Moving to another country is a big decision, even if it is only for a six-month or one-year contract. We hear about culture shock all the time and in my experience it always hits you when and where you don’t expect it. The first time I worked abroad was in Mexico but I was so mentally prepared to be lost at sea and confused by everything and anything that it never really happened (I also must credit a great group of teachers I worked with who became dear, dear friends).
No, I got the culture shock when I returned to Britain. I thought I’d be able to fit back in and suddenly I saw a lot of aspects of the culture that I didn’t like and that depressed me for a little while. I overcame that, adjusted and had a great couple of years down in Portsmouth on the south coast.
And then I moved again and it was with the job I just finished that I really had problems and this is what prompted this post. I feel I was unprepared both intellectually and emotionally for this job and I’ll explain why with this list of questions I should have asked with answers I should have based my decision on.
It’s difficult to know what to ask but here are a few suggestions and, as I said in my previous post (Part 1: The ‘Professional’ Questions) my best advice is to get solid answers. You aren’t stupid if you don’t understand the answers you get and don’t expect them to be any clearer when you arrive. If your potential employer can’t explain something clearly on the phone, Skype or an email, then you’re unlikely to get a better explanation in person. Also, if the answer really is that complicated then it probably isn’t the answer you are looking for.
Anyway, following on from the ‘professional’ questions…
Part 2: The ‘Social’ Questions
8. What is there to do where I will be living?
You’ve got to make sure you get specifics here and if the answers are not particularly forthcoming or seem a little bit thin, trust your instincts and your gut and realize that you are probably looking at a job which is in a really boring part of the world.
This is a difficult one to write about because sometimes there doesn’t need to be much happening in a town for it to be a great place to work and live, but things like cinemas, bars, restaurants, etc. all make things easier (at least they do for me). Sure, everywhere has got bars and restaurants, but would your employer recommend them? Does your employer have a favourite one? If not, then you can’t know if these places will be fun or even safe. (Obviously in Islamic countries this situation is a little different and I should make clear that I’m not writing with any experience of that area of the world.)
9. What do people do and where do they do it?
This is a very specific question and perhaps similar to my previous question but there are some differences and they are important. When you ask the first question, “What is there to do where I will be living?” the person you are asking is thinking about what you, the foreigner, can do. If you follow up with this question, you are forcing an answer which talks more about the natives of that town/city.
If you are told about some big event they have every year, that’s great… but what do people do for the other, 3 seasons, 11 months or even 364 days a year? If you are told about all these great places that people travel to at the weekend then you have to read between the lines: people don’t stay in that town/city at the weekends because there probably isn’t anything to do there! So you will need to accept that recreation and fun may need a little bit of travelling and English language teachers usually don’t have the luxury of cars in foreign countries.
10. How friendly are the people?
This might sound a little direct and maybe even a stupid question but it might be the most important question you ask. For me and probably for most people, a place is made up of its people. If you are going to be working somewhere for six months or a year you’ve got to have an idea of the people you’ll be living amongst.
If you have access to a car or a boat or whatever then there might be lots of things to do, but you aren’t going to have a car or boat so you must remember that you’ll likely be far more dependent on invitations from others to join them. If you are going to be travelling somewhere where the people aren’t so open and friendly then a lot of things which “you” can do won’t really be available to you.
This is a difficult question to get a real answer from but a few questions you might was to ask that are less direct are:
- How often do you all (the school staff) meet up for drinks, dinner or a picnic? (In other words, how sociable is the working environment going to be.)
- What bars/restaurants are close to the school that you’d recommend? What do they serve and how often do you go there?
- What clubs/organizations are there for me to join?
If the answers to these questions are not forthcoming, that should be a warning sign that there’s not much to do, or at the very least that your first contacts in this country, your work colleagues, will be unable to help you in this respect.
11. Take a look on Google Maps and, if available, take a look at Street View.
This is an obvious step to take but here the key is to look at what you are seeing.
12. How much English can I expect to encounter on the streets?
If you don’t have any of the language (or, like I was, you are a dodgy intermediate) then this is actually a very important question. Just how isolating is the lack of your native language going to be? In a lot of countries, the bigger cities are a haven for English-speaking while further out from the conurbations you might find it difficult to meet English speakers. You don’t want to have to teach every person you encounter when you are living abroad. Your classes are for teaching English, you then need to have one of the following things:
- A similar group of foreign teachers who you can relax with in English.
- A group of native friends who are proficient in English and you don’t need to worry about grading your language.
- An inexhaustible energy to wear your ‘English teacher’ hat 24/7 making every conversation a mini-English class.
- Fluency in the local L1.
- A determination to spend every waking moment improving your relevant L2 language skills.
- The ability to happily spend your off hours by yourself.
13. Where can I join language classes? How often and how much?
This shouldn’t be an optional extra which ‘would be nice’. See the above interview excerpt from Scott Thornbury to understand what I mean. I did ask about this before arriving but I accepted a very vague answer which really came to very little. If you want to learn the language then you should be stubborn about this and get some solid answers.
Are there language classes available at a local college or at the institute I will be working in? Quite possibly not. That’s okay, but then you need to ask to be put in contact with someone who will agree to teach you when you arrive.
How many people have they taught before? What level? What material do they use? What qualifications do they have? Qualifications aren’t a necessity and might be quite difficult to come by, but they can be a useful indicator.
Negotiate a price after you arrive and you have a better idea about the local money but everything else should be as clear as possible before you get on the plane.
And there it is, finishing on 13, unlucky for some. I hope you see that I’m not warning against travelling or working in other countries – nothing could be further from the truth. This post is about awareness, mostly my own awareness so that next time I look at a job abroad I’ll refer back to this list and hopefully make more informed decisions.