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The International Educator Expat Experience: Where Are You From?

November 9, 2017


This seemingly simple question is profoundly deep. It is not simply about geography. It is who you are, as an individual—your values, your priorities and so much more. If you have been in international education for long, chances are that you struggle to answer this question, or preface your response with, “originally….”

As I began contemplating the question, I began considering, “How do I know who I am?” So being a slave to technology, I turned to Google. The very first result that popped up, was, “Find a therapist.” Really?! No! Perhaps a different approach is more useful.

International educator

Geert Hofstede, a well-known Dutch social psychologist, has spent much of his career investigating how culture is defined, how individuals fit into them and how the cultures we are exposed to affect us. His conclusion is that “Culture is not biological… [it] is learned.” (Hofstede)

International education epitomizes a unique culture of adventure, open-mindedness, adaptability and flexibility. This article focuses on how to capitalize on these traits to become even better educators and more well-rounded individuals.

“No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.” Mahatma Gandhi. From the perspective of international educators, we understand that culture is not static, and that interaction, assimilation and accommodation keep the culture relevant and alive. Working in international education, we have opportunities to learn about and embrace the best of the cultures where we live and work. This gives rise to three questions: How can we harness these experiences to make us better teachers—better individuals? If we embrace new culture, does it fundamentally change who we are? Does assimilation of new cultural values, traditions, perspectives, etc., diminish the culture and geography of where we were born and raised?

International educator

How can we harness these experiences to make us better teachers—better individuals? Novelist and teacher, John Barnes advises, “… to learn a culture, you have to learn how to like what it likes, [not] go looking for something that you like.” Many of us as well as our students, both international and local, bring particular biases and stereotypes. By sharing our own experiences and asking our students to do the same, we can begin to build a new culture in our classrooms where diversity is something to be treasured. By creating a climate of curiosity rather than judgement, we are giving ourselves and our students, a gift that will enrich our lives.

Does the culture in which we live, fundamentally change who we are? In a word, yes—if we allow it. Is that a good thing? I would argue that there is most certainly a change, with tremendous potential to be a good thing. One of the most significant mistakes we could make is to close ourselves off from the culture that surrounds us. Be proactive. Learn the language. Learn about the traditions, the holidays, the beliefs, the food. Perhaps the change will affect our values and priorities, or perhaps we will find that the values and priorities of your host culture closely match our own.

International educator

Does assimilation of new cultural values, traditions, perspectives, etc., diminish the culture and geography of where we were born and raised? Absolutely not. International schools, by design, seek to highlight the diversity of the community. There will always be a part of us that will retain those characteristics, but it is the synthesis of all of our experiences that make us who we are. This synthesis is precisely why, for international educators, the question, “Where are you from?” creates a flurry of images and ideas, and rarely has a simple answer.

Think about your own experience. If you were to make a list of customs, foods, traditions, etc., that you miss from your home country and other countries where you have lived, which list would be longest? Does it change? We do “an ordinary job in extraordinary places.” (Sweat) Embrace the possibilities.

This article was submitted by guest author: John Brown.

(John has held both administrative and teaching positions for over 25 years, with the last ten being in international education. He is a well respected presenter at regional, national and international education and technology conferences as well as a consultant, who has helped set standards in teacher training and assessment, use of technology in the classroom, curriculum development and effective management practices. A graduate of Tarleton State University in Texas, USA, with graduate studies at North Texas State University and Texas Wesleyan School of Law, he is currently teaching IB Psychology and language acquisition and is the CAS Coordinator at an international school in Portugal. His current projects include development of an online tutoring system for Spanish, consulting on development of a National Language Policy for the United States, and research into the effects of early language learning on brain development. You can contact John at jbb0906@gmail.com.)