Should You Teach Abroad?

So you’re thinking of embarking on the adventure of teaching abroad, and narrowed down your choices of which schools in which countries. I am currently speaking from my experience in China, but it should still help figure out whether you’re well-suited to this lifestyle or not.

A Short Quiz
  • Does it bother you when things don’t go exactly as planned?
  • Does any level of chaos make you feel like pulling your hair out?
  • Do you avoid trying new things, even if they appear safe?
  • Are you obsessive compulsive about cleanliness?

If you said yes to more than two of the above, you may want to reconsider living abroad. Or at least, China should be removed from your list of potential locations.

As with moving to any new location, adaptability is key to surviving in your new environment without having a breakdown. This is particularly true when it comes to China.

If you’re on the fence about whether you can manage or not, I’ll break down the two personality traits that are most essential, as described by the “Big Five” personality framework. For the impatient, this is ordered from most important to least.

Emotional Stability

Also known as “Neuroticism”, having high emotional stability will save your bacon more times than you can count when living abroad. I’ve seen people come to China and have break downs because the service people didn’t come when they said they would, and didn’t do a great job.

Imagine you were on your way to a meeting and you find, as you pull in, that the meeting has actually been postponed for a half hour. Do you start fuming and getting angry about the wasted time, or do you enjoy the extra half hour you have to relax and play on your phone? The first would be lower emotional stability; the second, higher.

I live in Beijing. About two times a year, the police will demand to see documents and collect urine samples from everyone in the foreigner districts on a randomly selected, high-traffic night. This is a more dramatic example of a random event, while more minor ones would be not having any idea when your work will have time off for a vacation, or not being paid on a predictable day of the week or month. Each country will have their own unique picadillos that’ll cause expats frustration.

People with low emotional stability will find themselves developing bald patches from newly developed tics. Likewise, if you need your environment to be predictable and always clean, then… yeah, you’re probably going to have a hard time in many countries, first-world or otherwise.

Bottom line: Being able to cope with an occasionally chaotic environment is the most important personality trait to surviving and thriving in a foreign country, particularly the giant geographical chicken.

Openness to Experience

This, as the name implies, is the ability to appreciate and seek out new experiences, ideas, and people. If you are curious, enjoy adventure, new environments, and art, then you are probably on the higher end of the scale.

Yes, I think that being open to new things is probably less important that being able to calm yourself in the face of random, absurd, inexplicable situations. The reason this is second is because you can survive abroad by living in larger cities and planting your life in and around the ‘Western’ quarters. It’s often possible to survive with very little of the local tongue, and Western goods will be abundant, though they will typically be more expensive and maybe less convenient.

As Rolf Potts stated in Vagabonding:

The simple willingness to improvise is more vital, in the long run, than research.

The Rest

And here are the less essential factors, and why I don’t think they’re as important:


What it is – following through, being prepared, being on time
Why it’s not essential – People often really want to learn English, and while you might be docked pay, they won’t outright fire you because it cost so much to get you into the country in the first place. In addition, they’re making quite a lot of money off of you. Finally, if you have the level of conscientiousness to actually get a job abroad and catch the plane on time, you’ll probably have enough to function like a normal human being.

All that being said, don’t intentionally be a dick.


What it is – whether people drain or grant you energy, how long it takes to feel lonely
Why it’s not essential – I know many introverts here. When necessary, they just lock themselves in their room. China, specifically, can strain extreme introverts because there are always at least 20 people around you in public, but if you can manage life in a Western city, you’ll be fine.


What it is – the Mr.Rogers trait; do people tend to like you? are you upbeat?
Why it’s not essential – Just like conscientiousness, you’re probably making them a lot of money. So long as you can keep your jerkiness relatively contained, then you’ll be fine.

In Closing
  • Can you roll with the punches?
  • Do you like trying new things?

That’s it. If you can confidently say yes to both, then yes, you are cut out for teaching abroad.

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