I want to go, but I'm afraid...
February 8, 2011 10:51 PM   Subscribe

I want to go overseas. I'm terrified of the prospect. Um, help?

So, based on this question and other factors, I'm in my second semester of a Master's program in English. I already have my TESOL certification as an undergrad, and armed with both, I think I can get a good job (not a crappy job) teaching English abroad.

Here's the thing. I really want to teach EFL overseas and experience other cultures and learn about the world other than vicariously through my international friends. However, I am terrified of the thought of leaving my native (USA) soil. I've traveled all over the USofA and really do want to see the world before my rebellious body decides that traveling isn't a good idea. (See here and here for descriptions of some of the issues I face).

So, I want to go, but I'm scared to go because I have these issues and honestly? I'm just afraid of that big of an unknown.

I guess what I'm looking for is someone to tell me the world out there is pretty much the same as the world right here and I don't have anything to be afraid of as long as I'm prepared. I suppose the solid question is, will I be able to receive the same treatments over there (wherever there is) for my bipolar as I do here, AND if need be, for my other ailments? Or, a better question might be, which countries should I be looking at? or should I just keep my happy self home?

Oh, and I know that countries like China and Korea are not on my list. I'm too old (44, and 30 is their general cut-off age). I've heard this from too many people (including job adverts) to dismiss it as fallacy. I was thinking of places like Turkey or Germany or I dunno, suggest something.
posted by patheral to Work & Money (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The world "out there" isn't the same as the world "right here", otherwise there wouldn't be a point to traveling. However, it's generally not a scary world. Confusing, sometimes, but by and large things function approximately as you would expect, and most of the people you meet will fundamentally be good, honest, helpful people even if they do things that are strange from your perspective.

Medical care in many parts of the world is better than medical care in the United States, so don't let that stop you.
posted by cmonkey at 11:02 PM on February 8, 2011

I'm not gonna say you should go to Korea or China, but it's just flat-out wrong to say that older people can't get jobs teaching English. I know literally dozens of people in their 40's, 50's and even 60's who have gotten hired to teach in China. There are definitely a few jobs that will prefer younger people, but not many of the jobs that people want.

Unfortunately, most of the countries in which an American can easily get a job do not have the kind of medical services you are probably used to, and frequently don't have the same attitudes about mental health that are common in the west.

If you have a degree and a teaching certificate that would let you teach in a public school in America, you might look into teaching in Hong Kong. They pay well, have excellent medical care and will allow you a balance of exotic and western lifestyles. I'm thinking specifically of a program they have to hire English language teachers to teach full-time in public schools, but I can't remember what it's called, it's been awhile since I lived there or read about it.

And at the risk of scaring you, life can be really, really different in other countries. It depends 100% on your situation, what you're looking to get out of it, but if you go to a non-English speaking country, it will be a huge change in your life. Almost everyone I met who made the jump seemed happy that they gave it a try, even the ones who ended up leaving just a few weeks or months after they got there.
posted by skewed at 11:04 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hmm. Well, I don't know what you mean by a "good" job rather than a "crappy" job. English teachers, even with certifications, are pretty plentiful everywhere. It'd be great if you explained what sort of conditions you'd want your job to have. You can support yourself in plenty of places, but there are lots of factors depending on the place - your age, the lifestyle you need, the sort of students and job you want, what you can handle physically, and so on.

As for medical conditions, in most places you won't have a problem, but you might want to research what the local "versions" of the medications you take are called. Frequently, they're the same drug, with a different name. You'll probably find health care cheaper and better, sadly (for Americans.)

