A Teacher’s Top 5 Survival Tips for Living Abroad

March 12, 2019
English Teacher in Japan, Colleen, at Awa Odori Festival


After teaching English abroad in Japan for three years, Colleen Luckett circled back to the U.S. in 2017 and has been teaching ESL at Bridge English in Denver ever since.  As an experienced instructor, she’s has shared some of her creative lesson plan ideas with us in the past, such as using emojis to teach English, but this time, she has a more personal lesson to pass along: her insider tips for living abroad and adapting successfully to a new culture 

Are you planning to teach English abroad? Living in another country is an absolutely wonderful experience that I highly recommend; however, spoiler alert: it’s not always a cake walk! After I had lived and taught English in Japan for three years, I celebrated my “Japaniversary” with a vlog about the top five tips for living abroad. I’ll share those with you here. Hopefully, this advice will help feel prepared for and excited about your future as a teacher abroad.

1. Be Okay With Yourself

When you first move to a new country, you might make a few new friends and have people to talk to. But you’re going to miss your friends and family back home (if you had some good ones!). At some point, after the newness and excitement wear off, there’s a good chance an overwhelming sense of homesickness and isolation will befall you. And that’s when knowing and loving yourself comes in really handy. It’s natural to kind of look inward and beat yourself up for your life choices, but you did this for a reason–lots of reasons, in fact–and they were GREAT reasons. If you have confidence, you will be able to roll with the punches, not take anything personally, and let your resilience carry you into the most wonderful experiences. In Japan, I’ll be honest; I was confused about 50% of the time, and not because of the language, per se, but because of the cultural differences. Being able to rely on myself, know I was okay, and have fun spending time with myself was instrumental in my survival during some lonely first few months.

Colleen, English Teacher in Japan, eating traditional Japanese food

Colleen, trying traditional Japanese food called Awa chicken. 

2. Stay Open to Cultural Differences 

When you’re in another country, it might be tempting to be your charming American self, relying on others to adapt to your “ways.” But this is how some of our tourists get the horrible nickname, “ugly Americans.” Don’t be one of those. You’re living there now, so it’s best to learn their culture and try to adapt to it as well as you can. Now, when I lived in Japan, there was no way I would ever be able to understand what it was like to be Japanese. Our cultures are vastly different in so many ways. But being open to those differences is one of the best ways to survive—and thrive. You learn so much!

Listen to your students and new friends. Try to understand why they do the things they do and say the things they say. You don’t have to change your entire way of life, but you can absolutely respect another culture and do your best not to offend the people there. You’re their guest, after all. To this day, my friends back here in Denver still tease me about how much I apologize—a side effect of living in a culture whose first go-to in any given situation is to say “sorry.” Being open to new cultures gives you a quirky, fun edge when you return, and when you explain why you have these “strange” new characteristics, you pass your knowledge on to your fellow Americans, and that’s how we create love and understanding instead of division and hate.

English teacher in Japan, Colleen, with her adult students

With her adult students 

3. Learn the Language

OK, this one seems pretty obvious, but many of us go into a new country (including me) thinking, “Well, English is the global language. I can get by.” And, while that is true, you miss out on so much if you don’t try to communicate with people in your new country in their language. This is because when you learn a new language, not only do you learn how to communicate with others, you also learn the culture behind the language—and that is crucial to your survival in your new country.

When I started learning more Japanese, I began understanding not only how people used the language but why they used it in different situations. You know, like why do they apologize so much? Because it’s a “collectivism” culture where the needs of the group outweigh the needs of the individual. They are always checking to make sure others are okay. Learning the language also gives you more and more autonomy. If you learn how to talk to your doctor, you don’t have to take your friend or coworker with you to translate all your personal ills! Check out “Memrise,” a cellphone app that can help you get a jump start on popular vocabulary words and phrases in many languages. It’s my favorite.

4. Look for Ways to Grow

It’s tempting after a long day spent in 50% (or more) confusion about why the people around you do what they do to hole up in your apartment and watch Netflix, or to sit around chatting with your friends fro work all night, every night. While this is perfectly acceptable, it may not be the best way to grow, when living abroad. Living in another country is such a gift, and there are thousands of ways you can get out and have experiences you’ll never be able to duplicate back home. Ask your school colleagues, students, or friends about community events you can attend, language and or culture classes you can frequent, and sports teams you can cheer or play for.

I played “futsal” (indoor soccer) on a coed team for a time, traveled all over Japan as much as I could perusing the gorgeous temples and attractions, joined friends for picnics, hired a bilingual personal trainer, and took Japanese classes. Sometimes, I rode my bike to the beach 45 minutes away just to soak up the sea air (can’t do that in Colorado!). Put yourself out there and ask. You won’t regret it. The only thing you’ll regret is wasting your time in your apartment.

Colleen taking shamisen lessons 

5. Make New Friends

This one I saved for last because of all the tips for living abroad,  it’s so, so, so important to your survival! Now, I’m not sure about other countries, but in Japan, we have this universal joke about how foreigners treat other foreigners. It’s strange to me, but some of these foreigners have this sort of chip on their shoulder that you even exist in their Japan. They want the full immersion experience and your chipper “Hello!” is not going to sway them. Don’t worry about those folks. They have their own cross to bear!

At least in Japan, my best advice is to find the local “gaijin” (foreigner) bar where English-speaking people and people from the country you are in are coexisting. Some of the locals are looking for free English lessons, but some of them genuinely want to make new friends. Plus, bonding with different people from your own country or other countries is incomparable. I had such a wonderful tribe when I lived in Tokushima (very small town) made up of people from the U.S., Slovenia, England, Germany, Philippians and, of course, Japan. These people were my lifelines, and I miss them terribly to this day, now that I’m back in the States. Your foreign coworkers may be a place to start, but make sure you branch out and try to meet people from many different walks of life. Find your tribe, survive, and thrive.

Would you like to learn more about teaching English in Japan? Download the free Bridge TEFL Country Guide: Japan and get the inside scoop on the culture, demand for teachers, typical working environments, and how to get a TEFL job in this fascinating country.