There are many great reasons to live and work in Asia. If you’re a teacher, finding a job with an agency or an international school can be an easy and practical way to fling yourself into the Far East for a little while. ESL teaching gigs abound in this part of the world, ranging from a four-month to a three-year commitment. You may work in a small, rural village school with children who’ve had no previous exposure to English, or you may find yourself teaching your major to rich high-school students. The opportunities are endless and there are several online platforms to search for such positions (see ESL101 or LaowaiCareer job search).
I’ve had two such teaching experiences. They were totally different but both gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in a culture in a way that would have been unlikely if I was only passing through for a few weeks. I was itching to discover Asia so I didn’t do much research before embarking on each experience, which for some people, is the antithesis to ensuring a positive experience. But I don’t necessarily support this. I’ve learned that my attitude towards any new situation is one of the most important factors in determining the success or failure of any experience. However, this does not mean that prior research or proper planning is unnecessary; every little bit of knowledge helps.
Although I prefer to plunk myself down in a given spot and figure things out there, there are always a few things I wish I’d known about the places I chose to live. So, below are some tips based on the experiences I’ve had in the past the five years I’ve spent living and teaching in Eastern Asia. Whilst some are specific to teaching, others are more general and may apply to anyone who seeks to shake life up a little by spending some time in the weird and wonderful land of the Far East.
1. Asia is extremely diverse. This is probably one of the most important points to which I can draw attention. Living in Thailand will be totally different from living in Indonesia for example, as China will be different from the Philippines. If you’ve been an Asian country in the past it is easy to generalize your observations to the rest of the continent. Having lived and worked in both Indonesia and Thailand I have discovered that there are many more differences than similarities. For example, their climates are similar but different enough to affect the body’s ph and your clothing preferences. How foreigners are received will change in each place too, which in my experience, relates to the dominant religion of the country. As a 38-year-old single Western woman, I am more tolerated in Thailand than in Indonesia where Islam is the dominant religion and women are lower on the social hierarchy than men. Much like it is unwise to compare an Asian country with a Western country, so too is it to compare Asian cities. Each country has its own unique set of weird and wonderful qualities, and what’s more, the countries themselves are richly diverse.
2. Be prepared to pay a small fortune for a normal, healthy diet. Street food is ubiquitous in places like Thailand and Vietnam, and cheap. For five months I’ve subsisted quite happily off Thai street food, never once cooking in my own kitchen. But the fact remains that much of it is unhealthy, being fried in palm oil in old metal woks, or its ingredients mysterious. Fresh leafy greens and raw fruits are available in most markets but their bacteria is different from home. My guts went through a bit of a rite of passage the first couple of months in Thailand until they adjusted. But then I went to Indonesia a few years later and had a similar but more intense experience. So for a while I shopped at the international supermarket for import foods like organic baby spinach, pomegranates, blueberries, probiotic yogurt, and paid an obscene amount of money for such delicacies. So whilst food in Asia is pretty cheap overall, food-from-home in Asia is not. And if you like cheese, don’t mess around, just bring it with you.
3. Patience is as necessary as clean drinking water. Novelty can be exciting until it changes to Different. Traffic. Systems of any kind. People. They all will exasperate you on more than one occasion, which is a natural part of culture shock and a step towards, rather than away from, cultural adaptation. I learned to choose my battles in Asia. Sometimes the best and wisest thing I could do in a situation was to swallow my giant lump of frustration, smile, and nod. Other times I had to assert myself in a way appropriate to the culture of the country I was living in rather than the one I was raised in. Such a skill requires observation of social interaction and talking to local people who can guide you towards effective communication. Learning the local language is key in assimilating to a culture and can reduce the number of frustrating situations you will encounter.
4. Poverty is everywhere. Though many parts of Asia feel like the First World, they are still part of the developing world and poverty is far more evident than it is at home. In some cases, what is referred to as poverty is downright destitution. But because poverty is systemic, it doesn’t only affect individual people, it’s in the infrastructure, the waste disposal systems, the education. It can be heartbreaking to see dirty, shoeless children whose mothers are begging for food, or giant piles of trash in an otherwise beautiful space, and further, to become surrounded by it. Compassion may be the only thing that can prepare you for it.
