Senegal Time: a Road Trip & a Conference

The Fellowship is so much more than just a job. It’s an ongoing series of projects which are loosely connected by the theme of English Language and Cultural Exchange. The project for the weekend of December 10 was the 25th annual conference of the Association of Teachers of English in Senegal (ATES). Like everything else I’ve experienced here, it happened on a timeline all it’s own.

T-minus 1 Month: November 8th-28th

I received the call for submissions in my inbox. If you recall, my arrival in Senegal was marred by a minor crisis of housing, and at that time I was in my 4th temporary housing situation, living with the Fulbright English Teaching Assistants. That was also the week I got my first real details about what I would be doing at the Veterinary School, and it was at the same time I was given a Zoom meeting project to organize and direct. When it happened, I didn’t fully appreciate what I was getting myself into, but since the submission was a 100 word abstract due by November 20th, I decided in the end to go with a variation on the workshop I’d designed for my most recent professional development course, “Training of Trainers”: how to use TikTok to motivate ESL learners. Decision made, I moved on with the very grinding work of designing the materials for the school (needed by Dec 5) and the Zoom debrief (Dec 3).

It may be relevant to note that my brainstorm for this TikTok workshop was at that time entirely theoretical, since I had only encountered TikTok videos when they were occasionally ported over to my Facebook feed. I didn’t actually install TikTok until I was preparing for this conference. I could have done something for both the class and the conference that I was more familiar or experienced with, but I wanted to use this Fellowship to really push my boundaries and try new things. Mission accomplished.

I had a fair amount of emotional rollercoaster over this process as well. Despite how long I’ve been teaching abroad, I haven’t actually given very many presentations to peers in my career. Teaching is a daily presentation, but professional opportunities like this are just not things that have come along often. I worried that my topic would be too different, but then I also worried that it wouldn’t matter what I proposed because I’d seen as the “foreign expert”. Then the RELO made it seem like the submissions process was more exclusive because they were limiting the number of foreigners to make space for local presenters (which would have honestly been great because I don’t want to be chosen just for being American, and I really don’t want to take a platform away from a Senegalese teacher), and then it turned out there were not actually that many submissions anyway, so probably didn’t matter.

I turned in my material on time (November 20) and was expecting to hear back by the 25th (their own deadline for announcements). In the mean time, I moved into my new apartment, kept working on my materials for the school and Zoom debrief, and put the conference on the back burner, unwilling to prioritize mental and temporal resources to it until I knew whether I would actually be presenting or not. Friday the 25th came and went with no news, and I waited patiently until the following Monday to write and ask. With less than 2 weeks left, I was told everyone who submitted was accepted. Way to make a girl feel special.

T-Minus 10 Days: November 28-December 8

I finally knew that I would be presenting and started on the process of travel plans. Particularly since the RELO from the Embassy and other ATES teachers from Dakar would all be going, I thought that there might be some kind of assistance or direction in how I would get to this conference. I was so very wrong. I have made my own travel arrangements in many countries, often “off the the beaten track”. This isn’t usually something I balk at, but I had come to appreciate the deep difficulties involved in transit here in Senegal which are like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.

I tried to get more information from the conference organizers about the location of the conference within the town of Kaffrine, or any advice on hotels or transportation options, but they simply referred me back to the Embassy staff who had no answers either since they were provided a US Govt issue driver. To make matters more fun, although Google Maps showed several hotels in Kaffrine, only one even had a website and that website was a photo and phone number. Booking and Airbnb had no listings for the town at all. Booking a hotel online would not be possible, and yet I didn’t feel comfortable going without a reservation since this was “the largest” conference for English teachers of the year, and we thought the nearby hotels might all be booked up. Silly me. (also that railway station marked so optimistically on the map is a shut down relic of the colonial past. no trains)

That Wednesday, November 30, I met up with the Fulbrighters to hammer out the reservations. I don’t know if I would have been able to do any of this without them. They are both much more fluent in French than me, plus one of them speaks passable Wolof and has a local boyfriend. This turned out to be a big advantage in the “getting shit done” arena. She called the main car service in Dakar and they were willing to drive us to Kaffrine on Friday (Dec 9) for 85,000CFA (140$USD) but they refused to send someone to Kaffrine to pick us up the following Sunday.

I considered the possibility of renting a car and driving it myself. I got my international driver’s license before leaving the states and verified it’s valid here. I wouldn’t want to drive in the city, but the countryside seemed ok, and for 140$ I felt like we could rent a car for 3 days and then we wouldn’t have to worry about getting back and forth between the hotel and conference either. However, I didn’t know if there was any reason that the Embassy might disallow it, so I called the RELO to ask. I left the conversation with the impression that it was technically allowable for me to rent a car, but by then the Fulbrighters had turned up more information on the rental situation, and the availability of automatic transmissions here is even less than in Europe. I really need to learn to drive stick. We put car rental on the back burner as an option of last resort and got back to searching.

Talking to the other Fellow in St. Louis (also about 5 hours away from Dakar) I learned that the ATES teachers there were planning to rent a bus as a group to drive down on Friday, and I tried to reach out to the ATES leader in Dakar to see if they were doing the same. When we finally did get an answer back (several days later), we found they planned to leave Dakar in the wee hours of Saturday morning rather than spend Friday night at a hotel. The conference was set to start at 9am, and presentations at 11am. I couldn’t imagine leaving Dakar at 4am Saturday to just barely get there in time. Additionally, the Embassy has strong feelings about us not being on the road after dark.

We checked on the Dakar/Kaffrine bus route via an app called Yobuma; however, the daily bus going from Dakar to Kaffrine was not matched by a daily return, and we would not be able to get a return bus until the following TUESDAY. We looked also at Kaolac which had a better bus schedule, but then realized we still didn’t know how to get between Kaolack and Kaffrine. Finally, we gave up and called the Senegalese boyfriend for help. He got in touch with a driver he knows and we finally got a quote, 120,000CFA for the round trip with A/C. That’s 195$ for those playing the US currency game.

Africa is surprisingly expensive: I can’t really wrap my head around this. I have taken buses, trains, and rideshare cars all over the world, and that’s just an insane amount of money to get to a city 5 hours away and back. The previous week I’d done some internet research about tour groups to various sights around Senegal and was shocked by the high prices, but it seems like that’s just what drivers cost around here. Travel really is a luxury. Additionally, it blows my mind that the conference was set in an out of the way place. I understand the desire to move it around the country each year, but the neighboring town of Kaolack would have been far easier to arrange both transportation and lodging for.

Thankfully, the hotel was much easier. A simple phone call in French got us room rates and basic information about things like air conditioning and payment options. Single rooms were 30CFA (about 45USD) per night. We booked the rooms with relative ease, although, again, I’m sure if I had to do it on my own, with my terrible French, it would not have been so easy. I had hoped to use this trip as a way to learn more about how I might go sightseeing, but all I really learned was how expensive and difficult everything is when compared with nearly every place else I’ve been lucky enough to travel.

I spent the next week juggling plates as two of my three projects came home to roost, and I frantically tried to create the visual accompaniment to my presentation in between. It’s not enough to just say TikTok is useful for motivating students, I had to figure out a way to show a room full of older teachers who had also likely never used the platform themselves how to use it. I also had no idea if there would be internet at the conference, so I planned to download every example video and be able to make the presentation offline if needed. In addition to finding a wide cross section of TikTok videos to use as examples. Every waking hour that week from December 1-8 I was working, either with students, in a meeting, or on my laptop at home scouring the corners of the internet for data, commons license images, and TikTok videos, all while frantically trying to practice the speaking portion and timing over and over to be sure it made sense, flowed, and fit in the available time.

T-Minus 1 Day: December 9th

Friday the 9th finally arrived. We were expecting the driver around 11:30am. Sometime around 11:15 I got a message that he was running late because of traffic. The ongoing stream of messages for tardiness continued for the next 2.5 hours. The traffic in Dakar is truly awful, but it shouldn’t have taken more than an hour to get from one place to another, and any driver who’s worked here for more than a week should know to plan for the traffic. All things considered, I didn’t expect him to actually be on time, but I didn’t think it would be more than 30-45 minutes delay.

By the time we got on the road, all of us were very frustrated. Our goal of getting to Kaffrine before dark was entirely impossible now. The conference schedule (which I’d received only a day before) indicated a cultural event on Friday evening at 5pm that I was looking forward to attending, and felt disappointed that this delay by our irresponsible driver would make us miss that. In addition the traffic to get out of the city was truly insane. It took us over an hour to go the 15km to the highway, adding even more time to our estimate.

The ride itself was not unpleasant, especially once we got out of the city. The sun was glaring, but the driver had agreed to run the A/C for our quoted price and so we were fairly comfortable. We had some road snacks and enjoyed watching the baobab trees and cows throughout the countryside. I took some video of a small town we passed through which was fairly representative of the journey. In English, I’d use the colloquialism “one horse town” to refer to a place so small, but in reality they had quite a few horses around!

The very large highways are fairly well-kept and clear. The one connecting the airport to the city, for example, is impressive. However, once we got out past the airport, we were on roads that were full of potholes and speedbumps, and frequently stuck behind enormous trucks hauling goods around at very slow speeds. The process for passing was pretty much just peek around the truck to see if the oncoming lane was clear and going for it. There was definitely a type of headlight flashing communication between drivers, but it seemed to signal anything from “I’m here” to “you’re clear”. It wasn’t until the sun started setting that I realized the road dust and haze might make an oncoming car hard to see, and the flashing was a good way to stand out.

