I remember looking out at the white mist so thick I couldn’t see a tree ten yards away, and morosely contemplating the fact that this was not quite what I’d had in mind when I decided to move to Africa. Swaziland, it turns out, gets remarkably cold in the winter.
I was teaching at an international school, parked up on an isolated hilltop with a three-bar heater and a hot water bottle my only sources of warmth. I lived in my down jacket. My gloves left chalky marks on everything since I needed to wear them at all times in my icebox of a classroom.
Frankly, I’d had enough. I coaxed out an email from my frozen fingers to a friend of a friend who worked at a publishing company in Hong Kong, and I asked bluntly if they needed any writers.
It’s when we’re at our most desperate that we finally follow up on obscure connections – and sometimes, they pay off. Fast forward five years and I’d progressed rapidly through the ranks to Head of Content Development for Asia’s largest online educational publisher.
The EFL (English as a Foreign Language) industry is booming in Asia, and all those publishers and language schools need masses of up-to-date material. It is also an exceptionally lucrative market, with parents who will do anything to provide their children the best opportunities in life. Speaking English is high on their list of goals.
It’s an industry with a high turnover rate. Expectations are challenging: the sheer volume of work you are required to churn out in a single day is extraordinary. Writers become disillusioned and exhausted by the pressure put on them by demanding bosses. There was a point during one particularly stressful period where I was coordinating writers across four continents, working 18-hour days, and could barely justify allocating even ten minutes of editing time to entire lesson plans.
I was so desperate for writers last summer that I had my 16-year-old niece create multiple choice questions for us. I needed writers on numerous occasions and just couldn’t find them; a pool of potential to pluck from my inbox – people who had sent speculative emails even months before – would have been wonderful.
After five years of the madness, I had to leave my full-time role to save my sanity. I now work in an advisory capacity as and when I choose, dedicating the bulk of my time to my own projects. It’s a different kind of stress, but a worthwhile exchange that gave me back my freedom.
Jane Thomas is a freelance writer, constantly moving around the world thanks both to housesitting assignments and an insatiable desire to see beautiful places. She has worked on multiple EFL projects in Asia and the UK, and with the British Council; she now works as an advisor to the online education market. She also loves writing about travel, cycle touring, and her specialist niche: eighteenth century women poets. She can be found on the other side of ejthomas.uk(at)gmail(dot)com.
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