomePlus, etc). Part of me is really happy there’s no Pottery Barn because I love small business, but it does make things harder. I ended up at a store called Orca which was definitely overpriced.

For anything you’re willing to get used, I’d say go back to the expat community. People are always going in and out so there’s plenty of stuff on offer. I was going to buy a used washing machine that way before my landlady decided she’d rather buy a new one herself. The Dakarium (ex Dakar Craigslist) group on Facebook seems to be the place for it. I just … don’t want used pillows, you know?

Finally, there’s Jumia, the “Amazon” of Africa (make sure you go to Jumia Senegal because the different countries have different Jumia sites). I suspect I could have ordered my pillows from there, but I wanted them that day (I was not sleeping well in the new bed on flat pillows). I have successfully used it to order some electronics for my office and more recently to order more henna and a coffee pot. Jumia is a bit complicated, like everything here. When you order, you can choose to have it delivered to your home or to a pick up point (so far, like Amazon, right?). Unless you have someone to receive the package when it arrives, home is not the best idea. My very first order, I chose the cash on delivery payment option and then realized that the delivery window was “sometime in the next 3 days”. Thankfully, it worked out, but I don’t want to do that again.

My second I chose the nearest pick up point, which is about 1km from me at the post office. There was no cash at pick up payment option so I had to schlep over to an Orange Money Kiosk to deposit the cash there in order to pay for the order on the website…I feel like Jumia would be perfect if it partnered with Wave instead of or in addition to Orange since you can digitally top up a Wave account, but you can only refill Orange Money by physically taking cash to the kiosk. However, the delivery worked just fine. They sent a text when it was ready to pick up and I walked on over, showed the text message as proof of purchase and got my new laptop.

My third order was almost bad, but ends up being a reassuring story. I found a coffee maker for much cheaper than the ones at Orca, ordered it to the pick up point, submitted my Orange payment, and then something went awry. The money left my Orange account and I got a payment confirmation text from Orange, but Jumia denied receiving it! I tried to call the help line, but either the connection was bad or they just couldn’t deal with the language barrier because they hung up. I sent a message through the online help instead and waited. They called back again the next day, but by the time I found the TV remote to mute my show so I could hear them, they had hung up again. All this was over the weekend, and I was planning to get a friend who speaks better French to help me on Monday, but before I could, I got a message saying my items had shipped. When I logged back into the website, I saw that the items were still in my cart but also that duplicate items were listed as in process. I’m not sure if the website sorted itself out, or if someone read my message and fixed it manually on their end, but it got fixed, which is the important thing.

Getting Around

Taxis are everywhere, but they are not metered in Dakar. I heard this isn’t a problem in other parts of Senegal, but I don’t have this luxury. So, you flag down a taxi and DO NOT GET IN. Instead, standing a bit back from the window for safety, you tell them where you want to go and ask how much and then haggle because they are trying to overcharge you. To make this more fun, there are no addresses, so you have to tell taxis where to go by landmark and be prepared to tell them more details when you get closer. Oh, and they don’t speak English. In fact, many of them don’t even speak French well. They are often poor and undereducated coming in from the countryside to work… or coming from other countries, because it’s a desirable place to live in Africa, and like any large city, there’s a big migrant and immigrant population. 
(Image Credit: Boydiop2, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The buses are wild. As in untamed. There are buses, I’ve seen them. They are stuffed to the brim. I’ve taken uncomfortable and crowded public transit before, but I think I’m going to follow the Embassy advice and not do it here. Not only are they very uncomfortable, but you have to have exact change, and know where you want to get off because there’s no marked stops. Even if you speak French or Wolof well enough to ask the driver about the route, you are not likely to be able to get to him for the crowd. Plus, with so many people packed in, it’s a prime place for pickpocketing. I might try the bus one day, when I can leave everything valuable at home or tuck it into my traveler’s belt under my shirt, just so I can see what it’s like first hand, but it’s not the kind of thing you want to rely on to get a place.
(Image Credit: Dr. Alexey Yakovlev, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Ride share services have recently launched here! The only two services in Senegal are Russian owned Yango, and French owned Heetch. There’s no Uber or Lyft, I’m afraid. Yango launched in December 2021 and Heetch launched in January of 2022, so this is really new. You will need to register with a phone number, and as yet there’s no way to add a digital payment option inside the app (although if you don’t have right cash, you can probably use Wave with the driver). It took me several tries to get Yango to work, so if that happens, just uninstall and reinstall the apps and try again. Stuff doesn’t always work here. Yango and Heetch cars are significantly nicer than the taxis. The drivers are less likely to be harrassy, more likely to speak French or even some English, and more likely (but not guaranteed) to have change than taxi drivers. There’s also a way to complain to the company if there’s a problem.

The ride share apps allow you to enter your location by searching for a business name or selecting a location on the map. This is really great since there are no addresses, but it’s not something most drivers are used to yet. No matter what you put in, they still call and ask where you are and where you’re going after they accept your ride request. I actually turned on the “don’t call me unless its an emergency” option in Yango and it made zero difference. I’m hoping this will improve over time, but honestly, I had taxis in Korea who couldn’t use GPS either, so …. Anyway, be prepared to explain it in French to a very impatient driver. I find I often can’t understand them on the phone either because of background noise or bad connection or just because they are talking too fast or with slang. In that case you can send a text message, a WhatsApp message or message through the app itself, allowing you to use the translating app of your choice. Most of the app drivers have a minimum level of tech ability and literacy that allows them to deal with the text messages. (side note, people actually prefer calling to texting here, and even in the text based app WhatsApp they will record and send voice messages rather than type. I love talking on the phone to my friends, but it’s a solid nightmare to try and do it in another language)

Always Ask

Things here are changing rapidly. I learned all this by asking and searching on Google, but there are expats embedded here and even locals that don’t know some of this because many of the more convenient digital/online services just launched in the last year or two and they stopped looking for better ways to do things. If you don’t know how to do a thing or where to buy a thing, ask and keep asking until you find a solution that works for you. If I’d listened to the people who were supposed to help me, I’d be in much worse shape, living in a way less nice apartment and overpaying for most things or just doing without. Instead, I found a couple of Americans who had been here for long enough to share what they had learned and compiled everyone’s knowledge gems into one place. I hope this guide is helpful to someone. I know I would have loved to know these things before I landed here, but even if the details become obsolete, the basic advice of “keep asking” will always be true.

Ahhhh… That’s Better: Getting Settled in Dakar

I knew when I was drifting through the cortisol laden depths of anxiety and despair that getting my own space to live in was going to make a huge difference in my outlook and wellbeing, and wow I was right. As of November 22, I finally got my very own place to live! It’s made a huge difference in the way I feel and my ability to tackle other challenges of living here. After 6 weeks of living in Dakar, I’m so pleased to finally be able to start sharing something good.

Good News, Good Vibes

I know my first three posts about Dakar were very rough, but it’s so here’s some other fun things/achievements I’ve gotten to do.

Trivia Night!

Every other Thursday there’s English language trivia at a bar by the sea. The bar is called Kraken and it’s in a tourist/expat part of town, so there’s a lot of people leaning in and trying to sell us stuff over the railing. They have a decent selection of drinks, but I tried a local beer with Picon added in. I had never heard of this before, but apparently Picon is the French version of Amaro and has a bitter orange botanical flavor. Picon beer is a thing. It was nice and added a lot of depth of flavor to the otherwise cheap local beer. The theme that night was FIFA which did not go well for us, but I had fun anyway, and I plan to keep going.

Thanksgiving Dinner

One of the ETAs I temporarily lived with hosted her very first Thanksgiving (first as hostess) and went full out with it. The ETAs from orientation came back into town and we had a nice evening sharing food and conversation. She made chicken instead of turkey (I helped because she’s vegetarian and didn’t know how to tell if it was done) plus mac and cheese, cornbread, cornbread stuffing, green beans, roasted root vegetables, mashed potatoes, a zhuzhed up canned cranberry sauce, and three pies: pumpkin, apple, and peanut with both vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. It was wonderfully homey to have a group of good people to share the holiday and meal with, too.

Loman Art Gallery

I didn’t realize it at the time we went, but it turns out there’s a gallery very close to my apartment. It’s an Airbnb and artist residence with a rooftop bar/restaurant. They had a lovely Ethiopian buffet the night we went. The art installations weren’t fully up inside, but the rooftop was gorgeous and we sat in the most elaborate gazebo-esque table to enjoy the food. I ordered a house wine and was pleasantly surprised (I guess the French influence extends that far) and I got some fresh roasted coffee afterward. The barista brought the pan over to the able to show us how she was roasting the beans small batch!

Shopping

I had a fun day out at the Sea Plaza shopping mall. There’s a disproportionate number of handbags and shoes for sale there, but I found a cute café and more importantly the large version of the Casino grocery store that I visited in my second week here. I don’t want to have to go there every week to shop, but it is nice to know what’s there in case I get a craving. There’s also a plethora of import food shops for different ethnicities around town. My friends found a Chinese shop, and I spotted a Korean grocery from a taxi the other day. It’s really nice to have regular access to variety!

English Club

I went to the first official day of the English Club at my university. I was pleased to be able to help the student led club get a real faculty sponsor and a classroom to use. I’m not real faculty, but I sent some messages out to people in charge and asked for them to get what they needed, and my voice carried more weight than the students alone. They meet on Saturdays, and I’m busy every Saturday in December, so I definitely wanted to visit before November ended. It was a lot of fun to see the students engaged in practicing English by debating veterinary medicine hot topics and I’m looking forward to going back in January.

PO Box / BP

I went to the post office to get my PO Box (boite postal) set up in order to get mail and packages. I was deeply entertained by the fact that they wanted to know my address … buddy if I knew my address I wouldn’t need a BP? Eventually they just wrote the general area along with my phone number and email. They made a copy of my passport, and collected my 5k (about 7.50$) which pays for a full year of service (it’s usually 10, but they were having a reduced rate special, Thanksgiving may only be in America but Black Friday is global). Then we searched through a box of about 100 keys, everything from 24000-24099. The three of us (me and the two postal workers) had a little race to see who would find my number first. They gave me one copy of my key and showed me where to go to find the box. I’m not sure how well this will work, or how long it will take things to get to me here, but I have a way to get mail now. 

Apartment!

I finally got a place to live!

What I Learned About Finding Housing in Dakar

This was not supposed to be a thing I had to do on my own. You can read the stories in my other Dakar posts, but it turned out to be one more thing I needed to do for myself while here and what I learned is: the best thing you can do to find a place to live here is ASK OTHER EXPATS. There are real estate agents (required for official rentals) and even some websites where you can search and view apartments, but it’s a minefield. The real resource is fellow foreigners.

If you’re coming here for more than a week, I’d say book something very reputable (high ratings, good reviews) for the first few nights you’re in town so you can touch down in comfort and safety, then move to a cheaper place after you arrive and can go see it in person before you book, and finally, find your long term stay by reaching out to the expat community. If you are moving here for the long haul (5+ years), you might want to get an unfurnished place and fill it yourself. The deposits are murder (4 months of rent!) and furnishing will be a hassle, but the rent is much cheaper on unfurnished units. If, like me, you are planning to be here less than 2 years, you might want a pre-furnished place.

For any length of stay, look before you pay! If you have to book a place sight unseen, check the reviews, make sure there are verified reviews that are recent and not just the landlord’s friends and family. I saw a lot of places on Airbnb that were total lies. The ones that were true to photo were mostly other expats. Ask about everything. Don’t assume a thing works because it’s there. Check it yourself. Make sure all the appliances, wifi, electric, hot water, a/c etc work. Imagine your apartment is a used car you are buying from a sketchy used car salesman. Kick the metaphorical tires. It will be exhausting, but worth it in the end. 

There are tons of people “renting” furnished apartments by the night who are entirely willing to make monthly discounts. The place I’m in was going for 25k/night (would be 750k/month) but I got it for 600k (local currency). I found it because one of the ETAs who has been here longer was able to reach out to her WhatsApp group to ask if anyone had something. There’s also a FB group called Dakarium Turfs & Cribs that people can post what they are looking for on and get replies from people who have places to rent. I didn’t use that method because I was not really sure how it would go with total strangers, but I think if you don’t know any expats from your work or whatever brings you here that it might be a better bet than trying to go through a Senegalese agent.

Another reason to go through expats is the language/culture barrier. It’s much harder to get repairs done from Senegalese landlords in part because you are as unlikely as I to speak Wolof, and in remainder because things just aren’t urgent here. My American landlady understands my American urge to have things fixed ASAP, so anything she can fix, she has done right away. There are things she’s stuck waiting on some locals for, but she communicates about it with me. Meanwhile, my friends renting from a local were washing dishes in the bathroom for several days while waiting for their landlord to get a plumber into the kitchen sink. Thankfully, they got it fixed before Thanksgiving!

Home Sweet Home

After 5 weeks of stress, I have moved into a nice furnished apartment in Mamelles (which is a neighborhood that means “boobs” in French because the French colonizers saw the two hills and were 12 yr old boys about it). The building is shared with some businesses on the ground floor and has a fairly new elevator (less than 2 years old) which speaks with a very interesting (not remotely African sounding) accent. There’s a lot of people around and the building manager is friendly and helpful, so I feel safe and welcome. The lady renting to me is also American, and usually rents the apartment out by the night on Airbnb but is happy to have me in for a long term rental since it means a steady income and probably less breakage of furniture. 

There’s a small kitchen which we made smaller by installing a washing machine. I think it’s worth it to be able to wash my own clothes at home and not in the sink. It’s got a dorm fridge, so I guess I don’t get to keep pints of ice cream at home, and the “stove” is a propane hot plate on a wooden countertop. The main room is a living/dining area, but I’ve shoved some of the furniture aside to make a space for me to VR dance in. I’ve also installed my Chromecast and switch on the TV. The bedroom is a bit sparse, but the bed is comfy and the bathroom has ALL THE HOT WATER. I didn’t really realize how much I missed that until my first shower in here where the water came out steamy and stayed that way the whole long shower… my first really good long hot shower since arriving in Senegal, btw.

It came furnished, including a towel and 2 sets of sheets, but I got some new pillows for myself. It also comes with a cleaner, which is something I may never get used to. The places I lived in Jinan (China) and in Tabuk (Saudi) had cleaners, but the one in China only came once a week, and the one in Tabuk was in a hotel, so they came when I asked, but I didn’t ask often, and I always pre-cleaned because all I really need help with is floors and bathroom scrubbing, and I don’t really *need* that, because I lived without a cleaner the whole time I was in Korea and did not drown in dirt. This lady comes 3x a week. Her service is included in the rent. It definitely makes me think about not leaving my undies on the floor or my dishes on the sofa.

It’s in a very residential area, which has pros and cons, but overall is probably for the best because it’s quieter and safer. The roads are made of dirt, and there’s a larger than average number of horse drawn carts. There’s not as many restaurants and no big grocery stores, but the manager at the corner grocery store was really kind to me when I came in, and showed me where to find the stuff I was looking for and welcomed me to the neighborhood. There’s a bakery, and some fruit sellers around too. Plus, it’s a much easier area to describe in this addressless land when I get stuff delivered. I don’t have a private terrace, but there’s rooftop access and there’s a beautiful view that includes both the lighthouse and the Renaissance Monument.

#Thankful

I literally cannot say enough how much better my life is now that I have this place to live. Nothing feels too big or too broken or too overwhelming anymore. Even when I went to see the English club only to discover that my new laptop didn’t connect to the projector, and also for some reason had the wrong country plug (even though I bought it here), and that the cleaning crew had disconnected my office desktop from power (which I was able to fix) and apparently also the internet (which I was not), I wasn’t particularly upset. I was just like, oh, ok, I’ll take the laptop back home and figure out the problem, I have an adapter there, too. My latest online order had a problem where they took my money and then said the order didn’t go through and I couldn’t speak to a rep because language barrier, but I was ok with figuring it out later, and it was ok, two days later the website had resolved the issue itself and my stuff is on the way.

I’ve been exploring, walking, taking photos, taking…. Well not risks, but getting comfortable living more normally. I finally got to dye and cut my hair and I have high hopes that being able to have a regular bed means a regular bedtime skincare routine and my hands and feet might be able to recover from the DRY. I was able to start working on stuff like minor sewing repairs and LAUNDRY. I have a space to disinfect my produce and can finally have fresh fruit/veg snacks again. It’s SO nice not to be living with the weight of stress and anxiety and just be able to enjoy living here. I’m astonished it took so long, but I’m glad that I was right when I promised myself that I’d get to this point.

Bienvenue au Sénégal!

Life in Dakar: Week 3 Part 1 – Maslow Was on to Something

Since arriving in Senegal on October 17th I “lived” in 4 different places in just three weeks. I have struggled to reach the most basic level of the famous hierarchy of needs which includes food/water/sleep and have been very touch and go with tier 2: shelter and safety. I have to say it is absolutely wild how much your mental focus shrinks to encompass only these things when they are at risk. Today, I’m writing about how my world got sucked down to the tunnel view of food-water-sleep because I think its important to reflect on the ways that insecurity over food/water/shelter can grind a life or even a whole population to a halt.

The original draft of this week was far too long for a single blog post. Anywhere you see an asterisk* that means there’s some extra details in the part 2 post of side adventures and footnotes.

Some Words About Maslow: the hierarchy is old, and the details are outdated. I don’t personally think “reproduction” or “sex” belongs on tier 1 because we aren’t going to die as individuals without it the same way we will die of starvation, dehydration, asphyxiation, or exposure without food, water, air, and climate control (shelter, clothing, fire, a/c, etc). I would put it in tier 3: love and belonging. The debate rages on in the dark corners of incel internet -just, not in my blog. So when I talk about the tier 1 physiological needs I mean the things we die without: food, water, breathable air, and enough control over the climate/our own body temperature so that we neither freeze nor overheat. Tier 2 is “safety” which includes things like having a reliable long term source of income, having decent health, having stable housing, and of course not being in danger.

