Three years ago, I started teaching at a well-respected international school in Bangalore, India. As a 50+ American woman, I approached this amazing opportunity with awe and excitement. My emotions took hold as I contemplated various ways that I could make a difference. It was as if I was in my 20s again and the idealism of my college years was returning. I was invigorated by the challenge. I jumped into the situation wholeheartedly, despite the opposition I received from well meaning friends and relatives. Not surprisingly, everything did not go as planned. One obstacle after another presented itself. My decades of experience as a wife, a mother of four sons, and an educator helped me through some of the unforeseen issues while my fears made me occasionally overreact. Now that time and distance has separated me from this once in a lifetime Indian teaching experience, I am reflecting on my teaching abroad experience.
Stepping Outside Comfort Zone. I had to be willing to give up my affluent suburban lifestyle. Consistent electricity, purified water, hygienic surroundings, and sufficient food options were not always available.Would I be able to find a job? Where would I live? My life was uncertain. I would have to punt.
Value of Research I spent countless hours reading books about India. I spoke with people who had lived and worked in India. A few videos provided several visual images. While the research helped on a basic level, it did not adequately prepare me for what I would experience first-hand. I never anticipated that I would be face-to-face with wild monkeys in my classroom and in my living space.
Cultural Differences. Within seconds of arriving, I became aware of cultural differences. I wondered why most of the people I saw at the airport and on the street were men. My first question was “Where are the women?” There was so much to absorb each moment. My senses were on overload as I tried to process everything that I encountered and observed while vehicle horns blared and burning debris made my sinuses burn. Almost everything was different compared to the life I left behind.
Flexibility. Becoming as flexible as possible became my new motto. Many people could not speak English fluently. Day-to-day communication was frustrating. Eating habits, forms of dress, and getting from point A to point B were different. So many times, I wanted to retreat to my comfort zone and be resistant to my new way of life. It was challenging to be open-minded and flexible. Too often, I questioned, “Why do they do it that way?”
Ethnocentrism. For a long time, I was convinced that American culture was superior to Indian culture. Yes, ethnocentrism was alive and well. However, I found that my Indian counterparts often shared a similar set of values. They were equally as stubborn. They continually felt that their way of thinking was likewise superior. It was like a giant traffic jam. Gridlock had engulfed all of us. Eventually, the tension was abated and we started to meet one another halfway.
Patience. Working through conflicts while trying to understand a new culture required an enhanced level of patience. I had to accept all of the challenges and go with the flow. I was bombarded. For the first time in decades, I was alone. While accepting this new role, I had to come to terms with simple living arrangements, a new school, an unfamiliar British curriculum, different teaching philosophies, and becoming immersed in a new culture. Simultaneously, I had to bond with my fifth grade students. That indeed was the best part of my adventure.
Non-Stop Learning Experience. Each day was a teacher’s dream. I was continually learning new things about people and teaching international students as well as Indian history, geography and culture. It was not possible to absorb everything. I wished that I had a dial that could have slowed down the input of the auditory and the visual information.
Balancing wellbeing with career opportunity. The biggest challenge that I encountered was the conflict that developed between my family and my career path. My husband’s employer, one of India’s largest IT companies, had created the opportunity to live abroad. After I had quit my American teaching job and accepted an Indian position, my husband’s new supervisors opted out of their original agreement. I was abandoned in India. My husband remained in the US. Callousness prevailed. Equally as insensitive were the administrators at my school. Caught in a no win situation that was compounded by health concerns, I choose my family and health over my teaching career.
Writing. I agree with the saying, “When one door closes, another one opens.” I was disheartened when I returned to the US. My passion for teaching would need to be put on hold. There were no Colorado teaching positions, especially for a 50+ woman with two master’s degrees. I was considered “old” and “expensive.” My lifelong passion for writing was rekindled. My Indian adventure took on a new form as I wrote, May This Be the Best Year of Your Life and started this blog. The challenges that I had faced added multiple layers to my story. If my husband’s employer and the international school had been more accommodating, I would have had a very different story to tell. When writing a memoir one can only recount the events that actually happened.
Resilience. As I overcame each obstacle, I became more determined to reach my goals. Like a rabbit that fancifully hops about, I am content to pursue a lifestyle that allows me to explore the world. Hopefully, my audience will grow as I share my experiences as an expat and traveler in addition to what I continue to learn.
Had I not had the courage to step outside my comfort zone, I would have remained sheltered in my suburban lifestyle. I would have missed the opportunity to live abroad and teach at an international school. Traveling to other places exposes people to cultural diversity, but falls short of an expat experience. I realize that most people are unwilling or unable to partake in such an adventure. Reading about my time in India will allow those individuals to have a small taste of what it is like to be an expat. Although my time in India was short compared to the rest of my life, I will always cherish what I learned from my students in 5C and remember the people that I met during my journey and the places that I visited.