As an English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) teacher who has spent half of her career abroad, I have been fortunate to have had mostly good living and working experiences. The more a person travels, the more ‘street wise’ they become and although there is always something to learn, when considering a job overseas, there are some things to consider. For the purpose of this article, I am going to focus on the points that can make or break a stay in a foreign country.
First, do your homework. Research the region of the world you want to live in and when you are ready, look at specific countries. It is important to check out the culture and see if it is a place you can live in on a day-to-day basis. Once the honeymoon period wears off, you will need settle into a daily schedule and if you dislike the culture, living in it will be ten times harder. For example, if you are used to striding down the sidewalk and now you find yourself elbow to elbow with perfect strangers playing on their mobile phones and this drives you crazy, then this might now be the location for you. Likewise, if you are used to meeting up with friends at cafes and restaurants and the hippest place you can find is a food cart with plastic chairs and tables, then you may need to think about how far you are willing to travel for some entertainment.
For example, on my first move abroad, I worked with a recruitment firm who asked me where I wanted to live, and I suggested they place me on ‘the edge of a city’. In my mind this meant I was a ten-minute walk from the nearest venti green tea latte with almond milk and free WiFi. When I arrived in Namchang, a rural suburb of Ulsan, South Korea, the local bank had mother’s hours and the closest café was a corner shop that made gimbap, seaweed wrapped with rice and veggies. Free WiFi or any WiFi for that matter did not exist outside of my studio apartment or school.
Second, how do you plan to find a job? Some people hop on a plane, arrive, and land a position within the first few days but if you are like most people, that only adds stress and anxiety, not to mention that if you are going through the work of packing up your life and moving, you may as well do it right.
The best jobs are the ones that require a bachelor’s degree with a master’s being preferred and five years minimum in the field. An added bonus is a working conversational level of the language or an interest in learning one. This last part is important because if you are willing to learn to the best of your ability then you are open to placing yourself outside your comfort zone, resulting in building relationships with the people are you. People are often more willing to help a foreigner if they are making an attempt. You do not even need to be good, just open to trying.
Third, read through the contract, and then read it again. Never assume that they way things are done in your country are the same way they are done in the foreign one. This is a mistake that many people make. For example, countries such as South Korea and Japan require six months of rent up front. When considering a position overseas, it is important to ask how the apartment will be paid for.
- Will your employer provide paid-for accommodations?
- Is an apartment stipend built into your salary?
- Are you expected to secure your own lodging, and/or will you work with a realtor in the country who speaks English? And if you work with someone, are you expected to pay a fee?
It is important to clarify if the salary already includes a stipend as many employers will not volunteer information unless you ask. It is also good to remember that not every culture communicates the same way you do. However, how do you know what to ask if you have never moved abroad before? Research. Do your homework about the culture. Power is knowledge and the more you know the better equipped you will be. Even if you go through a recruiter, always clarify details.
Prior to signing the contract is when the clarification needs to happen. Do not be shy about this, after all, you are the one moving to a new country. If you simply sign it, then the employer believes you not only agree but understand the direct language as well as any nuances surrounding your rights and responsibilities.
My first overseas contract was spent in South Korea. Throughout that year I was forced to advocate for myself in ways I had never considered. On several occasions I had to pull out my contract and point out my rights at being allowed a sick day, fight for vacation, and refuse hours that grossly exceeded the maximum where I was expected to work without compensation. I handled all of this with a level of politeness and candor that had me screaming in frustration inside my head. Outwardly I exuded confidence and firmness. Inwardly, I was swearing at the lack of direct communication and the passive-aggressiveness of my superiors. It made me bonkers, but it also taught me a new level of patience and acceptance of others.
Lastly, be aware of jobs that look too good to be true. If you are looking to travel to Asia and the salary being offered is something you would be offered in your home country, investigate who is offering the money. Is it a recruitment firm or school? Check into where the firm is located. As for the school review their website. Not all information is created equal so the more you know the better a decision you can make about how to proceed forward. If you learn that it is a recruiter, find out who they are working with. Very often, recruiters round up a pool of promising candidates and then pitch them to schools. It is a very indirect route of finding a job and there are much better avenues to take.
The very worst scenario is that you accept a position, get to the country and discover the job is nothing like you were promised. Having a credit card and extra cash can help extricate you extricate yourself from a potentially uncomfortable situation. Whatever you do, never relinquish your passport. This is harder said than done as some countries take the passport upon arrival to reduce employees from breaking contracts. In turn, researching the country, its’ culture, and jobs are paramount.
The lure of overseas travel paired with the excitement of adventure is enough to provoke daydreams of meandering through the souqs of Marrakesh, enjoying a massage under a cabana in Bali, or trekking through a Thai jungle on an elephant, but at the end of the day, you need to be open to the culture you are living in. If you plan on working, then you need to find something you enjoy doing. To make this a reality and fully immerse yourself, do your homework, check out blogs, talk to people who have been to the places you are considering, and then make your decision. You will thank yourself that you did.