Come Work Abroad!

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Working Abroad

The benefits of a career in countries that need you

©Michael Krigline, MA (2009)

     It is easy to complain about things that are inconvenient, odd, or frustrating when you work overseas, but all in all, we have found more advantages than disadvantages while working in China. This article is for people flexible enough to consider the benefits of a career in places that really need them. Those benefits include a meaningful career, a chance to serve others, a broader perspective, exposure to different tastes, high quality education for our children, proficiency in a second language, travel opportunities, isolation from some of the negative aspects of culture, the chance to clarify misconceptions about our home country, the blessing of international relationships, and the fulfillment of knowing that we are living where we were designed to be.

      Back home, qualified teachers, doctors, pilots, engineers and businesspeople are lined up and waiting for openings. Sometimes the threat of “being replaced” keeps employees from being innovative, damages peer-to-peer relationships, or even robs people of the peace needed to perform consistently. In many places overseas, however, there are more jobs than there are qualified applicants; once you establish professional credibility, it is relatively easy to find someone who really needs your skills. A number of organizations also exist to link professionals with places that need them, and a quick Internet search can link you to most of these organizations. Furthermore, we have found the work very fulfilling in China: supervisors are grateful for our contributions, colleagues look up to us as experts, and those we serve (e.g., students, patients, clients) often feel honored to be around us. Working abroad is not the only way to have a meaningful career, but there is nothing like “being appreciated” to boost one’s professional satisfaction.

      Similarly, the greatest levels of fulfillment often involve what we do for others. Life is too short to center it on oneself; many of the greatest people in history point out that our greatest achievements involve putting the needs of others above our own. Sure, we can serve others in our home country, but when working in a developing country our skills and gifts often have a broader impact because we are so rare. For many of my students, I’m the only native-speaking English teacher they have ever had; my doctor friends report the satisfaction of introducing procedures that colleagues “have never seen before”; engineer friends get long-lasting results by suggesting “simple” alterations that make projects far more stable, useful, etc. No matter where you live, I hope you have found the joy in serving others, but that service can often make a much greater difference when working abroad.

      A broader perspective and exposure to different tastes are also part of the fruit of cross-cultural living. Back home, “everyone knows” that our favorite foods, our methods of education, our form of government, and our view of history are the best. But “everyone” is sometimes wrong. In some ways it is destabilizing to be around people who want to see the fish swimming before eating it, eat with chopsticks instead of a fork, organize classes (or measure academic achievement) in a different way, elect leaders differently (or genuinely respect leaders who have never been elected), and draw maps and timelines with a different country or people-group in the center. But living abroad lets us see through different eyes, which often (surprisingly) helps us to see ourselves more clearly. No one gets more benefit from this than our children, who develop a much broader appreciation for diversity than we could ever give them back home.

      Another benefit for our children is a high-quality education. It may require big sacrifices to pay for an international school or to invest a lot of one parent’s time in home-schooling, but many “third culture kids” (TCKs) get a better education abroad than they would back home.[1] To cite a personal example, on an extended visit to the USA, my son complained that his classmates were often disrespectful and that his teachers spent too much time dealing with troublemakers. He also heard more cussing, and was amazed by the distractions that consumed the attention of his US classmates (talk about TV shows, pop stars, new toys, or the latest film, fan club or fashion). In China, his classmates are mostly the children of professionals; their families place a high value on education, speak without needless expletives, and expect discipline at home and school. This makes it easier (and more rewarding) for their teachers to teach. Furthermore, since classmates come from a variety of cultures, they grow up with a greater tolerance for differences of opinion and alternative perspectives. Even if they are home-schooled (without the benefit of a multi-cultural classroom), they probably have “local” friends who help broaden their perspectives, and they also get the benefit of their teacher’s individualized attention (i.e., close supervision from mom or dad). Most TCKs know that “different” does not have to mean “better/worse,” which makes them attractive to colleges back home and future employers.

      Learning a new language is a huge challenge, but it also brings great rewards. First, it challenges us to think in new ways, for the translation process involves far more than replacing a set of words—it often forces us to think of parallel examples, explanations with a different structure, or ways to say things that don’t even exist in one language or the other. A new language also brings us new stories and idioms (which show us different values). It allows fluent users to read professional journals, research reports and other materials unavailable to their colleagues. Second-language speakers can function in different environments, tolerate more ambiguity, enjoy more forms of entertainment, and establish relationships with a much broader circle of people. Our children often pick up the new language with greater ease than we do, and for them it can also open the door to international friendships and career opportunities.



(continued in the next column)


      Working abroad also makes it easier to visit places that most people only read about or see on TV. (You will find it easier to travel in your host country if you speak the language, but this benefit is also available during short-term assignments.) My son has climbed the Great Wall, watched the Olympics first hand, rafted down the Yellow River, ridden a camel on the Sha-po-tou desert, sailed down the Yangtze, watched elephants work in Thailand, enjoyed Disneyland in Hong Kong, and (on trips related to “Daddy’s work”) seen castles in England and Scotland, windmills in Holland, temples in Turkey and Israel, and visited many parts of the US as well. Each experience lets us meet new people and see new things, which make us richer citizens of our shared world.

