Over the past summer, for personal and professional reasons, I decided to "pull the plug" on teaching overseas. From teaching in the United Arab Emirates (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) for one year to the prospect of a new job in Vietnam, I decided to stay home in Toronto to teach and as a "home base" to write and promote my books. I have spent the last few months readjusting to life "in the 6ix", getting reacquainted with family, friends, and community, and of course focussing on my teaching and writing careers. Some may call it "reverse culture shock" that I am experiencing and I am trying to find that new balance again. I am dealing with this "reverse culture shock" and other transitions too. In addition to the emotions of returning to life in Canada, I am also coping with the loss of a family member and other personal adjustments.
Currently, the most frequent question that I receive from my readers, either through Facebook or this website, is: What is it like to live or teach in the Middle East? So, I have decided to call this week's post, What I Learned About Working and Living Overseas (That I Wish I Knew Before) and Advice for Those who Wish to Go.
I am brief in these lessons and I may choose to elaborate later in my writing or other form of social media. Each of these lessons was learned by yours truly.
1. Not everyone you meet is your friend. Sometimes I felt like I was living a reboot of the film Mean Girls, The Middle East Edition. Yet, I didn't experience anything like the film's portrayal of teen girl life while attending high school. I have always been an independent thinker and so were my closest friends. Yet, here I was overseas feeling like I was reliving someone else's version of high school... again. But only different because these were grown adults. Sometimes, it felt primal, cliquish, disloyal, and two-faced. Regardless, you will need to find some coping methods.
2. You will begin to appreciate the littlest things you took for granted back home like public libraries, recycling, affirmative action, equity, citizenship for immigrants, and composting.
3. People will often expect you to just know how things are without any explanation. (Or second chances.)
4. Moving overseas is expensive and so is living overseas, at least in the beginning. So if you go, have a couple thousand dollars that you can spend to get you started. And yes even if your housing is covered, you may be expected to know this but often will not tell you.
5. You will feel very lonely, at least in the beginning. Try to fix that fast. Find community. Get out (not like the movie) but to events going on. Get involved so you can meet people.
6. You have fewer rights in the school you teach in especially since there is no union. Nepotism, racism, and prejudice in schools can be rampant without recourse. Things that wouldn't legally or ethically occur in a North American workplace could take place "on the regular" without being challenged. But there are also good schools too so make sure you do your research to spot red flags early before signing a contract.
7. If you have a well-paying job back home, it may be worth it to continue working at said position and just take really long and exotic vacations to your favourite countries. The financial loss can be great if you lose your job. It is also check your romantic notions about working in a tropical setting because it still is work, even if it is at a different pace.
8. You are at the mercy of your employer. Sure, there may be an agency that sent you the advertisement posting the position you are in. Sure, there are embassies and maybe even possible legal recourses but essentially your employer has a lot of power especially if you need to hand over your passport to complete procedures. If you get fired, then you will be required to return back to your home country unless you find another job. Also, your paperwork may ask you detailed and personal questions that cannot be asked in your home country for concern of discrimination. "Shady" hiring and firing practices also take place like hiring of friends and multiple married couples who also have their children attend the same school.
9. If you have a strong sense of social justice and equity or are a member of a marginalized group, you can feel silenced, powerless, defeated, delusional, or isolated. Discrimination and nepotism can be practiced without getting called out. Again, this depends on the school but it does happen a lot. It will be difficult to pretend that you don't see an injustice happening. See 18 below.
10. You will have amazing experiences. Too many to name. And yes, I had amazing experiences that were highlights to my teaching career like staging two musicals and participating in the Emirates Air Literature Festival (Dubai Lit Fest). I went desert camping and shared the United Arab Emirates with my sister.
11. If you are looking for marriage, not likely to be found here. I'm not saying that it is impossible. Expat married couples do meet overseas however there are also a lot of people on temporary work contracts so dating can have its challenges.
12. You will have excellent travel opportunities. Travel will become "a way of life". You can travel to more exotic countries and international destinations than you could have back home. Your work colleagues and new friends will travel a lot too which means potential "travel buddies".
