From Thailand to Colombia; How Shakira Keller Found a Passion for Teaching English

From Thailand to Colombia; How Shakira Keller Found a Passion for Teaching English

Why did you first decide to teach English abroad?

Wanderlust. As overused and seeped in privilege as that word is, it was immensely popular the year I graduated university – 2013. I had already had a longing for exploring the world beyond the borders of the United States, but seeing other people doing it by way of Instagram, especially seeing other black people who have historically not crossed the globe under their own terms,  travel – shoutout to @browngirls_travel and @travelnoire – really pushed me to say “Yes, I can do this.”

parrots on my shoulder

With that said, teaching English abroad was at first a selfish decision. I, like many others, had graduated university, worked a plethora of shitty jobs over the course of one summer, and decided I needed to do SOMETHING, anything to get me out of LA. I remember the moment I googled teaching abroad, saw the Greenheart Travel program for Thailand, and called up my friends and family to say I was applying. I was the first person I knew to do this, but found it to be a reasonable way to fund the adventure I wanted for my life.

How has your experience Teaching in Thailand impacted your experience Teaching in Colombia?

Thailand was a gigantic learning curve for me. I went with my fresh degree in hand, and little life experience besides knowing the best tips to pull all-nighters and skate my way through part-time jobs. Then suddenly I was handling visas, paperwork and phone plans in a different language.

I was also experiencing a culture (and weather) so different from my own, and I fell in love with it. I made wonderful, long-term friends, was in charge of over 150 adopted children for days at a time, and I was adulting in a way I never had before. Thailand set the bar high. So when I arrived in Colombia, I was very anxious to get out of an orientation I found repetitive and was instead ready to throw myself into a new culture the way I had the first time.

living in thailand

Because of Thailand, I had high expectations for Colombia, and found myself experiencing culture shock right away. Surprisingly, the shock came not from comparing Colombia to home, but from comparing Colombia to Thailand. I was in a country that was technically more similar to my native one, and I could actually speak and understand some of the language here –  but I missed the wais, I missed the spicy food and the open air markets.. It wasn’t until just a few months ago that I realized I needed to actively allow myself to embrace this new place. And I haven’t looked back since.

Now all I can see is how Thailand readied me to lead a classroom and to learn local dialect. Being placed in a small Thai town made me more open to any sort of placement in Colombia. I am less fearful to explore and more confident in my skills as a teacher. It’s lovely.

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Why did you decide to teach English again, for the second time on a completely different continent?

The simple truth is: I love teaching! Being in a large un-airconditioned classroom in a small town in Thailand helped me uncover an unexpected passion. I have more confidence in my work and desire to go to the office each day than in any past job. After Thailand, I knew I would teach again. However, I thought I would go back to LA and save up for a year before venturing out again.

Fast-forward a few months into LA, and I couldn’t stay away from EFL jobs. I spent the summer with students from Norway, France, and Spain; I spent my down time online with students in South Korea. I knew this was something I needed to be doing full-time again. Luckily Greenheart Travel has a seemingly endless number of programs for just this, so I went back on the website and found Colombia. The program was free – that helped. I was also pulled to Colombia because I wanted to brush up on my Spanish skills and blend in more in a country where people with Afro-roots existed.

manizales colombia

 What are the biggest differences you’ve noticed between Thailand and Colombia?

My placement in Phangnga, Thailand was so very different than my current home in Manizales, Colombia. The first was a really small town; the latter, a small-sized city. With that said, there’s much more entertainment. Other differences that I’ve observed include a lot more people relying on public transportation in Colombia rather than the motorbikes even 12-year-olds drive in Thailand. Also, in Thailand the food everywhere is ridiculously spicy, and, after you get past the burn, delicious. In Colombia, you know to bring your own hot sauce. In both places, people are eager to get to know you and help foreign people like myself, but in Thailand you have to be much more careful to exude politeness in your speech. Though they are different, they are both incredible places.

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 If you had to spend the rest of your life in one city in either Thailand or Colombia, which would you choose?

What a question! I’ve done a good amount of traveling in both countries and enjoyed them all for different reasons. But if I had to pick just one… it would have to be Phangnga, Thailand. I know if I returned, some of my best friends would be waiting for me. I’d get to see my very first students grow up into impressive teenagers and even more impressive adults. I’d purchase a shiny new motorbike and ride it to the beach just 40 minutes away for the rest of my life.

 What would you say to someone who was on the fence about teaching English abroad?

One of the ideas I’ve struggled with most about teaching English abroad is the thought that I’d be adding to a global system that elevated the English language over other languages native to the area. Then I did it. And I saw how excited my students were about not only learning English so they can apply to jobs ranging from flight attendants to global business people, but also just showing someone foreign the beauty of their own culture. And delighting in the fact that you are totally struggling with cultural customs and butchering the local tongue. Traveling in itself helps make the globe feel a little smaller, but interacting on a teacher-student level makes the world a little more accessible for everyone involved.

