Finding Work After Teaching: Advice from a Former ESL Teacher in China


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Brandon also did a quick video on culture shock (both in the US and Zhuhai) related to his experience in China – you can view it here.

Quincy: Brandon Ferdig is a writer and author of a book called, “Life Learned Abroad,” that documents his experiences as a teacher in southern China, and I was lucky enough to sit down with him with this interview, which is great, and talk about kind of what happens after you teach. Truly he’s gone on to write more and publish books and all that stuff, and has a very successful blog called The Periphery, but for a lot of us, I know personally that I struggled with what happens after you teach. Brandon has some great advice about how to structure your time in China to benefit you whenever you leave, and then kind of how you can use it to your advantage when you’re back and applying for jobs. I think this relevant no matter where you teach. All ESL teachers kind of wonder what happens, what’s life going to be like after teaching, and this is some great first-hand advice. I really enjoyed it, so I hope you do to.

This is Brandon from The Periphery. Thank you so much for joining us. I met Brandon through an article he did on another former teacher, actually current teacher, Andy, and reached out. We’ve been speaking for the past few weeks. I’ve been on his site, and now he’s been kind enough to join me on this interview, so thank you.

Brandon: My pleasure.

Quincy: Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit more about coming back, or I guess post China and post teaching, because I don’t think, I’m sorry I think that a lot of people are always curious about what is life after ESL like, and as someone who’s made that transition can you speak to, I guess, some of the difficulties you encountered? About how you used your time in China, I guess, to your advantage, or kind of struggles you had –

Brandon: Yeah.

Quincy: … progressing from an ESL teacher to whatever you’re doing now, and we’d love to hear about that as well.

Brandon: Sure. Well, so I left for China at 29, and I had the fear of coming back and things not being any different; I was just going to be a year older, and was being in China just going to be a time where I’m spinning my wheels? Not that I wouldn’t do a lot of good things out there, but that I’d come home and everything would be the same, and I’d just be a year older, so I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere, whereas if I stay here, and continue to work on my career, then I will have a year under my belt in my career whereas this China thing, it might be an escape. It might be like taking a year off. It might be just, I don’t know, passing the buck or, I don’t know. That’s not the right phrase. Anyway.

Quincy: Like postponing. Just postponing something that’s going to happen anyway.

Brandon: Yeah, like kicking the can down the street rather than picking it up, or whatever analogy you want to use. I worried about that legitimately, which is kind of weird because I knew I wanted to live abroad, because I was having such a good experience writing about just traveling abroad and the ways it opened my eyes. As a writer, someone who’s trying to break into writing, again, I thought, “I should stay here. I should work on my website. I should try to get a job at a newspaper or magazine, or yada, yada, yada.”

Well, of course, traveling is a great way, if you write about it and are productive. Travel is a great way to kind of find opportunities to write. That’s pretty clear to most people, so and that was my experience. In fact, when I was out there I journaled. I blogged about my, I didn’t really journal, I blogged about my experiences, and when I came back I was able to take all that, I had about 70 articles written, and I was able to rework them into one work, one book of different themes throughout my year, whether it be education, or whether it be the way health care, or law enforcement, or freedom, you know these big topics of living, and how my mind was opened to them by seeing them exhibited in a completely different culture.

I mean, obviously that wouldn’t be possible unless I’d lived in this other culture.

Quincy: Yeah.

Brandon: And a very good concrete example was that I was knocking on the door of my hometown newspaper, hometown I mean the city I was living in before I left Minneapolis, and they hadn’t accepted anything that I’d submitted, but when I was in China suddenly, “Whoa. Okay. Well, what do you got?” They were interested in my story about, I had an opinion piece that I wrote, ‘Why We Don’t Have to Fear China,’ because it’s time, I think President Obama had something about Chinese building a bullet train and he was saying, “You know, why’s China building the trains?” It was sort of this fear of China rhetoric, and I thought, “Boy, you know, it doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re democrat or republican,” and I’d heard that before, too, and I’ve seen it since. Maybe now it’s Russia, I don’t know, but it’s like China is the boogeyman, right, that both sides can get behind to be concerned about.

