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Reverse Culture Shock: Returning Home After Years of TEFL Teaching Abroad

Amongst the various subjects presented in Frank Darabont’s critically acclaimed 1994 drama The Shawshank Redemption is the idea that modern penitentiaries – acting as secondary agents of socialization – often negatively influence inmates, rather than enable them to become functioning members of society.

As such, Red (one of the film’s protagonists) finds himself initially unable to escape from both his cultural milieu and physical setting. The idea that Red is “the guy that knows how to get things” within prison provides the film with much of its narrative impetus; the hero’s arc, as it were, is concerned with his ability to self-actualize outside of Shawshank.

Tangibly leaving jail is not enough for Red. He must rid himself of the down-trodden mentality that swallowed his friend Brooks Halton earlier in the film. After learning of his eventual release, Brooks’ reaction is anything but positive. Brandishing a knife, the elder secondary character’s desperate attempt to reintegrate himself in prison via violence gives the audience a clear look into the psyche of someone that comprehends no other way of life.

What, we ask, will become of Brooks Halton? What will become of Red? Will they survive outside of prison? Will they learn to play by society’s rules? These questions are answered in turn as the film reaches its eventual denouement.

TEFL teaching abroad and jail time: parallels?

Of course, teaching English as a second language overseas is nothing like going to jail. I do think, however, that certain parallels can be made between teaching abroad and certain types of incarceration. Although ESL teachers are not physically locked away, we are removed from most of our friends and family back home, sometimes for years at a time. Furthermore, depending upon where we choose to live overseas, we often don’t have access to many of the comforts that we might otherwise have enjoyed.

An impact of long-term teaching overseas

I’m not writing this to somehow trivialize the plight of people that are faced with years of incarnation. Nor am I comparing ESL teachers with criminals. I do think, however, that some thought should be given to the impact that teaching overseas has upon us.

Over the years, I’ve heard quite a bit of talk about culture shock. Here is a definition I found on Wikipedia:

          “Culture shock is an experience a person may have when one moves to a cultural environment which is different from one's own; it is also the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, a move between social environments, or simply transition to another type of life.”

Returning home: a disorientation and transition

This, to my mind, seems a rather apropos explanation. The key words here are “disorientation” and “transition”, I think, as they best characterize what many ESL teachers have had to face when entering into a cultural environment they simple do not understand. During the many years I have live in China, I’ve seen culture shock manifested in several different forms.

For many teachers, this occurs in seemingly innocuous ways. When at a restaurant, for example, a teacher might shout at a waiter for giving her or him the wrong order.

Beating culture shock when you start TEFL teaching

Culture shock can also cause teachers to isolate themselves from colleagues. Instead of enjoying a normal and healthy social life, some teachers lock themselves away in their rooms. Living abroad can often be a frightening experience; being able to venture out into the unknown without panicking (especially in the beginning, when your setting is still somewhat new to you) is an important step.

Indeed, culture shock may take on many forms and is something to be addressed within one’s self, rather than ignored. If you feel irritable at the restaurant, try and think of how you’d handle the situation back home. If you feel a bit isolated from your friends and colleagues at work, try and get more involved whenever someone suggests a social outing. Furthermore, stay healthy by eating good, wholesome foods and try and exercise whenever possible. Establishing good habits is a great way to ensure that you’re successful while working abroad.

The time has come to leave: time to go home

Eventually, however, you will have to return home. For those of you that have stayed overseas for a year or two, this might seem an easy transition. For others, however, returning home can be stressful.

Having spent over a decade in China, I can, to some degree, empathise with characters such as Red. Now thirty-five-years-old, I’ve spent much of my adult life in China; what, I ask myself, will become of me back in Canada? Whereas I feel in control of my life in China, my understanding of even the simplistic of tasks back home have caused minor panic attacks. How, I asked myself, can I get my driver’s licence back? How should I enrol my son in school? Who do I talk with about health care? Whereas I was “the guy that knew how to get things” back in China, in Canada, I am not longer special.

Research before you go abroad teaching AND when you come back

Do your research. This is the best advice I can give to both ESL teachers that are thinking of working in China and for those of you that are considering returning home.

If you are a prospective teacher, think about the type of city you want to live in, as well as the type of job you wish to take. Do you like teaching young learners, or would you prefer to work in a high-school setting? Do you like hot weather or do you prefer a colder climate? Have you read about the schools you are interviewing with, or did you spin a globe and decide upon your next job depending upon where you index finger landed? Furthermore, when you start interviewing with different schools, did you come prepared to your Skype meetings? Did you write down good, thought-provoking questions? Where you satisfied by the answers?

Your home may have changed since you were away

For teachers returning home – although you may feel that you know your country of origin, have you done your due diligence? People and places change, and, if you don’t know what you are getting yourself into, are you sure that you will survive once you return home? Look into the job market and read about what people are saying online. If you think that all of your problems are going to go away because you can teach online, think again. Teaching online is hard work and might not provide you with enough money (at least in the beginning) to start your new life. You need to have a well-constructed plan to be able to move forward with your life.

I suppose it’s time to bring up the other primary protagonist in Darabont’s film. Andy Dufresne’s journey differs from Red’s in that he has a plan throughout his time at Shawshank. Chipping away at his prison, Andy eventually escapes and makes a new life for himself. Whereas Brooks no longer has any hope for himself by the end of the film, Andy Dufresne is able to break free from of his constraints. Red learns from Andy thought-out the film and is eventually changed by Andy’s positive outlook and behavior. 

Adapt and believe in yourself

Adapting is all about learning and believing in growth. Rather than getting one’s self into a bad position, do the research and try and find the lifestyle that is best for you. To my mind, culture shock is very real and is something that must be overcome be you a more or less experienced teacher. 

I have always enjoyed my time living and teaching in China and I would recommend teaching abroad to anyone. I do, however, feel that it is important to think clearly and carefully about the decisions we make while we work overseas. Look for the signs of culture shock and try to address these feels directly within yourself whenever and however you can. And, if you, like me, are about to return home after years overseas, try and remind yourself that transitions are always hard and that everything is going to be okay.

Chip away as often as you can at the things that might someday take you down. Enjoying your time abroad is about maintaining your sense of positivity.

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By Scott Keane 

Hello all! I’m Scott Keane from Canada and I’ve been in the ESL field for just over 12 years. Although I’m headed back to Canada, I expect I’ll continue teaching for a long while.