While on the road, I got word that the cultural event was being pushed back to “not earlier than 8pm” but more likely 9pm to midnight, and also that it was relocated from the conference venue to a nearby hotel.. I thought the delay was probably wise given how many of the attendees would be unlikely to arrive in Kaffrine before dark. The bus of teachers which had left from St. Louis hours before us was still hours behind us, even though the actual distance between St. Louis and Kaffrine was only slightly farther than that between Dakar and Kaffrine. I guess the bus was travelling much slower.

We arrived at the hotel around 9pm and were able to check in fairly easily. We had been told there would be food at the cultural event, so we decided to head over to that location and eat there while enjoying the event. One hitch, we hadn’t seen any taxis since arriving. We asked the front desk at the hotel to call a car for us since our driver was only contracted for the inter-city driving and had taken off as soon as we were at the hotel. The “taxi” was a plain car, and the driver was asking an entirely unreasonable fare. It’s hard to put in perspective, so don’t think of it in terms of USD, think of it in terms of Dakar taxi costs. Dakar is the big city, things are supposedly more expensive, and for me to take a 5km trip up to the pub costs between 1,500 and 2,000 CFA depending time of day. The trip to the cultural event was about 2km and if it hadn’t been dark (and also like 35C/95F) we could have walked it. He wanted 3,000CFA. I’ll admit, it’s not like we had a lot of options, but he also didn’t have a lot of customers. In the end, I think we got down to 2,000 and got his number for the return ride. (he ended up being our defacto Kaffrine driver and made close to 10,000 off our group that weekend for a few trips under 3km)

When we arrived at the location we were given for the cultural event, no-one seemed to know what we were talking about. It was after 9:30 and while we had been warned things would be late, I had expected the hotel staff to at least be aware of something happening. We were all road weary and hungry, and decided to go ahead and order food from the hotel restaurant since no event food was forthcoming. We sat down and got some beers, and a few of the local people came over to say hi: one a rather skeezy dude who kept insisting one of our party looked just like his ex-Scandinavian girlfriend, and the other a very sweet woman who was delighted that two of our party spoke some Wolof and wanted us to dance with her.

Like so many restaurants in Senegal our meal took a very long time to arrive. We joked that they had to catch the chicken after we placed our orders. We didn’t get our meals until around 10:30, and by then there was finally some sign of an event. Drummers and a stringed instrument player were joined by a couple of singers for a kind of African improv jam session called Ngoyane. More people arrived and the place started to fill up, but we were loosing stamina fast and were expected to be at the conference at 9am the next day.

By the time we finished eating, our cohorts from St. Louis had still not arrived and according to an ongoing WhatsApp chat were experiencing a comedy of errors that put our own to shame. At one point, they transferred from the bus to car, but then the car stopped in an empty parking lot and the driver got out to look around with a flashlight. No one seemed to know what they were looking for, only that it made no sense to look for a whole hotel with a flashlight. We decided to wait until 11:30 to see if they would make it before we had to turn into pumpkins and they did with minutes to spare. It gave us a good chance to say hi and exchange crazy travel stories, but none of us wanted to visit too long because the day had been exhausting for everyone. We got back to our hotel a bit after midnight and I was able to sleep fairly well if all too briefly.

The Conference

9AM – The morning of the conference, we called our local “taxi” and headed over, knowing we’d arrive after the scheduled start time but before anything actually started. Again our expectations of just how late “late” is here were wildly inaccurate. The 9am opening ceremonies finally started at 11am. Sometime around 10am, I and the other presenters were asked to sit up on the stage instead of in the audience. It was very uncomfortable, but at least I was in the second row, behind the real VIPs. I didn’t really enjoy being on display, but in the end it may have been a cooler place to sit due to airflow.

11AM– The vast majority of the speakers were addressing the conference in French, which is fine, because it’s the primary language here, though I had hoped at a conference of English teachers there might be more English. I can follow along ok with basic French, but the content of the speeches was not especially easy, interesting, or relevant to me, and it was very difficult to maintain focus. Finally, the opening ceremonies concluded and the keynote speaker was set to begin. He was given a long introduction… Senegalese people love to talk … and talk… and talk. His presentation was in English and he was an excellent speaker. I genuinely enjoyed listening and was appreciative of his attitude towards students and education. He started the presentation by reviewing the movie Akeelah and the Bee, which shows two very different approaches to mentoring students through a spelling bee competition, and shows in the end that love and encouragement work better than harsh discipline and criticism. He was very student centered, focused on student-led learning and the need for engaging and motivating activities, but above all, support and encouragement.

At the end, the moderator claimed she was going to limit questions to the first three people, but instead of questions, it was mostly stories and praise, and as much as I admire this cultural devotion to storytelling and mutual uplifting, it wasn’t only us Westerners getting impatient at this point in the proceedings. I overheard one of the local VIPs on stage with me say to his neighbor in a frustrated tone that the time for paying tribute was over and the people should just sit down. Even then, after the 3rd person to take the microphone finished, the moderator called a 4th to speak. I’m mildly surprised there wasn’t a riot. In the end, the tech in charge of the sound board simply cut her mic off, forcing her to abdicate the stage.

1PM– When we were finally allowed to get up, it was nearly 1pm. According to the schedule, we should have not only concluded the opening ceremony and keynote speech, but also a coffee break, and both presentation slots, and be on our way to lunch by 1pm. It’s no surprise that as soon as we were released everyone flooded to the snack tables outside.

I personally booked it for a restroom. The only ones we had found were co-ed and non-flushing. I don’t mind co-ed for single seaters, but it is a bit awkward when there are stalls. The lack of flushing is harder because with “seat” toilets it almost always means it’s not clean. I want to hope that maybe when classes are in session at the building the restrooms are cleaned more regularly, and maybe it was just dirty because of the overuse by conference attendees. I want to believe that no one has to use facilities like that on the regular. I’ve been in a lot of different styles of toilet over the years, and what I’ve come to find is that all of them are basically ok if they are clean, and all of them are truly miserable if they aren’t. Whether you are flushing, pouring water, or sprinkling ashes/sawdust doesn’t matter as much as the overall maintenance.

Next, I set off in search of coffee (it was a “coffee break” after all) and found some Nescafe packets and hot water. Once I was reasonably refreshed, I began to look for my presentation room. It was obvious the written schedule that had been handed out was meaningless for times, but I had been assigned room 1 for the first set of presentations. There were 5 of us presenting simultaneously, which I found odd when I first received the schedule: two rounds of presentations before lunch and then it’s over? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a round of presentations after lunch to let people attend more talks? Of 10 presentations, each person could only see 2, and presenters could only see one. I wouldn’t be able to watch any of my colleagues who were all scheduled to speak at the same time as me. Yet, as it was approaching 2pm before the first presentations even started, the plan made more sense to me. Somehow, even though they felt obligated to schedule the event for an early start, the planners knew in their hearts that things would end up like this.

2PM- It took a while to find my room. No one from the conference staff made any attempt to help me find it or help me get set up and organized. The “moderator” for my slot turned up in the room as I was setting up my laptop, and in the process of discovering that there was no audio available in the room. The thing about TikTok is that its an AUDIO visual medium, and for my purposes it’s about speaking practice more than anything. Without audio, my presentation would be confusing and pointless. We started the search for audio equipment, delaying the start of my presentation even further.

When a speaker was finally brought in, the person trying to hook it up had two power plugs and no audio cables. I couldn’t seem to get them to understand that the second power cable would NOT actually connect the computer and the speaker. Thankfully, one of the Fulbrighters had offered to take photos for me that day and was playing assistant. She figured out the speaker had a Bluetooth option and after no small amount of fiddling with the settings, we got the computer and speaker paired and I was able to proceed – with sound – more than 3 hours after my talk was originally set to begin.

Perhaps because of everything that had already gone wrong, I felt my anxiety drop away as I started to speak. I got through the whole thing and I really enjoyed watching the audience of teachers slowly change their minds about this crazy young-person fad. I had a fruitful Q&A session afterwards which gave me some quality insight into how I can improve the presentation before the next conference, and then it was done. I wandered back outside and rode a little wave of serotonin for having made it through what had come to feel like a Herculean task. We sang songs with a group of high school English club students and I did a short video interview for a teacher from the Casamance region. By the time I came down enough to question what was happening with the second round of talks, they were already underway and so I just stayed in the shade sipping water and chatting to the other attendees who had also opted to sit out the second round of talks.

4PM- When the last presentations were over, we tried to file over for the lunch on offer, but the rooms which had been set up were not large enough to accommodate the number of attendees. I don’t think it was more than 200 people, but it looked like the long tables would seat 100-150 depending on how cozy they wanted to be. Additionally, it was hot AF and the meal was Thieboudienne served in the traditional huge communal dishes and eaten with hands. I think I could have done 2 out of 3 of those variables (hot, crowded, messy eating) and I was not alone in that feeling. All the Americans collectively decided that rather than trying shove in, we would call it a day and go back to eat at our hotel. The remainder of the conference was internal business to the organization of which we are not members, so we didn’t feel obligated to stick around.

The hotel restaurant was, of course, out of most of the food on their menu, but grilled chicken and pizza were good enough. We even managed to get ice cream for desert. I collapsed under the air-conditioning in my room before 8:30 and watched old cartoon network videos on YouTube via the sketchy Wi-Fi until I fell asleep.