      Another benefit is our partial isolation from certain negative aspects of both our own and our host cultures. I’ve alluded to some of these above—our kids don’t hear as much cussing, and aren’t distracted by the latest fad. We also miss all the advertisements back home that create “wants” to waste our time and money. (Language limitations—at least in China—also make it impossible for us to understand many local ads, and keep us from wasting as much time watching TV as we would back home.) In China’s big cities, buses and taxis are convenient, so there is no need to add carbon to the atmosphere with a private car. By missing a lot of “the news” (which is often a synonym for “complaints” or “gossip”), we don’t fret as much about things over which we have no control. A fringe benefit to all of this is that our family often does things together, when many families back home “live alone in the same house.”

      If you need lots of privacy, then working in a densely-populated foreign city is probably not for you, but even the lack of privacy can bring benefits. I’m thinking about the way that our lives are observed by neighbors, students and colleagues. You would be amazed at how many people think that everyone in America lives like they do “in the movies,” loves war, sleeps around, tells lies (like well-publicized politicians), spends more time at bars/coffee shops than they do at work, lives in debt, and fears (or hates) China. Our lives present a very different picture, as we work hard to help students in a fair and honest way, and demonstrate a genuine love for China and the Chinese. The people who live around us will probably never meet America’s Ambassador in Beijing, but in a way we are all ambassadors for the USA (or wherever your home is). By living in a way that contradicts the stereotypes, we are building bridges between our countries and (at least in a small way) making a contribution to world peace.

      Another tremendous benefit is the blessing of international relationships. Chinese friends have helped us in countless ways, invited us to weddings, and shared with us the customs of Chinese holidays. In addition, non-Chinese people from the UK, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, India, Singapore and a dozen other places have become friends as we work together, learn Chinese together, or find ways to adjust to our new culture together. Many of these people worship with us in an international church, and the supernatural unity we share makes us even closer than friends—more like brothers and sisters from different nations. Even after we have moved to another city, our closest friends have stayed in touch, and such relationships have given us people to see and/or places to stay in interesting places like Sweden and Scotland, not to mention various parts of China. We hope these friendships will last a lifetime (or longer), for our friends make us better people.

      Finally, I see my experience as a professional, teaching abroad, as a satisfying aspect of my purpose in life. I believe that we were all designed for a reason, and the most fulfilled people are those who have discovered their purpose, made the effort to pursue this direction, and then live/work where they were meant to be. As I’ve told many people, (A) I want my life to matter, (B) I believe in a loving God (a Designer) who has designed me in a certain way, for a certain reason, (C) when I asked to be shown that way/reason, I felt led to consider a career teaching English in China, and therefore (D) the smartest thing I could do was to follow this leading and do what I have been designed to do! This sense that “I was meant to be here” helps me deal with the frustrations, learn from the challenges, and enjoy the differences between my host and native cultures.


      Working abroad is not for everyone. The needs of those we leave behind must be weighed against the contribution we can make elsewhere. Perhaps too many people in your home country depend on you. Perhaps you are the primary care-giver for an elderly relative. Perhaps your children aren’t flexible enough to handle life abroad. Perhaps you just don’t have the temperament to cope with the uncertainty, change and frustration that are part of a cross-cultural experience. As a Christian, I’d say that the most important consideration is “where am I supposed to be?” The next questions include: “what do I have to offer others?” and “what do I like/dislike?” An American-Chinese designer recently told me: “I hate these visits to China; I don’t even like Chinese food!” An educator told me: “If someone is an ineffective teacher when surrounded by the resources of home, we sure don’t need him over here!” Likewise, many people—used to the conveniences, privacy or high standards of living in the West—complain the whole time they are abroad; it would be better for all of us if they just stayed home!

      However, needs and opportunities abound for people willing to consider a different kind of lifestyle. Talented professionals who have found the joy in helping others, open-minded parents who want to prepare their children for life in an increasingly global workplace, patient people who can cope with change and the challenge of language-learning, peacemakers committed to international cooperation, and forward-looking people who can avoid the trap of always comparing things to “how they used to be”—these are among the workers needed to assist people in helping themselves (and hopefully others) throughout the developing world. My family and I know that we are blessed to be able to work in China. If the insights presented in this article have touched or intrigued you in some way, then take the next step forward, and investigate the possibilities of an international career.

Michael Krigline, M.A. (TEFL), is from the USA. He and his family have been “living and learning” in China since 2000.

[1] International schools/home schooling isn’t for everyone. If your kids thrive on competition, social interaction, varsity sports, pop culture, etc., or need lots of motivation (i.e., pressure) to get work done, then you may be asking too much to move them abroad. The quality of education also varies widely from one International School to the next. But many TCKs love living abroad and prefer it to the education system “back home.”

© 2009 Michael Krigline. As far as I am concerned, people are allowed to print or copy this article, or link to it, for personal or classroom use.

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