13. Make friends outside of work. They can and will be your lifeline especially if things go awry at your job. You can make friends at a sports team, religious or faith organization, meet-ups, social gatherings, or cultural organizations.
14. Be wise about how you spend your money. This would be a good time to establish a new budget.
15. Make sure you have friends (or colleagues) who will check on you regularly when you are sick or down and out. Yes, it is possible to make friends who can be your "ride or die". But also don't be surprised when the ones you thought would be those people flake out, don't check in, or "ghost". Do find your allies at work and socialize/go out with your colleagues but no matter what you see happening around you, don't get drunk with them. See item 5 below for reference.
16. You are a lot stronger than you think. You need to have a strong character, support network, and rock-solid mental health. If you can go to a foreign country where you don't know a soul, establish community, work a job, save some money, stay woke and hydrated, pray, exercise, respond to texts and meet people, and thrive, then you can do anything.
17. You will have a greater appreciation for immigrant experiences. I appreciate what experiences could be had by my parents, grandparents, and other family members who immigrated from other countries to Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. I understand better what it means for people coming to Canada how isolating and life-altering the experience can be.
18. Never take your freedoms (and freedom of speech) for granted again. This includes censorship and the right to challenge in court, demonstrate, or strike. Teaching about Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., what we call global education, and culturally-responsive pedagogy which are all positives in the North America, even if you mentioned them in your interview and you were still hired for the overseas job, can be called on as reasons for your termination without warning as I experienced. Innovative practices, progressive ideas, and social justice/arts-based/culturally responsive-pedagogy are all hot-buzz phrases at my local public school board and in the nation in which I teach, yet could be frowned on overseas.
19. Never take your citizenship for granted. I was often asked why I left Canada by many people. (That and I was told how much Canada was loved as well as our prime minister. Canada definitely has great P.R. overseas. The looks of shock when I talk about its inequality.) My answer was why not? The freedom and privilege to have the choice to work or travel to another country is a privilege not afforded to all. So many people want to immigrate to Canada and become citizens. I was born in this country thus I am the latter, thanks to my parents. Because I was educated in a western university and have a Canadian citizenship, I can migrate and work at a well-paying job and easily attain a middle- or upper-middle class status in a foreign country.
20. A reliance on your friends and family back home like you never had before. Thank God for my "at home" friends. Thank God for phones, what's app, Facebook, and skype. Thank God for youtube and the Wendy Williams show. Thanks to so many forms of technology, I was able to stay connected, grounded, and sane.
1. Explore all of your contacts. Will your third cousins have a layover in your city? Does a visitor at your church have a friend who has a friend who still lives in the city you're moving to? Does that classmate from graduate school have a sibling working in the city you'll be going to? Does that girl who has a blog possibly know your friend from the same city? That friend who used to teach in the country you are headed to still know people there? If the answers are yes, connect with these individuals. These too can be your lifelines.
2. Embrace a new culture and learn some of the language and customs. Try different foods, music, and clothing.
3. Be respectful and humble and open to new cultures. Act like you are a visitor in someone's home because you are.
4. You can wear a lot of the same clothes overseas and at home. You can also practice your faith in most countries but proselytizing may be illegal.
5. You represent every Black woman/person, Jamaican, Canadian, and Black woman-Jamaican-Canadian wherever you go. Gangster movies, music videos, Real Housewives of Atlanta, Love & HipHop, and other shows are syndicated globally so guess what that means for the other 99% of Black, etc. people? Act with integrity, kindness, respect, and love because your actions will reflect on so many other Black, etc. people. You will meet or work with people who have either never met or worked with Black, etc. people or had one as a colleague and not someone caring for their children or cleaning their home (no judgement here as my ancestors have held down these occupations as well.) Find other Black women/people, Jamaicans, Canadians, and Black women/people-Jamaican-Canadians for community, understanding, commiseration, and support. But also make friends with people of various backgrounds and life experiences because you have so much to learn, share, and experience.