Living overseas was the most exciting, fulfilling, challenging, interesting and exhilarating 27 years of my 40 year teaching career. Those 27 years were also the worst, most awful, loneliest, and difficult. Still, I wouldn’t trade my overseas experiences for 40 quiet years in a small Connecticut town for anything. But those who remained in that same town would not have enjoyed my life at all.
If you like a challenge every day, facing the unknown and difficult with a sense of humor and sharing your life with people as opposite of you as can be, then, perhaps this also is the life for you. However, if you can’t do without peanut butter, cable TV, the local disco, alcoholic beverages and fast cars, you’d better stay home. You’ll just hate it.
You have to be ready to face something new all the time when you live overseas. Every school, every country, indeed, every day presents a new challenge to enjoy or suffer through. It’s up to you. I’m not talking about learning another language when you discover how few people speak English in your host country. That’s a given. And even that’s no piece of cake when you’re working full time. Neither am I referring to learning to drive on the wrong side of the street, understanding exchange rates, trying to mail a letter or finding your favorite food. By the way, I’ve decided pizza is the true international food. Seeing a Kuwaiti family in full local dress happily chomping down a Super Supreme brought that home.
No, what I’m referring to is culture shock. Even veterans of many years’ experience overseas go through this. At first everything is romantic and exciting; trying to buy groceries, to get a tooth filled, to get a taxi, to buy a pair of shoes that fit, to treat that strange rash. But if you don’t learn quickly and have plenty of patience, it all gets old about late October, if not before. It’s called the “J Curve”. By November, even the best of us reaches that bottom hook. If you persevere, you usually follow that hook right back up again. And then again you may not. Things get worse. You can’t build a social life, much less a romantic connection. You’re tired of having to soak the fresh fruits and vegetables in vinegar before you serve them. The list goes on.
For those of you with a significant other (often not accepted in many schools; married couples only), your relationship had better be very, very stable. Double culture shock is not pretty at all. Families can simply compound this for each addition.
It’s not the worst thing in the world, culture shock. On the contrary, you learn to adapt beyond your wildest expectations, to reevaluate your life and relationships to other people as well as to your possessions. You learn what is truly important to you, to go for it, and to reap the benefits of a full and exciting life that no one at home will ever relate to.
There is no tenure, no security, no bargaining table, and often no grievance procedure. You’re on your own. Yes, friends will stand by you, to a point. With dozens of other well qualified teachers waiting in the wings for your job, many employers would be all to happy to see you leave if you’re all that unhappy. “It’s my way or the highway”’ was the favorite phrase of Director Richard Holtzman at CIC Caracas years ago. And guess what? Everyone of the foreign hire staff did leave during his stay. The school is still very much in business without us. Be sure to refer to International Schools Review and avoid these sorts of situations.
So, if you happen to be the “unhappy camper” type, with lots of complaints and few positive suggestions, this is not for you. Yes, owners and administrators are interested in improving their educational establishment and keeping their faculty and staff happy. They do want to know your needs and interests. Many will put improvements in effect as soon as possible. If you’re the type who must have things “just so” and rankle and rave if you don’t get your way, stay home. No one overseas wants to work with you.
You’d better be well prepared for your job and ready to work your tail off. Actually, if you’re really into the profession and love what you’re doing, you don’t mind, or even notice (sometimes) how much you’re putting into the job. I certainly got high on working long hours on planning lessons, researching information and skills, taking extra courses, writing my class web site and working with individual students after school.
Lots of these kids are sharp. You’d better know your stuff because they’ll call your bluff, you can be sure of it. And they remember misinformation you’ve given them, too. They don’t expect you to be a walking encyclopedia. You can admit you don’t know something. But you’d better have all the necessary information and skills you need before you take on a job. There are virtually no resources you can fall back on when you’re in the hinterlands of Venezuela, Thailand, or Mali, for example.
Leave your social prejudices behind, by all means! We all like to think we’re open minded and accepting of all kinds of people. Nothing tests that belief more than total immersion in a different race of people and their culture. It was a very humbling experience the first time I was the one who was different. My first overseas home was in a Colombian “barrio”, or ghetto, in Caracas, Venezuela. I couldn’t afford the high rise apartments most foreigners lived in, so I took this hole-in-the-wall little apartment in a virtual beehive of dwellings on the side of a hill. The neighbors were very wary of me and I of them, to be honest. I spoke almost no Spanish and none of them knew any English.
Gradually, we began to trust each other, I learned enough of the street language to make myself understood and to barely understand them. I laughed at myself all the time and kept my sense of humor obvious. Soon I was one of the gang. They were very kind to me and protected me, I think. Nothing bad ever happened to me because of the people there. One day I overheard a woman telling her teenaged daughter to go with me when she wanted to go into town. I knew then I was trusted and respected.
Before this, I had had very little exposure to people of color, especially those who spoke Spanish only. Those years in the barrio were among the richest of my many years in Venezuela. I learned and grew so much. And I knew well that these people had welcomed me far more than they would have been welcomed in my old neighborhood in Connecticut.
You must be truly open to understanding and respecting, even enjoying all the cultural differences. People know immediately if you’re reluctant to associate with them. Students know immediately if you have any reservations about their race, religion, or lifestyle.
There’s an interesting and exciting life outside the borders of the US that far too few of us get to experience by living there. There are far too few of us who even want to. I have ridden camels, and elephants, eaten indescribable foods, sung karaoke at a Chinese festival as well as high in the mountains of VietNam. I have dined with ambassadors, danced with a prince, jammed with a native musical group in Borneo and studied weaving in a cooperative deep in the Ivory Coast. I’ve been cursed by a witch, robbed of my wallet more than once, rescued from a stalker in a souk, been left behind by my tour bus in Istanbul, and tear gassed in Peru. I could write a book. I think I will.
But it’s not for everyone. How about you?