This is part of my new interview series, designed to demonstrate the wildly varied ways we can live, work, and chase our dreams. Please keep in mind that, since these are interviews, the opinions, methods, and websites contained within do not necessarily reflect my own views or experiences. (Which is, in my opinion, part of what makes them wonderful.)
Today, I’m excited to introduce you to my friend Anita, who just a few months ago quit her job, flew to India, taught English to Tibetan refugees for three months, then flew back to the states and started her new editing business.
I first met Anita at a networking event in Denver for writers and a year or two later she became the editor of my first book. Today, I’ve asked her to share her story and some tips for those of you who might be dreaming about doing something similar: going to India, teaching English abroad, and simply living abroad for months at a time.
So here is Anita to tell you all about it.
Tell us a little about yourself.
First, thanks for having me! You’re one of the people who inspired me to pursue a life of travel (“If my awesome friend Gigi can go for it, why shouldn’t I?”). So it’s an honor to be here.
I’m a freelance editor, English teacher, and part-time vagabond. My home base is Denver, Colorado, where I spend time with friends and family and get my kicks in the mountains between travel stints.
When did you first start traveling and what made you fall in love with it?
My first big trip was a summer study abroad in France during college, so that must have been when I got hooked. A couple of years later I went back and lived in Normandy for seven months, teaching English at a small college in a town called Evreux. During that time, I also visited Spain, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Andorra, and Monaco, thanks to the generous vacation time in France. Which, by the way, gave me a taste of “work to live, not live to work”—a balance I always strive for.
What kind of traveling are you doing now and what inspired you to take this trip?
I’m currently spending three months in a small village near Dharamsala, India. Dharamsala is famous as the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.
I’m a volunteer English teacher at a school for Tibetan refugees who have come to India to escape Chinese persecution and receive education they couldn’t afford back home. As you can imagine, it’s intense, humbling work. The students risked their lives to get here when they were teenagers (most are now in their twenties), literally walking across the Himalayas with next to nothing and no guarantee they’d be allowed to stay if they made it. Tibetans who try to leave China “illegally” are often caught, jailed, and tortured—but they don’t give up. They’ve taught me so much about appreciating life and about the strength we humans are capable of when tested.
What kind of career do you have and how does that impact your travel?
I actually have two careers, and it’s the combination that gives me the flexibility to travel. I’ve been an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher for over ten years now, and one reason I chose it is that it offers the opportunity to work all over the world. I have teacher friends who have worked in a dozen or more countries—it’s perfect for adventurers and those who crave new experiences frequently.
For those who want a little more stability, there are jobs in the U.S. at universities and private language schools; and it’s possible to combine that with teaching abroad during the summer. So far I’ve taught in France, China, India, The University of Illinois, and Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning, a nonprofit in Denver. So I guess I’m pretty familiar with the range of options! Each job has had its rewards and challenges and I’ve loved them all.
My other career is freelance editing and I specialize in novels/fiction. For several years I worked full-time at a literary agency while teaching ESL in the evenings back home in Denver. Both jobs were amazing, but I missed living abroad and I missed working for causes that are important to me, like refugee education and immigrant advocacy. Working full time and evenings made it hard to find the time.
So, about six months ago, I decided to leave my job at the agency and start my editing & critiquing business. Since it’s based online, I can work from anywhere that has a good internet connection. I set my own schedule, so if I want to do a volunteer project, like the one I’m doing now, I can block off that time or reduce my number of editing projects. And I get to work closely with writers, helping them toward their dream of publication—my favorite part of working in publishing.
Finding the right balance between these two careers and between living in the U.S. and abroad is a juggle, but it’s worth it. I think the ultimate goal should be finding work you are passionate about that allows you to live a lifestyle you enjoy.
How do you save for/finance your travels?
I read a comment by Chris Guillebeau a while back that stuck with me. He said people often tell him they’d love to travel, if only they had the time and money and “real life” didn’t get in the way. Like Chris, I get a little offended by those comments, which imply that a traveling lifestyle is a permanent vacation only rich lazy people can afford. In reality, I’ve found that by choosing less expensive hotels and restaurants, watching my spending, and working while I travel, I can spend less and save more abroad than I would in “real life” back home. And while some people have obligations that really do hold them back, for many it’s a matter of choosing what you want the most (Bigger house? Newer car? Then you might have to say no to six months abroad for now).
In my case, since I work while I travel, I don’t have to save enough money before I go to finance the entire trip; I can teach and edit wherever I am. And if I’m doing volunteer work, accommodations are usually provided so I keep my expenses, both back home and at the site abroad, to a minimum. My biggest expense is the plane ticket. Some ESL jobs, like the one I did in China, come with round-trip airfare, but volunteer jobs (rightfully) do not. What I do is set a certain amount aside every month for travel expenses, even if I don’t yet know the destination, to ensure I’ll have enough when the time comes.
