Alone, Abroad: The aspects of moving overseas that people don’t talk about

Photo: Giuseppe Milo/Flickr

By Emily Maretsky

Republished from Medium with permission

Can I talk to you about moving to Thailand? Because this year has not been an easy one.

I’m no stranger to moving — by now, I’ve lived in five countries and worked in schools in almost all of them. I’ve taught 12th graders in an open-air classroom on a remote Pacific island, seven-year-olds atop a mountain in the Alps, and a whole range of teenagers in the crazy public schools in New York City.

Each time, I’ve packed everything I’ve needed in two suitcases or less, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. Each time, I’ve spent the night before the first day of class, trembling with pre-first day jitters and wondering what I’ve gotten myself into. But each time, the nerves have settled, the kids have learned, and maybe even of few of them have gotten excited about what was being taught.

I move because I love trying on new places and feeling the ways that different environments push my buttons. Who am I with a new routine, in a new place, and responsible for new things? I like feeling my wound-up self relax into the slower pace of evening surf sessions in Nantucket and the futility of power outages on rainy days in Micronesia — something that seems so difficult when ramped up in New York. If it weren’t for moving, I never would have considered teaching as a career, nor would I have had students to teach me how to play the ukulele.

But moving somewhere sight-unseen is also leaping without looking, taking a risk and hoping things shake out. Sometimes, things don’t quite work out as romantically as you imagined they would — a new place doesn’t fit in all the right places, or you find that you don’t like the version of yourself in a new environment. For me, this has been Bangkok in 2017.

Often, I am lonely here. I know, shhhhh, I’m probably not supposed to admit that when I’m supposed to be having the time of my life living in an exotic new country. There have been beautiful travels, weird foods, interesting people — all the stuff that populates a good Instagram feed. But more, I miss the ease of regular company to share these things with.

Many people here have assumed that I am an introvert — they’re surprised when I admit that I identify as a strong extrovert, albeit a bit of an awkward one. But maybe that’s the Bangkok version of myself. Most people here seem so comfortable with elegant small talk, while I’ve felt clumsy at it — there has been less talking shop, which I could carry on for hours. I’ve also had a lot of alone time, but not necessarily by choice — a long commute from friends, living alone, traveling on the weekends, and super early mornings have made it hard to branch out, and I’ve generally been anxious that I don’t fit in here. The truth is that I think every activity is better with someone to share it with. I miss being the happy hour ringleader, weekend event planner, and the goofball roommate that I typically am in other places. I did a lot less exploring this year because I had no one to explore with.

For most of the year, I was determined to give social circumstances a second chance. It takes time to build a community any time you move, and I think a year was just enough time to figure out what I could have done to create a better one. But it’s the other chunk of the work-life balance that’s gone even less smoothly — ultimately, I won’t be staying a second year in Thailand because my school and I are not a good fit for each other.

I’m used to teaching amidst chaos — too much personality yet not enough space, always moving and troubleshooting, and teachers and students and interruptions at all times during the day for tears and advice and laughs and crazy new ideas. Teaching in the public schools, especially in NYC, especially in a brand new school, is hard fucking work, but I loved it because the challenges kept it interesting and inspired such camaraderie amongst the staff. Over beers and geometry puzzles, we’d joke that we needed to stop talking about work, but I think that’s what passion and big challenges look like. I miss it.

My school here runs smoothly and my students listen to me when I ask them to. I don’t teach a zillion classes, have to build in extra time to battle bureaucracy, or need to hoard supplies in September just to make it through the year — all amazing factors that free up mental capacity to be a better teacher. But there are more classrooms than there are teachers, and the emptiness is felt. When I’m not teaching, I am alone in my quiet classroom, uninterrupted. Break time is full of small talk, rather than shop talk. For a while, I tinkered with some new ideas during class time, but few were seen by anyone but my kiddos or given feedback. I miss the fire of a start-up school and wonder if my lessons are absorbing the complacency.

My school doesn’t really dig my style, either. The transcripts of my performance review meetings would seem to have been ripped right from the “things to say to a teacher to break her soul” playbook. I have been told that students don’t pay this kind of money to attend classes like mine. I have cried at my desk more than a few times in my teaching career because I am my own harshest critic, but this is the the first time those tears have resulted from someone else telling me my work just wasn’t good enough.

Even after a few weeks to reflect, I have laid awake on many nights wondering if I have some serious teaching character deficits and a lack of self-awareness, or if some of my classroom experiments have just been misunderstood. Surely I have a lot of growth to make as an educator and the first year at a new school is always tough, but I can’t possibly be that terrible of a teacher. Other nights, I wonder if this is what it’s like to be gaslighted — so much feedback has seemed contradictory, not to mention, I have my conspiracy theories.

For a short time, all of this pushed me to work harder, follow prescribed advice to a T, try to prove that I’m a good teacher. But doubt is not a long-term motivator. Playing it safe and feeling demoralized is not going to lead to the type of projects or curriculum vision that I’d like to create. What I want is to spend happy hour scribbling ideas on napkins with eager coworkers, brainstorming ways to inspire students to explore STEM a little more. I don’t think this is the place to make that happen. Luckily, the perks to moving solo include the ability to pick up and move if ever things don’t work out, and that’s what I’m going to do.

People ask me all of the time how I like Bangkok, but the truth is, I don’t really know. I’ve felt a little too stuck in all of this to really give the city a fair shake this year. I could have worked harder at building a tribe, gotten more comfortable exploring solo, embraced the challenge at work — instead, I’ve allowed circumstances to push my buttons in ways that’s held me back from really getting to know this place. I didn’t adapt here, I got overtaken.

“I don’t know” isn’t exactly the best lesson learned, nor an uplifting end to a story. Maybe when I’m back in the States in a few weeks, I’ll have a better moral for you, or maybe not. But for now, I can pull myself forward without one — I know no experience is a wasted, even if you can only connect the dots in retrospect. But really, I’m ready and excited for the next chapter, the third one set in New York.

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