While you may operate under a certain set of expectations at home, things are likely to be quite different in your new country of residence. Navigating bus schedules, bureaucratic dealings, or ordering at a restaurant can be unfamiliar experiences and social interactions. Teaching English abroad presents an opportunity to go far beyond your average travel experience and immerse yourself in a new culture. In doing so, you’ll find yourself confronted with all sorts of life lessons. Here are the three that most resonated with me in my time abroad.
1. I learned to be flexible.
Me? I’m a planner: an at-the-airport-two-hours-early kind of gal. I like to know what time things start, how long it will take me to get there, and the best route. Aka, kind of neurotic. In the past, I’d grow anxious when plans changed or didn’t go as we had… ahem, planned. I guess you could say I was inflexible.
My year teaching abroad in Thailand helped me change this. Thailand is a country famed for its beautiful beaches, hospitable people, and fragrant street food. It’s not particularly well-known for timely bus travel or efficient bureaucracy. I began to realize that while I functioned on a very specific schedule with clear expectations, maybe the rest of the world didn’t. And it was me, and me alone, who grew angry, confused, and frustrated. In learning to be flexible, I was able to relax into my surroundings and enjoy my experience instead of fretting about all the things I couldn’t control.
2. I grew more humble.
I am an assertive person. I find that, especially in professional settings, this allows for the clearest communication. It also couldn’t be more different than most communication in Thailand, where assertive could be more closely aligned with “aggressive.” My first few months were filled with quiet frustration at school. Why wouldn’t my teaching assistants or administrators just tell me what they wanted me to do when I asked?
I realized that this is a self-centered and very human way of thinking: believing that our way is the only way or the right way. We are familiar with our own culture and customs and sometimes forget that there are many paths to the same destination. What I failed to remember in these moments was that there is no right way. By adjusting my mindset, I was able to better understand and communicate with my colleagues—and I was humbled in the process.
3. I learned a new dimension of respect.
In Thailand, I learned not to pat children on the head in the affectionate way Westerns are accustomed to. I refrained from putting my feet on furniture and always removed my shoes before entering a building. I dressed conservatively, and my cheeks flushed red with embarrassment at the sight of other foreigners scantily clad and seemingly unconcerned.
The opportunity to teach in a foreign country—to care for the children, meet parents, and become acquainted intimately with a community, is a privilege to be handled with respect. I learned to judge my behavior by standards other than my own and to respect the customs that sometimes I didn’t understand. And I became a better person for it.
Just Do It Already!
The constant challenge of being in a new and different culture helped me grow more aware of the world and myself. I became a more flexible, humble, and respectful person, and I forged more friendships, shared more laughs, and found meaning in ways I’d never before thought possible. If you’re considering a year abroad to teach or volunteer, I have only one piece of advice: just do it already.