A Tale of Two Cultures: Escape Your Comfort Zone Teaching English Abroad

June 3, 2016


As a Program Advisor at BridgeTEFL, I was often asked if I’ve taught overseas myself and where. When I revealed that I taught English in Costa Rica and Morocco, I usually got a natural next question: how did those two places compare? While most people can imagine life in Costa Rica with its toucans, salsa dancing and laid-back, pura vida culture, Morocco is more of a mystery. I chose to go there because I wanted something totally different, and of course I got it!

In some ways, Morocco was just like I’d pictured it. I drank mint tea in sidewalk cafes, shopped for spices in the winding souks and ate couscous on Fridays with my students. Five times a day a call to prayer could be heard throughout the city, stopping people in their tracks to drop and pray, or sending them streaming silently into the many mosques. Though I felt like an outsider with my light hair and strange American ways (“You live alone?”), I found the culture unlike anything I had experienced before, and fascinating to observe.

Of course, I also faced challenges living in a Muslim country. People often ask if it was dangerous. The idea of an American in a Muslim country is one facet of that – being female and on my own, another. There is the perception that anti-Western sentiment would bring hostility, and my gender would bring harassment. That was mostly not the case. What I found instead was a fascination with America, which led to curious questions rather than hostility. Though they were critical of the States at times, we often we found common ground in our political opinions about the U.S., or lighter topics, like our love of Michael Jackson (who Moroccans swear was Muslim!). Young people there had the charming ability to take what they liked from our culture – be it music, movies or technology – while still holding strong to the values and traditions of their own.

As for being female, I’ll admit at times it was hard. After the novelty of being unique wore off, the constant attention could be uncomfortable. On one-hundred-degree days I would have liked to have worn a tank top, for example, without sending an inappropriate message. Or there were times I wanted to eat in a restaurant alone without being the subject of not-so-discreet stares from people around me. Basically, I wanted to do the things I did at home, but I was not at home; I was in a new culture, with its own rules. As a foreigner, it was my job to adapt and embrace these differences. Anyone considering teaching English abroad will likely come to the same conclusion, wherever they teach.

I think of my time in Morocco when I speak to people with plans to teach in the Middle East. Morocco is Northern Africa, of course – practically Europe in a lot of ways, but the language and religion gave me a taste of how life in places like the U.A.E, Oman or Saudi Arabia might be. Though it was not the three-year fiesta that Costa Rica was, I learned a lot by living in Morocco. I would encourage anyone looking to leave their comfort zone and get a taste of something totally different, to go ahead and make the leap. With any luck, you will never be the same.

If Jen’s experience in Morocco interests you, read about Willow’s experience in another country in North Africa – Tunisia!

No matter where you go, there will be a host of opportunities to engage with the local culture. Here are a few unique cultural events and festivals from around the world.