Who Needs A Comfort Zone Anyway? Building Character Abroad: The Employment Edition

Back when I lived and worked in Canada, employers generally expected me to be qualified for my job.

They wanted the certification from year-long+ accredited courses, plus, say five years of verifiable, solidly referenced on the job experience. This was difficult when I was 19, as I’d only been working a few years at utterly crappy, minimum waged jobs.

It proved to be difficult all the way through my 20s, though for different reasons.

I’m not talking about working as, say, a doctor or an architect or even a receptionist. I got turned down for waitressing jobs in Canada with great regularity in my early 20s (during my occasional, failed forays home to a crappy mid-’90s BC recession). I had Food Safe but I didn’t know Squirrel or have Silver Service. I certainly didn’t have experience because no one had hired me yet.

When I moved to the UK in 1997 and trained on the job for three full years as a home-care auxiliary nurse for folks living with dementia and post-stroke disabilities, was I able to go back to Canada to do the same? No. Not even at the lowest level, where you do sponge baths and spoon feeding and hair brushing. I knew my way around meds and hoists but I didn’t have an accredited diploma from Canada, nor was my work experience in Canada.

Three whole years counted for nothing.

When I left the UK in 2000, I moved to Cape Town for 6 months, working as a sound and lighting techie for a children’s theatre company (thanks for the gig, Erik!). We did shows all around Cape Town, in schools, theatres and at a big arts festival, and also moonlighted as a cabaret act. Only a bit of it was in English, so my stage cues were in Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu. It was a steep learning curve but I did it and it was a hell of a lot more interesting than selling crappy shoes (my 1996 gig) or handing out flyers for a restaurant on a street corner (hello 1995!) or tidying up the toy and pets departments in a huge department store (yo, 1994!).


How I spent my free time in South Africa


If I had wanted to continue doing that kind of work later on in Canada, I would have needed to go back to school for another couple of years to get all my techie papers sorted out.

Another variation on the theme was this: I was kept on as a minimum waged, part time cashier at a nutritional supplements shop for a year back home after I came back from the UK and South Africa because my degree (double major in English Lit and History, with honours) made me overqualified for any floor sales positions. They said I would inevitably get a fabulous job elsewhere as a result of my extensive over-education and so I was a risk to take on full-time and to train. The same situation had occurred in countless jobs before that, too.

I was 26 when I moved back to Canada after most of my early 20s spent away, and was quite convinced that even though I was pretty sure I was fairly smart and adaptable and really quite reasonable, I’d never get a job that could actually support me and make use of my brain if I lived in Canada. No one seemed willing to take a risk in hiring me, even if it was something I knew I could do (but didn’t have all the papers for or extensive background in).

I put my name on the absurdly long wait-lists (2 years+ back in 2000 in BC) to get into both the Registered Nursing and state school licensing degree programs. They never called me back.

I ended up moving to Turkey instead. One of the top K-12 private schools in the country recruited me and I ended up staying there for 2 years and in Turkey for 6.


You may have noticed by now that I’m still very much abroad, nearly 20 years after I first set out.


My experimental clippings garden, with every plant stolen from somewhere in Shanghai.


It’s not all just stubborn wanderlust that propels me. I’m actually quite the home body these days and have no huge burning desire to keep bouncing around the world endlessly.

That was my 20s. My 20s were erratic and exhausting and frequently very uncomfortable.

I have houseplants I want to water now, and a properly seasoned wok that I want to make extensive use of. I like owning more than one pair of shoes. I like having a decent collection of pretty things.


Yay! No shared hostel kitchen full of other travelers’ filthy dishes in the sink and moldy food in the fridge!


No, what keeps me going is the fact that outside of my homeland, my options are freaking enormous (within reason, though that may or may not be true in China– I’m still working on pushing the boundaries of possibility here. We shall see if the Mop blog will take off and I can retire on the proceeds).

Whether it is due to being foreign- and therefore unfathomably, innately qualified in anything, without reason- or whether it’s because of a more limited hiring pool or whether it’s because of a different work mindset, I don’t know.

This theme has been on my mind a lot this year because of everything that’s been going on in my work life. The idea of being thrown into the deep end, with the assumption that of course you can swim. We assume you can swim. Why on earth wouldn’t you be able to swim? Go on then, swim!


