Alan's Blog




Becoming an Expat

The sound of my head hitting the rocks isn't one I wish to hear repeatedly. I laid on the rocks wondering if my limbs were still intact whilst I waited for my head, and the wheel above me, to stop spinning. Why was I doing this crazy journey? An old (ish!) man riding a mountain bike and sidecar in a temperature of over 40º C, miles from help, on a road of rocks. Maybe it was me that was crazy, not the journey. As I surveyed the damaged machine, I realised that this time I needed something like a miracle to happen.

Maybe the (true) story above isn’t what you think expat life is all about, but living abroad can still be an adventure, even if it isn’t as extreme as this.  But first you have to become an expat.  That’s the hard bit.  To be an expat you must first be an expat!  If you’re fed up with potential employers and employment agencies saying “Sorry, but we need someone with overseas experience”, read on.  The main problem I encountered when seeking overseas work, was that I had no overseas experience.  Even my years of working on ocean going tankers counted for nothing.  I was well qualified as an electrical engineer and had a great deal of expertise in a range of different areas, but it was always the same - no overseas experience, no overseas job.

Determined to get away from England’s hostile shores, I devised a strategy to get me out.  Just like a P.O.W trying to escape from Colditz.  I resolved to be out within one year.  At this stage I had no money, no house to sell (I lived in a rented flat) and no contacts or overseas job awaiting me.  I had a one-year contract to complete in England.  I was divorced and nearing the end of paying maintenance for my wonderful children, and no debts - no savings either!  My first task was to see if I could arrange my working hours (fixed at 1950 hours for a year) to enable me to work the same number of hours in rather less than a year.  I actually completed them in eight working months by increasing the number of hours I worked each week.  Doing this enabled me to save more money.  The vital ingredient I needed to support my escape - and I was starting from ZERO.

My next step was to arrange for some insurance.  No, not travel insurance; job insurance!  As any shop keeper will tell you, the more you have to offer, the greater your chance of selling something - in this case you are selling yourself, therefore the more qualifications you have the better the job opportunities.  Having an internationally recognised qualification in a profession that’s always in demand is good insurance for getting a job abroad.

One of the good things about being British (Hoorah - Rule Britannia etc), is that English is our native tongue.  If you’re from most other countries in the world, you have to learn English to succeed in your career.  That means there is always a demand for English teachers - especially native English speakers.  You get the idea I hope; natives teaching the natives.  Like you I’m sure, I’d actually heard of this idea before but hadn’t considered it as a serious proposition for employment until I read an article in Overseas Jobs Express about a guy who went to teach English in Columbia (yes, he did return alive).  But how?

I did a lot of homework.  After all, I had several months before I could afford to escape, so I got the books out and studied form.  That is, I found out what course I should take and where I could take it - and how much it would cost - very important in my impoverished state, although this wasn’t the main priority.  Getting the right qualification was the main priority.  I eventually decided to study for the Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from Trinity College which I studied at inlingua Teacher Training and Recruitment Centre in Cheltenham.  This was 5 weeks of hell.  It wasn’t particularly difficult, but the work load was colossal.  During the second or third weeks of the course, most students feel suicidal, but this feeling passes and is replaced by mere nervous breakdown feelings.  However, most students survive and actually pass the course, but be warned, it’s not for the faint hearted.  Only massive amounts of determination and motivation will get you through.  Doing a course in English Grammar, before you attend the course, will help you in the theoretical aspects of the course, but won’t relieve you of the work load.  I didn’t do any courses before I attended inlingua, but it would have helped had I done so.

Do be aware that English teaching is not a particularly lucrative job, but it pays enough to live on in the country where you want to work.  It may also be a stepping stone for other opportunities when you get to your destination.  Certainly, I’ve found it a useful addition to my qualifications even when applying for jobs other than English teaching.  While you’re teaching English in your choice of country, it will also give you the chance to look around for other jobs in your own specialised field, should you want to get out of teaching.  You will also meet lots of other people - your students, for example, and these contacts could be the contacts you need to find other employment which may be a lot better paid than your teaching job.  So, don’t knock it! Use it!

