Do You Have What it Takes to Live and Work Abroad?
A Comprehensive Questionnaire
By Celeste Heiter
A street scene in Europe.
Are you tired of the status quo? Bored with the daily grind? Sick of the rat race? Fed up with your national politics? Seek a better or more interesting life for yourself or your kids?
Do you picture yourself breaking free of earth’s gravity for a while, and soaring off to live and work in some far-flung destination, perhaps for a year, or even for good?
Maybe you imagine yourself teaching English in Bangkok by day, enjoying the sizzle of the city by night, and basking in the laid-back beach scene on the weekends. Or perhaps you’re an IT expert who dreams of consulting for an up-and-coming dot.com in Beijing while perfecting your tai chi forms with a wushu master. Maybe you’re a post-graduate archaeology student with an urge to dig, or a statuesque beauty seeking the allure of international fashion runways, a fluent Spanish translator who wants to run with the bulls, or a wannabe chef (have knives, will travel).
Whatever your dream, now may be the time to go for it, but not without first taking a good, long look at yourself to see if you have what it takes to live and work abroad.
Making the decision to relocate to a foreign country is a monumental leap, and having the "right stuff" is crucial. Lots of people dream of doing it, but a significant percentage of them get where they're going and hit a wall in the first month or two because they didn't realize their own shortcomings and weren't aware of the kinds of obstacles and pitfalls that awaited them.
Unless you’re already a gypsy at heart with a lifestyle to match, which is more and more common, the process will undoubtedly require an enormous expenditure of time, energy, effort and money; not to mention the fact that your adventure comes with no guarantee. And although your chosen destination may be a quaint, charming, simple environment, or it may be one of the safest, most sophisticated nations in the world; its culture, language and climate may present unforeseen difficulties for a foreigner in the course of everyday life.
So it is crucial that you make an honest and thorough personal evaluation to ensure that you have what it takes before embarking upon such a daring venture. The following questionnaire will help you evaluate your assets and attributes to determine if you are up to meeting the challenge successfully.
Living and Working Abroad Questionnaire
1. My level of education is:
2. I have:
3. My physical condition is:
4. I am someone who
5. I am a person who
6. When faced with a challenge
7. When it comes to solving problems
8. I’m someone who
9. In my relationship with my family, I am
10. Where food is concerned
To score yourself to see if you have what it takes to live and work abroad, give yourself:
15 Key Criteria to Successfully Live and Work Abroad
At a minimum, the following 15 assets and attributes are essential for a successful and rewarding experience abroad: a college education, adequate finances, good physical health, courage, adaptability, perseverance, resourcefulness, congeniality, independence, an adventurous palate, a love of travel, a code of integrity, a willingness to compromise, a sense of humor and a genuine desire to live life to its fullest. Each attribute plays a crucial role in your ability to thrive and succeed in unfamiliar and challenging surroundings.
- College Education. Although it is possible to find employment abroad without a college degree, your probabilities increase exponentially if you have one. A degree of any kind is better than none at all, and for teaching English, the best credential is a BA or better in English with an ESL certificate. Many employers specifically require that a job candidate meet certain criteria, and those employers who do not insist upon it are still more likely to hire those individuals who do. Of course, many individuals without college degrees earn a perfectly good living as freelancers, but they are the exception to the rule, and they typically have some other means of staying in the country, such as a spouse with a work visa. In general however, freelancing may not meet the country’s government standards for procuring and maintaining a work visa. The bottom line is: If you want to get hired by a reputable establishment, stay in school yourself and get your diploma before you head off on your adventure.
- Adequate Finances. For some adventuresome spirits, the idea of relocating to an underdeveloped nation is a tempting way to escape the struggles of making ends meet here at home. A place where a month’s rent for house with a servant costs less than dinner and a movie in the U.S. But remember that underdeveloped economies are commensurate with underdeveloped salaries. So it’s important to set aside some financial reserves for extracurricular travel, or for when your paycheck falls short of your monthly bills, and for your return airfare when you’re ready to head home.
And for those sojourners headed for cosmopolitan destinations, remember that the cost of living in a large city can be equal to or higher than that of most U.S. cities. So, if your dream job awaits you in someplace like Tokyo, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, Florence, Cairo, Hong Kong, or Sydney, you’ll need to bring along enough money to sustain yourself until you find work, and to set yourself up in a modest apartment until the paychecks start rolling in.
