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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!