Book Review: Life After ESL by Jackie Bolen

life after esl

Jackie Bolen, the author of Life After ESL, rubs many people the wrong way. I was one of those people for a long time, based solely on the random blog posts of hers that happened to come up on my radar.

I am not one to dwell on the negative, but I’ll briefly summarize my previous opinion of her writing that I’ve seen in the past: she generalizes her own experience teaching in a Korean university to everyone teaching in Korean universities. It wouldn’t bother me at all except for the fact that I believe her writing, full of generalizations on Korean universities as well as people that work for them, damages all prospective repats that have lived and worked in Korea.

Yes, she does give disclaimers and qualifications, but it is my worst nightmare that a prospective employer that’s considering granting me a job interview googles “working in a Korean university” and does a quick scan through her blog posts without picking up on the nuance.

She is free to write whatever she wants, but I’ve never contributed to the spread of any of her writing (well, until now) because I feel it is against my best interest to do so.

Which brings us to her book:

At first, I dismissed the book out of hand assuming it was more of the same. Eventually, though, I thought I should at least read the free Kindle sample and try to get a sense of it. I knew pretty quickly that considering the cheap price I had better go ahead and just read the whole thing.

At 80 pages it’s a very short book you could probably consume in a single setting. In my case, I finished it up by reading at a leisurely pace with lots of breaks on a bus ride from Seoul to Gwangju. Some reviewers have criticized this point, but for three bucks I definitely did not feel ripped off.

So what did I think considering the critical opinion I had of the writer before I even started reading? Well, this is it in a nutshell:

Life After ESL stands alone in filling a much-needed gap in resources for expats

As far as I know it is the only book of its kind in existence. Yes, the information it contains is not perfect and I saw a lot of room for improvement. That does not change the fact that this kind of information exists nowhere else.

The main substance of the book is Bolen’s interpretation of a survey she conducted on former English teachers. Frankly, I would have gladly paid the money just for the raw survey data (which was not provided–one of my criticisms), but the narrative she puts together is helpful in the grand scheme of things.

There is a lot of detail on the types of careers pursued by the study’s subjects. For the most part, I didn’t see any big surprises. Computer programming (a career I advocate for due mostly to the plethora of affordable, or even free, online resources for self-guided learning), teaching, etc. One, however, took me by surprise, and that was long-haul truck driving. Apparently there is a very high demand for this type of work and the time it takes to train and get working is minimal. It is certainly an intriguing option for some (although maybe not those with families that will need a lot of hand-holding during the adjustment period).

This leads me to one of my few criticisms of the book: little attention is paid to anti-fragility in the choice of second careers. The age of self-driving cars is coming fast. Banking your entire future on being a truck driver is not something that I see as sustainable. In fact, among the massive impact that AI, self-driving cars, and 3-D printing are going to have on jobs, I think truck driving is likely to be both first and most severely impacted.

As such, I wouldn’t recommend it except as a stop-gap job to pay the bills while working on a more sustainable long-term plan. It could be a great option if you had to repatriate on short notice and didn’t have much in the way of savings to fall back on. Again, you would want to be making the most of your time (audiobooks while driving, taking classes on your off days) to work towards long-term career anti-fragility.

Like I said, the book isn’t perfect, but I don’t think a reader needs to have a high expectation of academic rigor either. In an ideal world, it might have more of the following:

  • Number of survey respondents
  • Diversity of repat nationalities, and target countries
  • Included participants beyond the realm of ESL-related careers
  • Greater transparency in the survey data (inclusion of the raw data, or a link to it, would have been appreciated so I could draw my own conclusions)

All of these things would have drastically increased the complexity of the analysis and been far more ambitious than the author intends so I can’t really hold them against her.

I have to give credit where credit is due:

Jackie Bolen has done a great service to repats with the conducting of this survey and publication of her book.

It’s not just the best in its class, it’s the only book in its class. If someone were to ask me for a single resource that would serve as a starting place for the complicated task of moving back home with their family after spending a substantial amount of time abroad (in any country) and facing a probable career change, they could do no better than pick up this book and dive into its contents.

On the other hand, if you are already deep into the repat process (as in, you have already moved and are busy settling in and finding employment in your chosen field), you may already have a sense for much of the content in the book.

It is not an all-in-one solution, but it does not claim to be either. You will still need to do the research on the various tidbits of information you pick up such as intriguing career options. Still, you will know the right questions to ask and where to start looking in your search.