Quincy: Yeah.

Brandon: I thought, “Boy, that is such a warped way or negative way or glass is half empty way of looking at things.” I mean, we should be rooting for their success, their rise out of poverty, so I wrote this opinion piece, and the Star Tribune ran with it. It was my first published piece in a major media publication, thanks to China. Certainly since then, my experiences in China have paid off wonderfully. I’ve since lived in Africa, and the comparisons between the Asia and Africa to the US, I mean, those three major different cultures are just a wonderful thing to compare and contrast.

Quincy: I know, we won’t get too deep into Africa, but I’m curious if you saw the same … So, coming back from China, you had the, obviously, added benefit of having written about China and [inaudible 00:06:02] influence of China. It kind of gave you these opportunities. Did you get, I don’t know, equally appealing opportunities after your time in Africa? Did that kind of play a similar role?

Brandon: Yeah. I wrote a long form piece actually for the Star Tribune at that time about race, and how in Africa, I was in east Africa, Tanzania mainly, how I could … You know, look. I mean, the idea of there being white people and black people was obvious, and I know that when I talk about race in the US that you had to walk, you’re walking on thin ice. You have to be careful, walking on eggshells kind of thing. There, they were very open about it. The teachers at my school would say, “You know, Brandon, white people are like this and black people are like that.” And I’m like, “You know, hey, you can’t talk like …” You know like the knee jerk way, but it was very refreshing I thought.

I could talk about it and think about it, and I didn’t have to look over my shoulder to see if there was someone there going to call me out for being politically incorrect, and it actually taught me that it doesn’t have to be this decisive topic. That we should just look at if for what it is, and it doesn’t have to tear us apart. Whether we don’t want to talk about it, or whether we’re obsessed about it, or whatever the case might be, it is what it is. Let’s just look at it for that. That was basically the gist of the piece, along with taking the reader there with me and describing what it was like doing that.

Quincy: Yeah, I like that. Yeah, the influences is really valuable to be able to write from a first hand experience, obviously. For someone that maybe, like so many teachers maybe don’t, they don’t know what’s going to happen after they leave China, or leave Korea, or wherever they’re teaching. Is there any advice you could give about, maybe not spinning, because you don’t want to mislead people on your experience, but how to promote your time as a teacher in a positive way that’s going to serve you?

Brandon: I’m glad you asked, because, I mean, I’m a different case. As a writer, it was hard for China not to be advantageous for me, but if you’re going into engineering, or if you’re going into, I don’t know, some other trade, or you want to be an attorney, you know, how can your time in China be used to-

Quincy: It’s not exactly …

Brandon: It’s not exactly, yeah, like lining up as being a very relevant related experience, but you know, this was addressed by, do you know who Tim Ferriss is?

Quincy: Yeah, of course.

Brandon: Four Hour Work Week, he talks about that.

Quincy: Yeah, Tools of Titans is also really good, too. Have you ever read it?

Brandon: Oh, okay. Yeah, that one’s pretty new. His point on it is mine. I’m just going to kind of echo what I read from him, and it’s been my experience that employers, it would be hard for me to find … I mean, if you’re trying to be an auto mechanic, maybe in case like that, or you’re trying to be a taxi driver, or you know, something like that where it’s very limiting. Even a taxi driver, though, you’re going to have clients from all over the world, so there you go.

Quincy: Yeah.

Brandon: It’s hard to find a job that’s not being affected by globalization, and by that I mean, you know if you’re in any hospitality industry, if you’re in education, if you’re in marketing, if you work at a university and do research, just so many careers are going to be influenced … I have an attorney friend who goes to China because he does intellectual property, and clearly piracy abroad is an issue, so he finds himself in China sometimes through his law firm and through his career. There are so many careers, and chances are if you taught abroad you have an interest in it, I’m guessing that you’re interested in coming back to do something that’s global, or at least related to the perspective of a global world.

Quincy: Yeah.

Brandon: Does that make sense?

Quincy: It does.

