Friday, October 7, 2011

Travel With A Purpose

People have asked me "Why? Why teach abroad? You have everything at home. A support system: family, a girlfriend, a job. Why do it?"

Nowadays, with company cut-backs and layoffs, seniority is no longer a factor. It's about the business's survival not yours. Job security is dead. You can no longer rely on working for an employer for 20-30 years and then retiring with full benefits. The economy will eventually recover and companies are slowly starting to increase hiring. But you can't be fooled into trusting your financial security with another seemingly-reliable company ever again. If the opportunity comes up, of course, take it, but people are learning not to rely solely on income from a job. This recession has proven that companies will not honor their end of the bargain when the going gets tough.

In the movie "Con Air," the character played by Steve Buscemi sums it up perfectly: What if I told you insane was working fifty hours a week in some office for fifty years at the end of which they tell you to piss off, ending up in some retirement village, hoping to die before suffering the indignity of trying to make it to the toilet on time? Wouldn't you consider that to be insane?

So, what recourse does one have when companies no longer have your back? How do you keep from becoming "insane"?

Branding. Branding yourself. Outsourcing yourself. Outsourcing isn't just for big businesses. It's probably the best way to fend off financial doom when you've lost your major source of income. Outsourcing, or freelancing, is the new job security. Sell your skills to those who need it. Go to where the jobs are. Sell your brand locally or abroad.

But why do so many choose to work in Cambodia? Are they running towards something or running away from it? This really hit home when, during an interview for a teaching position, the school director explained to me that there are three different types of teachers:

-the teacher who failed back home and is seeking a fresh start;
-the teacher who is altruistic and truly wants to give back; or
-the teacher that is only interested in drinking and partying.

It was clear he was trying to size me up, but I don't believe I fit into a specific category.

I began this journey as a way of gaining a more realistic picture of a culture rather than reading about it in a book or googling it. I wanted to see the world and return home with the satisfaction of having contributed to a community and experienced a new culture as no tourist can. So, I traveled nearly 9,000 miles to sell my brand.

Teaching abroad has allowed me to use leadership skills to conduct a class, pick up a new language (even just conversationally), build an international network and communicate across cultural barriers. Back home, my extroverted personality has always gotten me into trouble but, in Cambodia, it has been my saving grace. I'm more confident in who I am and in my abilities. I may have been selling my brand, but I am getting something much more valuable in return.

Would I do this again? Probably not. But, if I can go to a strange land and find success and a better version of myself, I can handle whatever challenges life throws my way. I may not have all the answers but I won't run from it.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Slight Change of Plans

So, I decided not to take the teaching job with the Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC).

How do you have someone travel nearly 9,000 miles and then tell them they will actually be working less hours and earning less pay than you originally offered?

You're enticed into traveling to a country you otherwise wouldn't consider traveling to. You book flights, hotels, eat, drink, spend money, give a boost to the economy. And, then, they break it to you. That they can't deliver on their promise. Never planned to. And, from what I hear, this isn't a unique story. This type of behavior is actually commonplace. I understand that this is mostly due to the lack of structure, but it almost feels like entrapment or bait-and-switch. You travel this far and you have no choice but to take what they give you. I'll admit, I was a little depressed about the whole thing. Thanks to my dad and my girlfriend, Vesta, for pulling me through this.

On October 3rd, I will begin teaching an English for Conversation course at the Cambodia Professional Training Center (CPTC). Part-time. 15 hours per week. I get paid once a month. I'll let you know how my first week goes.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Wild West of Asia

Cambodia. The new Wild, Wild West.

Practically no police presence. Their transportation system is inadequate. No one practices road safety. Mothers and their infants ride on the back of motorbikes. Two, three, four people on one motorbike. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone wearing a helmet. Pedestrians step into and stroll through traffic as if there are no cars and motorbikes zooming by. They would put a professional New York City jaywalker to shame. You may spot the stray officer attempting to direct traffic but his efforts are in vain.

Wanna see how they drive here? Check out these links.

This country is in desperate need of sanitation, tourist revenue and school teachers.

Piles of garbage lay strewn on every sidewalk, street and alleyway of the hotels, restaurants, businesses and homes, waiting to be burned. Or worse, just decompose. The rain and mud make matters worse. But this is a fact of life here. It appears that they have sanitation trucks, maybe one or two.

Not exactly the type of thing that attracts tourists, eh?

What is a big attraction for tourists and expatriates is the standard of living. Beers are $0.75. Well drinks are $2.50. A complete meal costs anywhere between $2.00 and $5.00. A standard room at a guesthouse, like the one I stayed at during my first week -- Rory's Guesthouse -- costs $11 per night. The average rent for a one bedroom apartment is $150 per month. But these are luxuries that foreigners indulge in since a large percentage of the population live below the poverty line. Adults and children make a living on the street, begging and stealing and eating food from the trash. They don't have social security, so a job is essential to survive. The average salary for a full time hotel employee is $95 per month. But a foreigner working as a part-time English teacher (15 hours a week) can make $150 per week. Cambodians treat foreigners very well, often better than they treat fellow Cambodians. It certainly puts one's life back home into perspective.

