Thursday, April 3, 2014

[Teach Abroad Blog Carnival] Teaching abroad is not a vacation

[Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I'll be posting a new ESL related article on my blog at the beginning of every month, and the carnival is published on the 5th by its host. If you'd like to participate in next month's Blog Carnival, you can find details in the above link.]

You can find all of this month's carnival posts here.

Prompt: Write about one of the biggest myths you discovered while teaching abroad.

Before I began teaching abroad in 2011, I hadn't quite realized that was actually something one could do. I didn't know about all of the opportunities worldwide for native English speakers to teach English - it simply hadn't been on my radar.  So I didn't have (or hear about) any preconceived ideas about what teaching abroad entailed. I learned about teaching abroad by doing it myself, both in Spain and currently in South Korea.

So while I'm not sure exactly what folks back home may think about teaching abroad, there is one myth I've come across enough times that I'd like to single it out now and prove that it is, indeed, a myth.

The myth: Teaching abroad means being on vacation and frequently traveling

This particular myth has two related parts:
  • Part A: When you teach abroad, you're on a vacation from "real life" - on a trip of sorts.
  • Part B: When you live abroad (whether you're teaching or not), you travel all the time.
I'll start with the first part.

Part A: When you teach abroad, you're on vacation from "real life" - on a trip of sorts

When I returned to the states after my second year living in Madrid, I had a really hard time with reverse culture shock. One of the questions I hated getting was "How was your trip?"  Ahh! "It wasn't a trip!" I wanted to scream.  I had a life! A job! Bills to pay, an apartment to keep clean! I was not just passing through, that's where I lived. It's my second home.

Just this past week I blogged in detail every day about that day's happenings (along with five other UW grads teaching in Korea) partly so others would know what my days are actually like.  I wake up, go to work, come home exhausted and try to do something productive before it's time to go to bed and do it all over again the next day. That's not a vacation, it's my real life.

And while the most mundane things are often more interesting abroad than the mundane back home, they also can be frustrating and hassle-creating.  For example, the reason why I have not gotten a haircut in the past seven months is solely due to the fact that I'm teaching abroad. It takes way more effort to complete small tasks. (See the story of getting a library card here in Korea or how long it took me to get my cell phone service fixed in Spain, or check out my triumphant Chinese take-out purchase three months after I'd moved to Korea for further proof of this phenomenon.)

So there are clearly downsides to teaching abroad - and I haven't even mentioned the possible isolation, culture shock, or language barriers - yet I find that many people who haven't lived abroad seem to think if you're teaching in Italy or Spain or Korea, for example, that if must be like a vacation to Italy, Spain, or Korea. I'd like to do a thought experiment right now to challenge that view:

(I'll use Madison, WI as an example because many of my readers can relate, but replace "Madison" with the name of the city you live in while reading.) Think about your life in Madison, your daily routine.  Now take a German and plop him/her in your place. He or she is living abroad in Madison, WI this year. But what they see/do each day is exactly the same as what you see/do each day. Eat breakfast, watch the news, go to work, do laundry, get dinner with friends, watch football on TV.  Does it sound super exciting?  To the German, they are living abroad, but their daily routine can easy be very much like yours. And while yes, many small daily interactions might be more interesting to the German, they're still your daily interactions. And let's say the German's friends back in Germany idealize their friend's life in Wisconsin. America, the land of opportunity! A foreign country, so exotic.  But the life they're idealizing is your life.

Now reverse that scenario.  Take an American and set them into someone's life in Germany.  The life may not feel (or be) especially grand to the German, but when viewed by the American's friends who haven't lived abroad, it may have a vacation-y feel to it. Like going to Hawaii or Thailand.

I'm even guilty of idealizing lives once I hear the country's name, though I know from the insider's view that it's not as amazing as it sounds to me during those introductory conversations, so I can take a step back and snap myself out of it. Teaching abroad surely is amazing in its own way, but not at all in the way that many view it to be. Teaching abroad does not mean you're on vacation. You're working and living, much like natives in that country work and live (which is like your life, dear reader: living and working as a native in your home country!).

And does your daily life provide ample time for travel?  That's the next part of this myth I'd like to focus on.

Part B: When you live abroad, you travel all the time

I recently got an email from a friend from my last job, and he said "Doing a lot of traveling, I would assume?"  I replied "No, actually not much traveling. It's a full time job and I live in a rural town, so some weekends I don't even go into Seoul (takes 1.5 - 2 hrs to get there by bus)! Usually I do laundry, read, cook, write, watch TV, clean up my room... boring normal things that you could do on a weekend in Madison."  I did spend 10 days in Bangkok during my school's winter vacation, but apart from that I've just been here.  Yet for whatever reason, living in a foreign country is often equated with travel. While I do enjoy traveling, I have not been doing much of it these past seven months.  I have a limited number of vacation days that can only be used when the school is on vacation. Apart from those days, I'm expected to be at work, just as you would at any other job.

Perhaps other teachers abroad are traveling more than me, but it really depends on your hours and location. When I taught in Madrid it was much easier to go places on the weekend because I didn't work on Fridays and I lived in the city, which meant I could easily get to bus stations/airport via the metro.  So I did more traveling while teaching in Madrid than I'm doing now in Korea, but I'll still stand strong saying that Madrid was my home, not my home base. I spent way more weekends in Madrid than I did elsewhere, and my weeks consisted of the monotonous work routine.  You do travel while living abroad, but not all the time.

And one final consideration with all of this travel talk: If I'm in Madison and go to La Crosse or New Berlin for the weekend (these are in Wisconsin, USA), most Wisconsinites would not consider that "traveling". However when living in Madrid, if I'd go to Valencia or Alicante some weekend, or even nearby Toledo for a day-trip, it is considered traveling. Oh the joy of perspectives!

A closing, of sorts

Teaching abroad is different from living in your home country, but it is not an extended vacation filled with endless travel adventures.  It's real life, just like the lives of natives in that particular country, only with the extra struggles of being an expat. Your days can just as easily blur together: going to work, teaching class, lesson planning, walking home, grocery shopping, cooking, washing the dishes, etc.  But the accumulation of these daily activities during your time teaching abroad will forever change your view of the world, which is why I find myself a teacher here in Korea at this very moment.
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  1. Amen to that!

    All of my friends back home think I live this easy breezy whimsicle lifestyle where I can get up when I want, head off to neighboring paradises and swan around in white linens and a straw hat. NEWSFLASH: I'm so busy with work that in my free time I sit and watch Game of Thrones or Walking Dead. See. Normal.
    (I mean I do other stuff like head to the gym and take Chinese class, but still very normal activities)

    I think you chose a great myth to debunk, as I think this is something a lot of us busy "travelers" can relate to.

    A really good read. Well done!


    1. Thanks Dean! Yeah, like I said it's the one thing I've heard most often from folks back home. I'm glad the carnival gave me the opportunity to set the record straight!