Brandon: So the job you go into will probably be attracted to the fact that you’ve been abroad, and then again, even if you’re not. Even if you’re going to come home, be an auto mechanic, your employer is probably going to look at that and say, “Oh, wow. We don’t have a lot of mechanics that come through here who’ve been to China for a year.” You know, it’s going to be interesting.

Quincy: Yeah.

Brandon: And if you are going to go onto a career that’s not going to be directly benefited by your time in China, like if you’re going to come home, be an auto mechanic, then look for ways to spend your time in China where maybe it could benefit. I don’t know. Work on a car in China. I don’t know what it might be, so that when you come home you cay say, “You know what? Yeah, I was in China, and so I haven’t had a job being a mechanic for a year, but while I was there, I worked on vehicles with the steering wheel on the other side in Macau.” I don’t know, you know.

Quincy: Yeah.

Brandon: Whatever it is.

Quincy: Yeah, there’s so many ways to do it. Yeah.

Brandon: Yeah, there are, and then I just think at the end, even if you got no direct experience in your trade or career while you were abroad, that experience working with a whole other culture will probably be of service to you in this job, so I don’t think it’s tough to spin it. I think your employer, the potential employer, they will be interested in seeing it on your resume almost every time.

Quincy: I’m 100% on board. I’m out of conversations that my time in China. The amount of like the just pure interest conversations with employers and new people were unbelievable. This is a direct result of my time abroad.

Brandon: I came back, and now I have a part-time job at a school, and you know, again, was my time in China necessary for this job? No, but my school does happen to be a school that caters to an ethnic population in the Twin Cities, and so my time teaching Chinese students, working with the population that we don’t speak English together, that speaks another language, you know, there you go. It lined up.

Quincy: Yeah. Perfect. Let’s go ahead and, I guess, close with this one thought, or this question. Have you, has anyone that’s read your work and read about your time abroad in China or Tanzania or what have you, has anyone gone and tried to do something similar after being inspired by something you’ve written or said? I think that’d be curious because you have such a greater reach with your writing, I was curious if it had gone so far as to inspire people to sort of follow in your footsteps.

Brandon: Yeah, one woman met, she e-mailed me, or maybe looked me up on Facebook, I don’t remember, and we met at a coffee shop, because she was interested in working in China. I don’t think she taught at the school that I taught at, although I do believe I referenced people there, but I believed referred people there, but that didn’t develop, but what did develop was a teacher who went to a college in [Zhuhai 00:12:57] that I’d known people at while I was in Zhuhai, and I’d written about it. It was International, no, no. Beijing Normal University, I think.

Quincy: Okay.

Brandon: And there was another one called IUC. I don’t remember what it stood for. It was right next to Beijing Normal University in Zhuhai, and I referred her to those schools, and one of those schools, or maybe she had a contact there and she just wanted to ask me about it. Either way, she was interested in my experience because I lived in Zhuhai and she wanted to know what it was like, and she wanted to know what to do about that.

There was also a guy who … You know, when I was leaving the school I was at in Tanzania, by this time I had, this is more recent than China. China was a good six years ago; Tanzania was only a couple, three years ago, and when I was there and leaving, I threw a message out on Facebook to everyone I knew and said, “Hey, I’m leaving.” I put it in an e-mail to lots of people I knew, and then a woman responded saying, “Yeah, I have a friend who’s interested in going there.”

Quincy: There you go.

Brandon: He actually came out to replace me.

Quincy: Oh, wow.

Brandon: Yeah, and I met him in Dar es Salaam.

Quincy: What a small world.

Brandon: Yeah, that was the connection that was made, and I found a direct replacement to come to the school I was at, and then I ended up putting him under my wing and helping him get to know village life in Tanzania, which was, you know, speaking of a different world.

Quincy: Yeah. Well, great stuff. I guess, let’s end it there. Brandon, thank you so much.

Brandon: Sure.

Quincy: Yeah, for the time, and the insights, and best of luck. I know you’ve had some success with your book. I’m going to link to it and all that good stuff.


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