Of course, in a perfect world, you’d have a job, an apartment, and a company car awaiting you when you get there. Actually, it’s not unheard of.
- Good Health and Stamina. Unless your job includes a company car, you will probably have to rely on public transportation for the daily task of looking for work and for traveling from home to your new job and back. This often requires a great deal of walking to and from the train stations or bus stops in all kinds of weather. Many countries are hot, humid and rainy in the summer, and depending on where you are, it is cold and may even snow in the winter. So, unless you have a generous salary for an apartment in an ideal location, and an expense account for taxi fare or the use of a personal car, you’d best be in good physical shape for walking or bicycling at least part of the way wherever you go. Bicycles are usually quite common and affordable, and provide good basic transportation for errands and commuting to and from the train station. Therefore, the ability to walk or bicycle to and from your local destinations is a minimum requirement. And, of course, if you hope to enjoy any amount of recreational travel, good physical stamina and vigor are a must.
Many countries also have excellent health care systems, with fairly adequate social and cultural support for foreigners. Be advised however, when it comes to health, the local ideology may differ significantly from western medical practices, and the challenge of explaining one’s symptoms and figuring out exactly what ailment you have and what kind of drugs a doctor has prescribed can be somewhat bewildering. There are often a limited number of clinics in the metropolitan areas with native English-speaking doctors who specialize in treating foreigners, but they are few and far between. And those individuals with ongoing health conditions that require medications such as insulin, thyroid supplements, antidepressants, and even women who take oral contraceptives, would be well advised to make special arrangements for them in advance.
- Courage. Your chosen destination may be one of the safest and most culturally advanced civilizations on earth, and English speakers may be common. Or it may be a quaint little town where everybody knows each other. But for a first-time visitor, any foreign destination may also be like nothing you ever imagined. Even the most innocuous and commonplace occurrences can be profoundly disturbing if you’re unprepared for the experience.
- Adaptability. Most countries have unique lifestyles and customs. And undoubtedly, you will want to familiarize yourself with them before you go. But it doesn’t end there. Once you arrive, you will discover that there are subtleties and protocol that will make it not only possible, but highly likely that an unwitting foreigner will commit a faux pas at almost every turn. Over time, however, with an eye for nuance and an ability to adapt, you can learn how to behave appropriately in most every situation.
And then there are the furnishings and paraphernalia of everyday life. Things like bedding, appliances and cooking utensils. In public places, there may be unusual telephones, mailboxes and vending machines. Not to mention that most of the signs will be written in the local language with no English translations.
But, if you maintain an open mind and a willingness to adapt to your surroundings, chances are you’ll survive quite nicely.
- Perseverance. After a long day of trudging from interview to interview, and looking at one apartment after another, you may find yourself flagging, if not ready to turn tail and flee back to the comfort and familiarity of home. Here is where perseverance pays off and is perhaps the most important element of your quest. In order to succeed, it is imperative that you do your research, talk to the locals, make your phone calls, buy your newspapers, and follow every single lead, no matter how remote or how small. Do this every day, without fail. Keep detailed notes, make yourself a list of all the possibilities you discovered throughout the day: every job opportunity, every agency, every reference, and every available apartment. At the end of each day, take some quiet time to relax and develop a game plan for how you’re going to follow up on them all tomorrow. And then get up the next day and do it all over again until you succeed.
- Resourcefulness. Finding a job and a place to live in a foreign country requires a well-rounded repertoire of resources. This may include the prospects you turned up in your research before you left home, as well as any opportunities you may have discovered once you arrive. The best resources are personal contacts and references, guidebooks, newspapers, local residents, and especially the Internet. The secret lies in how fully you explore and utilize those resources. Therefore, it is essential that you do your homework, keep very thorough and organized notes, follow up on every lead, and don’t overlook any possibility.
- Congeniality. The best way to thrive in a foreign destination is to develop a strong network of friends and acquaintances. Not only will they provide you with companionship, but also with information on the city and the culture, valuable survival tips, and emotional support through difficult times. And the friendships you form on your travels will last you a lifetime.
- Independence. There’s nothing more reassuring than the comfort and support of a close-knit family. But once you’re at large in the world, you’ll need to become more self-reliant. You’ll need to be able to make your own decisions without seeking the advice of your parents or siblings, you’ll need to learn to solve your own problems, and you’ll have to get used to taking care of life’s basic necessities on your own.
