If like me you’ve always dreamed of living and working abroad, you may have always wondered what goes on behind the scenes of the photos and the high salary. Truth is, there is so much to get used to, so much to organise and legalise that often people forget the reason why they moved overseas in the first place.
However, should you take the plunge, simply follow the instructions below and you could find yourself living an extremely different, unimaginable life.
Step 1. Secure a job you enjoy. Last Friday evening, I found myself dismissing my older children 30 minutes early so I could dash home and change into my Princess costume. I wish I was kidding, but guys and girls, I am not. Every 2 months parents, grandparents, brother and sisters flock to school after sunset for the one and only ‘Parents Day’ which includes a wonderfully over-rehearsed show, hand-made (by teachers) gifts and a chance to see their children’s work. Why am I dressed as a princess? This semester we combined parents day with Halloween. So why am I dressed as a princess? Well it was the only choice in the fancy dress cupboard. It is was either that or an afro and I figured Jackson 5 just wasn’t Halloweeny enough. So there I was, 6pm sharp back in school. Red ball gown – check. Red shoes – check. Gold tiara – check. GHD’d hair – check. 22 five year olds dressed as pumpkins – check. 44 parents armed with SLR cameras demanding photographs so frantically it’s as if the playground has been transformed to DisneyLand and us foreign teachers are the main attraction – check. I felt famous. Once on stage we were introduced in pairs (in Chinese of course) we took a bow (or curtsey for me) and hosted our very own Halloween party. K2A nailed their part of the show, complete with musical instruments and a scary ROARR at the end. The fashion show (whereby the kids walk down the runway and strike a very Chinese pose consisting of either the classic peace sign or the new ‘poke your cheek with your index finger smile’) went down a storm, the piñata had adults more aggressive than the kids and the haunted house (or converted classroom) was amazing. By the end of the evening and 22 ‘yes, your child is doing brilliantly in school’ conversations later, I was knackered, but I knew I was exactly where I wanted to be. This job can be the most exhausting on the planet, but my God it will give you 100% contentment every time a shy child has an outgoing moment on stage, or the autistic boy frenziedly introduces you to Mama and Baba and says “I love you” to you in front of them and they look overcome with happiness. Step 1, secure a job that never gets old.
Step 2. Find a decent bar/club and make it your local. So Parents Day is over, I am no longer a princess, Erin no longer a pirate and Brad no longer a sumo wrestler. What’s the plan? Vodka and wine pre-party on Britt’s roof obviously! We have about an hour to transform ourselves from perfect, bubbly, smiley teachers into crazy party goers. Before we know it, we’re in a taxi on our way to meet the rest of the crew and without any dinner the party begins. I now know there are two videos of my drunken dancing to a Korean song floating around this city and am aware that Taiwanese red wine does not mix well with 18 year scotch or gin and tonic (as appealing as it may seem at the time – just trust me, it does not). Once off the roof and in the club, get to know the DJ and request Beyonce. If you stick your bottom lip out far enough he’ll play ‘Who Run the World – Girls’ immediately and follow it by ‘Crazy in Love’ – amazing. By finding a place that plays incredible music and is local you will meet other regulars and build up your own network. I now know I can sing every word of ‘Girls’ into the host’s microphone and have my voice recognised by Brad in the guys toilets. B would be proud eh?
Step 3. Learn the language. After denying a cool New Yorker a place to stay at 5am in the morning (even if he is from Manhattan he’s still a stranger) and getting home with the help of my dear Miss Erin, I had to be up 5 hours later to meet my language exchange in Taipei. The hour long bus journey seemed to last a lifetime and the ultimate hangover had set in by 2pm. Nonetheless, I gave it my everything and have learnt so much from the lovely girl who’s agreed to teach Chinese to the worst student ever. She reserved a table in a Japanese restaurant, needless to say sushi is not what I had in mind after the amount of vodka I had consumed the night before. I stuck to green tea and fried chicken and made it through the session. I can now talk all about my family, dates and months of the year and my feelings (i.e. I am so happy, I am so angry, I am hungry/tired/busy). Great stuff. Learning the language has helped me feel like a part of the school I work in, the city I live in and the country I have become an Alien Resident of. The more I learn the more confidence I have to talk to new people and the more friends I have, simple.
Step 4. Stay friends with your employer. After lunch and information overload, Grace took me to a couple of wonderful clothes shops. The capital really is incredible. I have already picked out my winter coat and mittens (apparently it hits 10 degrees here, which everyone from California seems to freak out about!!) . I went to meet my agent for dinner. The lovely Jenny told me she is my big sister in Taiwan and anything I need I should not hesitate to ask her. She took me to a Vietnamese restaurant, ordered some incredible peanut beef noodle dishes and told me how easily she can find people jobs and if I wanted to stay an extra year but change schools I just have to choose a city and it’s a done deal. By staying friends with your agent you keep your options open and have a much higher chance of landing a job that really suits you, i.e. salary, hours, location etc. I now feel the world is my oyster and that with good networking skills you really can get anywhere!
