Common Motivations for Teaching English Abroad, or A Short Physics Lesson

Kelly Morse

Tracing Networks: Iowa/Vietnam by Brendan Baylor. Graphite, ink, watercolor, and digital image transfer on paper. 41"x 80". 2012. Used with permission of the artist.

I. Experience a New Culture

I left because it was 2009. Because Kalisha kept getting pulled from class for quiet talks with police. She was in the getaway car when her pimp murdered a man. “I want to be a cop,” she’d say as she studied her GED workbooks, “to stop parents from pimping out their girls to get a pipe.”

A gear or cogwheel is a rotating machine part having cut teeth

Our class sizes metastasized until students used books as desktops. Staff meetings were a constant refrain of “Tighten your belt, there’s teachers out of work.” Because Miguel, sent up from Jalisco at fourteen to work construction, ended up with two missing teeth and ribs cracked by boots when he was seen at the corner store with his pretty black girlfriend from a rival school.

                                                   —or cogs, which mesh with another toothed part to transmit torque.?

II. High Pay Compared to Local Cost of Living

In Portland I paid $500 for a room in a house shared with three other women, each with a gig besides her 40-hour regular. I’d bicycle home after teaching, pumping the pedals so hard I hoped the blurred street would splinter beneath them. I’d learned early how to leap—from hotel maid to fine dining server, student to teacher, dying desert town to rain-drenched city. So I left. I filled out applications, fielded phone interviews, signed a contract and flew to Hanoi, sight unseen. 

Ironically, there I was paid the wage I was supposed to get back in the US, but had never received due to budget cuts; for five years I’d instead supplemented my teacher’s paycheck with catering jobs, gigs, and refrains like “think of the children.”  Now I made $43,000 in a country where the median income was $1,000.

Vietnamese parents still tell their children the old folktale of a carp that became a dragon.? The Jade Emperor needed more of these benevolent beasts, chosen to oversee the rainfall that sustains crops. He created a test, raising up three gates of water and wind, each higher than the last. Then the Emperor summoned all the aquatic animals, announcing that anyone who could jump over every gate would be transformed into a dragon. Would be able not only to swim, but to fly and walk. Would be able to control clouds and water, go where it pleased and take care of the people.

Image: "Carp Contemplating the Moon.”
Traditional Vietnamese woodcut.

III. Make a Difference in the Lives of Others

I was white, young, my native language this century’s monied voiceover. I had my degree, teaching certificate, and experience, but the fundamental reasons why I was hired I had done nothing to earn. In Hanoi I taught at a private university, in gleaming glass-walled classrooms showcasing an average of 12 students – mostly heirs of the nouveau riche set to inherit whole factories. A few, like Hieu, attended only through the combined financial support of extended family. Everyone hoped their bright boy could jump. Everyone eager to join the global market. There was a general belief that if a person knew English the gateways to money would magically open. I responded with vocab lists spiked with words like “sweatshop” and “inequality.”

Cogs transfer motion when they engage with the projections of another cog.

My roommate Hanh came home one evening with an expensive Bebe shirt she’d haggled for in the market. She was from Vinh, a small city 300 km south of the capital. A few days after I moved in to her apartment she told me not to talk to anyone in the complex. If I did get cornered into a conversation, I was to tell them I was Russian. “People are too curious,” she said. It was months before I found out about the official mandate that foreigners and Vietnamese were not to cohabitate unless married. I was lucky Hanh was breaking the law, even as I eventually figured out my rent paid for not just my room, but the whole apartment. She taught me how to cook some staple dishes, how to get a server’s attention in a busy restaurant, how to drive a motorbike. Hanh was my first friend who wasn’t an expat.