The Aftermath

The next day, our inter-city driver was actually early to take us back to Dakar (no traffic in Kaffrine). We had our hotel included breakfast of baguette, butter, eggs and cheese-product with a side of Nescafe. The drive back to Dakar was just as long and full of cows, but we all made it home before dark this time, at least.

I don’t know what to say about this trip other than it was a wild cultural experience. It was so much harder and more stressful than anything that small and close to “home” has a right to be, and yet I’m also very grateful that I was able to participate in it, not only for the professional opportunity to present at the conference, but also for the cultural experience in all its gritty glory. This will help me know how to approach future travels in Senegal and Africa. Whether it’s tourism or my next scheduled event in Zanzibar, it will give me a metric by which I can set appropriate expectations and experience fewer frustrations as a result. Every experience helps me not only to understand this place and it’s people, but to reflect on myself and my place in the world, and what that means for my obligations to myself and my fellow humans. So yes, it was hard, and hot, and frustrating, and dirty, but it was also an entirely unique and worthwhile experience in which I got to come face to face with the teachers and students who are shaping Senegal and ultimately West Africa into strong and independent culture of the future.

All I Want for Christmas Is to Stop Having Culture Shock

It has become unavoidably obvious that I am caught in the grip of some of the worst “rejection phase” culture shock I can remember. I was in denial about this up until this past Monday, but I can’t keep lying to myself about it. I was already upset that I didn’t get a “honeymoon” phase for Senegal, and I’ve spent almost every day since arriving here telling myself to stick it out because it will get better when… when I find an apartment, when my classes start, when the weather cools off, when I meet more people, when I finish this conference… it’s a never-ending goalpost-shift that I’m doing to myself. The wildest part about finally realizing that my anger, doubt, and frustration is “normal culture shock” is that it doesn’t make me feel any less angry, doubtful or frustrated… it just makes me feel very predictable and if anything even more angry, doubtful and frustrated that after 8+ years living abroad I’m still susceptible to this kind of extreme emotional wreckage.

What Is Culture Shock?

There’s a million articles about this, so I’m not going to go over every detail here. The most important things to know about culture shock are a) it’s not something you can just willpower yourself out of, and b) it follows a pattern within parameters. It’s a lot like grief or trauma response in this way. Most people know the “5 phases of grief”, but fewer know the phases of culture shock.

  1. honeymoon – “everything is awesome” or at least quaint, charming, or some other positive adjective
  2. rejection – “everything sucks”
  3. adjustment – “maybe I can make this work”
  4. adaptation – “I got this”
  5. reverse culture shock – “home doesn’t fit the same anymore”

These are often presented as a U-curve but in reality we know it as a rollercoaster that never ends, but just goes around and around and sometimes leaves you stuck hanging upside-down.

Much the same way that reaching the “acceptance” stage of grief doesn’t mean you magically stop feeling sad about the loss of your loved one, reaching “adaptation” doesn’t make you suddenly immune to culture shock.

A lot of the talk about culture shock is on a timeline of a year, roughly in quarters, and I think that’s because a year is a very standard time of living abroad for study or work. I’ve seen people on holiday pass through all four stages in a week, going from loving everything on Monday to nearly getting on a plane to fly home on Wednesday to navigating the public transit system and haggling with the street vendors by Saturday. Then there’s long term expats like myself who never really stop fluctuating through the effects of culture shock, but experience them in less extreme forms.

The brain goes through a bunch of changes when we leave our familiar surroundings. New neural connections are formed, chemicals and hormones are released in new and different ways and amounts. The honeymoon phase may just be extra dopamine and serotonin, and the rejection phase may be extra adrenaline and cortisol. It’s normal to seek the cause for any new emotion in our present environment. I learned about it while studying the trauma phenomenon of “emotional flashbacks” in which we experience an emotion as a result of past trauma but without the accompanying memory, we ascribe the cause of the emotion to the present, to whatever happened just before we started to feel it (the trigger).

When we are still new to a host culture, it’s easy to assign responsibility for any extra emotions (pleasant or un-) to the most obvious changes in our condition – the new culture. When we live in a foreign environment for years, we still experience the extra emotions, but tend to cast about for things within our lives like work or personal relationships which may have changed more recently. It’s classic the correlation/causation mix-up.

For a really long time now, whenever I have had brain changes resulting from culture shock, I didn’t think about them as being related to the specifics of Korean culture, but was able to see them as part of a broader pattern of the expat emotional roller coaster. I was having culture shock, but it wasn’t manifesting in the stereotypical ways. Now, I find myself suddenly having some very textbook-example culture shock symptoms, and I almost didn’t see it because I thought it was just for new travelers. Silly Rabbit, culture shock is for everyone.

Realizing I’m a Stereotype

At lunch the other day, my American colleagues patiently listened to me explain why I was having such a hard time here, and then while agreeing that my observations were valid, also pointed out that my emotional reaction could be culture shock. I gave it very little thought at the time, but it sat in my brain, and by the time I got home that afternoon (grumpy, exhausted, and questioning my life choices) I decided to do a little Googling. At first, I wasn’t finding any resonance. Yes, I missed my honeymoon phase because of housing and weather issues, and I had some complaints about things like chronic lateness and haggling for taxis, but I had plenty of examples of Senegalese culture that I appreciated. I love the food, I really enjoy driving along the corniche and watching the ocean, I like the way that everyone grows flowers to give color to the otherwise sand colored land. I was able to enjoy good nights out, and butterfly migrations, and students having fun. Surely I couldn’t be in this “hate everything” phase and still enjoy all that. Surely my litany of complaints were grounded in objective reality and not in an involuntary emotional response? Right?

Most people focus on the part of the “rejection” phase that centers around negative thoughts and feelings toward the host culture, but it’s not the only thing. There’s a whole pile of physical and mental health issues that come with this phase, especially if one is making the conscious effort to resist cultural judgement.

FATIGUE, ILLNESS, EATING/SLEEPING ISSUES – I wrote before about Bessel Vander Kolk’s seminal work The Body Keeps the Score. That book is about trauma manifesting in the body, but it carries the broader message that all kinds of unresolved stresses will come through as physical symptoms, especially in the form of chronic fatigue, chronic pain, eating/digestive issues & sleeping issues. Culture shock stress is no exception.

Am I extra tired because it’s hot AF, and because everything takes more time and energy to do, or because of culture shock? Am I feeling icky because of new local bacterial strains or because of culture shock? Am I not sleeping well because it’s a new apartment or is my insomnia acting up because of culture shock? Eating ice cream and bread for dinner is probably culture shock, but my recent bout of “I wanna die” fever/chills/aches/bed-to-bathroom/please-let-the-antibiotics-work-soon illness is probably the result of some local microbes my body has no immunity to.

MOOD SWINGS: ANGER, DEPRESSION & ANXIETY – Everything makes me grumpy, I have no resilience for minor obstacles. I hit fight, flight or freeze waaaay sooner than my own personal baseline. This results in some unhelpful reactions like loosing my temper at drivers who can’t use GPS or mentally checking out when I need to be focusing. Are my feelings of grumpiness proportional to the circumstances? Maybe sometimes? I mean, how many cockroaches do you have to squish before it makes you crazy? Is it reasonable to get angry when someone leaves your window cracked and the mosquitoes attack you in your sleep? What about when the neighbors kids get in a screaming match under your window for the 15th time this week, or they are redecorating next door and spend hours every day with hammers and drills? Am I grumpy all the time because of bugs and dirt and noise or because of culture shock?

I’m no stranger to anxiety either, but I was very interested to find that culture shock anxiety comes in new flavors like special concerns about water/food safety, a preoccupation with being scammed or robbed, and an obsession with cleanliness. I am not gonna lie, having to boil all my water even to brush my teeth means I spend more time thinking about it. I also sanitize my produce, which is not a thing I’ve done in other places (wash yes, but here we soak it in a mild bleach solution and rinse it with boiled water, it’s way more). I am also finding myself preoccupied with the bugs that I find crawling around. Intellectually, I know it’s just part of living in a climate like this. Even living in the US southern states you’ll be living with bugs, but I have noticed I think about it more here.

I’m starting to see that culture shock and emotional flashbacks have a lot in common. They are both strong emotional states which are frequently misattributed to coincident actions or environmental conditions. After I learned about the existence of emotional flashbacks, I had to start learning how to evaluate triggers. Sometimes, I’m triggered by things that are genuinely innocuous. In those cases, my emotional response is 100% not caused by the trigger. Other times, people do things that are objectively crappy and I have to sort out how much of my emotional response is flashback and how much is reasonable given the circumstances. I have to learn what a proportional emotional response feels like.

It’s reasonable to be upset and express disappointment when someone flakes on plans, but not reasonable to scream and cry for days about it. It’s reasonable to be frustrated that professional drivers can’t read maps, but not reasonable to yell at them about it. Why allow ourselves to be upset or angry at all if it causes so much trouble? Our anger protects us from abuse and harm. It’s reasonable to stop making plans with a person who never follows through, or to cut a person out of your life who won’t stop hurting you. It’s reasonable to leave a job that has a hostile work environment or move to a new city if the pollution is wrecking your health. Our proportional emotional responses serve to help us establish and maintain boundaries and ask for what we need in life to be comfortable and safe. The trick is identifying those when you’re in a state of emotional dysregulation.

