As an expat, one of the most interesting yet challenging aspects of life abroad has been learning to navigate the role that work plays in different cultures. In the US, there is often a pressure or expectation to work long hours and even take work home. Working abroad has allowed me the opportunity to observe diverse work cultures and experience a different work/life balance.
In 2011, for instance, I accepted a position in the UAE to work as a sixth grade math and science teacher at a school in the Sharjah Emirate. I quickly found that teaching would be very different in the Middle East. I had to share my classes with other teachers. I also had two classes since they separate the boys from girls within each grade. This was very normal for the other teachers, but not for me. I was assigned only the girls’ classes for my first year which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Since I only had to shift around in one building, it allowed me to get acclimated to the new way of working.
Work culture is also very much about what you do in your break times. I observed that Arab women spent a lot of time talking to one another during their breaks. In the US, I had been accustomed to minimizing socialization and using every moment to get caught up on work. My new colleagues, however, seemed to do very little work during break time, but took a lot of work home. Later, it was confided to me that this was to enjoy the only real social time they had with each other and to use the work to avoid their husbands… if you know what I mean. But mostly, women worked together socializing, eating and grading. Another observation I made was they kept an eye on the time, meaning these women clocked out at three pm sharp. Not one of them ever stayed late. Ever. Western teachers would stay until the work or preparation was done, which was around five or six, as they were accustomed to doing in their home country. I took note of this and quickly started adapting some of these boundary lessons in my own day to day affairs. I stopped taking work home. My home time was my personal time, and I wanted to leave work at work even if I had to stay late (but no later than five pm). And did I join in the break time social sessions? Eventually I did, and I began to make life-long friends.
From a work vs home standpoint, I found that the UAE job afforded me the opportunity to have a better work/life balance than I had experienced in the US. For instance, since getting a housekeeper was cheap in comparison to the States, I could afford a housekeeper to come and clean my house once a week. This relieved me of having to set aside time during my weekend to get my life back together again. Getting my laundry done was also cheap and convenient. This left my weekends for exploration and real rest, and this benefited my work life greatly.
At the school in Dubai I was able to get fresh fish made with red sauce and potatoes and lovely veggies on the side for my lunch. I did not have to compromise my health with poor quality food while working or break the bank for my sustenance or my housekeeping; very different from any teacher’s life in the States.
My quality of life was also better when I worked in China. I could eat breakfast, lunch and dinner daily for about $5.00. We had a kitchen where we could bring food from home to heat up, and not in a microwave. If you did not want to bring your own food, good food (not fast food) could be delivered hot at any time. Our school was based near a boarding school and so we were also welcome to go to their kitchen/cafeteria to purchase hot meals made right there. Hand spun noodles, vegetables with spices made for a lovely break in my day. Anyone who has no energy at the end of a long work day to feed themselves or their family properly can imagine how great that was to take off my list.
Living in different places and learning the role that work occupies in different cultures has freed me from imposing a workaholic mindset on myself. The beauty of travel and of functioning in other cultures is that you always take a part of where you have been with you. This is why, I believe, Mark Twain is famous for saying, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness…” I am grateful for every way in which travel and living an expat work life has opened my mind and my heart to my world.