I’ll never forget the panic I felt riding through the streets of Tianjin, China. I was teaching English there for the summer and decided to take a trip to the mall downtown. It never occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t prepared to explore the city all on my own.
Then all of a sudden, it hit me: Do I really know where I’m going? What if I miss my stop? What if I was lost in this city of 15 million people? The only words I know are “hello” and “thank you.” What if someone takes advantage of me?
Thankfully, I didn’t miss my stop and did get to where I was going. And I even made it back to my apartment all in one piece after my outing – but I learned a really valuable lesson that day. I hadn’t prepared myself to travel safely through the city, and I should have.
Safety while teaching abroad, especially for women, isn’t something to be taken lightly. In their fascinating New York Times article, “Adventurous, Alone, Attacked,” Megan Specia and Tariro Mzezewa tell several stories of women who were targets of gender-based violence while traveling solo in foreign countries.
In the same article, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, is quoted as saying, “We have evidence that shows that women face risks that men don’t face in public spaces, at home, wherever they may be. “Whether we like it or not, we live in a world where we, as women, need to be more careful than our male counterparts.
I’m not writing all of this to scare you or to encourage you NOT to travel and teach in a foreign country as a woman. On the contrary, I want to give you some tips to help you prepare yourself as best as you can, so that you can safely travel and teach English as a foreign language.
1. Study the culture
Make sure you understand the customs of the country you are visiting, especially when it comes to interactions with the opposite gender. Is it considered “flirty” to speak with men openly and directly? Would it be wise for you to follow the local customs with regards to dress? Are there certain hand gestures or phrases that are considered offensive to the locals? Don’t accidentally give the wrong impression simply because you didn’t take the time to learn the dos and don’ts of social interactions.
2. Give yourself plenty of time before your job starts
This was one of the biggest mistakes I made when I went to China. I got there JUST in time to start my job. My colleague, on the other hand, was more prepared than me. A couple of weeks before work, he got to the city to get to know the area and learn some of the languages. By the time I arrived, he could get anywhere on the subway or bus system, haggle prices with taxi drivers, and find anything he needed at the supermarket. It was pretty impressive.
3. Have quick access to important phone numbers
Before you leave home, be sure to put important numbers into your phone – the country’s equivalent to 911, local police stations and hospitals, and the embassy of your home country. Also, practice certain “emergency” phrases in the local language. You should be able to say at least, “I’m in trouble, I need help, and I’m located here.”
This brings me to my next point.
4. Study the area and don’t get lost
Plan before going out on those inevitable tour excursions. You should always have a list of where you are going and have a good idea of where you are at all times. Don’t just jump on a bus randomly or wander around a city aimlessly. Be aware of your surroundings so you can communicate your location if you need help. Also, make sure you know which sections of your area are safe and which are unsafe.
5. Limit how many you throw back
Honestly, this is just good advice no matter where you are. If you drink too much, you’re at a greater risk of ending up in a dangerous situation. You’re much more likely to let your guard down, and that could allow someone to take advantage of you. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have fun. It just means be careful when you do!
6. Learn how to defend yourself
Consider taking a self-defense course before you leave home. It certainly won’t hurt to be able to execute a good hammer, heel palm, or elbow strike on an unsuspecting attacker!
7. Have a way to keep your valuables safe
In some places, you are automatically a target if you are a foreigner, and even more so if you are a woman. In some countries, you must carry your passport with you, and it’s always a good idea to keep some money on your person. Keep them safe with a waist wallet. It keeps your valuables and documents concealed, with the added benefit of taking away the need to carry around a bulky bag or purse.
8. Try not to live or travel solo
Sometimes you have no control over your living situation when you take a job teaching in a foreign country. I was lucky enough to be assigned a roommate, so living alone wasn’t an issue for me. If at all possible, request that you live with other people. Also, practice the buddy system. Remember when I took my little day trip to the Tianjin mall? I really should have taken a friend along. There is so much more safety in numbers.
9. Stay in touch with people from home and family
This may be the most important piece of advice I can give you. Teaching overseas means you’re going to be very busy and have many interesting, new distractions in your life. Don’t let the excitement of your new surroundings keep you from communicating with your loved ones at home regularly. Let’s say you decide to take a vacation within the foreign country where you teach. Be sure to let someone from your family know your itinerary and schedule. You should also call or text every couple of days, so they know where you are and that you are all right.
Conclusion: When teaching overseas, it’s important to strike the right balance between being fearful and being cocky. Don’t let the inevitable risks of foreign travel keep you back from pursuing your passion for teaching and experiencing other cultures. At the same time, don’t have the attitude, “it won’t happen to me.”
Take time to follow these tips, and I’m sure your next overseas teaching experience will be thrilling, meaningful, and – most importantly – SAFE.
This article was originally published in Dec-2020 and was last updated in Jan-2021.Author: Amy Heath