Culture Shock and You

What Should I Do If I Get Culture Shock?

New Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) who are going overseas will probably, at some point, come down with a case of that old travel illness, culture shock.

You can bet you’re likely to contract this malaise too, but don’t be frightened by its nasty name. Calling it “shock” is usually making mountains out of mosquito bites.

At various stages during the affliction, you can expect these kind of thoughts to run through your mind:

Euphoric:  Yes! I made it! I did it! I’m abroad! I’m an English teacher! Yipeeeeee…!

Angry: Grrr. How can these people think like this? Nothing works like it should, like back home. Why can’t I make it work?

Depressed and Disappointed: But I had this great mental image of what living/working here was going to be like and real life isn’t living up to my expectations. Boo…!

Isolated: I don’t know anyone. I’m having trouble making friends. (Sings: I’m Mr. Lonely, oh so lonely…)

If you recognize some of these uncharacteristic thoughts invading your heretofore sane brain, don’t let it become a big deal. It’s normal to feel a little stressed. You’ve just made some big changes in your life and having strong feelings about those changes is completely understandable.

But, culture shock sucks! What can I do to manage it?

I think the best advice is also simple advice: Keep busy! Work, travel, find friends, take up some projects or hobbies, volunteer your time. All of these things will make you feel better.

But, don’t just ignore culture shock. Take a little “you” time and identify your symptoms for what they are.

The website has a really good article on Culture Shock that I encourage everyone who is going to live abroad to read.

I also find it helpful, when I have a bad day, to remind myself that problems are a natural part of daily life, and that even in my home country there would be occasional problems with work, my employer, my house or apartment and my friends. Not everything is going to be the fault of your new host country.

Also, be heartened that after changing countries a few times, the symptoms of culture shock typically become less severe each time. You’ll learn to manage your expectations and will, through experience, become more flexible and more adept at dealing with all the stuff that life abroad lobs your way.

Living with Uncertainty

When you take a new job overseas, of course you’re bringing yourself into a new, uncertain situation. You won’t know at first what you can expect to happen and you probably won’t even know your own feelings about what does happen.

To get through this period of uncertainty, which exacerbates culture shock, you should apply the same “cure” that’s named above: Get busy.

Ted’s Tips™ #1: Buck up and take responsibility. You are the one who is in charge of yourself and your feelings. You must monitor how you are feeling and if you find that your mental health is suffering you need to take action, just as you would if it was your physical health.

Ted’s Tips™ #2: Get involved. It makes a huge difference to your overall uncertainty and comfort in a culture if you are busy and involved in your new community.


Teaching Internships in China


Standard of Living for English Teachers Abroad

 If I teach overseas, will I live well or suffer for my dreams?

Don’t worry! Usually, teachers of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) make more money than does the normal John Q. Public in their host country. This means that most English teachers are able to support themselves in a style better than most of the locals. Sounds good, right?

Hold on a minute, though. What if Mr.and Mrs. Public live in a hovel, with a leaky, corrugated iron roof and a dirt floor (plus or minus a couple of chickens)?

It’s good you asked. Teachers of EFL may find that their quality of life is modest. But modest can also be good. Of course, this is going to be different in each country you visit in your teaching career. For myself, I have never suffered a poor quality of life. And I’ve seldom or never heard other TEFLers complaining about this issue.

That’s because, even in countries that don’t pay much, teachers can still get by (or even prosper) in the local economy.

What should you be aware of?

People say you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but if you’re taking free accommodation as part of your employment package, then you should be prepared for the possibility that it won’t be at the same quality level as something you would pick out for yourself.

It can happen that your housing looks like it’s in the middle of a slum, that’s happened to me, in fact. But, in developing countries, appearances of low upkeep don’t always signify crime-ridden neighborhoods as they might in the West. In most places you would go to teach (particularly in Asia) , it’s unlikely that crime will be a big problem in your city.

When I lived in Korea some of my friends lived in the kind of area that back home I’d never have ventured into after sundown. It was a rabbit warren of back alleyways . . . However, despite its dodgy looks by Western standards, this Korean neighborhood was a perfectly safe place.

In the West, the press focuses on troubled areas and ‘hot spots.’ But in reality, when you’re traveling abroad you’ll find many places, and parts of Asia in particular, much safer than your average Western city.

How it’s been for me

I have always maintained a good quality of life while living abroad. I’ve taught in Taiwan, Korea (two times), Saudi Arabia and Thailand. I have never deprived myself of food, amenities or good medical care. (And usually, that medical care is much cheaper abroad than at home!)