SELF-DOUBT – This is the one that completely ate my brain when I found it. I was sitting around thinking things like “maybe I’ve made a terrible mistake”, “maybe I’m not strong enough to meet this challenge”, “maybe I’m a spoiled white-girl American after all”, “I don’t know if I can do this again, but I feel like a loser for not wanting to take advantage of this opportunity” and then I read this: Culture shack manifest as…

  • Questioning your decision to do this work
  • Feeling more shy or insecure than normal
  • Questioning long-held beliefs about religion, gender, morality, or other core convictions
  • Feeling like you’re an imposter
  • Questioning your ability to overcome adversity

Questioning My Decision to Do This Work

I already felt like the work I was doing in Korea was pretty darn meaningless, but the ability to travel the world on my holidays made up for a lot. During the pandemic when I was teaching required English classes online to students who were not interested in learning or using English and generally slept or played video games during the class, and I was totally unable to travel, the pointlessness of it all was eating away at me. When I was offered this Fellowship I thought, “well, no matter that Senegal will come with heat and dirt and bugs and other hardships, I will be doing something meaningful, and not in a “White Man’s Burden” way by imposing my own values, but by providing support to locals who are building meaningful educational programs themselves.” Reality has yet to measure up to this expectation.

The work I’m doing is if anything less meaningful. Meeting veterinary students one day a semester to promote the value of English education when no English education is available to them and no school resources or faculty members are allocated to help them is a waste of energy to promote a façade. Don’t get me wrong- I love meeting the students. I love watching them have fun in English and shake off some of the language anxiety, but I am frustrated by the total lack of ability to form rapport, or to provide growth opportunities. I feel like someone at State is going tot read this and ask me why I didn’t ask for more help from the school or the program, but the reality is, I’ve asked for help and been told “Inshallah, maybe next year” and due to the long list of culture shock symptoms listed above, I don’t have the energy or conviction to keep banging my head into that particular wall. And the idea that I, the foreign visitor, should be the one to spearhead the change or improvement or new program is exactly the kind of crap Kipling was advocating in his famously racist poem that I am working so hard to NEVER exemplify.

Feeling More Shy or Insecure Than Normal

I don’t know if I will ever actually be “shy”, but I have definitely had a lot of thoughts of insecurity – not only related to my ability to do the work or overcome the challenges, but in a social way. I have a lifetime of misreading social situations, and over the past many years I had come to a kind of peace with that where I became ok with people wandering off or didn’t listen because I just decided I would spend my energy on the people who wanted me around and showed it. I find that the people who stick around are a much more fulfilling category of relationship and I’m able to enjoy the more causal company of others with no expectations.

Now in Senegal, I’m suddenly I’m having the “are they secretly laughing at me when I’m not in the room” thoughts again. I feel like I’m imposing when I ask for help from the people whose job it is to help me. I feel like I’m incompetent in communicating when people say they can’t understand my French (it’s objectively accented but not unintelligible). I have to psych myself up to place delivery orders because I’ll have to talk on the phone. “I don’t know if I can do this” is starting to feel like a mantra, and it’s not a good one.

Questioning Long-Held Beliefs About Morality or Other Core Convictions

Questioning long held beliefs is a hobby of mine. I love reading/watching stuff that makes me think. I love the fact that living abroad makes me question myself. I love that teaching university students makes me constantly aware of changing values by generation. I have questioned my religion, gender, and sexuality to death, but I still managed to find a new morality / core identity issue to question here in Senegal: my privilege, my biases, my culturally baked-in racism, the morality of existing as a person whose privilege comes from the multi-generational exploitation of the country I’m in (one of the biggest slave ports was here in Dakar), and my responsibility within a problematic system.

It started because things are hard and I complain, and I end up feeling very “spoiled white girl” complaining about difficult, expensive, or uncomfortable things, which then makes me feel guilty, which then makes me self referentially aware of my white guilt, and I get sucked into a moral rabbit hole that would give Chidi Anagonye a very upset tummy.

When I complained about stuff in Korea, it was cultural not economic. Things were not better or worse, they were just different. Here, my lowest acceptable standards for long-term quality of life are actually quite high relative to the local people’s lived experiences, and it’s not something they can afford to change. One could argue that it’s a class/economic issue separate from the question of race, but the reality is the reason most of Africa is in poverty is because of the exploitation of the slave trade and colonialism.

Even though I experienced poverty by American standards, I still grew up with relative wealth and privilege that came directly from the historical destruction of this culture and economy, and now I’m so spoiled by all that privilege that the way many of these people live seems substandard to the point of discomfort and even disgust to me. Do I have any right to complain? And yet I can’t make myself comfortable with the local quality of life just by acknowledging this disparity. I always say it’s not the Pain Olympics and we shouldn’t engage in comparative suffering, but I can’t help wonder if I’ve become the global version of the kid who is mad they only got the second newest iPhone for their birthday.

There’s pressure to conform to the white savior trope, too. I am pushing back against that, but I can feel it coming not only from the program and the Embassy, but also from the locals. I know my intentions are good in being here, but there’s a huge accountability gap between “not purposely making it worse” and “not actually making it worse”. I can’t say for sure that my presence here isn’t making things worse. The school ditched their local English teacher when they got a foreigner, and they don’t have any plans to hire real English faculty (I’m not working here as a full time teacher), so now the students have a “meet the native speaker” day instead of a real class with a Senegalese teacher. It was supposed to be “in addition to”, but this is what happens when people assume the white/American/native English speaker is automatically a superior resource. When I go to conferences and speak, I’m given preference simply because I’m perceived as a foreign expert, and I have to figure out how to balance my desire to further my own career with my responsibility not to take away time/attention/resources from locals.

Regardless of my intentions before arriving (when I didn’t yet understand the full reality we can argue I was not making a moral transgression) but now that I know do I have a moral obligation to take a different course of action? We hold people accountable for being a knowing and complicit part of a damaging system, so the question is: is this a damaging system (in the assumption that we as Americans occupy a position of needing to step in and help or manage programs in developing nations, and are we helping in the sense of following the locals’ lead or “helping” in the sense of telling them what to do?), and is staying and doing my best more or less morally responsible than leaving this “white man’s burden” parody of diplomatic relations?

I don’t expect an answer, it merely illustrates the point that my “questioning moral and core beliefs” switch has been fully engaged in this round of culture shock.

Feeling Like I’m an Imposter

A lot of “former gifted children” feel this. Being told for years that you’re smarter and more driven and more creative and generally better than your peers is not actually helpful, as it turns out. I managed to maintain the illusion until I got to grad school, where I was suddenly surrounded by all the other gifted kids, many of whom also had major economic advantages in terms of private studies, internships, and study abroad programs and were leaving me feeling like I didn’t belong at all. My polyglotism is a chronic source of the strange see-saw of confidence/imposter syndrome. Compared with the average American, even the average American with my equivalent education, I have awesome language skillz. I can get unlost in 7 languages. However, I can’t have a reasonable conversation in more than 2-3 and I can’t have an advanced topic discussion outside of English. Compared to most of the people I meet in academic or government programs, I’m a language idiot. Every one of the 6 Fulbrighters (22-24 year-olds) who I met at orientation is fluent in French and several are already passable in Wolof. They were selected for the program in part for this skillset, while fluency was barely a consideration for my position and I shouldn’t feel bad because I was selected for a highly competitive program based on a lifetime of education and experience, but I feel like I’m somehow less qualified to be here than the new college grads. Imposter!

I also feel that the expectation that I’ll be organizing projects, mentoring teachers, and presenting at conferences is in a big way setting me up for another round of “I don’t belong here”. That’s playing back into the insecurity, but insecurity and imposter syndrome are best pals. After all, if I’m not actually qualified to do this and people figure that out, they will dislike me, right? So far I’ve been able manage the projects I’ve been asked to take on (feeling like a faker the whole time); however, there’s no doubt that the imposter syndrome is stopping me from asking for more opportunities or creating more for myself, which contributes to the feeling that I’m not doing any meaningful work, which contributes to the self doubt of whether I should be here at all. It’s a vicious-tangled-circle-web culminating in…

Questioning My Ability to Overcome Adversity

Everything I complain about, all the feelings of doubt and inadequacy, all the physical discomfort, the obstacles to personal and career goals, and the ongoing struggle with depression and anxiety are ADVERSITY, so as soon as my ability to overcome adversity comes under fire, it makes all those other issues that much bigger and by definition insurmountable.

When we are young, we feel immortal and almost arrogantly confident. We don’t know enough to know that’s supposed to be impossible so we do it. As we age, we learn our limitations through painful consequences. Perhaps 25 years ago, my faith in my ability to overcome was based in youthful grit and stubbornness, but these days it comes from a place of experience. I have overcome adversity in the past, and any time I can compare my current adversity to a past adversity which has already been conquered, it’s easy to have faith that I’ll make it. The reverse side of the “past experiences” coin is that my anxiety is also based on experience: “this horrible thing that most people only imagine and isn’t actually very likely has already happened and is therefore 100% likely and reasonable to feel anxiety about”.

