Debunked: Reasons you could never work overseas

Here’s an excerpt from my coming how-to book, Around the World on a Teaching Certificate. I’ve been working on this thing longer than I can remember, but it’s starting to feel finished. I’ll be releasing bits of it ahead of publication, so my readers can get a feel for the voice and hopefully provide me some feedback. Enjoy. 

“No, I couldn’t do that.”

Reasons people give me for not going overseas

I hear it all the time. I explain, to awestruck admiration (or resigned envy) of teachers back home, how I’m essentially paid money to travel the world and effect positivity on tomorrow’s adults, many of whom, given their family backgrounds in international politics, business, and charity, will actually be in a powerful position to effect positive change themselves.

The responses have become utterly predictable.

“But I can’t. I only speak English.”

Oh, I don’t mean to laugh, but this is the most common misconception about what’s required to teach internationally. Granted, it never hurts to learn some local language, but if you speak English. You’ll be fine. Learn a few “survival snippets” in every new host country (e.g. Where is the bathroom? What does this cost?) but seriously, you’ll be fine. Even in situations where you don’t understand the other person, there will usually be someone on hand to help. Worst case scenario, you play charades.

“But I can’t. I’m not an ESOL teacher.”

Here’s a situation I deal with every time I go home and people ask what I do. I tell them I teach overseas at an international school.

“Ah. So you teach English,” they conclude, their last two syllables descending haughtily, rife with the presumption that I’m a gap year student on his tenth year.

“Yes, I teach English. And science and math and history. I teach it all.”

What follows is a long pause, as the other person digests the information.

“It’s a regular school,” I try to explain further, “like any school you see in America…”

Their eyes light up with familiarity.

“..except it’s overseas, and most of the kids aren’t Americans. Also, the students are respectful and eager to learn. Plus I have better job security and a higher salary.”

The light from their eyes fades as their grey matter short circuits.

Listen, I get it. We all have a cousin or an old college buddy who did the Teach English in Exotic Lands program at some point. Probably for a year, no more than two years. They returned home, and got on with “real life.”

This is not that. International teaching is for actual, credentialed teachers who are certified to teach in their home country. You do not need any sort of ESOL or TOEFL papers to do it. I mean, it won’t hurt, but international schools will be mainly concerned with your state-issued teaching license.

Will you work with English language learners? Absolutely, yes. However, a decent school will have a strong language support program, perhaps one better than the program at your current school. Further, many of the students will speak their mother tongue at home, but they often speak English at home too. You’re unlikely to meet so many bilingual and trilingual students in one classroom.

“But I can’t. What would my partner do for work?”

Explore opportunities, you may be surprised. Can your partner reinvent their job description a bit? Maybe transfer to an international office? Sometimes the host country’s work visa situation is restrictive, but I know plenty of “digital nomads” who moved their office to a laptop and now work anywhere with an internet connection.

On a more cynical note, are you happy in your current relationship? Just a question.

“But I can’t. I have children.”

Oh please. I lost count of how many friends and family members live and work overseas with their children, from toddlers to teenagers. Good schools will pay for your children’s travel, shipping, and tuition. Cities with sizable expat communities will have social groups that facilitate play dates, fun clubs, and family events. You’ll find in many foreign countries that a housekeeper or even a nanny is affordable. You’ve got this.

Moreover, living overseas may be the best thing you could do for your children. Expose them to different cultures and languages. Learn with them as your family discovers different foods, visits historic sights, speaks new languages, and overcomes challenges of life abroad. They’ll make friends from all over the world who will be in their lives forever. Their classmates will challenge them to shoot higher academically, not settle for the lowest common denominator. Think of how much an international diploma could strengthen a university application letter.

“But I can’t. I have debts.”

Debt can be a limiting factor, as far as jobs in expensive countries is concerned. You probably shouldn’t rush to Paris or Stockholm. However, cities throughout Asia, from Dubai to Beijing, are cash cows if you find the right school. Land a job at a school with a generous salary in a city with low cost of living, then subtract the cost of rent (many schools will provide housing or reimbursement). While you’re at it, take away other expenses like your car (you’re unlikely to need one) and health insurance premiums (100% covered by the employer).

Now send that windfall back to the States. You could be free of Citi, Wells, and Sallie Mae in the space of a few years. 

“But I can’t. I have a house here.”

Your house seems like a big deal… because it is. I bought one just months before taking a recent overseas job (going back overseas wasn’t part of the original plan, but life happens). It’s a little stressful, thinking about my house while living a hemisphere away. I do feel better knowing that it’s under the watchful eye of a property manager and occupied by a nice retired couple. All I need to do is watch the monthly rent checks arrive. Bonus: no longer need to mow the lawn. 

