UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Somewhere else & back

I recently learned that a third former student of mine has moved to Taiwan to teach English, and I couldn’t be happier for all these young people who have heard the call to escape their comfort zone and seek opportunity beyond the borders of the familiar. One of these students lived with her husband on the island nation off the coast of China for nearly five years, embracing the expat experience and even raising their first child there. The experience of living abroad, of immersing ourselves in a new culture, of becoming a part of another community, can be an invaluable education, and it was an opportunity I pursued nearly thirty years ago. It’s also a piece of advice I highly recommend to anyone who has the chance. Get out of your country for a while. Go somewhere else and see what the world has to teach you.

In the summer after my college graduation, I interviewed for a teaching job at my former high school in the small town of Alton, Illinois, and then I promptly moved eight thousand miles across the world to teach English at a buxiban, or “cram school,” in Taipei, Taiwan. It was one of the boldest moves I ever took, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Of course, I had help in the choice, specifically because the young woman I was in love with was heading to Taiwan to teach, and I didn’t really have any other plans. It was 1992, and English teaching jobs weren’t exactly falling into my lap, not that I was searching too diligently. The 1991 recession and state spending cuts to education didn’t help either. Additionally, my wife’s former college roommate, who was Taiwanese, was returning home to live with her parents and mentioned the idea of us teaching there. So, after a visit to the Educational Placement Office of the University of Illinois, where we found a rather basic flyer offering teaching positions in Taipei at the Hess Language School, Julie and I bought our tickets and boarded a plane. 

Since our time in Southeast Asia, the idea of moving abroad has been one of the most consistent pieces of advice I give my students: go somewhere else for a little while. Take leave of your bubble and flee the familiar. Get out of your country; if you love, leave it. This leap of faith may simply be a semester abroad during school, or it could be a work-study program or a job-swap. It might be a single gig for your company or a one-year appointment. Whatever it is, when the opportunity to travel is available, take it. My wife and I ended up staying in Taiwan for five years, teaching and traveling the world. We went to Hong Kong for weekends, lived a month in a bungalow on the Greek isle of Paros, spent a week surfing and lounging on Bali, and got engaged in the botanical garden of Rome. Eventually, we made our way back to the United States and lived for a short time in the city of Chicago, where she worked as a pastry chef and I taught middle school. A few years later we made our way to Colorado, a place we’d never been before.

Moving home after our time abroad was also equally important and refreshing. Following years as expats, the Midwest of our youth actually became exciting and new again simply as a result of our time away. While it may be cliche to believe that absence makes the heart grow fonder, it’s fairly certain that being somewhere else for a while can make everything about home seem all the more special. Going without familiar conveniences and feeling like an outsider can be a truly enlightening experience. It’s eye-opening to be in a place where no one looks like you. It’s disorienting to be in a place where no one sounds like you. It’s also worth it.

Mary Smirch, the Chicago Tribune columnist known for her graduation piece entitled Wear Sunscreen, advised young people to “Live in New York once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in LA once, but leave before it makes you soft.” I fully support that advice, as well as the subtle sarcasm directed at both cities. I would extend that advice to include moving beyond your national borders.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com