Shanghai, China

February 18 and 20, 2012

Exactly a decade ago, my teaching career was launched in a giant disco ball. It was actually the glass ball facade, several stories high, of a mall in Shanghai. With its Vegas-tacky spherical design, Metro City was a head-turning landmark in Xujiahui, a subway hub and entertainment center of Xuhui District. In daylight, it resembled an errant crystal golf ball wedged between skyscrapers; at night, it turned psychedelic, wholly lit up in neon lights that changed colors and spelled out Chinese characters, outshining the gleam of neighboring shopping centers.

Metro City, Xujiahui, Shanghai

A technical training school that offered English and Japanese classes held a branch in Metro City. The school had gone bust, I was told. But even then, it was a dodgy educational center at best. Beggars couldn’t be choosers, however. Gigs for non-Mandarin speakers were hard to come by even in this cosmopolitan city. Language barrier narrowed down my job options to almost zilch. All told, only telemarketing for expats and teaching EFL (English as a Foreign Language) were up for grabs. I crashed and burned from the mind-numbing monotony of the former and found a eureka career in the latter.

Walking down memory lane in Xujiahui with Alpha

My entry to the TEFL profession was by grace, not by grand design. I neither had the experience nor the training in teaching, not surprising for someone who struggled with stage fright. Reeling from the blow of getting fired from my sales job (in a foreign country, no less!), I had less confidence about myself than my Chinese friend, Alpha Zhang, who believed I had an inner language teacher waiting to be tapped. EFL schools in China usually did not require an English degree, so long as you were a Caucasian native speaker. Blue-eyed blonds would invariably cause enrollment to go through the roof. I wasn’t as marketable as an English teacher. It was triple whammy for me: I had the wrong skin color, first language, and major.

Despite these undeniable roadblocks, I did not lack in supporters, cheerleading me in my job hunt. Jimmy Shi, a friend of Alpha, stepped up to look for a language center that would take me in. He was a student in a university near Metro City, which he passed through almost daily. He took me to the technical training school to submit my application, insisting that I saw the administrator right away. With youthful charm and resolve, he convinced the receptionist how criminal it would be to let my resumé languish in active file. I emerged from that crystal ball with a teaching job.

Jimmy Shi’s Doppelganger at The Peace Hotel, Shanghai

I had lost touch with Jimmy over the years, but his part in ushering me to what would become a decade-long career would not be forgotten. Alas, I did not meet him on this sentimental journey back to Shanghai; I settled for a photo with his doppelganger, a concierge I chanced upon at the Peace Hotel.

This trip down memory lane led me to the other side of the city, Lujiazui, an even more modern district in Pudong, where the skyline constantly changed with mushrooming skyscrapers. The school assigned me a class at their Dongchang branch, a metro stop away. It was too late into the night to visit the school building, but the lights and the cold took me a decade back to my first class ever – a night class for professionals. I remembered getting the chills at the sight of about 25 adults who seemed to size me up suspiciously. Perhaps they didn’t believe I could speak English, much less teach it. But the cat hadn’t gotten my tongue. After years of feeling like a fish out of water in the various odd jobs I had trouble holding down, I was finally comfortable in my own skin inside the classroom. An educator I highly respected described me as “a natural.”

Lujiazui, Pudong, Shanghai
Pudong Skyline from the Bund

I eventually went back to my country to earn paper credentials in education and became a lecturer in a university that went with the tag line, “The future begins here.” Mine began a decade before in Shanghai, in a globe of glass. I saw my future in that crystal ball, a landmark in my life that I came to revisit. From Xujiahui to Lujiazui, I had looked up the skyscrapers of Shanghai in my search for a dream job – only to find myself.

Not all that glitters is gold; some are giant golf balls.

One of my favorite quotes took the words out of my mouth:

It’s very weird to succeed at 39 years old and realize that in the midst of your failure, you were slowly building the life that you always wanted anyway.

Alice Sebold