10 Ways To Make Living Overseas Great - and 5 Expat Pitfalls To Avoid
So, you have followed my advice from previous blog posts – you wrote a great resume and found an awesome job. You got your visa and are getting ready to embark on the experience of a lifetime. Here are some tips from someone who has both taught abroad and vicariously experienced the successes and occasional failure of many other teachers through my job as a recruiter.
(Note – do you have a question about teaching or living abroad? Register with https://www.esl101.com/, and post a question or start a topic in our community forums: https://www.esl101.com/forums. We have experienced teachers around the world that are happy to help.)
1. Pack Light
Trust me – you can buy tooth paste in Seoul and peanut butter in Dubai. Clothes can be bought anywhere - (although they may not fit – especially if you are female and going to teach in Korea.) Bring some mementos from home for when you feel nostalgic. Do some research and find out if there are some key essentials that are hard to get in the country where you are going and then consider if you actually need to bring these items. New teachers often over prepare by trying to pack everything they will ever need. This is a function of insecurity rather than functionality. The result is hefty fees at the airport for over-weight luggage, strained muscles from lugging heavy bags and and a headache when you need to return home. Keep in mind in 12 months you will have to figure out what to keep and what to jettison, since you have everything you brought with you plus everything you accumulated during your year abroad. Pare what you are bringing to the absolute minimum, and then get rid of three more things. Shopping in a new country, interacting with locals and trying new things are all part of the experience. You can buy the essentials of life virtually anywhere. These days, I travel with little more than a change of clothes, a toothbrush, my computer, a book and a credit card.
2. Consider Bringing A Gift From Your Home Country For Your New Employer
In many countries around the world gift giving is an important part of the local culture. It can help create a positive impression with your new employer by bringing your new boss a small gift from your home country. It doesn’t need to be elaborate or expensive however it should represent your culture or country. That being said, be mindful of the culture you are traveling to – if you are Irish or Scottish a bottle of whisky might not be a great idea if you are working in the U.A.E. or Qatar, but may be looked favorably upon in Korea , Japan or China for example.
3. Overdress During Your First Two Weeks of Work
Most cultures are more conservative than the US, the UK, Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In most countries teachers are expected to dress professionally and looking the part is considered to be part of the job. You can’t go wrong by wearing a suit or smart business attire – leave it up to your school director to tell you to dress less formally. You run the risk of creating a very negative impression if you show up in jeans on your first day of work and everyone else is wearing business formal. First impressions, both positive and negative, can create an impression which lasts the whole year. If you start off dressing well, you can usually ease up later in the year, but if you start off overly casual, you will be fighting to overcome this impression the whole time you are abroad. Err on the side of conservatism. (Sartorially, that is. Conservatism may be an error in other areas – opinions may vary.)
4. Learn the Local Language and History
While for most ESL teaching jobs it is not necessary to speak the local language in order to do your job effectively, it will make your personal life much more rewarding. Not only will you be able to communicate with the population of that country that does not speak English, once you understand the idioms and manner of speech, the culture of the country will be much more comprehensible. Understanding a country’s history will help you make sense of why things are done in a certain way, (and no, it’s not because all citizens of country x are stupid, dangerous, dirty or lazy…) and why certain issues are important to citizens of that country. This will also provide you with clues regarding topics of conversation to avoid. This can also help you make local friends. In my experience – even knowing a few words of the local language – and making the effort to try to use them, no matter how badly I mangle the words, has resulting in smiles and incredible acts of kindness. Even if I end up saying, “Your cat is Pokemon” in Arabic.
5. Get Outside Your Comfort Zone
The world is becoming more and more homogeneous. It is possible for me to start my day in Vancouver with a coffee at Starbucks, fly to Frankfurt and have lunch at McDonald’s and then go to Johannesburg and spend the night in a Holiday Inn, all the while checking my Facebook and keeping up to date the sports scores of my teams (Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Patriots – and no – they didn’t cheat) on ESPN and the news on the NY Times app. This is very different from when I first started my teaching career and the internet was in its infancy. When I first arrived in South Korea in 1996 there was no drip coffee to be had. My first experience in a Korean coffee shop, or ‘tabang’ – entailed me shelling out nearly $10 for an artfully prepared cup of instant Maxwell house coffee. Now, the density of Starbucks in downtown Seoul rivals the earth’s core.
Not only are multi-national companies universally pervasive – access to information is global. While this can be a good thing – I can be in a remote desert on the Saudi border and check to see if my flight is delayed – it can also lead to a complete lack of experience of anything different. If you spend your entire time overseas texting your friends back home, watching ‘Duck Dynasty’ on YouTube, and checking your Facebook every 10 minutes, then why bother leaving Kansas City? The internet is a wonderful thing – but get outside the information bubble. When I first went to teach in Korea in 1996 there just wasn’t enough information on the internet to bother checking it frequently and everyone had pagers, or ‘bipi’ – cell phones were an anomaly. Lesson learned? I am old. Really old.
6. Make Local Friends
The easiest people to meet overseas are other expats. By default, foreigners tend to congregate in the same bars, restaurants and have shared experiences. It is not uncommon, especially in smaller towns and cities, for foreigners to meet randomly on the street and start hanging out simply because they are both not Korean, Chinese, etc. While it is great to make friendships with people from all over the world, make an extra effort to befriend and hang out with locals. While this may take more effort, in most countries locals would love the opportunity to be your friend, introduce you to their local food, culture, have you spend time with their family, etc. However in many cases they are too shy to approach a foreigner. Great ways to meet locals are to volunteer with local charities, play sports with locals, join a local church or faith organization, or simply look in the local paper for opportunities to get involved in local events. However be wary of hangers-on who may simply be interested in the prestige of having a foreign friend. Refer to Heather’s article about her time in Korea: https://www.esl101.com/blogs/my-very-own-korean-mom-3-ways-tell-if-your-... – she had a range of experiences in Korea she wouldn’t have experienced without her ‘Korean mom.’
