Making Yourself at Home in Paradise

The life of an international educator can be thrilling, an eye-opening paradigm shift that will forever change the way you view the world.

Life as an international educator can also be, at times, extremely challenging. Thousands of miles away from the support of friends, family and colleagues back home, the rigors of finding and moving into a new home base while simultaneously adapting to a new school, boss and classroom can be overwhelming–especially so if you’re new to the international circuit.

One newbie teacher recently wrote ISR to say:
“My school was not at all supportive in helping me find an apartment when I moved to this job last year. Day one they simply loaned me a driver for one (!) day with a meager list of potential (?) apartments.

“I had to move three freakin’ times last year–what a drag! Why? The first apartment cost me two months’ rent extra because I broke the lease. Either me, or millions of cockroaches that came out at night, had to go! The landlady couldn’t care less.

“The second place was in a neighborhood that completely changed after dark to a very, very threatening slum. That fiasco cost me only one month’s rent. Finally I found a ‘just okay’ place and hunkered down until the end of the school year when I could leave for the summer break.

“All this moving disruption in my first year made it SO rough in lots of ways. I wish I‘d asked more questions and looked around extensively to get a better sense of what was right for me. But I learned my lessons and now I’m HOME, in all sense of the word, and looking forward to a fantastic year at an excellent school. Finally!”

For ease of “fitting” into a new school, you may have to curb your most pressing queries concerning the new job, but it’s of paramount importance that you feel comfortable with your new life outside the classroom. Your social scene, house/apartment are your retreat, a place of rest and regeneration. If you don’t have that, you’re really not going to be happy or at peace.

Veterans of international teaching have a few tricks up their sleeves when it comes to adapting to new cultures and fighting the loneliness and awkward confrontations of fitting into new neighborhoods, schools and friendships.

ISR’s advice is this: ASK a gazillion questions about everything. Be sure, from every angle, that this housing, these neighbors, the landlord, car, bank, community, etc. is right for you. Don’t worry about sounding paranoid or irritating when it comes to your peace of mind. Ask!

What are some of tricks up YOUR sleeves for settling into a new locale? Share with colleagues what helps YOU feel right at home on the ISR Making Yourself at Home Blog. Scroll down to post.

9 Responses to Making Yourself at Home in Paradise

  1. McSpirk says:

    I can’t say enough about doing your homework. In today’s connected world, there is no excuse for being unaware. In addition to the resources others have suggested, check out sites like virtualtourist.com for locals. There’s no substitute for local knowledge! I did that before accepting my first overseas offer in Central America and knew exactly what I was getting into. I saw other teachers come into the same country without doing their homework — not only were they miserable because it wasn’t “like xxxxx,” they made everyone around them, students and colleagues, miserable, too.

    Another piece of advice is to get to know people outside your grade level. My current school encourages this by actually paying teachers to offer mini-courses to other teachers. I’ve taken “classes” in theater production, restaurant-hopping, local history, and dancing and am currently offering one on classic movies. As a result, I have good friends at elementary, middle, and secondary levels! Even if your school doesn’t pay you to do this, do it on your own! Send out an email to everyone and invite folks to do something together. Make an effort to invite someone from another division for drinks or dinner.

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  2. I agree with the comments on HHH. I’ve met great groups of people in Manila, Bangkok,and Riyadh that way. I was feeling pretty isolated in Riyadh until I went to the Hash and there were 200 expats there running and doing a chili cook off, where I competed, in a spectacular setting. Another good one to try is Internations. They have groups in most large cities worldwide and typically have monthly meetings for cocktails and mingling. I’ve met some friends there as well. One more way to make contacts that can be very useful socially and professionally is to contact the business groups from Western nations. Most big cities have them, especially capital cities and they have parties once a month. I’ve been to parties hosted by groups from Sweden, Germany, Italy, and Britain to name a few. They are fun and interesting events with friendly people who can offer a newcomer guidance.

