Contrary to the popular belief that teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) is some sort of super simple cake walk during which the sun always shines and you meet your new BFFs on tropical beaches while sipping fruity Mai Tais (I wish), the truth is much messier. When I tell people what I do, they often respond with “you’re so lucky” or “I wish I had that job”. Although teaching English in an exotic, far away country definitely has it perks (hello traveling on the regular), it also has a negative side (hello getting lost all the time).
In this post, I’d like to dispel a few myths and set the record straight about what I have really been doing with my life as a TEFL teacher in Hungary for the past 9 months. I’ll start with the negatives – those things I didn’t see coming after being convinced by the TEFL certifying companies that teaching would be fun, painless, and easy. Often, the organizations which provide TEFL training paint a picture of a job that is glamorous, trendy, and almost effortless. Although a select few (lucky b!tch@s) might have such an experience, the truth is that the majority of TEFL teachers face immensely more challenges on a daily basis than they ever expected before signing on the dotted line of a school-year contract. Let’s begin:
The dirty truth (negatives):
#1) Having to adjust to a challenging language barrier.
Most TEFL teachers work in countries where there is still a serious language barrier. Although we are teaching English, we often cannot use English anywhere but the classroom. Want to tell the deli clerk how much cheese and lunch meat you’d like? Want to tell the hairdresser how to cut and color your hair? Want to ask the pharmacist a question about your medication? Are you lost and need directions? Want to order a drink at a bar? Want to play a set of tennis on the public courts? Want to make a doctor’s appointment? Need to have your teeth cleaned? Want to send an envelope via priority mail?
In all of these situations, I either need to piece together enough Hungarian to interact with the person; or ask an English speaking Hungarian to accompany me for the appointment or translate via phone. This can be ridiculously frustrating if I am in a hurry or would like to get something done quickly. Not to mention that Hungarian is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn and most Hungarians prefer to laugh at me or make fun of me rather than try to figure out what I am saying in broken Hungarian. A language barrier is tough no matter where in the world you are, even more so in smaller towns and villages. This challenge is one to consider carefully, as it will greatly affect your daily life.
#2) Having to reprogram your mind to get used to a completely different set of social norms and codes of conduct.
Don’t like shouting or loud noises? Don’t come to Hungary. These things – social norms – are often the hardest to learn about via the Internet before your arrival. You often only truly notice and begin to comprehend social norms and codes of conduct after living in a place for several months. Here in Hungary, it is totally normal to scream at the top of your lungs on your cellphone while on the bus, or to laugh loudly with your friends while at dinner in a nice restaurant, with no regard to the other diners. It’s acceptable and normal for teachers to scream and berate their students during every class, and if there are only two people in an otherwise quiet space, they will often talk much louder than necessary.
As a person who abhors yelling, this social norm is still extremely difficult for me to accept. Every time someone is shouting, I am anxious that there is a problem or something is seriously wrong. In America, we are taught from a young age to use an “indoor voice” and to be aware of how the noise we are making might impact those around us. Not so in Hungary.
Another code of conduct I cannot get used to is the amazing talent of Hungarian women to berate each other and to constantly be catty in almost every social interaction. I do realize that women can be like this everywhere, but I am regularly shocked by the hurtful and rude things Hungarian women say to and about each other. Recently as I sat in the hairdressers waiting for my hair to be cut, a woman left the salon and the group of three women remaining instantly started to gossip about her. The female teachers at my school regularly judge each other’s clothing, hairstyles, and husbands (or lack of). Objectively, I also recognize that this may be because I am living in a small town and not a big city. But personally, it is an issue that affects me regularly. I dislike overhearing these catty comments.
Finally, there is the taboo topic which “foreigners” aren’t supposed to be able to talk about and that is “Greater Hungary”. Francis Tapon does an excellent job of tackling this beast in his book “the Hidden Europe”, so if you’d really like the nitty gritty pick up a copy of his book. What you need to know is that many, many Hungarians (regardless of their age) are still living in the past, or are at least obsessed with the period of time more than 100 years ago when the Hungarian territory included Transylvania, and parts of Serbia, Slovakia, and Croatia. They still feel cheated by the deal which took this land away from them. Imagine how the trauma of losing the battle at the Alamo and subsequently portions of their territory in present day Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona impacted the Spanish identity, even to the current day. You may be starting the get the picture… This is almost a concept you must experience in order to truly understand. But even after living here for 9 months, I cannot even begin to grasp how “ Greater Hungary” affects so much of the Hungarian psyche and national identity.
#3) Having to constantly struggle with a lack of access to quality goods and services.
