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Things in our lives don’t always go as planned. It happens.
At the end of April 2014 we made a rash but necessary decision to leave China and begin traveling immediately in Southeast Asia. We didn’t have a plan, we definitely didn’t have the money, but within four days we bought plane tickets, shipped boxes of our stuff back to America, donated and sold the rest, and filled our travel backpacks with our clothes. We threw an impromptu goodbye party hours before we left, got in a cab at 3am and got on a plane to Thailand.
We were so without a plan that we didn’t even go to Thailand. Our plane had a layover for an hour in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. When we touched down, I burst into tears. Partly out of relief, but mostly sheer joy that we were safely out of China and back in Cambodia, a country that has brought me so much happiness in the past.
I asked Stevo, “Do you just want to stay here?” He nodded almost instantly. We kindly asked an airport attendant if we could get our bags off the plane. 30 minutes later, business visas in hand we were in a tuk-tuk weaving through the chaotic streets of Phnom Penh, the warm, clean Southeast Asian air filling our lungs with sweet sweet freedom.
It seemed unbelievable that it was really that easy to radically shift our lives in a new direction. We’d been unhappy for a while in Shanghai, spinning our wheels to improve things and getting no where. The main source of discontent was our jobs, which were taking up a majority of our time. We love teaching English, but the
school company we worked for was designed purely for profit and didn’t care whatsoever about the employees or students. We were cogs in a machine that was designed to use us up and spit us out. Luckily for us, we didn’t have to take it.
We had been working hard, up to seven days a week for a few months tutoring and working side jobs, saving money for travel. We had nearly enough for the three months of travel we’d been planning to do starting at the end of July.
Our social lives in Shanghai were the best they’d ever been. Stevo was heavily involved in the stand up comedy scene, performing three to four nights a week at Kung Fu Komedy Club. I had a great group of girlfriends who loved going out, trying new things and exploring the city. We were both doing yoga several times a week and were taking care of ourselves. Everything outside of work was great.
So we decided to do something about the part of our life that was out of balance and quit our jobs, legally, within the conditions of our contracts. Unfortunately, when you work in China your employer controls your working visa, which means that they control your ability to stay in the country. Our employer, instead of complying with their side of the contract, threatened not to give us our paperwork to move on, and in 30 days we would face possible deportation. We didn’t know what to do. Could the school really do that to us? We contacted a few of the seven teachers who had already quit before us that school year for advice.
It seemed that the only way to remedy the situation was to take the school to court. That wasn’t how we wanted to spend our last few months in China. We wanted our experience in the country to end positively, with our sanity intact. We also knew we couldn’t continue working there.
So we did the only thing we felt we could do. We bailed.
I have zero regrets looking back on everything. Except maybe accepting that job in the first place. I rest assured that we were always doing the best we could given our circumstances, and that’s all we can ever expect of ourselves. Knowing we tried to do the right thing, give notice to our employer and follow the guidelines of the contract, I don’t feel guilty. When you’re playing by the rules but the other guy isn’t, it’s not a fair fight.
Despite having only enough money saved for our planned three months of travel, we’re making it work. We’ve dipping slightly into our reserve funds, and that’s okay. They are there for just this kind of situation.
Leaving China has been revitalizing and traveling reminds us how amazing life can be. This trip has put a lot of things in perspective for us, given us time to connect, and we feel more confident than ever that everything will be okay.
At the time, quitting China was the best decision we could have made.
I’ve had a few TEFL horror stories too, mainly in Italy where I was teaching for 3 years. I’m now back in the UK in a soul sucking office job and need out.
I’ve applied for a working holiday in Australia and want to get back into TEFL. I was thinking of trying out Cambodia for a while, primarily due to the laid back lifestyle in Southeast Asia, cheap living, weather and ease of visas.
How easy is finding a job there, is it possible to just turn up in the country, get a business visa, visit schools and get a job?
Jennifer Joslin says
Thank you! Sorry to hear that! I’m sure bad teaching experiences can happen anywhere. We’re with you that we prefer teaching to working in an office! Cambodia is an interesting and exciting place to be for sure. If you plan to look for work there you can enter the country with an Ordinary (E) visa on arrival which you will be able to extend for 3-6 months. That will give you time to look for work. A big part of finding work depends on timing and what job openings are available when you arrive. I got very lucky with the job I ended up in because a teacher quit at the last minute before the school year started and I was able to fill her spot. It’s not always something you can plan for! But it definitely is possible to find work in Cambodia if you are willing to be patient and prepare by bringing enough money to cover yourself for a few months so you can take your time to find a good fit. Just know that most schools still operate as businesses, so you will run into some of the same frustrations as you might have before in previous schools. Over time I think it gets easier to know how to pick your battles and choose what’s worth your energy 🙂 Good luck!
todd douglass says
i have just landed in cambodia, after almost 4 years in china also. i was so so sad, constatly cheated by my school, shops, seemed that i could not trust a single person. i told my work i was sick, packed my things and left. if you give notice they will not pay you your owed moneys. china, i can say the only good thing is that i appreciate every other place far more nore
Jennifer Joslin says
Welcome to Cambodia! So sorry to hear you had that experience. It’s an awful feeling to be in that situation but it’s good that you focused on your happiness and sanity first. That’s very true, you will appreciate the freedoms of not being there even more now! Best of luck to you!
Glass Flowers says
Jen & Stevo… I cannot begin to tell you how comforting it was to read this post and know that we weren’t the only ones who had to escape CN! Reading this now brings back all the same notions and feelings you expressed, and the total appreciation of the experience. It made us stronger, ultimately, once the pollution sickness healed (took me 3 months to clear my lungs of green goo!)
P.S. I sent you a nice long email just a bit ago with some Qs about Cambodia! Cheers to you both, and, who knows, maybe we will meet you some day!
Jennifer Joslin says
Thank you so much for your lovely comment and email:) There were lots of great things about living in China, but it was definitely time to go! Cheers to you both and hope to meet you soon in Cambodia!