Teaching abroad can look glamorous on social media- new experiences, a foreign land, exotic food and it all looks like a grand adventure to be had. But no one shows you the hard moments- the loneliness, frustration, confusion, awkwardness and crushing exhaustion that comes with having to build a new life without a support system.
After 10 years in this game I can tell you that I am not surprised when people teaching abroad pack up and leave in the dead of the night- within the first few weeks of moving.
I get it. I have been there. I resisted the urge to do it but yes I have been there; at midnight on a freezing night in Incheon, South Korea. At 4am on a blazing hot morning in Kuwait. I have thought about booking the next flight out and leaving without a trace.
It is so challenging and not everyone is mentally prepared for the double whammy of the stress of teaching as a career and then coupling that with the struggle of moving abroad.
This post comes at the request of so many of my followers on Instagram who are moving abroad for the first time this year. I also asked my audience on Instagram to provide any tips or advice they received that worked for them when they moved abroad. This post summarizes those anecdotes.
Remind yourself that it’s hard and you’re not ‘doing it wrong’
At the core of it all, most of us have no idea what we’re doing when we first move abroad. The money is confusing, the products make no sense, the food is a bit daunting. We try our best to wing it, going with advice we read online and agreeing to whatever our colleagues or neighbours suggest. We are making it up as we go along. Because it’s difficult. And there is no instruction manual that you can follow to make everything seem familiar.
The first step is to acknowledge that it’s all chaos and confusion at first and that you’re just trying to get by as you acclimate. And right after that thought, remember that there is no right or wrong way to move abroad. Just because everyone else seems (‘seems’ being the operative word here) like they’re gliding by effortlessly, doesn’t mean that they are. They’re most likely confused and conflicted just like you.
The first few weeks and months are hard. Sit with that thought, process it and embrace it.
You might be dealing with living alone for the first time, or a really humid climate,power outages, a language barrier, or tons of bugs that get into the kitchen. It is 100% ok to feel frustrated with yourself and even angry with your new country with all its quirks. Watch your favourite TV shows, wallow in the sadness and remind yourself that this is the hardest phase. It will pass.
Things truly do get worse before they get better.
The sooner you dive right in, the better
When you first move, the smallest things can seem daunting. Figuring out the public transport, walking to the park, buying things at the grocery store. It can be terrifying even though you were probably very independent and capable in the place you lived in before. Something that really helped me was to just do it all. The sooner the better. The longer I waited to do things, the more nervous I became about doing them.
When I first moved to South Korea, I waited to figure out how to use the buses and subway system and built it up so much in my head that I was honestly terrified by the time I did get around to figuring it out. I wish I had just gotten on with it from the get go instead of waiting.
The quicker you start exploring, the better the chances you have of finding your ‘favourites’. Those favourite places that serve a cappuccino just the way you like it. The little street cart selling delicious tacos. The gym that has great Zumba classes that feel like you’re partying in Ibiza. The park where you go for sunset views while you feed the ducks. Having those little places you start to enjoy means you find pockets of sanctuary in an unfamiliar place.
Make your home your own
Never underestimate the power of small things. A few significant items can turn a space into a home and when you find yourself overwhelmed, you need a place that you can unwind in and wallow in your feelings. A few family photos put up in your home can make a huge difference after a long day at work. Having a copy of your favourite book on a shelf can be a sense of comfort when you feel down. Bringing the spices to cook nostalgic meals from your childhood means a lot when you’re tired of sampling the local cuisine. Eating rice every day in China and potatoes every day in Slovenia does get old really quick.
While it’s tempting to bring school supplies, clothes and gifts for colleagues, I would prioritize packing your favourite snacks, mementos and seasonings for days when that homesickness really kicks in and teaching abroad seems like a mistake.
Finding support and socialising
It’s normal to feel like you want to be more ‘settled’ before you start accepting social invitations or actively trying to make new friends. However, part of getting settled is finding your people and forging friendships. And you don’t truly feel at home in any place if you don’t have any support system.
There are a variety of ways to make friends in a new place; from joining social groups like Internations or Meetup or even using apps like Bumble. Other ways involve joining groups where you share a common interest (like a language exchange, sport or art activity). If you’re religious, you could look for a place of worship or religious group to join. If all else fails, your colleagues may be a source of support as well. Making friends with locals can help to understand your new country better and making friends with other expats helps to have the perspective of others who may had had simialr experiences to yours.
