Although you have just arrived, over time, you will discover that there are very few experiences as transformative and broadening, while at the same time as perplexing and frustrating, as teaching and living abroad. That makes sense. With the exception of physical growth, very little in our lives contains the intensity and vitality of life as an international educator. You live walking the cultural tightrope of the unfamiliar. The only safety net is resiliency, a sense of humor, and perspective: multiple ones.
The cross-cultural life is not for the lighthearted or the inflexible. In Bogota, I got fleas. In Mexico City, I learned how to negotiate traffic violations on the spot. And in Barcelona, I acquired the taste for cafe life and the key to living in time, without measuring it. Cross-cultural living is a graduate education in life.
In the spirit of preparedness, here is a list of some of the unexpected and culturally foreign experiences that you might encounter. And when you do, pause, and remember to breathe:
- Officious parents who want to give you a gift as a token of their appreciation. Or to invite you to join them and their children for their winter getaway to Calabria.
- Confusion and disquiet after giving one of the most engaging and challenging units you can remember on the causes of civil war, and your students remain silent as lampposts. Later to discover it is culturally disrespectful to ask questions of the teacher.
- The rows of sleek polished SUV’s with the bullet proof glass windows driven by bodyguards in dark suits with sunglasses.
- The subtle and sometimes not so subtle examples of the division between local and foreign hires. (Watch where people eat for example)
- The physical and emotional exhaustion that comes from learning a new language.
- Homesickness. What is erroneously seen as a symptom of childhood but can be triggered when least expected, especially around holidays like Thanksgiving or birthdays.
- In some countries we kiss on both cheeks at school. In others arriving on time (socially) is looked down upon. While in some countries, when a dinner guest in someone’s home, leaving nothing on your plate, is a sign that you have not had enough.
- Waiting on line. While this is an assumed protocol in much of the world, in some places you pay others to do it for you (visas, taxes) or the very concept is foreign.
- Social space. You will find in some cultures physical proximity is nothing less than uncomfortable. While in others, eye contact is frowned upon.
- Leaving tips, driving protocols, and acknowledging someone when they are eating. Small things that together define a culture while at the same time leaving the expat confounded.
In short: expect the unexpected, be mindful of difference, and suspend judgment. It is not only a new language and culture you are immersed in, but a worldview. Read the Iliad. Read the Odyssey. Or read the Golden Ass. Part of the adventure (and it is an adventure) is getting lost, being taken, and becoming transformed. Anything worthwhile can be perilous. And finally, when the siren for home calls (at least 5 years later) that you come back with broader perspectives, another language, and the first hand experience of what living globally means. The educational world is desperate for global citizens like you. And oh yes. Drink lots of water the first 24 hours, if you have not already. It’s a good antidote for jet lag.