Some Words About Comparative Suffering aka “It Could Be Worse”, aka “The Pain Olympics”: Nope. Individual reactions to different levels of stress and trauma are, you guessed it, individual. One person may respond to the same trauma or challenge different ways at different times in their lives. Two people may experience the same exact traumatic event and react totally differently based on their own past experiences and states-of-being at the time it happened. I have comparatively more resilience for dealing with culture shock and unexpected international adventure related obstacles than a person who hasn’t got my experience. I have comparatively less resilience in dealing with Dakar, Senegal than locals or expats who have lived here for years. All of our experiences relating to the challenges of living here are valid. So I don’t ascribe to “you think this is hard for you? the locals deal with worse conditions every day of their lives, so you can suck it up for 10 months”. I follow a “This is hard for me and wow, the locals deal with worse conditions every day of their lives, that is also terrible, no one should have to in these conditions” kind of mentality. No Pain Olympics here.

The Last Disclaimer: I am relatively safe and healthy here. I have not been without food, water, or shelter in the time since I arrived. I have simply had to focus far more of my mind, time, and energy on them than at almost any other point in my life. I still have an enormous privilege as an educated, white, American that I can afford to just book myself a hotel room and pay for the taxi to move my belongings. I can order delivery food or take a taxi to the grocery store. I do not have to walk around after dark in unsafe neighborhoods when the car breaks down. This hasn’t been about my needs not getting met at all, it’s about the fact that as said privileged, educated, white American I spend 95%+ percent of my life never even having to give more than a passing thought to how to get those needs met and for the last three weeks, it’s almost all I’ve thought about. I acknowledge that it is echoes of “poor little rich girl” (though I’m actually poor by US economic standards, I am definitely seen as wealthy out here in Senegal). It’s more than a little cringe in that respect, but don’t look away. This is how we learn and grow.

When Last We Saw Our Intrepid Writer

At the time of my last post (Monday, October 31), I was in hotel #2: a complex of furnished apartments that billed itself as a hotel. I was supposed to move from the unit I was in with the broken shower to another unit when it was emptied out on November 5, but shenanigans. I told you in my last post that the shower was fixed, I was incorrect. The building manager took the shower head away and cleaned it and put it back and showed me that water was coming out of it and then left. When I was just taking quick rinses to get the sweat and dust off me, I didn’t notice, but the next time I went to shampoo my hair, two problems arose almost immediately. One was the lack of hot water. (I’m starting to learn that hot water is actually a rare thing here, and mostly probably not a big deal because it’s hot all the time. I just really like hot showers.) But worse, the newly cleaned shower head projected water all over the bathroom. Enclosed showers are not actually common in many parts of the world. I haven’t had one in ages. Not even a curtain. The shower is just in the bathroom, there’s a drain in the floor. Some set ups are better for keeping your toilet paper dry than others. This one was sending so much water to the far end of the room that there were puddles on the counter between the sink and the wall. Nothing was staying dry.

I don’t know if the shower alone would have been enough to send me packing, probably not TBH, I could have worked around it. There’s more. The weekend 1-5am disco/nightclub that I mentioned in my last post continued on past the weekend and crept up its start time earlier and earlier until it was going from 8pm. The volume wasn’t just heard, it was felt. I was waking up so many times a night there’s no way I was getting a full REM cycle. I’m dealing with dust, and bugs, and cheap flimsy breaking stuff, but I gotta be able to sleep (tier1!)*.

At the point I realized that I was not going to be able to stay in that building, I was able to get in contact with a local realtor through the Fulbright ETAs (English Teaching Assistants). One of them had stayed in Dakar earlier in the year and her host mom was also a realtor. In many parts of the world, realtors are needed for rental agreements as well as property purchases. It was the same in Korea. Anyway, she had contacted me over the weekend to say there was a potential place that seemed perfect for my needs and budget in the same building where her parents lived (reassuring). At the time, I thought I’d get to see it on Monday or Tuesday. This was not to be.

Tuesday: When I Realized Things Had to Change

I was going not-so-quietly insane from sleep dep by the time Tuesday, November 1st rolled around. There was a program wide zoom meeting* with any Fellows who could attend and a few program coordinators in DC. They asked us how things were going, and I replied that there were some struggles for me. When they asked me to elaborate, I tried my best to be “oh haha, isn’t it funny, culture shock and new experiences” about it, but around the point where they realized I wasn’t getting sleep, they had a kind but firm “not ok” response. This alone was a bit shocking as my complaints about not being able to sleep in the room due to power outages the week before had been greeted with crickets by both my contact at the university and the Senegalese deputy RELO at the Embassy. It was a solid relief to have someone validate me about the housing problems for the first time since I arrived. They encouraged me to move as soon as I could, to contact the Embassy again, and said that they would also send a message about it.

By Tuesday afternoon, I got news that the realtor was at the hospital visiting family, but had no timeline on when she would be available or whether the apartment she proposed was still on offer. I went home from my meeting and started the search to move. I was only looking for something short-term, thinking once more (possibly with foolish optimism) that I was days away from a real apartment. My social sponsor (aka university contact) wrote me from South Africa to say that I could either move to a floor above the nightclub (he knows I can’t do that because of the stairs) or take the unfurnished apartment, and I again reminded him why that wasn’t possible (see previous post for details) and asked him to plan to help me start looking again when he got back to Senegal.

Wednesday: The Longest Day

Wednesday morning I awoke to find a response from the deputy RELO at the Embassy giving me approval to move to a new place and with some actual suggestions for how I might take the long-term housing into my own hands. Unfortunately one of the suggestions was the realtor I was impatiently waiting to hear back from already, and the other was a place that would not be available until January. I quickly logged back into Booking and Airbnb to search for a new place. I resolved to find a location where I could be safe and comfortable for a week while we kept on home-hunting. It’s increasingly difficult to find reliably good places online. Shocked Pikachu Face: people lie. People especially lie when money is involved. Desperate people really really lie when money is involved. So, Booking and Airbnb are full of places with fake photos and reviews by their own friends. You have to actually read what’s written to make sure it’s authentic and not a bot or a buddy. I’ve gotten good at this over the years, I’ve learned how to pick out places that will be ok for me and avoid the places that are likely to have problems. Years of detailed international vacation planning on a budget has prepared me for this very moment. I found a good looking place with an 8.9 rating on booking, a plethora of good authentic reviews, and confirmation of a functional elevator, but it was only available for 4 days. I needed to go, though, so I booked it starting that very day, hoping that an extension or a move to a nearby room might be possible after I arrived.

The complicated thing about moving in Dakar is that there are no addresses. When I arrived at the airport, the hotel sent a driver for me who knew where that hotel was. When I moved from hotel #1 to hotel #2, my social sponsor got a friend and a truck and drove me there. Now, I had move to hotel #3 all on my own. To make matters more fun, it was not a named hotel. It was a furnished apartment in a building on a main road, but didn’t list the name of the building on the booking site. There was no way for me to know which building, or what floor, or any specific information on where to go by website alone. I messaged the manager who gave me some cursory directions, said to have the taxi driver call him for more detail, and agreed to have someone meet me to help with my luggage.

Next, I went to check out of hotel #2*, and the lady at the front desk was rather sad about it. I think they liked having me because I didn’t make a mess or noise, and also didn’t need the cleaners in every single day. I told her about the nightclub music, because that was really the deal breaker, and the offer was once again … more stairs. I used my translating app to let her know that I had a health issue that made stairs difficult for me, and to her credit, she was amazingly sweet about it. She worked to minimize my time on the stairs when she was helping me with my bags, which shows that there is at least some cultural awareness of invisible mobility/disability issues.

She also helped me negotiate with a taxi to get all my bags to the new place. I have been largely avoiding taxis, because the expat ladies of Senegal tell me that their taxi experiences here are not unlike the ones I had in Saudi (for those new, or who don’t recall, there was some very gross and skeezy stuff). I have installed and used a car share app called Heetch (similar to Lyft or Uber) because there’s no haggling over price, you can put your pick up and drop off locations in the GPS, and there’s an added layer of security because they are registered with the company so if they sexually harass me, I can report them more easily.

This taxi driver was not bad. He wanted to chat in French, but he used simple language and spoke slowly with me. He did ask if I was married, but when I said I was (yes, I lie for safety and comfort) he didn’t try to get me to cheat on my “husband” (yes, that happens more often than you think). He helped me get my bags from hotel #2 and when we got to hotel #3, he didn’t just drop me and my luggage on the sidewalk, he waited with me while I got the hotel to send the promised luggage assistance to us. That was a harrowing few minutes because I have more luggage than one person can move at this point (it has expanded since I got off the plane) and I was trying to keep an eye on the taxi, the porter, and all my bags in two locations on a very busy sidewalk. Thankfully, I and all my bags made it inside in one piece.

The apartment was beautiful, but the power was out. Not in the building, electricity is unit by unit, so the elevator worked and we got the bags up ok. After some awkward internet translations, the guy told me he was going to get the power back on, and it should just be 5 minutes (in reality over an hour)*. When the power was up and running I couldn’t find the remote to the A/C in my room. I sent another message to the management about it and the general helper guy (porter, cleaner, electrician, but NOT the owner) came back over. He found a remote for me, but then something very strange happened. He was messing with the breaker box and the power for the place went out again. He spent the next 15-20 minutes flipping switches and turning the power on and off. There was a French speaking foreign woman with him who seemed pretty upset, but I couldn’t understand enough of the conversation to say why. I was too hot and tired to try, so I just lay on the bed thinking cool thoughts until it was fixed. It worked immaculately the rest of my stay.

I honestly think it was the best place I stayed. The building had an elevator, the apartment was spacious with a shared kitchen, living room, and balcony (great view over the city), the bedroom had it’s own key and a private bathroom, some amount of hot water and reasonable water pressure, good wifi. The owner even came to check in on me personally that evening. It will be hard to live up to.

I tried to order delivery again, but after 30 minutes of not having my order confirmed, I decided to walk up to the local shopping center before it got dark. There was a really nice grocery store and a mini mall. I got some staple groceries and it turned out the place I placed my delivery order from was in the mall food court. They called me while I was there, so I just went over and talked to them. They actually hadn’t meant to be on the app because they weren’t fully up and running, but offered to cook me the food anyway since I was there and gave me a complimentary peach iced tea while I waited.

I slept so well.

Thursday: Adventures in ATM

The day I checked in, the guy who was dealing with luggage and electricity also brought me my bill. I wasn’t really prepared to pay at check in, so I asked if I could pay the next day after I had a chance to find a bank. There were three banks under hotel #3 building so I thought that would be easy. But no. There are no ATMs in those banks. Culture shock is not knowing banks can exist without having ATMs inside. I asked the security guard at my building where I could find one, and somehow ended up being directed across town, like all the way across 30 minute taxi ride, and I was so flustered and confused that I just came back into the room to have a cry because culture shock is also having wild emotional swings! After I cooled off and washed my face, I started Googling a solution to my problem. I eventually figured out that ATM is the name of a home goods store here, so when the helpful humans were trying to show me where to go on the map, they were showing me a shop, not an automatic teller machine*.

After using Google Maps (yes, I know it’s an addiction, they should pay me a sponsor fee) to locate ATMs in the area, I went back to the mall to find one. The security guard there pointed me to a bank across the parking lot. The ATM inside didn’t work, but the bank security guard stood respectfully by while I used the one outside. There are security guards everywhere. Saftey tip: say hello to all of them every time you pass. Cash safely tucked in my bra (yes, ew, but I’m not risking hundreds of dollars in my bag which might get snatched off me by a motorcycle thief) I went back into the mall for ice cream. On my way out, I saw an ATM inside the mall right next to the grocery store entrance. *Sigh.

The realtor wanted to meet me after she finished work to go and look at an apartment I was pretty sure I didn’t want and couldn’t afford but I needed to show willing. I took a Heetch car over to her office and waited awkwardly on the street outside for her. I’m slowly getting more comfortable walking around on my own, but lone woman standing on the street is not ideal in pretty much any urban setting. Eventually she came out drove me over to pick up the landlord and then we looked at the place. I say that sentence like it wasn’t 30 minutes of traffic and phone calls trying to find the landlord, then trying to find the person who had the key, then getting the key, then getting to the place. Nothing is fast or simple here.

The apartment they wanted to show me was very far from the school. Not walkable at all. This isn’t a deal breaker, but it is a factor. It was on the ground floor (no stairs, yay) with good security doors/walls/bars, but because of that very little light. There was no A/C in the living room which is fairly standard, but less than ideal because as I had already found out it means I won’t use the living room when the weather is hot, and although they tell me it cools down in December/January That’s still me not being able to use the living room more than half the time I’m here. Again, not a deal breaker, but a factor. Here’s the deal breaker: you had to walk outside across a mini courtyard to get to the kitchen. Outside. To get to the fridge. They wanted 700,000 CFA for this. That is $1,067 USD. I once lived in a studio where the shower was in the kitchen and the bathroom was down the hall (that’s the building hall, studios don’t have halls inside them). That was only 425$ a month, and I was a broke-a$$ college student*.

I politely declined.

When I got back to hotel #3 for the evening, I went to see another apartment in the same building up on the 10th floor. I had gotten the go ahead to find a long term Airbnb stay because the week by week hotel hopping was too much. It was listed on Airbnb but had no rating or reviews. I was unwilling to book anything sight unseen after all the experiences I had so far, but I figured it was in the same building as my very nice room, so if it was a little less nice than the one I’m in now that would still be ok. Nope. The pictures on the website were some other place. Most of the amenities listed were not present, and the “furnished” room had no bed. I don’t wanna be the picky privileged white girl, but I feel like “bed” is definitely a key component of “furnished”. I went to sleep feeling even more hopeless than before because I was in a good space but knew I’d have only 2 days left to enjoy it before I had to launch into an as yet unknown #4. I still slept better than any night in #2.

Friday: Stopgap Solutions, Meet the RELO, and a Broken Down Taxi

Friday morning I arranged with the younger teachers here to stay in their spare room for a couple weeks while the quest continued. I messaged more places on Airbnb and scheduled a viewing for later in the day. I wrote another email about my progress (or lack thereof) to the people “in charge”, and my American RELO* asked me to call her.

Despite her own circumstances*, she said she understood my needs (a/c and minimal stairs) especially since she herself works all day in the nice, air-conditioned, clean and beautiful embassy. I’m still a bit worried for her, because I feel like she should also have at least A/C to sleep with in this weather but she said it’s ok for her. She doesn’t expect me to do the same just because she is, since our needs and daily circumstances are different, which is nice. She also said that if I got stable housing by December that would be a win. So. Ugh. At least no one is pushing me to work full time (or you know at all) while this is going on*.

In the evening, I went to view another Airbnb. It’s a beautiful house occupied by a Spanish expat with excellent English skills. She’s in her 60s and renting out her daughter’s room who’s gone off to study. The house is huge with a garden courtyard, and it’s walkable to the school and shops. The bedroom is up a flight of stairs and the bathroom up there is shared with one other girl, which is less than ideal but should be ok for a month or so. The real sticking point was that the empty room doesn’t have A/C. I explained why it was important to me, and I offered to pay the offset for the electric bill while I was there, so she said she would look into what it would take to have A/C available to me*.

Saturday – Now: Breathing Room

Over the weekend I moved in with the Fulbright ETAs spare bedroom where I’ll be staying for the next 2 weeks*. There was a whirlwind of stressful emails and text messages that I don’t have the strength to recount blow by blow, but the upshot of all of it was that I got some breathing room. I received word from the Spanish Airbnb hostess that A/C would be possible and I got the required approval to book that room for a full month (through Dec 21). I got in touch with another ETA who is leaving in December and I have made arrangements to go and see her apartment on Thursday of this week. Hopefully it’s going to work. She says it’s 1.5 flights of stairs and has A/C in the bedrooms and living room, but there are some “things” about it she wants me to know before I live there. It’s vaguely ominous, but I guess I’ll find out soon enough. If that place works, the Airbnb hostess says I can extend until Jan 1 when that apartment becomes available, meaning I’ll get my housing a mere 2.5 months after my arrival.

Despite the fact that it still isn’t fully resolved, I feel a sense of relief to see a light at the end of the tunnel even if that light is 6 weeks away. I feel like the giant knot in the bottom of my stomach and top of my spine have unwound ever so slightly, enough to be able to look up for the first time possibly since I arrived here. There’s this phenomenon that happens when things slowly get worse/harder/more painful that we know it’s not good, but we don’t really know how BAD it is until it stops. That happened to me with my sleep and the night club noise, and it happened with my whole cognitive self and the bottom tiers of Maslow’s Pyramid.

I am so profoundly excited for the opportunity to live and work here in Senegal, but I was 100% not able to engage with that excitement or adventure for more than a few seconds at a time while my brain was consumed with thoughts of being able to get food and water that wouldn’t make me sick and a place where I could sleep and feel safe for more than a couple days at a time. There’s a lot to unpack in the space between an intellectual and visceral understanding of how that hierarchy of needs works, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s important to remember to be gentle with yourself and others whenever those bottom two tiers are in a state of flux or uncertainty because even the most capable and resilient among us can sucked under when circumstances change.


Life in Dakar: Week 3 Part 2 – Side Adventures & Footnotes

The blog was too long when I tried to put everything that happened to me that week together, so here’s the stuff I cut out of the first post that wasn’t directly related to Maslow, but might still be interesting.

