Why Did You Teach English with LanguageCorps?

The following is a piece by Caroline Spall, winner of the 2014 LanguageCorps writing contest.  She waxes poetic about why she decided to teach English abroad with LanguageCorps, what freedom means, and more.  Hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

When I was younger, we lived by the sea.

In those days, as the sunlight seeped down the street signs and lit upon the palms bent over the alleyways as it does only in the death of the afternoon, my brother would hang onto the bars of the old umbrella clothesline behind the empty apartment building at the end of our street and I would spin it as fast as I could.

To be young, I have heard, is to live free of the concept that you will one day be less free than you are right now.

The twilight would rust and fail quietly in these days. We would walk back up the street the way we came as the moon draped our cleft of the universe in red wine, and everything was slow and warm; men biked down the middle of the road in their business clothes, a baguette in one hand and loafers in the milk carton strapped to the handlebars. We would sneak cherry tomatoes from our neighbor’s garden sprawling into the sidewalk as we passed. We would crow Hello! to Penny Lane, the three-legged street cat as she sniffed at our feet. We would spray the garden hose between each other’s toes, crusted with the salts of the Earth. These were the urban sundowns of my youth.

I think about this now as I sit on my balcony watching the infant light overthrow Bangkok. I think about the question I have found myself perpetually unequipped to answer since arriving in Asia to teach English – “Why did you come here?” I thought the answer was, I came here to gain a new perspective. But as I count the windows turning to fire one by one in the young daybreak and the skyscrapers on the horizon coming forth from the haze, it occurs to me that I came here to reclaim an old one.

***

I think about this now as I stand outside the classroom of my three-year-old students putting on their shoes for PE class. One young boy proudly hands me his drawing of a pink hiyoko. “Wow,” I say, crouched down next to him. “This is amazing.”

He nods solemnly. Looking at me in the eye, he holds up one finger. “Red.” He holds up another. “White.” He looks down to the paper, and points to the scribbles layered over the outline of a baby chicken. “Pink.” He then looks back at me, and is quiet. His eyes get wide. “Magic.”

***

Why did you come here?  

To be fair, I think the question is obsolete. My reasons have changed from what I told everyone before I left the United States – perhaps become less tangible, but something I can sequester into specific moments in time. After weeks of rising to the din and smog of Phnom Penh and a day’s bus ride in the rain over the unpaved roads of Cambodia, waking in Sihanoukeville, my bed still made beneath me, curtains still tied back, to find the room steeping in a static, golden light, and I feel as though I have walked in on something mature and sacred but no one is angry. Climbing onto the roof of my apartment building, the sky a purpled bruise, we look up from the concrete and my breath is suddenly caught inside my throat at the hemorrhaging veins of Bangkok sprawling outwards in every direction, bowling towards the edges of Asia, lacing inwards, draining onwards in pursuit of a black and distant sea. We line up a row of glasses along the railing, pour the whiskey liberally and watch the city lights wink into the gut of the night without talking about it, because what is there to say? “To Onnut,” we cheer later that evening, “the center of the universe,” which it is not, in any discernible way, except for that it was where we happened to be in that very perfect moment in time.

To be young, I have heard, is to live free of the concept that you will one day be both less huge and less small than you are right now.

***

I think about this now as I walk through the markets lining the sidewalks on my way home from school.  The cardboard signs staked into the mounds of rambutan, basil, and charred fish host an unfamiliar script; ash caught on the back of the breeze burns my eyes and fills my nose. The banter of hagglers is peculiarly comforting. It is a refrain that has become background music, lyrics to the beat of the horns and the beggars playing their flutes and the motorcycles as they snarl with each other at the red lights, edging slyly off the lip of the soi and into Sukhumvit like a game between old neighborhood dogs. Women sit cross-legged at their mortars. Vendors sell lottery tickets out of wooden cases hanging from their necks and weave flowers into ropes to be hung off the taxis’ rearview mirrors. For a brief moment I wonder who these people see when I pass through their landscape, these strangers who are all carefully oiled workings of mine.

***

On my balcony again with a cup of instant coffee, dusk begins to flare, to overcook, to spit and dribble down the tips of the cranes and the telephone poles swollen with rainwater. I freeze this moment in my mind and wonder if I will think back to it in ten, thirty, sixty years. What will I think of my younger self, the person I am right now, here on the rim of Bangkok at twenty-three? I decide that it doesn’t particularly matter. I think about how many days I have until rent is due and what I need to laminate for class next week. I think I am doing an okay job at this Bangkok thing. I will never be more significant and I will never be less significant than I am right now. That is freedom, I think, and that is youth.

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