Alumni Spotlight on Chase Chisholm: Creating a Career Teaching English Abroad
Teaching English abroad has been an ongoing travel adventure for superstar Greenheart Travel alum, Chase Chisholm. After teaching abroad in South Korea, Chase was awarded a Travel Correspondent scholarship to teach in Myanmar, and completed his program this year. We caught up with Chase, who still lives in Yangon, to see how his travel experience has influenced him personally and professionally.
What inspired you to travel the globe, and specifically to travel first to South Korea to teach English and then on to Myanmar?
The first time I traveled out of the Midwest was when I was in high school. I took a trip to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. I connected with those places on a deeper level than I had to my hometown. That’s when I knew I didn’t necessarily belong in the place I had grown up, or in any certain place for very long. I often felt the mountains beckoning me to return. So, I went back to work for a couple of summers near Glacier National Park in Montana. Those were the best summers of my life.
It’s true what they say. You get this sort of addiction to travel once you go. The first time I flew was when I was 18, and on that same trip to Australia I finally got to see the ocean, too. Ever since that trip, I haven’t stopped going global. I’ve been to countless countries, have lived in numerous cities, have acquired priceless perspectives, have made life-long friends, and have gained new families throughout. I simply can’t get enough. The need to travel seems to be a part of my makeup.
I chose to teach in South Korea because I’d fallen in love with teaching abroad while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guyana, South America. I had no idea how rewarding teaching could be, and I didn’t even know I had what it took to be a teacher. I volunteered for two years at Open Doors Centre for Persons with Disabilities in Guyana’s capital city of Georgetown. My patience was tested daily, and I grew to absolutely love the challenge of reaching persons of varying abilities on levels we could learn from each other.
There’s something so special about teaching abroad. Especially when teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). You have these moments when you realize just how crazy you are to be in a classroom full of kids (or adults) halfway around the world, and that most of what you say and do goes misunderstood. So, you just kind of stand there, look at your classroom and laugh. It’s honestly all you can and should do at times. You laugh with them. They laugh at you. You laugh together. Learning comes from that. You have to first see that what you’re doing is actually quite ridiculous, but it’s also so rewarding and beneficial to people seeking to learn more about the English language.
Teaching English in South Korea through Greenheart Travel and the English Program in Korea (EPIK) was exactly what I needed to do in order to know I could make a career out of living and teaching overseas. Although I never imagined I’d leave Korea in just two short years, I chose to head to Yangon, Myanmar, for a different sort of challenge. I wanted to put the skills I’d gained through Peace Corps, and the experience I’d gotten from teaching in Korea to use in a place that appealed more to me. Myanmar is a fascinating country, full of opportunities to assist in the overall advancement of a place in desperate need of change.
How important do you feel experiencing another culture and country has been to your personal growth as well as your career path?
Living within other cultures has shaped who I’ve become, and has really helped define the parts of who I am because of where I was born and raised. It’s led me to adventure. It’s put me in unique situations where the only option I’ve had to communicate was creativity. I’ve had breakdowns. I’ve cried. I’ve rejoiced. I’ve felt incredibly thankful. I’ve grown immensely both personally and professionally.
You don’t learn about cross-cultural situations out of a textbook, or while surrounded by familiarity. You can only get it through experience and cross-cultural integration. You understand it only through trial and error and failed attempts and unintentionally offending someone a time or two. Nothing can prepare you for how to teach a room full of learners when the power goes out, or when the rain is pelting the zinc roof so hard you can’t even hear yourself scream.
What were one or two of your favorite memories, experiences or images that stand out for you looking back on your time in South Korea and Myanmar?
I think one of my favorite memories in South Korea was when I was alone in a classroom of about 40 elementary students, and the fire alarm started going off. I quickly realized I was suddenly the adult in charge of a bunch of kids during a fire drill. But, I had no idea what to do, or where to take the children. Thankfully, one of the students who spoke English well enough to explain to me what was happening told me what we needed to do. Normally, a co-teacher would’ve been in the classroom with me, but for some reason on that particular day my co-teacher hadn’t arrived yet. It was humbling, humiliating, and hilarious. No one was hurt.
