Chinese Halloween teaching ESL in China

5 Things I Miss Most About Teaching English Abroad

Letting students paint your face is scary!

After a year of teaching English abroad in both Thailand and China, I find myself thinking of certain people, specific moments or special students at random times throughout the day. Sometimes unexpected situations will send me down memory lane. For instance, the other day I was eating lunch with friends, catching up on old times, and I began to miss the lunch dates I had with my coworkers in Thailand. Or, after watching footage of San Francisco’s gay pride parade, I remembered fondly how the gay and lady-boys lit up my classrooms better than any lantern on a dark night. Other situations are more expected, like reading blogs written by teachers currently overseas, and writing articles about teaching and traveling for (where I’m a new contributing editor!).

So to highlight all of the good times I had while teaching in Asia, I thought I’d highlight the 5 things I miss most:

1. My students. I know it’s easy to look back on particular events in our lives and see/remember only the good things. I’m not about to romanticize my students now, after telling you how naughty they can be in Thailand, or how sometimes getting them to speak English was like pulling teeth.

Classes as a whole were often a nightmare. I would dread going to some, while I looked forward to others. But in every class there were individual students who reminded why I enjoy teaching.

There was Ann from Suwannaphum, Thailand who begged me to tutor her after school for a measly 500 THB ($15) a month. I was impressed by her determination and finally obliged. Ann was part of my favorite class – the superstars as I like to call them – of eighth grade students who always came to class ready to learn (a rare thing in Northeast Thailand).

Chinese students ESL in China

That’s Harden, on the left. I took pictures on the first day of classes to learn names.

There was Harden and Leo, two friends in one of my freshmen Chinese classes, who always brought a smile and a sense of humor with them to class. Both were interested in every word, and participated in every activity, encouraging their classmates to do so as well. After class, Harden would surprise me with a story about his family or friends. I always found it entertaining and impressive that he chose to practice his English in this way.

There was Dom, the gay and bright student in my fifth grade class in Wong Nam Yen, Thailand. He sang and danced and laughed, but when the time came to focus, he gathered all of his peers and took charge of the room. In sixth grade at the same school was Sun, an avid reader and brilliant student who always asked to be challenged. He turned even a game of Hangman into a history lesson, and he knew more about the subject than me.

All of these students and many more made my experience enjoyable, and they are the ones I believe will do great things with their futures.

Students in Thailand study ESL

A few of my students in Northeast Thailand.

2. Constant learning. One of the reasons I love to teach and travel is because I love to learn. I’m eager to know about cultures and customs and people. I’m fascinated by stories of the past and dreams of the future. Just showing up to school each day was a learning experience for me, maybe more than the students, because everything was different and new and challenging. From the laid back ways of the government run education system in Thailand to class debates about the one-child policy in China, I walked away with a wealth of knowledge and new perspective on things I might not have considered otherwise. I think being involved in the schools and communities of a foreign country is the best learning experience there is.

3. Participating in local holidays/festivals. In Thailand, I was fortunate to dress in Thai costume (hair, makeup and the whole shebang) twice for special local events with the school. On Loy Krathong, the festival of lights, we paraded down the street in our traditional garb and back to the town lake to watch the locals light candles and set them floating on the water. I celebrated Songkran, the Thai new year, two years in a row. I participated in Monk Day and saw how they interpret western holidays such as Valentines Day and Christmas. I went to three weddings, and a funeral.

Dressed up in traditional Thai costume for Loy Krathong.

The school director on my left, and a coworker on my right. In traditional Thai costume on Loy Krathong.

In China, I introduced my freshmen students to their first Halloween – complete with face painting and candy (see the featured photo above). They taught me about their holidays and festivals, and many brought moon cakes (a traditional, not particularly delicous dessert given for Mid-Autumn Day), food and drinks in a celebratory manner. My students told me about the superstitions they have around each holiday, and the stories that brought some to life. I celebrated Christmas with three parties thrown by the school, and my students took me out to dinner because they felt bad that I couldn’t be with my family – which is what the Chinese do for every holiday.

4. My coworkers. I was lucky to have worked with so many amazing people in both Thailand and China. In Thailand, I was invited to lunch on an almost daily basis, and dinner events were frequent. I went on weekend trips with some (though they didn’t always go well, like this and this), and others invited me into their homes. They taught me all the things I didn’t learn from my students about Thai culture, like how to properly bow to Buddha and that one should always bring food back from a trip. They taught me to wai correctly and to all the right people. They increased my tolerance for spicy food. They even helped me learn Thai. They were always understanding, supportive and cheerful, especially if I made faux paus, such as tapping a young child on the head, or sleeping with my feet toward someone’s head.

Traditional Thai costumes for Loy Krathong.

My coworkers and I dressed in traditional Thai costume.

In China, most of my coworkers were other foreign teachers from the UK, South Africa, Australia and the USA. It was fun to get together for lunch dates and events, swap stories about our students and learn about each others background. However, I also had a chance to mingle with my Chinese coworkers and talk to them about things like the Cultural Revolution, the university entrance exam process (which has the power to determine a student’s entire future), as well as marriage and babies. They were always friendly, eager to talk, and eager to turn the tables and learn something about me. I miss the camaraderie about the university, which is not something I expected.

5 Traveling. I would never have been able to see all the Asian countries I have – Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, India, China/Hong Kong – if it weren’t for teaching English. While I knew I certainly wasn’t going to get rich doing this gig, I am rich in the experiences it afforded me. They are memories that no one can ever take away from me. I’ve grown as a person and as a traveler in ways I never would have imagined back when I stayed up halfway through the night researching the ample possibilities to teach overseas. I would get lost in the fantasy of it all, but the reality turned out to be far better than my imagination was even capable of at that time, and I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.


What do you miss most about your last job? If you’ve worked overseas, what did you do?

5 Things I Miss Most About Teaching English Abroad

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  1. angie curtis says:

    Wonderful storytelling Jess. You had. Me mesmerized.

  2. Jessica,
    Love the new website format. I can see pictures for the first time at PZ. I am working here this summer, no big travel adventures, just ever so quiet PZ.

    I got a feeling, that you will be back to this part of the world at some point in time. Too much has happened to you in Asia, you will never forget this place. Columbia/Spanish can wait.

    Richard PZ

    • jessicajhill says:

      Hi, Richard. I hope you’re enjoying your summer. I don’t have any plans to go back to China at this point – I’m set to begin school (Colorado State) in the Fall. But you’re right – I will never forget my experiences there or elsewhere in Asia. I will be back one day!

  3. I’ve thought about teaching English overseas and it does look like you had a really unforgettable and invaluable experience. Theres so much to learn just from being immersed in their local cultures like those you’ve mentioned, not to mention the travel opportunities!

    • jessicajhill says:

      You’re so right! It’s such a fascinating way to experience a culture, and the things you learn from the locals make your travels more meaningful too. Where would you like to teach?

      If you ever decide you really want to do it, let me know. I’d love to help you get started!

  4. Dean says:

    Great article Jess. Since I stopped teaching I have really missed my classes, as nightmarish as they sometimes got, I still miss the little terrors a lot.
    Really good read, thank you for that.

    Reach To Teach Recruiting

    • jessicajhill says:

      Hey, thanks Dean! It’s true – I had some terrors, especially with the younger ages in Thailand. Somehow, I still miss them. Even the little smart asses!

      Thanks for the comment. I’m looking forward to the blog carnival.

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