Working abroad: a few tips
This summer, some of my Polish colleagues have gone to work at summer schools in UK. As it often happens, a few, I imagine, may receive offers of work in other countries. A number of readers of The Teacher will have recently finished their teacher training and may also be thinking of taking a job abroad. This is a very exciting and rewarding thing to do, one which will test your skills and gain you a lot of experience; however, if you have never lived abroad, much less worked, it can be a stressful thing, as well as being a bit of a minefield, both emotionally and culturally. With this in mind, I’d like to suggest a few things to think about. Hopefully, those readers with more experience will also be able to contribute in later articles (perhaps an advice corner could be a regular feature of The Teacher in the future). Before I start, I’d better explain some of my own background. I’m from Britain, but when I was 18, I was posted to Germany for two-anda- half years with the army. Although I was on a base with other soldiers, this was quite an educational experience as, for many of us, it was the first time we’d lived in a foreign country and we were sometimes surprised (not always pleasantly) at some of the differences. My brother was married to a German woman, so I had had some contact with the culture beforehand, but not much. Sometime later, I left university and went to work as a teacher in Macedonia in the former Yugoslavia. This was during the period of the fighting in much of the former state. After a year, I went to study in Belfast, a place which was still trying to find its way towards peace. Soldiers were still on the streets and there was still quite a bit of tension in the air (and I had to remember not to mention my own military past too much). Over the next couple of years, I trained as an anthropologist in Belfast and Edinburgh and then spent over a year “in the field” (as we anthropologist types say) in Poland before moving here to marry and teach English. So, I have a bit of experience being in different places and, I shall confess, have learned most of what I’ll write about by getting it wrong first time around (and occasionally, second and third times too!).
You are going somewhere else!
There’s a line in the film Shirley Valentine (about a British woman who runs away to Greece) where some British tourists are complaining that Greece is different to Spain. One of them says something like, “Greece would be OK if it was more like Spain!” Well, of course, that’s the joke… it is different because it isn’t Spain.
Believe it or not, this is one of the most important things we often forget. People leave their home in the oh-so-advanced UK or EU and travel elsewhere and are amazed that all the technical and social advances they have at home don’t exist where they go to work! They then spend a lot of time moaning about how wonderful it is back home and why doesn’t this primitive place have the same facilities, the same opening hours, the same range of food in the shops. I must admit to doing it in Macedonia once when I was looking for carrots in the market. It was pointed out to me that veg was seasonal and perhaps I should see what other people are eating. Another time, when I was lamenting the lack of something, it was suggested by my long-term resident British colleagues that instead of moaning about what wasn’t there, perhaps I should look at what there was. Whilst it can be frustrating, it can also be rather fun. I developed a taste for several kinds of food in different places which, upon leaving the country, I spent a lot of time lamenting their unavailability back home.
It’s always an idea to read up about wherever you are going, especially using something like Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, which can often give important little bits of information that many people overlook. It’s also useful to speak with other ex-pats (if there are any) who will understand more about what you might miss or not understand than the locals might. Likewise, you might be able to introduce some topics in class and explain to your students how things are ‘back home’ and ask them to pretend they are explaining to a new arrival about local customs, opening times, food hygiene, etc.
One of the main problems is that quite often: a newcomer doesn’t know what it is they will miss about their own home culture or exactly how something is different. The locals also may not be aware, or not consider, that the foreigner doesn’t understand some things. An example which springs to mind is the tale of an American woman working in Macedonia who invited her colleagues to her house for a buffet party. All the guests arrived and she said, “Help yourself!” and that was it. The Macedonians politely refused… and by the end of the evening, the lovely buffet was hardly touched. The next day, the American woman made it clear she was not happy that her guests had left her with all the food… a waste of her time and money. The guests were equally annoyed that she had invited them to her house and then not fed them. What she hadn’t been aware of was that it is polite behaviour to offer food three times and for the guest to refuse it twice. As she only offered once, they didn’t touch anything. What I found puzzling about the story was that a number of the guests had been outside of their own country but didn’t seem to realize the American didn’t know the custom (or were just too polite to say).
