Category Archives: Career

Reasons to learn an obscure language

I don’t need to explain why you might want to learn Spanish or French. Travel, dining, literature, socializing, access to a vast cultural heritage . . . It’s self-explanatory.

Choosing to learn an obscure, difficult, and unconventional language, on the other hand, is an undertaking that offers rewards which the conventional languages cannot.

The opportunities of specialization

Picking a strange foreign language enables you to specialize in something that few non-natives have mastered. This can open up a lot of opportunities, given the lack of competition and surprisingly high demand for these languages.

Work opportunities

You’ll find there are a lot more opportunities for fiscally promising work if you know Farsi, Korean, or Kazakh fluently than there are for Spanish or French. Why? For one, these are hard languages, with few people who know them well outside of the native speaking population.

Some of these opportunities might be in very specialized fields—law enforcement, the military, the foreign service, intelligence work, etc.—while there will still be fewer openings for teaching and translating.

But they’ll often pay well and will bring you into an important position quite quickly.

Academic opportunities

These are similar to work opportunities. Although there are a lot fewer schools that offer programs in Czech or Estonian than in German, you’ll be a much bigger fish in a smaller pond. You’ll have a better chance of doing original research amid literature that hasn’t already been pored over for generations.

You’ll have openings for studying at foreign universities, translating works, giving readings, and working with clever, highly specialized professors and students. It’ll be a lot easier to pursue your goals if you choose a less conventional path.

In this case, I can’t guarantee a job as much of course, unless you’re willing to travel. (Which, if you happened to stumble upon this world-popular blog, I assume you are.)

Social opportunities

Every major American city has a little Serbian and Ethiopian community. Sure, there are plenty of Russians, Mexicans, and European exchange students too, but they’re often so large and diffuse that the community has little cohesion. If you pick a smaller community, you find it’s much easier to meet people and fit in.

My wife, for example, is Polish. You’d not expect there to be many Poles in the Bay Area, but there are a few of them, and they have a strong sense of community. We’ve met them through a number of events and have immersed ourselves into a unique tight-knit group. Could we have had that opportunity among the city’s large Hispanic or Chinese populations? Or, for that matter, among the Russian locals and German backpackers?

I don’t think so. They’re either too large a group, too independent and self-sufficient, or too much on the move.

Access to obscure knowledge

Everyone knows about Flaubert’s and Goethe’s contributions to literature. Everyone can read the Tales of Genji or Anna Karenina on their Kindle if they want to. We’ve probably all seen a couple Antonioni films. Internationalism has set in quite nicely—at least if you’re a big, culturally dominant nation.

But few people still have heard of Hungary’s László Krasznahorkai or Cambodia’s pre-Khmer Rouge rock scene. Choosing an obscure language, you’ll get to be one of the few who has this exciting, esoteric knowledge. If you’re lucky, you can be one of the first to find something new and valuable and reveal it to the rest of the world.

* * *

As you can see, learning a language can often be about how you want to invest in and add value to yourself. Although it may be tempting to pick something that will go the widest and farthest, you can often go farther choosing a language less mined and picked over.

But before all that . . . pick something you like.


Posted by on October 12, 2014 in Art, Career, Language, Literature


Life as a foreign English teacher

I wrote this a long time ago, but now I’m thinking it’s not so bad and I’ll publish it as my dirge to my life as a foreign English teacher. Though I enjoyed the work and time abroad, it’s not the most positive review of the career. In the end, I grew tired of the work and life, but I’m glad I did it.

What is a foreign English teacher’s life like anyway? It’s not entirely romantic, but there are some romantic aspects to it.

For one, you live abroad in a country you don’t know much about and navigate it using your wits, friends and a bit of luck. You live on the margins of society. You’re neither an immigrant, a working citizen, a student or poor, but you have similarities and sympathies with all.

You live near downtown, most likely, and pay a good amount of your income on rent, but you’re near the action, even if you don’t have much space, which is what matters to you.

You’re underpaid and likely don’t work very many hours. Since your hours are dispersed throughout the day you spend a great deal of time using public transportation, time you use to read, observe people and think.

You probably drink a lot. It’s the thing English teachers do when they go out. If you don’t have any other hobbies, it’s a good idea to get some. Playing the trombone, writing plays, racket ball, etc.

