You never forget your first…

…job hunt

Recently the New York Times featured an article in the Education section called “Teachers Vie for Overseas Postings,” which did a fairly good job of describing the job hunt for international educators. I have been working in schools overseas since 1981, and like in the article, it started at a fair.

I was in my third year of working as a teacher in the Jurupa Unified School District in Southern California. Three years, and three different jobs: a combined class of grades 2 and 3, then a grade six in another elementary school, and in my third year I was a high school biology teacher. In the fall of that third year I saw a small ad exclaiming “Teach Overseas.” It was from International Schools Services, or ISS. The application process to join their job placement service was extensive, and included an interview in Los Angeles with one of their representatives. Once that was done, I started receiving thick packets in the mail with job opportunities around the world. Only then did I appreciate a new world was opening up before me. I could be working in Europe, Asia, or Africa next year. It was a very exciting time.

ISS had a job fair in New York. I made arrangements for the trip. A very expensive trip! A couple of schools, including one in Cairo, had setup interviews with me ahead of time.

However just ten days before the fair, the district’s wandering elementary art teacher, Gary, came into my high school classroom and said he heard I was looking overseas. He told me about a small job fair he was attending that Saturday at UCLA. I cancelled my trip to the ISS fair, phoned Egypt and made an appointment to meet the head of the Cairo school at Stanford on Sunday.

ISS recruiting fair in San Francisco  – Malcolm Stitt in the NYTimes

Tables were crammed together in a lobby of one of UCLA’s large lecture halls. Each head of school sat behind the table and behind them on butcher paper was a list of the jobs they had available. I got in line for Frankfurt, then London, and got interviews with both. But each line was long and as they made interview appointments, the list of openings was thinning out. My third line was Kuala Lumpur. After 30 minutes of waiting in the line, the head of the school stood up and said “I don’t want to interview anyone else unless you can teach physics!” “I can teach Physics,” I replied, handed him my resume and had my third interview setup.

The interviews were in hotel rooms in a building adjacent to the university. London had pulled the room’s desk around and he sat behind it. Frankfurt sat on his bed, shoes off, legs stretched out toward the interviewee. Both went well, but I was hesitant about my third and final interview, Kuala Lumpur. As I entered the room he was sitting across from me at a low coffee table, “Aren’t you kinda of weak in Physics” he challenged. “Yes, but I’m a great second grade teacher”. He laughed.

At the end of the day I went home buoyed by an overabundance of delusional self-confidence that I would get at least one job offer. That night I had dinner with my parents told them about the events of the day. Then I remembered “Oh no, I have an appointment tomorrow morning at 9 am at Stanford University!” I was tempted to blow it off, feeling confident about my job prospects, but in the end I did the right thing. I had made a commitment  and I needed to follow through with it. My mom volunteered to ride with me (she could not drive my stick-shift) on the 400 miles north. We drove through the night and stopped at the Denny’s in Palo Alto around 8am. I changed into my suit and entered Stanford’s career placement office at 9 am. “I’m here to see Dr. Brandt,” I say to the receptionist. “Oh, Dr. Brandt cancelled his trip to Standford.” “Are you kidding me!” Grrr. No time for a rest or a gripe, Mom and I hopped back into the car and drove back down to Riverside – the next day was a work day.

One of my first trips as an overseas teacher – Cairo! Never did run into Dr. Brandt.

In the end, I got that wonderful phone call from Frankfurt and immediately agreed to a contract.

A few weeks later I got another call from the guy who thought he was going to interview a physics candidate at UCLA. It turned out, he really did need a second grade teacher!

Driving Mr. Ali

Another sign of imminent departure… selling the car.

One of the problems with expat life is timing the appropriate moment to sell your vehicle. Too early, and you are doing a lot of walking. Too late, and you are at the mercy of car resellers out to make a buck on your desperation. We have had mixed results in the past. In Germany, our sad Volkswagen hatchback was in serious need of repairs. The engine would just die if we drove further than 100 km. Rain was a hazard as the floorboard was rotted and water would spray into the passenger side when we drove through a puddle. On our last day in Germany, we drove it to a junk yard and paid the owner to take the car off our hands.

