What's It Like To Teach English In Southeast Asia? 6 Things I Wish Someone Had Warned Me About

After graduating from college with a degree in English a few years ago, I was faced with poor job prospects. The economy had not yet fully recovered from the recession, and after a couple years of unpaid internships, customer service, and nannying jobs, I'd had enough. I began considering teaching abroad. Initially, I had wanted to go to Europe, but that proved too expensive, so I finally decided to teach ESL in Southeast Asia

I found the combination of good pay, pleasant people, warm weather, delicious food, and cheap cost of living appealing. I had always wanted to travel, but hadn't yet been able to. Teaching abroad had seemed like an excellent way to both solve my financial woes as well as feed my insatiable wanderlust. 

It was not what I expected. 

I want to make it clear that for the most part, I enjoyed my time teaching in Southeast Asia and I am eternally grateful (especially to those who employed me) to all of the lovely people I met and have many fond memories of my time there. However, there are a few things I wish I'd known before I went. 

This list is composed of my personal opinions and is based off of my experiences. It cannot conceivably be inclusive of all of the possible experiences of teaching abroad. Should you want more information about teaching abroad there is a wealth of great resources available online, and I would highly recommend doing research before committing to a program or buying a plane ticket. Still, I do believe some things about my experience are common.

So, without further ado, here are the six things that I wish I had known before moving halfway across the world to teach ESL.

Money will be an issue

A lot of people are drawn to teaching ESL in Asia because the pay tends to be better there than in other parts of the world. That is not wholly untrue; however, if you are going there with the intention of making a bunch of money without a teacher’s license from your home country, you will likely be disappointed. The people who make the most money teaching English in Southeast Asia almost always work at International Schools, and for those jobs, you need a teacher’s license and experience, in addition to a college degree. 

I moved to Southeast Asia with a Bachelor’s degree, TESOL/TEFL certification, and some experience working as a tutor, classroom assistant, and instructor’s assistant. I met all of the requirements for most teaching jobs, but I still struggled to find work for the first few months I was there and ended up spending all of my savings. 

your job won't be easy

Teaching is not always consistent in Southeast Asia. I had schools randomly give me days off with little-to-no notice because they had something planned that they hadn’t informed me about in advance, and that adds up. And if you are a tutor, your income is even more unreliable because students will cancel all the time. 

While a lot of people teach abroad in order to flee corporate zombification and the rat race, the truth is, teaching abroad is still a job. I was given almost no training (and sometimes hardly any guidance) at most of the schools/centers for which I worked. Sometimes, if I didn’t immediately live up to expectations, I was fired. Because the market is flooded with new English teachers right now, schools and centers are more able to be more selective than they might have been pre-recession. 

you will get sick

I was pretty lucky that in the year and-a-half that I lived in Southeast Asia I only had a handful of minor ailments and one 2nd degree burn (compliments of motorbike exhaust pipe). Many of my friends were not so lucky, and came down with illnesses I'd only heard of from playing Oregon Trail in Elementary School: Dysentery. Typhoid. Malaria. You name it, I knew someone who had had it. Because the air quality in many major Southeast Asian cities is often quite bad, I also knew a lot of people who had upper-respiratory problems as well. 

your fellow expats will drink — a lot

The people that I knew of who died while I was living in Southeast Asia were in alcohol-related accidents, usually resulting from drinking too much and getting into motorbike wrecks. The drinking scene in Southeast Asia puts frat parties in the States to shame. There were many expats that I knew who binge drank nearly every night until 6 a.m. — and then went to teach kindergarteners. As someone who's not much of a drinker myself, I found it exasperating. 

you will witness blatant Racism  

You will literally see job postings that will list a preference for white teachers. Other times, non-white expat teachers will be paid less money than white counterparts. A friend of mine, who is Indonesian but spent a significant amount of time in the U.S., had previous experience teaching English, and speaks it fluently, had a hell of a time getting a job and still mostly tutors. Not too long ago, she went to an interview where she was literally told to bleach her skin and hair and to dress more "Western" in order to get more jobs. While this particular incident was among the more extreme I heard about, it certainly wasn’t uncommon. 

Dating is ... tricky

If you are a single, straight Western woman in Southeast Asia, prepare to be disappointed with the dating prospects in the expat community. The single men that often come to Southeast Asia are not usually interested in fellow Westerners, and if they are, they are rarely interested in committed relationships. Dating outside of the expat community as a Western woman can be difficult as well: l went out with a local guy once, and we were stared at all night. Also, local men do not often ask out Western women.

I dated a lot at first, but quickly became increasingly frustrated with the kinds of guys with whom I went on dates. There was the guy who lied to me about having recently gotten out of a five-year relationship, dating another girl at the same time as me, and then wouldn’t take “no” as an answer, all while constantly bringing up his ex and comparing me to her. There was the guy who blindsided me with an unwanted sloppy kiss. There was the guy who ghosted me after I didn’t sleep with him on the first date. There was the guy who was nearly an hour late for our date and then took me to a prostitute bar where he proceeded to spend the evening playing pool with a random guy from New Zealand and ignoring me. There was the guy who made me read his relationship treatise (while he watched on) that was basically shaming me for not immediately agreeing to be in an exclusive relationship with him and then told me that I “made him feel gay” because I didn’t throw myself at him. 

But the absolute worst was definitely the guy who spent the entire date alternating between stories detailing all the fights he had gotten into and all the women he had bedded (including a former student and a mother and daughter) and then had the gall to say to me that the anti-rape condom was a bad idea because “women might vindictively use it against their boyfriends or husbands." Really.

Images: Charles ChanTaxCreditsChristine.GleasonJhayneStop Alcohol Deaths, Inc.Jamieskinner00/Flickr

Must Reads