Yes, definitely qualified to professionally assess your linguistic competencies.


I’ve spent much of the past 7 months completely in over my head in a job I am barely qualified for, yet they reassure me that I’m doing a great job and things are indeed coming together.

Right now, I’m trying to assemble a 9 week phonics course for pre-Kindergarten, pre-literate, pre-beginner-English Chinese 3-5 year olds. Holy crap!  Remember how I spent the past decade teaching business and academic writing at the university and professional level? Yeah, that.

That definitely means I can prepare a course from nearly scratch for an age group and level I’ve never even fathomed, much less taught.

But I’m researching it and pulling it together. Hopefully it will work.

It had better work: I have to give a demo class on Saturday in front of prospective parents, with kids I’ve never met, teaching a class I’ve never taught before.

I did the same last weekend, the morning after we came back from Hong Kong, when I had to give a demo class with a half dozen elementary-level, ten year old boys, half of them feral (I had been told they would be absolute beginner 6 year olds so entered the class prepped for entirely the wrong thing).

It worked.

It’s kind of fascinating, all of this.  It’s almost absurd the things I’ve been asked to do over the past decade of living and working abroad (not including that earlier 3 year crash course in flipping the elderly and infirm in London, or that stint following stage directions in Afrikaans).


For example:


  • I gave intensive 2-day workshops on business writing and presentations in Istanbul for bank managers. I had to research what business writing and presentations involved for a week leading up to the first one because, hell, I’m a Lit major. What do I know about business?
  • I taught creative writing to another professional in Istanbul, who wanted to sharpen her English skills beyond the rote. Again, I had to research that one to death because although I write, it isn’t the same as teaching writing.
  • I was promoted to assistant director of a massive school also in Istanbul, even without a DELTA or MA, and did well at it. I think. I was told I did well. Again, steep learning curve but they took a risk on me and I’m glad they did.
  • In Shanghai, I taught academic writing, parsing the structures of genres I’d never before even fathomed myself (hello, graphs and tables, hello process texts!).
  • At my last job, that brutally lonely gig out at the university where I was the whole department in a pretty much deserted secondary campus, I had to pretty much do everything needed to get my kids through their first year program with no one to talk to and no on-site support.
  • During my one year hiatus after my university job fell apart (the joint venture imploded), I was hired to be a language expert for British Council, touring the top high schools in the region giving workshops and presentations on speaking and writing skills. At one point back in May, I gave two presentations to 600 kids at the number two high school in the city.
  • My current employer head hunted me solely based on the recommendations of that previous university job. They figured that if anyone could run a successful program for two years under those circumstances, they could easily be adapted to head a start up children’s after school program, creating everything from scratch, from hiring and training teachers to curriculum development to decorating the school. I am the only foreigner there right now, and most of the staff speaks only Chinese. Intimidating? Most certainly.


But can they smell my fear? I used to be so shy that I actually fainted during presentations when I was in high school. Over that.


I keep reading about how people should travel because it opens their minds and eyes and whatnot (and it can, if you are willing to actually let it happen- many aren’t, even when they are in the midst of traveling).  

That’s great. Yay, travel. I do it myself a lot, too.

What has really blown my mind over the past few decades of living abroad, however,  has been the insanely steep learning curve thrown at me by my various employers.

Yes, they ask for a certain amount of experience and qualifications, but beyond that minimum (which I had reached years ago when I moved to Turkey, with just my BA and 240 hour TEFL certification), everything else has been new and unexplored and frequently terrifying.

They’ve taken risks putting me in positions I’d never even fathom if I was back home. It’s been daunting, yes. However, my boundaries and self imposed limitations have been pushed so much that my frustrated, shy,  pigeon-holed 27 year-old self probably wouldn’t even be able to recognize her 38 year old incarnation’s headspace.

On that note, I must go back to plotting out that demo phonics class for those 3-5 year olds tomorrow.

Apparently in the west, they actually have professionally led training courses to prepare actual early-childhood-education certified teachers for this sort of thing. With, like, organized materials and resources that are appropriate.  


Wouldn’t it be nice?



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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog’s title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.