Prior to coming to Hungary, I had a fantastic daily routine of nutritional supplements and vitamins I took in order to address deficiencies as identified by my blood work panels and enhance my overall level of health. In Hungary, I only have ready access to about half of the vitamins and supplements I was accustomed to taking. Not to mention that it is almost impossible for me to know the actual quality of the vitamins I buy or read reviews about them in order to make an informed choice. If I want to get fancy things (such as maca or thyroid glandulars, which are commonplace in the states) I must search high and low and often must order these things from American or British retailers online and have them shipped.
The same is true for high quality shoes. The majority of shoes here are cheaply made and outrageously expensive for the quality you are getting. Any time a friend or family member comes to Europe, I beg them to bring shoes. (Thank you Caitlin! Thank you Dan!…. Thanks in advance mom! Thanks in advance Hayley!)
And with athletic clothing it is much the same story. Thankfully, big box store Decathlon has helped to close this huge gap in recent years, but it is still true that Americans have much better access and availability to high quality athletic apparel, as well as many, many more brands to choose from.
Now let’s talk about produce. Unless you live in a large metropolitan area, your access to fresh fruits and vegetables is going to be extremely limited. You will also have no way of knowing whether the chicken breasts, bananas, apples, and potatoes you are buying were produced organically or not. I have had to stop eating meat in Hungary because of a lack of access to information about the conditions in which the animals were raised and the fat content of the packaged meat. I feel much healthier after giving up eating meat more than a month ago. Your entire diet will likely change if you decide to teach English in a foreign country.
#4) Having to deal with a significant reduction in your quality of life.
Of course, this reduction in your quality of life is very much related to a lack of quality goods and services. Depending on what country you are living in, it is likely that you will also experience a huge discrepancy in your quality of medical care. In Hungary, I cannot get equivalent blood work done as I did in the States. They are also many years behind treatments for allergies and thyroid problems. The lack of quality medical treatment is likely the most important reason that I will never again live in a country without an equal or greater score as the U.S. on the OECD Better Life Index, which takes into consideration a country’s self-reported health levels and access to healthcare.
Another huge quality of life indicator to consider is public transportation. In Hungary, it’s slow and it’s often dirty. Many trains haven’t been replaced for 40 years and you will feel every little bump along the tracks on your journey. Expect most train journeys to take about twice as long as the time needed to drive the same route. Over nine months, this can add up to a lot of necessary time spent on slow moving public transport.
#5) Oh yeah, on top of all of this, you still have to teach.
So while you are struggling with a language barrier, trying to understand social norms and codes of conduct, missing the quality goods and services you had back home, and dealing with a significant reduction in your quality of life – you still have to go to work every day and teach children (who often don’t want to learn) how to speak English.
You still need to make some sort of lesson plans and discipline misbehaving children. You need to think of creative ways to get kids interested in learning English and you need to find songs and activities which the kids will enjoy. Most likely, the kids will not be afraid to tell you that they don’t like you. They will also probably treat you with much less respect than teachers who speak their native tongue. They will try to get away with more and will even lie to you about what other teachers have asked them to do. Just because you are trying to teach them a skill which could potentially change their futures for the better and seriously impact their earning potential doesn’t mean they will listen to you or even be interested in what you have to say.
Many of these things are true of students everywhere. But try dealing with a classroom full of first graders who only know five words of English. When your school year curriculum for grade 1 involves teaching primary colors, numbers, animals, and toys – try not to rip out your hair or go insane.
Now that I have detailed some of the very real challenges of teaching English in a foreign country, I’d like to also discuss the positives.
The good stuff: it is all about perspective:
#1) Getting to adjust to a challenging language barrier.
I recently read an article on Thrillist about the essential travel experiences you should have before age 30. On the list was going to a country where you can’t speak the language. Are they insane? I thought to myself. That could seriously be a way to ruin your trip. Then I read the explanation “Why? Because it sucks. And it’s intimidating. And nerve-racking. And it’s pretty much the worst. It will test your mettle and self-sufficiency in ways few other life experiences will, and THAT is some true character-building right there.”
And it made a whole lot more sense. Because, let’s be honest; moving to a place where you do not speak or understand the language is incredibly terrifying and frustrating. It produces tons of anxiety and causes crazy amounts of stress. Sure, I lived in Madrid before but I understand and can speak basic Spanish. Sure, I spent 2 summers living in Italy but I understand and can speak basic Italian. Then I moved to Hungary and bam! the language barrier was immediately an issue (especially outside of Budapest).
Couple that language barrier with an overall lack of information and you have a recipe for insanity. On Hungarian trains, there is no announcement about what station you are stopping at (you must know – or guess). There is also no announcements in the case that the train gets delayed or is running behind schedule while you are on it. Both of these things have made for some crazy stories during my many travels by train.
