There are many articles out there about what it takes to be an ESL teacher, how to prepare for your journey overseas, and other aspects. These are important things to research to help you navigate the often complex pathways to your final destination. You may have also read about teachers dealing with culture shock abroad. Culture shock is completely normal and not something you should shy away from. And yes, you can overcome it. Before you begin your journey into ESL teaching overseas, read my 3 key attributes for overcoming culture shock while living and teaching English abroad.
These attributes are based on personal experience and my own inferences from my four years as an ESL teacher in China. Knowing that every person is different, not all of my conclusions may apply, but I still believe they are valuable for consideration.
I started my journey as a short term experience, but after two years of teaching and traveling around China, I realized that I had found my calling as a teacher and my love for China. Once I decided to teach ESL as a full-time career, I did some soul searching. As you live and work with other foreigners (expats), you come to understand that while living and teaching English abroad is a life changing experience, many expats I met encountered culture shock and negative feelings as they moved beyond the honeymoon period of their time abroad. In the honeymoon period everything is new and exciting. There is adventure around every corner. Getting lost on back streets and accidentally finding a new adventure is part of the allure of your decision to leave your home country. The smile seldom fades from your face, even during difficulties. Sadly, that honeymoon stage does not last forever. Instead, the new and fascinating turns to normalcy and everyday activities. You find yourself in a routine. Sure, there is still adventure. You are still in a foreign land and adventures are still available. If nothing else, your local language development is not remotely fluent, so daily challenges still await you every time you step out the door. The normalcy comes when you finally figure out how to overcome the initial excitement and difficulties that expats encounter. You find a regular schedule and routine for your life. No longer does one regularly remind themselves that they are in a foreign land that is at opposite ends of where they came from. As such, old habits and thinking from your former life come creeping back into your new life abroad and you start to see aspects of your new surroundings in a negative light. This is called culture shock.
3 Key Attributes to help you overcome culture shock
The important thing to remember is that culture shock and negative feelings are completely normal and you can overcome them. In my experience, it comes down to how you view life. There are three key attributes that will help you overcome culture shock and keep negativity from entering your consciousness: understanding your host country, breaking down preconceived ideas you have about people and the world, and keeping all options open for consideration.
1. Understanding your new home
The first attribute you should possess as a person living overseas is an understanding of where you are and that it is not your native land. The famous line from the Wizard of Oz, “I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore, Toto”, rings so true. Nearly every day, I have to tell myself TIC (This Is China). It reminds me that I am living in their land. They are not the ones that need to conform and understand my way of life; I am the one who needs to transform to their ways. This does not mean that I have to become Chinese. That would be virtually impossible. Instead, it means that I have accept that things are going to be different. As long as you keep this in mind, the daily struggles and frustrations can mostly be kept under control.
2. Be open-minded and get rid of stereotypes
Another important attribute is an open-mind and rejection of stereotypical thinking. Many have a preconceived ideas of what Chinese people are like, what the government is like, and what the country itself is going to be upon arrival. Once you get settled into the country (or any country for that matter), you realize that stereotypes are often inaccurate, and stuck in a time warp from the past. One quickly realizes that your thinking needs to be revamped. How you change your stereotypes often can influence how your overall experience will turn out. If you focus those changes only on the negatives, then your changed stereotype will manifest negatively. The opposite is true for positive thinking. Within my first year in China, I realized that learning the language was far too complicated to tackle, especially since I thought I was only going to be in China for no more than two years. A friend then suggested that I begin to learn about Chinese culture and traditions. I took that advice. After doing my research and applying it to my experiences, I soon realized that I was able to cope with the language barrier and the difficulties in adjustment to Chinese life. It allowed me to understand the “why” and “how” of the ways the Chinese did things. I could see how their past influenced their present. I understood why they do some things so differently than in my home country. The frustrations and peculiarities that other foreigners found adjusting to a new culture made sense to me. It was not rudeness, impoliteness, or any of the other accusations that my foreigner friends were using to condemn Chinese habits and actions; it is just who they are and the lifestyle that has been part of their 5000-year history. Once I came to this conclusion, all was right with the world as I saw it.
3. Appreciate other viewpoints
Last, but definitely not least, a great attribute to have is the ability to consider other ways of viewing the world and maintain a moderate philosophy on all things. Sticking to one way of seeing the world taints your thinking. When you enter a culture and society that is far different from the one you were raised in, one of two things can occur. If you are on the far reaches of an ideology, your scope of vision become narrower. It can be hard to see the large picture that lays outside of your vision. Your thinking is very targeted and your philosophies are hardened to that vision. On the other hand, a moderate way of thinking, a middle of the road life philosophy, allows a foreigner to understand and comprehend new and different views. This is not to say that a moderate thinker accepts and adopts such views. Instead, the person allows these new experiences to further enrich their thinking. It is important to remember that everything is not black and white. The grays in life are what make life exciting and unique.
These are just three attributes that I believe a long-term foreigner should possess to become acclimated to a new life abroad. There are many more attributes that can assist in that acclimation. I think the overall key is to have faith and understanding that people throughout this world are more alike than different. Their wants and needs are not much different from mine. They all want to get through this life as best they can while supporting themselves and their loved ones. How they achieve that goal may be very different from others, but it is a common goal. My Chinese friends wake up each morning, go to work, go home to enjoy their personal lives, and go to bed, much like most people in the world. With this in mind, I can accept the difference and enjoy the similarities. I will have the debates over the things that separate us. But, I can also appreciate the other point of view and accept that I may not always be right. After all, isn’t that what makes us part of the global society and honored members of the human race?
Written by Bill Gain
Bill Gain is an Oxford Seminars TESOL/TESL/TEFL Graduate who has been an ESL teacher and blogger in China for three years. For most of his life, he has worked with young people in recreation and special events. He has a bachelor’s degree in Communication/Public Relations and a master’s degree in Recreation and Special Events Programming.