Step 5. Know your local town. After dinner I was meant to make my way across the capital for a Chocolate and Wine party which a new Taiwanese friend had invited me to. But the hangover was in full swing and as I slurped up the remaining Beef Satay noodles from my plate, my eyes were drooping and I was one deep breath away from falling asleep. I jumped on a bus back home, fell asleep and opened my eyes JUST as we pulled up at my stop, must’ve been an angel in the seat behind me because if he hadn’t have kicked my chair, I wouldn’t have jolted forward, my tall skinny Hazelnut latte wouldn’t have spilt and I would’ve missed my stop. I walked the 5 minute journey home with my eyes closed, got in and fell straight into a deep sleep. The next day was one I had been waiting for since I arrived in Hsinchu. We were all going to the beach which was a 20 minute scooter ride away to watch the sunset. Apparently schools of fish jump in and out of the water and it is practically deserted. However, my hopes were shattered when I awoke to the sound of crazy typhoon wind and rain. That’s right. It’s 36 degrees all week, Sunday comes and its 26, rain and wind. Great. Nevertheless we make the trip down there, which feels like a real life game of Mario Kart as all 5 scooters weave in and out of the heavy traffic along crowded city roads and eventually onto country coastline. In spite of the rain and wind, we walked along the coast, grabbed coffees and said goodbye to Heidi, who has left the world of Taiwanese expatriation for Disneyland Florida. (jealous much.) It was amazing to see what lies only 20 minutes away though, the beach really is deserted and although it was cloudy on the day we went, I can see the potential for an absolutely stunning sunset.
Step 6. Explore your surroundings. This week in school will be the same as any (no princesses or pumpkins sadly) although tomorrow I do have my ‘demo’, which means the entire teaching team will pile into my classroom and watch me for half an hour, greaaat. I am so nervous but am too pre-occupied with the upcoming events of this weekend to care! We have another bank holiday, so we have booked seats on the fastest train in the world to travel 2 hours down to the very southern tip of the island. It’s a national park, so entirely protected and is basically a beach resort minus the hotels or any type of inhabitation. The county is called Kenting and we are basically taking a 4 day vacation! We’re going scuba-diving, white water rafting, sunbathing in hammocks and celebrating a new foreign teacher’s birthday. She’s called Hannah, fresh in from California, and it means I (nor Kera nor Brad) am no longer the newbie around here. We’re taking full advantage of the situation and travelling down straight after work on Friday. Google Kenting, seriously, I cannot wait.
Step 7. Use your holidays wisely. After Kenting we have the whole of November to work and sadly we do not break up for Christmas. The Taiwanese count Chinese New Year as their big one so I will have to work all the way through the festive period. However, my nice executive director, as scary as she may be, has kindly given me Boxing Day and 27th off. I will therefore fly to Singapore on the Friday to meet the family I never even knew existed until a couple of years ago. I have an uncle, an aunt and 3 cousins and they have agreed to house and feed me over Christmas. Singapore is only a few hours flight from here, and in any other circumstance, flying to Singapore from the UK for Christmas would just seem loony, but while I am, I will use every weekend and bank holiday the best I can and fly all around South East Asia.
Step 8. Get your own transport. That’s right people! I have just this evening become the proud owner of a 50cc motorbike (‘scooter’ out here) and no longer must rely on lovely Erin to drive me everywhere to buy my weekly supply of coco pops and mango smoothies or to yoga classes. I am petrified and have not actually put the key in the ignition as of yet, but the point is – I have the key. Complete with a little policeman keyring and everything. I now have the ultimate freedom and feel a crazy road trip to somewhere amazingly beautiful coming on. Now all I need is my own pretty little helmet. I have one that departing Heidi gave me, but it’s black and grey and I want a pretty red flowery one. Helmet shopping in Kenting maybe!
Step 9. Keep in touch. Every Sunday I have long skype convo’s with my sisters back home and cannot stress the importance of maintaining friendships and relationships back home whilst abroad. I make a conscious effort to email those I miss the most frequently and am readily available on skype most evenings. By doing this and keeping up to date with everyone I love I feel less alienated, less far away and far more inclined to throw my all into everything I’m doing over here. It gives everything I’m doing a bit more context, it makes it seem less surreal and more like home. Without keeping in touch, I would feel like this was a dream and never really felt like any of it really meant anything.
Step 10. Write a blog! In 10/20/30 years from now when I am back home and (hopefully) settled into a job/marriage/babies/mortgage etc. I will be able to read everything I have done back and relive everything that happened. And whilst it does take a bit of time, what is the whole year worth without proper documentation? Keeping a blog helps me appreciate why I’m here, keeps friends and family in the know and most importantly gives me the chance to create long lasting memories. We all know this won’t last forever, when I’m old and wrinkly this may be all I have!
So if you’ve ever wanted to become a proper expat, book your ticket, get out of the country you’ve always lived and loved and follow my simple instructions. You can bet your entire life you won’t regret it.