Control your preconceptions
This isn’t always easy as sometimes our preconceptions are all we have. However, playing the mirror game with your own culture is sometimes useful here. For example, if your only experience of Arabian culture is having read the Arabian Nights (when I went to Finland, I’d only read Moomin stories!) don’t think that everyone is automatically going to know them in Arabia. I mean, how would you feel if someone came to Britain and got all upset because the average Briton has never read Chaucer and would look at you wide-eyed if you started sprouting mock- Shakespearean English to them upon introduction. As a Briton, I am a constant source of disappointment to my students because I don’t drink tea at 5pm, haven’t watched all the Monty Python films and do not know the names of any of the England football squad (One of colleagues asked about Rio Ferdinand… I thought he was South American). Likewise, believing certain stereotypes (positive and negative) may, at least, make you come across as patronizing, if not worse. A German friend of mine, who I knew from Glasgow, once visited me in Poland. He asked if he could bring me anything, and I said cheddar cheese. When he arrived, he produced a superb chunk of cheddar… and then announced, “And I’ve brought you the three things I know all British people love; Coleman’s Mustard, Marmite and Worcestershire Sauce”. Of course, I smilingly thanked him and put them in the cupboard… where they stayed until he’d gone and I was able to pass them all on to friends who really liked them. I loathe all three!
Whilst preparing to work with Saudi Arabian students, my colleagues and I read a number of books to help us avoid mistakes. One point which was made is that it is not a good idea to ask about another culture by saying, “You do this in your culture, don’t you?” or other closed question forms. It shows you already have a fixed idea. Better to ask in an open form, “How do you do this in your culture?”
The problem is that many of us don’t understand the mechanics of moving abroad and living in a different culture (and even if you do, it’s not necessarily easy).
In Creation of Culture (1981, Uni of Chicago Press) Roy Wagner argues that the anthropologist entering the field for the first time encounters “the Other” (the unusual). In an effort to understand the unusual, the newcomer attempts to rationalise the new world through that which is already known, their own. Before this he had no culture, as we might say, since the culture in which one grows up is never really “visible”- it is taken for granted, and its assumptions are felt to be self-evident (4). This involves a process of self-examination to find something with which to make the comparison. The need to understand the “new culture” results in him inventing his own too. Wagner suggests that as individuals are, to an extent, unaware of their own culture, until they are forced to examine it by comparison to another, then this attempt to understand and rationalise leads to an invention of culture. They come to know themselves. However, this process also involves “the Other”, as they also experience it. This means that they also become more aware of their own culture through a (re-)examination of it1. However, to protect themselves from the newcomer, subjects may create difficulties for the researcher as a form of defence. The community tries to protect itself, although the newcomer is also a figure of curiosity; however, the community tries to control the anthropologist. This it does in part by domesticating the newcomer (7). This may be seen as constructing or utilising boundaries, such as language, etc., to restrict contact and access, thereby, identifying and expressing “Otherness”. Perhaps a classic illustration of this is when the subjects, knowing the researcher has limited skills in ‘the other’ language, code-switch in their presence, sometimes when the discussion focuses on the researcher, thus making the researcher the subject – the other.
Here, we can see the tension between the need or desire to make contact with the other and the need or desire to isolate one-self. Wagner points out, however, that rather than isolate oneself in the way a missionary, etc., might, “thus reinforcing his or her own elitist self-images” (“My culture is so much more sophisticated!”), a newcomer objectifies that which they are adjusting to. (8) The problem is that they are not learning this culture like a child, with no prior knowledge of anything, it is not experience of new things as opposed to different things. ‘Culture is a ‘prop’. (9) The anthropologist cannot simply “learn” the new culture and place it beside the one he already knows, but must rather “take it on” so as to experience a transformation of his own world… It is naïve to suggest that going native is the only way to really “learn” another culture, since this would necessitate giving up one’s own (9).
Thus, says Wagner, … the invention of cultures, and of culture in general, often begins with the invention of one particular culture, and this, by the process of invention, both is and is not the inventor’s own (ibid.).
Of course, an English teacher differs from an anthropologist in that the reason they are there is not necessarily to study and explore the culture to the extent an anthropologist is, and being a foreigner/Native Speaker is often a tool in the job. However, I’d suggest that to work and to live means, to some extent, letting go of a few things and embracing the other.
