How I became an expat teacher: USA to Thailand

Lani Cox

Lani Cox currently teaches English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Chiang Rai, Thailand. She has taught in Chiang Mai and did her TESOL training in Bangkok. She has also taught EFL in Cuenca, Ecuador and has studied Montessori and Waldorf elementary education. Prior to moving abroad she was a Waldorf teacher in the US. Her first book is called the missing teacher. Lani blogs about her expat experiences, teaching and writing at Life, the Universe and Lani.

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Since I was a child, I wanted to work and live abroad, but like many dreams they are forgotten under the layers we call Life. I grew up on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, and I used to tilt my head back and look at the airplanes, wondering where they were going or where they had come from.

"Sometimes travel or living abroad forces us to focus on what we need and want and what’s important with greater immediacy."

My mother met my father during the Vietnam War when he was stationed in Thailand. He’s a Chinese American, having immigrated after the Chinese Civil War and Cultural Revolution. My mom’s Thai, and I was born in Hawaii a week after they landed. So maybe travel and adventure is in my blood, but I don’t think so, as I get horrible motion sickness.

I am, however, a bit of a nomad. The longest I have lived somewhere, after I left home, was seven years, and three of those years was spent attending college. I also moved to a neighbouring town during that time, too. So, I don’t know if that technically counts. Yes, it does. Fine, let’s put it this way; my long-time average of living in the same town (not the same house or apartment) is about three years.

My boyfriend at the time, let’s call him BATT, and I were on a mission to find where we belonged and that ideal took us from place to place, across the US. Finally we decided to take that leap of faith and move abroad. The reason why we chose Thailand was because of my local connections. I have family here, and BATT opted to attend university nearby. I decided to get back into teaching, even after some horrible experiences back in the US. Yes, we experienced culture shock and eventually went our separate ways, but that’s okay; breaking up could have very well happened back in our home country.

Sometimes travel or living abroad forces us to focus on what we need and want and what’s important with greater immediacy than if we had stayed comfortably at home. After a wonderful TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) course with the best instructors and students from around the world, I actually had a hard time finding work. Part of it stemmed from being terrified that Thailand would not be interested in an Asian American teaching English. And I didn’t try very hard.

It’s important to know that in Thailand, appearances are very important. Parents generally want their children to be taught English, ideally, from a young and peppy Caucasian. I’m none of those. Well, maybe peppy on well-caffeinated days. So, for nine months I did other work to keep from starving, and then eventually left to go to Ecuador. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t find work in Thailand. Ecuador is such a beautiful country, teaching there was a rich experience. Even though I was wondering how I would be accepted (no problems from the students), I accepted the challenge knowing I could always change my mind later. Nowadays, I can’t believe I was there. I made friends and got back into teaching. I gained confidence.

"It’s a cross-cultural exchange, and I love hearing the way my students talk, interact, the slang they use, and the advice they give me, the foreigner."

However, I returned to Thailand after six months because I missed it! This time, everything fell into place. I interviewed at the school I wanted to teach at, bought my friend’s motorbike (finally learned) and found a cute apartment close by. I was also patient because the school could only offer me substituting, but before I knew it, I was asked to be a regular teacher.

The thing about teaching overseas is there are unpredictable situations that cause many teachers to leave. So, finding a job in the middle of the school year or anytime, really, can be done. Sometimes teachers have family emergencies that they have to go back home to, other times they get sick or simply decide this isn’t what they want and return to their passport country.

Teaching abroad allows you to connect to your students in different ways than if you were back in your hometown. It truly is a cross-cultural exchange, and I love hearing the way my students talk, interact, the slang they use, and the advice they give me, the foreigner. I also enjoy my free-time. When I taught in the States, I made the mistake of never turning off the teaching wheel, and so I burned out. Here, I made it a point to find part-time work that allowed me the space to write and enjoy living. I think this is one of the great appeals of expat living. Of course, you can find those full-time teaching jobs, but it’s not for me right now.

You’ll find that teaching abroad is not too different than teaching back at home. There are challenges and rewards. It’s a lot of work, too, but your colleagues will be from all over the world and different ages as well. It’s not an easy career though because teaching abroad was never meant, I don’t think, to be a long term job, but a gap year for those who wanted to see the world.

So, why did I become an expat teacher? It seems to fit who I am and what I need.

Have you taught abroad? Share your experiences in the comments.

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