Teaching Abroad – In The Know (No.16): Mental Preparation

There's always time to learn a few words in the local lingo. (Photo Credit: Thomas Dowling, 2014)

At the very start of this blog series, I outlined some TEFL ‘characters’ and tried to get you to ask yourself about what your (honest) motivations are for going abroad. These remain important foundations for today’s offering, but are not quite the same as preparing ourselves mentally for heading away.

So, this blog is about how to approach your new adventure and how you might prepare yourself in advance.

Be Open Minded

This is such a cliche nowadays and has been for a long time. But cliches are cliches for a reason: they are well worn and often happen to be true. Being open minded about a culture, place, job, etc., is perhaps the single most important approach or attitude you should espouse or cultivate prior to departure. To unpack this a little more, one should only consider the opposite attitude: a closed-minded person. This is someone who is either unwilling to adapt to change in a new place; a person that can neither understand nor accept different views, ideas, norms, religions, and etiquette (and a host of other things besides). These individuals therefore struggle when they go into new cultures that are markedly different from their own, which evidently makes for a potentially bad experience. Resistance breeds a whole range of problems from hatred and casual racism to xenophobia and conflict - none of which are positive outlooks.

There will be times when you may disagree with the politics or societal views and norms to the place you’ll head to. In these cases—when you are unwilling to concede your opposition—it’s important to recall that you do not have to accept, merely understand. For example, most Westerners hailing from liberal democracies hold human rights close to their moral centre and would have a range of issues with China’s treatment of minorities. Equally, Saudi Arabia’s attitudes towards the LGBT community may be an issue for some. Religious differences and racism are obvious problems, and to be frank, if one holds strong anti-Islamic or Hindu views for instance, or negative views about other peoples and races more generally, you should not seek employment in countries populated with those peoples. One should always remember you are a guest in another country. I had a colleague in Saudi who spoke in terrifyingly brutal and racist ways about Muslims, expressing that they ‘should be exterminated.’ I was genuinely horrified. Personally, I hold no superior or racist views, and I am rather fond of Muslims. In this instance, I felt I had to act. I approached my boss and made a formal complaint—the only time in my entire working life. His comments were not only unacceptable given that Saudi Arabia is an intensely conservative Muslim country, but put every Westerner in danger if those sentiments had leaked out to the student population. Towards the more annoying end, Brits, for example, might get irked when a polite ‘thanks’ isn’t muttered after holding a door open, or when a young person doesn’t give up their seat for an elderly or disabled person. Again, you don’t need to agree, nor accept, differing viewpoints, but try to be open minded and understanding. This will help not only your cultural integration, but also friendship creation, too.

Try to be as open-minded as possible when starting a new life in a foreign country. Embrace change; celebrate differences. In the realms where you don’t agree, try to understand. You will be as much a student as those whom you are employed to teach.

Never be afraid of trying something new (Photo Credit: Thomas Dowling, 2018)

How to Prepare: I would say this: think back to your university days. I bet there were dozens of occasions when you strongly disagreed with professors and colleagues. I’m almost certain that you remained professional or cordial or friends with those individuals, and by expressing your position you probably forced both yourself and your opposite to better clarify your respective viewpoints, which in turn, either helped you understand or convert your opponent’s position. A university environment helps to broaden and open young minds; apply the same thought-process wherever you land.

Explore the New Culture 

For me, much of the fun of moving abroad is full immersion into that country’s cultural landscape. This means, effectively, ‘going native.’ Explore everything the new place and culture has to offer: the food, the beer, the music, the dating scene, the language, the movies, the books, the sports, its environments, living quarters, the art scene, the imitations/local versions of those classics back home (often fish and chips for Brits), and everything else that I’ve not mentioned. Sample everything! Learn the similarities and differences of there and home. This will help you settle, integrate, and expand your local knowledge. And the more places and experiences you have, the chances of meeting people consummately increases.

How to Prepare: The great thing about this point is that you can start enacting it right now, literally right after you finish reading this blog. And you don’t need to pay anything at all. Head to your local library if cash is tight and borrow novels or books on politics, history, and society. Or, do a few internet searches via Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet. If you do wish to invest a little, buy some language books or DVDs. Download a popular band’s album. Perhaps organise a dinner at your local restaurant and order something that just looks delicious/intriguing/crazy. How about following the local or national sport on ESPN or Youtube? There is so much you can do to start preparing for life in your new country waaaaay in advance. The only real caveat to this are those ‘last minute’ jobs (for obvious reasons.)

Solitude is Not Bliss

Don’t be a stranger. Seriously. To succeed in your year abroad—or just get though—you’ll need a network of people to help you, just as you would back home. Engage with your colleagues and ask for recommendations; say hi to expats you bump in to and chat to people in bars and coffee shops. I know it’s not easy for everyone to be confident or extrovert if this doesn’t come naturally, but try to adopt a policy of being more outgoing. This might be hard at first, but should become easier over time (partly out of necessity and as you increase your confidence through teaching - it’s a profession that does encourage such a characteristic).

