Teaching abroad and the love/hate relationship with being an ex-pat EFL Teacher

Whenever I meet up with people in my home country and they find out what I do, the usual comment is ‘Oh you live in xyz? That must be so interesting! I’d love to do something like that’ I just nod and smile, knowing full well they really don’t want to do any such thing. I am convinced, that like our forebears some of whom traveled to distant lands to seek their fortunes while other stayed and home to farm, fish, etc. there’s ‘them that do, and them that don’t. Most people just don’t, even if they believe they’d like to.

Those of us who do take the ‘TEFL plunge’ may kid ourselves that we’ll go to teach abroad for a year or so. Travel a bit and get some real-world, life experience and then go home, go to grad school, buy a house, get a ‘real job’ – whatever that is. Sometimes it works like that, but just as often it doesn’t. You get somewhere and fall in love with the job or the place, or the culture or a particular person from that culture, and 20 years later, you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else.

I already have a real job. In actual fact, I have several. I am a TEFL teacher, a TEFL trainer, a director of studies, an exams assessor. All very real, I assure you. And yet in spite of the sundry other duties I have accrued, when asked what I do, I still identify as first and foremost, a teacher. Most days I love what I do and frankly, I’ve been happier doing this than any of my other previous jobs in other industries.

As a TEFL teacher, it is all but compulsory that I ply my trade outside my home country. I teach my native language to speakers of other languages and as such, the sheer math of it is, there are just more opportunities for EFL teachers abroad than at home. What is more, the qualification requirements and salaries are quite different and the variety and types of teaching are often that much richer, elsewhere.

In doing this job that I love, I have found myself living and working in places I never really considered visiting, not to mention actually staying to live in, in some cases, for years. Even so most of my ex-pat teacher experience has been quite positive. I have met and worked with some really stellar individuals and have seen more of the world than most people I know. I deal with people from different cultures than my own all day, every day; for better or for worse, and the experience has taught me, among other things, about patience, tolerance, flexibility and appreciation of the seemingly insignificant.

The downside is that sometimes this lifestyle can feel a bit like being country-less. You don’t have as much in common with your so called ‘country-people’, as you once did and yet you are, and will probably always be, considered an outsider in the new place. You have become ‘the ex-pat’. The old China Hand, the self-imposed exile destined to be only truly understood and accepted by others of your ilk. This lack of a ready support system can often manifest in anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, alcohol and drug abuse are not uncommon means of coping with isolation and treating the inevitable culture shock in the ex-pat community.

You should be aware that when living and teaching abroad, bureaucracy is inveterate; often ridiculous, generally pointless and always frustrating. You can also pretty much count on some degree of racism, sexism and xenophobia, even in larger cities. As a non-native resident, you might not have the same access to benefits and services as locals and little or no recourse to complain. Unlike a migrant or a refugee, as an ex-pat you chose this life, remember?

Still there are myriad pluses to be had, many with very little effort on your part; learning a foreign language – if not fluently, at least enough to get by, having relationships with people from all over whom you might never have otherwise met, and the job satisfaction of helping your students achieve their language goals and get where ever it is they are striving to be. You find yourself eating foods you’d never seen before and participating in strange customs you’d never heard of, gaining self-confidence and self-reliance from attempting new things and living to tell the tale. You may find that much of this is trial and error; as in no, that wasn’t actually laundry detergent in that box despite the picture on the outside. Live and learn.

On balance, it’s a great experience for those who are looking for something ‘other’ and are open to it. It can just as easily, however, disappoint anyone who thinks that simply moving abroad is going to drastically change what they don’t like about their lives and themselves. If you are socially awkward and diffident in English, you’re probably going to be just as reticent in Spanish; only perhaps a bit louder. Nor is your life suddenly going to be so much more exciting just because your supermarket and post office transactions take place in Czech; the supermarket will sell more kinds of sauerkraut than you are probably used to, and the P.O. sells things like insurance and lottery tickets which is novel, but its still shopping in a supermarket just like you did back home. Be open-minded, be tolerant, be patient and cut yourself some slack. Eventually you will come to appreciate big and little things you didn’t even know were important to you.

Things to like about living abroad

Public transport is largely excellent in the cities I have lived in (Ok maybe not in every city – sorry Blava 🙁 ) I have been able to cycle, walk or take public transport to work and don’t have to worry about parking, car insurance or traffic jams – though cycling in monsoon season is not a pleasant experience.

‘Equal access to decent healthcare in the EU that doesn’t bankrupt people who get sick… the privacy you get being a foreigner’.

Kit, USA

‘Taxis are cheap in the UK and the nature is nice.’

Janička, Czech Republic

‘Prague is a gorgeous city where everyone can find what they like: art, history, cool bars and restaurants, good parties… It is easy to find work as an ESL teacher… Czech people are good looking 🙂 ‘

Julianna, Hungary

‘The quality of typical ‘Russian foods‘ sold in the EU is actually better than those sold in Russia.‘

Shamil, Russia

‘Seeing things differently – and what that teaches you about yourself, and where you are from.‘

Sam, UK

Things to like less about living abroad

Being treated like idiot extraordinaire because you don’t know the correct word for ‘airmail stamp’ in the local language. It’s difficult to get a reasonably priced, big cup of decent coffee and the ice-cream is either crazy expensive, or tastes like frozen marshmallows. That the overt, knee-jerk racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia are so ingrained the local psyche that no one seems to bat an eyelash at them.

‘Bureaucracy is a nightmare, unless you pay an agency a fee it will not be easy to get all the necessary documents, you will probably need someone to go with you to translate as well…I used online shopping a lot in the UK. Especially because I don’t speak Czech, I would prefer this but it isn’t as easy or as accessible in the CZ (eg. no next day delivery on your Amazon order)‘

Julianna, Hungary

‘The unreliable public transport (in the UK) because everyone has cars.‘ ‘No night service and sometimes the first few morning busses didn’t show up‘.

Magda, Czech Republic and Jana, Czech Republic

‘Coming into contact with the ‘ex-pat mentality’ e.g. …where are my baked beans, the locals are inferior…’

Sam, UK

When you find that the list of positives is suddenly shorter than the negatives, it’s perhaps time to try somewhere new.

Christine Thompson, CELTA, DELTA
Originally from Nashua, NH, Christine began teaching EFL full-time in 1996 for GEOS Japan in Osaka. She eventually moved to Europe.
Christine has worked as a Director of Studies for Threshold Training Associates, Prague since 2011. And witness to some hundreds of both masterful and painful demo lessons later, she’s been Lead Trainer for TEFL International Prague since 2015.