3. Renumeration and Benefits (Continued)
To make this part more manageable, I’ve subdivided accommodation into ‘included,’ ‘help,’ and ‘get your own.’
Before we move on, here’s my top tip: ALWAYS ask about accommodation. The very last thing you want is to stay in a place you're not going to be happy with for a year in a foreign country.
In today's blog, once again, I’ll be talking about some things you almost certainly already know, or think you know, but I intend to mention them anyway just so that I am confident we’ve discussed those ‘obvious’ points.
First up: Ask what ‘included’ means in your interview if this is what the job ad says. There are two meanings to this word from my precise experience in the ESL world: 'Included (free),' and 'Included (but not free).'
In the Middle East (Saudi, Kuwait, and Turkey are my reference points here), as well as in South Korea and Myanmar, accommodation was included, free of charge. This is patently a massive bonus if you want to earn and save or simply spend more on the things and activities you like to fill your time with. However (and here’s another obvious point), the quality of that free accommodation greatly differs.
Let's takes some examples. In Korea, I’ve had five posts (some of which I resigned from largely because of poor working conditions, falsehoods, or excessive work demands not expressed in contracts; more on this in future blogs), yet even here, in the same country, accommodation exists across a broad spectrum.
My first apartment was on the ground floor next to a plush gym, some nice amenities, and a five-minute walk to school. The interior was fine, and while it was small, it was more than suitable for one person.That said, I was happy enough for people to come around. The second place I was housed was again around the corner from the school (a common feature with provided accommodation in Korea). This place was much nicer: Quite spacial, modern, and somewhat stylish. The other three apartments were simply forgettable, or rather, that’s what I hoped would happen: Small, ancient, garish, and uninviting.
In Myanmar/Burma, the apartment was a good 15-minute walk from my school and the gym (though I should point out, in all fairness, that a van picked me up in the morning, along with my other native colleagues). Disappointingly, though, I was billeted next-door to a student of mine. This is poor form if you want to keep your drinking/smoking/nightlife/courting/tattoos private. That was an issue to me; I don't want to feel like I need to explain why I'm buying a beer in a vest that shows my tattoos on a weekend to my student. Yet, this isn't something you can really ask in advance, nor rationalise ("I don't want to be near any students because I intend to get drunk every night with a few new friends from the local bar" - this is unlikely to endear a recruiter). That gripe aside, the interior was large, though the fittings were of low quality and poor workmanship. The shower was often cold, not working, or generally cumbersome. The decor was old and dated, and the kitchen almost non-existent (a problem if you like to cook as I do). Also of note is the electric supply. Electricity in Shan State (and Myanmar more generally) would go out once a week on average. This would obviously invite havoc with the cell phone that you relied on to wake you up for your 7.10am ride to school. While the area itself was poor, it oozed charm. I enjoyed my surroundings very much; the people I met were warm, eclectic, and I never felt insecure—at least from the humans; cockroaches kept me awake at night…
(General note: I do oftentimes feel uncomfortable when describing Myanmar apartments and utilities judging from a Western-centric viewpoint. Myanmar is a developing country, and this should temper some negative opinions. Nonetheless, these are things prospective teachers should at least have someone insight on to make appropriate judgements).
Like Korea, my pad in Turkey was close to school at just 5-10 minutes away. The room was rather large, but made the single bed look tiny. It was a shared house which meant there was a common living room, a decent kitchen, shower-room, and wash facilities. In many ways, it was much like living as a student again, which I loved … when I was a student. I had less desire to experience this in my late 20s. Overall, nice enough though.
The Middle East is something else. Rather than just a room, an entire villa might be your lot instead. In Saudi, I had said villa to my self (though in my second contract with the same company in the same place, I was sharing with one other). Within the walls of my personal palace, I had two bedrooms (inclusive of kingsized beds), a large living room, an office, a huge kitchen, two bathrooms, washing and drying machines, and cleaners who would rock-up once a week for a small fee. To offer a slight variation in perspective, some friends from a different project had private swimming pools in their villas, but the villas themselves were of inferior quality to the ones we had.
