5 Guarantees about Teaching Abroad
There are plenty of moments in this journey that are personal and unique to the individual and these are not moments I can really prepare you for (the “you” being anyone who is considering teaching abroad). But there are some moments that I can say with a certain degree of certainty are universal for anyone who has taught abroad in a foreign country… And here are five of them.
1. There will be moments where you are touched.
Maybe it’s the time your 15-year-old student, Jom, asks you when you are going back to America. You tell her April 20th, and she sighs and looks down at your desk. “Oh,” she says quietly, making peace with it, attempting to comfort herself. “Okay. We still have time.”
Maybe it’s the time another student tells you she’s told her mother all about you—how funny you are, and how much she enjoys your class.
Maybe it’s the time your coordinator takes you and all the other coworkers out to dinner for Valentine’s Day so that none of you have to eat alone: an eclectic group of both single and married women from the Phillipines, one widowed older man, two Americans, and four Thais. Your coordinator pays for the whole meal, and everyone tries to talk to you, to joke with you, no matter how good or bad they are at English.
Maybe it’s the moment you are grading a test and see a student, in the top left-hand corner, has written a little acronym you’d halfheartedly scrawled on the board while trying to explain something, assuming all the while that not a single one was paying any attention.
Maybe, it’s just the time the Thai people at the mall know your order and smile at you when you leave, or the security guard who always calls out to you, “See you tomorrow!”
2. There will be moments when you are disgusted.
A quick list: Chicken feet; pork in small balls twirled into some jewelry-looking design on the grill; the smells on the street; the bugs; the dead bugs for sale at the market; the dirt that seems to layer everything; the bare feet in the small pharmacy or shop; the full-sized leafs you find in your pasta dish; the squat toilets; the lack of soap anywhere; the dampness of the toilet because, to flush, they splash water on it from a separate bucket (and, for that matter, the dampness of the ground below it).
3. There will be moments when you feel like a celebrity.
Never in your life will you be called beautiful more times than while teaching in Thailand. I mean, imagine walking up to someone on the streets of New York and pointing at them and just exclaiming, “Ooh, beautiful!” It just doesn’t happen. Here, it happens approximately every time you leave your apartment. They are not embarrassed and do not say it shyly or timidly. They say it candidly, like it’s a simple fact, as you are checking out at the grocery store: “You’re beautiful. Would you like a receipt?”
Besides that, there will be plenty of times when someone says, “picture?” and you think they mean, “Could you take one of me and my friend?” but then, you realize that they really mean, “Could you take one with me and my friend?”
4. There will be moments when all you want is to quit and go home.
Maybe it’ll be the time you try to open a bank account but you can’t, because you didn’t bring the proper employment documents from your school. No one at school told you. It will be 6:53 p.m. on a Wednesday; the bank closes at 7 p.m., and your school cannot pay you on Thursday unless you’ve already opened an account. You will be so frustrated that you just start crying right there, sitting in an open office with seven Thai bank employees staring at you, repeating the little English phrase they know, over and over: “You can come back tomorrow.” You will try your best to persuade them, shoving Google translate in their faces which says, essentially, ‘please open an account or I won’t get paid’, until finally you give up and drive home and curse the whole country for all these unforeseen obstacles which can result from the language barrier.
Or maybe it will be the time you are sick and must get on your motorbike to get Gatorade from 7-11 and it’s 100 degrees and you are just praying you make it there alive, and you wish more than anything that you could call a family member or a friend.
Maybe it will be the time you’re invited to a funeral that starts at noon, but you’re driven there at 8 in the morning to take pictures next to the casket ahead of time (this, by the way, isn’t my personal experience—shout out to my friend Devon).
It could be anything. It could be all the pounds of plain white rice you eat at every meal, it could be the lizard on your bedroom wall, or it could be the anxiety of ordering every night at a restaurant where you cannot read the menu, so you must bring pictures of dishes and hope they have one of them. It could be not listening to an American radio since October, or having wifi that only works for 13 minutes every three days.
Whatever it is, there will be moments when you look around and you do not, even faintly, recognize this world as your own. And in that moment, you feel like an idiot for intruding on it in the first place, and you want out.
5. And then, there will be moments when all you want is to stay longer.
Perhaps it is because of the people. Another quick list: the man who owns your building and drives you to get spaghetti from 7-11 your first week here, because he assumes you already miss it; the boys at the gym who bow and say hello to you every time you walk into the gym, and invite you to try Muay Thai fighting with them even though their inability to speak English clearly makes them self-conscious; the 55-year old director of your program who drives you to the post office and plays the song “Massachusetts” by the Bee Gees on the drive because he is excited to show you a song with your state in the title; and all the many other people who stand at the periphery of your daily routine and patiently wait for your cue before stepping into your world and showing you things, practicing their English with you, and sticking around for as long as you let them to make sure that you don’t feel alone.
Perhaps it is because some of the food is incredible.
For me, I can tell you exactly when it was. Mid-January, I opened my phone to texts from friends back home, talking about all the trials and tribulations of post-grad dating, and how That Boy didn’t text her back, and That Other Boy used her; and texts from other friends, asking for advice because already, six months in, they hated their jobs.
And then, one text, from a new CIEE friend: You still want to go to Dubai, right?
In that moment you realize that, whether this world is familiar or not, you have grown to love it. You have grown to love the very otherworldly strangeness of it, the way it feels a bit imaginary all the time, in comparison to the “reality” of boy drama and work issues and snow complaints. The way you’ve carved a safety bubble for yourself inside this foreign world, surrounding yourself with Pump classes at the gym Wednesday night and Thursday trips to the grocery store in the mall and visits to the restaurant across the street because, when they see you, they send forth the 12-year-old son who knows enough English to take your order.
Perhaps it is not such a bad thing, to be 8,376 miles away from the “real” world and everything familiar it entails—remembering that familiar does not always mean better.