My Future Began Here

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 resumรฉ 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.

Writer Alice Sebold 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

37 thoughts on “My Future Began Here

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  1. This reminded me of a quote from one of my favorite movies Under the Tuscan Sun. “Any arbitrary turning along the way and I would be elsewhere; I would be different. Unthinkably good things can happen even late in the game. It’s such a surprise.”

  2. It’s amazing that the crystal ball is a building. I think I’m going to have to come to see it someday! I’m really grateful that your friend convinced you to apply for the job in the language school a decade ago. If he hadn’t done that, we couldn’t have seen one of the greatest teachers of English either online or offline. Such a sweet post of the sparkling memory lane. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. It’s amazing that you’ve finally posted a comment! Am I dreaming or what?! ๐Ÿ˜€ One of the greatest teachers? Hahahahaha…that made me laugh so hard I spewed out the banana cake I was eating!

  3. What a great story this is. By the looks of it, you are not a late bloomer yourself. Remember the old adage “Life begins at 40?” On a serious note, this post is inspiring. And did I just say that I like your way of writing?

    1. Hahaha spot on, John! Life does begin at 40, at least for me. In many ways, I feel like I’m just starting out. Thanks!

  4. Hi Aj! So this is where you’ve been. Sabi na nga ba parang medyo nawawala ka sa Bagets. LOL. ang shala shala naman. dito ka na nakabase?

    1. Hi Bren! Umalis muna ako sa PTB. Nakaka-overwhelm lang mga interactions dun. Di ko kinaya. ๐Ÿ˜€ Nope, I’m not in SH now. Just went there for a week to reminisce. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Kathy and Mai: That’s why I count my blessings rather than regret what I did or not do in the past. Grace and serendipity have touched my life in spite of myself. ๐Ÿ˜€

    1. Yeah I know that place at the shadow of the Oriental Pearl Tower. I loved taking late afternoon or evening walks there. The old world panorama of the Bund on the other side and the passing boats along the Huangpu always made me go emo.

    1. Thanks Dimaks! I’m considering another change of career. I wonder what my career-changing icon will be this time. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Thanks Kalabasa and Gemma! This blog is not very informative; I’m relieved to know it’s at least inspirational. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Let’s just say this language teacher was hatched from a crystal ball. ๐Ÿ˜€ I still have bouts with stage fright, which people find hard to believe. They always assume I’m shameless.

    1. Sorry, I should put up a warning that this post can cause oxygen deprivation. ๐Ÿ˜€ I actually reread the post for the adjectives! Thanks Senyor Lagawan.


    1. Don’t sweat it, Shugah. It’s not a contest. We both blog for the same reasons – to share the written record of our (travel) experiences online to anyone who’d care to read. That’s the advantage of blogging. No one tells us our writing is not good enough for publication. We leave it up to the readers to decide.

  6. looking at the crystall ball – I guess a lot of us goes through this phase of our lives specially when reaching the age of 40….but don’t worry life begins at 50 nowadays, not 40 anymore ๐Ÿ™‚

    FYI: I just turned 40 last month ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. So 50 is the new 40. I won’t disagree with that! ๐Ÿ™‚ Belated happy 40th, Eric! I bet it feels just like you’re 30. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  7. Felt very positive after reading this entry. Thanks for writing this AJ! Really nice how a person became an instrument in landing you a job and how you were managed to step to the plate! As always, beautifully written!

    1. Yeah, this is also a tribute to people who believed in me, despite my self-doubts. I always recommend to young people (like you, hehe) to experience living/working away from home. Stripped of familiar comforts, you dig inwards to find your center. And in all that getting lost, you can find yourself.

  8. I enjoyed this post AJ. Sara Blakley (the founder of Spanx) said, “failure is nothing more than lifeโ€™s way of nudging you that you are off course. My attitude to failure is not attached to outcome, but in not trying. It is liberating. Most people attach failure to something not working out or how people perceive you. This way, it is about answering to yourself.”

    1. Thanks for visiting, Jon…and for the words of wisdom from Spanx! I like how Sara puts it: life nudges us to our personal path. There is hope despite the detours we love to take, yay! It’s all from the same thread of thought expressed by one of my favorite songwriters, Alanis: “Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you.” ๐Ÿ™‚

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