Days vary. Some pass quickly, some slowly. Your roommates move in and out. There’s constant noise. It’s like you’re in college sometimes and it’s hard to deal with. You crave space. You think you’ve made the wrong decision constantly.

But then you look around you and … you’re out. Your life is simple. No rat race. No keeping up with the Joneses. You have your easy job, your little money, your small flat, simple food, a few good friends, and a place that is foreign so that you never have to worry about its problems relating too much to yourself.

Unappreciated? Not really. If you go out, it’s easy to meet people who think your job is interesting. But it’s also the most common thing for Anglophone foreigners to do abroad.

Yet the pay remains low and you get tired of living like a student and feeling like one. If you acquire a significant other, and start to make plans, it’s unlikely you’ll remain at the job. If not, then it’s probable you’ll continue to drink and party and the months will pass rapidly.

Work? Oh yes, work is a part of this life. And when you are there you put in your most. But there’s little incentive to really excel, so you put in your hours on site, not worrying too much about your lesson plans after you’ve got the gist of it all, and focusing on acquiring private lessons which pay much better.

Is it hard? Sometimes surprisingly so. Kids are awful most everywhere. You have to put up with a lot of crap. But it’s rewarding, too. You have the enjoyment of knowing that your job is different. That you are your primary employer, and that your life outside of work is what you’re really living for.

If you’re a guy, probably the only thing to keep you in the field is a foreign girlfriend. In reality though, you don’t have much luck with the foreign girls and are much more likely to end up with another expat, who also has plans to go home and grow up eventually.

Would you do it for a lifetime? Therein lies the rub. It’s hard to say how long you’ll last… But after a while all the things your friends in the real world are beginning to work towards begin to draw your envy and appreciation… And then you start to think you should have planned ahead a little better…

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Posted by on May 18, 2014 in Career, ESL, Expat, Jobs Abroad


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The “cuckold sign” in Latin politics

I knew that Berlusconi had made the cuckold sign behind a Spanish minister in 2002, so I was surprised to find another incident in Portugal, where a politician lost his job for giving the cuckold sign to the leader of the Communist parliamentary group.

For those of you who don’t know what a cuckold is, it’s a man who’s wife is cheating on him (there’s a vast amount of literature on the subject). It’s also implied that he doesn’t have the gall to confront her about it and that the situation is obvious to everyone in the community. To use common parlance, the man is whipped. And, surprise, surprise, it can be a pretty big insult—or just a joke. So the very symbol itself has heavy connotations.

In America, you only really see the “real cuckold” sign at metal concerts. We have our less serious form, known as “bunny ears” or the “v-sign” which might be a simplified, somewhat less serious cuckold sign. This prank is common, but people in the Latin world seem to prefer using the full cuckold sign, and it still carries with it the medieval meaning.

Cuckoldry is really a cross-cultural phenomenon, but there is an interesting explanation of what it meant to the Greeks, who took it a bit more seriously than some other cultures.

… the act of disobedience by which she damages her husband most severely is adultery. In adultery she makes her husband a cuckold (κερατ□ς), one who wears a horn. ‘She puts horns on him’ (το□ βάζει κέρατα), it is said. The implication that the cuckold wears a horn may be an ironical allusion to the sexual potency which his wife’s action suggests he does not possess (Campbell, 1964, p. 152)

As such, flashing the sign in a serious setting is essentially calling into question a man’s masculinity. I’m sure, in another era, duels were fought over it. Now you just lose your job.


Americans need a break from work

Why do we have to work so much? If we’re the richest country in the world, we should be able to relax a little bit more. Overworking, anyway, is not healthy. Sayeth the article, 

It’s typical for Germans to take off three consecutive weeks in August when “most of the country kind of closes down,” Schimkat said. That’s the time for big trips, perhaps to other parts of Europe, or to Australia or North America. Germans might also book a ski holiday in the winter and take a week off during Easter.

Schimkat’s family back in the United States teases her that she’s spoiled. But when she tells Germans that workers in the U.S. usually get two weeks of vacation a year, they cringe.

“They kind of have this idea that Americans work like robots and if that’s the way they want to be, that’s up to them. But they don’t want to be like that,” Schimkat said.

“[Germans] work very hard, but then they take their holiday and really relax. … It’s more than just making money for Germans, it’s about having time for your family and it’s about having time to wind down.”