Schools campaign vigorously for English-speaking teachers. Yet, once you arrive, you're greeted with procrastination, disorganization, somewhat shady characters and next-to-zero direction. During last year's trip, I was working for a long-established organization that ran a successful program, so I didn't have to deal with the bureaucracy. One thing's for sure, this experience has taught me a lot of self-reliance.

But do you know what really bothers me? And I'm not alone in this. They have no respect for your time, are slow to provide information and refuse to admit when they don't understand what you are asking them (read: yes you to death). I've been told by expatriates that the reason for this is that Cambodians always want to save face, not look bad. Whatever the case is, it's a nightmare for any tourist trying to schedule anything or get directions.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Next Time, Get it in Writing

After a vicious game of phone and email tag, I finally met with my contact -- well, actually, his partner -- at the Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC). I was told that my hours were decreased from 15 to less than 7 per week and I would be getting paid less per hour. What? Are you kidding me?! How do you do that to someone who came all the way from New York? It just makes me realize that I should've gotten something in writing -- and not just an email saying "we're good" -- from the school before I left New York (yes, yes, Vesta, you were right).

Luckily, I had plans to get a second job and reached out to other schools before I left. One of them, the Cambodian Professional Training Center, asked me to come in and teach a class of students (ages 14-19) as part of my interview. The kids responded well to me and the school director was impressed with my teaching style. They offered me 15 hours per week. Now, I have to decide which school I want to teach at.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On My Way to Cambodia

Today, I leave for Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on a journey I never would've imagined taking. Certainly not on my own, flying thousands of miles away from everything I know, to where the native language is not English. Their second language is not even English!

Yes, I visited last year but that was only for two weeks. This time around, I will spend 3-4 months teaching English to students at the Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC). My start date is September 21st. It will be on a part-time basis (15 hour per week).

Why so few hours? Well, most Cambodian students, regardless of their age, can only afford to go to school for half a day. The other half of the day, they're working to help support the family. Plus, I'd actually earn more in a week than an average Cambodian earns in a month. More on that later.

I will be staying at Rory's Guesthouse for the first week while I find a rental apartment and meet with school officials.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


It was the morning of June 17, 2010. On my nightstand were plane tickets. I had to do a double take. Could this be right? It says, “Ruvane Schwartz, destination: Phnom Penh, Cambodia.” That is my name and that’s today’s date, so this must be right. As a world-weary traveler, this must be a mistake. Cambodia? What am I doing? Why am I traveling nearly 9,000 miles to Cambodia?

Traveling with a volunteer group of teachers and education personnel, I was about to embark on a trip dedicated to changing communities of learners under the “Teachers Across Borders” (TAB) program. The group conducts a two-week long workshop for Cambodian student teachers and professional teachers. TAB feels that education is key to the issues of reducing poverty, gender equality, combating child trafficking and, most importantly, providing children with choices.

Like most average Americans, I only had a limited knowledge of the history and problems that existed in Cambodia. As a remedy to my own personal career crisis, this trip originally served as a means to network. But, once there, I left with a renewed identity of my own culture.

While the Holocaust spawned international laws to protect from further human disaster, the pledge to “never again” allow such atrocities was just an empty promise. The Cambodian genocide, one of the most prominent genocides since the Holocaust, eliminated monks, doctors, lawyers and educators, as well as universities and schools, throughout Cambodia. It was a national disaster that approached the Holocaust in magnitude. Like the Holocaust, the Cambodia genocide not only obliterated the lives of the murdered, but it destroyed their civilization.

Judaism stresses that ‘he who kills one soul kills an entire world.’ And the Khmer Rouge executioners did a superior job. They murdered over 1.2 million Cambodians, nearly a quarter of the population. The Khmer Rouge regime may be long gone, but their bloody fingerprints continue to afflict Cambodia, in its poverty and lawlessness. Outside the hotels, restaurants, museums, and along the Mekong River, maimed panhandlers and children plead for loose change. I was stunned to hear daily stories from locals about the latest victim of Khmer Rouge landmines that still littered the countryside, while those that placed them there were living in stately mansions, having not yet been brought to justice for their crimes.

The Khmer Rouge, like the Nazis before them, may have killed the past and blighted the present for millions, but Cambodian survivors, like Jews now prospering again, must be allowed to reclaim the future. Decades later, these student and professional teachers in our workshops were doing just that --- rebuilding their country’s educational system from the ground up. And I, too, was assisting in this renewal of Cambodia, however small I may have deemed my role.

My two-week journey through Cambodian culture left a mark on my soul and created friendships that will last a lifetime. And I hope to one day revisit Cambodia or another impoverished nation. Only fear of the unknown, of abandoning the comfortable feeling of the familiar that one finds in one’s own land, stands in the way of embracing other cultures. Ultimately, by embracing another culture, you may just find your own, your self, as I did.