Having got my precious Cert. TESOL, I still had to complete those 1950 hours.  Every week, I worked as many as I was able.  I kept a record of all those hours I’d done as well as counting down to zero hour.  I had a target of hours to work every week and that helped to keep me focussed on achieving my objective - despite the sunshine that was trying to drag me off to the beach every Saturday that I worked throughout the summer.  When zero hour arrived, I gave a big cheer and took my office mates out for lunch at the nearby hostelry to celebrate.  Knowing I didn’t have to go back afterwards was a great feeling.  It also made me realise that I was committed to my step in the dark.  I’d burnt my boats and there was no going back now.  Several of my friends said they could never do what I was doing - not a lot of comfort in that, but now it was time for action - not worrying about what I’d done.

Where do you want to go?  WOW! What a question.  I still didn’t have an answer.  I spent about two weeks emptying my home and taking my most precious things to be stored (thanks Mum).  But where to go?  I had two destinations in mind; Thailand or the Philippine Islands.  My main criteria was that the country should be hot and sunny.  Thailand was the most attractive for a number of reasons; more job opportunities, lots to see and do, easier to get around, to name just a few.  I went to the Philippines.  Well, I did have a friend there and it’s always easier to start life in another country if you know one of the natives.  Manila isn’t the most exotic location one can think of, being crammed with over 15 million people, lots of pollution and a very creaky infrastructure.  There were also likely to be fewer jobs open to me.

I stayed with my friend and family for a while before moving into a rented room on the 6th floor of an apartment block, just off Taft Avenue.  It was rough.  Two of the plywood sides didn’t reach the ceiling of the partitioned room.  I shared a WC with several others and there were no cooking facilities.  The water supply was also very intermittent - sometimes only once (for a short time) in three days.  I stayed for 8 months.  On my first evening there I went for a walk on the flat roof to escape from the heat of my airless room.  I found Noelanie doing the same.  We got into conversation and I was telling her about my job search.  After answering a few of her questions, she said that she thought I might get a job at the Maritime Training Centre where she worked as an instructor.  This was good news, and a job angle I hadn’t even considered, even though I’d had nearly 12 years' experience at sea.  After a rather gruelling application process I was hired for the princely salary of 20 000 Piso’s ($US 500) per month.  Quite well paid in the Philippines at that time.  It later went to 25 000, but it was still only the equivalent of $US 500 as the value of the Piso was depreciating at a rapid rate.

I worked there for 8 months and thoroughly enjoyed myself.  My Filipino colleagues were really terrific fun to work with and, although we worked very hard, we enjoyed ourselves too.  Some of these guys became the best friends I’ve ever had.  Regrettably, we hear a lot of adverse criticism about the workers from countries other than our own, but the professionalism and competence of many of my colleagues was equal to (or higher than) many of the teachers I’d worked with in England.  My dear friends Noelanie and Calloy being just two of them.  Our secretary, Lucy, was one of the best secretaries I’d ever met, as well as becoming another of my closest friends.  It was with great sadness that I resigned.  I returned to England, for a holiday, before returning to the Philippines to start a new job about 3 hours bus ride outside Manila - over 4 times the salary for doing much the same job.  Sadly, it wasn’t a happy experience, the morale of the staff being at a very low level.  Sadly, this was an organisation run by European expats with an attitude problem.  As is so often the case, it was a ‘them and us’ situation, where the Filipino’s were often treated as second class citizens (in their own country!) by certain of the expats and by their terms of employment.  Whilst it is true that many of these guys were not of the same calibre that I’d met in Manila, I suggest that some of their problem could have been due to their low morale.  Although I stayed for 20 months, I was very pleased to leave.

After a few months of unemployment (which I thoroughly enjoyed), I was low on funds again, so had to go looking for work.  The best way to find work in the Philippines is to go door knocking and, in some cases, making telephone calls.  I eventually started work in a factory, which had the same problem as my previous employment.  Run by predominantly Scottish people, there was definitely the same attitude amongst the management.  Eventually, the factory was closed for 5 weeks in order for changes to be made.  Unfortunately, attitudes didn’t change. My work involved intensive use of a computer and after a few months I was suffering from a frozen shoulder and Tendinitis in my right arm - both very painful and something I’m still suffering from one year on.  After 5 months, I went sick until the end of my contract (it was only a 6-month contract).  Soon after, the General Manager was fired but the old attitudes remained.  Treating Filipino’s like this is not good for production!