When Last We Saw: More Tier 1 Struggles

The first post about week 3 is almost entirely about housing. The other tier 1 concerns of food/water/climate were a ‘manageable struggle’. I had not yet figured out water delivery and was thinking to put it off until after I got my “permanent” home, but I was able to boil water on the stove in a saucepan and create a reserve of clean, safe water that way. I had only a small saucepan which took a long time to heat up and had to be watched and checked on so it didn’t boil dry either. Then had to be covered while it cooled down and transferred to another container once it was cool enough. This had to be done multiple times a day. I have now purchased an electric kettle which boils 1.7L in a couple of minutes and turns itself off. I set up a cycle where I fill my water bottle from the bottle in the fridge, refill the fridge bottle from the water in the kettle, and boil a fresh pot that will have time to cool off before the next cycle. Also, the cord on the kettle is so short that I can’t plug it in anywhere in the kitchen, so it’s in my bedroom. Because I go through 3L or more a day here, this method still requires far more thought, time, and energy than “tap to glass”, but it’s a huge upgrade.

Food had to be ordered or I had to go out to purchase it at least every other day. I didn’t have the resources to clean produce safely in the room, nor to store and cook things like fresh meat. I had bread, peanut butter, oatmeal, rice and yogurt (yay traveler’s tummy troubles), but I had to negotiate with a delivery driver to get food most days (remember, no addresses). I know, it sounds like a privilege problem, but I didn’t HAVE the ability to prepare much for myself, so delivery was how I got food. In habitation #4, I have access to a better kitchen and slightly less concern about having to move anything I don’t eat in a few days, but we still don’t have produce sanitizing set up here (the ETAs have only been in this apartment about a week longer than I have) and I’m not settling in to buy staples like cooking oil. They are mostly living on pasta, and while I’m more comfortable eating cheese or peanut butter sandwiches here than other places, that’s about the extent of my food prep, so I’m still heavily reliant on delivery. The main difference is that one of the ETAs speaks both French and the local dialect Wolof and can direct the drivers much better than I can.

The A/C has worked pretty well everywhere I’ve been so far. In hot enough weather, A/C isn’t a luxury for anyone and I’m one of the unlucky people with a condition known as “heat intolerance” which is just doctor for “you get sick from being hot faster than baseline”. Everyone gets sick from being too hot. It’s called heat exhaustion and heat stroke. I just get sick faster than most. My core temp rises above 100F/37.7C quite fast in hot weather, so I need better access to climate control aids. Habitation #4 is the first place I’ve been with A/C in the living room, which has meant I can venture out of my bed and do some work at the table or sitting on the sofa which may seem minor, but there are big mental health bonuses to separating your sleep and work spaces. When I was teaching online classes from my bed in Korea at the beginning of the pandemic, it fueled my depression hardcore and made getting a desk/workspace a top priority for that move in 2021.

Tuesday Nov 1: Unexpected Holiday

That day, I got myself together and dressed and headed over to the university to show my face because that’s what I was asked to do while I don’t have any other duties, classes, or even enough data to start building towards those things. (I wanna be working, I really do, but every time I ask I get told “later”.) Anyway, I got to the university and it was a ghost town. My contact was in South Africa for a conference, and I sent a message to the person who had my office key to find out what was going on. There’s some kind of “one key” policy here so the cleaners can’t get into my office if I have a key? But I can’t get into my office if I leave it for the cleaners? I still don’t know how this is actually going to work long term. In the mean time, I took photos of the animals laying around and got totally startled by the existence of random cows. I had to hop on my zoom meeting from my phone standing outside my office so I could use the Wi-Fi. At least the hallways have good ventilation even though there’s no A/C. It turns out that All Saint’s Day is a non-working holiday in this Muslim majority country.

Wednesday Nov 2: Still the Longest Day

Hotel #2 check out – What’s up with expense reports anyway?
I have to get pre-approval and receipts to claim my “settling in” expenses, which cool, but I didn’t book hotel #2. I didn’t sign any agreements or log in as a guest. I think maybe they made a copy of my passport when I got there? But also maybe just looked at it because I don’t think they had a copy machine. I also had to pay for that room in cash. The bigger hotels and shops here do take Visa/Mastercard but it’s not very common. The lady helping me to check out said that the manager would bring me a printed receipt to the school the next day, and while I don’t under any imaginary circumstances think that she was being deceitful, I just had no faith in the reality of that manifesting due to cultural experiences I’ve had in the past. It’s not a scam or anything, I paid the agreed price. I just wouldn’t be able to claim my reimbursement without a receipt. I managed to talk her into giving me a handwritten one that day. I still haven’t seen the “official” receipt, btw, and ended up submitting my expense report with the handwritten one.

Hotel #3 check in – The Case of the Forgotten Medicine:
The power was out when I arrived at hotel #3, but there was a good breeze in the living room, so I settled in to wait. Just then it hit me: I had left my medicine at the other apartment/hotel! Due to the heat, I’d been keeping it in the fridge and I had a crystalline memory of taking it out of the fridge and not putting it in the bag with the groceries because I wanted to put it in my backpack (less possibility of it falling out in transit, the irony).

The good news was that the two hotels were actually just over 1km apart. I only needed the taxi to deal with the bags. I took off down the main street and frantically tried to figure out how to send a message to hotel #2 to let them know I was on my way. I didn’t book that place. I didn’t have any contact info for them. They weren’t in Google. I got my social sponsor to send me the phone number and sent a text message in French but got no reply. I was left to hope that the cleaners hadn’t just thrown it away before I could get back. As I came in the bottom entry, I ran into the helpful and kind lady who had managed my departure and, in very broken French, tried to convey that I’d left medicine behind. She knew exactly what I was talking about and bid me to wait (she remembered about the stairs <3) while she went to get it. So grateful!

Medicine in hand, it occurred to me that without the added adrenaline, I was too hot and tired to make the walk back just then, so I got out my ride share app and summoned a car. It took about 20 minutes to arrive, but he did call and warn me about the wait, and I was sitting on the stairs in the shade with a decent breeze, so I was ok. Better than walking in the blazing sun. The car, when it turned up, was newer than most taxis and had actual running A/C. The driver didn’t have the appropriate change, so I ended up paying 500cfa extra, but later I discovered that I could claim that on the app as a credit, so I’m giving that a shot to see if it works.

Thursday November 3: ATMs & Budgets

ATM in French:
No, I don’t assume everyone uses English all the time, but ATM is a very common loan word in many other countries and even where it isn’t a lot of people know what it is because they want the tourists to get access to more spending cash. It should not have surprised me that French was having nothing to do with our tawdry English acronym. Google Translate gives the translation of ATM as AU M.

Google Search turned up the expression “distributeur automatique de billets” and further Googling showed that maybe some people use DAB as an acronym but it wasn’t common. The linguist in me was skeptical about this answer because humans don’t like to use long words or expressions when short ones will do. We like to abbreviate. There had to be a short form equivalent of ATM, but no amount of searching on my part was yielding results that day, so I went back out into the world armed with “distributeur automatique de billets”. People looked at me funny, but at least it worked.

I have since learned this is, as I suspected, wrong. The machines are properly called “guichet automatique bancaire” (sometimes guichet automatique de banque and guichet automaique de billet) and abbreviated as GAB (pronounced “gab” not gee-ay-bee). Google Translate knows full well how to translate these terms from French into English, by the way. Just goes to show we can’t rely on the Oracle for everything.

Apartment Hunting & Budget Allowance:
After the repeated failed apartment viewings, much conversation has ensued between myself and both my social sponsor and realtor about the problem of my budget, which I have no control over. The US Government promised in my contract that I would have a furnished room with private bathroom/bedroom + kitchen access and good security, although they themselves do not provide the housing, they will intervene to make sure the minimum standards are met. They also decided that it should cost no more than 700$ US a month to rent this dream. I’m willing to pay a little over budget out of my own pocket for a good place, especially because of the issue with stairs and a/c, and I’m not attached to being walking distance from the school, no matter how bad my social sponsor makes it sound. The ETAs and the RELO don’t walk to work and they are fine. But it’s increasingly obvious that 700$ US a month is not actually enough even to meet the minimum standards laid out in my contract. What to do?

Friday November 4: Bureaucracy

My American RELO:
Normally, these projects are overseen by a Regional English Language Officer, or RELO for short. Unlike the project managers in Washington DC, the RELO is in the physical location of the project and therefore able to oversee arrangements, claims and conditions before the Fellow (that’s me) arrives. The one and only Fellow in Dakar before me came in late 2019 and left early because of COVID. They never really had a chance to settle in and besides, a lot changed during the pandemic. The former RELO in Dakar left earlier this year, back in the spring sometime, basically right after doing my interview. The new RELO just arrived in town a week or so after me. Things did not get done in an ideal manner during the intervening months. The deputy RELO (a local Senegalese woman) was, I’m sure, doing her best, but it’s a LOT for one person, especially one person whose job it actually isn’t, so no blame attaches. This is not a blame or fault sort of situation, it’s more of a Lemony Snickett situation.

Our conversation that morning was very surreal because it turned out her housing situation is actually worse than mine. The place she’s supposed to live is still being built and the place the embassy stuffed her is apparently a concrete box with no a/c where her husband is doing laundry in a bucket, so… I had to rather awkwardly inform her that air-conditioning is not that rare here (not ubiquitous like Korea but it’s at least been in the bedrooms of almost every place I’ve looked at) and that washing machines do exist. She actually asked if they had washing machines here and I still don’t know if she was being ‘Merican or sarcastic…

The Reports Never End: Working for Uncle Sam
I filed another round of expense reports that day as well for the last 2 hotels and a qwerty keyboard for the office at the school (the one my contact at the university said would take 3-5 weeks to get and I got in 2 days). Expense reports involve an excel spreadsheet with the items, descriptions, local and US costs; copies of the pre-purchase approval, copies of the receipts, and a screenshot of the daily exchange rate using Oanda all bundled up in a single pdf file. It isn’t hard work, but it is tedious and time consuming. I also wrote my post-arrival report which I had been putting off in the vain hopes that I’d have more solutions to report than problems, but since the report is due mid November and no one expects anything to change before then, I figured I might as well. It could be argued that things have changed because I have better options, but the questions they were asking were about my permanent housing and about my primary project at the host university, neither of which I expect to have up and going before Christmas.

Broken Down After Dark:
By the time I finished chatting with the hostess of the Airbnb, it was getting late so I went into a nearby restaurant to order take out with plans to use the ride app to get back to my room because dark was descending and I’m not supposed to walk alone after dark. Much like the first time I used the app, the driver messaged me to say it was going to take a while because traffic, but I was ok to wait inside the restaurant until he got there. I suppose that’s going to be the trade off for taxi vs ride share: waiting without haggling or haggling but less waiting.

The car seemed nice, and we drove most of the way with no problem other than traffic. Then just as we get to the busiest roundabout the car died. Dead. No amount of prayer was getting the engine going again. Cars were going around us three deep with motorcycles and pedestrians weaving in between. The open air market and the bus stop are right there. If it was daylight, I’d have walked the short distance back to the room, but it was full dark and we were in the busiest and most crowded spot.

The driver was obviously embarrassed but very polite and professional. He arranged a taxi for me, haggled for the price, didn’t take any money from me for the part of the ride I did with him, and escorted me through the traffic and crowds into the taxi safely. Of course I left him a good review.

The Weekend: Resting Day & Moving Day

I did as little as possible Saturday. It was glorious. I lazed about in the air-conditioning eating leftover takeout food and drinking the last of my bottled water because I didn’t want to carry it on moving day. I didn’t even post on Facebook.

Sunday, the Fulbright ETAs came over and very efficiently helped me get all my bags down the elevator and into a taxi, then with similar efficiency back up two flights of stairs to their own apartment where I will live for the next two weeks. I feel like the most backward adult, having to ask two ladies in their early 20s if I can crash with them because I have no place to live. I suppose I could have found another hotel, but the problem of the “moving in” budget which I described in arrival post still loomed large. I felt like it was a horrible waste of money to keep living in hotels. Plus, kitchen! The ETAs have a nice 3 bedroom apartment with a/c in every bedroom and the living room. Aside from the fact that I feel silly living with people young enough to be my children (if I had children), they are hosting out of town folks for Thanksgiving and getting a third roommate in Dec/Jan, so it has to be temporary. Nonetheless, I overflow with gratitude at being able to know where I would lay my head for 2 weeks in a row and for being able to finally have the time/space/energy to go through my luggage and rearrange the suitcases so I could stop wearing the same 3 outfits. I’m still mainly living out of the “carry on” size one, but at least now the 3 bags are more suitably arranged for daily access, occasional access and storage.

I offered to pay rent and utilities of course, but then found out later that it might have been disallowed because of conflicting expense reports. Between you and me, I would have paid them out of my own pocket if the expense had been disallowed because I’m the frickin’ adult here, not a freeloading broke-a$$ college student (no matter how much I still feel like one sometimes). Adults pay for things when they are with the youngers. That’s the social contract. I also bought them Indian food for dinner as a thank you for not just letting me stay, but helping with the move. It’s a slight step up from pizza and beer that accompanies most broke-a$$ college student moving days.

Monday: Mo Money Mo Problems?

I received word that the budget for my housing has been increased! Apparently between my searches and the deputy RELO’s searches, the RELO had enough data to make a case for an increased budget. I’ve told both my social sponsor (who is supposed to be the person helping me secure housing) and the realtor I contacted through the ETAs about the increase to help in the search, but so far the social sponsor gave me a single thumbs up emoji, and the realtor tried to show me a place that was even more expensive than the last one (and still way outside even the increased budget allowance).

For one horrible moment, it looked like the RELO wanted me to do a shorter stay at the Airbnb because she thought we could find real housing faster with the increase, but I pointed out that after living at 4 places in 3 weeks with that hope, I really needed some stability and she agreed.

Looking Forward

It’s relevant to note that no matter how much I’m complaining, all my solutions are “stay here and make it work” oriented. I’m not interested in giving up. I’m also not exclusively having bad experiences. It’s harder for me to write about the good ones because they are small and wedged in between the difficult ones.

Now that I’m not spending every waking moment on food/water/sleep needs, I can hopefully start to focus on other things. I still have a long way to go to get the project at my host university going, and I am hoping to make some progress on my secondary project as well in November. In addition, I’ve received an invitation to submit for a presentation at a conference in December, so I now have the bandwidth to work on that as well.

I have to acknowledge the lack of photos, too. It’s very difficult to remember to get out my phone to snap a pic in many of these situations. I want to take more photos because I like having those memories to look back on, but it turns out you have to feel secure and well rested before photography makes it into the picture, so to speak. Once I’ve been in a neighborhood long enough to know what feels safe and what feels sketchy, I’ll be more confident in holding my phone in my hand to take those pictures, but a very real concern of having my phone snatched or of taking a photo of the wrong person and causing a problem has kept me from doing so even when the thought has managed to pierce the veil of stress.

Finally, I’m still glad to be on this crazy adventure. I’m enjoying seeing the different parts of the city. I’m plotting places I want to explore more when I have my basic needs met and the weather cools off. I’m seeing beautiful clothes, and interesting street food, and random butterflies and flowers and trees that make me smile.

I’m holding on to the fact that my future self will treasure the positive parts of this journey while downplaying the crying because that’s what’s happened to me literally every other time.

As always, thanks for reading along with my crazy adventures even, and possibly especially, when they get difficult.

Je Suis Arrivé: Senegal First Impressions

I’ve been in Senegal for 2 weeks. I’m about to lay down some solid developing nation meets first world privilege complaining, but despite all that, I’m still glad I came here. It’s been a REALLY long time since I had to adjust to a new country to live in (vacation is not the same, because you get to stay in temporary housing and explore and have fun while knowing your safe and comfy bed is waiting for you at the end of the trip), and besides – no vacations during COVID! More than that, adjusting to Korea was very different than here, it was almost all culture and language barrier based because the standard quality of life in Korea is overall quite high. This reminds me more of learning to adjust to China or Saudi, the main 2 differences now are: I’m over 40 and I crave a basic level of creature comforts that younger me was more willing to do without in the name of sparkly new adventure – and this is objectively less developed than either of those places. It may in fact be the least developed part of the world I’ve traveled to, and that’s not an insult, it just means as a white American lady I didn’t have this perspective. It’s good for me, stretching me outside of my complacency and comfort zone (again), so I don’t regret it. I’m not mad about the conditions here, nor am I demanding unreasonable levels of comfort (clean, safe & accommodating my health). I just want to be honest about what I’m experiencing here, and how it makes me feel.

Getting There Is Half the Battle?

Arriving was not actually difficult. A long flight – 3 flights – but nothing a regular international traveler can’t handle. Flying in over the Sahara was fascinating. I could see the landscape change from endless sand to green farmland. There’s the jet lag package (fatigue, dehydration, swollen feet, etc), but I had a whole day in my hotel to rest before orientation. I had arranged an airport pickup with the hotel as well. So far, so good. The program is covering all those costs (assuming my expense report is accepted). The drive from the airport was looooooong, almost 2 hours. The main highways here are fairly well kept, but once you get off the main drag, the roads are not just dirt, but the dirt that remains after badly laid asphalt has cracked and eroded from flooding. There were potholes that could be kiddie pools on the road my hotel was on and I have to say it surprised me to see that this was the norm in the ritzy part of town, and made me wonder what the rest of the city looked like.