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  3. Explorer says:

    I totally agree with all these folks and especially Dadorunrun. The Hash is in almost every large city – and many smaller ones around the world where there is a significant proportion of expats. But its not only the HHH that you can join in order to get to know sane people who are NOT teachers at your school! Like to keep fit? – join a gym. Like to read – join a book club. Like to walk – join a walking or rambling club. Like to watch birds……and so on. I am an international teacher of 22 years standing and have lived all around the world. I have found that I can make local and expat friends really quickly using this tried and well tested formula!! In addition, google all these things before you go and, as the last writer says, write and introduce yourself to them before you go and you’ll have friends before you even get there. Try it!!!

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  4. dadorunrun says:

    One thing I try to do is arrive in my new city as early as possible. If at all possible at least a month before my starting day at school. That gives me plenty of time to adjust to my new surroundings, get settled, and get acclimated. Those first days of school are usually crazy enough without the added stress of settling in. (It’s not always possible. Due to work visa weirdness I arrived at my last job three days before the first day of school. In those three days i had to find an apartment, get my classroom ready, do a “meet the parents” thing, do a “welcome to our school” banquet, and so on. An absolute nightmare.)

    There’s one thing I did when I left for my first job overseas, which really helped my wife and I. It’s not for everybody, but it was great for us.

    I spent a lot of time online looking up things to do in the city I was moving to. On The Thorn Tree I saw a mention of a group called the Hash House Harriers. I looked at the website for the hash in the city I was moving to and thought it looked like good fun. I sent an email to the group and was inundated with replies. (One guy even offered to pick us up at the airport when we arrived.)

    Our first weekend after we flew in we were picked up, taken to a hash, and were immediately folded into “the family” as it were. So within four days of arriving in a new city, in a new country, we had an instant group of about 50 friends. Most of whom had been living there for years. They were a wealth of information. If we needed to know anything- where to buy the best pillows, how much to pay for a taxi to a location, reliable house cleaner, who had the best bread… all we had to do was call one of the members of the hash. We found our second apartment through a hasher, a fantastic place. My wife got a job at an NGO through a hasher. We were invited to a lot of embassy balls and functions through hashers. I got a job offer at a much better school through a hasher.

    Like I said, the Hash House Harriers isn’t for everyone. You have to have a high tolerance for infantile British schoolboy humor, the ability to drink or the patience to be around people who drink (a lot), and the willingness to spend a good chunk of a day wandering the desert (or jungle, or city streets) looking for odd markings on the ground. And I met more than a few hashers who were the worst kind of stereotypical expat. But I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also never lost myself in the isolated expat world like some do.

    An added bonus is that once you become a hasher you enter into this weird underground worldwide fraternity. So wherever you live or visit next anywhere in the world you’ll always find a group that will take you in and show you the ropes.

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  5. Oshitakanawa says:

    I’m considered young to be an international teacher (25) but I moved from Australia to Indonesia a couple of years back. I have had fantastic and challenging experiences teaching and living here.

    Here are set of my tips to get by in your intial year:

    1. Do your research. Research, research research! Before I came to Jakarta, I spent time looking at blogs, websites, youtube, facebook to find out everything about living in Jakarta. Also trying to watch some local news or local TV on the internet gives you an insight into what that country can feel like or look like, even if you don’t understand the language. I also tried to contact people who were from Indonesia or who had moved back to Jakarta that were on my facebook.

    2. When you move, make a mindful decision to stop comparing to your home country. The reason you moved overseas was to move from the circumstances from your home country anyway. Plus, one of the biggest things that I hate hearing from expats is when they whinge and complain things like this – “Back in England, we…..” “Back in the UK we did this…” “Back in England, this isn’t allowed”. No one likes to hear comparisons and you will find yourself embracing and able to handle differnet situations better if you make a mindful decision to not compare all the time.