The other thing I adore about teaching ESL abroad is, as mentioned, those moments you just start laughing so hard with students. This happens a lot in Myanmar. Learning a language is really difficult and embarrassing. But, sometimes, it’s also just so funny to witness and experience. I’m not saying I laugh at my students as they struggle to pronounce words. We laugh together about how silly it truly is to attempt to sound out words and put thoughts together into correct sentences. I think laughing really helps my students understand it’s okay to make mistakes. They also get a kick out of when I attempt to speak their language. Needless to say I’m awful at learning languages.
Do you have any tips for how a traveler can make the most of their experience living abroad?
Seek ways to balance time with other foreigners and time with locals. It’s so important to make local friends, hang where locals hang, and do as locals do. At the same time, meeting expats from all over the world is another huge perk of traveling and living abroad. Don’t deny yourself time with other world wanderers just because you want the local experience. Simply be intentional about not spending all your time with other expats in places catering to only expats because it’s the most comfortable and/or easiest thing to do. You’ll miss out on a lot if you do.
What destinations do you have on your travel bucket list?
I tend to gravitate towards places I don’t even know exist until I hear about them shortly before deciding it’s the next destination I’m supposed to live and work. Suffice it to say my travel bucket list is flexible and always changing. I couldn’t even locate Myanmar on a map months before I came, and I thought Guyana was in Africa, not South America, when I first heard I’d been assigned to serve there with Peace Corps. Now I could write books about these places I knew so little about before going.
Do you have a favorite mantra or quote that inspires you to get out of your comfort zone and follow your passions that might help others go after their travel dreams?
“These are the days that must happen to you” from “Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman is my go to quote. My dear friend, travel companion, and fellow Greenheart teacher, Stephanie Warren, shared it with me since I’ve been in Yangon, Myanmar. Every single day here presents challenges beyond what I can handle at times. But, I know it’s all meant to be. It’s all part of it. It’s the reason I came. I came to be pushed beyond my limit, and this quote serves as a very good reminder that I’m exactly where I need to be, that these are the experiences that must happen to me for whatever else is ahead.
If you were talking with someone that wasn’t sure about teaching abroad or traveling to a new place, what would you say to persuade him or her to go for it?
The only downside would be that you’re going to realize living and teaching abroad isn’t for you. And that’s fine! It isn’t for everyone. But, how else will you know unless you go? What you’ll take away from it, in addition to international perspective, is a better understanding of a place you’ve never been, and you’ll learn much more about yourself as a result.
Have your career goals changed since you have traveled abroad? If so, in what ways?
The more I live and travel abroad the more I realize there’s a life for me out there, out here, and it’s okay to step away from the life I thought I’d be living, the life others expected for me to be living, and the life that society says I should be living. I’m about 31. I have no kids. I have no spouse. I have no savings. What’s a 401K? Heck, I don’t even have any money most weeks. What I have is experience. I have memories. I have rich friendships, and I’ve found happiness. I’m so extremely happy to be where I am and who I am right now.
You need to find a way to make it all work. Find a way to combine your passions into making a living where you want to be passionately alive. I’ve got a long ways to go, but I’ve also learned so much along the journey. This lifestyle seems glamorous, but gosh it’s a lot of work just to get by most days.
Do you have a role model or person that influenced you in your passion for travel or encouraged you to go after your dreams?
My mother is my role model. It wasn’t until after I began traveling that she revealed to me the life she imagined she’d be living before children, before marriage, is the life I get to have. She sacrificed so much so that I could have the life I’m living. Although she’d love for me to be home more often, she always makes sure I’m aware she knows I’m going after what I want, that I’m doing what’s right for me, and that she’s proud of me for going after it all. That’s powerful. Not everyone gets to have that kind of support from a parent. I’m really thankful for it, for my father’s support as well, and for my entire family’s encouragement.
Any other additional thoughts or tips you have for anyone wanting to travel or teach abroad?
There’s a sense of thrill that exists when you have to figure out how to do everything all over again in another country. Nothing is handed to you. No longer is everything done a certain way just because it’s always been done that way. It’s different. All of it! You have to figure out how to do life again, as if you’re starting over. You have to figure out how to take out the trash and where to buy drinking water. It’s like you’re discovering a new land before anyone else—even though it’s nothing new to most people around you. What you’ll end up finding is a deeper you, a stronger person within the shell of a vessel you’re in. If only everyone were given the chance to teach and travel abroad. Wait. Everyone is! All it takes is a decision. Decide to go, do, and be.