Is the world out there pretty much the same as the world right here? That's a question worthy of debate, but for the most part, yes. There are lots of differences, but with the right attitude these are entertaining to learn about and learn to deal with. I remember your question about being out-of-shape and unable to walk as much as you'd like. This is one thing that you'll find quite different. I grew up in Europe and walked everywhere. Now I'm Americanized, and when I go back to Europe it seems shocking to me how much everyone walks, everywhere. I'm in good shape, but after a few weeks over there, I'm in great shape. I'm not a doctor so I don't know how much trouble you'll have with your conditions. It may be tough at first, but I suspect that after a while some of these conditions may be alleviated as you get in better shape through walking, walking, walking. With that in mind, I'd probably avoid certain places unless you really wanted to toughen up fast. Bosnia - it's all hills. Turkey - hot as fuck for a lot of the year. I'd go to a Baltic country (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia) or Hungary or Romania or Poland or Ukraine. But a lot depends on how long you want to be there. (For instance, a year in a smaller city might be great. Five years might be claustrophobic.) A lot depends on how much you want to learn the local language (some are harder than others) and what sort of friends and relationships you might want to forge.

But in general, your fears are a bit extreme. Most people who do this, unless they are total morons with weird expectations, consider it a high point of their lives. Would you want to miss that?
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:12 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your biggest hurdle, fear of the unknown, is totally normal. Let yourself feel that anxiety and acknowledge that it's part of the process. Reframe that feeling as excitement. Prepare yourself as much as you can, and jump in!

I've traveled to many countries and have often felt a sense of dread beforehand, with a strong urge to stay put where it's comfortable. But I know that I have never regretted the experience afterward. Once I familiarize myself with a new place, I wonder why I worried so much!

The way I look at it, if you don't feel that fear, you're not challenging yourself enough. How will you grow without ever pushing past your comfort zone? For me, the fear of regretting what I HAVEN'T tried is stronger than my fear of the unknown.

If it makes you feel any better, I'm about to undertake a similar quest (work/travel in Germany for a year) and you are way more qualified than me. I have no job lined up and barely speak the language. Am I scared? Hell yes! But I'm motivated and resourceful, and even if I fall flat on my face, at least I tried.
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 11:25 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, it is scary. But you are only letting yourself look at the fear right now...and missing seeing all the possibility for the good stuff! You will go and then find so much joy in the dumbest of things. You can't and won't be able to imagine what those things are right now, but trust me, THEY WILL HAPPEN EVERY SINGLE DAY. And every day that goes by, being scared is so much less of a big deal. What will be left is infinite space for all the good ways in which the world will change you.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:30 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The thing I think that a lot of people miss, is that travel doesn't make people better people by showing them The Sights, travel makes people better people largely by forcing them to confront fears like yours, doing it, facing problems, solving them, and learning firsthand that they can handle it. Learning that they can figure out problems and showing them that they don't need their cocoon any more - they can fly.

You are trapped by your fears, and your travels are going to demonstrate to you that you don't have to be trapped any more.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:02 AM on February 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: "Oh, and I know that countries like China and Korea are not on my list. I'm too old"

This is simply not true regarding Korea. The demand here is still quite high (although less than it was maybe three years ago). I'm 36 and teach at a university, and I have an MA but no sort of TESOL certification (I should probably take care of that sometime soon, however).

I have an adult student who is a Korean schoolteacher, and their English teacher is in his 60's.

Sure, you might not be as attractive a candidate for the hot-shot hagwon (private institutes) but honestly, you'll be much better off teaching in a public school or trying to get a university position. (An MA in English, especially if it's from a well-known American university, will instantly push you up the list.)

Here's the Catch-22 though -- colleges and universities in Korea want to hire somebody who's already here, so as to get you "cheap" by not having to buy you a plane ticket. And frankly, this is a difficult time to get the college and uni positions. I took a kindergarten job for a year knowing that I wanted to move up the totem pole, and it worked out perfectly. I definitely had to keep my ear to the ground for opportunities but typing this now in the middle of one of my two month-long vacations, I couldn't be happier. (In a hagwon you'll get ten days off tops in a year in you're lucky, and don't get sick, ever, or you'll be fired or have your pay docked for any days you miss.)

Korea is amazing. It's difficult at times, but if you're in a large city you'll have ready access to things like 7-11's (actually, not _like_ 7-11 but actual 7-11's), really good public transportation (subways are a breeze, buses take a little practice, taxis are cheap and safe), fastest internet you'll ever know (great for watching movies or listening to music from home when you're homesick), and other amenities.

