Lessons from Elmo


“$1,200 a night, are you crazy? We can’t afford that!”

That’s when I knew. When I knew I was different. When I knew there was something about me that would never allow me to enjoy the fruits of my labor, at least not at $1,200 a night.

Even though I worked at a prestigious international school in the Middle East, had saved retirement income sufficient for my age (based on those online retirement calculators anyway) and had gotten a jump start on the kids’ (the standard two) college fund, I still felt uncomfortable – no wasteful — spending a grand on a hotel room. Forget the fact that the waters were perfectly colored turquoise and all meals were included, there was no way I could be convinced that this was not insane. After all, I was just a teacher; it isn’t like I had won the lottery. Would I change my mind if I had won the lottery? Well I hadn’t – I hadn’t won the lottery. The crazy thing was that this was a location frequented by most of my colleagues, it was on the familiar circuit of holiday destinations for international teachers from the region.

You see when you’re a teacher you get quite a bit of time off. I’m sure you’ve heard the joke, the three best things about teaching – June, July and August. In the world of international teaching, it isn’t exactly three months off, but the usual contract is around 180-190 days a year. What that means is, not counting weekends, there are usually six to eight weeks off in the summer as well as three long holidays:  a fall break which consists of 10 days off, a spring break which is another 10 days off, and a winter break which is around 20 days off. That doesn’t even count the half a dozen three or four day weekends scattered throughout the year. While this sounds great, and it is, the downside is that with all this time off comes the opportunity to travel and spend, spend, spend. Don’t get me wrong, I love the travel part. Ever since my wife, then girlfriend, convinced me to visit her parents in Venezuela for Christmas fourteen years ago, I’ve been hooked.

To prepare for that trip, I had to get a passport. As we all know, Americans are not the most traveled people in the world, so just going down to the local Walgreens to get my picture taken for the passport was exotic to me. Not only was this the first time I would leave my home country, it would be only the second time I had ever been on an airplane in my then thirty-two years on the planet. Some years before, I had been to Padre Island, Texas with a group of friends during an impromptu Spring Break trip and it was during that trip that I realized, upon seeing a beach for the first time, that is was something special. But my trip to Venezuela in 2003 would officially start my love affair with the sea.

Traveling down a winding road in a remote area of Venezuela, with my wife’s father at the wheel, heading to something the family affectionately called the “beach house”, I had no idea how my life was about to change. The house was what I expected, no redeeming quality other than beds for everyone and a well-used outdoor barbecue. But take a stroll down a sandy path through a row of palm trees and there it was…a stretch of beach so beautiful that I remember uttering the words, “This is where I want to be.” And I didn’t mean right then, although I did, but all the time, anytime, forever. And much like the addict chasing that first high, that is where I have found myself again and again, on a little stretch of beach, toes in the sand, the sound of the surf, the taste of the salt, the warmth of the sun.

Cata Beach
Cata Beach 2003

What is it that draws man to the beach? Well, that’s easy – it’s beautiful. But $1,200 a night? How did it get to this? Sure, to see that beautiful beach in Venezuela I had to buy my airplane ticket to get there, but the accommodation was free. And since then I have been to other beaches, some of them even showcased in those online articles about the twenty best beaches in the world. And I was always able to stay there under a grand, hell, even under $100 a night. What had changed? I felt like the same person I was a decade ago. However in that decade a lot had actually changed. I had earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, I had gotten married and had two kids, and my wife and I had improved our situation, both professional and financially, by moving up the international school ladder, which, incidentally, wasn’t that difficult to do.

You see the world of international teaching is different than most jobs on the planet, even domestic teaching jobs. In the international teaching world, teachers, usually from the United States or Canada, sign a two-year contract with a school. After the completion of the two years most have the opportunity to continue on with the same school by signing subsequent one-year contracts. The beauty of this, for the nomadic teacher hoping to see the world, is that he can maintain a career in teaching while frequently changing geographical locations. Some teachers end up staying in one place for many years if they love the location or are enjoying a superior benefits package, while other teachers bail in the first year, sometimes sooner, if they hate where they are, but the average scenario is that teachers stay three or four years at one school then move on to another international location.

