5 Ugly Truths About Returning to the Real World After Teaching Abroad

by Jennifer Bangoura

Remember when you were trying to decide if you should teach abroad? And then you made the decision, and you were filled with feelings of excitement and curiosity about the upcoming chapter of your life in a new country filled with possibility. Your  mind was flooded with questions. Who would you meet? What would be your favorite new restaurant or place to get local food? How would you navigate a city where you (maybe) don’t speak the language? Would your family and friends back home forget about you? How would you balance your work as an ESL teacher with your desire to explore your new surroundings?

Man and woman standing on a bridge
You came back a whole new man/woman! But, things at home seem to have stayed the same.

Returning home to the “real world” after teaching abroad can also lead you to ask these same questions, just in reverse. Whether you like it or not, you will be a different person when you return home after teaching abroad. Your understanding of the world around you will have shifted, sometimes dramatically. Your taste in food will have changed. The way you communicate with, and about, others will be different. How you teach will not be the same. You may even find yourself feeling out of place with the friends you knew before you left. Some of your family may not be interested in hearing about your time abroad or care to be caught up on the last year (or more!) of your life.

With all of these changes and potential obstacles to sharing your teach abroad experience with others, you’re sure to encounter some uncomfortable situations when you return home. We never said it would be pretty, so here are five ugly truths about returning to the real world after teaching abroad:

1. You Changed; Nothing Else Did

Commemorative tattoos notwithstanding, you will change (sometimes dramatically) after teaching abroad. After all, you’ll be spending hours every day in a classroom with students who will want to know about your home country as they open your eyes to all there is to learn about theirs. You may even learn a new language, which can literally change the way your brain functions (for the better!).

***Here are some tips for why and how to learn a language when you’re abroad.

When you return home, you will have an altered understanding of the world, and it’s going to be an abrupt shift in your daily life when you turn to talk politics or foreign affairs with your friend and he or she doesn’t have any idea - or interest - in what you’re talking about. While it can be tiring, try and make your conversations teachable moments. If your friend gives you a blank stare when you talk about the history of Georgia (the country, not the U.S. state), make it more tangible by recounting a story of your host dad and what it was like for him to grow up in a post-Soviet state. If your mom isn’t interested in hearing more about China, make your stories a little closer to home by talking about what a typical Sunday afternoon was like for you.

It can be challenging to morph your stories about your time abroad into digestible snippets that those you left behind will be interested in hearing - especially when their perception of the world hasn’t changed and yours has.

Seattle skyline at dusk
The city you once called home might feel foreign (ironically) and unfamiliar now.

2. No One Cares

While it can feel exciting, and even empowering, to get to know a country so well that it feels like a second home - it can also be extremely disappointing to launch into a story about your experience teaching in Vietnam only to find everyone glancing at their phones or looking for a way out of the conversation (believe it or not, it will happen!). Thankfully, you have options without having to ditch your friends or family (especially family - they’re notoriously hard to get rid of). You can host a themed-party with food from your host country and printed pictures from your time abroad. Make a game with trivia from the place you lived and have prizes (bonus points if they’re souvenirs!) as a reward.

Usually you’ll just get a couple minutes (if that!) to describe the semester or year you spent teaching abroad - attention spans just aren’t what they used to be. So get creative and host a party your friends and family won’t soon forget - and at the end of it they’ll care a little more about your home away from home!

3. Wanderlust Will Haunt You

It will hit you - sometimes hard. You’ll be looking around your new apartment and a smell, or a sound, or a photo from your time abroad, will remind you of all that you left behind when you moved back home. You’ll become homesick for a place where you only briefly established roots. While we can’t guarantee the wanderlust will fade (or ever go away), there are ways to make it a little less ugly. Take 15 minutes and write a thoughtful email to connect with someone from your host family in France or a new friend you met while teaching abroad in South Korea. Watch a movie that reminds you of your old stomping grounds. Share a photo and a memory on social media so others can have a better understanding of your experience (maybe they’ll even ask a thoughtful question and try to learn more!). If all else fails and you find your wanderlust consuming you - maybe you should indulge it and teach abroad again!

Silhouette of a man standing on a bright horizon
Wanderlust will hit you. Hard.

4. You’ll Wish You Hadn’t Done It

We don’t mean you’ll regret going abroad- we mean you’ll regret coming home. Once you unpack your suitcases, recover from the jet lag, find a new job, and reconnect with your family and friends (not necessarily in that order), you’re going to become wistful for your time teaching abroad. Gone will be the negative memories about the bureaucracy you encountered or the nasty stomach bug that had you knocked out for a week. You’ll be waxing poetic about your charming host family in Kyrgyzstan or how you could walk to work on a charming cobblestone road while teaching in the Czech Republic.

That nostalgia can be pretty painful, not to mention ugly, when the reality of commuting to your new job in a windowless cubicle sets in (ouch). Try to not focus on what you’re missing out on in the country where you taught abroad and make an effort to look forward to all the great things that lie ahead. Seek out ways to incorporate your experience into your new life and connect with the friends you made abroad - while nurturing friendships in your new home. The transition back into life at home might be a little messy, but with some focused intention and a positive outlook you’ll remember why you taught abroad - and why you decided to return home afterwards. 

5. You’re No Longer Exceptional 

Has anyone ever told you that you’re a beautiful and unique snowflake? Well, we won’t be the first or last to remind you but you’re actually not. And if you’re not convinced - returning home from teaching abroad will be a rude reminder.  

If you return home and continue to teach, your classroom experience is going to be radically different. No longer will the kids shout out to you on your way to school and cheer for you when you correctly pronounce something in the local language. You won’t be the star of the show at your local market where you haggle for the best price and joke around with the store owner. If you try haggling when you return home you’ll likely be met with a blank stare and will leave the store empty-handed.

Woman crossing the street holding an umbrella
Getting back in the swing of things may be challenging and will take time- but it doesn’t have to be ugly!

Transitioning to a new career can be challenging, too. Whereas you were likely getting into a real groove as an ESL teacher, you may feel inadequate and overwhelmed when faced with your new role and responsibilities. Take a deep breath; you probably felt the same way on your first day in the classroom when you had loads of revelations about teaching abroad. Remember that with time, you’ll make it!

Have you already forgotten all the questions you had before you moved abroad? And what about that sense of excitement and wonder as you prepared to move to a new country and a foreign place?

To help with your transition to the real world after teaching abroad, maintain a sense of wonder and an open mind and ask yourself the same questions you had before you went abroad as you find yourself heading home. Just because you’re moving back “home,” or even to a different city in your native country, doesn’t mean you can’t look at your surroundings through a new lens, the same one you had when you moved abroad. Make an effort to try new restaurants, meet people you wouldn’t normally run into, or to seek out experiences not on your beaten path.

Returning home after any time abroad can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be ugly!