UENO PARK, TOKYO, JAPAN:  Mild-mannered Shelton Bumgarner’s fame among the ex-pat community in Korea in the 00’s has been the talk around town, following discussions of his micro-celebrity status on recent editions of Kermit and Friends on Spreecast. As DNN Tribune reported on Tuesday, Shelton gained fame with a ‘zine called ROKon, which was written for the mostly-ESL teacher expat community in Korea.  Later, Shelton wrote an op-Ed for the English Language Korea Times under the scintillating if aggrandizing title Last Taboo, in which he characterized fellow expats as “sinister”.

But what is this mysterious ESL world in Korea, full of sinister Americans looking to buy cheap stuff in ROKon ‘zine?  DNN traveled to the other side of the world with two guides, Jay and Michelle.  Jay worked in Japan, and Michelle worked in Korea, both as English as a Second Language instructors.  Their names have been changed, but they are real people who spoke to this author.

Man passes NOVA at Ochanomizu in Tokyo
Man passes NOVA at Ochanomizu in Tokyo. This is a “conversation school” where many ESL teachers wind up in Japan.

The first thing both agreed upon is how ridiculously easy it is to become an ESL instructor overseas.  Americans only need to produce a valid (or well-made forgery of a) BA degree in any subject, and there is no requirement that it be in any field related to teaching English.  Only your potential employer will see it, and he’ll then photocopy it and send it with your other documents to get you your working visa.  If you are from Canada or Australia, you don’t even need to have gone to college, because you qualify for a one year “working holiday visa” Once you get your visa, the fun begins.

“It’s all about the girls”, said Jay.  “Any nerd can come to Japan, and they are treated like a rock star.  You can get all the pussy you want, without even trying.  Students, girls in bars, even women on the street are all available. Foreigners get away with murder here”

ESL teacher (or "crazy foreigner") makes the news for skinny dipping at imperial palace.
ESL teacher (or “crazy foreigner”) makes the news for skinny dipping at imperial palace in Japan.

Jay went on to describe a work day spent making conversation for about five hours followed by nights boozed up in “foreigner bars”, rowdy places where any women who entered knew what she was getting into.  Drugs flourished among foreigners, despite draconian laws that were enforced with zeal by the authorities, who loved to arrest ESL teachers to demonstrate the degeneracy of Western interlopers.  “Everyone was an alcoholic, everyone was crazy. For awhile the purest LSD ever made was available in Japan; turned out it was made by the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist cult” Adding fuel to the fire was the presence of the military, every time a ship paid a visit to a port.  The competition for women was fierce, with fights commonplace.  “They’d be complete drunken assholes, grabbing the girls, literally snatching them away from the skinny, pimply English teachers”

Jay looks back with a mixture of nostalgia and regret.  “I’ll tell you, some of the best days of my life were spent there in Japan.  I got to see things I never dreamed I’d see, and I got to party like a rock star for real”  However, he is glad those days are over and he has moved on. “It was a crazy lifestyle.  Drunk all the time, stoned, a different girl in your bed daily… Years went by like that.  You put off facing reality.  However, as you get older you have to make a choice: return home and build a life from scratch, or stay there and go insane.  Many choose the latter”  When asked whether Korea or Japan was better for budding ESL instructors, Jay said, “Oh Japan, dude.  We used to laugh at the ones who went to Korea. We made five times as much money as they did”

In Korea, they even let them near children.
In Korea, they even let them near children.

Michelle’s take was different, but she did concur on a lot of points. “What Jay describes is true, but it didn’t describe the lifestyle of the Western women in Japan or Korea, and not all Western men behaved like pigs the way Jay did. But among the ESL teachers, he’s right; about 75% of the guys were that way.”  The other 25% of ESL teachers had problems of their own.  “The drunken assholes were the normal guys, the red-blooded type run amok. The guys who behaved themselves were the real losers; strange, nutty guys who clearly did not fit in well in their home countries.  They came to Asia to escape whatever tormented them at home.”  Michelle also said that these guys could lead stable lives briefly, because their quirks were written off as “cultural differences” by their Korean students and because the work was undemanding.

ESL instructors looking for the last train home.
ESL instructors looking for the last train home.

However, Michelle was quick to point out, many of the teachers overseas are good teachers, even if they are in the minority.  “About a quarter of the ESL teachers are devoted to teaching, and want to do a good job.  The other 75% are morons, who constantly embarrass the good ones”  While very few ESL instructors return to their home countries to find work in education, some actually do.  Michelle long taught at a private language academy in California before becoming an independent SAT instructor, and Jay has worked in academia.

Both have respect for their host countries.  “They put up with a lot of nonsense from foreigner idiots from America, but they continue to be polite to us” Michelle pointed out. “They were great hosts, and wonderful people who gave me my start in life.  Sorry for anyone I offended” added Jay.  “It’s a shame Americans are so ignorant of their people and culture”

Shelton’s time in Korea came to an end under unpleasant circumstances, but DNN understands.  It is a crazy world, that ESL expat community.  It has literally seen everything. Crackups are commonplace, as are alcohol and drug burnouts, jail stays for weed, and weird sexual hookups.  Sinister? Probably not.  Deranged?  Sometimes.  Debauched?  Absolutely.


Note: the author spent several years as an ESL instructor in Asia in the 1990’s. Michelle and Jay are people he met through the job.