Of course, at some point everything we overcome has to be overcome for the first time. Artists don’t start by painting museum quality oils. Athletes don’t start by running a marathon. We start small and build up. It’s true that we get older, we become more risk averse, but I can continue to do things like “quit my job and go to a foreign country” because my experience tells me that is actually a low risk activity for me. Before coming here, I thought that my past experiences of living in China and Saudi and travelling around the Middle East and Southeast Asia would prepare me for the challenges I’d face in Senegal. Now I’m wondering if there are just some adversities I have Murtaugh Listed out of being able to handle

Psychological Side Effects

There’s one more factor about living in Africa that is unique to this continent: anti-malarials. The British relied on quinine, and while I love a good G&T, these days we have pills to fend off severe malarial infections. There are a lot of options on the market, but they all have pros and cons. Cost is a big factor for a lot of people. Daily vs weekly doses is another consideration. I’m not good at daily pills even short term, so weekly was a big appeal for me. Then there’s strain resistance. Malaria in some places has become resistant to the more commonly used drugs. That includes Senegal, for which Chloroquine is contra-indicated due to resistant strains of malaria that dominate here. That left me with Mefloquine which has a higher than desirable risk of psychological side effects, many of which are co-morbid with the psychological effects of culture shock, with the added bonus of vivid dreams, possible hallucinations, and seizures. Yay. Studies are fairly limited and there is no data which studies the effects of the medication in the subject’s home culture, so no way to know what amount of the distressing symptoms are a result of living in Africa as a foreigner or of the Mefloquine.

And I hate hate hate the idea that as women we are constantly judged as overemotional due to our hormones, but I did just turn 45 and some of this mood swing business could legitimately be a part of perimenopause. So we have at least 5 different factors in play: 1) pre-existing conditions, 2) environmental adversity, 3) culture shock, 4) medicine and 5) getting old. The chances of my mental/emotional state being only and entirely just ONE of these factors is 0, and 3 of them are directly related to living in Dakar.

Is It Real or Is It Culture Shock?

The time is coming where I have to start making decisions about my future. We’re already making plans for our mid-year conference, and before you know it, the 10 month Fellowship will be over. Whatever happens, I know that this is a life altering and immeasurably valuable and unique experience. I don’t regret the decision to come in any way. I just want my future self to be able to tell some “it was so awesome” stories about Senegal alongside my newfound stories of resilience and overcoming adversity. However, I’m having a really hard time making plans or looking forward to anything while I’m in this particular loop of the emotional rollercoaster. So please, Santa, all I want for Christmas is no more culture shock… or if that’s not possible, then I’ll take one in blue.

A Random Day in Dakar

I have been in Dakar now for 8 weeks and no two days are the same here. I had some hope that getting an apartment and starting work at the university would create some regularity, but that’s just not how things roll here. I wanted to paint a picture of average daily life, but the truth is every day is different, so I’m just going to pick one at random.

My Fellowship is very much not like a regular job. I have some days at the “host institution” (for me, a veterinary school which has no actual English program or staff), and on other days I’m working on whatever professional development projects or cultural exchange experiences I can find. On the days I’m scheduled to be at my host institution, there are no regular classes. Instead, I’m set up to run an English Clinic as part of the veterinary clinical rotation from 8:30 – 4:15 (-ish) where I’ll see each of the year 3 and 4 students a grand total of one time during the semester. It’s obviously not a “class” in the educational sense; I’ve chosen to think of it as an English Promotional Seminar, which definitely makes me feel like less of a teacher and more of a “cultural exchange experience”, so I guess that’s on mission?

Nothing in West Africa starts on time, but so far, I keep trying. Feel free to place bets on how long that lasts. To get ready for English Clinic, I wake up at 7am, bleary eyed on a Monday and wondering why anyone would choose this. Marcus Aurelius hated mornings too, so I feel validated in my preferences for sleeping late. I start trying to find a car between 7:20-7:30 but there aren’t any. I watch the ride-share apps search and search for drivers to no avail. I go out to the street to scout for taxis, but the black and yellow vehicles which make up 80% of the cars on the road at all other times of day are nowhere to be seen at this dawning hour. When one finally appears and stops for me, he flatly refuses to make the drive south to the university. Though the taxis are thin on the ground, there’s no shortage of talibés (begging children) who have been forced out onto the hot and dusty streets by the so-called “teachers” at the Quranic “schools”. I retreat from the human rights violations that make me confront the horrors of humanity far too early in the day, and return to my apartment to continue trying the apps.

When a driver finally accepts my request around 8am, I know I have to face the inevitable phone call. There are no addresses in Dakar, so you give directions for everything. The apps have GPS maps, but most drivers don’t know how to use them well. Heetch, a French company in neon pink, has an option to share location and an in app messenger, but the drivers call anyway. Yango, red for Russia, even includes a “do not call unless it’s an emergency” option, which the drivers ignore completely. The drivers speak in rapid French accented with Wolof or another African dialect. When I first arrived, these calls were panic inducing, but I’m finally getting used to it. They’re probably going to ask where I am, they might ask where I’m going, or they could tell me they are stuck in traffic. This one is all three. I agree the traffic is terrible, and I know I have to wait. Two minutes later, he calls back asking me to cancel.

I keep trying. All drivers busy. No drivers available. Eventually another driver accepts and calls. They ask where I am, even though it showed the location on the app before they accepted the job, and they ask where I’m going. They tell me how long they think it will take for them to reach me, even though the app tracks them by GPS and shows me when they are near. It’s everything I hate about talking to strangers on the phone plus language barrier – every time. The driver arrives around 8:30 and we set off. He doesn’t want to take the Corniche, even though it is the most direct route it will be a traffic jam at this hour, so instead he weaves through side and back streets. He cuts back and forth between the seaside road and the interior road. Both are choked with cars. I watch the traffic which seems to be an ongoing negotiation, drivers signaling by any means except the turn signal – leaning out of windows to chat or yell, and occasional passing pedestrians helping to direct cars when things get truly jammed up. In the early morning rush hour, most major intersections and roundabouts have an officer directing traffic. There are no traffic lights anywhere.

Most drivers know where the campus is generally, but not the veterinary school. This driver is flying blind, no GPS in sight, so when we near the campus, he asks me for directions. It happens probably slightly less than half the time that the driver can’t or won’t use GPS (phone data costs money after all), it’s not the norm but still very common. This was another source of panic in the beginning, since when I was newly arrived I had no idea where anything was nor the best way to get a place. Now, I at least know the roads I travel regularly and I have enough working knowledge of the city’s geography to use Google Maps without getting lost. I am able to direct him to the school and we arrive a little less than an hour after leaving my apartment.

I walk onto the campus greeting staff, students and faculty in a mix of French, Wolof, and English, deposit my bag into my office and head to the security guard who has the key to the conference room that has been issued for my use. Today, the room is in use by another group, but no one thought to tell me about it until I was trying to get in and set up my clinic. It’s a wild departure from both Western culture (where I grew up) and East Asian cultures (where I’ve worked the last 6.5 years), but then again, so is showing up 60 minutes late and not getting reamed, so … when in Dakar, I guess. A few other faculty members who were wandering the halls popped over to help, and soon I was placed into a new conference room, a special room usually reserved, I’m told, for the director general. The complex process of making sure that my computer can be hooked up and both audio and video can be delivered to the students starts all over again. A third faculty who is more tech savvy must be called in for this. As we begin to get the TV and speakers online, I realize that the students have no idea where to come due to the unannounced room change, so a fourth faculty must be contacted to issue a broad text message to the students.

After some trial and error, we get the computer, tv, and speakers all talking to one another and I’m able to begin class around 10am. Just 90 minutes later than scheduled. Of the 14 students expected to show up, 10 are seated around the conference table. I breeze through the introductions and ice breaking games with the students, all but one of whom are uncharacteristically shy. I myself am particularly low energy having spent my weekend on an exhausting but interesting road trip. Perhaps were I less tired, or the students were less shy, we could buoy each other up, but instead, I declare a break after our second game.

Returning from the break, we charge through the listening comprehension activities and then break again, this time for lunch. I feel like I’m missing a part of the picture of how things work here and that I’m scheduling the sections and breaks badly. The students never act like I’m doing things the normal way. When I ask the one member of the faculty that speaks English well, he assures me that they are just being students trying to get out of work, but also points out that sometimes the teachers offer to skip breaks/lunch in order to finish early. That sounds exhausting, and I’m hungry. I need breaks too!

I walk out the back gate, passing the cows that no longer startle me so much, watching the pied crows drift lazily between the fences and the trees and listening to the calls of raptors riding the thermals above. The sun is oppressive. Despite the fact that it’s early December, and the temperature in the shade with a breeze might even be considered pleasant, the sun feels like it’s trying to eat my skin. It feels like reaching into the oven when the heating element is on, but everywhere. The faculty restaurant is nestled in a lush garden and in perpetual shade. During October’s heat wave the shade was not enough to make the outdoor dining bearable (and there is no indoor option), but today it’s fair enough without the hungry sun.

I like the faculty restaurant because it’s close, cheap, and fast. Most restaurants bring food out with the same attention to time as everything else here. If you were hungry when you sat down, you’re hangry by the time the food arrives. I wouldn’t dream of trying to eat at a regular Senegalese restaurant in less than 2 hours, but the faculty restaurant is half cafeteria. The dishes are cooked in advance and are waiting for the teachers to come in and order. Today I choose Thiebou Yapp, a traditional beef and rice dish served with a kind of onion chutney sauce that is a little piquant and only slightly spicy. Some days I might finish up with some attaya, a very sweet strong tea served in tiny cups, but I can see I need to leave to get back to the class on time, and I still have this lingering attachment to being on time. An attachment the students do not share.

