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photo: marcopako

Realized that dropping out of the workforce to travel hasn’t worked out the way you thought? Here’s your guide to bailing.

YOU’VE JUST GRADUATED from college and you have absolutely no idea what to do with yourself, so you drive from California to Alberta for no other reason than someone invited you to serve beer at a music festival.

Somewhere between Jackson Hole and Missoula you get word that a family friend is looking for teachers at a high school in Mexico, no experience required. Hey, you have no experience, you should apply.

Three weeks later you are sitting at a Goth bar in the provincial capital of a state that borders the state that borders DF. This is your new home (not the Goth bar, this random city just a little too far from the cultural mystique of Mexico City).

Over your first authentically Mexican Corona you discuss with your new coworker, a friend from college, your optimistic aspirations for this new life: you want to make tons of friends, travel throughout the country, have lots of parties, start a band, become fluent in Spanish, become friends with that haggard metal singer who is trying to approximate Ozzy Osbourne’s voice.

Within your first hour of your first day of school you realize that this school is a facade. A shiny new building with no textbooks. A state of the art computer lab with no working computers. Students in the classroom with no intention of learning. Everyone implicitly understands that this private school exists as a brochure to show to the parents of children who were kicked out of more legitimate private schools. They could send their children here to maintain their appearance as members of Mexico’s growing upper middle class.

The school is on the fourth and fifth floors of an office building, above a bank and a convenience store, below a marketing agency and the headquarters for a medium-sized steel manufacturer. All of the organizations in this building have exactly the same purpose: to minimize cost and maximize money.

On the second day of school you fill out forms to get the FM3 (efe eme tres) work visa. The director says at the latest you’ll get the visa in October. After the third day, you come home frustrated. You know these students don’t have a passion for education, but maybe you could inspire them, convince them to explore the depths of their minds, to fight injustices, to improve the world.

You write out a curriculum for the principal, which includes requested textbooks and other teaching material. Weeks later you’re still teaching from Wikipedia, and are assured that the textbooks that were supposed to arrive last month are still on their way, ahorita.

It’s okay, there aren’t really textbooks on Hip Hop Studies or Comic Theory, because you just made up these classes. You are ostensibly preparing these students to become the foremost experts on Eazy-E or Aristotle’s philosophy of humor in all of Central Mexico.

But the students and administration still don’t seem to care what you’re doing. This makes you feel like you’re wasting your post-college youth, especially when you spend each free period on the facebook (it was before they dropped the ‘the’ or capitalized), seeing how other friends were advancing their careers in New York and San Francisco. This discontentment turns to anger; in the classroom you yell at students who snicker behind your back. You give wanton detentions and unnecessary busywork as punishment for bad behavior.

At the end of every school day you feel like shit. As you’re preparing your Hip Hop Studies lectures you start contemplating the notion of truly “not giving a fuck.” If Tupac can overcome all obstacles by not giving a fuck, you realize that this strategy will help you survive the year (hopefully before you get assassinated by Suge Knight).

You stop yelling at students, and just ignore them, and plan weekend trips while they’re busy with arbitrary pop quizzes. You countdown the minutes till class ends. You always schedule your big trips on payday. But the money is never around. Every day the director says he’ll pay you tomorrow.

Right when you get totally pissed about not getting paid on time he laughs, tells you to chill out, and gives you your money and “a few extra pesos for a beer.” He’s perfected being an asshole: consistently be a jerk, and then occasionally do something nice so you forget about the exploitative things he’s done. You apply your mantra of “not giving a fuck” to the administration too.

Aside from school life everything is pretty good: you have parties, you make music, you make an appearance at a battle of the bands, you make out with a groupie, you make friends with locals. You could do this forever! And then after a few months, you realize that you can’t. This town is incredibly boring for a foreigner in his / her early twenties, because everyone interesting has already fled to Mexico City.

You spend most of your time by yourself writing, walking around aimlessly, eating, napping.

Your social scene is either hip Mexican teenagers (who still go to your high school) or midwestern North Americans whose interests you don’t find interesting. You spend most of your time by yourself writing, walking around aimlessly, eating, napping. On a weekly basis you socialize with your Canadian buddy, but that just consists of him making you watch The Last Waltz while you sip on caguamas of Indio.

You start thinking that this drudgery is completely unbearable. But you look forward to Semana Santa; you’ll go back home to California for a weekend. Then all you have is a few months left here. You can do this.

You head to the airport on payday. The money still hasn’t arrived into your bank account. The last thing the director says to you is: oh, that money will be in your account, ahorita.

