Choosing a Country to Live in

My husband and I laid out a huge world map on our cool marble floor in Guayaquil one sunny afternoon after a delicious lunch of pan-fried fish, plantains, salad, beans and rice.  Life had been full of sun, iguanas, trips to the beach and delicious food in Ecuador, but now we were ready for a new adventure… something different.  We longed for cups of tea, rainy Sunday afternoons, climbing snowy peaked mountains and the smell of pine and wet earth. Where should we go next?

The two years we had spent in Ecuador had just been by chance really – we were all set to go to Korea when we found out just weeks before leaving that there was a problem with my husband’s visa. We quickly abandoned ship and looked elsewhere, and that’s when we came across a post for jobs at an elite University in Guayaquil, Ecuador. In three weeks we were on a plane to a destination neither of us had ever been! Since that move, we’ve become much more strategic in making decision.  Let’s take a look at some of the things you may want to consider when choosing a destination.

Weather: After living in hot and muggy Ecuador, weather was a primary factor in our next move decision.  We had no concept of what 34%C and 99% humidity felt like on a daily basis to someone who’s body was not accustomed to it.  But we found out quickly that it meant that we would have continuous rings of sweat before during and after teaching for at least 9 months until our bodies got used to the extreme heat.  Yikes! On flip side, what does 201 cloudy days feel like?  Does this affect your mood or outlook on life? If you’re planning on staying in a location for more than 6 months to a year, weather is a very important consideration.

Pay/cost of living: What’s important – the wage, the job, the maid you can afford, the cultural events around, the security….? When looking for a job and considering a location you may find yourself lured by a great salary in Qatar or befuddled by the low salary in France. Now, when looking at this you have to consider what your purposes are – do you want to save or are you looking for a distinct experience?  I will say, in those places where you can make a lot of money, often you’ll find yourself either spending a lot in the country, or needing to escape on a vacation somewhere else (which also causes you to spend money).  Those who are disciplined, unlike myself, are able to save! Some jobs in counties in Africa, or in China, won’t offer you a great wage, but may offer other benefits like lodging or airfare once a year. These are benefits to take into consideration as you make this decision.

Type of Position vs. certification: In developing countries, you can find great jobs with a TEFL certification with room for lots of professional growth.  In developed countries, your certificate will get you a job, but it won’t necessarily get you promoted unless you get more education.  In Ecuador after one year of teaching experience and with a Master’s degree I was promoted to the head of the language department at a prestigious university.  However, being the head of a language department in countries like Norway or Germany requires a PhD and years of teaching experience.

Language: Should I learn Korean, Arabic or Spanish?  Language can be a major factor in your decision to move to a certain country. I would hope that you’d be interested in learning the language of the country that you’d be moving to – so why not make it something you’re already interested in? Remember, even a one-year plan can turn into a lifetime as perhaps you find yourself in a romantic relationship! If your plan to move is a still a few months or years in the future, it’s advisable to take a beginner course in the language of the country – remember you can also find a language buddy that may be willing to swop English conversation with Arabic instruction on a weekly basis.

Moving with Children: We moved to France with our first child when he was 5 months old.  People had always talked about how kid-friendly it was, but we never really knew until we experienced it first hand: free daycare, free school, playgrounds in every neighborhood, tons of free family activities, parents enjoying happy hour as kids sipped on a juice, smiles and winks from French people in trains…the list goes on and on. Over the past years, because of Europe’s ageing population, France has created incentives for families to expand. It’s worthwhile to jump on the Internet and see what people are saying about the country that you’re moving to – with children – day care, schools etc. Even just having family-friendly activities available makes a world of difference for your social life in a new country. You don’t want to find yourself isolated in a new country just because you have kids.

Leisure Activities: What makes you happy? The beach, the mountains, great cultural events? What can you not live without? When I lived in Chile, the scenery was breathtaking – mountains, beach, rivers…nature was everywhere and it fed my eyes.  It was a stark contrast to living in a highly cemented city of 2 million people in Ecuador where it took at least 45 minutes in car to get out of town. However, the nightlife was fantastic – bars, dancing, music, and great food! Research your location well to make sure it contains the components that are important to you. 

Security:  Six months after arriving in Ecuador, my husband and I had decided that the buses were not for us.  We had just taken a nine-hour bus ride from the sierra (mountains) to the coast and on the way we had seen two buses that had just fallen over into the ravine.  My husband claims that we saw body parts hanging out of the windows and I have apparently completely blocked it out as I only remember the horrifying news cast we watched upon entering our house that night – 24 killed, 16 injured.

Traffic accidents in many parts of the world kill thousands of people every year. I’m sure that my experiences in taxis and buses were mild compared with other major cities where traffic rules are just suggestions and it’s the pedestrian’s fault if they get hit. This is just one danger to consider in your country move.  As we stayed for a couple of years, we knew people who had been kidnapped, robbed in their homes, taken by gunpoint to withdraw money and even shot at.   If you do choose to live in a city or country that is considered dangerous, do some research about what it is exactly that is dangerous – especially for foreigners and then seek advice from ex-pats who live there. They know best. I would have to say that many dangerous events can be avoided by a few things: don’t go out at night by yourself in certain areas of town, be careful who you spend time with, make friends with locals to get to know what is dangerous and how to avoid it.

Hours per job: When you apply to a job and get that interview, it’s important to consider how many hours you’ll be teaching per week. As a new teacher, it’s a great idea to work quite a few hours per week as the learning curve will speed up for you. A heavy workload can really intensify an experience, but can also be great for learning.  I’ve had assignments from anywhere to 26 contact hours per week with children to 16 contact hours per week at a university.  Teaching is not the same as a 9-5 job so you can’t have 35 or 40 hours of contact hours with your students, this would be far too much!

Apparent Cultural Affinity: After living in Latin America and in my home country of the United States, I though it would be interesting to give France a try – it was, according to me, a semi-Latin country with, what I was hoping was, a little of each culture in it that I loved. I knew it wouldn’t be completely foreign like going to a place like Saudi Arabia, but at the same time the French were famous for their “socialism” and I was interested.  Besides, I had a kid now and I wanted something that wouldn’t be too foreign to me. Years ago I lived in Japan and I had always thought of returning, there is so much I still don’t understand and want to learn…perhaps! Consider your own personal feelings about the culture and your interests!

Proximity to Home Country: As a single person, I was happy to fly far away from my home and I always knew I’d be back.  As a married person, I had a travel companion, so it was great to continue my adventures…and now as a family person I feel the weight of needing to come home more frequently to let grama and grampa dote on their sweet little grand kids.  Who are you? What are your family needs? Are you connected to your family? Are you connected to your culture? How frequently will you come back home? Will your salary/budget allow that?

Timetable: Depending on what hemisphere you’re in, summer may start January or in June….  This, of course affects the general hiring times and vacation times of the year.  This can either be to your advantage or disadvantage depending on what you’re looking for – pay attention!

So as my husband and I looked at that big world map, we decided to go back to something known… for a while, to take a break from the developing world and to head back to my home country of the United States, but this time to a small town in the beautiful Puget sound region in Northwestern United States – a place where you can drink a hot cup of tea 200 days of the year and enjoy long hikes through the temperate rain forest or see seals while kayaking near the San Juan Islands.  We knew that new adventures were still out there in world, but for the moment we were happy to take a break.