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.
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?
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.
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 email@example.com.)
Speaking the language of the host country is on every international school teachers’ mind.
How great to speak the language of the host country well enough so that you are able to have some local friends who may or may not know English! You might say that is every international school teachers’ goal when they move abroad. Communication is the key, and knowing the language will also give you direct insight into the host country’s culture.
Many international school teachers do their best to fit in. Meeting new friends or going on dates in your new country is difficult, if you rely only on English language capabilities of the locals. That is why taking language classes and dedicating some of your weekday evenings to attending them is very advisable. Until you reach a comfortable level of proficiency when you can converse with the locals (at the market for example), it is important to find some of them that might speak English, especially during the first few months.
Everyone marks well in their head, their very first successful conversation in the new language. It is a tremendously liberating experience, which is inspiring one to pursue their way to a high-level speaking fluency and understanding without stuttering and asking people to speak slower.
Out of the 60 comments topics on each school’s profile page, there is one specifically about languages. It is called: “Languages of the host city and the level of English spoken there.”
From the Hong Kong International School (62 comments) school profile page.
Currently we have 150+ submitted comments in that comment topics on a number of school profile pages.
Here is a sneak peek at a few of them:
“The level of English here is intermediate I would say. Some taxi drivers know a lot and some don’t know very much. The people working in stores know an intermediate level of proficiency. People speak Italian here, but that is not to say that there aren’t people speaking other languages. There are many dialects of Italian that people speak.” – American School of Milan (Milan, Italy) – 23 Comments
“Spanish is the main language but you can get by with very minimal language skills. Most restaurants have English menus. Many taxi drivers can understand some English. In the markets the venders are usually indigenous and speak Spanish as a second language so speak slower and use more limited vocabulary.” – The American International School of Guatemala (Colegio Maya) (Guatemala City, Guatemala)– 40 Comments
“With basic level of Chinese it’s easy to manage. With zero Chinese it’s also possible but lots of things will be missed and at times it’s tougher to deal with everyday issues.” – Western International School of Shanghai (Shanghai, China) – 162 Comments
“English is spoken only in the school. Korean is the dominant language, and many, many fewer people speak English than in places like Seoul, but there are still plenty of people who can help you communicate. Many menus are in English too even if the staff does not speak English.” – Global Prodigy Academy (Jeonju, South Korea) – 48 Comments
“You will enjoy your stay here much more if you can learn at least some basic conversational Japanese. Although they study English in high school, very few Japanese on the street that you might approach for directions will be able to speak to you in English.” – Hiroshima International School (Hiroshima, Japan) – 64 Commentscontinue reading
There’s an element of visiting home while living abroad that I call Misplaced Normal. It gives you a taste of the culture shock that everyone else that is just visiting your country feels when the norms that they carry with them don’t apply to their new surroundings.
When people first move to a new place, many things about our everyday life seem exotic and fascinating. It’s amazing how quickly we can adapt to change, though, and the exotic can very quickly become normal. So what does that do to us when we go home for a brief visit? As we move from one version of normal to the next, our behaviors change in subtle ways that we don’t always notice, and that sometimes make us do really dumb stuff.
I moved from the southeastern United States to Barcelona, Spain in 2008, and I quickly got used to lengthy lunches, going grocery shopping on foot, not owning a car, and living in a small apartment, all pieces of the Spanish lifestyle. When I visited my parents during the Christmas holiday, I couldn’t believe how quickly everyone ate, how much of a hassle it was to have to get in a car to go anywhere, and how pointlessly huge every department store, supermarket and home seemed. I had never noticed any of those things before moving overseas, but now they were blaringly obvious. I was carrying over the norms of my new home, and the place where I grew up had become strange.
I also found myself doing really stupid things, things that made sense in one setting, but not in another, and I did it all over again when I went back to work.
Misplaced normal while living in Spain had me talking a lot more loudly than anyone else when I visited the U.S., and not being hungry until restaurants were ready to close.
Misplaced normal while living in England had me driving in the wrong lane in parking lots and carrying an umbrella with me at all times.
Here is a recent example from my current home, Tanzania, on the eastern coast of Africa. I visited home for Christmas after only five months in Tanzania, yet I still took subconscious Tanzanian norms home with me.