You’re pissed but whatever, you’re going home to see your friends and family. You leave school at lunchtime, and take the bus to the airport. On the ride to the airport you listen to Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” It’s a song about acceptance of other people doing things you don’t like.

You get to the airport, and the woman behind the counter looks confused. “Why don’t you have the tourist visa sheet?” “I have a work visa, you don’t see that in the computer?”

“No, you need to go to Room 23.” When you speak with the immigration officer, he tells you that you’ve overstayed your tourist visa. You tell him that you have an FM3. He looks on the computer and says “oh, your visa is still in transit.” It’s been six months since the director of the school allegedly sent in your visa. Since the visa is still in transit you aren’t able to leave the country.

You get pissed. You’ve already paid for your flight. You aren’t willing to give up that ticket. Fuck that guy for lying to you, and never paying you on time! UGH! You ask if there is anything they can do to get you on that flight. “You could cancel your visa and just leave the country — do you have the original visa on you?” You know exactly which drawer that visa is in. You grunt. You are livid, but decide to take an hour bus ride back to pick up the visa.

On the bus ride back you listen to “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” This time you realize that the song is about accepting other people, but that as a free-spirited individual you don’t need to take their shit. That you need to look out for your own best interest, even if that means breaking commitments. Just walk away. You repeat that on a loop in your head as you pack your bags. They’ve wronged me, so I’m out of here.

You catch another bus to the airport, you run to Room 23, they cancel your work visa, they stamp it with a word in Spanish that you’ve never seen before; you think it means “deported” but the man behind the counter assures you that it doesn’t mean deported (which is frustrating because it would be cool to say that you got deported). You are scheduled for the next flight to Los Angeles. And you’re happy because all of this being taken advantage of is over.

On the plane you look out the window, and can make out the city you lived in. You wonder if Mexico beat you, because you couldn’t play by its terms. You wonder if you’d totally skirted responsibility because you feel entitled to be treated well at all times.

You wonder if everybody in your town thinks less of you now. You wonder what your family will think. You wonder how you would do it again in the future. All you know is that you made this decision because it seemed right at the time.

Career Advice


About The Author

Josh Heller

Josh is a writer from Los Angeles. He has lived in Mexico City, New York, and Berlin with extensive jaunts to Latin America and Europe.

  • Dezi

    I’m feeling the same way right now, and I don’t really have a recourse since I’m legally allowed to be in this country. :( Get me out!

    • Joshuaheller

      just leave.

  • AR

    This is a very well-written article…relatable, and interesting to read….Also I like how in conclusion you analyze why you did what you did, and the ever important question/problem “wonder[ing] if you’d totally skirted responsibility because you feel entitled to be treated well at all times.”  That struck me as in interesting notion that doesn’t even cross our American middle-class minds but rather lurks beneath the surface.  Should you have stuck it out?  Who knows.  But I’m glad you wrote an interesting story about it.


  • Lenka Silhanova

    Well written! Felt the same doing aupairing.

  • Adventures

    Should you have stuck it out? If you’ll accept the opinion of someone who is ahem…slightly older than you, no. You weren’t leaving your students in the lurch or disappointing them, and you were being treated in a sub-servient manner by a guy who probably never bothered to submit your work visa form. The entire situation was every bit as shaky as it must have felt. You went with good intentions, did your best, inflicted no harm, disapponted no one, saw the charade for what it was and cut your losses. You’re cool.

  • david miller

    as i read this i could hear the dylan lyrics :
    when your rooster crows at the break of dawn / look out your window cuz, i’ll be gone / you are the reason i’ll be traveling on / but don’t think twice it’s alright


    enjoy when writing makes your hear music

    what do you call that transaction?

    something deeply embedded with place and memory

  • js

    Lots of these resonated.  Thanks for sharing.

  • Sarah

    A similar thing happened to me when I was a language assistant in France.  I thought I was safer going with a government program…instead my pay and healthcare were delayed due to laziness or incompetence of the people in many different offices, I was screamed at for stupid things by the director of the school (who made it no secret that she was disappointed to have me as her assistant because she wanted a real teacher), I was forced to stay at the school full-time like teachers making many times what I made though assistants are promised a 12 hour work week, and I could not keep the students quiet or in their seats to save my life.  Some days I just stood in front of the classroom without bothering to teach because I had yelled as loud as I could and the students still wouldn’t sit down (French authorities must know that happens because it is illegal for assistants to be left alone without a teacher to keep order, but when I tried to report that I was being left alone, someone from the administration came to yell at the principal, who yelled at me, and nothing changed).  It would take a long-form article of my own to summarize the rest of what happened.

