If you only looked at the first 18 years of Maya McCoy’s life, you’d never guess that she would leave her rough, central Los Angeles neighborhood and eventually become an expat in Southeast Asia. But this black Latina did. Her story is for those who won’t let where they started determine exactly where they are going.
Tell us your story. Where did you grow up?
I am originally from Los Angeles – to be exact, Koreatown. A lot of people have never even heard of it or been there. And Koreatown is very much Korean, of course, as the name implies. But it’s actually also Central American and Mexican. My mom is Puerto Rican and my dad is Black, so it was different because there aren’t a lot of Puerto Rican people in Los Angeles. Even though I was around a lot of other Spanish speakers, they didn’t know exactly what box to put me in because I didn’t look like everybody else. And then when you add onto that the LA Riots [after the Rodney King beating trial]. Everybody’s kind of at war; we just didn’t fit in the box at all.
Were you exposed to travel at all? When did you gain an interest in international travel?
No. Not really. The farthest I went was to visit my dad’s family in Detroit. But even just that little window of visiting something so different from where we grew up – that was all it took to spark something in me. And then being a Black Latina is something that people talk about a lot but I’m a little bit different in that my dad is Black so I’m Black. And then my mom is Puerto Rican so I have both cultures. I’m African American and I’m Latina and it just mixes together.
From my visits to Michigan, I ended up going to Michigan State University for college. I think sometimes we end up exactly where we’re supposed to be . Michigan State is a leader in study abroad. In three years at Michigan State, I studied abroad four times – twice in Costa Rica, once in Chile and once in Cuba. I grew up listening to and understanding Spanish but I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. I decided that I wanted to study abroad in a Spanish-speaking location.
What brought you to Southeast Asia?
During my last trip to Costa Rica I said, “If I can get a job, I absolutely want to stay here. I want to work here.” But it didn’t work out. To actually get a visa and stay in Costa Rica was a process that I wasn’t, at 21 or 22 years old, ready to explore and didn’t have the knowledge about. So I came back to the States. I’ve lived all over the country. Eventually, I started teaching and then left teaching to become a learning specialist and academic advisor for college athletes. Many of these students were also international students, which again piqued my interest in travel. One day, my boss who said to me “I’m going on vacation to Africa” and I said “What are you doing in Africa?” She said she was going to visit her brother, who was a teacher. Immediately I said “How do I get his job?!” And that was it!
I went on to work at the University of South Carolina, and I had started the process [of applying to teach overseas]. I went through a hiring organization that helped me to get my first placement overseas. You do this one weekend and hopefully you walk away with a few offers. I wanted to go to Latin America; I didn’t get a single offer in Latin America but I did get two in Africa, one in China and one in the Philippines. Just as soon as I got the offer in the Philippines, I said “That’s where I’m supposed to be.” Everything about it just felt right.
What brought you from the Philippines to your current country of Singapore?
I began my journey teaching in the Philippines, but eventually relocated to Singapore. I left the Philippines mostly because it can be a difficult city for single expat women actively looking to date. I met my boyfriend during my job search and a teaching position opened up where he lived – in Singapore.
You mentioned that you already had teaching experience prior to teach abroad, correct? What subject and grade(s) do you teach?
Prior to teaching overseas, I taught for 2 years in Brooklyn, New York. I then worked at the university level for 3 years. Now I teach Learning Support, also known as Special Education. Since coming overseas I’ve worked primarily with grades 6 and 7, and coached volleyball and softball at the high school level. The beauty of working with Learning Support students is that I work closely with the mainstream classroom teachers and get to interact with lots of kids and families. The same is true for coaching.
How did students and parents first react to you and your presence?
For the most part the reception from the students and parents has been outstanding. I don’t feel as though I’ve ever had a parent react negatively because I’m black. If anything I think they may be nervous because I look very young, but once they learn that I’ve been teaching for a while they are more at ease. They have been very welcoming and generous. This school as well as my last school are both international schools with students are from all over the world. In some cases the students are American but have never really lived in America. They are truly third culture kids. I’ve heard so many stories of their travels and it’s been very inspiring.
What is the most fulfilling part of being an international educator?
Teaching is rewarding no matter where you teach, however, teaching internationally has been more about fulfilling my dreams. I wanted to see the world and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I wanted to get ahead financially rather than just scrape by and I’m meeting that goal as well. If you want to know if teaching abroad is for you, ask yourself what you have to give and what you want in return. If there is a teaching job that aligns with both of those goals, then absolutely go for it.
Perhaps the most fulfilling part of being an educator internationally is showing all of my former students that anything is possible. I’m still in contact with many of my students from Brooklyn and although I do miss working with them and serving that community and population, I’m an example for them of what they can be, have or do in life. Hopefully they are one step closer to fulfilling their dreams because they’ve seen me go after mine.
What was the moment like when you realized you could live a life of greater financial security?
Growing up, we were very poor. We grew up on welfare. It was a struggle every month – sometimes we wouldn’t have the lights on. I was chasing the American Dream. I did all of the things that I thought were the steps to making it. I bought a house, I went to college. I was struggling with student loans and mortgage, and then the economy crashed. I was barely keeping my head above water. I loved my job; I loved working with students. But I was working, not living. I rarely got the opportunity to travel. As much as I loved what I was doing, it was not for me. I want to live life!
Living and teaching abroad has exceeded my expectations in every way possible. They dropped me off the first day at my apartment that I did not have to pay for. The refrigerator was filled with food that I did not pay for! I was throwing more money at my debt. I was still taking all of these amazing trips and meeting all of these like-minded people – it was the best combination of things that I could possibly have found. This opportunity opened up a whole new world for me.
What does being a woman of color and having this financial and experiential freedom mean to you?
Coming from where I come from and growing up with so many people who haven’t had the opportunities I’ve had, I think it’s my responsibility to first and foremost share my experience. I’ve had my immediate family members come and visit because I want to show them what this [life] is like for me. I also want to dispel any misconceptions they may have about living overseas. I think everybody can do it. I don’t think it’s necessarily easy to do, but it is possible. You can start small. By having my family members and friends come, they’ve been able to see it.
Did you have any fears or concerns being a woman of color moving to Southeast Asia?
I immediately was concerned for my safety. In picking Manila, when I asked people what they thought, so many people said “Oh, it’s terrible, it’s dangerous. You don’t want to move there. You’re not going to have any freedom, you’re not going to be able to go where you want to go.” It was frightening. I was terrified when I landed at the airport, not even knowing who’s picking me up, where to go or what to do. But that same night, I was walking alone in the neighborhood that I lived in and I had no fear at all. I do think that there’s this misconception that you can’t go by yourself. If I waited for other people to do what I wanted to do, I wouldn’t be doing anything at all.
What is one must-have experience for every traveler or new immigrant to Singapore?
I love to watch people experience the cuisine for the first time. Singaporeans have an art to the food. There are so many places there are on this island to eat, it will blow your mind. Pick a great restaurant or even a hawker stall, and just indulge in the food. Also, Singaporean city planners are brilliant so to just sit back and marvel at some of that – whether it’s a walk that weaves you through the city and you go in and out of gardens or different communities – just take it all in.
Any advice for young black folks seeking an expatriate lifestyle?
There’s an organization for whatever it is that you do. Seek out that organization. There’s an organization for black women here in Singapore. It was great to be in community with them. While I was there, they had a couple of girls visiting. It was great to connect to someone and say “Hey, here’s my email. You want to teach? I would be happy to put you in contact with whatever you need.” There are a lot of people who want to give back and you just have to find them.