In Tanzania the tastes of Christmas are golden mangos and papayas, because they are at their best around Christmas time. These are tropical fruits that grow in Tanzania’s tropical climate. That means December is hot in Tanzania. For my northern European friends, though, December means drinking hot mulled wine, simply because that was the taste of Christmas for them. It was what they had always drunk at Christmas time since, because it’s really cold in northern Europe in December. That’s what was normal. Two friends from England invited friends over for mulled wine shortly before the December break. We drank some very good mulled wine and did a lot of sweating. Why would we do such a silly thing? It was our misplaced normal.
In Tanzania there isn’t enough money on the local level for the police force to have their own cars, or even radar guns to keep people from speeding. Instead, huge speed bumps are put in at seemingly random places, marked by paint on the road. Within a few weeks, the paint wears off and isn’t replaced, so driving slowly to avoid flying over an unnoticed bump and losing pieces from the bottom of your car keeps your speed down. Where there aren’t any speed bumps there are huge potholes and wildly driven buses that pull over at seemingly any intersection to squeeze in more passengers, often not really coming to a full stop before swerving back onto the road again.
Visiting my family in the U.S. my misplaced Tanzanian version of normal driving had me going down a local highway at 20 miles per hour above the speed limit. I had grown used to driving at the fastest speed that was physically possible while avoiding reasonable danger in Tanzania, but that version of normal makes you go really, really fast on a smooth, well-maintained highway in the United States.
Water is not safe to drink out of the tap in Tanzania, because of bacteria, so clean water is carried around the city in huge tanker trucks and everyone I know has a water dispenser with the big five-gallon bottles on them. Visiting my family in the U.S., I kept getting a glass out of the cabinet and looking around for a water dispenser. My parents have had the same house for over 30 years, and have never had a water dispenser. Why was I looking for one now? It was misplaced normal yet again.
When I came back to Tanzania for work after a mere two weeks back home I nearly wrecked my car because I had forgotten where those large, unpainted speed bumps were. I also nearly drank a glass full of water straight from the bathroom tap, a mistake that I never came close to making before my visit home. Why would I do those stupid things? The norms of home had so quickly taken root again that I had to go through yet another round of adjusting my normal, and even though I am fully aware of it, I know that every time I visit home I will still misplace my contradictory versions of normal all over again.
This article was submitted by a veteran international school teacher and International School Community member, Jonathan Park.continue reading
The beginning of new a phase of life is often a time for reflection–thinking about where one has been and where one is going. I would like to share some of the questions I have learned to ask myself with regard to retirement; something I never seriously considered until I was 50 when life events compelled me to do so.
When I walked out of the school door for the last time at the end of June last year, I knew that another door was opening to the next adventure because, for me, teaching in an international school has been a series of adventures. Retirement was, finally, a reality after 38 years of non-stop teaching, with only a 4 month maternity leave back in the 70s.
My first and only international school teaching position began in 1975 in what was then a small international school in a pleasant little northern European country. I never imagined that I would stay, make the new country my home and eventually retire there. What’s more, I certainly didn’t think much about retirement planning along the way. I was too busy working, doing the family thing, and traveling. I was also learning to deal with the challenges presented by living in a different culture, with different traditions and a new unpronounceable language to learn. I quickly learned that the host country had expectations of someone who comes to stay—integrate, or else. As time passed, I also found out that I was different from the teachers who moved from country to country. Sometimes I envied them because their lives seemed more exciting and exotic than mine.
Many years passed, the marriage ended when I was 50 and suddenly I was faced with sole responsibility for my financial future. Fortunately, I had been married to a man with sensible economic values; he understood the national tax and financial system and kept our family economy balanced while saving for the future. Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying attention. 16 years later I am still learning lessons.
At about the same I was active in the International Schools Curriculum Project and subsequently, the IB-Primary Years Programme. This work enabled me to connect with other international colleagues, and the curriculum focus on inquiry pedagogy provided an intellectual tool for posing questions from multiple perspectives. This has helped me become a more critical thinker and I constantly remind myself that if I don’t pose the right questions, I won’t get the information or answers I need. The international professional network and critical thinking skills are two key elements that I continue to value greatly.
To make a long story short, these are some of the questions that I have posed and reframed along the way. They might give a clue to some of the issues I have considered when choosing to retire in country other than my country of origin.