The hotel was nice, but I had forgotten to think about things like a mini fridge or a kettle, and there were no shops nearby anyway, just beachfront restaurants and an American imported goods store because I was staying in the fancy part of town near the Embassy. I thankfully have had experience with finding and using local delivery apps and quickly got my first meal delivered to my room (Dakar Food Delivery if anyone needs it). I was also a bit sticker shocked by the prices, but it seems only the expensive restaurants can afford to do delivery. A meal was costing me 10,000-13,000 CFA or 15-20$ USD. I know Americans think that’s a good deal for delivery food, but it’s wildly cognitively dissonant to be in a place that is so underdeveloped and also costs that much. Plus, I have a lingering “former poor” brain function that gets activated when I’m under stress so it feels insanely opulent to eat delivery food 2x a day for a week, which is basically what I did minus 2 lunches at the Embassy. For comparison, my Embassy cafeteria lunch was 4,000 CFA about 6$ US. I survived by reassuring myself that I was still well within the average daily food/transit allowance that is included in my budget, though I now better understand that a person eating at Western style restaurants and taking a taxi (buses are not recommended for expats for safety as well as comfort reasons) could actually use the full budget allotted to us. I expect when I’m comfortable enough to actually start taking taxis to explore other parts of the city, I’ll need that budget, too.

Post Arrival Orientation

We were hosted at the US Embassy for a 3 day orientation from Wednesday Oct 18-Friday 19. The orientation was a good way to introduce us to Senegalese culture because nothing started on time or went according to plan. (I said there would be complaining, but it’s not helpful to think of cultural differences like this as better or worse. I honestly think the number of cultures that place a high value on timetables and deadlines is much smaller than those that are more … flexible. It’s just frustrating to be raised in one style and have to live and work in the other). The policy on Embassy provided drivers changed but no one told our coordinator until the first morning, so while I could have easily walked the distance to the Embassy from my hotel, she had me ask the hotel to call a taxi and then also called the hotel herself to confirm. I have to say that while I found the whole process frustrating and confusing at the time, I do appreciate the lengths she went to that morning to make sure we were all safe and comfortable. It’s not her fault that my comfort level is directly linked to my ability to control my own environment (yay trauma responses!) so waiting around for ages and relying on other people to tell me what to do or how to do it or even do it for me is deeply anxiety inducing to me. I walked the remaining 2 days.

Getting into the Embassy is an ordeal if you don’t work there. One at a time, we handed over our passports in a little secure bank teller style window and got a visitor badge in return. Then again one at a time, we entered the security screening room where we handed over all electronics (including charging cables!) and for some reason also my nail clippers and umbrella. Even the TSA lets umbrellas through security. All our banned things were placed in a numbered box, we were given a token with the number on it and then a fairly standard x-ray for the bags and metal detector portal for us. Then we walked across a courtyard into another building where we again had to pass through a metal detector, have our bags visually examined and record the number from our token on a visitor log. We were also limited to only the front area (the American Center, the meeting room, and the restrooms) unless we had an escort, and our coordinator could only escort 4 people at a time, so had to get help when it was time to take us to the cafeteria. Somehow the free English language program that they run here is inside all this security, and local Senegalese people who want to participate have to go through an application process and pass through this kind of security every time they want to come to a class or event. It does make me kind of glad that it’s not my primary base of operations, though I am sure I’ll go back to do a guest lesson or something.

I enjoyed meeting everyone in the orientation. There were only 2 of us Fellows (we are the older, more experienced teachers… grizzled veterans of expat life) and 6 Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) who are all adorable 22 year old Gifted Children™ that just graduated from their BAs and all speak fluent French. Only myself and 2 of the ETAs are stationed here in Dakar, the rest are scattered around St. Louis and Thies. There were also a metric ton of presenters, but since there was zero printed or electronic materials (beyond the schedule which as I mentioned was not followed), I don’t really know who all of them were and remember even less about the details of the programs they talked about. I’m trying to get it in written form, but it’s hard especially as our full time Regional English Language Officer (RELO) isn’t here yet and the deputy (our faithful coordinator) is trying to do all the work on her own.

People I remember well – the press officer and cultural officer were both fun to talk with mostly because they were also new to Senegal and more relatable to me in terms of common background and interests; the HR person who gave us our cultural lesson was awesome (Betty Hubbard, which sounds SO white, but she’s really an African woman with a lot of experience in the US and several African countries, and was delightful, I wish I had a good photo of her, but I only have what the embassy emailed me, which is mostly us). The guy who runs the largest English Club network made a good impression simply by virtue of his enthusiasm, but I was a bit sad that I probably won’t do much with their organization (although he has ‘threatened’ to invite me to come and give a guest lesson) since it is for k-12 ages and I’m going to be spending most of my time with the University. Other presenters were … not used to presenting. Several had classic “read the slides verbatim” or monotone voices. Almost all the Senegalese spoke so quietly that even at the other end of a small conference table, I struggled to hear them. It made me want to create a workshop just for them to be better presenters, an idea I may pitch to the Embassy later on.

Health & Safety

There was a security briefing, which we also got in the EPIK orientation in Korea, and those are almost always extreme, but here I’m not so sure. Things like ‘motorcycle thieves’ people who ride double on a motorcycle so the passenger can snatch bags off pedestrians and the driver speeds away are apparently very real here, such that even locals have warned me to wear my backpack on both arms or at very least, move it to the side away from the road. Don’t carry more than your money and empty shopping back into open air markets (regular brick and mortar shops are ok). Don’t walk after dark alone. Don’t hold your cell phone too loosely or someone might snatch it (motorcycle thief style). Don’t use ATMs on the street, only inside a guarded building. But also, say hello to everyone in your neighborhood, greetings and inquiring after wellbeing are crucial to being recognized by the people who might help you if you’re ever in trouble. People who keep to themselves are left that way.

There was also a health briefing from a nurse who instilled in us the very real fear of Senegalese water if nothing else. They also talked about soaking any fruits or veg you don’t peel in a diluted bleach solution and rinsing with bottled or boiled water. I’m actually not sure what her policy on dish washing is, but I’m using the tap so far, just make sure it’s all the way dry before I put food on it? I have already mentioned my extensive vaccination regimen and of course my weekly anti-malaria pills, so I was fairly well prepared. I figured out how to get smaller (1.5L) water bottles delivered to my hotel, but I’m still working on proper water delivery. I’m going through 2-3 liters of water a day here, so it’s thing. Maybe when I get my “real” housing I’ll be able to do a night boil for the next day’s water, but so far that’s been fairly impossible. The nurse also said that we would all definitely get diarrhea (yeah ok, gross, but this is a very real issue travelling to places with massively different bacteria). The ETAs kind of laughed it off until the older of us were like, no, she’s right, this isn’t a thing you avoid, it’s a thing you minimize and prepare for.

I hoped my globe trotting stomach was well equipped but I still had some antibiotics my pharmacist prescribed to me before I left the US for this exact reason. I have only had bad travelers diarrhea once in my adult life, and that was my first visit to Egypt when I got so sick I could not even keep down water. I remain hopeful that was a once in a lifetime event. My issues in Dakar were comparatively very mild. The first bout passed in a day, and I thought I was free and clear, but then it came back and lasted and lasted. Part of the problem was a lack of ability to eat gentle food. I tried to order things like a labneh (similar to yogurt) on pide (like a pizza dough but oblong) and plain rice or plain chicken, but it was difficult. I only got to go to a grocery store when I moved to a new “hotel” after my first week. Then I ate yogurt, bread, bananas, rice and oatmeal for 2 days before I gave up and went to the pharmacy for some Imodium.

Phone: Connection, Translation, Maps and More

I don’t know how I lived in China and Saudi without a smartphone. I know I did it, but for the life of me, I am baffled. I walked literally everywhere in China with my little pocket dictionary and took months to learn how to properly use the public transit system on my own. I used Wi-Fi on a tablet to pull up maps in Saudi, but mostly I only had a company driver to take me places. During my travels from 2015 on, it seems like having access to a local Sim card and internet was essential to getting around, navigating language barriers, public transit, shopping and everything else really. I like having data as soon as I land. I often get it in the airport or at a shop near my accommodation on the very first day. In this case I had deliberately not taken care of getting my own SIM card because it was on the schedule for the first day of orientation that we would do it as a group. I decided to go with the group because maybe they will be more help than I could have been on my own. No.

First we went to an Orange kiosk (Orange is a telecommunications company in this part of the world), which did not sell SIM cards (I feel like this could have been ascertained ahead of time). When we finally got to the store itself, they collected all our passports and had us wait. The store actually closed with us inside it, and finally they said that they had no SIM cards that day, and we should come back tomorrow. When we returned the following day, we had a better idea of what to expect, but we still got a bit of runaround, being told to go out to a different location to get the SIMs. I suspect they simply didn’t want to deal with a large group at the end of the day. Which, I sympathize with. I can think of several ways to have done this which would have made life easier for everyone including the shop employees, but it’s a learning experience. 

In addition to our fearless deputy RELO (a local who has worked at the Embassy for many many years), several of the French speaking ETAs got involved in trying to solve the issue, which also resulted in crossed wires. We went out, we came back, we waited. Finally they began to issue us SIM cards. They cost 500CFA (75cents US) and are connected to our passports, but that’s normal in most countries that aren’t America. It took a while to get everything sorted out, finding our numbers, loading the Orange app, etc. It was hot (no AC in the store) and stressful (language barrier and multiple mixed messages), but once I got back to my hotel and could examine the system on my own in cool air, it was easy enough. We also went back the kiosk from day 1 to learn how to add money to an Orange account. Phones are all pay as you go and there’s no way to add money online, so you have to physically take cash to an Orange kiosk. Fortunately they are everywhere. The minutes and data that came with my SIM expired after one week after which I found that the minimum purchase for a 30 day period was 2200CFA or about 3.30$. I chose a flex plan and started with 2 hours of talk time, 500 text messages, and 1.5G of data at that price point. I don’t know how much of that I’ll actually use in 30 days. Since I’m on Wi-Fi at the hotel and at school, and I only use the phone to talk to delivery drivers, I think it will last. All this could change if I go somewhere without decent Wi-Fi, but for now, it seems like the phone plans (unlike the housing and restaurants) are DEAD CHEAP, which is nice because it means more locals (students) are likely to have access.

Home Is Where You Hang Your Hat?

Housing has been a source of some great stress. I discovered as I was preparing to leave Korea that having safe stable comfortable home base is very critical to managing my anxiety levels and my willingness to do new adventurous things. My friends in the US did a magnificent job of making me feel safe stable and comfortable while I was in their home, but it’s their home. Here in Senegal, I knew that we would search for apartments after I arrived (frustrating but ok it’s probably better to see them in person), but I did not expect the reality. No amount of looking at apartments online could even slightly prepare a person for the reality. The day after our orientation finished (Saturday) my social sponsor (the only professor at my uni who speaks English and therefore got stuck with this job) picked me up to go house hunting. I had spoken with him at length in advance about the budget needs (monthly rent + finding a pre-furnished apartment) & my health requirements which include the need for air-conditioning & my inability to navigate stairs. He said he understood, but when the day came, it was obvious he did not.

Side note about stairs and health: a lot of people judge me because I’m overweight, they assume it’s laziness, and that if I’d just eat less and exercise more I’d be healthy! Nope. I’m a member of the invisible disability club “But You Don’t Look Sick”. Sometimes I am well enough to climb multiple flights of stairs, but not always. Heat makes it worse. If I’ve already walked a lot, it will be harder. It’s hot AF here and I walk everywhere. I’m going to be hoarding my spoons the whole time I’m here. (spoon theory) I don’t believe that people with chronic illness or disabilities should just NOT do things. We know what we need to accommodate ourselves. I can’t do as much. I need to rest more. I need AC for my health not just my comfort. And I need stairs to be a choice as often as possible.

The first apartment we stopped at was inside a restaurant. I mean, the entrance was at least. There were 2 ways to access it, but fundamentally the stairwell was inside a restaurant. Ok, hey, easy access to prepared food at least? However after we completed the first flight of stairs and began the second, I stopped and reminded my sponsor that I could not live in a place with that many stairs. I think he thought I was just being a lazy American when I told him about it in email, but thankfully(?) my edema was bad enough on that day that I could show him the physical effects. I hate that people have to see a health problem before they believe it’s real, but here we are.

The second place we went to was under construction and slightly underground. They told me things could be cleared away and cleaned up, but there was no AC, no kitchen, and very little in the way of natural light. Plus it was under some stairs and had a canted ceiling which gave the whole thing a Harry-Potter-at-the-Dursley’s feeling. In that case, not only would I have had to wait until it was finished and cleaned up, but I would have had to arrange to furnish it with literally every appliance and stick of furniture. I’m only here for 10 months! And even if I was up for all that, the place was tiny and dim, and I remembered how depressed I was in my shoebox in Gyeongju vs how much better I was with a more open space and a view. Another no.

The third place had a ground floor entrance, but only the living room was on the ground floor. The bedroom and kitchen were up a flight of stairs. Having to continuously explain your needs and not be listened to over and over is exhausting and demoralizing. They showed me another room in the same complex that was so tiny that the bed almost completely blocked the entrance to the kitchen. Like, you had to side scoot around the bed to get into the kitchen. Plus, no place to do any work besides the bed (again, a thing I knew from my first Gyeongju apartment during COVID was a recipe for depression). I began to suspect that they deliberately took me to some sketchy places so that the mediocre place they actually wanted me to live would seem great by comparison.

The 4th place we visited was actually a very nice building. Concierge at the front desk, and an elevator! The unit we viewed was only one floor up, but still, not having to do stairs with heavy groceries or on a bad day is always wonderful. The unit however, was unfurnished (though at least had AC installed already). I do have a budget that would allow for buying necessary furnishings, but it takes time and expense reports, and then what do I do with it when I leave? Despite all this, I almost went with this unit because it was the nicest by far. However, they demanded 4 months rent up front, and it became apparent that 3 of those months would never be returned. 1 was just an agency fee, and 2 were a security deposit that by all accounts would vanish and I would have no real recourse after leaving the country to get it back.

The 5th place, and the place they clearly want me to end up living, is the building I’m staying in now. It’s called a hotel, but is in reality a series of furnished apartments rented out by the day. My social sponsor has negotiated a monthly rate, but the apartment we viewed will not be ready until November 5 or 6, so I’m in a different room paying the day rate for 2 weeks, I guess. More expense reports.

This room is … unideal. It had a lot of flies when I moved in, but it seems since I killed them, no new ones have appeared. It only has AC in the bedroom, so I’m not inclined to use the other room. The TVs don’t work so I’m back to watching Netflix on my laptop. There was a washing machine which I was able to get the staff to help me use, and that was nice, being able to do laundry after a week of sweating. However, the shower was 80% broken, water came out of the seams around the shower head, and there was some kind of a leak around the toilet that made the floor always wet. I was not supposed to be in that room at all. I was supposed to go to a different room while we figured out the long term housing, but the person leaving that room hadn’t left by the time we arrived. Then I was supposed to be in this room for only one day, and I waited around the entire second day for someone to tell me where I was moving to, only to learn at the end of the day that I’d be there until Saturday (29th). Now I know I’m staying in this room until my monthly room is ready. I got the bathroom fixed at least.

I desperately want a room that I can know will be mine for at least a few months. I need to unpack, and settle .Twice now, I’ve woken up at 4am to discover the power in ONLY my room is out and had to get dressed enough (Alhamdulillah I still have my abaya, socially suitable to put over PJs in any country) to go the front desk to ask (in sleepy French) for the power to come back. By then, I’m too hot and agitated to go back to sleep well. The weekend brought the exciting discovery that somewhere above me someone is trying to run a nightclub from 1-5am with extreme bass. I mostly can’t hear it with my headphones in, but it was not conducive to good sleep. Aside from my comfort level, there’s finances to consider. My contract covers RENT, not hotels (it does cover hotels for a short while at the beginning, but at one point one of the people helping us look for apartments thought it would be reasonable to stay in a hotel for a whole month while we figured out housing!) And the even crazier part is that my “moving in” budget comes from the same pool of money for any projects I want to do that benefit my host country, so the longer they make me stay in hotels, the less money I have to spend on materials, supplies, or even micro-scholarships for them. I need to be in a monthly rent agreement place for so many reasons both personal and project based.

In a very recent development, a new option appears. One of the other ladies here on the Fulbright program had already done a homestay last spring, and her host mother turned out to be a realtor. In many countries, realtors help you find and rent apartments. I had that arrangement in Korea, too. The realtor my social sponsor arranged was the one who picked out all the sketchy apartments. Anyway, they got her in touch with me, so now I have a thread of hope that a better apartment may be forthcoming.

The School – Veterinarians

Ah, my “job”. I keep telling people this isn’t a job like other jobs. It’s a fellowship (yeah like Frodo!, no not really) and a project. My primary goal is the university I’m assigned to, but I’m also supposed to have side projects and other cultural whatsits to be involved in. I’ve already put out some good feelers for a side project which I’ll write more about if anything comes of it, and I’ve been invited to come and speak at some nebulous future date at at least 2 venues. Secondary projects abound, and I can take, leave or redefine them fairly easily. The challenge is my host university.

I was placed with the Ecole Inter-Etats des Sciences et Médecine Vétérinaires, and even if you don’t speak French, some of those words will be familiar science, medicine, veterinary… It is a veterinary school located inside the Cheik Anta Diop Univeristy here in Dakar. They aren’t into the humanities. They don’t have an existing English department, and for reasons I’m not clear on, they can’t just send their students over to the school of foreign languages next door to take some English, they are in fact trying to create their very own curriculum.