I get back to the conference room/classroom just in time, but no one else is there. I wait and wait, and after about 30 minutes I decide to go ahead with the 5 students who have shown up. Over then next 30 minutes, 3 more students trickle in one at a time, the last returning over an hour after I asked them to. I don’t keep attendance or give grades. I will not see any of these students again inside a classroom until next spring. I understand why they might feel like it’s a waste of their time, and I can’t be upset at them for not wanting to do this ill-conceived program. I feel a lot like the school just wants to be able to say “English happened”, which was one of the biggest things I disliked at my last school. If my job is to teach, then I want to teach, not talk to myself in a room of 5 people who are falling asleep, reading their phones, or just zoning out because they can’t understand me, none of whom I will see in a classroom again for 3-4 months after our one day together.

The after lunch section is my least favorite part of the single day “curriculum”. The school asked specifically for clinical roleplay, but I’ve discovered two main problems with this. One – I’m not a veterinarian, so I don’t know what goes on in a veterinary clinic. And two – 90% of the students do not have the English ability to have a basic vet-client conversation even with a helpful worksheet. I can deal with the first part a little by researching, but nothing I do will make it possible for the students to gain conversation skills in a few hours. I desperately want to cut this section, and I am mentally preparing for how to do that, but I feel backed into a corner with it now because I need to be able to say that I tried it their way before I junk it, plus I’ll need time, energy and brain space to invent something to take it’s place (none of which I have on this day). It’s a struggle every time, and with this extra shy, extra small group of students it’s even harder because they are so reluctant to speak, but we survive. I praise them and smile and applaud and they decide to forgo the last break in favor of leaving early.

I don’t mind the idea of leaving early myself, so I walk everyone through the last section, a self-study guide with a list of free resources, and introduce the final game of the day. I love this game because everyone universally gets into it. I read somewhere that first and last experiences shape the emotional memory, so I want the students to have fun at the beginning and the end of my clinic day. AGO is a Japanese card game based on UNO but designed for learning English. It never fails to arouse competitive feelings and get lots of people smiling and laughing. In this case, the students who were so eager to leave early they wanted to skip the break end up staying late to finish their games. It’s a tonic to me too, when after a long day of pulling short quiet sentences from shy and reluctant students I can see them having fun again. It rescues me from the pits of despair that this otherwise futile educational effort brings on.

When it’s finally time to leave, I have to search for another car. There are no taxis along the small internal campus road, so my options are to use the apps or walk to the main road. I sit in a small courtyard waiting for a driver to accept my request. When one finally turns up, it’s an actual taxi, … part of the reason we agree to pay more for the app cars is that they are better cars, usually with AC, while the beat up little bumble bee taxis are frequently falling apart and have no AC, fine for short trips but rather miserable to be stuck in traffic in. But what are you going to do? I sit in the back and try to pretend that the wind through the window is enough for the nearly hour of traffic back to my apartment.

While I’m sitting there, feeling tempted to complain and feel sorry for myself, I slowly realize that the ever present butterflies of Dakar have become a flurry. There are always what I as a city girl think of as “a lot” of butterflies, but today the small white wings fill the air by the thousands. It’s impossible to film or photograph because they are so tiny and move so fast, yet as I stare out the window in the heat of stalled traffic, I am transported by the pure magic of witnessing this Senegalese snow. I had never thought of butterflies as a weather condition before, and yet even the largest of butterfly greenhouses I’ve visited have nothing on the migration I am witnessing from the back of the beat up taxi. The way they drift through the air looks like cherry blossoms or snowflakes caught in a breeze, though both are sights I associate with much cooler weather. I think about how un-Christmas-like I have been feeling as December continues on, and marvel at this little whirl of white. How can I be upset at traffic or late students when this beauty exists?

At home I go straight to the shower to rinse off the sweat and dust of the day and the traffic. I prepare drinkable water by moving the boiled water to the bottle in the fridge and boiling a new kettle to cool overnight. I watch tv, eat dinner, and log into another zoom call to manage the bureaucracy. The next day, I’ll decontaminate my produce delivery to make the fresh fruit and veggies safe for my delicate western constitution, and I’ll figure out what the next step in the next project that needs my attention is. Life here is more different from any place I’ve lived in a long time, there’s no routine in my job because everything is always changing, and no routine in my life because it’s always breaking down, getting replaced or being updated. I am still not sure how I feel about this lack of stability and constant uncertainty, but I do know that without it, there wouldn’t be unexpected moments of beauty and joy, so for now, I’ll take the trade.

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:

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, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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!!!

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.

Who can even, right now?

I am finally free of the oppressive summer humidity that is South Korea as the cooler (and shorter) fall days are sweeping in. It’s definitely having an impact on my mood and body, but is it enough to counteract the pandemic-dystopia blues…. meh… probably not.

2020, eh? What a wild ride. No matter what corner of the earth you are in, you have not escaped, and in many ways, Americans in particular are experiencing a heretofore unknown to us level of total failure at all things. I will not barrage you with tales of woe from what once was the bright shining beacon of freedom, hope, democracy, and economic prosperity (you can read the news if you don’t know but want to), suffice it to say that most of us who have the dubious honor of bearing citizenship of that country are going totally bonkers in a way that previously was only known outside it’s borders and it’s civics textbooks.

As an American living and working abroad, I’m in an even weirder position, since 90% of the people I love most in the world are stuck in the nightmare of soaring Covid infection, crumbling democracy, rampant police brutality, massive climate damage, spiking unemployment, and some of the most bizarre conspiracy theories* of the last 1000 years. While I have the pleasure of living and working in South Korea which is handling the pandemic very well, balancing our freedoms with our safety, while keeping the economy from collapsing into a black hole. I even get to work from home. Sure, I hate online teaching with the fire of a thousand suns, but I’m safe from germ-infested students.

*note: those links are just top google search results to make it easy on you, but feel free to search for more if you are somehow oblivious to the horrorshow that is this American life in 2020.

I am personally safe, healthy, and financially stable while all those I love stuck stateside are in freefall. I have lost one friend (yeah, metaphor for he died, not that we parted ways) this year, and another is struggling with what may be permanent disability due to a Covid infection in the spring. Friends are loosing jobs, healthcare, homes, and those who are stable are terrified it will all go away if they do get sick, but they can’t avoid crowds and maskless idiots all the time.

What have I been doing?

Since I last wrote about my pandemic teacher life in Korea, I am still doing intermittent fasting (it sucks less, but I’ve only lost like 3 kilos), all my plants died, my D&D game is still going, but my players jumped into the Abyss for no reason, I managed only one single outing during the hot weather (it was NOT a fancy hotel, but it did result in adorable birbs), and I managed a few Ireland posts before all my steam diffused into the broader steamy air of the oppressively hot Korean summer and my world shrank to one highly airconditioned bed and a Netflix hookup.

I’ve also been reading books about trauma recovery and Vladimir Putin, which may seem like an odd combination until you look at the politics of it all. I thought really strongly about doing a book review of any one of the books by Massha Gessen that I’ve read, but I just don’t know if I have the soul within me to recap her already devastating recounting of the transition of Russia from USSR to almost democracy to Putin autocracy. Read them, though, or do the audiobook thing.

And if you’re interested in the work I’ve been doing on trauma, you can check out these books:

I’ve had no good days. There have been ok days, bad days, and HORRIBLE days. Horrible days involve involuntary non-stop crying, panic/anxiety attacks, suicidal ideation, and total isolation. Bad days, I can get through the bare minimum of “eat/hydrate/teach” and then have to sink into dissociative distractions like video games, binge watching Netflix, or reading pop-YA fiction to keep it from becoming a horrible day. Ok days I might actually experience fleeting moments of “that’s nice” before the ennui sets back in. And from what I understand, this is pretty much the new normal for almost everybody I know.

I’ve been writing long Facebook treatises on loneliness, social isolation, the dangers of unverified memes and bandwagon political movements. They go into the void and are never heard from again. There is only a wall of depression, fear, fatigue and “other responsibilities” separating us all from our loved ones near and far. I have never felt so alone in the 6+ years I’ve lived abroad as I do this year, and everyone else posting into the void says they feel lonelier than ever, too, trapped behind social distancing and quarantine measures.

Are you there, Internet? It’s me, Kaine.

The point I’m making here (badly) is that I logged into my own website for the first time in almost two months today and realized that I felt like a complete SLUG for not having written more during this unprecedented period of free time. After all, I can’t GO anywhere or DO anything. I’m basically primed to be my artistic best, right?


I hope by now this is not the first article you have read about why we can’t (and shouldn’t) be holding ourselves to the same standards of productivity we do when we are stable and healthy, but we can’t. I bought a huge box of art and craft supplies over the summer and it’s still sitting there, only having been opened long enough to check the contents matched the order. I DID get my e-reader after several months of trying (why Korea, why) and I have been reading a LOT, not only the above books, but a tidal wave of bubble gum fantasy and sci-fi to aid in my voracious search for dissociation aids. After all, if I don’t have to think about the terrible things, they can’t hurt me, right? right??? (again, no). I have written exactly nothing, created … well, does designing my Animal Crossing island count as an artistic endeavor? And now I found myself with a little extra time after doing my teacher job, and not feeling totally exhausted/overwhelmed, and open my blog to realize the gaping hole in my narrative ability.