Lean into all the interactions even if they feel awkward at first. And don’t be afraid to be the person organising something or taking initiative. The point is not necessarily to meet your soulmate (although wouldn’t that be amazing?!), but rather, to get you sharing your experiences, having people to answer your questions and to have some company when you need to vent or require empathy. Another tip is to exchange contact details with people you meet so you can extend your connections instead of having one- off interactions. Human beings- as introverted as we may be- are not programmed to live in isolation and need company to function optimally. In my first month of moving anywhere, I try to accept all the social activities I can handle without wiping myself out. It’s a good way to build relationships, get out of the house and ask for help/advice from those around you.
That’s not to say you should completely ignore the family and friends you left behind. It’s great to keep in touch with people who know you well and remind you of your roots. It’s also great to have new experiences with new people who understand what it’s like to live where you do. Lean into any and all support systems you have!
Embrace the school experience even if you don’t understand it
Like all workplaces, each school has their own set of customs, policies and culture. When you arrive at a school it may seem like the place isn’t at all what you thought it would be during the interview. Perhaps the website was misleading. Or you’re being asked to perform a role that you may not have experience doing before. There have been times where I started at a school and realized that their behaviour action plans were not going to be ineffective and that the teaching methods used were obsolete and outdated. It can be challenging to start at a place where you can see things won’t be very competent or effective. Another thing that international schools love to do is to bombard teachers with initial ‘observations’ which can feel intimidating as you’re still adjusting to the school and then suddenly it feels like you’re being judged in your classroom.
For the most part, I find it useful to let it all go. Let go of the preconceived notions; of the many ways in which you think things could be improved; let go of the need to impress anyone. Absorb as much as you can, be flexible and try to adapt. Sit back, listen to others and be open to everythingwithout letting it stress you out. Take each day as it comes.
While your job may have brought you to a country, it doesn’t have to define youe entire expreience in a place.
You may learn a lot- not just about a new school but also about yourself. About what you can or can’t put up with in a professional environment and how flexible you can really be. If you make a mistake- GOOD. You learn from it and improve. If you fail- GREAT. Your comeback will be better than ever. Believing in yourself is far more important than having blind faith in an organization especially when teaching abroad.
Plan things to look forward to
The truth is that even now, I still have low moments and I still have to find ways to combat them. The Expat slump is a very really concept and I loved this post by Whole Food Abroad outlining ways to pick yourself up during those hard moments. One of the main ways I combat this is that I find things that I want to do and I plan towards them. It can be as exciting as an international trip or it can be as simple as trying a new restaurant in my area. Whatever it is, I put it on my calendar so I can look forward to something. In the initial months, this helps with the ebb and flow of sadness and isolation.
One of the things I strongly recommend before moving to a place is to find a few experiences you’d like to have in your new country. Then when you arrive, work towards doing those things. Having things to be excited about helps to combat the feeling of, “Why am I here?” One of the hardest moves for me was moving to Kuwait where- at the time when I moved- there was literally nothing that I wanted to do or see in that country. Although I made it work, there were a lot of low points when I wished I had something to look forward to. You don’t have to go overboard scheduling things but having at least one thing to look forward to really helps.
Moving abroad is not for everyone in the same way that teaching abroad is not for everyone. And when you couple two hard things together, life gets all the more complex. Its normal to feel lost and confused at first; you can start to question your decision to move. But keep reminding yourself that you’ve moved for a purpose.
Something a friend shared with me stood out: “Never think of it as being lost. You’re enroute to your destination, even if you have to detour a few times.”.
The journey of moving abroad can be incredibly stressful but 11 years after I made my first move, I can tell you that its also incredibly rewarding!
- You can’t function professionally if you’re not taking care of your personal needs. Make time to eat, sleep and exercise even though your body may be struggling with jetlag and a new routine. I recommend giving yourself at least 5 days in a new place before starting a new job.
- As much as you can listen to the experiences of other’s and their opinions, don’t let it cloud your judgement or create biases. Always remember that its your journey. Your experiences may not be the same as others because we are all different people.
- Talk to your students to learn more about them, their likes and preferences. Don’t assume that children in the same age group where you’re from have the same needs and interests. From there, you can plan fun and engaging lessons that appeal to them.
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If you liked this post, you may also be interested in my earlier posts:
How did you survive the first few months of becoming teaching abroad? Or are you thinking of teaching abroad? Let me know in the comments below!!