There is really only one guy who speaks English well enough to be comfortable talking to me, and he’s (self described) low on the totem pole, so doesn’t have a lot of the answers to my questions about the details of what they want and what resources they have for this. I finally got their curriculum proposal (in French, but Google Translate is better than nothing) which is only half written and clearly by people who have no clue how language acquisition works. I also had a brief meeting with the gentleman in charge of scheduling details, but can’t get any answers about things like instruction hours. I clearly don’t know how the semesters are structured here. It’s been explained that it’s not like a liberal arts style class where you go at the same time every week for 10-16 weeks (quarter vs semester), but that students rotate through very short and very intensive courses of study (2-3 weeks at a time?). I’m still trying to figure out if I need to design English classes on that time scale or if it’s even possible to have students regularly show up 2x a week. So far I’ve written a 4 page counter memo explaining the overambitious nature of their dream and the crushing weight of compromising with reality, but I don’t know who to give it to.

They also want clinic workshops which are much easier to create and run, but less effective for overall language acquisition. Since I have next to no data or guidance, and everyone who could speak to me about it is apparently out of town or busy for the next two weeks, I’ve decided to spend some time on YouTube and TikTok looking for videos by vets that are: a) educational, b) funny, c) both — in order to design some short one-shot workshops around those. However, since I can’t design anything until I have some idea of the students actual English level, implementing a widespread level assessment test is the first goal.

But that’s not all! They want the faculty, admin, and IT staff to have English lessons relevant to their needs! While I was cleaning 3 years of dust off the pre-COVID Fellow’s desk (now my desk) I found a schedule which had him doing 18 hours of classes a week! That is a high amount even if it’s your only job because on average, 2 hours outside of class for every hour in class is a good balance for adequate lesson prep and homework/assessment grading and feedback on a new course. Once you’ve done a course a time or two, you can drop that down to 1:1 because the lessons are basically made and you’ve developed some tricks to grading the assignments, but considering I’ll be designing the curriculum and either finding or creating all the materials, and I’m expected to have outside projects, that’s INSANE.

What Am I Doing Here?

So, here I am, wandering between my shabby hotel apartment and the local café, writing in my blog and diving down a veterinary rabbit hole on YouTube because I have no qwerty keyboard at my office and no access to the curriculum material or student information, and my social sponsor is out of town.

I wish I could tell you about the city, and the food, and culture, but honestly, I’ve been fairly mono-focused on my base level Maslow’s needs here, contending with vaguely poor health while having to negotiate in a foreign language daily for things like food, water, and shelter. I’ve talked before about culture shock, and the fact that even simple tasks take more energy in a foreign place/language. It’s no joke, and it hasn’t left me with much energy for adventure type exploring. I’ve walked around some. The sidewalks are used for parked cars leaving pedestrians to walk in traffic (yay). There are lots of vendors on the street that I look forward to investigating soon. I have downloaded the recommended ride share apps that should allow me to avoid haggling with taxi drivers, but I probably won’t do much “touristing” until December when the weather is less aggressive and I can be outside for more than an hour or two without getting dizzy.

Welcome to Senegal.

English Language Fellowship: the People Side

The human element is something that I got less and less of during the pandemic, but will be a big part of my next adventure. Although interminable paperwork is the hallmark of any international and/or academic project, the English Language Fellowship application also requires multiple interviews, and the pre-departure process benefits from making early contacts.

Interview Process:

Almost as soon as I got the application fully submitted, and my last reference completed their essays, I got an email inviting me to a video interview. It happened much faster than I thought possible. The email gave me a basic overview of what to expect in the interview and three date/time slots to choose from.

The time allotted was 30-minute for the Zoom interview. I was told it would focus on “behavioral competencies which have been identified as important to the success of Fellows working overseas in challenging environments” including: Flexibility, Resourcefulness and problem solving, Leadership, Cultural adaptability, and Working with others. For each behavioral competency, I then had to address three aspects: (1) the situation or task in which you displayed the behavior, (2) the actions you took, and (3) the results of those actions. A recording of my answers, I was told, would then be added to my application.

I agonized the entire time between receiving this email and having the interview. I had to take a later date because I had already planned my trip to the ski resort, so I used the time to brainstorm ideas and bounce them off my friends. I wrote down multiple possible situation/tasks for each competency and thought through the actions and results. I got one friend who was skilled in education and one who was more skilled in presentations and projects, and I asked them for time to listen to my options and help me choose. I am so glad that I did this. Although I was nervous, after really discussing each competency and how my examples highlighted them, I felt truly prepared. I also decided to tell my situations as stories, which, again, if you’re here on the blog, you know is something I love to do.

It was a great decision. The interviewer loved my storytelling! He really complimented my presentation style and said it was something that would serve me well in the fellowship. After participating in the pre-departure orientation, I realized why – there are a lot of videos and presentations where fellows tell stories from their fellowship as a way to share their experiences and help promote cultural exchange.

The first interview was just to gather my answers so I could be placed in the matching pool. The day after my zoom call, I got the email that I was officially in the applicant pool and could receive my 2nd interview anywhere from a week to 5 months. This process is not for people who can’t live with uncertainty, but again, they are looking for flexibility in candidates. I was putting off giving notice at my university until the absolute last moment I could responsibly and professionally do so, which is 90 days for me by the way. February was still early enough in the semester that I wasn’t too worried about a delay, but I was anxious in that kids before Christmas way because this was by far the best opportunity I had encountered in my search, and I really really wanted it.

Nevsehir, Turkey

It took me most February to find my future HVF Dr., and in the mean time I was still doing my online classes and applying for other jobs, not knowing how serious the “not a guarantee of placement” the disclaimers were. Finally, on April 21 I got a match with the program in Turkey. This was a little startling, as I had just declined a job offer in Ankara, Turkey in March (that university didn’t think I would have any time to explore the country because of my work hours, which was a pretty big red flag). The Fellowship position was in Nevsehir, which is a little remote, but not any worse than my current town in Korea, and I’ve never been to Turkey, so it would be something new.

Unfortunately, the interview was a bit underwhelming. Before my interview, I was sent a pdf guide that outlined questions we might be asked and might want to ask, which was a very thoughtful tool. But, when I was given the chance to ask questions back to them, they seemed entirely unprepared. I asked some fairly basic ones, like “what do you like most about your town?” (the tourist attraction “fairy chimneys” was the unanimous answer, and I believe they are beautiful, but I have been living in a beautiful but boring town for 4 years now, so if the locals don’t have anything else to say about it, hmmmm).

Nevşehir, Turkey. Original public domain image from Wikimedia Commons Credit: rawpixel.com

I asked some things about the school, and teaching styles, which got some cookie cutter answers, and I asked why they wanted me, why they were in the program. That was the hardest, because the answer was basically, “We want an American because our students never see one.” And, I totally understand that getting students to speak to native speakers is great, and that this town wanted more tourism and needed to get people used to seeing Americans. But, I have played token foreigner before, it’s an unfulfilling role. Like being a character in a theme park. It can be fun when you’re out at the big tourist destinations, but it stops being fun when you just want to do your shopping. I don’t think there’s anything objectively wrong with what they want from the program, I just worried that I was not going to be as fulfilled by it as I had hoped.

I left the interview with a lot of mixed feelings. I really wanted to be in the program, and to get out of my current situation, and to have a new adventure. I had applied to the other job in Turkey because I though that since flights are crazy with COVID, maybe living someplace where I could do a little extra travel by train would be nice (Korea has great trains, but you can’t get to another country from there overland). Turkey has a lot of cool neighbors, and it seemed like I could get a lot of adventure from there. Conversely, it seemed like plenty of schools in Turkey hired English teachers directly, so why go through this particular program to this particular school if I felt safe, comfortable and competent to get a position in Turkey on my own?

I decided that I would accept the match if it was offered. I worried that turning it down would boot me or at least make me less desirable to future matches. To be very clear, I would not have accepted any position that was not an improvement on my current circumstances. This wasn’t me settling for less. I had some very high hopes for the ELP after everything they told us about remote and unusual locations, but I was already looking at a position in Turkey (just one with a better work-life balance than my March interview). I didn’t think I would be unhappy in Nevsehir, and I was dreaming of how to help locals make English language AirBnB experiences to meet their tourism goals, and looking at local activities, photos, and blogs that very night to think about the cool things I could do.

I woke up the next day to see that the host university declined the match. I was a little bit sad, but mostly relieved. I was back in the pool, which meant more limbo waiting, but it also meant a chance a match that could be more in line with my ideals.

Taiwan Sidebar

In the mean time, I was still applying for other schools and conducting other interviews this whole time because the DoS kept saying “no guarantee you’ll be placed”. One such was in Taiwan. Although Taiwan has the same ‘fly to leave’ problem as Korea, it was still on my list of desirable countries because a) I speak Chinese better than Korean, and b) I really like Chinese culture, but didn’t see myself going back to the mainland c) Taiwan is the most liberal and forward thinking democracy in Asia, and d) the food.

I had an earlier interview with one university whose representative was extremely enthusiastic about my demo video (a real video of one of my real classes that I edited for highlights). I was awaiting a secondary interview with them when I got the match for Senegal. Although my interview for Dakar was May 4, and on May 5 I was offered the post, nothing was official until that health form and all the other intake paperwork was complete and approved, so I wasn’t quite willing to put all my eggs in one basket yet. As a result, I accepted their invitation for a second interview when it came.

Despite the fact that they were quite enthusiastic about my resume and demo, they were very demanding as well. Part of that was entirely understandable, they needed to be sure I had all the required documents to meet the governments visa rules. The other part was more red flag, or at least a yellow card. There was desk warming, and micro-management, and pretty much zero flexibility. It wasn’t bad enough for me to walk away from (no worse than EPIK), but it wasn’t awesome either. Plus they were REALLY pushing me for a multi-year commitment. They were only hiring because their last English teacher didn’t meet the new updated visa requirements. I said that if things went well, I was happy to stay 2-4 years, but that I wouldn’t know until I got there. They did not like that answer.

Dakar, Senegal

Just a week after the interview for Nevsehir, I got my next potential match for Dakar, Senegal. The overview of the job struck me as a little strange since it was for a veterinary school, but without any additional details, I assumed their English program would focus on international standards for participating in study abroad, international conferences, and publications (spoiler alert, there IS no English department!). I was far more excited at the prospect of Dakar than I had been about Nevsehir. For one, I have wanted to experience sub-Saharan Africa for years with no real opportunity to do so. Tourism in Africa is actually both difficult and expensive, while jobs for English teachers are thin on the ground, the only ones I’d found before were either volunteer, pay to volunteer, or required French fluency.

For another, Dakar is a big urban space on the sea, which is definitely one of my favorite combinations. Senegal is a very stable African country, and Dakar is a cultural hotspot. I could live and work in Africa with support and security, be based in an urban center, but have reasons and ability to travel to the countryside and villages. 10/10 on the adventure scale more than made up for whatever obstacles I could imagine encountering teaching English at a veterinary school. I had to wait some more, there were some holidays in Senegal at the time, so my actual interview was May 4.

The interview process was night and day different from the one with Nevsehir. The first match interview was a group zoom with the Embassy representative and three English teachers form the local university. I was obviously there to talk to the teachers, and the Embassy rep was trying to facilitate. It felt a lot like a traditional job interview for any university program. The zoom call with the folks in Dakar was 2 people from the Embassy, the very American white guy and a local woman who had worked in the Embassy for many years (oh, and the American guy has since relocated, so I get a new boss!). There was no one from the university involved. Additionally, the mood of the interview was more causal, laid back and easygoing, where the one for Turkey felt very stilted and performative.

We chatted about expectations and obstacles. I think they understood how challenging West Africa is for Americans to adjust to with rolling blackouts, unreliable water supplies, and a general lack of teaching supplies in most schools. I told some stories from my own life (pre-Korea, cause let’s face it, it’s really soft there), and I told them the one and only time I’ve had to leave due to such issues, and they seemed quite shocked that I had lasted as long a I did at that particular place, and assured me they did not expect anything quite so bad in Dakar. Once we reassured each other that I could take the problems they anticipated and they wouldn’t expect me to put up with conditions I knew I would not, we had a really lovely chat.

They did briefly address the lack of any concrete plan for me or English classes, but in the end, I told them quite honestly that I was so excited by the chance to live and work in this part of the world with a support network and safety net, that there was very little they could say to dampen my enthusiasm. I got the official offer the next day. (despite the many surprises that I have encountered since accepting and the mounting pile of confusion and uncertainty, I am still very enthusiastic).

Life Choices:

Although I got the offer May 5, I didn’t get my actual contract until June 25th. Experience has taught me that it’s not real until the contract is signed. In the case of life-after-COVID, a signed contract is still dependent on travel conditions and government restrictions, but it’s as reliable as I can expect. During this very long wait, I had a lot of thoughts and anxieties, not the least the political unrest in Dakar over the summer about the elections. My brain started having tiny little panic attacks about the idea of giving up my safety and comfort. Was I being totally irresponsible to wander off on a short term project in a pandemic and a brewing European war impacting travel, the economy, and the job market?

The Taiwan school had yet to make me an official offer, but had made their interest very apparent. They were pressuring me all this time for a commitment, and I kept trying to tell them that I was interviewing at other places, but that IF they offered me a job and I accepted, I wouldn’t back out. They kept saying I had to commit before they made the offer. It seemed like neither one of us wanted to be the first to say yes.

I told the story about Taiwan because at this point in the process I had a come-to-Disney moment (it’s like a come-to-Jesus moment, but Disney). I got Pocahontas’ first song stuck in my head. I don’t even like that movie very much, but I know all the songs because it was one of the ones my little sister watched daily for about a year. I still like the song about rivers because I want an adventure life too. It’s the same reason I love Belle’s song about “adventure in the great wide somewhere”, though I’m not as into Ariel’s “part of your world”. My Disney Princess Moment was experienced while sitting on my balcony I realized that the job in Taiwan was more stable: they wanted a long term commitment, Taiwan just launched a “bilingual by 2030” initiative so job stability was in. I already knew I could communicate, and get around having visited back in 2019 on my own. It would be new enough to be exciting but also familiar enough to be safe. Then it hit me: Taiwan was Kocoum.

(In this metaphor, Senegal is NOT John Smith, I really prefer the no-prince spate of recent Disney movies to the romance minded and culturally problematic movies of my own childhood, but in the context of the song, it’s Kocoum vs Adventure. I prefer more “Moana choosing the sea” as a metaphor, but I never memorized the lyrics to that song, so it doesn’t pop into my head unbidden in moments of existential crisis).

Both Feet In:

I got the agreement June 25, signed it and sent it back, checking the online portal to see the last piece of paperwork approved, and it didn’t come. It turns out that there had been a glitch in the internet when I hit send, and it went into my drafts folder instead of to the program. Thankfully, they checked on me, and I found and fixed the mistake, and the final approval was granted on July 6. It took me a few days to realize that the school in Taiwan was not going to take a subtle hint, so on July 10 I finally sent a very clear, “thanks but no thanks” email. They didn’t reply.

Once I was committed, I started the work of preparing my necessary travel vaccines. Unlike with the HVF, living in Korea was actually an advantage this time. I could see that my required vaccines were up to date, but there was a laundry list of other recommended vaccines and one that might be required for me because I had been in Korea. Korean citizens are required to get the Yellow Fever vaccine before going to Senegal while Americans are merely recommended to do so, but that’s about location and exposure, and I didn’t want to take any chances that they’d see my Korean visa and turn me away. In the end, I got 6 vaccines – 2 boosters and 4 new. The yellow fever vaccine was the worst in terms of side effects because it’s a live vaccine, but rabies vaccine required 3 shots over 4 weeks.

Maybe I won’t need any of these, Dakar is a very cosmopolitan place, the risk of exposure is low there. However I will be spending a lot of time at a veterinary school and animals are vectors for a lot of disease, plus I hope to get opportunities to travel into the countryside where unfortunately risk of exposure is higher. The vaccines help me feel like I can do all that without worrying too much, and in Korea they are 3-4x cheaper than in the US where most of them aren’t even covered by health insurance. I don’t think I would have gotten them all if I had to pay US prices. My year supply of anti-malarials was also 1/4 the cost of the same medicine in America. If I was in America, I probably would have bought a 90 day supply in advance and then acquired more when I got to Dakar, but it’s one less thing to worry about. Yay Korean healthcare!

The Community of Practice:

Since that time, I’ve zoom calls and WhatsApp chats with former Senegal fellows, the new RELO, and the COP (community of practice) for both the fellowship orientation and the Training of Trainers course. It’s so different from any other job or program I’ve been a part of because I’ve been working on it in one way or another all year and it hasn’t even started yet. It’s also different in that peer & mentor support are everywhere! Whether I’m getting reassurance from a more experienced mentor or reassuring a peer who has less international experience than me, it’s truly marvelous to be a part of a supportive community, and I look forward to meeting even more folks face to face when I arrive including the embassy staff, the Fulbright scholars, and my host institution professors.

I’m currently in the US, busily having fun with friends and family so, I haven’t written as much about the TOT (training of trainers) course as I would have liked. It’s a lot of work, and wrapping my brain around new ideas, but I feel like I’m elevating to a whole new level in my career! Also, my start date in Dakar was pushed back to October 18, so keep an eye out for the “Welcome to Dakar” post around Halloween. Thanks for reading!


Jeff Attaway from Abuja, Nigeria, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

English Language Fellowship: The Paper Side

I gave no small amount of thought into how to organize this 10 month long process from application to arrival. It’s a lot, both in terms of time and in details. I’ve started with a division between the paper and the people, and I’m hoping to get some of the orientation and training process recorded as well. It’s been a long time since I wrote a bureaucracy post, but it is a tradition here. I hope that reading about it is more fun than doing it, that it sheds some light on what goes on behind the scenes of a glamorous globetrotting life, and that it might help anyone in the future who is struggling to navigate a similar sea of red tape.