How to Prepare: Think back, again, to your first few university days. In my mind, it’s a comparable experience: it was a new environment, multicultural, and you needed to navigate conversations to find mutual topics and experiences with people you just met for the first time, some of whom would only have the degree subject itself in common with you. How did you approach these first few days? If your ice-breaking strategies were successful, why were they? Can they be re-deployed? If not, what lessons did you learn to make your next major meet-and-greet foray fruitful? Sure, language is more likely to be an issue when you leave familiar shores, but I think there are lots of similarities that you should be able to take heart from. Whether or not this was a positive experience in your mind, you can still do a few things before you fly out. Most obviously: practice! When you next have a coffee or a beer, strike up a conversation with a person next to you; or engage in relatively mundane prattle in a long queue: do that very British thing and talk about the weather. If you are more on the introvert side of the spectrum, the Age of the Internet will rescue you. I can almost guarantee that wherever you go, be it a megacity like Shanghai, China; a rural village in alpine Peru; or a coastal town such as Bari, Italy, there’s almost certainly going to be at least one Facebook group that you can request to join. This will give you a great platform to meet people and ask for advice from what to bring, the weather conditions, and the price of a pizza. If you end up in a large city, there are likely to be several groups catering not only for local ESL teachers, but also religious-centred groups, sports teams, flea markets, and general expat pages. Literally type in the name of the village, town, city, or region you’ll be in, request to join and start meeting people online. Again, all this can be done right now for free. It is the one thing I wish I thought more about before I started my ESL career; it’s such a simple thing to do and would have made my first two weeks in Korea MUCH, MUCH easier. Please don’t underestimate this advice.

Embrace Technology

Even tiny rural settlements are connected to the global village these days (Photo Credit: Thomas Dowling, 2015)

In the modern world that we live in, this might seem like a non-point, and is of course an assumed pre-condition to the above piece of advice. Yet, it’s entirely worth stressing that technology is almost certainly going to be a closer friend to you when you move abroad than ever before. Skype, Facebook, Instagram, Kakao, and many others, all enable instant messaging and video calls to your friends and family back home who will likely be even more important as you move away. From birthdays and weddings missed, to hard days in the classroom, to the daily grind of that ten-minute-language-barrier-sign language performance you go through everyday to get to work on time, you’ll need familiar faces to help cope with the small and big challenges that you will face. Many times I, and others whom I know, would almost certainly give up social media if it were not for the fact that we live abroad. The truth is that technology has become so essential for one’s life abroad, but also a critical lifeline for keeping in touch with the friends you’ll make when you’ve finished your awesome year away.

How to Prepare: You’ll almost certainly have subscribed to the social media frenzy that has gripped 2.27 billion people around the world (and that’s just Facebook). You might not, however, have Skype. Skype is often the preferred method recruiters interview you through, but also a very reliable means of video calling those whom you wish to stay in touch with back home. It can additionally be loaded up with credit that enables one to call like a normal house phone in your homeland, which is often a much cheaper proposition than the handset and contract you’ll pick-up shortly after arrival. This is a good app to have for those calls you might need to facilitate with your local police station, personal bank, and those various government departments that might not have added you on Facebook. (There was a time I had to call the British Embassy when I very nearly got stuck in a Vietnamese airport, for example, a call that I wasn’t about to make on my British phone and whereby social media would have been redundant). So, take my advice: download Skype and put some emergency credit on it. Other than that, there really isn’t much prep involved.

Anticipate Tough Times

Going away brings vast, tremendous, and often unknown—but exciting—opportunities that are highly likely to push you far beyond your comfort zone. Much of this, to a great extent, is going to be true whether you start work in Kuwait, Panama, or Singapore simply because those places are intrinsically different from Bristol, Cincinnati, and Pretoria. You will have almost certainly dreamed, wondered, and researched lots of fun things to do in your next home, but, I’d wager, you’ll far less likely to have fully appreciated the difficulties, tough times, and growing pains in quite the same way. And, this is, in part, one of the rationales for writing this blog. What you need to accept is that there are going to be times ahead that will be both unforeseen and challenging for any number of reasons.

How to Prepare: Think about the sorts of problems you might possibly have, and ways that you could overcome them. We’ve already discussed some. For example: not good at making friends? Seek out Facebook groups ahead of time. Suck at languages? Work your way through a simple book with exercises; practice in your local restaurant. Worried you might not be able to teach Past Perfect Continuous? Invest in a good course before you head out, or identity online forums that might help. If all else fails, make sure that your support network from back home have the tools and capacity to help: if your gran is your anchor in this mad world, ensure she knows how to use Skype. If Dave is your best mate, make sure you know when you can contact him (and take into account time zone differences)

Clear that Foggy Head

Preparing yourself mentally to live abroad is an often overlooked phase. Spending a little money and time on this is well worth a small investment that will pay dividends later on.

Next time, we’ll start thinking about how to prepare yourself for the job itself. For many, this may well be the most concerning part, but it really doesn’t need to be so. Over the next few weeks we’ll be thinking about free and paid courses (class and online), as well as decent books to invest in (hardback and ebooks).

Proof my advice works ... (Photo Credit: Thomas Dowling, 2017)

Editorial: Thomas Dowling has worked in the ESL industry for over 7 years, having lived and worked in South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Myanmar, Kuwait, and the UK. Currently, Thomas is a full-time Ph.D Student studying Environmental Security (mainly Myanmar and Southeast Asia) at the University of Leicester. He has previously studied degrees in Ancient History (BA; MA: Bristol), and International Security Studies (MA: Leicester). In 2014, he earned his CELTA qualification (ITI: Istanbul, Turkey). Thomas is also the Co-Founder of The Digital Traveller, focusing upon content and content management. Thomas presently lives in Daegu, South Korea, with his wife, Mandy, a rambunctious Jack Russell Terrier, and his newborn baby, Zeno.

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