Will I write more? Eventually, yes. I am writing today, though not a story of globe trotting. The writing may change to reflect the world I’m living in now, because it’s hard to get excited about travel when it feels like my favorite most wonderful toy that just got yanked away by some mustache twirling cartoon villain. Perhaps avoiding thinking of my past adventures keeps me from being sad about my current and future adventures that have been cancelled. Perhaps another day, thinking about my past adventures will be a happy memory again. I expect it will go back and forth a few dozen times before the pandemic is under control enough for my hobby to resume.

Maybe the next time I log in, I’ll be willing to write another post about Ireland or Spain. Who knows. Until then, thank you everyone! Remember to wear your mask, wash your hands, smash the patriarchy, and support Black Lives Matter!

It’s ok to not be ok.

Starting a New Year, 2019

Hello! I have been completely lax on my real time updates since all my EU posts were scheduled in advance giving me a blog break to have my holidays and get back to school without any writing stress. So, here I am, back in Korea. Back in ‘lil ol’ Gyeongju, where the food choices are limited and the air quality is stunningly bad. Can you tell I’m excited?

March is the beginning of my year in Korea. Although the calendar flips January 1st, and the Lunar New Year is often in February, the school year starts on March 1. I started my life in Korea in late February 2016, and inevitably I feel like the first week of the school year is the real Week 1 of my year. So while everyone else does their retrospectives and new year plans in Dec/Jan, for me it’s Feb/Mar. Welcome to Week 1, 2019.


March 2018: I moved from Busan to Gyeongju, rented an apartment in Korean, and started my shiny new job.


April 2018: Sadly short cherry blossom season followed by a metric ton of other flowers. I got into Macro photography for the first time, and went a little crazy with the flower photos.

May 2018: I went to Japan to visit my friend in Nagoya over the long weekend. I got to visit sacred forests, beautiful gardens, historical sites, plus local shopping and a ton of fun local foods.

June 2018: This was a little slow as the weather was getting hot. I visited a museum here in Gyeongju as well as a couple local archaeological sites, and I cut a couple feet off my hair! Big change.


July-August 2018: the EU summer trip which I cannot possibly link to all of the posts for. France, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, & Russia!

September 2018: I was pretty glum last fall. The heat of my EU vacation drained me physically, and one of the classes I was teaching that semester drained me emotionally. All my Korea friends that hadn’t left in February, left that summer. I felt alone and stressed out pretty much all the time. Yeah, bummer.

I realize, looking back, that I may have been horribly sad last fall because I didn’t DO anything besides work. I try to track my fun activities through photos and there is actually nothing in the entire month of September and only a handful of smaller activities in October, November and December. Dear future self, don’t do that again!

October 2018: I got into art. I started going to watercolor classes, and made it to a real art store in town to explore more with acrylics and mixed media. I did a bunch of planning for the winter vacation as well.


November 2018: This was a wild trip to the local bird zoo. I didn’t even know such a thing existed, but I went with an out of town guest and had a blast with the birds. I also finished my first major piece of art in like 4+ years, so that felt good.

December 2018: Wrapping up the semester, learning how to file grades in Korean, and generally feeling the wintertime blues. I did make it out to one beautiful light show with friends in Daegu, but sadly caught a terrible cold for my birthday & Christmas.


Jan-Feb 2019: winter vacation! posts will be added as I’m able to get them all written and edited. Taiwan, Jordan, Egypt, & Malaysia!

Going Forward:

The good news is, I feel a lot better coming out of this holiday. The weather was mostly nice where I was, and even though Malaysia was hot af, I wasn’t trying to do a lot outside everyday. Plus, I got to spend 3 weeks with a good friend! The weather in Gyeongju is (so far) much nicer than it was this time last year, and I feel like I know what I’m doing at my job. I know it will still be a challenge to maintain my positivity here (Gyeongju is just too small for me) but at least I’m starting out in a good place.

I will be trying to get to better cherry blossom events than last year, but it is extremely weather dependent. Last year the long cold winter and massive rains gave us a whopping 3 days of beautiful trees. This year the early spring weather is much nicer, so I’m holding out a little hope.

Aside from the local cherry blossom festivals, I’m limiting my Korean outings this spring because I’m finally going to get my mom to do some international travel with me this summer! I need to save up a bit, though, since she’s even less into cheap-and-uncomfortable travel options than I am.

Meanwhile, I’m starting my second year at Korean University Professor life. I get to teach the same classes as this time last year, which is actually quite a treat since I have a lot of material prepared and a strong idea of how to do everything. It takes much less brain space to do, and ultimately should result in a better class experience overall since I can avoid the first-timer mistakes and add in all the things I learned to improve lessons.

This frees up some of my down time to work on my summer plan with my mom, and to finally get into the nuts and bolts of what it takes to do my PhD. Just as with the job hunt for EPIK and the University job, I’m sure I’ll be writing about this PhD process in a hopefully funny and informative stress rant blog.

am a hopeless academic who would be happy to spend my life in continuous study, but in this case the PhD is not merely for the glorious satisfaction of my own inner Hermione Granger, but a good step in my career. The next tier of high quality and stable university jobs do require this level of education. There’s a lot to love about my current job, but looking forward it would be nice to have a place with English Majors (students who are invested in English instead of merely required to do it) and to know I have some kind of job security past the age of 50 (tenure or something similar). Plus… I’ll be able to refer to myself as “the Doctor” with total accuracy.

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Despite the additional project, I am going to try to keep up with the blog because it’s a fun hobby / therapy activity. I’m coming up on 5 years this May, so no reason to stop now!

What you have to look forward to?

In March, April and May, I will be posting more stories from the EU summer trip. Believe it or not, I’m still not done telling all those wonderful adventures.

I will be Instagramming the local spring flowers as often as I can. Those will show up on the ‘gram, and also be mirrored on Facebook and Twitter so you can see them on your favorite platform.

Finally, I will be working to prepare the stories from this winter, which should start to come out some time in May or June.

Thanks for reading along. This blog has shifted and evolved in style and topic over the years as it fits into my life and I grow and change around it. It’s nice to imagine that there are people I have never met who nonetheless feel a connection because of this magical series of tubes we call the internet. ❤

Professor Gallivantrix 2: The Winter Applicant

It’s been both hectic and great getting used to this new job. Learning the ins and outs of my office, my classes, my students, and my new town has taken up a lot of my time, but I’m hoping to have more writing time soon. I’m also hoping to have more adventures to write about now that spring is springing and nature is more welcoming. For the moment, content yourselves with continuing the harrowing tale of my months long hunt and eventual capture of the elusive Korean University Teaching Job. 

Related imageInterviews

It wasn’t until November 17th I got my first positive response, and it was still a soul-crushing nightmare. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Korean universities all want to do face to face interviews… for the first round of shortlisted candidates… during school hours.

This school wanted me to travel 4+ hours to have a 15-minute interview and then travel back. I would miss an entire day of work, including class time, which is just not possible with EPIK. I could arrange to use my PTO to leave the building early (after classes but before “end of work”) or on a desk warming day when there are no classes, but the only reason to miss out on time in front of the students is being in the hospital. Yes, ok, I could possibly fake being sick and head to an interview, but this was the initial round of the application process not a final formality and there was no guarantee that I’d be offered this position, or accept it. How many more interviews would I have to attend during this process? I couldn’t burn my school out either because I still needed the CT and principal to be good references.

I had to turn down the interview. My first “real” interview was a week later when I managed to schedule a phone interview with another school.

12 December 2017

What is with the schools who want me to get on a bus for 4 hours to have an interview on a work day? If your foreign candidate is living in your country, they are probably here on a work visa, which means they’re working… probably as a teacher… which you are hiring for… would you let your teachers take off a day to go interview at another school? no? then WHY do you think we can come to you?

Midway through December, I had to turn down another face to face interview because of scheduling and travel. I had the flu, and even though the university was willing to work with me to change the time so that I could come on a Friday evening (leaving Busan after my last class at 12:30 to get there in time), I felt that pushing through the school day, and a 4 hour bus ride, with a flu that had me barely able to talk and totally unable to stop sipping tea and blowing my nose every 3 minutes was not going to make me a good candidate at the interview.

I managed another phone interview and one more skype interview a few days before Christmas. I was briefly feeling confident that I’d be able to make this happen without having to take time off work or spend tons of time and money bussing across the country.

Christmas Eve Blacklist

Going more than a little crazy, I made myself this promissory list on Facebook to help me through the holidays.

24 December 2017

  • Get a good uni job in Korea
  • Get a spring start job elsewhere
  • Leave this apartment by Feb 25th no matter what
  • Move to Penang and keep applying for a uni job with a fall start
  • If no uni job presents itself, take any decent job and get into PhD program earlier than planned
  • online teaching
  • vietnam short term contracts
  • If this whole mess falls apart like crazy, go back to Seattle for a few months and then get into the PhD program
  • Do not falter.
  • Do not accept a job that will make you miserable (at least not until you’re down to airfaire money)
  • Do not give up.
  • Do not go crazy.

I was actually offered a job that day. I thought I’d succeeded in only applying for positions I would actually accept. I mean, there’s no point in applying for a job that obviously doesn’t work for you. I had already limited my search to universities. I rejected ads that had too many teaching hours or questionable lists of extra duties. And I rejected places that were too far out in the boonies because I know that about myself. So when I got this offer, it was like, “Merry Christmas to ME!”

