About this time 3 years ago, I stepped foot on the foreign land of South Korea and began my journey teaching English abroad. The following 2.5 years proved to be some of the most memorable and life-changing of my adulthood. I went through the complete spectrum of loving it, hating it, feeling excitement, being completely bored, focusing on the ugly, and eventually appreciating the beautiful. Now back 4 months in the safe nook of “home”, I’ve had some time to reflect and reminisce on that incredible chapter of my life.
Whether you’re currently teaching abroad or about to begin your journey, there is always good advice out there to help enrich your experience. Here then, are my tips for helping you thrive as an English teacher abroad:
1. Don’t be such a prude… with food.
This tops the list for two reasons. One, I love food. And two, it pains me to see people limit their culinary options. Try something new and your taste buds might love you for it. You’ll vastly expand your social opportunities and the locals will respect you for trying their cuisine. And general rule for when you can’t figure out what you’re eating: put it in your mouth and ask questions later.
2. Learn the language
Like most common sense, this is overwhelmingly ignored. We expect foreigners here in the States to speak English, so why should those standards be any different for us abroad? A little effort can go a long way towards making your life more comfortable and bridging the gap between foreigner and native. You’ll be amazed at the shift in people’s attitudes when they hear you bust out a few lines in the local tongue.
3. Make friends with an older native
This was a tip given by a speaker at my very own orientation. It seemed like a funny piece of advice at the time, but his logic was quite sound. Being in a different country, there are a lot of limits towards what you as a foreigner can do. This can range from a simple bureaucratic procedure to a complex legal issue. There may very well come a time when such a task is better suited to a native with senior standing. That’s where your buddy comes in.
4. Travel every chance you get
I think this should be mandatory and put under the English teacher job duties. Part of having a job is indeed to save money, but don’t let your sense of financial responsibility cripple your opportunities to travel. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity where you’re living halfway across the world! Take advantage of it and see as much as you can.
5. Find people to vent with
This is extremely important. Talking shit is therapy, and you need to find the right therapy buddies to exchange stories of your stressful work life and interesting “cultural experiences”. Choose wisely to find the right balance between the oversensitive and over-abrasive. You don’t want to offend anyone, yet you don’t want to expose yourself to too much negativity either.
6. Venture out on your own
Organized tours are great to meet people and get your feet wet in your new environment, but most of the time they are overbooked and turn into one big shit-show. Once you’ve gotten your bearings and a solid group of friends, be resourceful and go explore. Your own time + your own agenda + your own friends = richer memories.
7. Get your IDP
Part of my 5 Overlooked Travel Tips, the International Driver’s Permit has proven to be a very useful document to have abroad. Quite easy to apply for and procure, it gives you the freedom of renting and driving cars in a wide selection of countries. Mobility = life.
8. Join a club
Drinking and partying has its appeal, but sober interactions create lasting memories. Joining a club not only opens you to a new and consistent group of friends, but also creates a sense of purpose, community, and even goals to aspire for. Two of the clubs I was in, Bachata and Capoeira, set the foundation for my experience and friendships in Korea, and taught me some cool shit too.
9. Expats are Your Resource
They’ve been here longer than you. They know all the good places to eat. They know what to do when you get into a legal dispute. Find your foreigner network and use them! Most expats already have online communities set up where you can do anything from share lesson plans to selling and buying used merchandise. If you don’t know where to look, Facebook is a good place to start.
10. Have an exit plan
I mean it. This is a great gig, but a temporary one. Sure the work itself is comfortable, and it’s nice being the “exotic foreigner” in town, but sooner or later you will realize that the easy rhythm of this life is making you complacent about figuring out what it is you really want to do. Don’t take your foot off the gas and coast. Give yourself an end and act with a sense of urgency.
Did I miss anything?