    3. Make friends outside of your job. This might be hard to do at first but you need to find friends who do not teach and have something else in common. For me, I got connected to a church and a gym so I am able to socialise with people outside of my education circle. This has helped me to unwind every day after school and weekend and allows me to have a life outside of my job. Having friends of different professions can also help you with your job. For example, I got one of my fitness friends to come in to do a mini-presentation on healthy lifestyle for my students.

    4. Choosing your accomodation and where you live is always stressful. Understand this! Even if your accomodation is below par to what you are used to, you are probably living much more comfortably than someone who lives locally.However, this doesn’t mean you should be taken advantage of and your standard of living should be decent. For me, because I was able to make friends outside of my job, I was able to get my local friend to help me find alternative accomodation as I wanted to move somewhere else after a couple of months.

    5. Understand everybody’s experience is going to be different. My experience outlined above may not even be applicable to your circumstance. All I can say is use your head, and if you keep a positive attitude, you will always be able to find someone who can help you out.

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  6. RD says:

    I have to say that I was incredibly lucky. My school had everything set up ahead of time. They’ve got a cadre of houses that pass between teachers at the school as teachers more or leave, they get everything turned on and hooked up before we arrive (even the internet this year!), and if there are any problems, the school has a crew that come out and fix stuff (or pass it on to the landlord in certain situations). It was so awesome and easy. We had two teachers lead us to our new place, got us lunch, they helped us bring everything into the house, and we got settled in. The refrigerator already had food in it from the Parent Association, and they’d left both my roommate and I bags of essentials (more food, tissues, hand soap, etc).

    If your school is not as organized as mine, do as much planning beforehand as you can – I don’t know how I would have managed getting everything at home done by myself what with having to dive in and get ready for teaching.

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  7. Get to know other foreign hires and ask lots of questions! I like to ask the same question of several different people- both foreign and local hires- to get a good idea of what will be right for me.

    Once you have your place and are settling in, get out and meet people. This often-heard advice is repeated for good reason! The first few months can be very isolating and wrought with homesickness and culture shock so it’s extremely important to get out and start building your friend/ support network. Invite someone out for dinner, make plans to visit points of interest, join a gym, take language classes, go out for drinks- whatever you’re into, do at least some of it with new people. Be wary of walking the line between casual bitching and death-spiral negativity. Foreign hires tend to be the easiest to get to know because they’re in the same life position as you, but if you prefer building relationships with locals many of the returning foreign hires have local friends and you’ll make friends all around in the process. I’m living in a country with a very relationship-based culture and the best (and oftentimes only) way to learn basic information is by talking to other people. The guidebooks are dated and the internet is inaccurate. You need to talk to real people.

    I would venture to say that this is as, if not more so, important than spending the first months devoting yourself to your new job. If you’re not happy or you don’t have anyone to talk to you aren’t going to be the best teacher you can be.

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  8. Ted says:

    I think the more preparation you do in advance the easier your transition will be. Read as much as you can about the area, and prepare yourself mentally. Try to correspond with a couple people who have been where you’re going. If you come in with too many expectations, you may find them dashed. Be open-minded; don’t expect it to be like the US. Instead, accept that in each new place you’ll find some amazing things you’ll love and some terrible things you hate. Once you sort those out, find out how others have minimized the harder aspects; other teachers have solved the same problems you are facing, so ask peers to help. Most importantly, I would say that you need to get out of your apartment/home and go explore. Nothing gets you over the culture shock like confronting the community and learning about it first-hand. Try the food. Find the entertainment. Do as much as you can immediately, before the drag of teaching starts to pull you down and consume your time. Schedule yourself for vacations even when you think you don’t have the time. The 2-year contract goes by very quickly, and if you don’t immediately seize on opportunities to explore you’ll find yourself with regrets when you leave. There’s an old saying: “Your favorite schools are your next one and your last one.” That is, we tend to be nostalgic for the place we just left and we’re excited about the new place, yet we sometimes neglect (or complain too much about) the place we are right now. See it all, and leave with no regrets.

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