Application Process:

I was doing general job searches over the winter break, you can read about my decision to leave Korea in the “안녕히계세요 Korea” series. Most of the world starts the school year in the fall, so if I wanted to transition out of Korea, I would need to start looking in the winter/spring, and even though most schools only hire a few months in advance, looking for work over the winter gave me a sense of control my life was sorely lacking.

In January, I saw the ad for the English Language Fellowship and vaguely remembered trying to apply for it years ago. Back in 2015, I didn’t realize it was a program for more experienced English teachers, I had only 2 years of experience back then, so I wasn’t quite eligible yet. In January 2022, I didn’t really know what to expect, but I had committed to applying to any position that was cooler than my current one. I was on winter break, so a lengthy and detailed application process was not as daunting as it might have been during classes.

The online application process is fairly similar to most in that you have to enter all your information, and relevant work history and skills. It’s a little different in the amount of detail you are expected to provide, including that each skill you claim requires specific examples. There are also a lot of essays. It more resembles an application for an academic program than for a job, which makes sense. In addition to the statement of purpose, you have to answer essay questions with specific examples from your past about:

  • work ethic
  • flexibility
  • judgement
  • classroom management

It’s a lot of writing, which as you may guess wasn’t too onerous for me, but the really hard part was that I had to get my three references (at least one from my current job) to log into the portal and write their recommendations directly into the application (the program sends them a link via email, but I did personal outreach before adding them to the mailing list). It was awkward to contact my current team leader and break the news that I was looking to leave by asking for a recommendation. Thankfully, he thought it was a great opportunity and was very quick to get his positive assessment in.

Recommendations

In my early working life (age 16-25) I didn’t encounter letters of recommendation. Every job application had a space for references contact information, but I didn’t really see behind the curtain of what went on during those phone calls. Later, I was introduced to the concept of letters of recommendation. The way I was taught was that I request a letter when I’m leaving a job or school and then keep it on file for future applications. I didn’t start getting them at all until I was applying for grad school, after which I tried to remember to ask at the end of a job or project because it’s really hard to get one years later. I was also told that it’s common practice to write the letter about myself that they would then sign. All of this was very intimidating to young me, and it took me years to get decent at asking for letters and writing them for myself and for other people.

This was the first time I encountered an application that wouldn’t even be considered until all three references responded with essay answers containing unique and specific details about me (basically the same questions I had to write essays about) with real world examples. It’s a lot to ask for a reference. One of the original three people I asked wasn’t up to it when she realized how different it was from a regular letter, and so I had to find a back-up. I’m really grateful to the people who were willing to put in the work for me, especially after I realized how much work it actually was! If I could do it again, I’d offer to help them brainstorm examples. Many people who give references may think they need to keep them private from the applicant, but if you can co-author your reference, I think it will help you get what you need and be a little easier on the person you are asking to help you.

I suspect part of the reason they want these three detailed reference essays is because this fellowship requires a certain amount of networking, and relying on other people (inspiring other people to be willing to do things on your behalf). I had always hated the idea that my goals or even survival could depend on other people (who might flake out or stab me in the back), but I know now that is just the voice of my past trauma. Humans are team-based social creatures and our ability to thrive depends on our social connections. The fact that I succeeded in getting three wonderful, talented, and accomplished people to want to take the time and effort to write nice things about me and our work together so that I could partake in this opportunity shows me how far I’ve come and how much I mean to others.

Almost immediately after my last reference was completed, I got an invitation to my first interview and was subsequently placed in the applicant pool by early February. I was told my match and second interview could happen anytime from 1 week to 6 months, and in the mean time, there was more paperwork.

NOTE: If you’re interested in applying, the 2023-24 academic year application process opened in September: https://elprograms.org/fellow-program/

Health Verification Part 1:

One of the other complicated piles of paperwork participants have to complete is the Health Verification Form or HVF, and it must be done under the care of a physician. They need to make sure that everyone going is healthy enough to live in a place with … intermittently reliable healthcare. Although I personally think Americans have an incorrect perception of the quality of healthcare abroad, believing it to be substandard or inferior when actually it’s just cheaper, there is something to be said for the fact that in some cases, fellows will go to remote locations that are far from urban centers and hospitals. In addition, very few countries offer the disability and mobility accommodations that America is required to have by law.

None of this is to say that people with extra health care needs or disabilities can’t or shouldn’t travel. I think everyone should travel. There are lots of places you can visit with good, reliable, cheap healthcare, though mobility may require a companion to help navigate difficult spaces. They just don’t want the liability of sending someone with known severe health issues that could result in hospitalization or death if they are unable to receive the same level of care that would have access to with comparable insurance within America.

In addition, the form has to be completed within 15 days of when you receive your official offer, which I had not yet, and would not until I had a match and my second interview and was accepted by the local coordinator of the program. For people in the US, this would be fairly easy. I looked at the sample form and although it’s rather long, most of it is medical history and personal planning. There’s a short part that is an actual exam. The exam is comprehensive (full body) but basic (no blood work or other bodily samples involved, unlike many visa health checks). In America, I could imagine just going in to my GPs office and discussing the history and plan, then getting a quick once over and a sign off. Two weeks is not unreasonable.

Korean Mode Bureaucracy Challenge:

In Korea, there are no GPs. Once every year or two (depending on your job and health plan) you get a full body work up for free! You go to the testing center and it’s like 8 doctors all in one area so you all the preventative medicine checks at once (really, everything). Then if there’s an abnormality in your results, they tell you what kind of doctor you need to see to follow up. In between these work ups, if you have a problem that you need a doctor for, you go directly from the reception desk to the specialist that the intake nurse thinks best fits your reported symptoms. If your back and your knee hurt, you’re likely going to see two different doctors. The good news is they are all right there together and it’s very easy to go between doctors and testing facilities in one visit. The bad news is that no one doctor was likely to file this whole body form.

I knew it was going to take me longer than the allotted time to find a place I could go, so I started the hunt early. I also made a much more comprehensive version of the history and plan than I would have done with an American doctor, since I knew the Korean doctor was unlikely to be comfortable with writing that much English themselves, and I wanted to offer something they could cut and paste, editing as needed. Most places that spoke enough English to take on a form like this flat up said no. A couple places said they could do it, but that it would be billed as a pre-employment health screening, which included a ton of tests and scans that I didn’t need, bringing the price tag up to about 500$ (which is crazy in Korea). One hospital in Seoul said they could do it for less, but still about 200$. I was feeling really disheartened. I knew in the US this would be a 25$ co-pay for other applicants and it just felt like such an extreme barrier.

At the end of February, I got a reply from a nurse in the International Office of Hyoseong Hospital in Daegu. When I arranged to talk with her on the phone, I was so relieved to learn that this hospital had many accommodations for foreigners due to the fact that they worked closely with the US military in the area. I emailed her a copy of the form and a few days later she said not only could they do it, but that it would be cost of a regular doctor visit (10-20$) or at the absolute most 40$ if the doctor decided he needed to run any extra tests. I also talked to her about the time requirements and that I would need the form within two weeks of an as yet unknown date sometime in the next couple of months. She said she would make a note about my situation so that she could remember the details when I called back at go time.

The Intake Paperwork, Georgetown U, and the Portal:

After rounds of waiting and interviewing and more waiting, I got my official offer on May 5th and the race was on to file all the paperwork. The PORTAL is the central data collection for everything you need to be a fellow. The first “step” is the onboarding to-do list. Some of the items on this list are fast and easy like your contact information, others like the Health Verification form and the Supplier ID require multiple steps in and of themselves. I had check off everything you see here to get my agreement finalized. The visa remains unchecked because at the time I took this screenshot, I was still waiting to get mine, although I really hope that by the time this pre-scheduled post drops, I have it. Most of this isn’t actually difficult, it’s just tedious, but I had one major hurdle to jump.

Getting the HVF

When I got my official offer on May 5th, and my acceptance package on May 7th which started the 15 (business days) countdown. I realize they sent the email on their Friday 6th, but Korea is in the future, so I couldn’t do anything about it. I contacted the nurse at Hyoseong the following Monday 9. Then it transpired that the nurse I needed to help me was in COVID quarantine! (She was not too sick, but couldn’t go into the office with a positive test). I had to wait until Monday 16 to try again. On top of that, my school had scheduled me in such a way that it was impossible for me to get to a hospital in another city without cancelling and rescheduling at least one class, limiting the possible days of the week I could hope to go. I got an appointment for Friday 20 (the easiest class to reschedule) which would just give me enough time for a re-do the following week if anything went wrong.

Thankfully, I’d done all my prep work months before and I was able to copy and paste my answers into the form and print off some hard copies for the doctor to sign. Once I arrived, the nurse did most of the work (as nurses so often do), making sure the information I couldn’t write in advance was added in and double checking some details. Then she went off to talk to the doctor while I sat in the waiting room. When I went in to see the doctor, he asked me a couple of basic health questions, offered to refill my inhaler, and signed off. Months of stress, and it was the easiest thing. I know if I’d shown up with a blank form, it would not have been so easy, but one of the many knots of low grade anxiety in my guts unwound a little.

The Visa

While I didn’t need to have my visa in hand to complete the onboarding checklist, I did have to know the visa requirements to enter Senegal. While everything with the hospital was going on, I also contacted the Senegalese Embassies in DC and in Seoul. There was confusion about the visa process and requirements. I didn’t need a work visa, since I would not be working for a Senegalese company, but was it a business visa? or something else? Online research turned up a very complex process that required piles paperwork, a French translation of my birth certificate, and regular in person renewals for a residency permit that would be granted after I arrived, but that seemed like something for immigrants, people moving to Senegal. Americans can visit Senegal for up to 90 days with no visa, and there’s student and work visas, but none of that applied to me.

I explained to the Senegalese embassy here in Korea that I was American (not Korean) and needed a visa, but they informed me that it wasn’t possible to get the visa in advance. It took me longer to get in touch with someone from the DC embassy, but when I did, she was very helpful and once she understood my situation, said that I could get a 1 year visa in advance and helped me get a list of all the documents I’d need and where to send it. At the time of writing this (August), I’m still in in Korea and won’t be able to ship off my passport to DC until after I arrive in the US in September. Hopefully, by the time this publishes, I’ll have good news on the visa front.

Wrapping Up the Pre-Departure Paperwork

I got my supplier ID accepted on May 19, my HVF form approved on May 24, and my completed onboarding accepted June 4, the same day I received pre-departure orientation schedule.

June 10 was the day I finally let myself believe it was real, and that the bureaucracy was safely appeased and declined my simultaneous job offer (yes, I was so nervous I would be rejected on technical grounds, new COVID spike, or other bureaucratic nightmare that I was still entertaining other opportunities even after I got the offer). I still didn’t have my actual contract/agreement in early June, but that was the day I finally jumped with both feet. Is there a story here? Why yes, there is, thanks for asking, but it’s in the “people” part of this series.

June 25 was the day I got my agreement to print, sign, and scan, but an internet glitch meant that instead of sending, my return email went into drafts and it wasn’t until after the deadline that the office sent me a reminder. Thankfully they understand about computer error (or at least accepted my excuse) and my final signed agreement was added to my PORTAL on July 6.

Some Thoughts:

Just about 7 months after I first decided to apply, and 3 months before I was scheduled to arrive, the Starter Pack Bureaucracy was finally complete. There is plenty more paperwork to look forward to. No government funded project could possibly avoid it, but it makes me pointedly aware of the privileged position I’m in. It wasn’t that long ago in my life that the idea of spending 7 months to prepare for a job would have been unthinkable. The closest experience I had was applying to grad school, which I had to do about 9-10 months in advance of the fall semester, but as difficult as that application was at the time, it was basic compared to this and took far fewer overall hours. My application process to get into Saudi was challenging, especially that visa, but it also wasn’t as long or as many hours. My process to get into Korea was the closest in terms of complexity, but took less time (by more than half).

I had stable if undesirable job all of those times. I made the application process into something between homework and a really boring hobby. But how often is someone in the position where they can financially afford to wait 7-10 months from when they apply to when they start? How many people can be working full time and dedicate the needed hours and brainpower to complete pages and pages of complex and detailed essays and forms? How many people can have a good enough job to give them the financial and mental stability to do all this, while also being able to leave that job for 1-2 years or forever?

In order to apply for, get, and participate in this fellowship, a person has to have education, experience, financial stability, a good professional network, decently good health, and a reasonable expectation that they won’t lose all of that after 1-2 years in another country. When I think back to the version of myself that stood in line at the food bank in order to eat, who almost ended up living in her car when she lost her home (but for the grace of some friends with an attic), who struggled to keep a bank balance out of overdraft and didn’t always succeed… it seems so unreal that I came from that and arrived here. I feel shocked and amazed, surprised and lucky. I can’t even really make sense of it yet, I just know I need to recognize that this is rare and amazing, and I didn’t get here alone. Gratitude.



English Language Fellowship: I’m In!

I am pleased to share with you that I have been selected by U.S. Department of State for a prestigious English Language Teaching Fellowship, and on October 11, 2022, I will start my 10-month fellowship project training teachers and teaching English in Dakar, Senegal at Ecole Inter-Etats des Sciences et Medecine Veterinaire as one of only 200 U.S. citizens chosen to travel to over 80 countries for the 2022-2023 English Language Fellow Program.  The program enables Fellows to enact meaningful and sustainable changes in the way that English is taught abroad, and is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) with funding provided by the U.S. government. Fellows work directly with local teachers, students, and educational professionals to improve the quality of English language instruction offered at prestigious universities and other academic institutions.

Since 1969, the English Language Fellow Program has sent thousands of TESOL scholars and educators abroad to promote English language learning, enhance English teaching capacity, and foster mutual understanding between the U.S. and other countries through cultural exchange. On assignment, Fellows teach English, conduct teacher training, develop resources, and organize events and conferences. These projects are challenging and the teachers selected represent the best of the U.S. TESOL community. In return, the program provides professional development opportunities to help participants experience different cultures and build skills that can greatly enhance their TESOL careers.

This is a program of the U.S. Department of State, administered by Georgetown University, Center for Intercultural Education and Development. For further information about the English Language Fellow Program or the U.S. Department of State, please visit their website, contact them by telephone at 202-632-6452, or e-mail ECA-Press@state.gov.

And if that sounds like a press release, it’s because it is! Formalities aside, I am extremely excited. The English Language Fellowship mini-series will start with stories about my application process, interviews, and pre-departure training and prep. After that, I hope to have plenty of posts about Life in Dakar starting in mid-late October once I’m settled in and get the Wi-Fi rolling.

Welcome to the next adventure!!!

The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk

This remains one of my favorite books for trauma recovery. I read it right after CPTSD: Surviving to Thriving, so close that they seemed like one big book. I finally had a chance to re-read it almost a year later. Those wait times at the public library are intense, but I guess I’m glad so many people are reading this kind of book, especially during COVID. This book currently lives in my top 5 list for therapy books, and I highly recommend reading them together like I did, as they are very complementary. This post is very long because this book is very full of important ideas. I hope you stick with it.

Bessel van der Kolk is a very accomplished and experienced psychiatrist and researcher in the area of trauma. He started working with Vietnam veterans in the 1970s (before PTSD was a known diagnosis) and has been instrumental in hundred of studies and research projects to better understand the impact of both single traumatic events and long term traumatic exposure. His work with war veterans led him to understand how childhood trauma was both similar and different from combat trauma, and he has been vital to the understanding of CPTSD. He is an expert the experts defer to. “The Body” was published in 2014, so it’s fairly up to date as far as technology and research techniques described.

This post is so much longer than other book reviews because the book itself covers so much. It tells the history of understanding and treatment of trauma. It explains the scientific studies used to advance that understanding and treatment. It addresses the social, political, and economic barriers to the study, understanding, and treatment. It shares case studies of individuals suffering from and recovering from trauma. It shares statistics of the staggering number of people who have been traumatized in one way or another in life. It addresses the critical link between “mind, brain, and body” in how trauma affects us and how we heal from it. And it looks into a range of treatment options, explaining how and why they work, or don’t. Yet somehow, Van der Kolk does all of this in a casual and personal narrative style that carries the reader through his life’s work in a compelling and interesting way.

Just My Highlights

There’s no way for me to even try to summarize everything that Van der Kolk talks about here. I won’t do it justice. I stress again how worthwhile a read this is for everyone. Understanding trauma and the historical, social, and political context of cycles of abuse is the only way we will ever make changes. There some standout points that I want to zero in on for my review, and some opinions I’m squeezing in because this might be my last therapy book review post.

The Historical Cycle of Trauma and Suppression

Hysteria and Sexual Abuse

In the mid-late 1800’s some ‘scientists’ named Jean-Martin Charcot and Pierre Janet were studying hysteria. Although a lot of the people diagnosed with hysteria were women, there were also cases of “hysterical blindness”, “hysterical paralysis”, memory loss, and a host of strange behaviors that occurred in people across the gender/age spectrum. At first, Charcot was looking for a physical cause, but when he was unable to find one, he turned to hypnosis, and came to the conclusion that all these problems were being caused by the repressed memory of traumatic events.

Freud came along and got really into finding out what those traumatic events were and got deep into talk therapy, actually listening to his clients (not something doctors had done before). He determined that the young women suffering in this way were all suffering as a result of sexual abuse at the hands of an older male relative. He thought he had a great breakthrough, until he realized that it would mean that a huge number of the well respected men in Vienna would be guilty of raping their daughters and nieces, including his own father. He thought that maybe the promiscuous FRENCH could be doing that, but he just couldn’t countenance that his own Viennese men could be doing the same. He backpedaled and changed his theory, placing the blame on the girls as “seducers” of their fathers and uncles.

