Born In Istanbul: An Account of My Life After Teaching In Turkey

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Let me be the first to assure you that life after teaching abroad does exist. But I’ve learned that “life” has countless definitions. And let it be said, life before, during, and after teaching abroad are three very different states of being. Allow me to explain...

Life Before Teaching English Abroad

My first attempt to soar across the Atlantic was short lived. Fall term of junior year, a woman at the study abroad office crushed my dream of venturing in Italy as she circled the number “$18,000” on a brochure and pushed it in my direction. I politely told her the price was well beyond the depth of my wallet before walking away with tears in my eyes.

Two years flew by, but my wanderlust didn’t fade. Days spent working in a fast-paced agency offered no solace to my failed attempt of studying abroad in college. Lunch hours at work served as my afternoon escape from the mantra work, sleep, work. I browsed travel blogs, googled exotic destinations and lived vicariously through others’ travels until it was time to clock in again.

Fast-forward through several months of incessant daydreaming to when my friend announced he had quit his job, pulled out a map and placed his finger on Barcelona. Dozens of questions poured from my fingertips in my initial email to him. In short, his response was “International TEFL Academy.” 

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Life while Teaching English Abroad

February 22, 2013 is my self-assigned second birth date. It's the day I landed in Istanbul, Turkey, and truly came alive. Prior to setting foot in Atatürk Airport, I’m not sure I had ever experienced full-body terror. However I recall a wise woman once telling me, “Moments of full-body terror are often followed by moments of full-body joy,” which perfectly sums up my transformation.

Living abroad isn't easy. Isn't necessarily glamorous. And isn't right for everyone. I, however, found that once my initial fear dissipated, I uncovered an energy that had been suppressed by the echoes of advice: “Go to school, start a career and follow suit with the rest of society.”

Instead, I found myself immersed in a culture bearing virtually no similarities to the “world” I had come to know in America. Stand in the middle of Taksim Square on any given day, and the Call to Prayer rings in your ears. A deep inhale offers the scent of roasting doner kebap. And a 360-degree scan of the area reveals people from all corners of the world, areas I didn’t even know existed. It was this exposure to these unfamiliar cultures, people, and landscapes that brought me to life.

Life after Teaching English Abroad

This brings me to my original statement that life after teaching abroad does exist,  which begs the question, “How has your life changed?” Well, friend, let me tell you, it’s changed a lot. From an outsider’s perspective I may appear unchanged. I look the same, talk the same, and work in a similar job to the one I was in when I uprooted two years ago. But that’s only on the surface.

Delve deeper and you’ll uncover someone full of stories. I can’t help but smile when I talk about the elderly man who closed down his shop and drove me across town to the laundromat that I couldn’t find on my own. Or the time a pod of dancing dolphins emerged from the wake of my Asia-bound ferry boat. And I’ll never forget the young girl who didn’t speak English, but threw her arms around my waist and whispered “kız kardeşim” (my sister).

Overall, I left Istanbul with an understanding that nothing is as it seems. By that I mean my preconceived ideas of Turkey couldn’t have been further from the truth. I realize that until I’ve set foot somewhere, I haven’t the faintest idea about what it has to offer. This realization now fuels my wanderlust. I want to travel to more places simply to unveil the truth.

Imagine looking at a single 4x6 photo. Your frame of reference is limited to what the camera captured. But what exists to the left of the frame? And what lies beyond the eye of the camera? Until you physically visit the place where the photo was taken, you can never accurately imagine what the camera failed to capture, be it the people, culture, landscape or vibe.

The change can’t be told in stories or shown in pictures. No single instance or encounter prompted the shift. It was a gradual process resulting from an extended amount of time in a unfamiliar place. I’m not sure what the future holds, but I do know that my decision to teach in Turkey has made my life richer and more colorful than if I had stayed on a beaten path.

So to those of you standing at a fork in the road, let the words of Mark Twain guide your decision: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do.” Take the plunge!

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