Our villas were housed in a fairly large compound (this is a common feature in the Middle East given foreigner-perceptions of insecurity, some of which is fair), roughly the size of a large supermarket in the UK or US. The greater compound catered for all the residents (perhaps as many as 200, though less than 20 were natives like me). To service our various needs, resides had access to the very large pool, the two saunas, a lounge area with a pool table, a function/buffet kitchen and dinning area, tennis/basket ball courts, a gym, and a party/movie common room. Also, included, were the high walls, barbed wire fencing, and a security strong point. There were shops outside the walls, but these were no more than a few convenience stores and a couple of low-grade (but preferably delicious) eateries. Sufficient for basic foodstuffs, cigarettes, and fuel. The university where I worked, however, was around a 30 minute van ride away. Less good.
Kuwait, in my experience, was a mixture of Asia and Saudi. Pretty high-end apartments with great facilities (when the generators held), but an apartment nonetheless. The downside was it was located some 20-25 minutes away from the international school I worked at. This, you might think, isn't too bad. But! Morning traffic in Kuwait is perhaps the worst I've ever seen. Early starts were a must.
In almost all cases, I must point out, companies and schools in these areas have also offered a housing allowance if employees wished to find their own accommodation. Personally, I’ve never taken the housing allowance as it has always been easier, in my view, to not add more stress and uncertainty to living and working in a new country. Taking this allowance, for some, may well be preferable. For novice teachers, however, I recommend the path of least resistance: Take what you're given.
Here’s another tip given: Always ask for a picture of the accommodation. This is unlikely to be given from big chain companies or recruiters (though some Chinese ads do seem to present these in a growing number of posts I’ve looked at over the years, at least when they say housing is included), but for those single-owned schools and academies that either own or rent the place you’ll be staying in, they will most likely be willing to offer pictures of the place. If they don’t, that might tell you as much about the quality of the place as the pictures that are sent!
As a further quick note, summer schools and camps in the UK also provide accommodation and meals. Usually summer camps are located within boarding schools and universities, whereby, you'll be back to university rooms. (I find this wonderfully nostalgic for 2-4 weeks.)
Again, this part is not complicated: Accommodation, rather, the space you’ll call home, is offered, but it isn’t rent free. This will come out of your salary. I raise this point because a job advert may suggest that a place is included for free or as part of the bonuses, but then you'll discover it’s merely the room or apartment that is, in essence, sourced or suggested, whereby, you do need to pay for it (I discovered this in Italy). Ask if it’s rent-free or not. Evidently, this may make or break your decision to go somewhere given that your home may amount to a third of your take-home pay, particularly if saving money or paying or debts back home is a primary objective.
Some institutions/employers—as with Italy, as mentioned above, and China in the bigger cities (as I understand from friends)—will simply offer help finding accommodation (suited to your budget). This, in most cases from what I have discerned over the years, is often mentioned either on the job ad itself or discussed during the interview. Either way, I would strongly recommend that you clarify what that ‘help’ entails before you are bungled into a hotel for a few days and told to "figure it all out."
‘Help (as broadly defined in this section)’ is not my personal preference (it’s better, in my view, to have an entire 12 month contract’s worth of rent for free), but, to be objective for a moment, it might not be as terrible as I perhaps make it sound. For most people, paying rent is a normal thing, which, may oddly make settling in much more straightforward. Provided help also means cutting through all those phone-calls of arranging to see houses (all in a foreign language, of course), in a place where you barely understand your surroundings and are quite likely to be ripped-off in some regard. Furthermore, this also gives you an element of choice as opposed to simply being lumbered with a free place you don’t like. In my case, I’ve always just accepted whatever free place I’ve been offered.
‘Get Your Own’
For me, this is ‘baptism of fire’ territory. I’ve never personally experienced this, and for the few times that I’ve seen it advertised, or what I think I saw advertised, I’ve not applied for those posts mainly because the thought of having to arrange my own place in a foreign land has always greatly dissuaded me. As already said, moving to a new country for a new job (perhaps your first in teaching) is stressful enough, add to this being surrounded by people speaking in a language you have little mastery over, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. The last thing you want, I would suggest, is finding your own place. This will just add to your stress levels.
That said, if you’ve got money in the bank and are able to stay in a hotel or hostel for a time while you look (your employer may well pay for a hotel for several nights to facilitate this), or just have a serious gung-ho mentality and are resolute in your ability to figure things out for yourself, this might be something you’d plump for. It’s just not how I personally get my kicks. In fact, a lack of provided—or help to find—accommodation is a serious red-flag for me; anticipated support from an employer is something I look for.