World War I & Shell Shock

Then a few short years later, as WW1 came around, and there were British soldiers having weird symptoms after battle. The term “shell shock” was coined and some scant treatment began. However, as the tide of the war shifted against the British, the top brass decided that “shell shock” was just a coward’s excuse. That “real men” don’t break down from a little light war trauma, and they banned the use of the word in any documents. Some soldiers were arrested, imprisoned and even executed because they had trauma that no one in charge wanted to believe in.

There were plenty of doctors pleading to be allowed to study and treat it, but the gag order was politically expedient to win the war. Another generation was blamed for exhibiting symptoms of trauma that those in power had caused. In America, the WW1 vets had it a little better for a brief moment. They were temporarily greeted as heroes and awarded combat bonuses, the money to be given as a delayed payout. When the depression hit, the veterans rallied in DC to ask for their bonuses so they could afford housing and food. The police and army were sent in to scatter them and burn their camps. Congress voted to never give the vets their money, and they were left to fend for themselves as a new crop of young men were lined up for the slaughter of the next big war.

World War II, Vietnam & PTSD

WW2 of course went through just about the same thing. Suddenly “shell shock” was rediscovered to be real. It was even treated for a hot minute before being dismissed again when the reality of the extreme damage being done to a generation of people in the name of war turned out to be too big a price tag for the law-makers at home. Generals and politicians would much rather believe that men and women are faking it, or fragile, or damaged in some way that the leadership cannot be held accountable for. It wasn’t until the Vietnam veterans came back that we finally started to see a break the cycle of discover and repress. PTSD is now a well recognized condition, but the battle isn’t over. It’s currently recognized almost exclusively for combat veterans, with some exceptions for civilians in war, major catastrophes like the 9-11 building collapses, or devastating natural disasters.

Van der Kolk and his associates, however, found that trauma comes far more frequently and affects far more people than this commonly accepted understanding of PTSD can encompass. In addition, the results of ongoing or repeated trauma, of childhood trauma, or of sexual trauma may have many similarities to PTSD as described in the DSM, but it’s not 100% the same and more importantly, the treatments are not equally effective. These discoveries led doctors like Van der Kolk to advocate for a new diagnoses in the DSM:  Disorders of Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified (DESNOS) aka Complex-PTSD, or CPTSD for short.

The DSM is BROKEN

What is the DSM? Some of you may know it well, others may be totally confused. DSM stands for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and it’s the big book of Mental Health. Doctors and insurance companies use the DSM for diagnosis and treatment, but in America anyway, more importantly MONEY. Insurance will not cover a diagnosis or treatment that is not listed in the DSM. This gets tangled up very quickly, because when health and money meet in a room, health loses every time. I can’t even scratch the surface of everything that is wrong with the American DSM model, but in regards to PTSD and CPTSD the main problem is that they are NOT the same.

Multiple studies have shown over and over that they are not the same, and that treatments for one do not work for the other (or may work, but less effectively). As a result of this, people who are suffering from prolonged traumatic exposure get diagnosed with: ADD, ADHD, GAD/anxiety, depression, bipolar, BPD/borderline personality, anorexia, bulimia, OCD, alcoholism, drug addiction, and a bunch of other acronyms because the doctor is trying to address their symptoms in a way that fits the DSM. The best case scenario is that they do this because they know the insurance won’t pay for it if it doesn’t match the book. The worst case is that they simply do not believe any diagnosis not in the book is real.

DSM 5 Defines Trauma

I did some extra reading about the DSM, since van der Kolk only mentions the failed attempt to get CPTSD into the DSM 4 in 1994, and we are currently on DSM 5. I wanted to know if any progress was made. The answer is unfortunately, not really… They did expand the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, and added a “children under 6” category, but it’s still not going to cover most people in the CPTSD range.

What is considered “trauma” by the DSM is extremely limited : “The person was exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence”. It fails to reflect any of the studies of long term exposure to many other types of trauma, such as the ACE study, nor has any relation coercive control style abuse.

I discovered another diagnostic manual called the ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases) has added a separate category for CPTSD. The bad news is that it is very limited in scope. It still focuses on exclusively horrific traumatic circumstances where escape is unlikely, like torture, genocide, slavery, etc. “Prolonged domestic violence” is there, but not well defined. There remains no reference to the coercive control or psychological control that prohibits escape, nor of issues like systemic racism or medical trauma. In addition, it requires flashbacks (intrusive memories & images) as a symptom, which are common in PTSD, but according to most experts, not in CPTSD where emotional flashbacks (which lack a visual component) are more common.

Treating a Symptom Instead of a Cause

Without the ability to get a correct diagnosis for the underlying cause, many CPTSD sufferers are limited to receiving treatment only for their symptoms, so while these people may experience relief of symptoms while under treatment, their suffering resumes as soon as that treatment stops. Not only is this a massive healthcare disservice, but it’s contributing to a huge waste of money. Traumatized individuals are unable to function in a healthy way, and often need government resources for chronic health issues, job loss, and criminal behavior. (if you need more proof of this, read the book)

Additionally, some of what are seen as “problems” might really be “solutions” within the context of trauma. An alcoholic is not merely physically addicted to alcohol; their drinking is a self prescribed treatment to forget some pain they are unprepared to deal with or in some cases even acknowledge. The same can be true for any addiction including gambling, drugs, sex or food. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté is an excellent exploration into the traumatic roots of addiction including socially prized addictions like overworking.

Obesity is another great example of why we can’t just treat symptoms. It is a major health epidemic in modern America, but if people are overeating as a trauma response, a defense mechanism, or to self-sooth, then no diet/exercise program will ever be successful until the core wound is healed. Van der Kolk explains that many obese patients also have a history of sexual molestation, assault, or abuse. Others may have been bullied or beaten up when they were small, and may feel strong and powerful by being larger than anyone else in the room. They feel safe from future assault or abuse because of the extra weight.

Of course, most people suffering this are not consciously aware of this in the mind. They do not think “fat will protect me” as they have another scoop of ice cream. They just feel better when they eat, so they eat. When they go to a doctor for help, it should not only be about diet, exercise, or surgery, but should include a look for deeper mental health causes that lie at the root of addiction issues. The problem with that is, as long as the DSM and major health organizations refuse to recognize that systemic social problems and resultant trauma are causing all these health problems, patients will continue to be misdiagnosed, mistreated, and inevitably blamed and shamed when their incorrect treatment fails.

The Cycle Isn’t Broken

My takeaway from all of this, the history and the DSM, and stories in the book of how van der Kolk and his associates were thwarted from doing research or having that research recognized, is that we have not escaped the cycle of notice and repress. We are still as a society unwilling to recognize that parents, caretakers, leaders and other people who are supposed to love and protect us are the deep root cause of untold amounts of pain and suffering. Crime, violence, illness, and death are all linked to childhood and domestic trauma, yet we can’t even properly diagnose or treat it. We’re looking for ways to blame the victims, a faulty gene or just a lack of moral fiber, but heavens forfend we look hard at ourselves and see the damage that our blindness is causing.

So many of the books I’ve read on this journey talk about the fact that trauma is caused by what the brain perceives as a threat, not what is objectively a threat or agreed upon by society to be a threat. Limiting PTSD and CPTSD diagnoses and treatment to people who have experienced “bad enough” trauma by someone else’s standards is part of the denial and suppression cycle. Of COURSE genocide and sexual slavery are undeniably horrible. OF COURSE the people who experience that are traumatized. What Van der Kolk and many others are trying to show us is that trauma is neither rare nor limited to such obvious horrific sources — that in reality, trauma is widespread and pervasive in the world, and that it comes from places we don’t want to see.

Although the scientific and ethical advances of the last 40 years enable us to look back at the hysterical women or the shell shocked soldiers and finally recognize the injustice done to them, we are not immune to selective blindness and denial. Just like Freud could not admit his own father or other “respectable” men of the city were committing atrocities on their own daughters, just like the generals could not accept that the decision to send young men into war was dooming their minds as well as their bodies, modern society struggles to accept that parents, teachers, lovers, doctors, and bosses are responsible for traumatizing millions under their care. Being able to admit the reality should not be about blame or retribution, but rather about truth and reconciliation. Until we are willing to face the facts, millions of people will be barred from true healing, and inevitably pass their pain on by traumatizing others in continued generational cycles.

Mind, Brain, Body

The other main takeaway of this book is the way in which the brain and body interact. Van der Kolk refers to a triad of “mind, brain, and body”, which has some nice literary overtones, the rule of three is a popular way to go. It also, I think, helps people to bridge a previously unbridgeable gap between mind and body. Starting with Aristotle and made ‘accepted fact’ by Descartes, a lot of people for a large part of history have believed that the “mind” is a totally separate thing from the “body”. Despite the fact that Descartes was a philosopher and had no physical or medical evidence to support his theory, it was so pervasive in the minds of the educated men that when modern medicine made the scene, no one really thought to challenge this “accepted fact”. At most, doctors believed that while the mind may be able to exert some control over the body through conscious effort or willpower, that the feed was strictly one way. ‘Mind over matter”, right? Wrong.

Advances in Science Change Our Understanding

As the study of neurology really came into its own in the 1990s, we got to learn all kinds of amazing stuff about how the brain works. The brain is a physical organ that runs on chemical and electrical reactions and controls the body, more or less. But… it is also where the mind resides. We still haven’t found the “seat of consciousness” in the brain, because it turns out that what makes us “us” is a very complex system of electro-chemical reactions, only a very small amount of which we are aware of at any time.

Start by thinking of your “mind” as the part that does the thinking (your “self”, your autobiographical memory, your inner monologue, and such); and your “brain” as the gray stuff inside your skull that releases hormones and neurotransmitters, and handles the auto-pilot for all the organs you can’t be bothered to think about (what does a spleen actually do? Your mind doesn’t know, but your brain does); and then your body is everything else. Then you can start to see where van der Kolk is going with this triad, but it’s not really three separate things, it’s more like three concentric circles. The mind, after all, resides in the brain, and the brain resides in the body. They are connected intimately and they are inseparable, and the flow of information goes in all directions.

We think of our body as being under our mind’s control, yet, that’s barely true. You don’t control most of your organs. You can hold your breath for a bit, and control your toilet needs for a short time, but other than that, you can’t really interfere with the body’s functions. Moving my fingers along the keyboard is a conscious effort of my mind, but if there’s an unexpected loud noise while I’m working, I will flinch and look around well before I’m aware of doing so. My “mind” doesn’t make that decision, my brain and body get on about it without me.

In fact, there is a lot that happens in our bodies that affect our brains, and then in turn change the way we think. For one example, the vagus nerve is a large nerve road that leads up from the gut into the brain, but most of the information that travels along it is not sending instructions down from the brain, but instead is sending information up from the guts/abdomen/lungs/heart to the brain. Van der Kolk examines the way in which mental health issues manifest in the body, and even more cool, how engaging the body in therapeutic techniques can help to heal mental health.

The Body Manifests the Damage of the Mind

In addition to the long list of mental health issues that can result from unrecognized PTSD or CPSTD, there are a lot of body health issues that can crop up as well. We can all think of physical reactions to stress like an upset stomach, or a headache, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As the trauma goes untreated and often suppressed or ignored, the body takes up the symptoms. Thus, the name of the book: The Body Keeps the Score. Things like asthma, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, epilepsy, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer are all common body reactions to long standing traumatic suffering. The ACE study (Adverse Childhood Experiences) done with the CDC and Pfizer found that people with an ACE score of 4 or more had a much much higher incidence of all these physical health issues*. That means that the more types of trauma children suffer at home, the more likely they are to be sick as adults.

*NOTE: the ACE study is not a diagnostic tool. It was a study of trends over a population and should not be taken as an indication for any individual. Many contributing factors for trauma and recovery are not accounted for in ACE. Not all children who experience multiple ACEs will have poor outcomes, and not all children who experience no ACEs will avoid poor outcomes—a high ACEs score is simply an indicator of greater risk

I was personally struck by the chronic fatigue and pain issues because I struggled with both while I was still a teenager living in my mother’s house. In the end, I was told I had fibromyalgia: a diagnosis that is based on patient’s reported symptoms and a lack of evidence for any other clinical diagnosis. I had many other health problems while under the control of my parents that diminished as I gained independence and distance, only to return in other stressful times of my life.

It’s All In Your Mind, But Not The Way You’ve Been Told

“Psychosomatic” is a word that is far too often used as a synonym for “imaginary”, and yet, that’s not what it means. Psycho means “of the mind” and somatic “of the body” so, yes, it means that a bodily symptom is caused in the mind rather than from an outside agent like a virus, bacteria, tumor, etc. Chronic illness sufferers frequently have physical symptoms ignored, dismissed, and even been accused of making things up for attention. Far too many medical professionals are stuck in an outdated model of medicine in which the mind and body are separate, and must be treated separately, so that if no evidence of illness exists in the body, then they believe no illness exists. Have you ever told your doctor something hurts only to have them say, “well, it shouldn’t” or worse “no, it doesn’t”?

As I read this book, I began to see the connection between my original trauma, my trauma triggers, and my health issues, and I gained validation for my rejection of the idea that any of my physical issues are “all in my head” in the standard western medicine pejorative use of the phrase. I learned a new way of understanding what “in my head” really means. Van der Kolk and his associates have conducted a number of studies that demonstrate that the physical symptoms generated by traumatic stress are real, and they can be healed by addressing that trauma. It may be “in our mind”, but it’s also in our brain and in our body because those three concepts are not truly separate.

How To Heal Trauma

Professional Help

Most professionals in PTSD/CPTSD agree that it is necessary to access and integrate traumatic memories in order to heal. Up until very recently, the primary way to do this has been talk therapy: a specialist helping to guide a patient to talk about the traumatic experience and then guide them into placing it in the past. Exposure therapy and hypnosis have also been used with alternating success. Hypnosis got a bad rap for supposed “planted memories”, and that turned out to be mostly media hype, but the damage is done. Exposure therapy can work for some things, but a lot of trauma survivors end up being re-traumatized by exposure therapy, not healed. Talk therapy has the best track record, but it’s hard because you have to form a trust-based relationship with a trained therapist which takes a lot of time and money.

There are a few other therapies that need to be done by a professional that use the brain body connection. One of these is EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), it uses bicameral stimulation to help patients access traumatic memories and to integrate them into the proper context. EMDR is not hypnosis; it does not require a trusting relationship nor rely on the doctor to uncover or interpret anything, and it has a pretty good success rate with very low recidivism. It works better on PTSD than CPTSD, and better in adult onset trauma than for childhood trauma. No one really knows why the bicameral stimulation works this way. The leading theory is that it simulates a sleep state (REM) when the brain sorts memories out of the “now” bin (hippocampus) and into the “past” bin (neocortex). Memory integration is a normal function of sleep, but traumatic memories are often stuck in the “now” bin, which is why they still feel so urgent. I know the chances of it working for me are not great, but I would still like to try it if I ever get the opportunity.

Another method is neurofeedback. Using an EEG to measure brainwaves, doctors can show patients what various parts of their own brains are doing by translating the brainwaves into audio or video signals. Then the patient can learn to control certain types of brainwave activity through a kind of trial and error while getting easy to understand feedback from the music or video. Being able to hear/see our own brainwaves gives us a concrete goal to focus on and enables us to use the mind to control the brain.

The last one examined in the book is “psychodrama“, which sounds like what you go through with your crazy ex, but it’s actually a kind of theater therapy. Actors and doctors worked together to create a variety of programs to help trauma survivors process their feelings. It can give patients a way to roleplay out experiences in a safe environment, thus getting resolution to previous instances, or plan on how to handle future triggers. It can help patients find words they need to express their feelings, or it can even provide words when the patients cannot find their own. An episode of the medical drama New Amsterdam showed the hospital psychiatrist making vets with PTSD put on a performance of one of Sophocles’ plays about a soldier abandoned by the military after being wounded. It is not a medically accurate TV show, but it was cool to see psychodrama being used in pop media, and that particular play is actually used in psychodrama therapy in real life to help soldiers process feelings of loss and betrayal in therapy for PTSD.

Self-Help

The big message of this book is that our mind, brain, and body are inextricably interconnected. We can’t treat symptoms without treating the cause. In order to heal, we must heal all three together. The mind-body connection flows both ways. The mind can make the body sick, but the body can also heal the mind. If you can’t afford or even find a therapist who is knowledgeable in CPTSD or the techniques listed above, you can do body work on your own.

Body work, or somatic therapy, is a way that trauma survivors can learn to feel safe and present in our own bodies again. Things like massage, yoga, meditation, dance, or tai chi can all help a trauma survivor to re-establish a healthy mind-body connection and learn how to listen to the signals of the body again. It’s not necessary to do those activities with any particular focus on your trauma because the benefit comes from establishing a deep connection between your mind, brain, and body, and these activities on their own have been shown to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, invasive thoughts, emotional dysregulation, and executive dysfunction when done regularly over time. 

It’s hard to believe that something so simple (and free) can have such a large impact on our mental and physical health, but if you’re struggling, then it can’t hurt to try. There are tons of free YouTube videos, apps and games for the phone, and even a few gaming systems that take all the guesswork out of what to do, just follow along for 10-20 minutes at a time. A quick Google search will turn up dozens, but here are the ones I use:

Yoga: I enjoy going through this 30 day challenge because it’s a little different every day, and I don’t get bored. It’s ok to skip activities that hurt or are too hard.

Grounding/Mindfulness app: PTSD Coach was designed for veterans and is sponsored by the VA, but you don’t have to be a vet to use it. Even though it’s aimed at combat PTSD, many of the free activities are good for anyone in need of more grounding and mindfulness.

The Tripp app on Oculus Quest: I know not everyone can afford a gaming system, but if you happen to already have one in your home, this is a stunning audio-visual experience that makes daily meditation and breathing exercises a real joy.

