Sunday, 13 May 2012

Preparing for Living Abroad

Moving to another country on your own, with no job or accommodation secured? Many people would freeze at the very thought, and many of your friends have probably told you that you're crazy for considering it. When you dream of adventure, of soaking up a new culture, meeting new people and having amazing experiences - all while making money from doing something that's fun - the idea seems wonderful and exciting. But it can be incredibly scary, too, especially when you don't know what to expect.

I moved to Japan on my own in March 2010, and although I did have a job secured, the company only told me where I would be around ten days before I flew out. I knew nobody, hardly anything of the culture (apart from what a few books had told me) and could barely speak the language. Looking back on it now, those months were some of the best of my life. In fact, I loved the experience so much that I did it all over again in August last year, when my boyfriend and I moved to Prague with nothing but our acceptance onto TEFL Worldwide. 

Like many of you, we had no idea of how things would go. Would we survive the course? Would we find a decent place to live? Would we find jobs? I can tell you, now, that everything worked out. But I have met plenty of people who came over with no plan, no idea of what they would do after completing the course, and who had not prepared themselves well enough to cope with the reality of living in another country.

So, before you get on that plane, have a look at this checklist and make sure that you're prepared for your new life in another country.

1) Research the passport/visa requirements - if you are not an EU citizen, you can stay in the Schengen zone (a lot of countries, including the Czech Republic) for up to 90 days as a tourist before you have to leave for another 90. You'll need a business license or a work visa after this, although the office staff at TEFL Worldwide keep up to date and will let you know the requirements. It surprises me how many people arrive with no idea about their legal status in the country. In some countries, you might even need to sort this all out before you leave your home country. Making sure of this before you land will relieve a lot of stress and save you a lot of time and energy!

2) Make sure you have enough money - the set-up costs are far higher in some countries than others, but think about the fact that you'll need to cover your accommodation and food costs during your TEFL course and for a couple of months afterwards. Even if you find a job straight away, many will pay you for a month's work the following month, meaning that starting a job in September might mean you don't see any money for it until sometime in October. You might also want to travel on the weekends, and don't underestimate how much money you might spend partying with all your new friends! I can't give you an exact figure for how much is "enough", but have a look at the cost of living for the country you're going to, ask other people who live there or have been there, and try to calculate something based on your own lifestyle.

3) Talk to people in the know - you might know somebody who already lives there, or who has lived there. If not, there are plenty of forums out there for expats living in various countries. ESL Cafe has forums for teachers in almost every country, while is an invaluable resource for anybody living in the Czech Republic (especially Prague). These people have been in your shoes - they also moved over, knowing hardly anything or anyone, and can give you advice. Besides, you never know, you might find yourself making new friends before you even arrive!

4) Tie up your loose ends at home - living abroad should not be a way to escape your problems. The world is getting smaller, and these things can catch up with you - especially if you don't have a long-term plan and find yourself going home again. Remember the old saying - "Wherever you go, there you are" - if you are leaving because you are unhappy at home, it's worth spending some time working out what you want and how to make yourself happy before throwing yourself into a new life. Culture shock can be a nasty pill to swallow all by itself.

5) Minimise culture shock - culture shock is a lot more than being surprised by new customs and ways of life. Serious culture shock can leave you isolated, unhappy, afraid of leaving the house and reluctant to involve yourself in any aspect of the new culture. Of course you will get homesick at times, but remind yourself of why you're moving - to experience something new! Some of the ways in which you can minimise the impact of culture shock are: learning some of the language before you arrive, reading up on the culture as much as possible, and keeping a small support group around you. You'll meet plenty of people on TEFL Worldwide who are in the same boat as you, and these friends can seriously help you to adapt in a new place.

6) Don't over-pack! - I met a girl on my course who had brought 15 pairs of shoes, several storage boxes and an apple corer with her, among other things. It can be hard to think of what you will and won't need in your new life, but it is impractical and expensive to bring along things that you can buy easily in your new home. Again, researching beforehand will give you an idea of what you can get hold of easily and what you might need to bring. In Japan, I brought a lot of clothes, because it was very hard to find clothes in my size there. This isn't a problem in Prague, and the only things I really felt the need to bring were personal items - my laptop, some books, that kind of thing. Check your airline's baggage limits, too - you might end up paying a lot more than planned if your suitcase is too heavy.

7) Read up on the culture and recent events - unless you really want to be one of "those" loud, obnoxious foreigners who inadvertently offend all the locals, it can be very useful to read up on social norms and things to watch out for. That way, you can be tactful, and avoid doing things that might annoy or shock your new hosts - after all, these people are your new neighbours, service providers, co-workers, students and friends. You want them on your side! This will also help to keep you safe - if you're moving somewhere more dangerous than you're used to, you can find out which parts to avoid and read up on tips for minimising risks.

8) Take small steps - the way I dealt with the "oh-help-I'm-moving-to-Japan-alone-ARGH!" panic was to break everything up into small steps in my head. For example, first, all I had to do was get through the security checks at the airport. Then, all I had to do was sit through a 12-hour flight. Then, all I had to do was find the train station from the airport. Breaking things down into more achievable, bite-sized chunks helped me to cope with the magnitude of what I was doing, and by the time I was starting my job in Japan (and later, in Prague) I looked back and thought "Wow, I did all that!". 

Finally, remember that you can contact TEFL Worldwide with your questions, and that even after you graduate from the course, we'll be around to help you out, wherever you go!

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