Weird, because Germans are a little bit less family oriented and traditional than Americans and yet it’s American politicians who always play up the family thing, but at the same time they don’t want to cut any hours and give middle class Americans more time to spend some time with their own. 

But there’s also cultural reasons for this, 

Working more makes Americans happier than Europeans, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Happiness Studies. That may be because Americans believe more than Europeans do that hard work is associated with success, wrote Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, the study’s author and an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“Americans maximize their… [happiness] by working, and Europeans maximize their [happiness] through leisure,” he found.

Yes, I like that we enjoy doing things… It’s a good attitude. So I think it should be that you get four weeks vacation by law and you can take them if you want to or work more for overtime if your firm allows. That way, we don’t go into six week terrain and scare away people who think we’re getting soft like the Euros and then, if you really want to bust your ass, you still can. 

Besides, it doesn’t do you much good to work too much. And we do need time for our families and to be able to see the world, exercise, explore and get out of the office. 

“There is simply no evidence that working people to death gives you a competitive advantage,” said John de Graaf, the national coordinator for Take Back Your Time, a group that researches the effects of overwork.

He noted that the United States came in fourth in the World Economic Forum’s 2010-2011 rankings of the most competitive economies, but Sweden — a country that by law offers workers five weeks of paid vacation — came in second. …
“You would have had the idea that we were calling for the end of Western civilization. Comments like, ‘Oh, they’re going to make America a 21st-century France,’ as if we were all going to have to eat snails,” de Graaf said.

“I’m in no way anti-capitalist, I think the market does a lot of good things, but the Europeans understand that the market also has its failings and that when simply left completely to its own devices, it doesn’t produce these perfect results.”

You mean the market isn’t always perfect? You mean to say a modicum of government interference might be necessary now and again?

In this case, the producing class should be let off their hamster wheels for a while and allowed to take vacations to enjoy the fruit of their labor a bit. There’s really no point to rush into retirement so that you can hobble around the south of France in the youth of your early 70s. Spread it out, see the world bit by bit, enjoy the freedom of time, probably the biggest freedom of all, and the one which we Americans lack the most.

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Posted by on May 26, 2011 in Career, Culture, Economics, Europe, Germany, USA, Work


Never pay to work

I just wasted some time looking into journalism internships in the US and Spain and had a hard time finding unpaid internships. And in this day and age, you’re often lucky to get an unpaid internship if you’re career is not in accounting or engineering. What they did have, in plenty, were internships for which you pay to be a fact-checking, coffee-getting peon, along with a slew of internships for which you pay to be able to volunteer your time, teaching English to children.

Ridiculous. You pay, sometimes 3k for a month or so, to be able to take a flight to a foreign country (another thou) and live in camp-style lodgings, pay for your own food and drink, and spend your days dealing with bratty, obnoxious, snotty-nosed kids. While I’m at the point where I’d take an unpaid internships for some sort of in to a job which I might immensely like, I’m not about to volunteer my services, especially for something I don’t enjoy (aka, work), and on top of that, pay bank to be able to do so.

Whoever set up this system is brilliant. I should probably open a school in Spain and do the same thing. Think about it. You can charge the kids’ parents a ton for summer camps, you can charge your foreign teachers to come and “volunteer” from abroad, while you just sit back with a rake and bag for the dough falling into your lap. Hell, why not put $50 application fees, so that way you can get something from all the people you reject.

Really, people. Make it your policy never to pay to work. Do a little research. You can have my job, working 16 hours a week, and make a livable (albeit, far from lavish) wage, or you can, at the very least, volunteer on a farm (wwoofing) and get free food and board, or find some kind of volunteer work that doesn’t send you to the poorhouse. And then, there’s always South Korea, where English teaching is an actual career.

But I’m sure I’ll continue to run into people, as I did the other night, squandering fortunes on these silly programs (scams) which should probably not even be legal. Some probably go by the exalted pseudonym of non-profit, but generally speaking there’s some dude at the top taking in a good 100k a year for all the effort he puts into his philanthropic work.


No diplomatic immunity this year

Stage two of the foreign service officer application process weeded me out. I can take consolation in the fact that hiring was low this year and the vast majority of people do not get to the oral interview on their first try. Also, 24 is pretty young to start.

My dream of diplomatic license plates has been stalled. Oh well, there’s always next year to reapply.

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Posted by on May 17, 2011 in Career