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May 31, 2012, Thursday

Expats’ decisions and the turning point

Every year around this time thousands of Westerners who are qualified teachers are in the process of finalizing details and purchasing air tickets, not for their summer holiday but their new teaching position abroad.

For those of you who are considering making this step, I really don’t want to pour cold water on your plans, but consider all the pros and cons -- not everyone is cut out to lead the fascinating life of an expatriate.

Choose your destination carefully. Whether you go to Turkey or China or Russia or anywhere else in the world, be ready for adventure. It helps to be aware that even in a foreign environment that feels so exotic at first, life sometimes boils down to the essentials: sleep, eat, work, shop. Yes, routines can even become monotonous but possibly with more hassles in another country.

China, Japan and Middle Eastern countries top the list of countries recruiting educators. Before you jump at the chance of taking a job abroad, do your homework! It is important to exercise some caution so that your dream does not turn into a nightmare. Unfortunately, some who have gone abroad for work have experienced losses instead of profits in more ways than one. In the next two pieces I will share some tips and information from two interviews with individuals who are seasoned expats in the field of education in Turkey. It’s always helpful to gleam from others’ personal experiences.

One common thread that I have found with most people I talk to who have lived and worked abroad is that nearly everyone will tell you that it usually takes longer to do anything. We are all familiar with the well-known quote in the children’s story, Alice in Wonderland:

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else -- if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

In Turkey, private schools are opening everywhere and English speaking teachers are in demand. Experiencing another culture will not only give you some adventure but provide the opportunity to learn more about yourself and pick up some phrases in a new language. It can be an enriching time. Mind you it looks good on a resume when you go home. These days international companies have a greater level of respect for people who have worked around the world than people who have only worked in one country.

Learning about another culture is a bonus. It is often not unusual in Turkey to be invited in for tea or for your Turkish friend to stop by and end up having a light meal with little or no advance notice. You will find that things (i.e., plans and programs) change quickly. Perhaps spontaneity is the key word here!

Schools are known to change schedules -- either an individual’s teaching schedule or an entire university’s holiday schedule -- with no prior notification. Also must-attend parties are rarely announced more than a day or two beforehand. Not so much like in the past, but water, electricity and gas may be shut off for a day or longer with little or no warning. If you find these types of situations difficult or ones that would cause personal affront and undue stress, you’d better think twice. I am afraid that the culture is not what must change.

Most expats will tell you their experience abroad has changed them. Those who are survivors will agree: If you were shy, you’ll be drawn out. If you were critical and judgmental, you may soften. If you were narrow in thought, you will most likely become open-minded. One thing is for sure: Many have enjoyed the change, developed a sense of adventure, rose to the challenges. Like in Alice in Wonderland, being open in mind, patient and curious helps. I’ll close with this thought:

“Who are YOU?” said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I -- I hardly know, sir, just at present-- at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” -- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Note: Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey” 2005. Please keep your questions and observations coming: I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email: [email protected]

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