As a student at the local university Hanh was learning to navigate Hanoi just as I was—especially the new Western consumer goods that were flooding stores since the communist government was forced to open the economy to what they termed Market Leninism, or state-controlled capitalism. When she held up the Bebe shirt I saw the rhinestone logo was stretched out. “It’s a fake,” I said. “The shopkeeper said it’s from America,” she argued. “Everything is made better there.” I pulled my clothes from their hangers, flipping each Made in Vietnam tag into the light. “Almost nothing is made in the US anymore,” I said. Hanh studied the tags for a long time. “Vietnamese are being tricked,” she said, then, “We trick each other.”

IV. Learn a Foreign Language

Tracing Networks. Detail: Vietnamese Rice Paddy and Special Economic Zone.

I took lessons, but after a day’s work was clumsy in my new tonal tongue. I demanded my tutor, Loc?, skip vocabulary about family. No one was going to ask me about my paternal uncle. I needed vegetables, fruits, meats. Needed to be able to name the ingredients I pointed at in the alley market, my tongue dumb and metallic as a nail. Needed to mold my mouth so that shopkeepers would stop waving me away in fear and confusion. When Loc learned how much I was paying for bread, she was gently derisive of my lack of bargaining skills. Not haggling down the 100% foreigner markup made me look like a fool. “Of course people are going to charge you high prices, more than they do others,” she said, “but you should not pay them. No Vietnamese would ever pay that price.”

When a small cog meshes with a rack, essentially an infinitely larger gear,

My Portland students were pushed across borders, pushed into cars with strange men. Back in the US I’d taught night classes for boys from Chiapas and Oaxaca whose family farms had died from drought or subsidized US corn. Daniel, Héctor, Polo, Ivan, Luis—other students came and went, but these five showed up night after night after working all day. Most worked in warehouses, back rooms; windowless places. Each teenager had many roommates. They’d take turns sleeping on bunk beds versus the sofa and floor of one-bedroom apartments. They were always polite, usually tired. Polo grudgingly attended English classes at his girlfriend's behest, leaning against the bookshelf instead of taking a seat. His plan was to save enough money to buy three houses in Sinaloa, become a landlord and have steady money coming in so that he would never have to do physical labor again. Until then, he worked under the table pouring concrete, taking any overtime offered. He was often absent. “One more year, then I go home. We are not immigrants,” Polo said once, “We are tourists.”

                                                                                                                         the result is called translation.

All the water animals boasted to each other that they would be the next dragon. Only Carp stayed out of the gossip, instead working on its jumps in a small stream nearby. Tilapia eagerly volunteered, but couldn’t clear the first hurdle. Still, the Jade Emperor appreciated the attempt, dabbing black ink along the fish’s sides as a mark of distinction. Now well-muscled Catfish wanted a try. It easily jumped the first gate but crashed into the second so hard its brow was smashed flat. Dragon whiskers bloomed from the bruises of its effort. Then clever Shrimp swam up. Being small and light it leapt high over the first two gates. However, when it dropped over the second its velocity was such that its organs pushed up behind its brain, causing its body to bulge and curl. Forever after Shrimp could only swim backwards. For its struggle the Jade Emperor bestowed a protective shell and whiskers, until it resembled a miniature imitation of what it had hoped to become.

V. Become a Member of a Local Community

Most of Hanoi’s expats were running from something. Awkward engineers transformed into wealthy status symbols through culture-crossing alchemy. Teachers paid off student loans. Alcoholics avoided family interventions. NGO workers escaped the deflated economies of Europe and the Philippines. Divorcees started over. Most of us were white, unused to being in the minority. My first week in Hanoi, Sam told me over a beer, “When you hate it here more than you love it, that’s when you should leave.” Those who worked, who had to work, tended to drink themselves bleary. The pollution that cut like a pack-a-day habit, struggling to move beyond beginner level in Vietnamese, constantly being viewed as an Other with no avenues to integrate into society; turns out a savings account can’t save you from that. I felt parts of myself warping with anger. Most of us left after two years.

In physics, translation is movement that changes the position of the object. The translation vector shows a particular type of displacement of an object.

