I once heard a joke on TV that went something like, If you ask someone how many close friends they have, and they say more than ten, you know they're counting co-workers.
In spite of the joke, I would definitely count a number of my co-workers in the ESL/EFL profession among my closest friends. The work environment in EFL (overseas teaching) is totally different from the experience back in your home country because your co-workers are usually the only people with whom you share cultural interests. When I worked in Toronto, it was very difficult not only to be close friends with co-workers (because we all scattered to our other interests and friends after work), but it was also difficult to meet my actual close friends, all of whom had their own lives and jobs.
But when you teach English overseas, you share the experience with your foreign co-workers. We are living in a different culture, and we are sharing the same types of experiences. We see each other everyday. Of course we are going to become friends.
Not everyone you work with becomes your close friend, but when you realize that you share certain fundamental qualities and points of view with people, you inevitably become close. And you begin to learn about yourself at the same time because these people are, in many respects, your mirror image.
In my seven years at JLS, I would count among my close friends Daniel, Ryan, Patrick, Travis, and Jeremy. I will devote this post to these five individuals -- my good buddies.Daniel
Daniel was one of the teachers who was already here when I began at JLS in May 2000. As I mentioned once before in this blog, Daniel was just about the most likable guy you could ever meet. Perhaps to a fault, he took this quality into the classroom, where his students would sometimes not show him the kind of respect he deserved. However, I never knew Daniel to blow up at anybody; he just seemed to enjoy what he was doing, all the time.
Interestingly, it was this quality that made some people question Daniel's sincerity, as if he were deliberately hiding something. For instance, during a short time when my wife worked at JLS, one of the Korean teachers told her, in comparing Daniel to me, that with Daniel you couldn't always tell if he were hiding something. (The implication being, of course, that I wear my heart on my sleeve and hide nothing... which is basically true). However, Daniel did have an interesting side to him. He told us that he had done some sky-diving, and he had worked in the Peace Corps in Africa.
While at JLS, Daniel got married to his Korean sweetie, Hyun-ji, who was also remarkably likable -- what a perfect couple. Hyun-ji and my wife, Heather, became good friends. As a result, we often went to dinner together. Daniel and Hyun-ji live in Atlanta now, but we still keep in touch. I hope we get the chance to see them in North America in the not-too-distant future.Ryan
Ryan arrived in Korea in the fall of 2000. He and his wife Grace seemed like a good bet for Heather and I to hang out with, and sure enough we spent time at their apartment playing euchre and eating chicken.
Okay, so the story starts out a little slow. However, Ryan's life was about to get interesting. I'm sure he wouldn't want me to go into details about what happened, so I'll just say that he and Grace ran into some difficulties and soon separated. Eventually, she went back to Canada, and they ended up getting a divorce. In the meantime, I began to learn that Ryan was multi-dimensional.
First, he was a dedicated teacher. He cared about his students, and he often developed his own 'manipulatives' (classroom materials such as flash cards) to help the kids understand whatever lesson he was trying to teach. Also, while many of us were complaining about student discipline, he was trying to maintain the positive approach of rewarding good behaviour rather than punishing bad behaviour. I respected that about him.
On the other hand, Ryan could be as sarcastic as anybody I've ever known. He wasn't afraid to take a verbal shot at any of the rest of us -- all good-natured, of course. He also seemed to enjoy flicking his groin sweat at us just for fun. Yes, you read that correctly. Re-read it a few times if you need to. Recall, also, that Ryan was the one who vomited in the hallway radiator after a Christmas party, plus he had to stop a taxi on a freeway once in order to throw up. Had a hard time holding his booze sometimes.
The other aspect of his character that seemed so contradictory was his interest in yoga and in the Conversations with God books. This latter fact intrigued me because I had read them also and found them quite meaningful in a personal way. On occasion, Ryan and I found ourselves suddenly talking about the ideas in the books in a serious manner. It felt kind of strange to me, almost uncomfortable, but part of me wishes we had spent more time discussing spiritual issues.
A couple years ago, Ryan got re-married to his new Korean sweetheart, Young-ju. During the wedding, Ryan did something very few guys would have the nerve to do: he sang a love song to Young-ju. To me, that moment summed up what Ryan was all about -- a man so passionate about what he wanted to experience in life that he had to express it in his own way, even though his heart must have been pounding hard enough to provide an unintended back beat for the song. I think those of us who were there were stunned by it, and it made my admiration for him grow.
