As recent graduate from university, I was overwhelmed with nervous excitement before moving to Thailand to begin my teaching abroad adventure. Although I had travelled previously, I had never experienced living abroad in a foreign place with new smells, new people, and customs. In addition to taking in a new culture, I was about to be thrown into an intensive ESL teaching program, and soon thereafter be instructing a class full of bright-eyed, young Thai students. To say that I was nervous is an understatement. But after going through the TEFL program and teaching my first semester successfully in Thailand, I can say that it has been and will continue to be one of the best experiences of my life, and I learned quite a few things along the way:
My smile is my greatest asset.
I’ve learned that there are three things that are universal almost anywhere I go: “OK,” “toilet,” and a smile. While the first two are excellent at helping me communicate, smiling has been the most effective. Whether it be asking for directions, ordering food at a restaurant, or trying to get a lower a price, things are much more likely to go your way if you have a smile on your face.
At home, my somewhat awkward habit of giggling often, sometimes at the wrong times, and smiling during uncomfortable moments may have seemed off-putting to some, but here in Southeast Asia it’s what’s gotten me through difficult moments. Smiling is especially essential here in Thailand, also known as “the Land of Smiles.” As a nonviolent culture, Thais tend to smile off awkward conversation and laugh off public embarrassment or confrontation. It’s not uncommon to have a Thai person just smile and laugh at an angry Westerner, instead of retorting back in an upset manner. Here, it’s much better to smile and laugh off mistakes, instead of getting angry, however hard it may be at the time.
While travelling, it’s important to know how to talk to people from different cultures and backgrounds. Over the past six months, I’ve realized that this is one of my strong suits. Smiling goes a long way!
I’ve gotten surprisingly comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Moving to a foreign country and becoming a primary school ESL teacher was scary for me and about as far out of my comfort zone as I could go. I’ve challenged myself every day since day one in Thailand. From trying to navigate the giant city of Bangkok, to teaching my first class of squirmy six-year-olds, to riding a motorbike for the first time, I’ve come a long way in conquering one fear after the another.
In addition to pushing myself in adventurous ways, living amongst people very different from myself adds to the uncomfortable feeling. Walking down the street, I’m often the odd one out, it can be hard to communicate what I mean to say, and things happen everyday that I don’t understand. While sometimes it can be frustrating, it’s mostly amusing. I’ve become very used to just going with the flow, and whatever happens, happens.
Now, I’m comfortable with trying new things, okay with being nervous and uncomfortable, and have a weird, yet steady peace of mind that everything will turn out okay.
I can handle anything life throws at me.
I won’t lie and say that living abroad is all sunshine and rainbows. The beginning of the first semester teaching in Thailand was hard. Dealing with new cultural norms, eating foreign food, living in an extremely hot climate, working with people who speak a different language, and teaching in a classroom for the first time took its toll. Dealing with all of these elements can be quite stressful and overwhelming at times. There were even moments during the first couple of months teaching at my new school that I just wanted to quit and go home, but I’m so glad I didn’t. Talking to my new teacher friends in Thailand that I made through the TEFL course was essential to making it through the tough times.
It was especially hard because I didn’t particularly like the school that I was placed at and it wasn’t the best working conditions, but I know I’m a stronger person after sticking it out. After all the twists and turns, I now feel that I can truly handle anything life throws at me.
Living and teaching abroad has pushed me far out of my comfort zone and forced me to learn as much about myself as I have about others here in this part of the world. Moving to a foreign place has made me a stronger and more confident individual, and I can take the things I’ve learned in the past six months with me wherever I go next, wherever that may be!
Siobhan is a fresh graduate who traveled abroad to teach English in Thailand. While living in Thailand, she discovered great things about her that she never knew she had. An adventure worth cherished!