    In the end I only left about 3 weeks early.  If I had more money, I would have left much earlier.  It took me until the end of the contract to save up the money for a ticket home and a bit of travel on the way, and I loved my apartment and my town, the job just made me miserable.  When I found a much cheaper ticket a few weeks before the end of the school year I had no moral reservations about taking it.  I don’t think the author did anything wrong and wish I could have pulled the same thing financially.

  • Turner

    I need to read more of your stuff, Josh. Although I wasn’t in as sketchy a work situation as you, I did consider bailing, and went through the same highs and lows. What did you end up doing when you returned broke and unprepared?

  • Cloud Sequence

    The Canadian watching The Last Waltz sounds amazing.  Any way we could get closure on his situation?

  • travelola

    Enjoyed your writing style and related to the chaos of trying to be and live in another country that is at odds with your own expectations and way of doing things. Hope its all working out well for you now!

  • JaXson Hart

    I enjoyed your writing style but your style of working abroad is one that will only set you up for failure and frustration. You screwed up from the get go by applying to be a teacher without passionately wanting to be a teacher. Teaching is something that you have to love and obsess on. From experience I know that working with kids who are completely disengaged as students is more than challenging, but if you want to survive as a teacher it should be one of your main life goals to reengage them. If that’s not the case do yourself and the world a favor and stay out of the classroom. 

  • munich2006

    Wow — the internet never ceases to amaze me – I started out just browsing online, looking at prices for some flights to Europe, and ended up stumbling across this article.  I have to say the article is quite good — the cursing could have been a little more sparse without losing anything, but still, overall, a well done piece.

  • Marc

    Thank you so much for your piece, Josh. Besides being incredibly well-written and honest, it resonates with me personally, as right now I’m undergoing a period of much thought and doubt regarding my own plans. I’ve been preparing to apply for an English teaching position in Japan these past few months – completed a TESL certification course, been studying Japanese, the works. I started down this route for many of the reasons you mention – the cultural experiences, exploring a new country, having fun. But I’ve grown more and more doubtful about what I’m getting into regarding the job itself. In my research, I’ve read stories about poor treatment, overwork, inexperienced teachers being taken advantage of. But even if I manage to avoid some of the troubles you unfortunately experienced, I don’t feel this is what I want to do anymore. I imagined this new career path would eventually click for me, that I’d grow more comfortable with it and be able to manage it while making a sincere connection with the new people and places I’d be interacting with. But instead, only doubts have grown clearer – despite my initial willingness to try out this new challenge, I now see conditions that would only result in a disappointing experience. The loneliness, the aimlessness, the loss of purpose and passion, being bound to a contract and job responsibilities, desperately relying on occasional weekend and holiday breaks for relief. Hell, I can’t even see myself mustering a convincing persona for the interviews. Call me a coward for quitting before even getting properly started, but I feel in my gut that this is the right thing for me to do. And as your piece so beautifully illustrates, what sincere hopes and ambitions I’d be harboring would be at the mercy of others who very likely have other priorities in mind. Somehow, somewhere, I need to choose something else that is more true and right for me instead of making a terrible mistake. I hope you can do the same (or, if the events of the piece are from some time ago, already have). Once again, thank you.

  • ESLinsider

    Most of the problems mentioned above, like for example, not getting paid on time and not having materials to work with can be avoided. I wrote an ebook about this.
    I think the truth is that most people who teach abroad only do it for a
    year or so. And a much smaller percentage is in it for the long run.

  • Reader

    This site really needs a dislike button.

    • Jefazos

      A quick question: How old are you? Why are the inexperienced and clueless so prone to spreading their babblings across the cyber waves? Look: just grow up a bit and bide your time. There is absolutely nothing special about the USA — you are just unculcated and secure in your little womb. Branch out.

      • Emiaj Lar

        So, I infer you are Mexican , cause that is a very typical Mexican way of thinking, Mexicans think they are always right, they NEVER make mistakes, but the reality is very different , wake up man!!! , the country depicted in this story is the real Mexico.

      • nikki_bee

        What does that have to do with disliking this article?

  • Tony

    After reading this, I have absolutely no regrets about turning in my  notice. Granted my situation isn’t as bad as yours was, I found this very relatable. No one really knows what it’s like to try to teach to the unwilling until they actually do it. 

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  • Damien Baumgart

    I feel like I’m kinda here (again). I moved from Australia with a $69,000+ teaching job to Vancouver where I find myself working for minimum wage ($10.25 and hour) and wondering “What the hell have I done?” as I try to scrape together enough money to get by on each week. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m here for a greater purpose and that though this appears to be a step backwards (in regards to finances) it’s a step forward for following my true life path.

  • Anne Hoffman

    Love this!

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