While working, most teachers, especially the younger ones, will continue their education, going on to receive master’s degrees which allow them to move on to a better school than their previous post. The idea of a better school is a bit ambiguous as there is no exact way to measure what constitutes a “better school”. Some would say money, as salary is an easy thing to quantify. But salary must be looked at with regards to the attractiveness of the location. Is $60,000 a year at a school in Kuwait (no offense Kuwait) better than $40,000 a year in Thailand (everyone loves Thailand)? Location is a big part of the equation. And what about the benefits:  health, dental, tuition for the kids, flights home in the summer, a car?  Oh yea, and the school. I almost forgot. The place you will inspire the next generation of kids, or at least put in 40 hours a week, or maybe 50, or maybe 60, depending on the expectations of the school. No matter where you are professionally in your international teaching career, and no matter where you are geographically, there are usually a few constants in the international teaching world:  

  1. You will have plenty of holiday time.
  2. You will have the chance to save a substantial amount of your income.
  3. You will have the opportunity to spend money like never before.

We’ve already addressed the excessive holiday time and I am sure if you’re not a teacher you don’t want to be reminded of it again. So, let’s look at number two.

For the non-teachers out there, this one may be as hard to swallow as the vacation time, but it’s true.  If you try, you will be able to save a substantial amount of your income. One of the great things about teaching at an international school is the benefits. To begin with, it helps to understand that these international schools are usually following an American curriculum. No matter what you read online or hear on the news about the American educational system, there is one thing that holds true – it’s better than most other countries.

I know, I know, Sweden and South Korea consistently beat the United States on standardized tests for math and science, but ask yourself this, where do most people these countries want to send their kids to college (or university as the rest of the world calls it)? That’s right, the good ole U. S. of A. So no matter what the data shows regarding test scores of American kids, prominent families in foreign countries still want a private school education for their kid that relies on an American curriculum. And the irony is that, since these private schools charge a hefty tuition, the American international school can actually provide the U.S. curriculum in the way that lives up to those expectations.  These schools are not bogged down by legislation regulating education, the teachers do not have to deal with the effects of poverty on classroom learning (although affluence is another story), and drug abuse or gang activity are basically unheard of. In addition, teachers are paid well enough to not need a second job or spend their free time worrying about making ends meet. The system works. Foreign students, along with Embassy kids and U.S. company sponsored kids, get the best education the United States has to offer. Most people, including myself, think this is a good thing. These students are taught to be creative, passionate and reason critically — attributes that were imperative in making the United States the prosperous country it is today. These American international students go on to top universities all over the world and most end up being responsible, productive and ethical citizens that benefit the societies in which they live, whether they remain in the West or return to their home country.

What does all this have to do with benefits to the American international teacher? Since these schools are teaching an American curriculum, guess who they need to teach it? That’s right a real-life American (or perhaps a Canadian). To get these western teachers to go to countries that most of them have never heard of before, schools need a package. And that’s what it’s called….the “package”. The package is salary and benefits.

We’ve already established that most Americans don’t travel abroad much. I’m sure you’ve heard the statistic that only 10% of Americans hold passports. Actually, nowadays around one-third of all Americans hold passports, but how many are willing to live overseas? There are an estimated six million Americans, excluding military, living abroad.  Out of a population of 300 million, that is only 2% of the U.S. population choosing the life of an expat. Only 2% of Americans living abroad. Why? Because not everyone can live in Cancun. Incidentally, going to Cancun is most likely what drove the one-third of Americans to get passports in the first place. No, the reason why only 2% of Americans live abroad is that the United States, since its inception, has been the place that most people will do anything to get into, with the whole American Dream and all.

