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Love in Unexpected Places - My Experiences Traveling & Teaching English Abroad
Written by: Kristine Bolt
Last Updated: July 19, 2021
I love my job. That's something I never said before a few months ago, and I've been working for almost twenty years! And I'm saying it about a job that, as a teenager, I swore to my mom that I would never do. Ah, the folly of youth. But let's back up so you can catch up.
After spending sixteen years chasing after and achieving my society-mandated corporate dream, I got booted out of my last corporate job; they called it redundancy, I call it salvation. Then, as a house of cards collapses, so the rest of my world imploded after my career liberation: a decade-long relationship ended, and because of the job loss and the failed relationship, I decided that everything else had to go too. I sold the house on the hill and the luxury car; I gave away the fancy furniture; I donated two-thirds of my clothes and shoes and moved into my parents' house. Honestly, as difficult as the hit to my ego was, it was all a salvation.
Thankfully, instead of going to pieces, I said goodbye to the dead dreams and decided that I needed a re-start. The first thing I did was to spend a couple of months trotting around the world alone, to places I had always wanted to see but had never made the time or had the courage to visit alone, since the people in my life had no interest in those places. I also ruminated on what to do with my life. No matter how I looked at it, I kept coming back to wanting to travel and help people. Based on these two criteria, I decided that I should work in international development.
For anyone who has tried to get a foot in that particular door as a second career, you know how futile my efforts were. But eventually, I managed to find a volunteer position with an NGO in Indonesia. I happily packed my bags (and my hair products; I'm a Black woman, after all) and jetted off to start my new life.
First Stop: Culture Shock
When I arrived in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in late January 2016, I was still on an emotional high from summiting Mount Kilimanjaro the week before. Yes, on the way to starting my new life, I made a pit stop to climb the highest mountain in Africa by myself, with only a guide and a crew of porters. After all the recent hits to my self confidence, I needed reassurance that I wasn't a quitter, that I was valuable, and that I could accomplish what seemed to be an impossible dream. Kilimanjaro did all of that for me and more.
But in Banda Aceh, I was stunned to find myself living in circumstances that quickly killed my Kili high. Think household pests and years worth of grime. Additionally, because of my skin colour, I attracted a lot of attention. A. Lot. Most people weren't too offensive about it, but there were a couple of incidents that left me enraged and shaken. There was the one with the crowd of eleven women who almost overwhelmed me, putting their hands in my face. Then there was the one with the school boys stoning me from behind a wall. There were some cultural differences too, but I won't get into details. Suffice it to say that I was happy when the NGO transferred me to Jakarta three months later. There, my living conditions also weren't great but everything else was fine.
Meanwhile, the NGO I was volunteering with was a straight up mess. Still, I put my head down and did my work to the high standard that I had learned during my corporate years. I did administrative tasks but one of my major duties was teaching English to disadvantaged children. I found, to my surprise, that this was the one part of my job that I truly enjoyed. About twenty years before, my mom had suggested teaching as a career path for me and I had scoffed at the idea because, as I told her, I didn't have the patience and tolerance necessary to be a good teacher. Secretly, I also thought that there was nothing glamorous about teaching. I can admit now that, back then, the society-induced dream that I had adopted for myself could not be achieved through the career path of a teacher.
So there I was in Indonesia, shocked to my core that my favorite part of the day was the few hours I spent teaching children. I knew I wasn't doing an excellent job of it, but I still loved it. I did some research to find how I could become a great English teacher, stumbled upon International TEFL Academy and did the online TEFL course in my few hours of downtime. The timing was perfect, since I was teaching six days each week and could immediately put into practice the theories that I was learning, while simultaneously completing my practicum.
It was around this time, about four months into my time in Indonesia, that I finally realized that I had been in culture shock that entire time, and was just coming out of it. I was taking a few days off, riding in the back of a car through the Yogyakarta countryside, when it hit me that I liked almost everything about Indonesia: the country, the people, the food. As I stared sightlessly out the car window at the shockingly green fields, I realized that I had allowed the experiences that I'd had with the poorly run NGO to color my attitude and experiences. I also realized that I had allowed my run-ins with a few ignorant people to hurt me deeply, which meant that I had given them more power than I ought.
I gladly emerged from my culture shock and enjoyed the next six months in that country.
As my time in Indonesia was coming to an end, I started job hunting in the international development field again, still thinking that was the only field through which I could make a difference in the world and satisfy my wanderlust. After a few fruitless months of searching, part of which I spent back in my home country, the proverbial light bulb finally came on over my head and I remembered that I was a certified teacher of English as a foreign language. I know, right? Duh. What can I say? Sometimes I'm a little slow.
In any case, once the light bulb went on, I wasted no time switching my focus to where it should have been all along. After a few weeks, several applications, and a couple of interviews, I landed the job I now have in Yakutsk, Russia. I re-packed my bags (and more hair products) and happily hared off to the far northeast of Eurasia.
There was no hint of culture shock for me. Since this is the coldest inhabited city on Earth and I come from a warm (but mostly hot) Caribbean island, this could be surprising but actually isn't, for three reasons. Firstly, the language school where I work is highly supportive of its foreign teachers, doing everything it can to help us adjust to the new environment, which is different from anywhere any of us could ever come from, except maybe Antarctica.
Second, I learn from my mistakes. I came into this new experience with my Indonesian mistakes and resulting resolutions fresh in my mind. For instance, I choose not to take offense if someone behaves ignorantly because of my skin color. Also, I've come to accept that I'm somewhat of an anomaly; I go to places that fascinate me, and it so happens that I often stand out in those places. Any reasonable person is fascinated by and looks at an anomaly. So now I just pretend as if I don't notice the staring because I can't blame people for doing what comes naturally.
Third, I've learned to approach new experiences with an open mind, without imposing my own expectations on it. Other than having a clean place to live, I'm down for whatever. I'll try the food: reindeer or raw frozen horse liver. I'll go to local events: dog sledding in winter or a summer solstice festival in June. I'll adjust to the conditions of life: in winter I have to wear ski pants to walk one hundred meters to the shop, in late spring and early summer I wear an eye mask so I can sleep through the white nights when the sun never sets.
I don't think I'll be a teacher for the rest of my life, but I am for now and that suits me fine because I love it. I love it all! Not just my job, but all of it! Simply because I've abandoned myself to the unique experience of life exactly where I'm at. And all it took for me to fully fall in love was an attitude adjustment.
A citizen of Jamaica who holds a Master's Degree in engineering from UC Berkeley, Kristine literally traveled halfway around the world to teach English in Siberia, Russia after earning her TEFL certification online from International TEFL Academy. As an ITA Alumni Ambassador, Kristine has shared her perspectives on a variety of TEFL-related issues to help others with their transition of moving abroad to teach English overseas.
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