• Where do I want to retire? Where can I afford to live? Where do I feel I fit in and can have a good life?
• Will I buy or rent? Will I have multiple residences?
• When will I retire? How will age of retirement affect retirement benefits?
• What will my total retirement benefits be? How will I collect funds if I have worked in many different countries? • Will they all add up to enough to live the life to which I have become accustomed?
• If my present school doesn’t provide a retirement plan, how do I save or invest my money? How do I protect myself against economic down-turns?
• If my school does have a retirement plan, how and when do I get the money paid out?
• Will I still be able to travel as much as I want to? How will I balance my own travel wishes with visits to the family back in the home country?
• Will I work part-time? Be a consultant? Volunteer?
• Do I qualify for the national pension of my adopted country? What are the residence qualifications if I am not a citizen of the country?How do I feel about citizenship, especially if becoming a citizen of the adopted country gives better retirement benefits? Do I qualify for citizenship?
• How I can I balance major planned and unexpected expenses—medical and dental, home maintenance, accidents, natural disasters, etc—with my wish to travel often? (recent personal example: new fridge/freezer + new glasses + new washer = 3 round-trip air tickets between northern Europe and USA)
• Am I covered by the national health care system? Is it of a good quality and reliable? Do I need supplementary medical/dental insurance? Accident insurance? Does my credit card offer comprehensive travel insurance?
• Am I comfortable with the language, culture and traditions of the country in which I choose to retire?
• What sorts of creative affordable travel are there to explore? How can keep earning frequent flyer miles?
• Do I have a personal network, local and international?
I continue to ask these questions and many more. It is never too early to think about retirement and some sort of planning makes it easier to predict what might be possible. If you are a career international school educator, most likely you will want to continue to travel. One of the hardest adjustments for me is that living on a fixed income often presents difficult choices. However, I am very determined and persistent and am developing some very resourceful strategies to get what I want. Am I enjoying retirement? Yes!!
This article was submitted by International School Community member: NordicLifercontinue reading
I always hope that somebody will care every year I go home, but every year most of them don’t. (Ha ha!)
It is not because they really don’t care though, it is mostly because most just don’t fully understand the international/expat life you are living. Very rarely do the conversations that I have relate to my life living abroad. Hardly do we even talk about the amazing trips that I have been on the past year! (Oh, the things I have seen! It is hard to talk about your trips without giving an impression of bragging though.)
We indeed live a life that is a foreign world to us, so different from where we were born and raised. On the other hand, so many people in this world still just stay living very close to where they were raised. When I look at my home-country friends and relatives, most are living in the same city they grew up in or in the city just next to that one. (Why do we feel the need to escape our home towns?)
And of course, so many people are saying that such a high percentage of people in the United States are without a passport (is it true for the American people you know??). Being that these friends and family that you know maybe haven’t had so much experience living abroad or even traveling abroad, you would think that would make them even more interested in your international life…but that isn’t always the case.
I guess when you go home, you spend most of your time just reminiscing about the good times of the past, of when you used to live there maybe. Most of the conversations you have also are just normal ones, talking about day to day things (e.g. the weather, etc.).
Sometimes your friends and family dominate the conversation with updates from their life, which of course you are curious about as well. You want to get the lowdown on their lives being that you are only there visiting with them for typically such a short time. I mean they haven’t seen you in awhile as well, and they are excited to see you and catch you up on their lives.
Though it is truly so nice to go back home and catch up with everyone, little do your friends and family realize or understand the reverse culture shock you may be experiencing when you go back home, even if it is the 8th time you have come home in 10 years (let’s say) that you’ve been abroad.
International school teachers live a dual life basically. The fact is…that we live most of the year in our host country; eating our host country food, hanging out with our host country friends, being surrounded by a foreign language and culture, living in our host country apartment, using and thinking in a foreign currency, etc. When you visit your home country, you really want to tell people in your host country about those things! Some will listen though, when it comes up naturally in the conversation, but it is usually a fleeting moment…not giving you time to share as much as you would like.
This article is not meant to make fun of or hate on our home country friends and family, but it meant to express our feelings of how an expat teacher might feel and how they might think in their head as they go home for the holidays. When you are living abroad for so long, it is so nice (and important) to see and catch up with your family and old friends. How do you feel when you go home to your host country, in your conversations with your friends and family about your life living abroad?