My first few hours in Taipei were a jet-lagged haze. Nearly a full day at airports and on planes with almost no sleep, and a 12 hour time difference from the East Coast, and I felt like I was about to fall over.
But one moment stands out very clearly in those blurry memories; standing in front of the big picture window in the common room of my hostel, way up on the thirty-something’th floor of a skyscraper in downtown Taipei. I could see out over the city, the train tracks, and all the way to the foggy jungle-covered mountains in the background, and my soul just started souring. I had finally made it. I had finally arrived. Not just in Taiwan, not just in Asia, but in this moment of infinite possibilities and adventure that those places had always represented to me. I’d dreamed of traveling since I was a little girl, and finally, here I was living out my ream.
The entire world was in front of me, waiting for me to take it on.
Four years later, as I stumbled through the airport, still slightly hung over from my going away party, waiting for the last flight I’d take out of Taiwan, I knew that there was no more perfect place I could have spent those formative years of my life.
Choosing to move overseas and teach abroad was the best decision I could have made with my life, and if I could go back in time, I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Before I left for Taiwan, I was pretty lost in my life. I’d gone to college for four years just like you’re supposed to, majored in neuroscience with a pre-med concentration, and had a plan to go on to medical school. My junior year, I had studied abroad for a year in England, and fallen in love with travel. The thought of going back for one more year of school, stuck in the little college town in rural Pennsylvania, filled me with dread, never mind the thought of spending the next five years of my life pouring through textbooks and medical charts.
I stayed in denial for as long as I could, though, over halfway through my senior year. I even bought textbooks to study for the MCAT, convinced I was just going to power through with my plan. I ignored my mounting tension headaches, insomnia, and increasingly frequent migraines all through senior year, until a few months before graduation I started to crack.
The tension headaches were literally constant, a pressure and dull ache that stayed with me every second, except when I was eating, which only made my stress-eating worse. I’d find myself losing interest in the physics and biology textbooks I needed to read for my classes, and instead pouring over Chinese language textbooks my roommate had lent me.
I was fast approaching the deadline for signing up for the MCATs and applying to medical schools, and every time I sat down to get serious about it all, my mind would blank out, my headaches would get unbearable, and I’d end up wasting an hour or two half-assedly clicking through medical school websites before giving up on it until tomorrow.
I knew, deep down, that I had to do something different. I also knew that I was clinging so desperately to this path of medical school, residency, and being a doctor because if I took that plan away, I had absolutely no idea who I was or what I wanted to do with my life. It was terrifying, to think of the future being completely unknown. But the “known” was making me pretty miserable.
My roommate and good friend, who had let me borrow her Chinese textbooks, started telling me that I ought to take a year off to travel. I looked into it, and was more and more drawn to teaching ESL abroad. I started seriously researching how feasible it would be for me financially, where I would want to go, and how to find a job.
It only helped my decision that I was graduating in 2009, at just about the worst time for new graduates to be entering the job market. Bypassing that mess by moving overseas for a year or two seemed to make more and more sense.
There was no one sudden epiphany moment. Instead, teaching abroad grew from an idea to a real possibility, and finally to a plan, and I finally admitted that there was no way in hell I was going to medical school right after college, and no way I was going to ignore my longing to travel and see more of the world.
It took quite a bit of convincing to get my family on board, but once they realized that I was serious about it, and that I had found a reliable recruiter and gotten a good job lined up before I even graduated, they started to give me the emotional (and a little bit of financial) support that I needed to make this dream a reality.
Just five weeks after graduating, there I was standing in a hostel on the other side of the world.
I had no idea where this adventure was leading me at the time, when I stood there looking out over my new home, feeling inspired and hopeful. I had no idea if it would end up being the biggest mistake I’d ever made, if I’d end up crawling back home after a few months, broke and discouraged, to face the “I told you so”s of my family.
In the months after that moment, there were certainly times when it seemed like that was what might happen.
But I stuck it out through the frustrations and culture shock of the first few months, found an amazing group of friends, fell in love with my job and my students, learned to navigate this new culture I was living in, got proficient in Chinese, and found myself looking at life with a whole new perspective.
I also found that the health problems I’d been struggling with – the migraines and constant tension headaches, and the sleeping problems – just kind of sorted themselves out as I got rid of the pressures of school and trying to force myself to fit into a life that was all wrong for me.
Maybe it’s a cliche to talk about finding yourself through traveling overseas, but I really did find that having the space to explore what I was really interested in, and the freedom that comes with being a stranger in a strange land, helped me figure out who I was, who I wanted to be, and get some ideas as to a plan for my life that were much more in line with what made me happy.
The time that I spent teaching in Taiwan helped me grow and changed in ways I never would have imagined before leaving the US.
It was that time teaching abroad that opened the door for me to jump into other adventure jobs, like working as a cross-country tour guide, a wilderness mentor, a travel writer, and the support crew for cycling tours.
It was those years living in another country that taught me that the world is not such a big, scary place at all, and that I have all the ingenuity, grit, creativity, and resourcefulness I need to get through anything. I doubt I’d have had the courage to take up rock climbing or canyoneering, or to tackle the many challenges those sports have thrown at me, if not for my time traveling through Asia.
It was there in Taiwan that I met my kung fu teacher, friend, and mentor who would open so many doors in my mind, start the process of healing so many of my past hurts, and teach me how life, friendship, and love were all so much bigger than I’d ever imagined before.
It was those experiences in the classroom that taught me the beauty of teaching, and how fulfilling and enlightening it can be to work with children every day. Without that perspective and experience, I never would have found myself teaching at the Montessori elementary school where I now work, and never would have found my life today touched by the brilliance, creativity, and spark of those kids.
My life is better off in literally every way than it would have been if I had stayed on the path I had planned out for myself.
And I hope that anyone else who is feeling stuck, unhappy, afraid, uninspired, and lost in their life finds the courage to take the leap into an adventure like teaching abroad. I hope that if teaching calls to you, you will find all the information and encouragement you need on this site to get you to take those first steps.
And I sincerely hope that, like me, years from now, you’ll look back on teaching abroad as the best decision you ever made.