Non-natives: This week’s blog post has been written—as they all have—from the perspective of a native going abroad. This is my perspective and where my experience lies. It should be made clear then, that non-natives who are hired in-country or from a neighbouring country may not be afforded the same benefits and help. If you are a non-native, you may wish to clarify what ‘accommodation’ means in your case. For example, if you move to Saudi from say, Yemen, you may receive only limited help (if any) given that you will already speak Arabic and have a solid understanding of how things are done and organised in the region. This is just something to think about.
Utilities: While accommodation may be free, included, or merely sourced on your behalf, utilities also range considerably. In Saudi and Kuwait, everything was included: water, gas, electric, Internet. In Myanmar, water, gas, and electric was provided, but the Internet (which becomes much more vital when you live abroad - trust me!) was not on the list. To access the ether, I had to source it myself. Just ONE cafe provided free WiFi (and I lived in the 5th largest city in Myanmar), as well as my school. If I wanted it in my apartment, this would have required an expensive pen drive service that evaporated quickly. In South Korea, it was just the room which was afforded. Almost everything else had to be paid for out of my own pocket (though very helpfully, the Internet was provide for, and free). This was also the case regarding utilities in Spain and Italy, neither of which provided Wifi (side note: it's hard to find WiFi in provincial European towns). Turkey, meanwhile, was like a shared house, as discussed. It had all the facilities one needed, including Wifi, but the costs of those utilities were divided by the number of housemates.
The costs of utilities, as you'll know from your home country, can be minimal, or considerable depending on local costs, usage, and a range of other factors. Obviously, recruiters (and possibly not even school accommodation-owners) will be well versed in your potential utility bills, but you can certainly ask about what is (and is not) included with your accommodation.
Personally, I think accommodation can be a decisive factor in deciding not only on which jobs to apply for, but accepting them, too. Obviously, ‘free’ accommodation is a great incentive if you want to save money, or simply want to take the stress out of trying to find some place to live not long after touching down (not fun). But if you do have to pay, oftentimes rent is cheaper than back in Western countries, and help is usually provided. You’ll be paying for your autonomy, but it does mean you have a measure of control. This might not seem like an advantage, but in every circumstance I can think of, whereby accommodation is allocated as part of your job, it is TIED to that job. This means that if you lose your employment, say bye-bye to your accommodation. If you source something with help or by yourself when you get there, you are likely to have more control over your destiny in this regard.
As advised: Ask whether your accommodation is actually free; ask to see pictures; and, if WiFi is important, don’t assume it’s included, ASK if it is (you may also be able to negotiate its inclusion).
Ultimately, where you live is important. Perhaps it's even more important abroad as a place of refugee and solitude; as a place you can transform into your own personal embassy to home. Invest some serious thought as to the sort of place you’d like to live in and how much you’re prepared to invest. This should help guide you towards some posts that are more suitable to your needs and desires than others.
In the ESL industry, it is not beyond reason to expect somewhere provided for free; that is of a reasonable size; has some utilities included (such as the Internet); and is somewhere that you would be happy to take home friends or lovers with a certain pride in your surroundings.
Finally: Don’t be afraid to ask questions about accommodation. Accommodation is included on job ads as a perk - you have every right to wonder what you are entitled to if it's a hook to entice you to a foreign land for 12 months.
That's about it for accommodation. If, dear readers, you feel I have made a glaring omission, or you have a different viewpoint that you would like to express, please do send an email to The Digital Traveller Team.
Next time we’ll be finishing-off ‘renumeration and benefits’ with a solid discussion about flights and other bonuses.
Editorial: Thomas Dowling has worked in the ESL industry for over 7 years, having lived and worked in South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Myanmar, Kuwait, and the UK. His work experience has included an international school, a university, private academies, and summer camps. Currently, Thomas is a full-time PhD Student studying Environmental Security at the University of Leicester. He has previously studied degrees in Ancient History (BA; MA: Bristol), and International Security Studies (MA: Leicester). In 2014, he earned his CELTA qualification (ITI: Istanbul, Turkey), complementing previous TEFL certificates acquired in England. Thomas is also the Co-Founder of The Digital Traveller, focusing upon content and content management. Thomas presently lives in Daegu, South Korea, with his wife, Jack Russell Terrier, and newborn baby, Zeno.