Teaching English abroad or living overseas in general sounds like an enticing idea for many people. After all, if you are from the West, the chance to spend even a year of your life in some faraway and exotic land is an incredible concept. Life in the West sometimes becomes mundane, redundant and predictable. There is a part in some of us that yearns for adventure and embarking on the unknown. I call this the Indiana Jones that resides deep in our subconscious and eggs us on to get out there and explore. Imagine being completely anonymous on the other side of the world, yet free. Picture all the new friendships and unique individuals you would encounter.
Imagine the smell of that foreign place the first time you get away from the airport and enter a new city. The aroma of the food, customs of the people and a perspective of life that clashes with your own. I don’t mean living in Western Europe or vice versa. I’m talking about the rest of the globe that is often ignored by us in the West, yet more than deserving of our attention. The parts of the earth still endowed with culture, tradition, knowledge of cooking, monuments, ruins and ancient histories.
But living abroad is not for everyone and while most of us entertain the idea, only a smaller percentage actually go through with it. Maybe you are reading this and are seriously considering to live overseas for the first time. Most likely, you plan to support yourself by teaching English. If you have a university degree and a TESOL or TEFL certificate, you can pretty much teach anywhere outside of the West. But this is also the time you may second guess your decision and allow doubt to attack your mind like tiny darts of poison slowly killing a dream. You may suddenly feel overwhelmed by a barrage of ‘what if’ questions. The catalyst for this flood of self-doubt and second guessing can be attributed to a nasty four letter word that wrecks havoc on our brains. I am talking about ‘fear’. Going abroad sounds like an awesome idea, but once ‘fear’ sets in, the majority of people opt out of doing so. Let’s be honest, it is fear that deters us from doing so many things in life, nonetheless living overseas.
Why do we have such fears? From a biological perspective, fear is a condition of the human existence that has helped us survive as a species for thousands of years. Fear makes us aware of the violence and chaos of the world we live in, which ultimately keeps us out of harm’s way. On the other hand, it can also prevent us from doing what we really want or being our true selves. Fear makes us question our actions and worry about what others will think of us. Since we’ve done such a marvellous job in the West of insulating ourselves from physical danger, the fear that we experience today is more socially derivative. This type of fear may deter one from committing to a relationship, engaging with other types of people or living abroad. Just as marriage is a huge commitment, the decision to move halfway around the world requires a leap of faith. Based on my own personal experience and what I’ve taken away from conversations from others, here are some of the common fears that individuals have about teaching English abroad.
Will I experience homesickness while I’m living abroad?
Yes, you will absolutely suffer from bouts of homesickness no matter what kind of person you are. Feelings of intense loneliness, isolation and self-pity are inevitable when overseas from time to time. If you are strong-willed, it won’t be much of an issue, but living in a non-Western country is not for the light-hearted. While in Japan and traveling in other parts of the world, I witnessed quite a few Westerners who couldn’t handle being so far from home and what initially seemed like a fun idea, turned into a nightmare for those who didn’t have the mental and emotional capacity to deal with it. Even if you are strong, independent and confident, you will of course miss your friends and family. On the other hand, you are going to develop new friendships that may last a lifetime and meet all kinds of interesting characters.
Remember that your friends and family will be there when you get back. You will also find out who your real friends are at this point. Although you will change as a person from spending significant time in an exotic culture,your true friends will remain always loyal, trusting and accept you no matter how much of wandering weirdo you may become.
Will my career prospects suffer if I spend two or more years living abroad?
The honest answer to this question is yes, yes and yes. Of course, if you visit most teacher recruitment websites, TEFL or TESOL brochures or generic blogs about teaching English abroad, they will tell you the opposite. Almost every recruiter or business person trying to sell a TEFL or TESOL course to you will attempt to alleviate your apprehension by promising that employers will be impressed by your courage to live abroad and be eager to hire you. For the most part, this is false. Of course, there are a few hiring managers that may be impressed by your pioneering spirit and offer you a position primarily on that merit. I am not saying it doesn’t happen, but it isn’t the norm. Think about it, whether you are fresh out of university or taking a career break, if you go off to live in Asia for two, three or five years, you are losing ground on the competition. If a career is the most important aspect of your life, then get an internship straight out of college and work your way up. On the other hand, I’ve come across several career types in their early to mid-thirties who are completely unhappy and lost. It really depends on who you are as a person and what suits your personality. Fortunately for our generation, it is entirely possible to begin a career or second or third one well into our 30’s, 40’s or even 50’s. There is always opportunity to retrain ourselves, learn new skills and begin a new endeavor.
You may also like: Five Reasons Not to Teach English Abroad
Will I appear strange to people if I spend a few years living abroad?
Yep, some people will definitely think of you as strange. This is particularly true if you attempt to jump back into mainstream Western society and mingle with the career types. Vice versa, you will also feel completely out of place. The readjustment period could take months or you may never readjust. You may forever be stuck in limbo between your own culture, which you recognize as your own, but has become a bit foreign itself and your new culture, which isn’t your culture. This can definitely be a problem. You may just turn into a giant weirdo! I am just playing. Actually, when you return to your country and experience that period of reverse culture shock, it is then that you can really understand your own culture from an objective lens. One of the most interesting times in my life was when I moved to Washington DC after living in Japan for four years. That was definitely a trip!
Don’t get me wrong, some people, including a few of your friends, will think of you as an international rock star. However, keep in mind that while those peeps will think of your lifestyle as cool, don’t expect them to really relate to any of your stories from abroad if they haven’t done much traveling themselves. It’s not they don’t think highly of you, but they just cannot comprehend entirely what you are talking about. One of the most frustrating parts of coming back from teaching English in Japan after four years was that I couldn’t really talk to any of my friends or family about it. The reality is that while your homies will always be glad to see you, they are also busy living their lives. We all seem to live within our own little universe.
So, is teaching and living abroad a bad idea?
No, teaching English abroad or just living overseas is an incredible experience and I would encourage anyone to do so if given the chance. Don’t let my writing discourage you, but rather provide a realistic mindset before moving halfway around the world. You can still have a career and live abroad as well. There is no question about that. However, if you spend a few years out of college or quit your job in your early thirties to live overseas for a few years, you will lag behind your peers when you get back. You will also never be able to see your own culture and country in the same way. But this is also a good thing as it will open up your mind up to new perspectives, experiences and relationships. Speaking of relationships, if you decide to teach English abroad for a significant amount of time, there is a decent chance that you could find yourself caught up in an international romance, which is a whole other story in itself. If you do find yourself in such a situation, then I wish the best of luck to you 🙂
If you are planning to move abroad, don’t let fear stop you. Family issues, a career that is too good to pass up or medical reasons are all legitimate claims for staying home. However, fear should not be the deterrent. If you are feeling apprehensive now, that anxiety will likely pass once you have spent a couple of months in a new country and meet new friends. So instead of living in fear, start living your life.