Close your eyes. Now open them. Now just pretend that they’re closed again because otherwise you won’t be able to read this. It’s a Wednesday, and today is the day you’ve finally mustered up the courage to go and try the local restaurant down the street from your apartment. You arrive and plop yourself down on a plastic stool because you’ve realized that the cheaper the chairs, the cheaper the food. You’re covered in a thin layer of sweat. This is normal. Next, the equally sweaty and cheerful restaurant lady comes over to “take your order.” The following encounter essentially consists of a series of pointing, miming, and keeping your fingers crossed that you’ll eventually get a plate of food that isn’t alive or a member of the insect family. As she walks away, out of the corner of your eye, you see a family of rodents scurrying across the far side of restaurant. It’s in this moment that it finally registers, “Wow, I live in Asia.”
The scenario above represents some of the many challenges that exist while adapting to your new life teaching abroad. You’ll need to acclimate to a completely different style of food, navigate the language barrier, endure the constant battle to stay dry, and learn to unlearn the standards of hygiene that you’ve been acclimated to your whole life. It’s these kinds of things that we’ve taken for granted that will now become a key part of surviving each day.
One of the more obvious and initial obstacles you will face is dealing with the language barrier. It can make even the simplest of tasks infinitely more challenging. Whether it is ordering dinner, asking for directions, or even just getting a haircut, sometimes you’re just going to have to smile and hope for the best. While eventually you will pick up enough of the local language that you’re able to feed and clothe yourself, there will inevitably be some mishaps along the way. The key to surviving those mishaps is the ability to stay patient. It will be frustrating at times, but patience will really be critical to your happiness while living abroad. Just recently, a friend told me a story about how it took him 2 weeks and 4 different trips to Tesco to successfully buy one plunger. As much as it would be easy to blame the employees for not understanding English, miming out the act of “plunging a toilet” over and over really makes it hit home that learning some of the native language will go a long way.
The next big issue that we as expats face is the food. Eating what the locals eat can be an incredible, delicious, and terrifying part of immersing yourself into the culture. Saying that you’re open to trying new things and being offered fried rat over rice with spicy sauce are two completely different things. In the West you can buy candy on a stick, in Asia you can buy scorpions on a stick. Plus the diet in the Western world is completely different than an Asian diet. Whereas back home things are all wheat based, here everything is rice based. So on one hand, anybody with a fashionable, new gluten-allergy won’t have any problems, but on the other, everyone else might have some digestive adaptation to deal with on top a little bit of culture shock. But fear not! Pharmacies are ready for this. Yes, going in and miming out your symptoms can be embarrassing, but two minutes later you’ll get basic antibiotics over the counter for just a few dollars.
Another major part of adapting to life overseas is the inherent difference in hygiene standards. I’ve developed a simple principle that will be very telling of how well you will do in coming to terms with these disparities. It’s called the “hair-in-my-food” principle. For example, if you’re the type of person who finds small hair in their food, picks it out, and continues to chow down, you’ll do just fine living in Asia. If you’re more of the, “I’m gonna say something and send this back,” kind of person, you’re going to have a bit of a tougher time at first. Expats here see things every day that would make health inspectors back home quiver in their Birkenstocks. Want to buy meat at the market? Be prepared for your raw filet to be picked off the top of a pile that’s been sitting in the heat with complex mosquito-prevention technology spinning above it (see: stick with inflated bag tied to it).
How about the hygiene beyond food? Let’s talk about toilets. When was the last time you worried about the mere existence of a toilet? The first time you find yourself staring at a hole in the ground to squat over, you’ll think back fondly to these naive times. Toilet paper? That can be a luxury in Asia. Sometimes you just need settle for the water basin beside the hole and make sure not to eat food with your left hand. Let that sink in for a moment… Those of us who live here get used to carrying around an extra roll of TP with us at all times, just in case. Problem solved.
To the uninitiated, many of these things can be a little scary and unsettling. Yes, you will do and see things living abroad that you would never see or encounter in your hometown. But for most of us, we left our hometowns precisely because we wanted to see how the rest of the world lived and to experience a culture that is nothing like our own. I could’ve spent this whole article discussing the breathtaking scenery or amazing hospitality that you will inevitably encounter. However, it’s important to remember that any experience in life will come with both good and bad parts. The key is to embrace them both, find humor in differences that exist, and you’ll come out of this experience a wiser and more humble individual. “Suffering cheerfully endured, ceases to be suffering, and is transmuted into effable joy,” is a Gandhi quote that I’ve always liked and thought it applied well to teaching and living abroad. The things you’ll encounter each day will vary, but approach them with a smile, and your time spent here will truly be a life-changing experience.
Austin is our Education Programs Manager. Originally from California, Austin describes himself as a traveler, eager to see everything he can and curious as to how the rest of the world lives.
Check out Austin’s blog here
Austin shares his most memorable moment teaching abroad over on our YouTube channel