Discussion Topics

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.)

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Comment Topic Highlight

What is the best part of living in your host city?

September 16, 2016


Living and working in cities around the world can be very tiresome, confusing and stressful. On the other hand, it can also be wonderful, exciting and eventful.

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When you first move to a city there are so many new places to visit and restaurants at which to eat.  Even after a couple of years, there are still new places to check out and restaurants that you haven’t eaten at yet. If you are lucky, a new favorite place pops up every once and awhile.

Even after a short time of living in a city, there are certainly places that become your favorite. When your friends and family visit, you tend to take them on mini tours that go to these places. These places become a huge part of your ‘expat’ experience.

After moving away to a new city, you always think about the good times you had in your old city and the places you frequently visited. These favorite places truly become solidified in your memory of living in that city.

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The best part of moving away from a city you’ve lived in, is going back to visit. When you make a trip to return to a place you’ve once lived, your old favorite places are on the top of your ‘sight-seeing list’ during your visit.  And typically you don’t have as much time to see them all, so you truly find out which places were your really top ones. These really top ones are the must-go places that bring back old memories, and also help make new ones.

Most international school teachers can list off the best parts of living in their city. Some have longer lists than others (depending on their personality and the place in which they live), but there are always new and interesting things to check out and do…if you are getting yourself out to enjoy them.  The more local friends you get too, the more you can check out and hear out the ‘best places’ in the city from the people that truly know it well.

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Luckily, International School Community has a comment topic on our school profile pages related to what life is like in various cities around the world, so you can stay the most informed as possible. It is called: “What is the best part of living in this city for you?

Our veteran international school teachers have submitted a total of 69 comments in this comment topic (Sept. 2016).  Here are a few that have been submitted:

“KK is a very multi-cultural city. There are many different religions and ethnicities represented here. Because of this there is nearly always a festival or celebration going on. It is wonderful to see everyone celebrating them all. Muslims openly welcome Chinese, Tamil and Expats to their homes during Hari Raya. Everyone is welcome to attend the temple during Deepavali. And of course everyone always enjoys Chinese New Year and Christmas celebrations.” – Kinabalu International School (Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia)10 Comments

“Outside of school, there is a very relaxed pace of life. You will see people in the coffee shops, on the beach or just strolling the avenues all hours of the day. The food is excellent, and the wines are cheap and second to none. Forget the expensive Italian and French wines. Stick with the huge variety of portuguese wines and you can’t go wrong.” – Oeiras International School (Lisbon, Portugal)98 Comments

“Seisen is located in Setagaya ward, which is one of the greenest parts of Tokyo. You are never more than a short bike ride or stroll from Kinuta Park, Komazawa Park, Todoroki Gorge or the expanse of green along the Tama River bank.” – Seisen International School (Tokyo, Japan)66 Comments

“It’s hard to put your finger on. Bangkok can be infuriating. Travel can be tough off the Skytrain finding products you need, a real challenge and yet the city has a pleasant, almost relaxed vibe for a place of its size. The Thais are a fun loving people, there are some great bars and restaurants and if you search off the beaten track some architectural and historical gems.” – Rasami British International School (Bangkok, Thailand)75 Comments

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Highlighted Articles

Going back to a place you once lived – I almost cried!

July 9, 2016


People always ask me which of the three places (that I’ve lived in) was the best or my favorite. I never let a second past and respond by saying ALL of them!

I can’t pick a favorite. There, I said it! I just can’t. Each previous place that I’ve lived in means so much to me. Based on my experience, I think anywhere that becomes your home for 1, 2, 3, 10… years, will mean a lot to you.

Maybe it is because of all the memories (good and bad) that you have attached to the years you spent there. It is certain that you didn’t even realize that the things you were doing there were going to be such strong memory markers for your time there.  The food and food related experiences, the stores your shopped in, the school you worked at and your colleagues there, the day trips you took in and around the city you lived in, the old hobbies you did there and the new ones that you tried, your experiences learning and using the host country language, etc.  All of these situations will have strong emotions attached to them, and thus will be the things engrained in your memory.

Now is the test. If you truly think every place is your favorite and felt like your home, then what does it exactly feel like to go back to a place you once lived?

I have been lucky to go back to a place I’ve once lived a number of times, since I’ve lived there. Each time I go back, I have different experiences and feel different emotions. The last time that I went back though I found myself feeling very sad. I really felt like maybe it was a mistake to leave this place.  I have such a strong attachment to this city, its people and its culture. Though it has changed here and there since I left, I still feel like it hasn’t changed since I lived there.

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I miss the weather there, the mountains and the sea. I miss the sports I played there and the groups that I played with. I miss the friends that I used to hang out with there and the places that we frequented. I miss the really good friends that I had there and celebrated important holidays and traditions with. The list goes on…

With all these things that I miss, I really almost cried while walking down one of the main streets there with my old roommate (who still lives there by the way).  Of course, that feeling did eventually pass as my trip there was winding down and then eventually left to go back to my current host country.

The saying goes, you don’t know what you have until you’ve lost it. And maybe that is the case for me when I go back to this city. Though I must be honest and admit that it does seem unlikely that I would ever move back there, but I guess never say never.

Now I did mention that I’ve lived in three places in my international school teaching career. Beside the one that I referred to in this article and the one that I currently live in, there is still one that I haven’t discussed yet. The reason is because I have yet to return back to that country. I haven’t returned because I didn’t like my experience there, but I think I haven’t gone because you do need to pay a hefty price for their tourist visa. It is a poor excuse I guess for not going back for a visit, but that seems to be the reason right now.

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I do miss that place as well, but I wonder if I would have the same emotional experience there too while going back there to visit. For this second place that I lived, I do feel so lucky and honored to have had the opportunity to live there. Wherever I meet someone from that country, I always get excited and want to share all I know and remember about the culture and language. Luckily, I teach a number of students that are from that country at my current school and they help me keep those memories alive of my time in their home country.

Surely one of the best parts of living abroad and working at international schools is simply to have the opportunity to get the real inside scoop of the host country people and their way of living. It is an awesome and unbeatable experience. Most would agree it is indeed life-changing.

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It is hard to go back to places you’ve once lived, but I think it is important to do so. It can definitely be challenging and sometimes sad during certain trips back, but you also get the chance to remind yourself of your past. Seeing old friends, tasting food from your favorite restaurant, going shopping in your favorite grocery store, and even catching up with relatives are so fulfilling and help you learn to appreciate what you have in your life. It also helps you to realize and appreciate where you are currently living and what you have there as well.

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