Wondering how I ended up teaching English in South Korea and owning a home in the Waycross, GA ghetto? Well, it’s definitely a bit of a long story. Some of you know have heard this tale already, but in the hopeful assumption that there are some of you out there reading this blog who *haven’t* heard it, here we go!
I’ve written before about my job working at the Department of Defense. If you missed that journey into my past, you can read about it here. But all you need to know about that job for the purposes of this story is the following:
I left that job because I disliked it intensely. Why? Well, the work was highly repetitive, and essentially simple. I often remarked that a group of blind monkeys could have done what I did, even though the work, in fact, was not all that simple. It was an incredibly high-stress job. I had tension headaches all the time, and spent a fortune on ThermaCare heat wraps for my tense neck and shoulders. I kept a bottle of Pepto-Bismol in the drink holder of my work car at all times. I would swill directly from said bottle several times per day. I held this job for twenty-seven months, during which time I developed my first wrinkles and my first ulcer. Of course, this job did have its pros: it paid well, and was on a set promotion-schedule (the longer you worked there, the more money you made), and I had health insurance and paid sick and vacation days. Those are some good pros, but...
One of my coworkers had worked at that job long enough to retire. He hated it; he was miserable. The month he retired, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Several of my coworkers were eligible to retire, yet they kept working. It certainly wasn't because they loved the job; they hated it and bitched about it constantly. Why didn't they retire? Because the longer they worked, the greater their retirement package would be. They wanted all the money they could get. Before I left, there were two heart attacks and one stroke (none of them fatal) among my eligible to retire coworkers... and yet they were all still working there when I left.
I left the Department of Defense because I didn't like my job. It was not personally satisfying in any way, and it was taking a high toll on me physically and mentally. I left the DOD to accept a position as an ESL teacher in Russia, where I received a salary of roughly $200/mo, and I never regretted my decision.
Why did I decide to move to Russia? Well, I double-majored in Russian and Political Science in college, during which time I spent nine (non-consecutive) months in Russia, and I loved every minute of my time there. I had accepted the position at the Department of Defense, thinking it was the sort of position that someone with a PolySci degree *should* accept, although while there, I constantly felt as though I were wasting my education, as I rarely put any facet of my degree to use. Additionally, I often felt as though my job was useless; if you read this post, you'll realize why. I thought that perhaps if I got a job with a non-profit organization, one that works to facilitate international relations between the US and Russia (and there are several), I would feel satisfaction from my work. I would also be both using my degree and accomplishing something.
But, there was a flaw in that plan. See, I graduated from college in 2001. Following graduation, I spent five months in South Korea, two months in Costa Rica, and twenty-seven months within walking distance of Mexico. At the point at which I began to consider changing fields, I hadn't spoken Russian in four years. My Russian skills had degenerated into something that I termed, "spanglorusskikonglish" - not really something to put on my resume. I decided that spending a year in Russia, teaching English and studying Russian, would allow me to rebuild my skills, and would look great on my resume. I had it all planned out: a year in Russia, and then I could apply for a job. I even had a specific employer in mind.
Then fate intervened. Some personal things happened to me while in Russia, which led me to reevaluate the course my life was taking. I'm not going to get into that here, as it's not really something I want to discuss in a public forum. I only bring that up to let you know that in the fall of 2005 I stepped back and looked at what I was doing with my life. I realized that I was in danger of making the same mistakes which landed me in the job at the DOD.
Like I mentioned above, the DOD job was the sort of job that a college grad with a high GPA and a PolySci major is expected to land. And yet there I was in Russia, trying to follow the expected path of a Russian major. While in theory, working for a non-profit that works in and/or with Russia sounds appealing, when I began to examine my job prospects, reality was quite a turn-off. Check out the following, an actual ad for a position at the sort of NGO that interested me. They were searching for someone with my qualifications to:
Assist in conducting research on price and quality comparison for necessary office supplies/equipment. Responsible for inventory of office supplies/equipment and ordering. Responsible for receiving and shipping mail for staff. Organize archives, media hits, vendor files and Staff Meeting Minutes. Update and maintain contact database for mailing. Assemble material for volunteer information and general inquires for mailings. Ensure cleanliness of office areas for visitors. Communicate with vendors for troubleshooting and service orders. Answer reception phone line during business hours. Handle referrals to appropriate staff members and questions from public. Assist Executive Director with administrative tasks. Prepare mailings for staff and distribute mail. Assist in researching items for program development. Assemble presentation materials for special events. Provide assistance in special projects. Update and maintain handouts for social services department, legal program and the reception areas. Responsible for paying monthly bills and vendors on a timely basis including mailing of payments. Ensure signature on checks. Track and reconcile credit card statements and time & attendance. Organize check requests, bank statements and deposits for Bookkeeper. Attend and record minutes for Staff Meetings. Ensure cleanliness of conference room. Provide refreshments for Board Meetings. Assist in preparing Board Packet mailings. Assist with staff and Board member accommodations. Assist with organizational events. Organize state and national organizations information, maintain equipment inventory in the Equipment Inventory Log. Coordinate / schedule technology visits. Maintain administrative office files. Other duties as identified and assigned.
