Micheal – Living and working internationally in retirement
BECOMING A CITIZEN OF THE WORLD
History, teaching, exercise, and hunting are my passions. I retired from teaching history full-time and coaching at the high school level in 2012 at the age of 54 because I felt I was beginning to just do a job instead of passionately working at my craft. I was ready for a new challenge and I have always enjoyed the international experience.
While in college, I studied in Italy for a quarter and after graduation I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines for four years. Living and working internationally was exciting, difficult and different from the norm. That uniqueness is the reason I decided to teach internationally during my retirement as well as create a second income to supplement my pension from teaching in the U.S.
I attended a job fair in Boston, Massachusetts to secure my first international teaching position. Most placements sought a licensed teacher with experience. Applicants must also be able to obtain a work visa for the hosting country. Some countries have more difficult requirements than others such as age limits and some countries may be difficult for women due to the culture.
International teaching contracts vary but most are for two years. I believe a good candidate for international teaching should be open to adapting to a new culture and situation. Do not expect them to change for you. Teaching abroad is not for everyone, in my opinion.
My first position was in Kuwait. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy it. The students were undisciplined and disrespectful and I did not find the country very interesting. The Kuwaitis, in my opinion, seemed spoiled because of the wealth from oil. Ultimately, I became very ill so I returned to the U.S.
Still seeking the international experience, I next applied through a placement site and accepted a three-year contract to teach in Changchun, China. I am now in my fourth year of teaching humanities, psychology, history and The Theory of Knowledge courses at the Changchun American International School. It is an International Baccalaureate school in a city with a population of around seven million people.
The city is not spread out like most American cities, but instead it is built up in the way of high rises. At times I find the culture frustrating and more difficult on a day-to-day basis than Kuwait, but I enjoy it much more. The students are very respectful and almost all the students are second language learners, so language is always an issue. The school is very diverse as there are students and staff from around the world.
Little personal space exists in Changchun and waiting in line is not really an option. Pushing and shoving is common, as are speaking loudly. Smoking is widely accepted when and wherever one wants. However, on an individual basis, the Chinese people are kind, generous and helpful. For example, the merchants at the markets are always friendly and helpful when I purchase vegetables, chicken and tea.
My friends, who are also my teaching colleagues, are from all over the world and, for many, English is not their first language. We get together nearly every Friday after work at a restaurant. Korean barbecue, Szechuan food, and noodle dishes are some of our favorites but occasionally, we eat German cuisine. My friends originate from Korea, Switzerland, Germany, Philippines, Colombia and the U.S. My closest friends are a Korean couple, a younger American, and a young Swiss guy. The Korean couple say I am their big brother.
As teachers this diversity offers us many different perspectives and cultural differences, but we all have the commonality of being there for the students. It is an interesting and fun environment in which to work and to socialize. Unfortunately, I have yet to learn the Chinese language very well. I personally find learning a new language difficult and I have not been diligent in studying it. I can only use a few phrases and recognize only a few characters. Meeting Chinese people who speak English has been difficult.
I have been divorced for seven years now and found that the easiest way to meet people in China is on the Internet. I found some of the women say they speak English but it is very rudimentary so it is difficult to have a conversation. Also, I have found that meeting someone compatible in age, children, English language skills, and willing to date is a challenge. Divorce is prevalent in Changchun. A double standard exists in my opinion. The men are mostly looking for younger women and most do not want or will not respect a divorced woman. It seems many of the divorced women had a husband who cheated on them and left them and their children. However, once you do make a connection with someone, like I have, it is like dating in the U.S. Once married then there can be cultural as well as language challenges in becoming part of the family.
Transportation here is mostly by taxi, bus, walking or riding a bike. Traffic and driving habits are unbearable. My colleagues and I travel mostly by taxi or by bus to and from work. The school provides a bus for us but it is not practical most of the time as we like to get to school earlier than it arrives. In good weather, we ride our bikes.
Financially, I am able to help my two sons with college expenses by teaching internationally as I receive a salary, as well as a monthly retirement pension from the States. I receive a furnished, two bedroom apartment plus utilities, paid health insurance and a paid flight home every year, as well as a salary from the International School. My paycheck is directly deposited in the Bank of China in yuan. I can withdraw cash and wire money to my bank account in the States every couple of months using my ATM card. It typically takes 15-30 minutes to transfer money as I need assistance from someone who can speak Chinese and English to make sure everything goes correctly. I pay my bills from the U.S. account. My biggest concern is the devaluation of the yuan. Every time it goes down, so does my income. When I first arrived in China it was 6.2 to 1, but now it is 6.7 to 1.
I exercise by running before school to get me up and ready to face the work day. After the school day, I go to the gym as it makes me feel like I have accomplished something. Sometimes, I just go out walking to explore and see what is going on. I get movies on my computer and books through Better World Books. And while I am mostly a homebody, I have travelled to Harbin, Yanji, Tumen, Changbai Shan, Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Lanzhou, and Shenyang. My favorite place so far has been Xian as I love the history (one of my passions) and the old city.
The quality of the Chinese healthcare system is not the same as in the U.S., in fact it is much less. I have insurance and have had to use it. We do not have doctors’ offices here so if you need medical attention, you have to go to the hospital. They are usually crowded, dirty and, of course, there is the language issue. The International School sends an office person with us if needed to help with translation and to figure out the system. I now appreciate the quality of the U.S. healthcare system. We have many pharmacies which can be traditional Chinese medicine or western medicine or both. I believe you can get most any medicine without a prescription. At our school, we just ask the nurse if we need a prescription. She writes it out in Chinese and we take it to the pharmacy to have it filled.
Living internationally in a large city makes me miss the quiet of small town living and the ability to go out without having so many people around all the time. I also miss my two sons back in the States but since they are grown and busy with their own lives, I would probably not see them much anyway if I lived closer. They were both able to fly out to Changchun for a visit not long ago which was extra special. I stay in touch with them and other family members through email, Skype or WeChat. A plane trip home takes me from Changchun to Beijing to Texas and then to Colorado. If I am lucky, it takes only 22-24 hours of travel time with layovers. When I get back to the States I still pursue my other passion, hunting. Owning a gun or hunting is not allowed in China. It has an authoritarian government so few rights or freedoms exist which are contrary to the party line.
I enjoy teaching, new experiences, spending time with good friends and people I care about. Sometimes I think about where I am and how I am living and I can hardly believe it. The experiences and the people I have met have expanded my worldview more than ever.
As difficult as life is in China sometimes, it is also rewarding at other times. I feel I am losing touch with the U.S. the longer I am here, even though I keep up on the news and with my family. There seems to be a psychological as well as a geographical distance. My view of things is now more from outside than inside the U.S., both refreshing and frustrating. I will always be an American citizen but I have become more of a citizen of the world. Living internationally changes a person; whether it is for the better or for the worse is for others to judge.
UPDATE: Beginning in the fall of 2017, Micheal will begin living and working in Costa Rica.
(This interview was conducted through emails between Sherry Christensen and Micheal during 2016. It was initiated by Sherry’s lengthy list of questions. Micheal’s answers were then edited and updated for clarity. Micheal volunteered the details and opinions about retiring abroad. He requested that his last name not be published.)