However, some good did come of this contract - I got married!  For most of the time in these last two years, I’d been living with my Dalmation dog, Speedo, in a bungalow I was renting for about $US 100 per month.  It was a very pleasant home with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, garage etc. but a little lonely at times.  Going to work in the factory involved two rides on Jeepneys and a bus ride - about an hours' journey.  As I joined the queue for the bus, I was lucky enough to stand next to a very attractive girl with whom I got into conversation.  By the end of my 10 - 15 minutes' bus ride, I’d got her telephone number and e-mail address.  Five months later we were married, three days after that I was heading for Kuwait.

I’d spent 4 years and 8 months in the Philippines.  I’d had a great time, but was now unemployed yet again and the likelihood of finding well paid work was only a slim chance.  So, here I was, off to pastures new - a new life, with a new wife.

How did this come about?  the job that is, not the wife (you already know that).  The Internet!  What great technology this is.  Here I was, in a fairly remote part of the world (from a job-seeking point of view at least), and yet I could find up-to-the-minute job information with a few computer keystrokes.  Every day I rented internet facilities near my home and trawled through hundreds of jobs.  I also obtained free web space where I placed my CV with hyperlinks to scanned copies of my qualifications.  I wrote, and saved, a standard application letter which could easily be modified to suit a particular job and was able to quickly apply to any of the jobs (by e-mail) which took my fancy - just including my web-site URL (address) in the letter so that any interested employer could access my CV and print it out should he so desire.  My choice of job was limited due to the injury to my arm and shoulder, so now I was in a position where my job insurance (my Cert. TESOL) came into full play, as I knew my injury wouldn’t stop me teaching.  By now I had a total of 4 years and 8 months overseas experience as well as a total of more than 5 years teaching experience.  Even though not much of this time had been English teaching, the fact that I’d had taught foreign students whilst in the Philippines was a great asset.  Within a few days I was offered work in Turkey, but had to turn it down as the accommodation was on a ‘sharing’ basis, and I wasn’t going to share my wife with anyone!

A couple of days later, I received an e-mail from Kuwait, saying they were interested in hiring me, and in which they asked me a few questions.  I promptly replied and very soon after (whilst sitting in the internet café) received a telephone call (mobile ‘phones are another wonderful technology for us job searching expats) during which I was offered an English teaching job in Kuwait.

3 days after marrying Grace, I was heading for Kuwait, where she joined me six weeks later.  As for Speedo; he spent the rest of his days in my bungalow where Grace’s sisters and a brother then lived and they took good care of him.

I’ve taught military personnel for over £18 000 p.a.  I also got a free, small, air-conditioned, flat in which to live, with electricity and water paid.  I worked 6 - 7 hours/day with minimal preparation time.  We normally got two days a week off - Thursday and Friday being the ‘weekend’ there.  Transport to work was provided, as was a weekly trip to the big supermarket, where one can buy almost anything.  We got 6 weeks holiday per year, in July/August (of which only 4 weeks were paid!) and one free flight/year (Grace goes as my hand-baggage!) to our place of domicile.  Many of the single guys are able to save about £1000 / month.  Try doing that in the UK!

Has it all been worthwhile? - Are you missing your home? are just two of the questions I’m frequently asked.  Yes, it’s been a great experience and very worthwhile.  I’ve lived in different cultures and met different people (and found a wife!).  Missing home?  No - not at all. 

No way would I ever choose to go back to live in England again (unfortunately returning to the UK was forced upon me some years later). Our home in the Philippines was just a short walk from a delightful tropical beach where it’s always warm and where the sea is warm enough to swim in every day.  Where I can buy a good home-cooked European style meal for about £1.50 and where public transport is so cheap and available that I don’t need to run a car and where, if I did run a car, petrol is less than 20% of the cost it is in the UK.  Our home in Kuwait was also a short walk from the beach - although it’s frequently too hot to go there!  Petrol is similarly priced to the cost in the Philippines and the cost of new cars is usually between half and two-thirds of the UK price. It was my intention to remain an expat forever. Sadly, life doesn't always work out as one expects. The story above refers to a starting point of leaving the UK early in 1997. Since then I've lived and worked in Qatar and The Netherlands and now, in 2019, Grace and I and our son, who was born in Qatar are still happy together and, sadly, having to live in the UK so our son can complete his education.

Oh, I nearly forgot.  My adventure in the first paragraph.  I got my miracle.  You can read about this adventure and other stories of my life in the Philippines in “A Cockroach in my Cornflakes”

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Teaching Your Way Around The World: Travel around the world - and get paid for it


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