- An Adventurous Palate. Chances are that once you leave the cocoon of comfort that is the U.S., you’re not very likely to find Skippy Peanut Butter, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese or Campbell’s Tomato Soup. What you will find is lots of new and unusual spices, noodles prepared a thousand different ways, and strange sea creatures you’ve never even heard of, much less imagined yourself eating. But be intrepid. Take the plunge. Try everything…at least once. And remember that every culture has its own version of “bland” food, and no matter where you go… there are always American fast food chains.
- A Love of Travel. Unless you’ve chosen Canada or Mexico, chances are you’re going to have to fly to your destination on a commercial airline. And unless you’ve chosen a major international city, you’ll probably have to take some kind of secondary transportation to get where you’re going, such as a smaller domestic airline, a transit train, a shuttle, a ferry, a bus, or a private car. The trip may take more than a day to go from your home to your destination. It may require extensive layovers and involve transit lines that do not intersect. So you may have to be prepared to arrive jet lagged and exhausted.
And depending on where you choose to live, once you’ve settled into your new surroundings, any recreational trips you take to local destinations may require travel on aging vehicles that may be less than punctual, routinely overcrowded, and some may even allow domestic animals to ride in the passenger area.
Remember, you have to endure the trip to get to the destination.
- Integrity. One of the most important characteristics of living abroad is integrity. Qualities such as a strong work ethic, pride in workmanship, and team effort are imperative. And on a personal level, in everyday life, honor and integrity are the gold standard. Therefore, it is recommended that you conduct yourself with the highest code of behavior and ethics at all times. It will serve you well and keep you out of trouble.
- Willingness To Compromise. While you’re planning your move, it’s easy to dream in Technicolor: the perfect job, the perfect apartment, the perfect experience. Yet, no matter how carefully you plan and prepare, there will always be those elements that don’t meet your expectations. Early on, before you’ve assimilated the culture and explored the opportunities that await you there, it may be tempting to hold on to that unwavering paragon. However, if you are lucky enough to be offered a pleasant job that meets your basic living expenses with a little disposable income left over for fun, by all means, take it. If you find an affordable apartment that feels homey and livable, go for it. Remember, once you’re settled and employed, you can always trade up.
- A Sense of Humor. Despite its sophistication and refinement, or its pastoral beauty and rustic charm, any culture can also be exhausting, bewildering, infuriating, overwhelming, and downright absurd at times. And when the travails and tribulations of your day frazzle your last nerve, sometimes the only antidote is a sense of humor. So, if you didn’t travel with a companion, find yourself a buddy to swap stories with and have a laugh at day’s end. It will help to put the whole crazy circus into perspective, and will provide an outlet for your frustrations, as well as a high-five for your triumphs. English-speaking ex-pats are everywhere, and most are more than happy to meet up with a kindred spirit. In the beginning, or anytime thereafter for that matter, don’t hesitate to strike up a conversation on the train, in a pub, a shop, or even on the street. You have nothing to lose, and may gain a mentor and compatriot for the effort.
- A Desire to Live Life to Its Fullest. Living abroad can be one of the most personally enlightening and enriching experiences that life has to offer. But to thrive in a new and unfamiliar culture, and to get the full benefit from the time you spend there, you must have a broad sense of perspective and an unconditional willingness to let go of your expectations and immerse yourself in the experience. Live the lifestyle, eat the food, get to know the people, their history, their language and their culture. Make friends, make money, and yes, make mistakes. But whatever you do, make the most of it!
Celeste Heiter, freelance writer and graphic artist, spent two years living, working, and traveling in Japan. Celeste is the author of Ganbatte Means Go For It! Or How to Become an English Teacher in Japan.
If you’ve always dreamed of frolicking through the Jardin du Luxembourg or living near the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean, perhaps now is a great time to explore jobs abroad. International work can round out your resume, not to mention provide invaluable cultural experiences. And what better time than when you’re young and free to feed your wanderlust? Here, we spoke with several women about the positive impact these five jobs abroad had on their lives. Get your passport ready!
1.Work for a study-abroad program.
For Kelly Garofalo, living abroad was a family tradition. Several of her aunts and uncles studied through the John Felice Rome Center, a campus of Loyola University Chicago in Rome, Italy. Following in their adventurous footsteps, Garofalo studied abroad there her senior year. But that wasn’t the end of her time in Europe; after graduation, she returned to work as a student life assistant. “I just had to go back,” she says. “I couldn’t tell you why, but the feeling was that I just had unfinished business there.” As a student life assistant, Garofalo was responsible for orientation, behavior monitoring and floor activities, among other duties.
