Finding Culture as an International Educator

It’s amazing to think that I’m now in my fourth year teaching internationally. People often ask me what it’s like to work overseas. Friends and family back home are always curious about where I might end up next. This is my life now, I’m a nomad!

In all honesty, when I graduated teacher’s college, I panicked. Having been a part of the concurrent education program at Queen’s University, I was in a class full of driven and hard-working individuals who always had a plan. Everybody in the program (or so it seemed) knew they wanted to teach, and they pursued that goal relentlessly. By the time February rolled around, a lot of people had already gotten offers or had jobs waiting for them. By the time I graduated, I had nothing.

Knowing what I know now, finding yourself jobless after graduation is completely normal. What felt like weeks of unemployment was actually mere days. What seemed like dozens of personalized cover letters and job applications was probably more like five or six. In fact, it took me about two weeks to get a job. I wasn’t picky, knew I wanted to be overseas and it didn’t matter where. So when the opportunity presented itself to teach in Kazakhstan, I went for it. One job interview later, and I was preparing myself for life abroad.

I only stayed in Kazakhstan for a year. The contract itself was a dream (great pay, light workload), but my gut told me it wasn’t the right job for me. When I decided I wouldn’t return for a second year, many experienced teachers cautioned me I would never find another job with the same benefits and salary, and they’re probably right. But I left. Eventually I ended up in Korea. Long story short, a very different experience from Kazakhstan! The work hours were longer, the work was more taxing at fraction of the pay, in a city whose standards of living were much higher, but it felt more real.

Eventually, I left Korea too. That’s a whole other story. Now I’m in China… a place I never thought I’d end up working. A place I never had any desire to work in. I just felt like too much of an anomaly – “Who is this girl that looks Chinese but cannot speak the language and behaves differently from us?”

When I think about my experiences growing up as a Chinese-Canadian, I carry a lot of guilt and shame. It feels like there is this great burden to fit in and be accepted into different social groups, but also pressure to live up to your family’s expectations and pass on the culture, traditions, and language to the next generation. If I leaned too much to the left, I was too jook sing (roughly translated as “kid who betrays one’s cultural roots”), and if I leaned too much to the right I was considered too much of a FOB (“fresh off the boat”). Rather than living up to my cultural/familial expectations (whether spoken or implied), I tried to run away from them. I decided that being an outlander in a country where I am very clearly foreign would quench those weird notions that I had about fitting in once and for all. I would work anywhere but China, I decided. Oh the irony. 

I’m happy to report that these feelings of guilt and shame have mostly subsided, or at least, I have come to a peaceful cohabitation agreement with them. In fact, being in China has helped me feel more connected to my culture and my family. I’m even taking Chinese classes again! For me, that is a big frickin’ deal, and this time, a step in the direction I want to take. 

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