The drawback? If you get stuck in a bad hagwon or public school you'll hate your life. The demands can be brutal and you'll often be judged not on your teaching ability and professionalism but on whether or not the kids like you. Pedagogical standards are way behind the times here which is funny given how strongly Koreans want their kids to learn English. There will be ups and downs but hey, why not give it a shot?

Me-mail me if you want more info.
posted by bardic at 12:51 AM on February 9, 2011

As for health-care in Korea, by law you'll be paying about the equivalent of 60USD a month into the ROK health system for full coverage (your employer sets this all up). You will have to make co-pays if you need service, but they are quite small and affordable compared to what you'd have to pay in the US.

Honestly, the hospitals are crowded and can seem a little old, but the level of care is top-notch. I actually walk around feeling much safer knowing that people in Korea go to a doctor when they're sick, as opposed to the US where people put off medical care because it's so expensive. If I blow my nose my boss asks me why I haven't gone to the hospital yet.
posted by bardic at 12:55 AM on February 9, 2011

I've had a health problem twice while overseas. The problems were nothing like what you have, but maybe it gives some insight?

The first time was in the Netherlands. I'd fallen off a curb and heard a cracking sound -- I was pretty sure I'd broken my ankle, which immediately swelled up to the size of my knee. The process was a little different (I went to a doctor, who sent me to a hospital for X-rays in a different area of town, then I returned to the doctor's office after buying some supplies at a drugstore because the doctor didn't stock them). Some other differences were that there was literally no wait at either places, and I paid out of the cash in my wallet -- can you believe that? A handful of X-rays, doctor's visit, and care for an amount that I could pay with my walking-around money? Both places were clean, the care was professional, and I had no problems at all.

The second time was in Dubai. I'm an ear-nose-throat nightmare, and after months of many long trips in planes I had a raging ear problem. I was in tears and a little nervous. The result was similar to the Netherlands, though. The process was a little different, but the facilities were clean (although a little sparsely decorated in this case, not that it's really important) and the care itself was excellent. Also like before, I paid with cash without it presenting the slightest problem to my finances.

So to sum it up: I felt that the care was equally good, the actual process was slightly different, but the cost was hugely less. The best lesson I've learned while traveling (and this is related to your fear, I think): Cultures are tremendously different, but people are generally the same. People are kind, and want to help when they can, and will help when they see a foreigner struggling.
posted by Houstonian at 1:53 AM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might want to look into Taiwan. I've been here for over twenty years and it's still good. When I was preparing to come, I was scared too. I taught English for the first couple of years, but not in the university. I know many older foreign English teachers here.

This site might give you some idea of what's going on: http://www.tealit.com/

Most gigs will include national health insurance which is very good.
posted by rmmcclay at 1:56 AM on February 9, 2011

All European countries and many asian countries offer better cheaper healthcare than the U.S. I cannot comment on south american countries but presumably the health care is top notch in the major ones, like Brazil and Argentina, which'll keep you far from the drug trade too. You might manage to shed some pounds too once you're living in a more walkable city and eating local stuff.

I'd honestly recommend that you investigate the country whose language you studied in high school or collage, i.e. Germany, France, Spain, Argentina, etc. Your two main concerns are then finding work and work visa issues, which while not scary, are potentially aggravating.

Germany has been by far the kindest country for American ex-pats in my own experience. You may literally turn up as a tourist, find an apartment, register your residence, find a job, and get your work visa & residence permit after you start work. Btw, you'll find that Germans generally speak English, making life there easy, but complicating learning German. I donno if their English proficiency improves or harms the market for ELF teaching.

By comparison, you must obtain a work visa for France while still in the U.S., meaning you must either find the job before moving to France, or else make a special trip back to the U.S. You should assume any country works like this until you can verify otherwise by contacting their consulate's visa section or reading it's website.

