Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Uninvited Guest

We are all uninvited guests when we arrive in a foreign country whether we are just visiting or are planning to stay a while. That is not to say "unwelcomed" but it does mean it is on us to conform to the social norms and cultural demands of a given country. One person cannot change a culture. We must bend to culture. Rest assured that no matter which country you choose to live, no matter how close it is, geographically, to your home country there will be culture differences that are both evident and not so evident.

Living in a foreign country is about acceptance. Once realizing what cultural norms we enjoy and what we don't enjoy so much, it's time to decide if we can live with and accept the things we don't enjoy so much. If we can accept the things that are less than appealing about the host country, it's a good sign that we can stay and be happy. If said factors cannot be accepted, more than likely its a good idea to leave.

When I lived in Thailand, for the first months, I was very happy. The people are friendly, the weather is great and the pay is reasonable considering it's south-east Asia. However the minor things that bothered me just a bit at first began to grow until I could no longer avoid my real feelings. The problems I had with culture were related to the lack of expressing personal opinions, true feelings and asking the question,"why"which is similar in many Asian countries. It's something I can never change about the culture but is something I need to have healthy relationships in my life. So ultimately I left for the Western world even though there will always be a special place in my heart for Thailand. Great place to visit, it just isn't the right country for me to live.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Language Exchange

So you've arrived in the country of choice but you are less than fluent in the local language. You have several options;

You could pay for language lessons. It does help especially if you are a low beginner. However, language lessons can be expensive and have inconvenient hours if you are working everyday.

You could decide to do nothing, with the attitude that the language will just come as, after all, you do live there. This option is very possible but know that language acquisition does not come without active participation. That means you actually have to talk... a lot to reach your language speaking goals.

One way that encourages the activity of speaking is a "language exchange". Here you meet with a native of the country where you live who would like to improve their English. You do an hour of English conversation and an hour of the native language. This method is two-fold; You are increasing your exposure to the native language and culture of your new home but also you are meeting people. One of the struggles of living in a foreign country is making friends who are natives as opposed to your fellow English teachers. Regularly meeting with people for the purpose of exchanging language automatically puts us in a potential social situation. You can meet at a cafe, go to an art exhibit together... anything that promotes conversation. Chances are your language exchange friends have other native friends who would like to meet you as well. What could be better?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Setting up in a Foreign Country

How to go about setting up in a foreign country all depends on the country of choice and the desired job. Assuming you want to teach English, it's possible to get practically all the setting up done before you arrive if you want to teach in Japan, Korea or China assuming you have at the minimum a college degree of any discipline. Jobs can be arranged via internet and often jobs locate housing for you. As for the rest of the world, the best jobs are not on the internet, it's often better to go there and search for work.

South-east Asia is probably one of the easiest regions to "show up" and "set up" simply because there is a high demand for English and there is a low cost of living. More specifically, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.

While there is a strong demand for English in Central and South America, know that the pay is very low. It is , however, relatively affordable, as well, to show up, locate housing and start up. In fact you should do just that simply because caution should be used when selecting an employer. See the school, try to speak with some of the other teachers and make sure expectations on both sides are clear. More and more, a TEFL/TESOL Certificate will be required.

Speaking of expectations, North African countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt have a solid demand for English. All the comments mentioned above for the Americas apply here. However, in this region, it is necessary to be even more scrutinizing when it comes to choosing a school. Definitely go online before arrival to find out which schools have good/bad reputations. Secure a contract before you begin working. Promises, in this region, that are too good to be true probably are. Lastly trust your instincts. Using caution in the begining when selecting a school will pay off in the end as this is one of the most exciting regions in the world to spend time.

Western Europe poses the most challenges because the start- up expenses and cost of living are higher as opposed to other countries mentioned above as well as the visa restrictions that apply for Non- EU residents. Despite these obstacles, this part of the world maintains a strong demand for English teachers, however here more than anywhere else it requires you to be active when searching (for both housing and employment)and have TEFL certified to secure employment.

