Student or Learner
When I arrive in a new country, I am always surprised at the first few moments outside the airport. The sky looks different, the air smells different, the chaos of people coming and going is different. Finding a bus or taxi or jeepney can be a fun experience but it is more likely to be a trying experience, so it is best if someone can meet you and help you get oriented for the first trip from the airport to your place of residence.
Depending on your guest country, and the resources available, you may get a private room with a private bathroom, or a shared room and a public bathroom.
The school may look a wee bit different from the brochures, which tend to highlight greenery and other colourful aspects. Brochures also don't tell you about oppressive tropical heat, or cold winds from the mountains.
Before starting your trip, you should read up on the culture of the country. For example, in Thailand, people would be shocked if you touched a child's head, or if you washed your underwear and hung it outside to dry.
During my stay in Thailand, I managed a software development project and hired a couple of university-educated Thai women to help. We worked out of my two-bedroom apartment. One moved into the spare bedroom in the apartment, and the other slept on the sofa five nights a week. The one in the bedroom said she lived a long way away and the daily commute was aggravating. Fair enough. But the second one lived 20 minutes away by elevated electric train. I never really understood why she wanted to live with me. Perhaps I was a father-figure for her.
One day, I rounded up all the towels to put in the washing machine. The women had their own bathroom, and the towels were provided by me. The apartment was modern and fully equipped.
One of the women said, "Doug, what are you doing?"
I said, "I'm going to wash all the towels in the machine."
She said, "But you took the white one."
The white one was a cotton bathmat that had been on the floor in front of the shower.
"Yes, I will wash it with the others."
"Doug, you can't do that."
"It's for the feet."
Apparently in Thai culture, you don't sully your body towels with foot towels.
I said, "Sorry, this is a machine, very hot water, with detergent and fabric softener. I am going to wash all the towels and bath mats together."
She was unhappy with this, had a strange look on her face, like I had said something totally disgusting.
After the towels had been washed and dried, I took one of the bath towels and held it under her nose, and said, "Smell this."
She took a whiff and said, "Oh, Doug, smell very good."
I said, "That's the fabric softener, it has perfume to make the towels smell good."
Then I held the white bath mat under her nose. She didn't move away, although I expected her to. "Smell this one."
"Doug, same same."
"Yes," I said, "and now you know why I washed them together. In your culture, you wash them by hand, and would do the foot mats last. In my Western culture, with machines, we put them all in together and they come out the same."
She accepted that. In this case Western culture overruled Thai culture.
As I write this in November 2007, a British ESL teacher has been arrested in Sudan, which is a Muslim country, for letting her primary school students name a teddy bear "Muhammed". Although this is a very common name in Sudan and other Muslim countries, giving a toy bear this name is apparently insulting to Islam, according to the charges against her. One of the parents of the students complained to police and she was arrested. If found guilty, she could receive many years in prison, a hefty fine, and 40 lashes with a whip.
So learning something about the culture you will be living in is advice you should take seriously.
In Central and parts of South America, for instance, you might think the culture is Spanish, and that is certainly the dominant one, but the underlying Mayan culture is still there, especially amongst people whose primary language is Quechua or Aymara. Don't assume you understand their culture because you know about Mexican or Spanish culture. Do some research first, so as to help you understand where they are coming from, and try to structure your lessons to fit with their culture. This can be as simple as changing place names: don't talk about the Mississippi River, for example, use a local river instead. They will associate with that, but not associate with the Mississippi.
The beliefs and attitudes of your guest country will potentially be different from what you naively expected, so research! research! research!
As you become accustomed to your new daily routine, students, and fellow teachers, you will discover that some of the teachers have become cynical with time. They may have been there 20 years, and never say anything good about the place; they seem to live in a cloud of negativity. You will be eager and fired up and enjoying the challenge; they will talk about police purges, stupid management at the school, incompetent governments, corruption, and whatnot. The list is never-ending. Try to avoid these people. Live your own life, and be happy with the little differences and challenges that are thrown your way.
In Thailand, the vast majority of people are Buddhists. They are taught from an early age to meet adversity with a smile. One time, I was waiting under an awning for a tropical downpour to lessen. I watched a young lady attempt to cross the flooded street in front of me. She stepped in a hidden pothole, lost her balance, and fell face first into 6 inches of dirty water. She stood up, brushed the water off her face, and laughed. If that had been me, I would have been cursing. But she was a Buddhist. She laughed.
Meet adversity with a smile.
A good philosophy to live by.
If your assignment is in a third-world country, find out if the school and/or students have basic supplies. In rural Peru, for example, there might be one small chalkboard for a one-room school, no paper at all, and certainly no pens or pencils. While that kind of school is not going to have English classes, you can still help them enormously by traveling with two suitcases, one for your stuff, and the other filled with notebooks, pencils, chalk, small chalkboards, crayons, art paper, children's scissors, etc. Before you start your flight, contact the school and find out if they need these supplies, or if they can put you in touch with a rural school that does. Those $50 worth of supplies might be more than a rural school has ever seen and will make a big difference.
Another piece of advice: keep a journal of your experiences. If you have Internet access, create a blog and update it regularly. But in any case, be careful not to write anything in your journal or blog that is critical of the school management, the local religion, or the government. That journal will be a treasured keepsake in future years, and remain with you the rest of your life.
After you've been living and teaching for a while in the guest country, returning to your home town in your native country can be a jarring experience: culture shock in reverse. You became an ESL teacher for the fun of travel, the joy of discovering a new culture, and now you're back in Wal-Mart or Tesco standing in a queue behind an enormous fat lady with a shopping cart full of junk. Your mother is glad to see you, but you find your town boring, the food bland and voluminous.
If you are back for good, and have to get a job, you will probably find yourself bored out of your skull working in an office. Your co-workers will have no interest in your ESL experiences and couldn't care less about the things you did and the places you went.
Pretty soon you will be scouring the Internet looking for other ESL jobs; you've got to follow your dreams, wherever they take you...
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