Going Native, Accepting Help
One of the joys of working abroad is the chance to experience new cultures, but also to reassess your own. Often the things we find attractive are things were either lack or dislike aspects of in our own culture. I once returned to Britain to be greeted by a bunch of foul-mouthed youths making a scene on a railway station. I thought, “I knew there was something I didn’t miss!” However, it’s important to remember that when you are in a new environment, the novelty can wear off and things can become annoying. My wife occasionally has foreign volunteers working in her organization. As part of the training, it is pointed out that after about 3 months many people start feeling homesick and upset. This is perfectly natural; after all, the buzz of the new experience may be starting to wear off. Some people feel homesick immediately, especially if they come from a very different background. A Saudi Arabian student in Olsztyn, Poland, once asked me if I could imagine living in a community where not only did you have several brothers and sisters but also countless cousins, uncles and aunts… many of whom lived in the same area and were an almost constant, daily presence in your life. I commented I’d find it claustrophobic. He agreed, then asked, “Now can you imagine suddenly being out of it?”
It can be hard for anyone moving into a new environment to accept (or to admit) that they need help. However, your colleagues and students are often more than ready to help and give advice. After all, they probably want you to feel comfortable and to enjoy their country. They might give you bits of advice, where the best shops are, what the best food is, etc. Obviously, if they don’t know your culture, they will try to think what they like and imagine you will also like it (not always right when they serve a meal…). It’s a good idea to accept this advice graciously, accepting it is meant well. I made a classic mistake once when a student said, “I hear you like techno-parties,” Well, I hate techno music, my regular students were aware of this and I thought the poor girl was trying to wind me up. I snarled back at her that I hated them. The look on her poor face showed I’d offended her and embarrassed her (I also made the mistake of thinking techno-parties only played techno). Result? No more invitations… A serious mistake is to moan to your students in class about how hard life is for you (yes, I’ve done this!). The problem is that it can be rather offensive after a while to be constantly hearing how bad your country is for the enlightened westerner; ultimately, they may feel it reflects on them. The thing is, that when you are in a country where a few million people have to exist with things like irregular opening hours, unavailability of products which are common in your own country, etc., you’d better accept that the whole country isn’t going to change for you. Live with it and learn how the locals do it. Perhaps if you make it a joke, trying to make a funny comparison, or telling them about your own culture and asking them what they find surprising, it can be a useful tool for both English teaching and cultural awareness on both sides. Letting yourself embrace the local ways, even if they are not necessarily attractive to you, is a form of surviva l. The local diet may appal you but it is also a way of socializing. You may find that there are alternatives. When you build up barriers around yourself, you alienate yourself and end up eating from tins in your flat. This last point reminds of when a student of mine came around to my flat in Macedonia and was appalled to find me living off a diet of cheese sandwiches, watermelons and coffee. He was pretty angry and demanded to know why I felt I had to live like that, I could have gone around to his place or his friends, people could cook for me if I was in such a bad way. It took some time to convince him that I actually liked living like this and was more than able to cook for myself.
Students and teaching
This should be pretty obvious but it is surprising how many experienced teachers are caught out by it: different countries and different cultures often have different styles of teaching and learning. In some cases, the behaviour of the students may also be influenced by social factors as well. This is one of the fun things about working on international summer camps: you get to experience different kinds of students. A couple of examples spring to mind from last year. I was working in Shrewsbury for a firm called Discovery Summer which has students from a wide range of countries. At one point, we were expecting a party of Japanese schoolgirls. Our boss took the teachers aside and asked how many had worked with Japanese students before. He explained that there is a strong sense of “face” (honour) amongst the students and many will not easily speak in class because they are scared of making a mistake in front of their fellow students. Therefore, it might be better to limit the amount of times we ask them things in class in front of others. Face to face speaking with other students (from other countries… like some talkative Italians) would be more useful.
Such a thing also highlights different techniques in different countries. Don’t be surprised if your students don’t always react how you think they should. They might be reacting how they think you think they should. I remember one girl handing me an essay about her hometown which was obviously copied, with just a few words (names of places) changed. When I pulled her up over it, she was genuinely surprised, “Well, what was it you wanted me to do?” She thought I just wanted her to rewrite the set text to practice her phrases and writing but to change it to her town. So, an inland city suddenly had a coastline like that of San Francisco. This, apparently, was common practice in her country’s schools.