Lastly, Eastern Europe aggresively seeks English teachers and there is support for locating housing. Despite the fact that many Eastern European countries have been added to the EU, currently there are no restrictions on Non-EU residents seeking work. Turkey which balances between Europe and the Middle-east promises university jobs, housing assistance and very good pay for those who posess a TEFL/TESOL Certificate.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Big Adventure

Before embarking on the adventure of living abroad, we should ask ourselves some questions. As I've said before, being a foreigner in a different country is not for everyone. Understand that while of course there will be great times and new adventures there will also be times of loneliness and occasional feelings of isolation.

The first question we might ask ourselves is why do we want to leave our home country? There are many good answers to this question. But the underlying reason should express what we hope to discover, accomplish, learn and experience. Answers which tell us that we might not be making the right choice involve expressing what we want to avoid or escape by leaving. Leaving home due to unresolved issues with your country, relationships in your life or other problems you may have is never the right choice. No matter how far you travel, whatever problems, conflicts and stress you have, they come along with you in the form of "emotional baggage".

Another question we might ask is where, or rather which country is most suitable. While this is a really good question, the answer should be flexible. That is to say you should have a few countries in mind where you'd be willing to live. (Have a 1st, 2nd, 3rd choice scenario) The reason for this is simply that depending on the current economical, social and immigration situations in a given country some regions will be easier than others to find work, housing, making a life. It's important to research the potential countries of interest before making a decision.

Also consider the fact that just because you have taken your "second choice" country for now doesn't imply that you will never live in your first choice country. This is about good timing. Assuming that you are looking for an adventure and creating your own path, often taking a longer route leads to a richer experience.

Speaking of good timing... When will this great adventure start? Factors to consider are:

  • How much money will you have available? You may need time to save money before you go. Even if you have a job arranged before you arrive, you will need start up money. How much depends on the average cost of living in the country of choice. For example, even though its not always possible to arrange a job in advance in South-east Asia, the cost of living is relatively low. So you could conceivably show up with about $1000 and have enough to live off of until you find a job teaching English. Conversely, planning to live in most Western European countries requires much more money to get set up.

  • Putting closure on commitments in your home country. Included in this would be, leaving your existing job, making decisons on what to do with existing property and family commitments. Know that even if you own property, that, by itself, is not a reason to slow you down on living abroad and it doesn't mean you must sell. It does mean you must research your options.

  • Knowledge of destination country. To decide when to go, you must know factors on the country of choice such as, hiring times, cultural expectations and local support for setting up.
Use these factors to decide when you will leave and stick to it. Actually set a date and year.

Lastly is... How? We will talk about how to set up next week.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Don't Postpone Joy!

Leaving your home country to face the unknown of a new culture, new career and new life style is never an easy decison and is not for everyone. The purpose of this blog is to share personal experience as well as practical advice for taking the big leap... travel and live abroad.

For many years, I was a disgruntled architect who moved from job to job and city to city hoping to find the right fit. I finally realized that the best option for me was to stop following the beaten path and create my own. However, the question was how might I go about doing this? What could I do to earn a living aside from architecture? What was I good at? At that time, as far as I knew.. not much else.

I began to ask myself, to remember, when was I happiest? Forget about money, (momentarily) forget about how. What times in my life was I happy? Well, I was happiest during the time I was working on a Master's degree in Architecture. More specifically while I was doing the study-abroad component of my training in Italy. It wasn't just Italy, it was the freedom I felt, the discovery process and being a foreigner that contributed to my happiness.

I decided that just the act of living abroad might be just the adventure I needed to jump start my spirit. I had not yet decided how long I wanted to spend outside of the country or what I would do when I returned but I knew for sure that the sheer act of travel was exactly what I needed to discover where my future lies.

After identifying what I would do post- architecture, the big questions were which country and how to make money. Ironically, this part was not particularly difficult for me. Since I had no interest in returning to school, there is only one career that is in demand in many parts of the world that I was qualified for and that is teaching English as a second language. I choose Japan because at that time it was relatively easy to find a job and no experience was required except being a native English speaker. Perfect!

From that moment on my life has been an endless adventure that still hasn't ceased to surprise me. I have no regrets and through weekly chronicles I will describe the events that have taken place since the fateful day that I left for Japan. After all, its been almost seven years that I've been living outside of the U.S. and after a few continents and many countries later, I've found myself in the south of France. I hope that by sharing my experiences and a little advice here and there that I can help others take that big leap.