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Then I looked at the contract, and it was not even close to what the ad had said or what was said in the interview. The work hours were all over the map. A teacher could be expected to have a class anywhere from 8am to 9:30pm. The 16 hours “average” was based on a semester total, and overtime was only paid by the semester, so it was possible to work 27 hours in one week and 8 in another but still not get OT. Moreover, I don’t do split schedules anymore. Some people might like that, I do not.  I really don’t trust someone who says, “but in reality, it works this way” when the contract goes on to specify how I’ll be getting screwed in hours and pay.


My suspicions firmly aroused, I looked up the school on teacher review websites and found that it was one of two universities in Korea to be on the blacklist… with two negative reviews from the most recent school year about exactly the things I was concerned about. It was disappointing, but my experience taught me that it’s better to say no than end up in a job that would make me miserable. I had my back up plans and I had to stick to my guns, so I turned them down.

The New Year

Somewhere in early January, I started getting more into schools in China. I was feeling very hopeless about Korea and discovered that several cities in China have boosted their air quality back to a level I feel comfortable living with, so I expanded my horizons. I’m not going into a lot of detail because this is a post about a job in Korea, but it is still part of the picture that I was hurling resumes out left right and sideways and scheduling phone or skype interviews as often as possible.

During this time, I also caved in and started going to interviews in person. It helped that one finally offered a Saturday option so I didn’t have to miss work, even though I did spend 12 hours traveling for 20 minutes worth of interview. And no, I didn’t get that job either, although they were very kind and reassured me that I was on a very short list of candidates invited to interview and was encouraged to try again in the future…

6 January · Gwangju ·

Trying not to be nervous. Arrived 1 hr 15 min early. Spent 30 min waiting for a taxi. I really don’t want to ruin this cross country journey by being 5 min late because of taxis.

Then a weird thing happened. A school I’d applied for and not even heard a peep from back in November put up another hiring ad. I emailed to be sure it was real and not some scheduled ad they’d paid for and forgotten about and was told yes, the school was doing another round of hiring after all. So I submitted my credentials again. A couple days later I get an email asking me to call them and after verifying I am the person matching the paperwork. Yes, I’m really me.

They politely tell me how sorry they are but the Dean will not approve an interview because they don’t accept “private academy experience”. “I’ve never worked at an academy. What are you talking about?”

After some misunderstandings, we realized the name of the company that hired me to teach in Saudi looks too much like a private English Academy and they disregarded the part where it said the name of the University I worked in over there. If the kind gentleman who received my email asking if the ad was real hadn’t felt bad and wanted to personally apologize, they would never have thought twice and I would never have known why.

I have since updated my resume to showcase the UNIVERSITY part first and the name of the employment company second, but all this stems from the fact that I got hired by a private company to work at a university which has been a thorn in my resume ever since. Getting experience to translate from country standard to country standard is not easy.

All this clarification happened the night before the interviews were scheduled, but it was in a town only one hour away, so I was barely able to squeak in getting to leave early from work to catch the intercity bus and the very last interview of the afternoon. To highlight how ridiculous this permission thing is: my classes finished at 12:20, I asked if I could leave at 12:30, I was told, no you have to wait until 12:40. I have no idea why, but this kind of insane scheduling nonsense was just one more stressful addition to my plight to attend interviews.

Plus, they wanted yet something else for the interview, because everyone wants to make their candidates create unique original content just for them. So I had to make a whole new Powerpoint presentation about my educational style and lesson plans with handouts. The only advantage of having to make slightly different versions of application and interview materials is that over time it does get easier to assemble the custom build from parts you’ve already made before.


While all this was going on, I was offered another position. It wasn’t as blatantly awful as the first but it was less than ideal. It was a few more hours and a less than great schedule, in a large city that I happen to know is too hot, but no clear deal breakers. I could be okay there. Not happy, not miserable, just okay. Which isn’t bad when you’re on a path to level up your career. The hard part was, they needed an answer while I was being invited to this interview at a school I really liked, and one other that was at least close to Busan (allowing me to keep my social life here). Do I take the mediocre and totally palatable bird in the hand or do I let it go and risk losing everything in pursuit of a much better bird?

I turned them down too and went to more interviews instead.

Winter Not-Vacation

The next week was my winter vacation. I didn’t go anywhere at all. Not only because it was a shorter holiday than I usually take, but because not knowing if the end of February would find me hopping off to Penang, moving to my new job in Korea, or moving to my new job in China, I couldn’t justify spending the money on a holiday if I was going to have to spend it on living without a job for 5 months or relocating to my new job site. Instead, I went to more interviews.

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I went to another near Busan, less than an hour away. I discovered there were 8 people interviewing and only 2 open positions. I wondered how common this was. I wondered how many times I would be invited to round one, beating out 100+ paper applications to make it to the top 10 or 8, then not be good enough to be the top 2. I got a rejection text later that same day.

15 January · Busan ·

I hate job hunting. I hate the fact that everyone wants something different but you never know what and are treated like an idiot for asking. I hate investing hours and hours and getting my hopes up only to be told I came in second place, really great candidate but there was just one person better. I hate the emotional rollercoaster of hope and rejection.

Too Much Winning

Then suddenly it happened. I got an email from THE JOB, the one I really wanted, the one I applied for twice, the one that almost didn’t interview me because they misread or I miswrote my CV. It seemed provisional, they said they were recommending me to be hired and had to wait for permission. I was almost sure it was a formality but it seemed so strange. I had one more interview scheduled for the next afternoon and I almost didn’t go, I was so thrilled to be leaving the emotional nightmare of job hunting behind me.

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Instead, I got on the bus and headed up to the next big city down the road. I found the campus easily enough and I had the best interview I think I’ve ever had. I was so relaxed and apparently the hiring committee had had some terrible interviews before me so they were relieved to hear that I had reasonable answers to their questions. We cracked jokes and laughed at each other’s silly comments and they told me about the job and it sounded magical. Like, everything I ever wanted magical. Low teaching hours, no crazy staff meetings, no office hours, no writing classes, huge paid holidays, and it seemed like I really got on with these people.

I went from feeling worthless in despair to having 2 great jobs in front of me. They emailed me the very next day to offer me the position. My emotional switches were all over the map. I couldn’t make up my mind which was better. There were no clear advantages to either place and nothing even close to a deal breaker. It was like I’d arrived at the next level of career and had no idea what to do now that I was there.

*Oh, yeah, and one of those Universities in China offered me a position as well. But with two great options in Korea, moving just didn’t seem appealing. No matter how great a story teaching Political Science courses in Communist China might be.

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In the end, my choice was almost entirely emotional. I spent as long as I could putting off committing to one university and I feel bad that I had to withdraw from one of them because I truly believe I could have been happy at either place. In the end, one of the new hires at the school I chose withdrew at the last minute too. I’m told it happens with regularity because basically everyone is doing what I did: interviewing everywhere and then going with the best offer rather than the first. When I showed up for orientation, I was the only new person at the university I chose because everyone else they had hired had backed out at the last minute.

What did I learn?

Image result for apply to all the jobs memeApply like mad, but weigh your investment. There is something to the idea of applying for jobs even if you don’t meet all the requirements, but in the case of jobs abroad make sure you do meet the visa requirements (set by the government) and there can be some flexibility of the school’s requirements (set by the Dean). However, when employing the scattershot application tactic, be sure to draw the line at applying for jobs that will waste time and energy for too little potential return.

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Don’t be afraid to say “no”. Of course, if you get your dream job on the first try, like my friend who applied to one university in Japan, interviewed and was hired (what is the word when you’re happy and jealous at the same time?), if that happens, there’s no need to say anything but “yes”. In my case though, I got offers that weren’t great and if I had accepted them, I would have missed out.

Practice. Practice. Practice the paperwork and the interviews. The more versions of your cover letter you write, the easier it gets. The more variations of lesson plan you compose, the easier it becomes. The more interviews you do, the more you get used to answering the questions that will be asked. I won’t say it’s never a waste of time, but a lot of these failed applications and interviews helped me get better.

Image result for never give up memeDon’t give up. Cry, eat too much chocolate, put that Will Smith inspirational video about failure on a loop, call your mom in the middle of the night. Do whatever you need to do to push through the horrible feelings of failure. I wrote a 3-page essay on my feelings of failure and posted to Facebook thinking “oh, no one is going to read this” and I got a massive amount of support from people who either do or have felt exactly the same way.

Being in 7th place is ok when there are more than 7 prizes. Okay, 7 is arbitrary, but I have this theory that the reason I got only crappy responses in December and way better offers in January is that all the people who were more qualified or better at interviews got those good jobs in December and were off the market by January, giving those top spots up to me. I feel no shame. My elementary school Korean coworkers were all jealous as hell of my new job, so I know I did good.

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There is no “ultimate guide” to getting a university job in Korea. I read dozens of articles and blogs and listicles and they all have things that can help guide you, but nothing is really definitive. You don’t have to have an MA. You don’t have to be published. You don’t have to know someone who already works there. You probably don’t even really have to be in Korea. I had two offers from places I did phone/skype interviews with. All you have to do is qualify for the visa, apply like mad, and play the game of chicken: keep applying and going to interviews as long as possible because this country is still made of last-minute actions.

I’ve been at my new job for a month now, and so far I’m really happy with it. I know there will be things about this and every job I have in my life that I do not like or that I will complain about. I don’t expect it to be perfect. But I think it’s going to be a good step upward in my quality of life as well as in building my future. Only time will tell. In the meantime, I get to explore a new part of Korea (Gyeongju) and I get to have students who are forming adult thoughts, plus some generous vacation time this summer for more international adventures. Year of the Dog, here I come!

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