Of course, you could also sell it.

“But I can’t. My home is here.”

This one I hear the most often. People think of their friends and family, their neighborhood with all its quaint quirkiness, the postman who they know by name. Can’t leave that behind, right?

I would argue that if you’ve read this far, you are at least considering a life less ordinary. I would ask you to also consider that your family, friends, neighborhood, and postman aren’t going anywhere. You’ll see them all in the summertime. Furthermore: imagine yourself decades from now, in your autumn years. Would you rather think back fondly on all the years you spent in your comfortable neighborhood, or the years you spent adventuring around the world? I’m not saying one is better than the other. However I do know which choice I prefer. 

“But I can’t. I’m too old.”

International schools value skills and experience. I’ve yet to work for an international school that doesn’t employ teachers in their 50’s and 60’s. Yes, there are some who will not hire older teachers, but that’s true in the US as well. Your chances are good. Get overseas, and you may discover you’re not as old as you thought.

“But I can’t. I’m physically handicapped.”

Say what you will about America, the facilities and accommodations we have for people with vision, hearing, or mobility impairment are some of the best in the world. You may find the quality matched in similarly developed countries, but few other places.

That said, your scope for international schools could be limited, but not drastically. Practice due diligence when researching potential host countries, especially in the developing world.

“But I can’t. I’m scared.”

That’s good. That’s what this is supposed to feel like. At least you’re being honest. As this book will reveal, there are some parts of overseas teaching that are inconvenient, unhealthy, and at times even terrifying. But so worth it.

I believe the best person to respond would be the late comedian-philosopher, Bill Hicks.

The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly colored, and it’s very loud, and it’s fun for a while.

Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, “Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.”

Footnote: Working abroad with your children

Too often, my friends back home say, “Gee. I’d love to work overseas one day. But I’ve got these damned kids.”

I say back, “You can still work overseas, man. I know plenty of families that do.”

Then my friend develops a subtle scowl across his face and changes the subject because he thinks there’s simply no way it could ever work out with his family.

Yes, I’ve known overseas families with kids. Three, four, five kids sometimes. Newborn babies, teenagers. Kids with medical problems. Kids in wheelchairs. Kids with specific learning needs. Kids who are little assholes. Kids who are freaking saints. Trust me on this: it is possible to teach overseas with kids in tow.

But you’ll never hear me say it’s easy. I asked a few of my kid-carrying colleagues what advice they had for prospective international teachers with children. Here’s what I heard:

Make the children stakeholders. As appropriate, talk about the prospective countries and schools. Will they be kid-friendly? Solicit and acknowledge their opinions. 

What will be required when your family arrives at customs? What papers are needed for the country’s healthcare and social security system, if applicable?

Balance the expat life with reality. In many countries, foreigners live better than locals. Ensure the good times (e.g. nice meals out, household help, weekend holiday jaunts) are measured against humility, hard work, and service to the community.

Foreigners encounter unique hardships. Do not reward children for “surviving” those hardships. They’re part of the family; they should enjoy and suffer what the family enjoys and suffers.

Encourage friendships. The most wonderful thing about overseas work is the lifelong friendships we build. Play groups, sports, and other extracurriculars help transition children into their new community. Such activities are also a help to the parents, who are learning their way around too.

Make regular visits home so they don’t lose touch of who they are.

Think university. If you start working overseas permanently (as many do), how will that affect your children’s tertiary education? Of benefit: academic paths like the AP, IB, and (for Brit schools) IGCSE strengthen a college application. Of detriment: fees are higher without state residency. But then, if your child doesn’t attend high school in the US, why go there for college? Europe may be a good alternative.

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Beer tourism in Qingdao

Aside

From the archives. A short piece on Qingdao, China that I wrote in 2011 but never got around to publishing.

The annual overnight field trip went much better this year than last. No food poisoning, no epileptic seizures, no disappearances in crowded marketplaces. In fact, with the exception of my ADHD student accidentally smashing a few thousand kuai worth of soapstone jade replicas, everything went according to plan. We visited the tomb of Confucius (not actually his tomb) and climbed the mountain where the same man did his historic footwork. On the bus ride through the Shandong Province, we got to introduce the students to American film classics such as Top Gun, which incidentally, was also once used by the Chinese military propaganda office to show the might of their air force (I can’t make this kind of stuff up). It was upon our arrival in the seaside city of Qingdao that my coteacher, Leeds, became visibly excited.