Except in Thailand, I have always been able to save money after my basic living needs were taken care of. I usually was able to save at least 800 USD per month, and sometimes even twice or three times that per month.  Wherever it is that your TEFL career takes you, your salary should allow you to have a good lifestyle and to be able to take local or regional vacations without hurting your bottom line too much.

Ted’s Tips™ #1: Do some research and check how much a job’s salary would work out to in local terms. You’ll see that some countries, even after your monthly expenses, you’ll be able to pocket 50 percent of your wages. That’s often a lot more than you could have done in your home country, even if the base wage is lower.

Ted’s Tips™ #2: Ask about local crime rates and safety levels. In general, Asia is much safer than the West. Be sure and research destinations first if you’re going to Latin America, where crime can be an issue


Teaching Internships in China


Adapting to Working Abroad

You’re Not in Kansas Anymore

Warning: I rant a little in today’s post. However, I just want to help people (like you!) understand how the world works when you’re not in the West.

Since I started my career in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), I have tried my hand at many different jobs connected to teaching English.  One of these jobs is recruitment. Before you grab the garlic and a wooden stake—I’m here to tell you that not all recruiters are minions of the devil, though lots of people look at them that way. As in anything, there are some bad, some good and some middling recruiters.

Personally, I find recruiting enjoyable because I love promoting the amazing lifestyle that TEFL careers afford normal people like you and me. Even though we’re not astrophysicists or silver-screen celebrities, we too can have an amazing, fulfilling international career.

That said, one of the main troubles I’ve noticed as a recruiter is that a lot of people who say they want to work abroad are too inflexible in their beliefs and expectations about what is in store for them abroad. You need to realize (and embrace) the fact that things overseas will be different. You’ll have to adapt to it, not the other way around.

For example, I was, a few years back, working with a teacher who wanted to be placed in China. I  used to recruit to China occasionally. This guy had experience and qualifications and had happily signed a contract. Then, the school asked him to sign another contract. A blank contract.

The teacher, who had already worked in Japan and Korea, got agitated, refused to do it and, moreover, refused to take the position after all. He said he’d never heard of such a thing, and it was too much to expect from him.

Okay, I understand the teacher’s discomfort, and it’s not always a good idea to sign a blank form or contract, but I know, from years of experience overseas, that there are times when you have to do something for someone in order to receive something in return. This blank contract may have been one of those times. There are some countries where it’s normal to sign a blank form.

Later, I sat down with my wife and we tried to remember all the things we’d signed over the years—forms and contracts—that were either written in a language we didn’t know or were, in fact, blank. After a while at this exercise, we decided there were too many to count!

In fact, just the other day I went to the post office to pay for my post office box for another year. To accomplish this, I had to sign a blank form that was written in a language I can’t read.

Now, I could have thrown a fit, working myself into a tizzy demanding a translator or an exception to their rule that customers sign these blank forms.

But I didn’t. I looked at the situation, the form seemed like one that might be regularly used, and since I couldn’t fill in the blanks myself (language problem) then the clerk would do that for me later. I signed the paper, and then later was surprised by a refund on my security deposit for the post box. See, it worked out!

The moral of this story is: be flexible, think hard about a situation before you work yourself up and back out of something that could be really good for you.

If you try, you’ll often be able to intuit what the person’s intentions are. Of course, if you’ve got a wild-eyed stranger running out of a back alley to get you to sign a form, you probably shouldn’t do it. But if it’s, say, someone in Human Resources at your place of employment, and they need to you sign a blank form that they will then take to immigration to get you a visa, then, yes, it is probably okay.

In the West, we distrust a lot of officials and forms, much more than in other countries. And, they don’t put as much stock in contracts as we do, knowing how easily contracts are broken.

If you go out looking for “scams” and places where people are “trying to cheat you,” yeah, you’ll find them. That’s how the world works. But if you read situations and trust people, you can avoid getting yourself into a pickle. In my 20 years abroad I’ve signed many blank forms and documents, but I’ve never unknowingly signed a confession to a crime or accidentally signed my bank transfers over to a shady clerk.

The key is, I think, that I don’t go around actively looking or scams. I don’t expect them, and they don’t appear.

Ted’s Tips™ #1: Don’t be afraid to trust people. In the real world, it’s not a bad thing.

Ted’s Tips™ #2: Instead of automatically saying “No, no, no” when there’s something you don’t understand, practice reading the nuances in situations and the intentions of those you’re working with. Be flexible enough to decide your actions based on these things rather than by a set of Yes/No rules that may be applicable only in your home country.

Teaching Internships in China