Ryan seems to be much happier with his life now as he has met a woman who shares many of his dreams and ambitions. They currently live in Ukraine, where they both work at an international school. I hope they continue living overseas for years to come because Heather and I hope to visit them and get the chance to see those parts of the world. I wonder if Ryan will sing a song for us when we get there.Patrick
Patrick arrived on the JLS scene while I was out of the country, on vacation in Malaysia in May 2001. When I finally met Patrick, I'm not sure what I thought about him. Maybe I simply didn't develop an immediate impression of him in the way I had someone like Joseph
. In any event, it took a few weeks to get to know the guy.
What I did learn about Patrick fairly early on was that he had spent a year (I think) in Turkey teaching English. He had also lived in New York City for about six months. He had studied drama at university, earned a CELTA certificate for teaching English, and was currently trying to write a novel. In other words, he had an interesting background. Why he came to Korea only became obvious a little bit later: he was here for the money. Hey, no harm in that... that's what a lot of us were here for. But Patrick would be very open about this fact, going so far as to describe his experience of working in Korea as going to the bank before heading to the shopping mall (which, I guess, referred to seeing the rest of the world).
Whatever he was doing in the classroom, the boss seemed to like it, because he received at least three (maybe four) first place awards in our semi-annual teacher evaluations. Not that Patrick really cared about the recognition, I don't think, but I'm positive he appreciated the cash prize that came with it.
The two of us eventually developed a closer working relationship when we collaborated on the curriculum development committees throughout the year 2002. We created year-long lesson objectives and materials for the TOEFL writing program for middle and high school students. I remember this period as a time when we got to know each other pretty well, and I came to realize that we had similar visions of our futures. Specifically, neither one of us saw this English-teaching gig as the end, but rather a means to an end. And we both greatly appreciated the money we were making at JLS because it was possible that we could get somewhere else sooner rather than later.
In the spring of 2004, Patrick asked me if I had given any thought to investing my money. Frankly, with a wife and two kids, I hadn't really saved up as much money as I would have liked, so the answer was no. He, however, had been investing his money in overseas markets, and now was the time to consider doing something else with his life. Then he mentioned Panama. I, probably like the vast majority of people, only thought of Panama as the place the United States had invaded back in the late 1980's. Patrick had been studying world markets for real estate and banking options, and found that Panama was "it." So I started to think about Panama, too, and so did a few other people at JLS who were tired of teaching English for no more satisfaction than a good paycheck.
By the end of 2004, Patrick had just about lost his sanity with teaching the kids at JLS. He resigned, but with the plan of going to Panama with another JLS teacher (Andrew) to pursue a dream. Before heading to Central America, however, he was going to visit Thailand once more over the Christmas holiday. Heather and I decided to take a vacation at the same time in Phuket, so we agreed to meet up with Patrick, likely in Koh Samui. Well, an earthquake and subsequent tsunami changed everything. While Heather and I were lucky to be on an airplane on the way to Thailand -- and, thus, not on the ground -- when the waves hit the shores, Patrick was just rising from his sleep. Seeing the water rushing towards him, Patrick made a break for high ground in a bid to escape the danger.
The days after the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia saw many reports of death and destruction, and we had no idea what Patrick's fate had been. Finally, I received an email from Patrick -- a huge sigh of relief upon hearing he was alive. He shared with us his rather amazing story of survival amongst a group of travellers from around the world. It sounded to me like they had formed some kind of special support group (a cynic might use the word 'cult'). And I think this experience must have had a profound impact on what Patrick was going to try to do about his dream in Panama.
Patrick and Andrew eventually moved to Panama City and began to scout the country in order to find the right location to start up a backpacker's resort. For the benefit of his friends and fellow travellers, Patrick (well, Andrew too) documented their search with a blog entitled The Panama Project
. They ultimately settled on a mountain property in the west of Panama, near the town of Boquete, bought the land, and began building their dream. And now, the Panama Project has turned into The Lost and Found Panama
I admire my buddy Patrick for going all out to make his dream come true. I am truly looking forward to the day when I can lounge around on one of the Lost and Found
's hammocks, sipping a cool drink, and listening to the quetzals singing in the surrounding rain forest.
But for now, back to reality.Travis
What's the best way to characterize Travis?
A skirt chaser? Not so much anymore, as he is now madly in love with Mi
A shit disturber? Although he has made his fair share of enemies in his time, this isn't really a fair characterization. He's actually a very good guy. Just don't take much of anything he says seriously.
Fuckface? Well, that's my term of endearment for him, mostly born out of years of fantasy football trash-talking. But I don't mean that in any serious way.
