It is 2010. I’ve packed up my belongings and stowed them in the belly of this aluminium cigar tube cruising 12,000 meters above sea level. My life in America is in tatters. At age 31, I — a University-educated American male recently on the upward slope of my career — am moving to one of the last Third-World nations on the planet to rejoin the middle class. Through teaching. The irony of my situation is not lost on me.
I had lost my job. I had lost my life’s savings. I had lost my truck and years’ worth of data — writing, photos, marketing projects, graphic design work, and on, and on — through a pair of ridiculous accidents. My life was a clean slate. So was my head.
Starting Life as an Adult, Take 3
It is 2016. March. After six years of teaching, almost all in Vietnam, I cannot do it any longer. I prepare to start my career for the third time. This time, it’s voluntary. The negotiations with the school are a little fraught, but in the end they accept my resignation letter without protest. In truth, I think they are relieved to see me go. Keeping my efforts and my attention on this job — a good, high-paying teaching job — has proved nearly impossible for months.
The last day of school, I don’t say goodbye to my students. They don’t know I’m not coming back.
It’s ok. Over the years, I’ve realised it’s only the very special students we might stay in touch with, just as it was only the most special teachers with whom we shared any bond outside the classroom when we were students.
How English Teachers Arrive
The route many expats take to Vietnam starts with a TEFL certificate, a deep need to leave their home countries and not much else. Some pass through, content to be teachers here for three months or three years (as I planned) before moving on to another country or perhaps back home. Many stay, content to teach and drink and while away their evenings on Bui Vien, content to passively follow where events take them.
But many move on, career-wise, while staying in Vietnam. How do we expats come to the point of leaving teaching? How do some of us manage to reinvent ourselves all over again and find new ways to make a living?
How They Move On
Start by knowing what you want. I know nearly as many teachers who want to leave as want to continue. Yet most will not leave because they don’t have the passion to will a new career into existence.
Clearly, I was lucky. Following a love for writing and taking photos led me to the Word. This job provided me with introductions, the entrée to social scenes that have allowed me to build up these hobbies and others to the point where I can — just barely — call them a career. And on whose income I can just barely survive.
This didn’t just happen. To leave teaching, we need a map to guide us forward. Plan with a long planning horizon. Learn new skills, if you have to — I did. In one sense, I began preparing for this when I bought my camera two years ago. Make new contacts.
As I did at the Word, which introduced me to people who taught me matters as diverse as writing, photography, how to pursue a story and how to describe a glass of wine. No one can make this jump on their own, not even here where the cost of living is low enough for us to live on dreams and not much else.
Develop your community. Again, we need other people, no matter how good our plan and how long we prepare.
And we all need someone who believes in us. My girlfriend, My, has been my champion. As a bonus, the business she started, and which I bought into, is now getting profitable enough where she can help me restart my life, just like I once helped her. She’s made this possible as much as any other single person.
This is just one recipe, and an uncertain one at that. I have no idea if I will succeed, for all my determination and preparation, for all that I’ve developed a close community of friends who have helped so much and will continue to do so.
The hardest part is yet to come. I’m thankful that it will also be the best, come what may.
Owen Salisbury is staff writer at Word.