So the positive side of submerging yourself in a country with a hard to learn foreign language is that if you survive, you will feel like a total badass. I never would have thought that I would ever be able to understand approximately 75 percent of the Hungarian spoken around me on a daily basis, but if I concentrate, I can. I never thought I would be able to buy a train ticket entirely in Hungarian or overhear conversations at the gym, but I can. I am damn proud of the fact that I arrived here speaking 2 words of Hungarian, but I now know enough to understand most interactions and get around as a tourist.
Yes, you are setting yourself up for headaches, frustration, and anxiety. But if you can make it – you will discover a newfound confidence in your problem solving and analytical skills, as well as in your ability to learn hard new things. You will also greatly improve your ability to read people’s nonverbal cues and body language which can be incredibly helpful in all aspects of your life.
#2) Getting to reprogram your mind to get used to a completely different set of social norms and code of conduct.
Of course it is safer and easier to maintain your idea of “how the world should be” and what values everyone should think are important. But that’s not the way the world works. The world is full of diverse and interesting groups of people who all do things a little bit differently. The sooner you can notice and accept that, the better off you will be. No, I don’t agree with or even like many of the social norms in Hungary. But I can live with them. I can accept that other people have the right to value different things (ahem, silence is golden) than I do. If I really want to be around quieter people I can just go on a vacation to Germany.
Also, if Hungarian people choose to commiserate over what could have been if “Greater Hungary” was still unified, that’s their prerogative. Instead of judging them for doing so, I can learn that dwelling on the past often has no real value in the present. If other teachers want to gossip about their coworkers behind their backs, I can learn that what goes around comes around. One of the most true things I have learned from this destructive behavior is that uglier and more judgemental you are about another person, the uglier you appear to others. If you constantly talk about how they girl has a “horse face” or her hair looks like a mouse, you yourself begin to look uglier and uglier. If there is ugliness in your heart, it shines right through to your external appearance. The more you say bad things about other people, the more it becomes apparent that you are insecure and truly (in every sense) an ugly person. This is a hard lesson to learn because it is so much fun to talk about other people behind their backs – but it is something I have resolved to avoid as much as possible because I have seen what can happen when you allow yourself to do so on a daily basis, and it is ugly.
Choosing to take notes and learn from these social norms and codes of conduct has taught me more than several semesters in a classroom about how to live my life. Observing the behavior of another culture so very different from my own has shown me clearly what values I personally want to prioritize as well as those I want to eschew myself from. It’s often hard to be objective about these social patterns, but the more I can remove myself from the emotional aspect of the situation and choose instead to learn from it, the more wise I become.
#3) Getting to constantly struggle with a lack of access to quality goods and services.
When I go to sleep at night, I dream about kale. I dream about kale chips and green smoothies made with kale. I dream about sautéed kale and I imagine the taste of chicken stuffed with kale. Sometimes I have dreams about all things pumpkin. Pumpkin pie and pumpkin smoothies and pumpkin spice lattes. Other nights, I wake up drooling over Quest protein bars (my favorite snack, which I used to eat almost daily).
Still other nights I fantasize about black bean burgers and berry flavored kombucha. I imagine myself walking up and down the aisles of my personal Mecca (Whole Foods), struggling to decide what fresh veggies to put on my salad at the salad bar. I imagine being able to pick up a package of ground turkey and instantly know what percentage of the meat is lean or if the animal was raised organically or not.
I will never again complain about my food choices or take them for granted. I will be grateful each day that I can wake up and decide to eat kale, spinach, or arugula if I so choose. I will cherish every mango and avocado I have the opportunity to purchase and I will be thrilled by the more than 100 choices of cereal at my local supermarket. I will marvel at nut butters made from sunflower seeds and almond/ hazelnut blends. I will savor every delicious bite of shrimp.
In addition to a newfound appreciation and gratitude for the abundance of food choices I will be privileged enough to make when back in the States, I will also carry back with me the ability to be extremely creative with a limited variety of ingredients. This year I have learned how to make tasty soups and stews. I have also learned how to cook with paprika and use peppers for flavor. I discovered how to bake with whole wheat integral flour, almond meal, cacao, and coconut sugar. I can make great tasting cookies and cupcakes without chocolate chips. I can substitute ingredients like no one’s business. And I can whip up potatoes one hundred thousand different ways.
#4) Getting to deal with a significant reduction in your quality of life.
Because, as I mentioned, there are many things I will never take for granted again. I will stop complaining about my health care bills when I know that I am receiving the highest quality of care possible. I will stop complaining about the potholes in the street because at least there is a street to drive on and not just a dirt road! I will also never ever again in my life complain about any mattress I have the privilege of sleeping on.
