You’re making plans to teach abroad and getting excited about going! Maybe you’ve chosen somewhere a bit off the beaten path, such as a developing country in Central America, or somewhere with a culture or religion very different from your own, like Asia or the Middle East. When you happily share this news with friends and family, however, they don’t always react with the same excitement you have, and may instead express their worry about your safety. This worry is only compounded when the country you choose frequently makes the nightly news or has otherwise earned a reputation, founded or not, of being “unsafe.”
No matter where you’re planning to teach abroad, how can you deal with the concerns of your friends and family regarding your safety? Read these stories from people who went to the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, for tips on calming the fears of those around you.
Kimmy Bird, Russia:
“When I was 19, I decided to take a break from college and teach English in a medium-sized town in Russia. No one in my family (myself included) had ever traveled abroad, so my parents were very hesitant to let me sign up for the program—but I made sure to do my research! Russia was a foreign country to me and my parents, so I wanted to be sure to show them that although Russia isn’t the same as Salt Lake City, Utah, it’s still a place where I could travel safely. I presented my parents with information about the city, the language, the culture, and food to my parents, along with some email correspondence I had with alumni, to ease their concerns (I’m pretty sure my mom called the office a few times, too!).
Once my parents realized that this was an amazing opportunity for me to push myself as a young adult, they were fully supportive. While I was in Russia, I emailed them each week (at an Internet café) and my mom printed and saved all of my emails. As time passed, they realized that I was a smart traveler who was careful, and that regardless of what country I was living in, they could trust that I would make good decisions. Eventually, my parents admitted that were very jealous that I was able to be in an exciting new world as an international traveler.”
Martin Huggins, Colombia:
“I work at a company named The Edge, which teaches students in small classes (mostly one-to-one) in their homes and places of work across the city. My attitude towards safety is one of probability. Though the probability of being a victim of a crime in Colombia is higher than in the USA or Europe, it is still fairly low. The main threat to your safety here is being robbed. Colombians have a saying no dar papaya – “don’t give papaya” – which means something like “don’t give someone a reason or chance to rob you.” As long as you are vigilant and don’t do anything stupid, like flash large amounts of cash or a smartphone around in the street, you should be fine. One thing that you should appreciate is that the high level of inequality in the country means that you have people who consume conspicuously alongside people who are struggling to consume – a toxic combination. An iPhone to some of Colombia’s poorer inhabitants is worth about a month’s wages to them, so the temptation to take it from you is very high.
I would stress that Colombia is nothing like it was in the 80s and 90s, even though it still struggles with the image of being a dangerous and lawless country. Most people in Europe and the US are pretty ignorant of what life is like here, no thanks to the dearth of news coverage about the country focused on stories involving drugs or violence.”
Jennifer Collis, Morocco:
“When I told most people of my plans to teach English in Morocco for a year, the first response I got was, “Morocco? Is it safe there?” Even though Morocco’s crime rate was low, the idea that I would be an American in a Muslim country was one concern they had– the fact that I was a woman going alone was another. It can be hard to deal with people’s perception of Muslim countries, given the news coverage related to terrorism and violence. Yet I knew that extremists exist in every religion, and do not represent the everyday beliefs of a peaceful and modest religion like Islam.
What I found in Morocco confirmed this. It was a devout culture, where men dropped and prayed five times a day. It was also one that was extremely protective of women, which was obvious as I walked the mile or so home from work each night at 9 PM, without a a trace of fear. I also found Moroccans to be fascinated by, rather than angry with, the U.S., which led to curious questions and lively class discussions. Though my Moroccan students were critical of the States’ at times, we often we found common ground in our dislike of George W., or our love of Michael Jackson (who Moroccans swear was Muslim!).”
Friends and family may greet your news about living abroad with worry, but the better informed you are about the country you’ve chosen, the more confident you can be in assuring others that you will be just fine while teaching English in whatever country you choose.