I moved to China for the same reason many people teach abroad: I’d recently graduated college and I wanted to see the world and do something exciting. I was interested in China and Asia generally, but I didn’t have a particular penchant for teaching.
Almost two years of teaching and living abroad changed my mindset a lot, though, and they taught me a lot about myself and the world.
Now I’d encourage anyone to live and work abroad because of how much it teaches you — and how much it impacts your life as a whole.
1. Learning a language is, like, really hard
Before I moved to China, I’d studied Spanish and Hebrew in school, and I’d visited countries where English wasn’t widely spoken.
I’d never worked abroad, though, and teaching Chinese students English while trying to learn Mandarin myself gave me so much insight into just how hard it is to navigate a space in a language that’s not your own. It also made me appreciate the position my students were in more, and thus be kinder and more patient with them.
Living in a country where English isn’t the official language will help you appreciate your own country more, and it might even encourage you to learn a new language!
2. I’m very lucky to speak English
People all over the world are trying to learn English so they can get better jobs, go to college in America or Europe, and participate in international trade and business. Being a native English speaker puts me at an advantage over many people in the world, for better or for worse.
Teaching English abroad made me aware of my privilege in a way that I hadn’t been before, and it also made me more aware of international relations generally.
That awareness has hopefully made me a better and more thoughtful world citizen and person.
3. The world is small
When I got to China, I was of course struck by all the differences between there and my home: the food and street signs and climate were different, for one, but cultural norms and attitudes were also a world away from what I was used to.
The differences you expect. But the similarities between people all over the world are also worth noting, and they’re just as meaningful.
In China people get road rage and cut in line, just like in America. People appreciate a smile and a wave, and a little kindness can go a long way — just like in America. People like funny jokes, they’re interested in finding out about different cultures, they play and work and dream.
The world is small, and our humanity connects us throughout it. Traveling helps us recognize others’ personhood and in turn operate with a little more love and kindness.
4. Educating is a simple joy
I was apprehensive to start teaching: like, really apprehensive. But I’ve always loved kids, and I’ve always loved school, too. The first few weeks of school were rough as I struggled to create lessons that kept my students interested and assert my authority in the classroom.
But slowly I found a rhythm in my teaching. And as that happened I began to build deeper relationships with my students, to learn from them, to find my bearing at the front of the classroom.
Teaching became a daily challenge, a pursuit that took up much of my time as I planned lessons, looked for songs and worksheets and projects for my students, researched how to be a better and more effective teacher. It was exhausting and draining and utterly fulfilling.
Teaching gave me much more appreciation for my own teachers, it taught me that I can lead a classroom, and it gave me the joy of helping students learn and grow and become themselves.
5. I can take care of myself
This one was a big one for me. While living abroad was mostly fun, I won’t pretend there weren’t times when I found myself in a bit of a pickle thanks to my daring sense of adventure (and a lack of good sense or caution).
I got stranded in Hong Kong with a frozen bank card and no booked hostel, I found myself in rural China soon after arriving in the country with no sense of direction and no ability to speak Mandarin, I got my phone lost or stolen on multiple occasions and successfully had to find my way home.
Those situations were nerve-wracking, sure, but I got through them all. Additionally, I negotiated contracts at jobs, travelled the country independently, found an apartment and signed a lease, and made friends — all on my own.
Figuring out China by myself left me confident that I can thrive in any situation, that I have what it takes to make it through and even come out on top. And that knowledge, that confidence, is invaluable.