Skills Acquired Living Abroad

<p>Magnets on a blackboard</p>

Magnets on a blackboard

There have been a number of articles written recently about expats returning home after so many years abroad, often focused on the difficulty of readjusting to reverse culture shock. This article is for those wishing to return but not quite sure how to translate their experience. Having seen many changes in education worldwide I believe it is possible for you to stay in education but not necessarily in the classroom.

Instructional design and Project Management are just two of many hot fields right now and you can’t go wrong with discipline and a sense of purpose. Use your strengths as a teacher/education field practitioner to sell yourself. Every field with any knowledge-based job (which is most jobs these days) is looking for people who strive to continually learn and adapt to shifting digital landscapes and teach others what they learn. As an educator/education designer, you should know that you have skills coveted by any employer who cares about having a competent 21st-century workforce.

Having lived overseas for more than a quarter of my life, I’ve learned a few things that made me realize I do have the skills necessary to reintegrate back home successfully. Maybe you do too.

· Cultural Intelligence

In 2002, I signed a ten-month contract in a city located “close” to Shanghai. My salary was 3,000 RMB ($360) per month and my one bedroom apartment was Spartan. I loved it. I quickly discovered that I was nowhere near the bright lights of Shanghai and that I would need to learn to at least speak Mandarin if I was to survive. I loved being a pseudo-celebrity in small-town China. After extending my contract into the second year, I began to fall out of love with China and its blatantly obvious love affair with development at the expense of the environment.

Korea was the next step; different and although I did not experience the initial rush of a new and foreign culture, I noticed a deeper appreciation of nature and a strict adherence to politeness. Ever since the end of the Korean War however, South Korea has been a region known for its anti-Americanism, be it protests over the presence of American soldiers or the hatred towards imported American beef. Yes, there are things in Korean culture I cannot understand but over the years I have learned to distinguish between what is possible and things beyond my control. In every culture there are certain things that are simply non-negotiable and realizing this has led to a greater cultural intelligence. I now feel confident working with people from any culture and/or value system focusing on the project, not our perceived differences.

· Communication Skills

Every job applicant claims to have excellent communication skills. While most people have communication struggles every now and then at the office, for expats working in a foreign language environment these difficulties increase exponentially as ordinarily normal exchanges can go far beyond “cultural differences” or “language barriers.”

Thus, living and working abroad requires you to become an effective and thoughtful communicator and negotiator. Working with administrators, learners and other stakeholders while navigating linguistic and cultural differences forces you to develop great listening skills. When there is a mismatch between any of them, you learn to identify with all parties to find a comfortable compromise.

Also, fluency isn’t how well you use language to communicate, but how well you communicate when the language just isn’t there. One could argue that Korea is one of the most difficult places for westerners to work in terms of communication. Expectations are quite distinct as Confucianism and deference to elders far outweigh the norms of meritocracy you might be accustomed to in the West. Being able to identify real problems in a foreign place of business that are never mentioned directly (strictly based on cultural cues) is a skill that cannot be acquired elsewhere.

· Public Speaking

Taking the stage in front of an audience of several hundreds of students and professors at a university to make a presentation would make almost anyone nervous. The work we do at universities, corporations and schools for audiences whose first language is not English directly translates into marketable skills as a corporate trainer. Are you or have you been a member of TESOL, Toastmasters or other education-based professional group? Even better, use that experience as proof of your expertise. Years in the classroom should be obvious to any employer looking for someone with effective communication skills and public speaking ability.

· Grit

The best moments of my life have been overseas, as have some of the worst.

Experiencing the birth of my children was at once beautiful and terrifying. As my wife’s anesthesia failed to work, she writhed in pain as I was helpless in helping her and I was then told I would be unable to hold my own daughter for another two days only to see her behind a glass screen. Additionally, not a broken arm, SARS, MERS, typhoons, earthquakes (as scary as those may be) nor food poisoning ever strayed me from my course. Resilience and sheer will helped me navigate through major personal and professional struggles despite sometimes feeling trapped in a foreign cultural bureaucracy.

· Attention to Detail

The lengthy and complicated spousal visa process, which can only be handled at the U.S. embassy in Seoul is a perfect example of attention to detail. For a couple with two young children in tow, finding a place to stay, managing the transportation for the four-hour trip each way, completing the forms accurately and completely, obtaining all the necessary documents and translations of some of those documents all required extensive research and fastidiousness.

All the other things we do in our lives like paying bills, establishing residency, filing taxes among others become much more complicated living abroad. Most English teachers arrive without a basic understanding of the language (if any), having to deal with unfamiliar transportation, medical, or legal systems and I for one started my life as an expat as far as one could get from being detail oriented. Now I rely heavily on calendars and to-do lists to make sure things are done accurately and timely.

· Conclusion:

The preceding skills are essential in today’s workforce and as time goes on, employers will see the value in taking on repatriates with many of these skills in their arsenal. You can tell colleagues and clients alike that you were a teacher in a past life, and continue to use classroom skills all the time: reading a room, observing group dynamics, listening, organizing ‘lesson’ plans, helping people break down complex things into simple elements, communicating clearly, are but a few of the skills you now possess thanks to your time teaching overseas. Now, go out and translate those skills and repatriate!

I could not have written this article without inspiration, guidance, and ideas from Martin Tuttle and Steven Ward. Tune in next month where I will cover technical acumen, time management, flexibility, humility, patience, and adaptability. Don’t forget to stop by and say hi at