Ahh, the job opportunities for someone with a BA in Russian. Not so appealing. Ensure cleanliness of office areas? Communicate with vendors? Research price and quality comparison for necessary office supplies/equipment? Would I really feel as though I were accomplishing *anything* with my life if those were my duties? True, not all job descriptions sounded quite that bad, but none of them made me feel as though I had found the niche that I was looking to fill. Not to mention that nearly all such positions are located in some of the most expensive cities in the United States, yet pay very little. (Now, I am not all that interested in making tons of money - as I explain further along in this post - but I don't want to run into debt either. I lived like a pauper in San Diego so I could pay off all my debts, and I'd like to remain largely debt-free as long as possible. But we'll talk more about money in a minute.)
Of course the opportunities in the nonprofit sector are slightly broader for someone with a Masters or a Doctorate, and as such, I briefly and seriously considered grad school. But (and I mean no offense to those of my good friends currently in grad school) the more grad school stories I heard (and continue to hear) from my friends, the less excited I became by the prospect of an advanced degree. Honestly, so much of grad school sounds like utter bullshit to me. For example, I know someone (a dear friend, highly intelligent, and whom I greatly respect) who earned his PhD by writing a dissertation on third person impersonal pronouns no longer used in the modern Russian language. What is the point?
Please bear in mind that I am in no way opposed to the pursuit of knowledge, and I truly hope that there never comes a day when I cease to learn new things. But so much of academia just seems so senseless to me, all this specialization to the point of incomprehension. Perhaps one day I will enter a Masters program for teaching ESL, but for now, I have decided that grad school is not the route for me.
So what is the route for me? I thought quite seriously about remaining in Russia for a second year. I loved my job there, my coworkers and my students... but financially, I simply couldn't. As I mentioned above, before moving to Russia, I paid off all of my debts (car, student loans, credit card), and I accrued enough savings to finance my year abroad at a salary of $200/mo without again going into debt, but I simply couldn't afford to do it for a second year. True, I had enough credit that I could have started charging expenses with the plan of paying off my debts when I returned to the US and got a "real job" - but that's one black hole I have no intention of falling down.
Instead, I thought about what it was about my life in Russia that was making me happy. I surprised myself with the answer: for me, the best thing about my situation in Russia was the lack of stress. True, occasionally I would fret about things like what to do about my students who were chronically failing their exams, or how to turn the lyrics of I am a Rock into a ninety minute discussion, but I never suffered a moment of the gut-wrenching stress that I put up with for twenty-seven months in San Diego. Back in 2000, following my seven-month stint in St. Petersburg, I'm sure my answer to what it was about Russia that made me happy would have been different. It would have involved the Russian people, or the Russian culture, or the amazing historical architecture, or even the Russian nightlife... not that I don't still love the Russian people, architecture and culture (I have found that I'm a bit too old for nightclubs), but I've changed. I enjoy spending time in Russia, but I no longer feel as tied to Russia as I once did. I guess that's an odd thing to say, coming from someone who has spent so much time there (and who is planning to return there at the end of August!), but it's true. The best thing about my life in Russia was the lack of stress.
Thus, I arrived at goal number one for my future: Remain in a low-stress situation. But other than low-stress, what else do I want out of life? I made a list of things that I enjoy doing:
• Reading (Self-explanatory, and if you've read any of my blog, you'll have noticed how it often becomes Jane's Book Review)
• Writing (Ever since I was a little kid, I've enjoyed writing, and I do it mostly for my own personal satisfaction. I've written one book. I’m working on another (although I’m going on a year plus of writer’s block). I love blogging; it’s addicting.)