5. There is a local price and a foreigner price. This applies to nearly everything, from entrance fees into temples to noodle soup at the night market. This fact irritates many travellers but it won’t change and it really shouldn’t. Such a system means that those who have greater economic means are charged more for the same item or service. Those who have less, pay less. Perhaps not fair but definitely equitable. I have never expected to get anything for the local price but that doesn’t mean I can’t still bargain my way to what I consider a good deal. Ultimately, I determine the value of an item or service by what I am willing to pay for it.
6. Public hygiene is not up to a Western standard. Squat toilets are the norm but in some cases all you get is a hole in the floor at the back of a mosque (insert shocked face). It took me a while to figure out which direction to face when using a squat toilet and how to effectively use what I refer to as the bum gun: the hose with nozzle that perches next to most toilets. If there is a bum gun that is. Sometimes the bucket of water is all that is available. And I always pack tissue and hand sanitizer wherever I go because they are rare commodities in Asian bathrooms. Don’t flush that tissue though because most septic systems cannot handle it, hence the wastebasket sometimes next to the toilet.
7. Saving face is an Asia-wide cultural value. Public disgrace, such as showing your anger, is socially taboo and not well tolerated. I lost my cool once in a parking lot in Indonesia and paid the price of public humiliation. No one cared why I was angry, only that I was ignorant enough to display my anger openly. As I mentioned above, patience is a virtue here and requires knowledge of local social etiquette, which will change from place to place. Observe, observe, observe, and if in doubt, ask.
8. Teachers are very highly respected. Where I come from, teachers are a little low on the social ladder, especially preschool/kindergarten teachers. In both Thailand and Indonesia I received a level of respect from the parents and community that I was not used to. When such respect is given before it has a chance to be earned, you have a responsibility to maintain such a privilege. That means you must learn to behave like a teacher does in that land, rather than the one you are used to. And there are some clear differences. Teachers in Western countries appear more casual than in the East, through style of dress or teaching behaviors for example. Philosophies around how education is enacted are vastly different, with the East tending to be more conservative and focused on academics. I had to make some fairly serious compromises with myself in order to uphold my own ethics regarding effective education, and simultaneously respect the educational ethics of the culture of the country in which I was living. Whilst it was not an easy feat, the process opened up and laid bare for me some of my judgments, which ultimately broadened my perspective of effective education. Creating some culturally appropriate lessons may be more difficult in an unfamiliar place but there are plenty of available resources online to help (see https://www.esl101.com/teacher-resources).
9. There are many social networks for expats in Asian cities. When you’re trying to adjust during the first few months, such networks can be very helpful for practical reasons, such as learning about the city or town you’re living in, but also for establishing friendships. Internations is one such network that organizes social events for its members, which include expats and locals alike. In Indonesia, I regularly attended Internations’ dinners and wine nights and met many of the people I became friends with during my two year stay. There are also online forums out there to ask questions, lend advice, and generally discuss aspects of international life. (See https://www.esl101.com/forums and https://www.esl101.com/teacher-blog)
10. You’ll be treated like a superstar. When I lived in Indonesia, people asked me for my photo on a daily basis, whilst I was in line at the supermarket, driving, or visiting a temple. At first I didn’t mind but over time I felt irritated by it. Although the intention was not to exclude me, such requests made me feel like an outsider in a place I was trying to make home. But it wasn’t just the photos. The fact that I come from a rich, Western country, have white skin, and am highly educated (relatively speaking) garners me points on a different kind of social ladder than exists in my home country. Treat such perceived status with respect and humility. The effects of oppression inspired by past colonialism are woven tightly into the fabric of a culture and not something most of us wish to perpetuate.
These are my observations and nowhere-near final conclusions about this amazing part of the world. One of the most important qualities of life I’ve discovered in Asia is simple happiness. Whether it’s learning how to cross the street without killing yourself, watching the sun go down over miles of rice fields, chanting with monks in an 800-year-old temple, or playing made up games with the local kids in the street. To live in this part of the world will change not only your worldview but your life.