With teaching English abroad, what’s the visa situation? What did you have to do to get these gigs?
The type of visa you need depends on where you’re from, the country of destination, the type of teaching job, and the length of employment. If you’re doing short-term volunteer work, a tourist visa may be all you need, but if you’re going to be officially employed and paid by an overseas school, you’ll need some type of work visa. Sometimes your employer will help you get it, but in other cases you’re on your own. I’ve heard good and bad stories about visa procurement agencies that help you through the process, so if you decide to go that route, definitely research the company. I generally prefer to do my own visa paperwork and nowadays you can find a lot of helpful information online.
As for getting the gigs, there are lots of online ESL job boards; I got my current gig through one of my favorites, www.eslcafe.com. Or, if you know which country you want to work in, you can research schools and contact them directly.
The qualifications vary from school to school and country to country. To be considered for the best jobs, especially in Europe, you usually need a master’s degree or a TEFL certificate (Teaching English as a Foreign Language—another name for the same career). But there are other opportunities for those who don’t have that. When I taught in France (through a teaching assistant program sponsored by the French government) I didn’t have any qualifications except the fact that I was a native English speaker. After I got back to the States, I decided to go to grad school to improve my skills. Getting my M.A. turned out to be a good decision because I learned a lot about teaching methodology and gained experience as an intern teacher during the program. It also opened a lot of doors job-wise. But I’d never say there’s only one road you can take. Going back to school is a big investment and if you think you can get the knowledge you need through direct experience or mentoring, go for it!
What tips do you have for others who want to teach English abroad and/or live abroad for a few months or a year at a time?
My top advice is to meet people who are doing what you hope to do and learn from them. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people, especially those who already have experience in what you want to do, reminds you that an out-of-the-box lifestyle is indeed possible. It’s easy to forget that if everyone around you is saying “bad economy: hunker down, be realistic.”
Along the same lines, it’s important to surround yourself with people who support your decisions. When I quit my job to come to India, I was fortunate to have a boss who, far from being upset, supported my decision 100%…she even threw me a party where she and my amazing co-workers gave me travel gear as going away presents! The same was true of my family and closest friends—no one told me I was making a crazy decision and should reconsider. I’m lucky to have so many people in my life who truly want me to be happy and I hope I’ll get a chance to be there for them when their next transition looms.
One other piece of advice: decide how long you’re comfortable living abroad. For some people, a year or more without returning to their home country is just fine. I’ve discovered that for me, 3-6 months is ideal. It allows me to really get to know a place (and decide whether I’d like to return), but I also don’t miss too much of what’s going on with my family and friends—something that’s important to me, especially as my parents get older. Plus, I start to miss things like Irish nachos and Colorado microbrews.
What are some of the greatest joys you’ve experienced from teaching and traveling?
For me, the best part of traveling and living abroad is connecting with interesting people and learning about their way of life. That’s why I prefer staying in one place for an extended period (several weeks or months), rather than going on two-week vacations, backpacking, etc. You have a chance to really immerse yourself in a language or culture and make lasting friendships.
The down side is letting go when the trip ends. . .
What have been the biggest challenges of teaching English abroad?
The same things that bring joy can also be a challenge, for example, differences in lifestyles and living conditions in other countries. It might be as easy as learning to drink tea instead of coffee because it’s more readily available. Or it might involve learning to wash your clothes in a stream and take a shower in cold spring water during winter, like in my current situation! But it’s amazing how fast you get used to these things—they’re part of the whole package and part of what I’ll miss. And, yes, I do feel spoiled and guilty saying that.
But the biggest challenge, really, is saying goodbye to my new friends, colleagues, and students once the teaching experience is over. I know I’ll be a wreck when my time here at Kunpan School ends. It has come to feel like a family. The silver lining is that I’ll be able to keep in touch and follow everyone’s news through email and Facebook. What the heck did people do before that?
Any favorite places?
That’s a tough one. I love so many and it’s hard to choose between places that are so different from one another. But if I had to pick, the top three are India, Brazil, and France. India for its bazaar of languages, cultures, and history; Brazil for its beautiful coasts and vibrant people; and France for its food and wine and pan-handling puppeteers on the Métro.
What’s next for you?
When my teaching project ends in mid-December, I’ll have a week or so to travel in India before heading back to the U.S. for the holidays. I’m hoping to visit the Golden Temple at Amritsar, go for a long train ride, see the main sights in New Delhi, and, of course, the Taj Mahal.
As for future trips, I think I’m starting a long-term affair with India. I’d love to return to Dharamsala and stay involved with Kunpan School. I’d also like to spend some time in south India, especially Goa. Other than that, I’m open.
I joke about closing my eyes, spinning a globe, and seeing where my finger lands. Maybe I’ll finally try that. . .
Any questions for Anita? Toss them in the comments. And if you’re an aspiring writer, check out her blog for insights into the world of agents, query letters, and publishers as well as insights into the writing process.
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