Not a lot of those folks are looking to give it up in order to live overseas. Seriously, who would give up all that America has to offer – the strip malls, the suburbs, the casual dining – to live abroad? I joke, but as I write this I would love to spend an afternoon in a strip mall and have lunch at Red Lobster. You see I live overseas, yes live, not visit, and with that decision comes the reality that the easy living available in the U.S. isn’t always available outside of those borders.

Case in point: when my daughter was one and a half she had a fascination with Elmo as many kids that age seem to have.  I was fine with it, even encouraged it. It’s Sesame Street, it’s fun and it’s educational. Sesame Street taught my little girl to count to ten, know her shapes and appreciate multi-colored characters – which is probably the most important skill to have in order to live peacefully with your fellow man. Anyway, she was one and a half, it was Christmas and she wanted a “Melmo”, her cute way of saying one of the main character’s name on Sesame Street, Elmo. Having spent time with nieces and nephews in the 90’s I knew that the pinnacle in Elmo dolls back in the day was the “Tickle Me Elmo”. After a little digging, I found out that Tickle Me Melmo was alive and well. Granted it wasn’t the same variety that had parents fighting each other back in ’96, but it was an updated version and only $22.99 at Toys-R-Us. No problem, I thought. At the time we were living and teaching in China. But not what most people think of when they picture China. Or at least not what I thought before I went there. This was not the grey communist landscape I had imagined or the countryside peppered with rice fields. No, we lived in Shenzhen, a bustling city of seven million, a Special Economic Zone area with its own stock exchange and home to the 9th largest skyscraper in the world. This is where FoxConn is located. You know, the manufacturing company that makes all those products that start with a lowercase i. Ninety percent of all iPods were made in the city we were living in and guess what? According to Google Maps, there were three Toy-R-Us stores in the vicinity.


Or not.

To my surprise, apparently Chinese kids weren’t as infatuated with Elmo as their western counterparts. At least not the tickle requested variety. No Tickle Me Elmo. Well, when it comes to my little girl, like most daddies out there, giving up on what she wants, or more precisely, what I want for her is not an option.  So plan B, find this doll. With the power of the internet, it did not take me long to find out some key information about the Elmo doll. The first thing I found out was that they were Made in China. Surprise, surprise. Ok, if they are made in China and I live in China this should be easy….should be easy. Where in China are they made? You guessed it, Shenzhen. Turns out much like those “i” devices, most of the toys that are Made in China are made in this hub of Chinese manufacturing.

Shenzhen is located across the bay from Hong Kong and, because of its close proximity to the South China Sea, its port is one of the busiest in the world. Today, Shenzhen is one of China’s major manufacturing centers. And I lived there, and Elmo dolls are made there. Let’s make this happen. With a bit more investigating, I found the manufacturer of the Tickled Elmo.

Awesome, I’ll take one.

No you won’t.

Minimum order, 1,000 units. Now, I love my little girl with all my heart and would move a mountain for her, but 1,000 Tickle me Elmos? That’s not to say I didn’t think about it. How cool would it be for her to wake up on Christmas morning, wander into the living room and find that 1,000 Elmos have descended from the North Pole and are now surrounding her, all waiting for a tickle. Ok, probably a good thing I didn’t do it, would have scarred her for life. The point is, she had to do without. And this is a part of the overseas experience; you will have to go without.  

The United States is the distribution king of the world. You want something; you can get it and usually on sale. Good old American capitalism – competition has made everything available. It’s what makes living in the U.S. easy for some and difficult for others. Consumerism is a product of mass production and, coupled with sophisticated marketing efforts, it is virtually impossible to not be affected by it. So on the one hand, a nice part of living overseas is that you are more removed from American consumerism. And while this can be a good thing, it is not until you want a Tickle Me Elmo doll…or a good hamburger….or any other item that would simply require a phone call or a drop into an online shopping cart that you begin to miss it.

So what did my little girl get that Christmas? Truthfully, I don’t remember and neither does she, but what I do remember is this: it wasn’t a Tickle Me Elmo.

–The Haggard


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