Photo: University of Fraser Valley

Being scared to fail.

Watching grown men in a Business English class try to act out ‘cat’ because they had forgotten the word for it made it clear: only those who try have even a chance of getting it right. Maybe I would have to look silly, maybe it was not my personality, but I was going to be the only one who miss out on learning if I never left my comfort zone.

I forced myself to release my inhibitions as I was learning Portuguese. I told my English students every day that they had to stop worrying about making mistakes or embarrassing themselves, that they just needed to speak as much and often as they could, and had to take my own advice. I began to speak to everyone I met. They corrected me when I needed it, and were impressed by me many times that I had been sure I was saying it wrong and had almost held back. In speaking a new language, in meeting new people, in life, I stopped giving a sh*t about whether I would fail or not and just went for it.

Having a regular paycheck (or a big one).

I was not counting on a big paycheck right after graduation, but I was told teaching English in South America would guarantee an especially modest one. Despite having spent years in college preparing for the professional world of salaries, clocking in and clocking out, my job was none of those and at first it was unsettling at best (outright terrifying at worst). I learned that, come any holiday, English classes were the first thing on any student’s agenda to be cancelled- and I didn’t get paid if I didn’t teach.

But once I knew what it took to afford rent, food, and a small trip every once in a while, I stopped caring about having anything more. If classes were cancelled, it usually meant something fun was happening. Carnival or Holy Week, or the World Cup or something I could never experience at home. And I once I got a taste and learned how to plan for it, no regular paycheck could bring me back. There wasn’t enough money in the world that would make me wish I had a typical 9-to-5 back home.

What everyone else was doing back home.

Moving abroad to teach English isn’t the typical post-grad career move, and when I’m back home it’s nearly impossible to forget this fact. It’s easy to compare what I’m doing to others’ choices, and it’s even easier to second guess myself when I’m doing something ‘different’ from the crowd.

But once I moved abroad and began the new chapter of my life as an English teacher, I didn’t have time to compare myself to others, or worry if my choices were as ‘good’ as theirs. I didn’t have the time or interest to keep up with scrolling through social media endlessly. I fell out of touch with the things that didn’t really matter, and focused on those that did. I was able to appreciate how right this choice was for me, and I felt grateful every day that I had the nerve to make it in the first place – even though it was ‘different’.

Material possessions.

No longer caring about whether I had the newest iPhone or trendiest jeans wasn’t even a conscious choice- it just happened. It took a couple of months before I even realized that I had never been shopping for the entirety of my time living abroad. But the joys of material items that had felt so important back home slipped away, as the joys of everyday life living abroad and teaching took over.

Simple things like going to the grocery store or riding the bus home weren’t just a rote part of my day, they were exhilarating experiences that engaged all of my senses. As I looked around, observing the people around me, hearing how they spoke, trying to read signs, soaking it all in, I felt like my life was the most fulfilling it had ever been. My paycheck may have been small, my phone may have been outdated, but you couldn’t have paid me to care.

The importance of ‘having things in common’.

Every time I got new students, we would spend the first class getting to know each other. I mainly taught adults, and I quickly realized how far away my life was from theirs. Many were married or had families, were working at a large corporation, and had very different priorities than I did during my fun time living abroad in my early 20s. At first I would wonder how I could try to relate to them, what we would possibly talk about for a 2-hour conversation class.

Spoiler alert: We always had something to talk about.

As I started meeting other expats or locals outside of class as well, I realized that the people I hung out with were a mixed pot. From my students to bosses to roommates to friends, hardly anyone had ‘things in common’, yet it only made things more interesting. I have never learned about so many varied hobbies, foods, cultures, countries or perspectives in my entire life than when I stopped filtering people by how much we had in common.

When I was supposed to go home.

This question had once caused me so much anxiety, but I noticed people no longer asked me when I was supposed to go home once I stopped asking myself. Trying to plan everything out too much only limited me. Living day by day helped me open myself up to the teaching experience, and I trusted that I would know when I had gotten everything I needed to out of it.

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