Travis is a bit of an enigma (no, not enema -- wait, maybe). When he started teaching at JLS in early 2001, he made an immediate impression on our 50-something head teacher Leslie by mentioning masturbation in the office. On the other hand, he tended to dress, well, like a teacher should dress, I suppose -- dress shirt and tie, fully-tailored suits. So, he didn't seem like the typical expat I might have expected to meet at this point in my ESL career.
Travis is an American, and for most of his time at JLS, he's been the lone American in an office full of Canadians (not to mention all the Koreans). In many ways, he has been a flash point for some of the not-so-unusual Canadian vs. American sentiment that pervades many language schools. On the one hand, he is about as easy-going as anybody can be, and I see him as virtually no different from myself in a cultural respect. Yet, he has been criticized by at least one fellow American as being too close to the Canadians, and at least one Canadian teacher has been known to take potshots at him for being American.
Of course, Travis likes to fan the flames on occasion. He knows how to get under people's skin, either by being sarcastic, telling bad jokes, or by being incredibly blunt about anything related to sex or other bodily functions. He is definitely less afraid than most people of saying whatever happens to be on his mind. Nothing is sacred, as near as I can tell.
Travis loves sports, which brings us together. We can talk about sports for any length of time. But he also likes to talk about politics, philosophy, or just about any other intellectual pursuit. The problem is that he tends to give the impression that he's just full of shit when he talks about some of these topics. Often is the time I've found myself discussing something with Travis (usually over beers), and we'll get into a bit of a friendly argument only to realize we are saying the same thing. Or he'll insist that that was what he meant to say all the time when, in fact, he was arguing the opposite. It can be frustrating.
But, overall, Travis is a fun guy to hang out with. And I would also add that he is actually a pretty loyal friend. He has been kind enough to say good things about me as a teacher, even though I don't feel worthy of such praise. I know Travis is the more popular teacher because he has a certain way with students (and usually puts more effort into teaching than I do). One aspect of our job that we both agree with is this: little kids are buggers!
I believe Travis' legacy at JLS is primarily the way in which belching, farting and swearing in the staff room have become commonplace. I'm not judging, mind you. I think the term lowest common denominator has some relevance in the way our expat teaching staff relate to each other. Thank you, T.
Jeremy is my little brother. That's kind of the way I feel about him. I am slightly older than he is, and he began working at JLS exactly one year after I did.
Jeremy has many endearing qualities, in a curmudgeonly kind of way. In fact, I've always thought of Jeremy as a real-life George Costanza. He looks a bit like George, and he sometimes worries excessively about his job. But Jeremy's my boy, and here's why.
He's about as down to earth as anybody I've ever known. There is no pretension where Jeremy is concerned. He never claims to be anything more than he is, but I will say he is a dedicated teacher. Even though he (like Travis and I) doesn't care much for the shitty aspects of the job -- in particular rude children and meddlesome management -- he still takes the time to do his job. He will let his emotions get the better of him at times, but you know he's honest. That really counts for something when you look at someone as a friend.
Many is the time when Jeremy and I have gone for a beer (okay, beers) after work and laid out our gripes about the job. But just as often, we evolve the discussion to say that we both feel very lucky to have found JLS because our lives have actually turned out pretty well as a result of having worked here. Then we discuss non-work-related issues, such as what we hope to do in the future, family life, and so on. While I have made the decision to return to Canada this spring, Jeremy sees himself likely staying in Korea for the foreseeable future.
When Jeremy first started at JLS in May 2001, he had a girlfriend who turned out to be a bit of a loser. She broke up with him not long afterwards, and Jeremy remained kind of bitter about the experience for quite some time. Then, when he met Young-kyung in 2004, I felt happy for him. He is crazy for Young-kyung... totally P-whipped. It's really the perfect Jeremy situation.
Jeremy and I, along with Travis and Ryan, have been playing fantasy sports together for years, and our many staff room conversations about players have surely turned off the non-sports fans like Rachel and Kristine. But we live for this stuff, it seems, and the really cool thing is that even as we begin to go our separate ways in the world, we are able to maintain the friendships by way of playing fantasy sports online. This has been the case with Ryan in Ukraine and another JLS buddy of ours, Colin, who is back in Canada.
The running joke at JLS is that, when I come back to Korea in ten years for a visit, I should stop by JLS to see Jeremy. After all, he might still be there. No matter what, though, just as long as he remains sufficiently grumpy and cynical, he'll always be my little brother.