• Taking photographs (again, self-explanatory – but feel free to check out my photos!)
• Traveling (Why am I writing explanations? Again, self-explanatory. I mean, I live in South Korea.)
• Web/Graphics design (There are many people who are far better at this than I am... I'm not really qualified to do this for a career or anything, but it is quite an absorbing hobby. I do all the work on janekeeler.com. It's nothing fancy, but it's definitely something I enjoy playing around with.)
• Playing with kitties. Not to try and compete with Linda or anything, but I am totally destined to become a crazy cat lady. (Speaking of, anyone want to adopt a kitten?)
• Spending time ALONE doing the above. (Yes, spending time alone is a very important component of my happiness. Perhaps the most important of all. Don't get me wrong; I enjoy the company of others. I love my friends and family, and I enjoy spending time with them. But not all the time. I enjoy spending substantial quality time alone doing the various things listed above.)
• Teaching ESL (I really enjoy teaching. I have fun in class. I enjoy getting to know my students, and - I know this is going to sound hokey - but it's incredibly rewarding to see my students learn and grow in their use of English. I don't want to teach English for the rest of my life, but I wouldn't mind doing it for the next few years.)
So there you have it: the list of things I like to do. After making my list, I decided to make said list my life goals. Simple as that. You've read the list, so now you know you know what I want to do with my life. But how?
Well first, you might notice that among my list of things that are important to me, I have no desire to accumulate a large amount of wealth, to own an expensive home or a fancy car. I rarely buy new things; I'm perfectly content with clothes and furniture from yardsales and thrift stores. I know how to live frugally. Granted, I can't live completely without funds, but the funds I need don't have to be big. In fact, they can be pretty meager.
The stereotypical "American Dream" that, as an American, one hears about from an early age, is that in America, if a person works hard enough, he can achieve anything. In America, anyone can become whatever he wants to become, so long as he puts his mind to it. In reality, this American dream is simply code for "if you work really hard, then you can make a lot of money." Well, that's great. But do I really want to work myself to death for money? We've already determined that I don't want a lot of money.
How can a person live cheaply? Well, for starters, live somewhere that's inexpensive. As I mentioned above, I lived in San Diego for 27 months. At the time, the average price for a home was $500,000. I was renting a tiny studio apartment for over $700/month, which was located directly under the flight line for the San Diego airport. That’s what kept my rent so cheap. (Sadly, that's true). Nearly all of the Southern Californians whom I met were resigned to the fact that they would *never* be able to pay off their homes. Houses in North Florida (where I grew up) are going for around $150,000 to $200,000 these days (although the housing bubble is bursting). This looks like quite an improvement over SoCal until you learn that my mom got her house in Waycross, GA for under $30,000. And goods (on average) are cheaper there too.
That was how I decided to relocate my base of operations to Waycross. In case you know nothing whatsoever about Waycross, don’t feel bad. It’s pretty tiny. Wikipedia has some stats on it here and you can see some of my photos of the place here. In March 2006, I purchased a house Waycross for $27,500. Granted it’s in the ghetto, but hey – I’ve never been all that into being neighborly. When people find out that I bought a house in Waycross, the general reaction seems to be, "But what will you *do* there?" and "Won't you be bored?" Look back at the list of things I like to do, people. Half of them I can do anywhere, and the other half, by definition, I can't do at home, no matter where "home" is.
I want to relax, to write, to grow some veggies and to sit around my house reading cheesy mysteries and fooling around on the internet.
But how will I pay for this house, you ask? As inexpensive it was, it still has to be paid for. Well, by teaching ESL of course. True, I have already mentioned that my ESL job in Russia, which I loved very much, paid very, very little, but in many places around the world, ESL teachers earn substantially more. I have been teaching English in South Korea since August 2006, and I am making enough to put a sizable dent in my mortgage – and to fund this boondoggle to Siberia and keep me in food and water for four or five months when I return to Waycross. Additionally, my mother agreed to be my lending agent for this venture, which has definitely smoothed the way somewhat (kind of tough to get a mortgage on an income of $200/mo!) My plan is simple: teach English for a year or so somewhere, then hermit for a while in Georgia. Then, when I start to run out of subsistence funds or become stir-crazy, I will teach ESL somewhere else in the world. There are so many countries I would love to visit. I’m actually leaning towards Kuwait as my next destination, although who knows! :-)