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From industrial design graduate to ESL teacher

Updated: Feb 27, 2022

Teaching English as a second language (ESL) can start you on your way to living abroad. Here is how I stumbled into it.

When I finished university at the age of 21 I felt burnt out and unmotivated to work in the area of my studies. I studied Technology (Industrial) Design at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. At the time the university had compressed a four year bachelor course into three years and by the end of this course I needed a break from drawing of any kind, even though it had been my passion for as long as I could remember. If you've ever had the displeasure of living with an industrial design student then you can all too easily picture a living room cum workshop with pieces of prototypes in various stages of readiness, spray cans, tools, and cups of coffee for all the sleepless nights. Whilst waiting for paint to dry it was back to the drawing board (literally!) and studying on the side for that electronics or mechanics test. Phew! Happy to put that behind me, I pondered what to do next as I packed up my car and moved 3,500 kilometres across the country to Perth with my then boyfriend. I found work for 6 months as a wine server in a kinda fancy Perth restaurant in the Swan Valley. Tasting the wines was great but I was feeling directionless and so was my boyfriend. I knew two people with the same mindset was not going to work so I packed up and moved back to Melbourne to the delight of my parents. But what then? I was living on my brother's sofa and collecting unemployment benefits when my aimless ex-boyfriend came back, wanting to win me over. My mother had never fancied him and her maternal fear found a way to get me away from him for good. She told me about a family friend's daughter who had taught English in Japan and made quite a lot of money doing so. Having nothing better to do I decided to apply for a job at Nova, the biggest language school in Japan at the time. Nova had language schools located all over Japan and had the monopoly on eikaiwa, English conversation lessons, but in achieving that they didn't have the best reputation for employee rights and were famous for charging students extremely high fees. However, for me I just thought it was something I would do for a year to get some life experience. All it took was an interview at an agency conveniently located at my university. I can't remember the details of the interview but I remember being given a page from a lesson and being asked to identify the learning goal of that lesson. As most native English speakers can attest to, we learn almost nothing about grammar in school aside from identifying nouns, verbs and adjectives. Despite that, or out of sheer desperation for teachers, I was accepted as a teacher and 2 months later I was flying to Japan with zero knowledge of Japanese aside from the information package I had received, and zero knowledge of Japanese culture. I hadn't had time to think about it because I'd been busy preparing for the move. Perhaps it was the optimistic Sagittarian in me but I didn't feel it necessary to be concerned about those matters yet. I guess another thing was, I had never given a lot of thought to travel let alone contemplated living abroad so I was setting off without a lot of forethought or expectations. The things I had needed however were:

  • the cost of a plane ticket

  • a passport valid for the period of my first work contract which was a year

  • a work visa organised by my employer

  • enough money to last until my first pay check

All teachers that worked for Nova had to purchase their own plane ticket on a specific date. In my case, arrivals from Melbourne were flown into Osaka, met by a Nova representative and put up in a hotel for a night. This was a very easy introduction to a very different country from my own. There were about 6 of us booked into the hotel. After checking into the hotel and laughing about some funny experiences with the electronic bidets in our bathrooms we set off to look for food. None of us could speak Japanese so it was fun to walk into a ramen shop together and work out what we could eat and then try to order it. The wonderful thing about Japan is there are always pictures of food on menus or window displays full of plastic models of food so if all else fails, you can just take your server to the display and point out which meal you want. I had never heard that Japan was famous for their array of vending machines so we spent the last part of the evening gawking at the lines of vending machines. Most of them were for cigarettes, soft drinks and beer cans of every size but legend had it that there were also vending machines for women's used underwear. Reality? I don't know. In my what would become eight years of living in Japan I never found them but I also never looked for them. The next morning we all boarded planes to different parts of Japan. I had put Tokyo down as my preference. I flew to Tokyo and was then put on a train taking me 200 kilometres northeast to a coastal town called Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture. Very crafty of the company. As I sat on the train, alone for the first time, I observed the scenery as it passed by. It was August and summer in Japan. Occasionally I caught glimpses of Japanese girls and women wearing Yukata, summer kimonos, which are often worn during summer festivals. I remember thinking, Wow, they really wear kimono in Japan! After an hour I wondered why the buildings and stations never seemed to come to an end and then realised how much smaller Japan was compared to Australia. How much smaller and so much more densely populated. I arrived at Iwaki station after a few hours and found the Nova school not far from the train station. My Japanese colleagues spoke English and seemed friendly enough but to my disappointment simply gave directions to my new flat. On the way I realised I was hungry and I would need to buy food along the way. That was when I really began sweat even more than I had from the summer humidity. I entered a convenience store and I was met with rows of unfamiliar ready-made meals in pefectly moulded plastic to fit its contents. I was vegetarian so I found the least meaty-looking meal. Even though the Japanese aren't generally huge consumers of meat they do seem to find reason to add a touch of it to most meals, whether it be a sprinkle of fish flakes or a smattering of minced beef in what could have otherwise been a decent vegetarian dish. I chose a two tiered plastic container that held noodles with a satchel of amber soup in the bottom tier separated by a layer of plastic which had a moulded section to hold a half boiled egg and another section that held pickles and julienne salad. This was convenience store bento box. I wasn't particularly excited about my meal but it would take the edge of the hunger. The next hurdle was paying for the meal. I became acutely aware of how Asian I looked and wanted to curse my Chinese ancestry. I nervously approached the cashier. Smile, check the price on the register, hand over the yen, done. Not so bad. But then the cashier started saying something to me I didn't understand. I stood there smiling nervously and shaking my head to show my lack of comprehension. Finally she pulled out some disposable chopsticks and put them in my plastic bag. I was relieved. I don't know about other people but for me back in those days I would have catastrophic thinking when I didn't understand people. Ok, that's an exaggeration but I would tend to think something was a bigger deal than it was.

Once I found my new accomodation, checked out the novelties of it and ate my cold, disappointing meal I told myself I didn't want to leave that flat. I had been born in Australia and had grown up as a minority group and when I entered Japan I found myself in the odd situation of looking like these people but not being able to speak their language. I felt that if I didn't speak I could blend in. This was a sort of comfort I'd never experienced in my life but then I was an imposter, one who was sure to disappoint if I opened my mouth or if I were required to understand someone. For the next two weeks I found it a mental struggle to leave my flat by myself. I am fortunate that I try not to let mental challenges get in my way but more than anything I was fortunate to be welcomed by some of my fellow teachers from other English speaking countries and welcomed into the lives of Japanese people who were eager to share their rich culture with me and excuse my cultural ignorance. I've never know such kindness as those friends I made in Iwaki and after one year in Japan I knew I was hooked and I wasn't ready to go back to Australia.

That was how I became an ESL teacher and my first experiences abroad. Japan was a great place to start because the people are friendly and open minded, the pay is good, and if you live modestly you can pay off student debts or travel to places in Asia quite easily from your pay checks. While Nova was not a bad way to gain entry into the teaching industry in Japan there are companies which are much more reputable and will offer more benefits to teachers. I left Nova to work for the JET Program, which is a program run by the Japanese government to foster cultural education in the school system. The work conditions and benefits differ from prefecture to prefecture or town to town. While many of us had great experiences working on JET I also know of others who had a miserable time and couldn't wait to go home without renewing their contract after a year but sometimes that comes down to personality rather than work conditions. That brings me to my conclusion. While a lot of people search for viable ways to work in a foreign country they don't always factor in the culture shock they may encounter. One guy I met did a few weeks of teacher training and never showed up for his first day of work because he'd decided it was enough for him and flew back to his home country. He gave it a shot and that's pretty awesome I think. What worked for me when I moved to Japan was that I had so little expectation apart from expecting things to be very different from Australia. That's not to say I wasn't sometimes, or often, surprised or shocked by the things around me. If you decide to live abroad, be prepared not to find the food you are familiar with, to not be able to speak your language, for people to have different ideas of politeness and to have moments of despair when you wonder why the heck you decided to move to another country. I remember when I was living in Tokyo battling through the barrage of pedestrians in downtown Shibuya I finally realised there were currents of people weaving through the crowds. I slipped into one of these currents and I stopped battling because I had found my flows and I went with them.

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