Leeds, seen here making a point

“Sam! Do. You. Realize. Where. We. Are?!” Leeds has a flair for drama, so he would be just as frantic if he saw two Starbucks across the street from each other. Shame on me for not putting it together myself — Qingdao shares the same name as China’s national beer, Tsingtao (both pronounced chingdow). And that’s no coincidence. This is the city where the namesake beer was born!

“Sam! We’ve got to get off this bus, man!” Leeds continued ranting, foam forming at the edges of his lips. “I lived here for three… four… five? Years. I can’t leave this town without a visit to Beer Street!”

“Leeds, we have on the bus with us forty children, aged ten to twelve. We can’t just –”

“Dammit man! I am team lead! We go to the Beer Street!”

I could tell he meant it, but surely, some shred of reason remained in the man, a shred to which I could reasonably appeal. “Leeds, if we abandon our pupils, leaving them at the mercy of our Chinese teachers while we go drown ourselves in pints, we will lose our jobs. Then we will never be able to afford beer again.”

Ach! You’re right!”

“I’ll make a deal with you, Leeds. I promise that one day we will return to this city, and we will drink their tankards dry. In the meantime, we must attend to our duties, and continue watching Top Gun.”

“I’ll be your wingman anytime, Sam.”

So it was. It took months, but with the help of our often confused but nonetheless sympathetic principal, we were able to petition the director to fund a trip for the foreign teachers to spend two days in fabulous, sometimes even sunny, Qingdao.

Unfortunately, the morning the bus left, Leeds was not on it. Issues, he said. He did pop off some final advice as we departed Beijing though: spend your entire time there eating clams and drinking dark ale. This turned out to be the sagest advice I ever got from that insane man.

A little history on the place: Qingdao was a fishing village before zee Germans arrived. Like so many of their European counterparts in that era of glorious pre-Great War colonization, they wanted a Chinese concession all their own. The Portuguese had Macao, the French held Peking, and the British owned Hong Kong and pretty much everywhere else they planted their flag. As is evidenced by smatterings of Hinterland architecture today, Qingdao was granted to them, and they made use of it in the best way Germans know how. They built the most gargantuan brewing empire in the world.

To visit the brewery, though it takes up an entire Chinese city block, it still doesn’t look like much if you’ve seen some of the macro operations by the likes of Anheuser-Busch. However, one must bear in mind that the Tsingtao empire has grown well beyond it’s original brewery, and today supplies beer to the entire nation of China. That’s more than a billion overserved on a nightly basis. Maybe that’s because to buy Tsingtao beer is the patriotic way. After all, the post-colonial period of Tsingtao is much like that of her nation. Read on!

The Japanese brutally occupied China during the wartime years. With greater zealotry than its European predecessors, Japan grabbed up anything she fancied in China. The Germans at this point were long gone, so save for shoving aside the drunkards slouched against the front gate, the Japanese nationalized the brewery with little effort. It was rechristened “Kirin.” That’s right. Like the stuff you drank in the sushi restaurant last night.

Revolutions came and went, and China became the People’s Republic it is today. Though Mao was not a beer fan, he was a heavy imbiber of baijiu, the heavily fortified rice wine that sustained the morale of his troop during the Long March, and the spirit that floored the strong-livered Richard Nixon during his diplomatic visit that would open China to the world. Therefore, instead of turning the brewery into communal residencies for a few hundred families or a rocket plant for the proposed Mars base (the Revolution was an optimistic time for the Mao cult), he kept it as a brewery, reestablishing the original moniker.

Those who know me know that I love history. And if there’s one thing I love more than history, it’s beer. My somewhat pickled tour of Qingdao was turning into the best vacation ever.

I did take Leeds’ advice and spend a day with shellfish and dark beer. I would pass this recommendation along to anyone else who visits the city. The clams are simmered in a delicious broth flavored with Sichuan peppers, ginger, scallions, and garlic. The beer is notably unique to the Tsingtao consumed outside of its hometown. In the lager as well as the stout, the malt is more present, and the hops are livelier. It’s a completely different drinking experience. Best part is, it all comes from giant stainless steel casks that every restaurant seems to be equipped with as a requisite for running shop on Beer Street. Therefore, you are guaranteed the freshest, crispest libation, served ice cold in a glass pitcher.

I could tell you about the beaches, but it was unseasonably cold and a heavy smog filled the skies both days. I could tell you about Fi and I attending the Chinese wedding, but it was just too silly an experience to repeat. I could tell you about our gym teacher using the bedsheets when he realized the maid hadn’t stocked any toilet paper, but that’s nasty. What I will tell you is what I’ve told you already, the best advice that was told to me. When in Qingdao, fill your days with clams, beer, and humble reverence for beer’s ability to outlive the follies of humanity.