So, you have your ESL teaching certificate; you have done all the research on the country you want to live in; you have a job lined up in that country; you have begun the tedious job of getting all your paperwork and travel arrangements in order; you have narrowed down your life to fit in a few suitcases. Now, you are just waiting for departure day; you think you are ready to go and take on the world as an adventurous, globe-trotting teacher. Well…If you are like many expats, you’ve forgotten one major thing to learn and do: preparing for life alone in a new place.
1. Cooking Your Own Meals
One of my most important travel tips for any future world traveler: learn how to cook! If you don’t know the basics of cooking a meal, you had better learn them. I’m not talking about fancy recipes or preparing a Thanksgiving dinner, and I’m not talking about how to make a bowl of cereal or college staple foods such as Ramen noodles or Mac and Cheese.
In some countries, you might be out of luck in finding many western style foods. But, that does not mean that you should restrict yourself to eating street food or eating at restaurants every day. That gets old very quickly. I have heard from my Chinese friends that when they went to America – despite all the great foods available – by the fourth or fifth day, they were desperately seeking an authentic Chinese restaurant.
Start by learning the basics. Frying eggs, cooking meat, making a meal from vegetables and simple food preparation are great skills to have. Case in point. I had arrived at my first teaching position. It was a small town in China. I went to the market to stock my new apartment. You might be shocked, but there were not wide choices of American style foods lining the shelves. Instead, there were rows and rows of different kinds of soy sauce, cooking oils, rice wine, and prepackaged foods. I had no clue what they were. Even the fruits, vegetables and meats often looked like they came from another planet. My first month, I ate at restaurants and street vendors. But, my tastebuds and my wallet quickly grew tired of this.
Now, to be honest, I have been cooking for myself for decades. With the help of a friend I made in China, and my own cooking skills, I began experimenting and developing some awesome meals at my new apartment. Cooking for yourself is a great skill to have when living in China, or any other country for that matter. Not only does it give you more variety and allow you to save money, but provides another avenue to explore the culture and cuisine of your new home abroad.
2. Doing Laundry While Teaching ESL in China
I’m not sure why, but clothes dryers are very hard to come by in China. They have washing machines, but no dryers. Everything is hung outside to dry. “Oh”, you are saying to yourself as you read this, “that’s fine. I can dry my clothes outside.” You probably can. But, Chinese washing machines can have their own quirks as well. The machines often only use cold water and the instructions are only in Chinese. And, they have so many setting on them that it makes setting an old VCR’s clock look like child’s play. Be sure to utilize your translation app or bring a friend with some knowledge of the language to help you the first few times.
One final thing to consider: what if you are in a country that does not have many washing machines? Do you know how to wash clothes by hand?
When I was a college student studying for a semester in Mexico, I had to learn to wash clothes by hand using a scrub brush, washing board, and a bucket. It can seem difficult at first but it is a great skill to have before you move to your new country.
3. Getting Medicine and First Aid in China
Planning is everything as an expat teaching English in China. This includes taking care of your health in a foreign land. If you need prescription medicines, you will need to ask your doctor for the medical terminology or name of the medicine, rather than the brand of medicine. Use a translation app or find a Chinese speaker to make sure you can get the medicine translated properly into the Chinese language. Although the translations are seldom 100% accurate, after a few attempts, your message will be understood. After all, language is more about context than content in many situations you find yourself in. For over-the-counter needs, do some research ahead of time. There are many websites that help expats with these type of issues.
I brought some basic medicines with me to China. But, I only brought enough to last me one year. I have decided to stay in China, going on my third year now. Using translation programs, Chinese friends, and playing charades with the pharmacists and clinic workers, I have been able to overcome the language barrier and get the medicines I need.
4. Finding and Using Technology in China
Life as an expat is so much easier today than it was just ten years ago. Cell phones, laptops and the internet are your best friends. Language translation apps and map programs should be installed on your phone before you leave or shortly after you arrive.
If coming to China, it’s very important to find apps that are not Google based. It’s best to find apps that can be operated offline. Believe it or not, the internet is not everywhere in the world. And, make sure you find a good quality VPN. I recommend you buy a VPN service, instead of the free ones. You might need to buy a new phone when you get to your new country. If your items do not match the voltages in your new country, be sure to get an adapter or find replacements. I forgot about the power difference in electricity here in China. I plugged my computer speakers into an outlet. Let’s just say, I never heard one note come through the speakers. What I did hear was me yelling for a fire extinguisher.
5. Stay Positive!
There are many more travel tips I could give you, but often times, you only have yourself to rely on in your new life abroad. Remember to stay positive. It will make you stronger and happier while you are in your host country. I’ve done pretty well in China without knowing the language. In retrospect, knowing the language would be much easier, but even after three years here in China, I still haven’t learned it.
Instead, I have learned the tricks of the expat trade in getting around and doing things. As an expat, we learn as we go. Having lived on my own for so many years in America, I had developed enough life skills to succeed here in China. Chinese people (and many other people) may put their pants on one leg at a time, like I do. But, the process of buying and caring for those pants can be a little different than in America.
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.