For those of you who don’t know (as I have certainly mentioned this to all of my closest friends), I sleep on a futon every night. My “bed” is essentially a pull out couch and it feels like a pull out couch. I never get truly restful sleep on it and I regularly wake up with aches and pains. I am excited beyond belief when I have the opportunity to sleep on a real bed when traveling. Last month in Romania I spent 10 hours per night blissfully snoozing in my comfortable hotel bed simply because it was a real bed – a mattress. Because I have had to make do and survive with a much lower quality of life, I will be thankful for even the most basic things from now on. Even if I am broke and have no money for buying nice furniture in graduate school, I will know that I survived for a year on a pull out couch with plastic furniture (and I could – but do not ever want) to do it again.
In that way this experience has also pushed me to seriously contemplate the kind of money I will need to make to provide for the lifestyle I desire. I don’t want to sleep on couches or overnight trains to save money ever again. I want to be able to order the salmon at the restaurant if I have a craving for it. And I want to be able to buy supportive shoes for my high aches and slightly overpronated feet. To do so, I am much more willing to work my ass off to be able to afford those things which I have realized are very important to my quality of life.
#5) oh yeah, on top of all this, you still get to teach.
So while you are getting to struggle with a language barrier, getting the opportunity to learn about social norms and codes of conduct, learning to appreciate the quality goods and services you had back home, and having the chance to survive with a significant reduction in your quality of life – you still get go to work every day and teach children (who often don’t want to learn) how to speak English.
Because remember, this job is what put you into this situation in the first place. I have learned that I really don’t want to work with young children ever again. It takes a ridiculous amount of patience and empathy to tolerate the daily mood swings of a room full of 8 year olds. I cannot even express how excited I am to be working with high schoolers next year. Teaching young children (even in a language you can speak) is difficult and challenging. It is often exhausting. I regularly end the day with a migraine headache from all of the associated loud noise. Yes, kids are cute – but they are also demanding, needy, and often aggravating. I actually enjoy working with them one on one but when put together in a large group, the situation changes.
That said, teaching is definitely one of the best jobs out there to learn about yourself. After each lesson, you need to evaluate your performance (what worked and what didn’t work). In addition to constant self reflection and analysis, you develop your ability to act with certainty under stress. What to do when a second grader is throwing up her lunch all over her desk and papers? How to handle it when a first grader pees his pants all over the story time rug? How to respond when a third graders tooth is loose and gushing blood all over his shirt? Call the nurse, you say? Except there is no nurse at our school. Of course other teachers and cleaning staff often step in to help, but quick decisions in those situations have been essential to calm down the other children and help the child in need.
So as you teach, you learn about your strengths and weaknesses as a leader. You also learn how to effectively communicate with people of all ages, from 6 to 60. You learn how to take care of other while simultaneously taking care of yourself. You will learn how to handle passive aggressive coworkers and helicopter parents.
And when you’re really feeling upset or unhappy, the important thing to remember is that you mostly signed up for this job so that you could travel and see the world. So drink a glass of wine and go on hotels.com…
For this reason, it’s always helpful to have a countdown until your next trip… Which should never be too far away.
I couldn’t end this post without acknowledging that I have made some very special Hungarian friends this year who I hope will remain my friends for many years to come. These awesome local people have helped me through lots of challenges and have made the struggle of living in a foreign country 100x easier than going it alone.
In Oroshaza, Andi has been an amazing ally at my school, helping me to understand what is going on and why, helping me to make doctors appointments, and sharing her hairstylist and facialist recommendations with me. I even got to enjoy a trip to Italy for skiing with her and a group of other Hungarians… it was so great!
Also in Oroshaza, my tennis partner and best mate – Saba – has been the person I most enjoy talking to and smacking the tennis ball around with. Saba and Edit have invited us over for a delicious Hungarian dinner, got us tickets to the handball banquet, invited us to the movies, and even watched Deuce so that we could go out of town. For my birthday, Saba arranged for me to throw the opening ball at the professional women’s handball match. I am so lucky to have made such a good friend and tennis partner!
Nearby, in Szeged, Istvan is my go to friend if I have a question about all things travel related. He is an outstanding tour guide (for Rick Steves!) and he knows a lot about pretty much every destination. He is also a super nice guy who is always finding ways to help others. He even let Joey and I crash on his couch after drinking some Hungarian beer and made eggs with veggies in the morning! He has the best restaurant recommendations and is one of the most friendly and talkative people I know.
In Budapest, my dear friend Kata is one of the most hardworking and smart women I know! She works as a psychologist with patients of all ages. In addition to that, she also loves to exercise and this summer we are going to a yoga festival together. Whenever I am in Budapest, I love to meet up with her for a tea, or to make “healthy” cookies. She is such a positive and authentic person, and I enjoy spending time with her whenever I am in the city!