Make an Impact not an Impression

Make an Impact not an Impression

I decided to move to Thailand largely on a whim. Attending a college with a heavy business focus at the time, most of my friends had plans to work for marketing agencies, accounting firms, and insurance companies. I had a slightly different perspective, though, and felt like I wanted something more. At the time, I remember thinking to myself about how much world there was, and how little of it I had experienced. The thought of staying in the same state, the same town, or the same corner of the country scared me. Though fine for some, the FOMO on the rest of the world gave me pause. A good friend of mine at the time told me he was planning on teaching english in Thailand and asked me if I’d like to go with him. I of course — with 22-year-old spontaneity — said yes. A lot has happened since my year teaching abroad with OEG. I worked as a Civil Servant in the nation’s capital, quit my job to join the Peace Corps in Colombia, and returned to Washington to start a hopefully long career working in other countries as an international professional. I learned a lot that year in Thailand that has shaped the passing years since, and I’d like to share what those learnings entailed.

The first and probably most important lesson I learned (though I’m not sure I realized it at the time) was that working abroad is complicated. As sheltered Americans (those with privilege), many of us tend to think that the desire to do something seemingly altruistic and the willingness to do it is a recipe for success. Unfortunately, working abroad is a lot more nuanced than that. Complex relationships exist between host nations and the United States that blend racial power dynamics, saviorism, and many other incredibly messy topics. On the surface, moving abroad to teach english seems simple enough; however, it really couldn’t be more layered. I learned this the hard way as I navigated a different education system operating within an international order of which I was largely ignorant. The experience of gaining awareness of my privilege was often confusing and stressful, but such awareness is essential to practice compassion and show respect while working abroad. Without this knowledge, I don’t think I would have had the perspective to be more mindful in my future international endeavors. It is still a work in progress.

A second thing I learned was that behavior matters. This point is almost a subset of the former point. Privileged Americans can often be naive in their interactions with other countries and cultures. Before Thailand, I had never experienced anything other than my version of the United States, so when I got there, I was quick to be judgmental toward things that seemed strange or different to me. Such quick judgements can lead to condescending attitudes and the aforementioned savior complex that seeks to ‘educate’ or ‘change’ cultures to be more like the one we know. It can be less involved than even that, however, and might consist of something as simple as using one’s perceived status as ‘American’ to receive special treatment at an event, attract romantic interests, or react negatively to the living arrangements with which you’ve been provided by accommodating hosts. If you work abroad, you are guaranteed to meet people who use their privilege for such exploitative purposes. They may not even realize that they’re doing it. You will hopefully also reflect on your own behavior and realize that you too have been complicit in benefiting from these power structures. I certainly have. It is important to learn that we are not above anyone or anything, and when we go abroad we must keep that at the forefront of our minds.

The final topic I’ll mention that is dawning on me even as I write this is that it’s not all about me. So many of us are eager to define ‘our experience.’ We want an instagram reel, resume, or pedigree that defines us. I am by no means above this, and have sought out experiences abroad looking for meaning and self-identity. While not inherently bad to want a sense of self, it is important to be conscious of these desires and actively be sure not to exploit others in order to realize them. One’s desire to self-identify as a backpacker or a worldly-traveler or a diplomat should never take precedence over others’ rights to dignity or the well-being of those in the countries in which we work. In other words, if you know you’re a bad teacher, maybe teaching isn’t the best way to open the doors to international travel. If you want to backpack and travel above all else, maybe working abroad isn’t the right choice. If you want to work abroad and feel like you’re ‘making a difference’ do some honest research on how you might do so ethically — though, as I mentioned before — the topic is complicated.

If you’ve made it this far, I’ve saved some room for more inspiring words. If you can be conscious and actively seek to be informed on the complex nature of international work, living abroad is stimulating. Working abroad is especially rewarding as it grants you insights into aspects of everyday life in host countries that are largely invisible to the ‘backpacker’ or ‘worldly-traveler.’ You can observe work culture, education structure, teaching methods, and a slew of other cultural nuances you would never be privy to while staying at a hotel in the country capital. Moreover, working abroad in local institutions lowers the barrier to entry for making friends with citizens of the host-country, as you have the commonality of working together and living close to each other.

Written By: Kaleb Rogers
Teach in Thailand participant, 2015 at Petpittayakhom School