Of course, not everyone who works abroad will be teaching children. If you are working for firms where the teaching is connected with a particular industry or part of education, it is worth remembering who your students are and why they are learning. For instance, if you are teaching people involved in a trade, such as doctors or engineers, don’t be surprised that they don’t necessarily know how to study languages… they’re not linguists. Explaining the inner beauty of the language and an in-depth knowledge of poetry might not be the kind of English they need (or want) and, more importantly, it might not be the kind of English you are being paid to teach. Frustrating, but it’s business. Whilst it may be satisfying to have the oil-worker say, “Lo, unto our e’en doth come the dark liquor of the black gold, the earth’s blood, which spurteth forth!” but it’s probably a lot more useful for them to shout (and others to hear), “Look out, I can see the oil is about to blow!”
Returning to my point about social conditions: something we encountered in summer school were different attitudes to different cultures and ethnicities . For example, we were shocked one year that students from Kazakhstan complained about sharing rooms with Japanese students. It became a serious point and we found there were deep lying attitudes which could be seen as either racist or nationalistic, ones we hadn’t known about and had to then negotiate. This leads me to another area, a difficult one, about understanding social tensions in your new workplace. Obviously, it is not always possible for a newcomer to understand social divisions in a new place. Some of these might be gender-based, racially based or social/economically based. When we were teaching Saudis in Olsztyn, it was interesting to see that while the students may happily converse with Polish students of the opposite-sex in class, they were sometimes almost physically unable to do it with a fellow Saudi of the opposite sex. We had to force them to do it. Likewise, I once arranged for some female Saudis to travel to a culture house to speak about their country. I asked if they would prefer a female colleague to take them. They said they had no problem with me driving, although the male student took a taxi (to not be in the car with the girls). I mentioned it to a Palestinian doctor we had working with us. He laughed at how they would not travel in a car with him. Somehow, I came outside the areas of social restrictions. As a non-Muslim teacher, I was kind of “unsexed”. In the same way, female teachers may be given a kind of “honorary man” status. It can be that complex.
The example with the Kazakh and Japanese students demonstrates that there can be quite complicated divisions which a newcomer would not be aware of. For this reason, always bear in mind that, as a foreigner, such things are not always obvious and might even be hidden from you to protect you. In the Balkans and in Northern Ireland, I have been in a few places where only later I have learned it was not safe to be. My apparent stupidity or naivety saved me, as people realized it and must have looked after me (without my knowledge).
If you are in an area which may have such problems, tread carefully about asking things in class. In Poland, we were told by the Saudi Embassy to avoid speaking about religion in class, not so much Christianity, but Islam. This was because of the Sunni and Shia tensions in Saudi Arabia at the time. A similar thing happened when I first got to Macedonia and started asking in class about the ethnic tensions between ethnic Macedonians (Slavonic people) and the ethnic Albanian population. Total silence across the class. I mentioned it to a British colleague who commented that as I had a mixed class (I couldn’t always tell the difference) nobody would speak out in front of the others. It is best to avoid such matters in class, at least until you have a better idea about them (ask some colleagues). The same goes with access to certain places. I once went with a friend in Belfast to a particular pub. “Don’t say anything… in fact, don’t even breathe with an English accent”. Likewise, I walked into (and thankfully out of) one or two places and saw the shocked look on my friends’ faces. Usually followed by a lecture on not going into even safelooking places in some areas. In my case, with an English accent and an army tattoo (hidden), it could have been the last thing I did (“Those people don’t take chances!”). I’m not telling this to boast but to illustrate how easy it can be to cross into rough territory. A friend of mine worked in a South American country and tells of how he was supplied with directions or maps of where it was safe to walk.
For the above reasons, it may be frustrating if, for example, you are not allowed entry into a seemingly innocent place (like a church or synagogue), but the local people may have good reason to restrict entry, reasons you might not understand. Just because a stranger isn’t carrying a gun, who knows what else they might be doing (looking for someone, assessing the security)? If in doubt, ask a colleague or a student about going somewhere.
Experience it, enjoy it!
While some of my above comments may come across as pessimistic or gloomy, they may not happen to you at all. The main thing is to enjoy and learn from the experience. Making mistakes is all part of the game, so don’t be afraid to make some. Likewise, learning is a two way process, so don’t be afraid to ask and learn. I hope some more teachers will feel able to contribute to this discussion… maybe some of those readers who are about to move elsewhere.