Kalisha didn’t like to leave the GED classroom; she even ate her lunch there. She’d been out of school for over a year. When her reading skills improved we arranged for her to sit in on a Language Arts class in the main building. She didn’t want to, but we wore her down with our hope. The first day as she walked back to our classroom a teacher stopped her. She was in the hall without a pass. Coming up the stairwell I heard a fight, heard Kalisha repeat, “Bitch you don’t know me,” over and over, heard the teacher shout, “You are out of class! You are out of line!” I pushed into the space between them, matched my face to the old woman’s and demanded she stop yelling at my student. That Kalisha belonged there. She belonged there. When the two stepped away I realized my body formed a shaky X, arms high in the air. Kalisha disappeared for two weeks. When she came back she said she didn’t want to study English any more. She wanted to work on her math skills instead. I left because I felt like I kept failing my students.


Finally, the Carp asked for a turn, even as the other fish looked on skeptically. Tail thrashing, it propelled itself upward again and again. Midday became evening. Finally, it cleared the last gate of rain. As the Jade Emperor clapped his hands, the fish transformed into a dragon who sailed up into the boundless sky. Along its sides carp scales flashed, so that no one would forget that from humble origins can come greatness if one perseveres.

Image: Contemporary parody of "Carp Contemplating the Moon"
by Bo Sua for BOO clothing. Screenprinted t-shirt.
Used with permission by BOO.

VI. Personal Growth

The plan is always to go home. However, most migrants develop a boomerang pattern. You like your improved economic status. Home is still poverty-stricken, or dangerous, or a dead-end, or increasingly expensive. Back visiting family in Portland after being abroad for two years, I glimpse Polo going by on a night bus, silhouette sharpened into manhood.

Backlash is the error in motion that occurs when gears change direction. It exists because there is always some gap between the trailing face of the driving tooth and the leading face of the tooth behind it.

Tracing Networks. Detail: US Farmland and Commodities Market

On Facebook Daniel writes that he’s been caught for a third time trying to cross back over the border. His family needs money to send his younger siblings to school. The carp is prepared to jump when the right opportunity comes along. You pay the coyote, cooperate with the police, cross an ocean. After all, that’s what the fables tell us. That if we work hard enough we will be transformed: flying above our former lives. But what if we are not the carp.

It’s during another visit to Portland, the last one, the one where in-laws tell me that their house’s value has jumped forty percent in the past few years, that I see Kalisha in street clothes waiting at a bus stop out on 82nd. It’s the middle of a weekday, and my heart sinks. I’m in the passenger seat and don’t know how to tell my mother-in-law to stop, turn around, forget our destination and go back. The window between me and the street feels impenetrable. The movement of who we are in this system moving me up and away from my students’ endless rotations. What if instead of achieving success we are damaged in the act of striving. Marked by it. Everywhere I look a land of teeth.

That gap must be closed before force can be transferred in a new direction.

1. Citation and paraphrases about the nature of gears drawn from Wikipedia articles "Gears" and "Translation (geometry)." 

2. “The Carp Who Became A Dragon” is a widely-known Vietnamese folktale that has been in circulation for more than two thousand years. It was probably adapted from a similar Chinese folktale used to explain the geography of Dragon Gate Mountain. After the Han Dynasty first conquered the kingdoms of what would become northern Vietnam in 111 BC, education was one of the only vehicles of upward social mobility for the Vietnamese. This fable complements the historical value put upon passing the three open-entrance education exams to become a Mandarin. Education continues to be seen as a vehicle for success, thus the fable of the “three gates” continues to live on in the present, as does the symbolism of the carp. As Fang Jing Pei writes in Symbols and Rebuses in Chinese Art, “It is said that the carp has the ability to swim upstream against the current, not unlike the scholar who perseveres through difficult studies”. Another of the carp’s symbolic traits is preparing oneself through steady discipline so that one can “jump” when an opening appears in the social order. Both the carp and the three gates represent working hard on one’s education and seizing opportunities to rise above one’s current station in life.

3. Gulf Coast regrets that our website doesn't support Vietnamese diacritics at this time.