[Related: 6 Apps Every Abroad Girl Needs]
One of the biggest takeaways from Garofalo’s travels was letting go of the “American” idea of success: Go to college, have an internship, get a job, get married, get a promotion, have kids. “Once I moved out of the U.S., I realized how American this is,” she says. “In Italy, it was totally OK to work in a pizzeria if it’s what you loved. That was just as successful as a lawyer. Once I realized that, I started exploring many different career paths that I never would have before.” Garofalo went on to get a masters degree in Sustainable Tourism Development and Destination Management and is currently working at a startup in the field.
How to apply for an RA/SLA position: Ask your school’s study-abroad office about opportunities for working in another country. If you’re a student at Loyala, visit the school’s SLA application site.
2. Teach English.
In 2009—four years after graduating college—Stormy Chapman was following a traditional career path, working at Dell in Oklahoma, making a good salary and loving her job. But an enlightening talk with a friend who was teaching English in South Korea prompted Chapman to drastically change her life’s course; within three weeks of their chat, she quit her job, packed her life in a couple suitcases and waved goodbye to the U.S.
While in South Korea, Chapman taught English to children and teens ages 5 to 16. She stayed for two years (the first time) and met the man who would become her husband. Chapman loved her time in South Korea so much that she and her husband returned for another year, where she taught kindergarten and after-school programs for 13- to 16-year-olds. As it turns out, Chapman discovered a real calling for teaching and went back to school for her U.S. teaching degree. “It was the best thing I’ve ever done,” Chapman says of living abroad.
The same was true for Natalie Smith, whose time overseas led to a permanent career path. Smith worked for two years at the Global Vision Christian School in Eumseong, South Korea, and now teaches English as a second language in Texas. She advises those with an itch to go abroad: “Do it! You can always come home if it does not work out.”
[Related: My Power Outfit With Math Teacher Kristin Silfies]
How to apply for a teaching position: First, determine the country where you’d like to teach English, then research options online. Destinations such as France and South Korea have many programs from which to choose. Check out sites including Dave’s ESL Cafe (where Chapman found her job), or the Teaching Assistant Program in France. Be sure to check the requirements, but many times a bachelor’s degree in any subject is all that’s needed.
3. Board a cruise ship.
Post-graduation, Christina Chen found herself aboard a Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines ship as a dancer and aerialist. During her time living on the ship (the entertainment crew spends six-plus months performing six shows a week) Chen had the opportunity to see places including Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and many Caribbean islands. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Chen says. “I don’t even think I realized that I would get to see so much of the world, and I had no idea the richness that I would experience, meeting people from 60-plus different countries.”
And the experience had some serious resume perks, too: The aerial shows aboard Royal’s ships are choreographed, taught, and produced by a Chicago-based company called C5 Create With No Limits. After her most recent contract with Royal, C5 contacted Chen and asked if she would be interested in performing with them in Chicago. This led to other performing opportunities with C5, as well as a gig teaching an aerial show.
How to apply for a cruise ship staff position: Check outRoyal Caribbean and All Cruise Jobs for a range of options (not just dancing).
4. Join the Peace Corps.
Lauren DeFino, who’s now a teacher in the Bronx, wanted to see the world and help others at the same time. From 2005 to 2007, DeFino worked with the Peace Corps in Jamaica, where she was assigned to the Montego Bay Marine Park, and also worked as an education officer performing outreach in schools. Like Chapman and Smith, DeFino says her job abroad led her to pursue teaching in the U.S. Not only has the Peace Corps been a great resume builder, DeFino says, but it also helped her make connections around the world.
[Related: Why I Ditched the Corporate Ladder]
How to apply for the Peace Corps: Visit the organization’s website here.
5. Become scuba certified.
DeFino traveled the world through other jobs, as well. Before joining the Peace Corps, she became a certified scuba instructor in Honduras, where she lived for six months. And after returning from her Peace Corps stint in Jamaica, she again turned to scuba instruction for a chance to live abroad—this time in St. Martin. “I lived on a catamaran and would sail to different countries,” she says. “It’s really a great job if you want to travel.” Of course, she says, scuba instruction isn’t for everyone—you must love the water.
How to get scuba certified: Check outthe Professional Organization of Diving Instructors orUtila Dive Center.
Want to learn more about jobs abroad? We’re also digging this roundup from The Abroad Guide.
Photo: Ezra Bailey / Getty Images