In Malaysia, we had a beautiful Ford van. With two young kids we were reluctant to part with it and didn’t put it up for sale in the newspaper until a month before our departure. As the days ticked by we got more and more nervous about selling it. In the last week, we finally got an offer that was far less than expected, but we had to take it.

During the turn-down in the economy in 2008 and 2009, the Emirates were swamped with abandoned cars as departing expats were unable to sell their cars for enough to cover the loan on the vehicle. It was a good time to buy a used car (large supply), but it was  a good time to buy a new car as they were heavily discounted to compete. That was when we bought our new Toyota Fortuner.

Now a new transition to Kathmandu. Again we waited, perhaps too long we worried, to put the car up for sale. We talked about it over dinner at Vasco’s,

then I started the process by taking the car through the car wash next to our apartment. It was one of those that you drive into, the machine moves around you and out pops a clean vehicle. However, the machine was broken. It kept doing the soap cycle over and over, but not the rinse, which inspired this picture from the inside:

Finally I got hosed. Not a fortuitous beginning.

The Arab world has a great online sales site called The site covers most of North Africa and the Middle East.

It turns out I didn’t have to worry about finding a buyer. Early Saturday morning I put up the ad on Dubizzle, then we drove to Ikea for shopping. Shortly after arriving at the store, the calls starting coming in. “What is your last price?” -“My price is firm”. Soon I was getting calls every five minutes, but not at my asking price. Finally, as we were in the kitchen section, I told a caller I was getting lots of calls. He said, in very broken English that he would buy it at full price and be in Abu Dhabi tomorrow. His name was Abu Ali. That’s when I noticed he was calling from Saudi Arabia.

We completed our shopping trip with a late lunch at the Meat Company near the Grand Mosque. The temperature was perfect and we were alone on the patio for most of the meal.

The calls kept coming, including more calls from Mr. Ali,
“Is it damaged?” “Is it working?”
“No, it’s in perfect shape.” It was!

The next day Mr. Ali flew to Sharjah and took a 200 km taxi ride to meet me and Haris that evening. Haris is the school’s driver and can speak Arabic. I drove the three of us through a rare rain shower to a garage across town where they could inspect the car for hidden damage. All along the journey I was expecting a car to come fish tailing into my beautiful car. Didn’t happen, but it was stressful.

The shop’s owner was from Damascus, so the four of us talked about war, times that were, and things lost forever. The car was deemed in perfect shape.

Early the next morning, I drove Mr. Ali and Haris through rush hour to the vehicle inspection/DMV. The process should only have taken an hour:

  • Inspection – Good! Check!
  • Temporary Insurance for Mr. Ali? – Check!
  • No traffic fines – Check!
  • Vehicle Loan Clearance Letter from the bank – WHATTTT!

Turns out I needed a clearance letter from the bank even though the loan had been paid off ages ago. We drove back into town to the bank.

Bank assistant: “No problem, it will only take seven days.”
Me: “Mr. Ali traveled from Riyadh to buy the car today.” -Note: that is like flying from Denver to LA to buy a car.
Bank assistant:: “Come back tomorrow.”
Me: “How about 1pm today?”
Bank assistant:: “I will call you at 1pm today.”

At 12:30 I went back to the bank and sat in the lobby and stared at the bank assistant with a smile of encouragement on my face. By 1pm the tension of my facial muscles was giving me a headache. 1:15pm, bank was beginning to close. Windows were darkened. Finally I saw a paper move from his desk to another desk, then another and finally back to his desk.

Bank assistant: “You have your paper.”

I again picked-up Haris and Mr. Ali for the trip to the DMV. Transactions were finished, and by 4pm Mr. Ali was happily driving back home to Riyadh, Haris had his commission, and I was a little richer for the experience.