If you’re like me, and you want to see the science behind why this works, then there’s no better place to start than this book.

안녕히계세요 Korea: The Insanity of Online Teaching

Another big reason I decided it was time to leave Korea has been my career. Before COVID broke the scene, I had already decided it was time to move on. At the time, my goal was to get into a PhD program and study the use of Global English (or English as Lingua Franca) in the classroom. I took many materials with me on holiday in January 2020, expecting 2020 to be my final year at my Korean university before moving on. What is it they say? Man plans, the gods laugh?

I like and respect my former employer, the University, and my co-workers. For the 2 years I was there before COVID, it was the first job I’d held in a long time that I had that I liked going to in the morning. I liked the freedom and support that I had there. I liked it when struggling students had breakthroughs because I helped them. I liked the challenges of updating the materials to reflect the students changing needs. I liked the way the teachers collaborated and shared materials. Sure, there were imperfections, but I had some pretty serious job satisfaction, and even though I never intended to stay quite as long as I did, my intention to leave after 2020 (a decision I made before COVID) had more to do with my own goals than anything at the school.

During COVID was a different animal. Although I know that my coworkers and the university administrative staff were doing everything they could in a difficult and unprecedented situation, it was miserable. The beginning felt like rising to a challenge, but over time, it just became an endless slog. Online teaching broke my soul, and after 5 semesters of waiting to hear “we’re going back to the classroom”, I just couldn’t take it anymore.

What Is Virtual Learning?

Virtual learning existed before COVID, but most people didn’t have much experience with it until they were suddenly trying to log into their own or their children’s classrooms in 2020. Good virtual learning programs are out there. It’s possible, though I remain skeptical, that some of them might even be for language learning. We did not use any of those at my university. As I understand it, most of the schools in the world that had no previous online course offerings before COVID floundered in a big way and did not look at previous models of successful online education as a guide. For the non-educators in the audience, here’s quick and basic overview of the main types of online learning:

1) MOOC: Massive Open Online Courses: These are basically self study. You watch the videos, read the articles, take the computer graded quizzes, participate in a “discussion forum” with other students, and if you pay for it, you get a certificate of completion at the end. This is really great for people who want to just learn about stuff on their own. It has zero guidance from a teacher, however, so if you get lost or have questions, you are limited to your peers on the discussion board. I’ve used these for career development and for personal growth, and been pretty satisfied. I would NOT recommend them for regular 4 year university students, and would shun them completely for k-12.

2) Asynchronous Learning: you and the teacher are not in sync for most of the work. Teachers prepare lessons, videos, ppts, worksheets, etc. It’s very similar to the MOOC in that you work your way through the material at your own pace (with completion goals to meet the school schedule). It’s different in that your teacher is available to you. Some asynchronous classes have scheduled video meetings with the teacher either 1-1 or in groups of various sizes, some will just be via email unless a student specifically requests a video meeting. In an ideal world, teachers also provide some feedback to the students on their assignments and evaluations, which is not an option in MOOCs.

3) Synchronous Learning: The teacher and all the students go into the same online platform together and have class together. This is my least favorite form. If you’ve ever been in a Zoom meeting with more than about 5 people, you will understand why. There are some cases where this is a great way to deliver a presentation or lecture – when there is only 1 (maybe 2) speakers at a time, and everyone else is just listening, with the occasional question in the chat box or a structured Q & A at the end. It supposedly supports “breakout rooms” for discussion or interaction in small groups, but I did not find those effective. (NOTE: some people like breakout rooms, but it’s highly dependent on the course and level. It works best when a dedicated leader is in each small group, and when the participants speak up. It works less well with language barriers when everyone in your host country is too shy to speak – eg, my situation, or if the internet is to be believed, any classroom of students between the ages of 11-30).

4) Hybrid Styles: there is no one hybrid style, it just means a mix and match. Maybe your class would be 3 times a week, so now it’s a hybrid asynchronous with 1 time a week synchronous and the rest is on your own time. Maybe you have small groups at different locations, so you live cast from one classroom into a second. When offline became an option again, my school offered a hybrid that required teachers to set up the synchronous format in a classroom on campus and simultaneously teach the students in the room, and the students online. Thankfully, someone talked the English department out of that option.

About Education in Korea

A tangled web of bureaucracy means that the Korean government doesn’t seem to have any way to prove students completed the required work for a class other than literally making sure their butts are in the seats for those hours. This goes back to some scandal of last decade where students were getting A’s even though they didn’t attend … or do the work, because of nepotism or bribery or something sinister. As an American, I hated mandatory attendance courses in college, and they were rare because mostly it wasn’t possible to pass a class you never attended. Also most American professors have no qualms about failing students who didn’t earn the grade, and hey, if you want to waste your money taking a class you could pass without going, that’s on you.

The Korean approach is quite different, largely based on the Confucian cultural standard of “it looks good on paper”. (Confucian descended cultures, those heavily influenced by China at some point, like Korea, Japan and some SE Asian countries). It is required to have certain courses or types of courses on a transcript, and better to have the higher grade for an easier class. It is insanely common for students to blow off schoolwork and then do a ritual apology and beg for a grade increase at the end and get it. In an attempt at fairness, the government resorted to attendance minimums so that at very least the students must physically put in the hours. As far as my experience goes, this just resulted in a lot of students who thought they couldn’t fail if they met the attendance requirement and were often shocked to discover actual work was also required.

The school year in Korea starts on March 1. K-12 schools have a winter break for lunar new year, but they come back in late February and seamlessly move one grade up in March. Universities tend to go on winter break (or winter class schedules for make up classes) sometime at the end of December and not come back until March. I myself only came back into Korea at the tail end of February, a plan I’d made when everything was normal. We delayed the start of the semester 2 weeks, hoping that the plague would pass (oh sweet summer child). When it became apparent that COVID wasn’t going away fast enough, my uni started online classes for “just for a couple of weeks” and hasn’t stopped since. The online classes were ported over from regular class lesson plans in a big hurry in March 2020, because it was “temporary” and “an emergency”. Imagining that it would end shortly, the school didn’t see any need to update the online methods for long term use, so I’ve been trapped in virtual class hell for 2.5 years.

Why I Got Stuck With the Worst Way

Before COVID the English classes met only once a week for 100 minutes (which is already not a great way to teach a foreign language). Even when students do have more speaking time in an offline classroom, they are often speaking with peers, and I can only listen to one pair at a time. They don’t get much of my undivided attention this way. After researching online learning styles, I decided I wanted an asynchronous style where the lesson slides and lecture would be made as a video, and the slides, book pages, examples, etc. would be available to students for download. Watch the lecture, read the download, do the homework – and then once a week meet in pairs with the teacher for 15 minutes of dedicated speaking practice. However, due to the aforementioned bureaucracy and scandal, the university would not approve of such a plan, Long story short too late, asynchronous classes were off the table.

Korea decided the only way to really make sure students were doing the work and not … I don’t know cheating or whatever, was with live synchronous online classes. Ok. We want all the students together at once, so how then do we deliver quality educational content? Do we choose a platform built for educators? Do we take advantage of any of the existing software already in use for online learning? Oh, no! We get a business platform, designed for corporate needs. It’s called WebEx, and I’m sure it’s fine for what it is, it’s a lot like Zoom. This poor decision making was by no means limited to my University or even to Korea.

A lot of classrooms at the university level are just big lecture halls where the only person who talks is the teacher. I’m also not a fan of lecture hall classes unless they are supplemented with small discussion groups. However, Korea loves passive learning even more than America, so the school probably thought it was fine for like 95% of their stuff. As it turns out, medicine, archaeology, music, art, and a few other hands on topics don’t actually do that well in a pure lecture format. Also, languages. Teaching a foreign language is unlike many other types of teaching, and requires a huge amount of student talk time. You can’t learn a language through passive listening no matter what those “learn Spanish while you sleep” CDs say. In addition, being able to see each other is crucial. Facial expressions and hand gestures make up so much of communication.

The school administration surely imagined a virtual meeting room where every student sat attentively with their cameras on, hanging on the teachers every word, and jumping in to participate in speaking activities quickly, all while the teacher wrangled the slides, the virtual whiteboard, their own camera and mic, looking at the students camera thumbnails to check if they are paying attention and comprehending, and playing tech support for every single glitch. Of course, none of that happens. Students log in from their phones in the back of taxi cabs, play video games while waiting to hear if their name is called, or just sleep. Teachers can’t possibly manage the number of plates spinning, and often have to take 2-3times longer for every single activity than planned for. Not a lot of actual education was happening.

My Online Classes: A Timeline of Deterioration

Spring 2020: A small team of English teachers (including myself) met on campus daily and tested out the software and different methods of implementing student talk time. We came up with a string and paperclips barely functional version in time to start after the two week delay. After classes started, it was impossible to teach from my computer in a shared office with other teachers talking all around me, so I taught from home, a folding tv tray across my legs in my bed because my apartment was too small to have an “office”. I was so wrapped up in COVID that it wasn’t a priority to make changes to the massively ineffective and frustrating to all education delivery system. I told myself that in the long run, it didn’t actually matter if the kids (young adults) learned any English. They were stressed out af, and not English majors. I did my best just to get us all logged in every day, and to make the required classes as painless as possible for me and my students while still meeting the university minimum requirements.

Fall 2020: I felt like I was no longer struggling just to conduct a class, but I had to adapt the fall semester courses to online. I found a day of the week where I could come into the office to do necessary work without cross talk during my class time. As teachers, we’d picked up some few helpful tricks in the first semester, but we were still struggling.

Partner conversations (a key part of language learning) could not be done in the main meeting room. We had to have mini meets, not unlike the suggestion I made for asynchronous learning, but no, I’m not bitter. These mini meets had to happen while the teacher and students remained logged into the live WebEx class which was recorded to be sure of meeting minimum educational standards. I tried multiple platforms for that, all of which had issues. At one point, I was using 2 computers and my phone just to conduct a class in which some students only had a phone, or were on a free public Wi-Fi system that choked their data and kept the voice and video functions lagging.

I felt as though I could not be a good teacher in this environment, I couldn’t catch the falling behind or accommodate the struggling. I had a disabled student enroll who had a special helper assigned by the government (a normally nice accommodation). The student was stuck in another city and the helper couldn’t log into the virtual class live from where they were, so he was entirely unable to function in the class. When I tried to speak with co-workers (both foreign and Korean) about any of these issues, no one seemed to be able or willing to work on solutions. As with many places in the world, the pandemic served to highlight pre-existing systemic issues that leave the vulnerable behind.

Spring 2021: It was supposed to be the last. The plan was in place to get public schools back in the classroom and we would surely be in lockstep. I buckled down and did my best. I was able to replace my lowest level class with the advanced course, thinking that teaching higher levels online would be better for my sanity. Mostly, that was true. The new crop of incoming students had experience with online learning and weren’t as scared and confused as those in 2020. I also moved into a nicer apartment with more sunshine and a dedicated work space. I was so sure that I’d be able to travel, and we’d be able to go back into the classroom in 2021 because the vaccine was out! Neither of those would come to pass. It was my last “good” semester.

The Teacher Becomes the Student: Over the summer, I signed up for a Korean language class online, hoping to improve my Korean, but also to experience the virtual language classroom as a student to get some perspective and ideas. It didn’t do much for my Korean skills, but it definitely helped me to understand my student’s struggles. I found the synchronous virtual classroom to be wildly difficult to learn in, and was myself often muting the sound, turning off my camera, or playing video games when the class got too boring (and I’m somewhere between Hermione Granger and Amy Santiago on a teacher’s pet scale).

The big thing I learned from the teacher was to really let go of “normal” classroom management, and be ok when we just don’t get through the material. It still makes my eye twitch when I think about that, because it is unfair to the students to be in an environment where the goal is “just get through it” instead of “learn something new”. If I had been taking that class to prepare for the TOPIK (test of proficiency in Korean) to qualify for a visa, I would have been very disappointed in the class. It’s hardly surprising that students all over the country began to experience virtual learning burnout.

Fall 2021: It all broke. The student enrollment plummeted. Students who spent their last year of high school online and were missing out on the cultural joy of first year university were disillusioned and either dropped out or took only the minimum requirements. Not just at my university, but all over the country. Classes that have less than a certain number of registered students (at that time 5) are usually dropped from the roster. I lost 5 of my 6 courses because 0-3 students were registered for each. The school tried their best to make up my required classroom hours by offering me the “language lounge”, a sort of tutoring/practice lab, but they were not able to offer enough to make up the difference, and I was told I would have to teach an extra two courses to the following semester to make up for it. I did try to get them to just deduct the money from my paycheck since I was financially ok, what with zero international travel for over a year, but they declined.

Other departments were increasing offline options. Majors which required hands on labs or used specialized equipment or travelled to locations as part of the curriculum could not fulfill their educational requirements online. It’s hard to dissect a cadaver or dig up an archaeological site from a Zoom meeting. There were also a few test that required specialized proctoring in designated locations that students were required to come to campus for. It was a struggle for the students to be in the disorganized pseudo-hybrid learning environment. They weren’t living on campus full time nor attending offline classes regularly yet, but neither could they do everything online. It required many of them to travel by bus or train to Gyeongju just one day a week or less while they lived full time in their hometown (often still with their parents and younger siblings, a big crush for a young adult who had been expecting the independence of dormitory life).

The Liberal Arts classes were not considered essential enough to receive offline dispensation, so we continued to slog by with our WebEx meetings. I only had one real class, once a week, and the rest of the time, I had what I referred to with great distain as “the Schrodinger’s classes” because I didn’t know if or how many students would come until I opened the virtual meeting room. I then had to explain Schrodinger’s cat to way too many people. I hated these so called “classes” with a burning fiery passion. Try making an hour of activities for an unknown number of students in a vague skill range when you have no idea what their actual teacher is working on this week. See how much effort you are willing to put in when over and over 0-2 people show up and don’t even have their book. Or a microphone to speak with. You may also have noticed, I didn’t post anything on the blog from the summer of 21 until the spring of 22. Dark times.

Spring 2022: While I was waiting for the semester to start (and to learn my schedule’s fate) I had a lot of anxiety about a repeat of fall 21. There had been a failure to launch “Living with Corona19” and the activity restriction level was at 4 (the highest /most restrictive) for most of the winter break. There was no way we’d be back in classrooms when we couldn’t even eat at a restaurant after 9pm! I was deeply worried about my salary and my future employment options, too. I had already been told that I couldn’t make up my missed hours over the winter course selection, and rumors abounded that the graduation rate in 2021 was lower, that the national exam (Suneung) scores were lower, and that overall expected enrollment of new students was … lower.

NOTE: Returning students have classes in Jan/Feb, 3rd year high school students – aka the graduating class – take their Suneung in mid-November and although they go back to classrooms, they are not expected to do much work since the test results will determine their university eligibility. As a result, by early December, the scores and numbers of graduating students is already known even though the school year does not end until February of the following calendar year.

Some schools were shutting down, or cutting programs. The public schools were all fully back online (with exceptions for outbreaks), but the university deemed it was too difficult to contain a spread at a school where students came from all over the country, and would engage in socially risky behavior (like partying without a mask). The existing round of contracts were not set to end until February of ’23, but if my hours were continuously docked I might not be able to afford to wait that long. My school sent out emails urging anyone who wanted to resign before the semester start to come and talk to the office.

I had zero control or input over my schedule either. It changed more than once before March 1, and continued to change for the first several weeks of the semester! The university’s federal allotment was reduced, and budget cuts ensued. The minimum number of students to keep a course was raised (from 5 to 10), and the maximum number of lounge hours was lowered. Because some majors had gone fully offline by this time, the school decided to offer a small number of face to face English courses, but I was not given any chance to volunteer for those.

In the end I was assigned 8 regular courses (my 6 contracted+ my 2 make ups) and kept only 3 due to low enrollment. I had an additional 4 online lounge hours, and 2 “in person” lounge hours each week, the later consisted of me sitting in an empty classroom for the whole time, because it was “my duty”. I know that this was a result of my admin going to bat for me and pushing to add more lounge hours so that I could get paid, and I really appreciate the way she had my back, but the whole situation was absurd. I had come full circle back to desk warming. I was not only an English Robot*, but I was a virtual English Robot. It was time to go. I turned in my 90 day notice near the end of the spring semester, my last day of classes was June 21, and my last official day of employment is August 31.

*English Robot is the term I use to describe any “teacher” whose job is primarily to stand in front of the class and be a Happy Foreigner ™, giving out set phrases in that coveted native accent. I think that it can be good for the kids to be exposed, but it’s soul sucking to the human being who has trained to be a teacher to be trapped in the role of living doll. Most of these jobs also entail mandatory hours of just existing at the school, to be seen and so they can tell the parents about how the foreign teacher is available to their precious children all day. In EPIK, they call it “desk warming”.

What’s Next?

I’m saving the details for a surprise revelation post (though some of you already know). I did find a good opportunity that will start in October, and it’s different from anything I’ve done before. The university I’ll be working with doesn’t have an English Department (yet), so there’s no strong expectations that I have to follow a preset curriculum or meet certain bureaucratic minimums. There will be plenty of other challenges (no shortage of other types of bureaucracy), and my work will not be limited to within the university. Also, the country I’m going to doesn’t have as much online access as Korea, and hasn’t been enacting much in the way of COVID restrictions or accommodations. There are some virtual conferences and workshops among teachers and teacher trainers, but no widespread virtual classrooms for regular students. Finally, the nature of the project itself has a greater chance of being more “meaningful impact” and less “English Robot”, providing me with a level of job satisfaction I haven’t felt in many years. I’m not saying it’s going to be a cake walk, but it will definitely be entirely different from everything I’ve done in Korea, and that is something I am looking forward to immensely.