7. Travel Locally
Teachers overseas have varying amounts of vacation time. Foreign teachers in countries ranging from the UAE to Korea often travel to other countries while on vacation – often popular tourist destinations like Thailand. While the allure of spending time on a tropical beach is understandable – a lot can be learned from travelling in your host country. While Korea may not be as glamorous a tourist destination as Thailand – you will get a much richer understanding of your host country by taking a week long bicycle tour of the villages of Gangwon-do in Korea, for example, than a spring break type atmosphere in Thailand. Most teachers end up in urban environments – if you take the time to visit rural destinations you will have a very different experience and in many cases a much more authentic and unvarnished interaction with the culture of your host country. Not to mention this will often save you money. Don’t wait for your long vacations to travel locally. Compared to countries like Canada and the US, many countries where teachers are employed are geographically small. Local transportation is usually cheap and efficient – reserve one or two weekends a month for local excursions.
8. It’s OK to Have “I Hate (insert country of residence) Days…”
Leaving everything you know to go live in a foreign country can be daunting, and overwhelming. While you don’t want to live abroad in a cocoon of your own making, there will be days when you are tired, frustrated, and just generally sick of being in your new country of residence. That’s OK. Not every moment has to be spent learning the local language and studying the regional history of your new home. Sometimes you just want to spend a day watching familiar movies and eating junk food and take a break from your adventure. That’s OK – don’t feel bad for doing this – just don’t make this every weekend, and don’t drink too much.
9. Put Extra Effort Into Your Job – But Don’t Get Taken Advantage Of
This can be a balancing act. Keep in mind that in many cultures a written contract is the beginning, not the end of one’s obligations – that one’s written obligations are superseded by personal obligations. I have also observed that the teachers that put the most effort into their jobs are the ones that end up having the most positive experiences. (Shocking – you get out of your job what you put into it). Especially in the first month, put extra effort into your teaching, volunteer to help out and pro-actively take on tasks and responsibilities. Helping out your co-workers and boss can make the rest of your year go smoothly and can result in amazing reciprocity. Five years later, you will remember the time your boss invited you home for Thanksgiving, not the time that you refused to work overtime and left at 5:00 PM. That being said - don’t get taken advantage of. If you work for a less reputable school or a boss that is disingenuous you can find yourself in a situation where you are going above and beyond the contract to help out, but when you ask for something in return, are told that it isn’t in the contract. Make sure this doesn’t become a one way street.
10. Prepare for Coming Home
This is the most overlooked piece of advice I give. Teachers get amped about going overseas, read every book available and prepare for weeks or months, and yet do nothing to prepare to come home while overseas. It is unusual for teachers to live overseas permanently. Realize that at some point you will be returning to your home country. There are many things you can do to ease the transition before you end up in mom and dad’s basement suite. I’ll cover this in more detail next week.
1. Do Not Pass Go – Proceed Directly To Jail
The fun stops when you are facing a lengthy jail term in a foreign country. Be aware that laws vary greatly from country to country – and while living overseas it is your responsibility to follow local laws. Drug laws in particular are much more severe in Asian and Middle Eastern countries than they are in the countries most English teachers come from. Be aware of other laws – as well. Adultery is a capital offence (death penalty) in some Muslim countries. In some countries you can get in serious trouble by joking about or criticizing the local government on social media. If you do break the law in your country of residence and you do end up in jail, there is very little your embassy can or will do to help you. I was interviewed a few years ago by a local newspaper in Vancouver regarding a Canadian teacher who was facing the death penalty in Taiwan for drug smuggling. I didn’t have a lot of sympathy – since every foreigner entering Taipei airport passed by a giant sign that read “Drug Smugglers Will Be Executed.” This is a great read for anyone contemplating smuggling marijuana into Korea: http://www.amazon.com/Brother-One-Cell-Cullen-Thomas/dp/0143113119
2. Respect The Local Culture
Even if you aren’t breaking the law – be mindful of local customs and taboos. In many countries it is not acceptable to take photos of strangers – particularly women. Western women in Muslim countries are expected to dress modestly. Understand that in Korea, if you are a man and you are out drinking with a male co-worker and he puts his hand on your thigh under the table – this is not necessarily a sexual overture. Ditto for women holding hands in public. Religion, politics and certain historical events can be sensitive topics.
3. Don’t be That Guy or That Girl
This may sound hokey – but you really are a cultural ambassador while overseas. In many instances interactions with you may be the first time someone from your host country has directly interacted with an American/Canadian/Brit/Aussie, etc. Keep in mind that your behavior will influence their opinion of your entire country and other ex-pats. Don’t be the stereotypical obnoxious drunk, loud, rude stereotypical foreigner. You just make life more difficult for the rest of us.
4. Don’t Do Dangerous Things
While traveling, we all engage in activities we wouldn’t take part in at home. While this is part of the experience, use common sense. Wear a seatbelt. Realize safety standards and equipment may not be up to par. Think three times before buying a scooter overseas, and never ever drive your scooter (or car) drunk. You are not made of expat Teflon, and health care overseas is not often what one would expect at home. Use common sense. Want a great going away present? Get travel insurance – most local insurance policies don’t cover catastrophic illnesses or injury or repatriation in case of accident or illness. Don’t have to start a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for surgery after you break your back hang gliding in Korea. (This actually happened to a friend of mine.)
5. Don’t Drink Too Much
Related to the point above – you will save money, have a better time, remember more and will be a better teacher if you aren’t constantly drunk or hung over.
Photo Credit - Jakob Montrasio:
Ben Glickman's Recent Posts