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So my advice, especially to the people of color, to those that belong to the LGBTQ+ alphabet, to the women worried about traveling alone and reading this (or those like me, a combination of all three): This is for you, too. Inevitably there will be moments where you’ll find the cultural differences or the job overwhelming, but if you do your research and find the right place and program for you, you will look back on your time teaching abroad as time well-spent, for both you and your future students.

jumping picture colombia

Shakira Keller is from California, USA and has been teaching her way around the world, teaching English first in Phangnga, Thailand and currently in Manizales, Colombia. Read on to learn about her experiences and why she thinks you should teach English abroad!

8 thoughts on "From Thailand to Colombia; How Shakira Keller Found a Passion for Teaching English"

  1. Charity says:

    Wow, you are an incredible person!! I am so inspired by reading this. I was attracted to your post because I’m also teaching in Thailand right now but am considering teaching in South America sometime next year (2018). I think I would also have a difficult time with comparing the two countries. I can relate to a lot of what you said, actually. I don’t know if you still get these comments, but please know you’ve got a big fan! haha!

  2. Gail Summers says:

    Did you ever feel unsafe in Colombia? How does Greenheart help provide for your safety?

    Did you have teaching materials like textbooks, workbooks, audio/visual materials, supplies, copiers, computers, etc. provided to you, or did you have to come up with materials yourself?

    Did you have access to the Internet and time to work on possibly an on-line class??

    It sounds like you had very positive experiences! I enjoyed reading about your experiences!

    Thank you!

  3. Beverley says:

    I am a Black woman from England. seriously interested in teaching in Columbia. I am still exploring different options but the Greenheart programme has attracted my attention more than any other. So it’s helpful to hear from Black women. Racism is a concern but I’m not put off by it. I’m more concerned by why the cut of age for the programme is 50. Racism aside, I’m immediately excluded due to being 51. It’s a shame because for the first time in my life I’m completely free, financially stable full of confidence and the world is, at last, my oyster.
    So if anyone knows of a programme in South America that doesn’t have an age limit I’d be grateful for the information.

    In the meantime it’s good to hear the testimonials.
    thanks.

  4. Narmi says:

    You’re experiences have really inspired me. I am from a Sri Lankan background and when I told my South Asian friends I wanted to work in Thailand, a lot of them were discouraging me from applying because of the racial issues that may come up. I feel like exploring and getting to know different cultures should not be limited one group of people. You have really motivated into applying, with hope.

    Thank you 🙂

  5. Al Sheph says:

    Hello,
    I was accepted into the teaching program recently and I have a question about how you were treated as a black women. I also traveled to Thailand as a student and had a few negative racial encounters. While there was one other African American on the trip, because he was male, he had a completely different experience.Ut seemed that it was more of an issue for a woman to have dark skin than a man. Of course this is how it is in a lot of places. I LOVED Thailand despite, and am dying to return, but I also found getting a teaching job there more difficult because they would often post “white only apply” I was in the North region though, so that could have something to do with it. Anyway, how has your experience been in Colombia? I don’t see a lot of support for black female travelers and I know we face a lot of prejudice. I found a lot of sites warning me against traveling to Colombia as a black women.

    1. Shakira Keller says:

      Hi Al,

      Thanks for reaching out. I totally identify with your experience of having some negative encounters, but still loving the country and wanting to return. I want to make clear that the overwhelming majority of my interactions were positive, and if not that, then curious. I don’t doubt that getting a job as a Black person is more difficult in Thailand (as it is everywhere) but my advice is to trust the program. I applied as a Black woman AND as half of a lesbian couple, and I still had more than one offer within the promised time-frame.

      As far as Colombia, I would give the opposite advice of what you’ve read. Come here to practice self-love; come here for a celebration of “other” body types and sun-kissed skin. Racism and colorism is still prevalent in Colombia, as it is everywhere, and I have had to deal with some negative stereotypes that are applied to Afrocolombianos, but at the very least it was easy for me to find community here where my face mirrors so many faces around me.

      Best of luck!

      1. Faith Neblett says:

        Your reply hit home for me. Thank-you for taking the time to share your experiences and advice with others! I have really benefited from reading your posts. I too am a black woman, who is currently teaching English in South Korea. I’m Canadian and I’m coming to the end of my second year here. I would love to travel to and teach in Colombia once I’ve completed my current contract. My family is from Barbados, but my parents immigrated to Canada forever ago. It will be lovely and a refreshing change to be surrounded by people who look like me as well as to live in a country that borders the Caribbean Sea.

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