Foreign and Female—Is Teaching English Abroad Safe For Single Women?

By Beth Green []

You’re a woman abroad, someone who knows that teaching English as a Foreign Language is an interesting, thrilling and possibly once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But is it also a dangerous experience?

In my view, no. It’s not.

Not if you’re smart—and hey, you found this blog, which shows both smarts and class.

I’ve lived abroad much of my life, and have been teaching English as a Foreign Language for the past ten years. In that time, I’ve never felt that my life abroad was more dangerous than it would have been if I had stayed back home in the USA.

But, the TV! The news always shows terrible things happening abroad!

Unfortunately, whatever country we’re living in, we see other countries only through the lens of world news. Think about it, do you find the following bulletin newsworthy?

“Tonight, most of the world’s population went to work and back safely, helped little old ladies cross the street whenever they had a chance, and spent many more hours on Facebook than they needed to.”

Not hardly. We need to know the threats that are out there, of course we do! But in hearing about the ferries that sink, the trains that derail, the sickos who do awful things, often we forget to think about the reverse. Yes, some places will have bad things happen there. But what about all the bad things that didn’t happen?

Now, if you are a woman wishing to live and travel abroad and have, as I do, a conscientious family full of warm-hearted but not-very-well-traveled people, you’re probably going to have a lot of conversations that go like this:

Family member: So, where are you going exactly?

You: (Names country) I’m so excited! Squee!

Family member: (Gasps) But, no! I read just yesterday that four women were kidnapped, strapped to a burning chunk of space rock and then (lowers voice) executed by fire ants.

You: (Uncomfortably.) Yeah.

Family member: So, why don’t you stay here where it’s safe?

You: (Wanting to bring up all of the terrorist alerts, mass murders and other nefariousness that happens in your home country, but being too polite) Uh, well—hey! Look! Shiny things…

The thing that I think people forget when they want to head overseas, or when they have family members who want to go abroad to live, is that people are people, no matter where you go. You’re going to meet some bad people, some good people, some people who might be good now but will be bad later. Some people who will seem bad at the moment, but really it’s just a miscommunication—he wasn’t really trying to steal your backpack out of the bus, he was a porter paid to take it to the transfer vehicle! (True story, by the way.).

That’s not to say that you might have an unfortunate experience while teaching abroad. It could happen, though it’s very unlikely. So, here are some steps you can take to make sure that the chance of anything bad happening to you is very unlikely indeed:

1. Hit the books. Research! Research the country where you’re going to live, research the cultures you’re likely to be around while living there.

The U.S. Department of State maintains a website [] of really terrifying tidbits of things that have befallen Americans abroad in each country around the world. Read that (or your own home country’s equivalent), and then balance it by searching out blogs and online forums where people living in your target country post about life there. See if you are undertaking an acceptable risk. Know before you go if you’re moving to a country that has a high incidence of pickpocketing but low violent crime or a place where barfights start at the drop of a hat but everybody leaves their doors unlocked at night. Once you’ve identified the risks you’re taking, it will be easy to decide if those risks are acceptable.

2. Protect your privacy. When you move to a new country, you will want to make a lot of new contacts fast. The urge to share everything you do and everything about you with all the great people you meet may be overwhelming, but keep your head about what personal information you allow people to know. Don’t give everyone your email address and your phone number and your home address and let them see photocopies of your passport and friend them on Facebook right away, and…

Identity theft is possible, so protect yourself abroad as you would at home. Also, telling total strangers where you live?  Unless he or she is a cop or taxi driver, that’s not a wise choice for anyone living alone in any country—man or woman!

3. Dress like the locals. Wear conservative clothing for your first few days or weeks in a foreign country. We all know that what you wear shouldn’t matter—but the truth of it is, to the wrong person, sometimes it does.

If local women dress more conservatively than you normally do, then consider adding some attractive things to your wardrobe that help you blend in. When I lived in China, I stopped wearing tank tops because after a few weeks I noticed I was, despite the heat, the only woman in my city with bare shoulders. That turned out to be a simple fashion trend, and a few years later spaghetti straps were in. But I don’t regret being cautious. On the other hand, when I lived in Europe, local ladies went topless in the park in the summer, so I’m not saying that women teaching abroad should always shroud themselves in shapeless fabrics. Just be smart, and realize that people from different backgrounds than yours may not look deeper than your appearance to make judgments about what you are like and what they can get away with.

4. Invest in theft-proof handbags. Many travel clothing designers offer bags (which look like regular purses) that are hard for pickpockets to open. I have two models, both of which have lightweight wire mesh hidden inside the fabric and slash-proof straps. The zippers lock, they’re lightweight and durable, and they look completely unobtrusive. Of course, I have fun bags too, but you can bet which bag I’m using when taking my paycheck to the bank or carrying around my passport.

5. Keep abreast of current affairs. Keep an eye on local news when you’re abroad. If there’s a major disaster or event happening where you are—or even in the same region where you are—you want to know about it before your family hears about it back home. You want to call them and let them know you’re OK before they bombard your email inbox with anxious queries as to your health and whereabouts. You’ll also want to know about any growing risks in your region, and anyway, keeping abreast of local happenings will just give you that much more to talk about with your students and all the great friends you’ll make when teaching abroad.

 TED’s Tips™ #1: Know before you go. Equally applicable to men and women, researching a country and the risks you might face while living there is a simple, wise move.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Be respectful to local cultures. You should be learning from the culture you are in, and the only thing you should be teaching them is English, not your world view. Even if you dislike certain things about the culture you’re in, remember you’re a visitor. If you respect their culture, you’ll be less at risk from harassment and other threats.

TED’s Tips™ #3:  Cultural cues can be different from what you are familiar with “back home”.  Be careful and cautious at first and observe the locals, they know when and where to be careful.  If in doubt, always play it extra safe until you really know the local scene.

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