Btw, I've known one faculty member who ended up working illegally at a respectable Turkish university for many months, simply because the university didn't bother providing the visa paperwork. I'd therefore recommend double checking anything your prospective employer says with the consulate, especially if your going to a less well organized country like Turkey, Greece, etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:20 AM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a good friend with bipolar who has now worked in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, England, and the USA. In some places she found the health care system difficult to navigate (the UK, USA), but had excellent care everywhere, especially in Switzerland, and was always covered for healthcare expenses by her employers, or the public health system. Obviously she found some aspects of travelling more difficult than people without psychiatric problems might - changing time zones, not getting enough sleep, and overwhelming sensory situations (which include people surrounding her speaking foreign languages) can all trigger episodes for her, but most of those are short term issues when working overseas, as you aren't really travelling so much as living elsewhere longer term.
posted by lollusc at 2:50 AM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yep, I suggest sticking to countries where you have some familiarity with the language even if only in the most casual sense. It will help cut down on the fear and confusion. Recent expat myself and I constantly fight the fear of not belonging. It's worth it, though.
posted by melt away at 3:32 AM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you ever been to Canada? The best way to get over fear of the unknown is to come to know it, and about the least-stressful international travel I can think of is going to Canada, where about the biggest culture shock you'll run into is that they put weird stuff on their fries. If you stay close to the border, most places even take US money (and give you Canadian change!). Everywhere takes credit cards. But, you know, go there. Get a passport. Go through customs. Drive in kilometers and try not to speed. If you feel daring, go to Quebec.

And be like, hey, I successfully navigated a foreign country and went through the bureaucratic stuff and had the contact number for the local consulate and obeyed foreign laws and it was not that scary! And then maybe next time you fly to Western Europe on a cheap, off-season plane ticket, where it's safe and the cops are cordial and the laws are mostly pretty familiar and US credit cards work almost everywhere and the customs people speak English but it's more different. And gain a little more confidence in your ability to navigate foreign cultures. And think, "Okay, yeah, I could probably manage in country where not everywhere takes credit cards and I have to work a little harder to negotiate the local culture."

As they say, nothing succeeds like success. So take on a little non-scary foreign travel in very small steps and learn that you CAN do it.

And the nicest part is always when you go through customs coming back, and the US passport dude examines your passport, hands it back to you, and says, "Welcome home." It'll make you even more misty about your home soil. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:22 AM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you considered taking a vacation abroad for 2-4 weeks before jumping in to moving abroad to teach English over the long term?
posted by deanc at 8:18 AM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Eyebrows MgGee, I've actually thought of going to either Canada or Mexico just get the fear of going out of the country (and maybe flying - yes I have a horrible fear of flying) out of the way. But I have VERY limited funds (I hope to have about $5,000 saved by the end of this year, and that's what I'll have to make my life-changing decision with) and it's kind of an all or nothing thing I think.

The other language I speak most of (and that's a smattering of words) is French. I know a little less of Spanish. I'm considering Turkey because I've made a lot of Turkish friends lately and they've been giving me the hard sell on Turkey. But most of them have graduated and that's wearing off, so I'm more open to possibilities.

I don't have a teaching certification that will allow me to teach children here - that would require another two years of school which I just cannot afford. I also have very little actual teaching experience (I didn't get a teaching assistantship with this program). I do have the TESOL certification and I'll have my Master's in English. I hope that will be enough to get me in the door at reputable schools - and not English fly-by-night schools where the hours are long, the pay is low, and the company may go belly up at any moment (in other words, a crappy job).
posted by patheral at 10:55 AM on February 9, 2011

I dealt with similar fears before my first international move by reminding myself whenever I started to freak out, "I can always come back." You might not adjust well - it's not a failure, it's just a thing that happens sometimes. You can always come back.

But I really support the idea of going and giving life overseas a try.
posted by EvaDestruction at 11:31 AM on February 9, 2011

Response by poster: I guess the only thing to do is bite the bullet and go. I have a little over nine months to save, think, and plan... I want to do this. I will. *sigh* First step, I suppose, is to get a passport. Thanks for the answer y'all.
posted by patheral at 10:05 AM on February 26, 2011

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