I’ve been living and working abroad almost two years now and I’ve learned a lot about the world, other cultures, and myself. Without a doubt, the single most difficult aspect of being an expat is the inability to communicate even the simplest of messages. What would be basic, menial, everyday tasks in the U.S. quickly escalate to become overwhelming obstacles overseas. Thank you, communication barriers…

I firmly believe in the positive growth the experience of teaching English as a second language in foreign countries provides. I think everyone should live outside their home country (and comfort zone) for at least 6 months. People learn one way and assume that one way is the right way or the only way. People can take every advantage they have in life for granted. Living abroad realigns your perspective.

Culture Shock Doesn't Help Matters
Culture Shock Doesn’t Help Matters

There are too many instances to go into (unless I wanted this article to be about 5,000 words), so I’ll choose a few of the moments that stand out in my mind. The first of which is the workplace, where I spend the majority of my time. When I obtained my TEFL Certificate, the program assured me I’d be immersed in schools and programs where the administration not only assumed I’d only communicate in English, but demanded I only communicate in English… at least in the classrooms.

They neglected to mention my colleagues – the other faculty – who don’t know how to speak or comprehend a single bit of my native language (and vice versa). While in Korea, I taught at a private, after-school, language academy with teachers who all went to college for English.

Yes, you read me correctly. They majored in English at their universities.

However, in spite of this they barely spoke to the native English teachers at all. The academy had students (9-15 who were more fluent than their teachers). In many cases, they knew all the grammar rules, yet had no practice speaking and were therefore too embarrassed to try. The teachers selfishly cared more about saving their own faces and reputations than welcoming foreigners into their culture – foreigners who felt isolated and often alone, living thousands of miles from home and unable to communicate with the general public.

Please Repeat, I didn't Understand You... I'm Sorry, What? Bilmiyorum!
Please Repeat, I didn’t Understand You… I’m Sorry, What? Bilmiyorum!

In Turkiye, I work at a private school. It isn’t a language academy though, it’s a legitimate high school offering every subject to their students: biology, chemistry, physics, history, geography, algebra, and literature… all of which are taught by Turkish teachers, in Turkish. The faculty as well as the administration here cannot understand the English teachers, nor can we understand them without the assistance of an interpreter.

There are even day-long Saturday meetings with faculty from all the other schools during which the morning consists of a 2-3 hour general assembly conducted in (you guessed it!) Turkish. Try to imagine yourself in a situation, going to work every day and being unable to communicate or bond with any of your coworkers. Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Here are a few examples:

  • You’re out to eat with some friends, but you have a shellfish allergy. There are no photos on the menu and the waitress doesn’t speak any English. How do you communicate your allergy to them? If you can’t, what do you do? You get up and leave, eating somewhere else with menu pictures.
  • You need a cell phone, rather the school demands you get one. So you sign a contract and get your phone from the vendor on the corner who promises you up and down that you’ll only pay about $60 a month. When the first bill arrives, you notice he’s deducted almost $80 from your account. You approach his store and try to argue, but he points to the fine print in the contract – which isn’t even written in a language you recognize. One of the nicer teachers, who’s joined you, explains hidden costs. You don’t want to pay them and if you knew up front, you’d have chosen another phone, another service, another anything. But you can’t do diddly squat now – the contract is signed. Your name, in blue ink, right there, plain as day.
  • You’re on a public bus to a place you really want to visit, but have never been to before. You try asking the driver if its the correct bus; however, your pronunciation isn’t spot on and he looks at you like you’re crazy, unable to understand what you’re saying. So you shrug and sit back down for the next two hours as the bus completes its route – never once going anywhere near the place you wanted to see.
  • You need a haircut. You show the stylist a photograph of what you want and he begins. He didn’t explain to you his dislike for that particular style so you leave with whatever haircut he felt like giving you. Shut up and be happy about it.
  • You’re in a cafe and ask for a large decaf coffee. Decaf? What’s decaf? The barista scratches her head and hands you a cup of regular.
  • You’re at a bazaar and finally find the item you’ve been looking to buy for weeks. The vendor quotes you 35 lira, but since you’ve only recently learned the numbers, you think you hear him say 85 lira. You talk him down to 40 lira and proudly walk away thinking you’ve won when in actuality, you’ve given him more money than he was originally requesting. Some haggler you make!
  • You want to take a train journey to a nearby city. Once you’re there, you decide it’s a good idea to purchase your return ticket for that evening. You approach the counter and ask the woman for two tickets on the 9pm train – 21:00. Instead, she gives you two tickets for the train on the 21st of the month – three days later, but you don’t notice. 10 minutes before the last train of the night leaves, you aren’t permitted to board and you’re stuck sleeping in the station until the first morning train leaves.
  • You can’t sleep on the street (obviously), so you hire a realtor to show you some apartments. As soon as you sign the one year lease, the realtor hits you with your fees: first and last months rent go to the landlord and another full month goes to him as his commission – an expense you were completely unaware of as a foreigner – or yabanci. Does he care? Nope. This is his profession, his country, and his rules. So you pay him. Once you move into your new flat, you learn there are even more fees nobody bothered mentioning to you: building maintenance, cleaning fees, garbage pickup… on top of those, there’s a sudden rotten egg smell emanating from inside the walls that comes from Allah only knows. This stench, wasn’t there when you first saw the apartment – in late September – seems to get worse as the weather warms up. Oh well, you signed the lease.

Let me give you one more…

You’re at home, slicing up some veggies for dinner and you accidentally cut off the tip of your finger. You wrap it up, applying the necessary pressure to the wound in an effort to stop the blood loss, but it keeps coming. So you bite the bullet and decide you’d better see a doctor. What’s the word for doctor again? Right, you don’t know it. So you throw on a coat and some shoes and hike half a mile to the taxi station. You show the taxi driver your wound and shrug because you don’t remember the word for hospital or emergency room – although at one point you remember it coming up in conversation with your students.

Resembling the Overcrowded Turkish Hospital Emergency Room
Resembling the Overcrowded Turkish Hospital Emergency Room

Thankfully, between body language and gestures, the driver figures out that you need to go to a hastanesi and hits the gas. Once you get there you see the meter reads 10 lira. The driver, knowing you’re stuck, shuts it off and asks you to pay him 15 lira. What can you do? Not a damn thing. So you pay him and enter the hospital. Upon your arrival in the emergency room, you’re surrounded by people screaming, shouting, and crying – none of whom speak English, not the patients, not the security guards, not the nurses, not the doctors. Nobody.

So you again show your wound and the little English they know, they use to try and rip you off because you’re a foreigner and don’t know their ways. What? you ask. 5,000 lira just to be seen by a doctor? But I thought I had national healthcare coverage paid for by my company? You’re telling me I don’t all of a sudden? And before you realize it, you’re out about $2,500 USD (money that never gets to the hospital or the doctors because the girl at the front desk who explained how much it would cost, splits it with the girl sitting next to her and they go on a shopping spree – teşekkürler).

During your appointment, the doctor pours antiseptic on your wound and redresses it, explaining to you what you have to do over the next few days to prevent infection – none of which you understand at all, because he’s speaking a mile a minute in Turkish and remember, you don’t speak Turkish. He doesn’t speak English. End of story.

It's a Small World Afterall...
It’s a Small World After All…

I hope I’ve been able to relay just a bit of the anxiety associated with living overseas in a country that doesn’t share your native language. Life is, without a doubt, difficult, if not impossible at times as you’ve just read. I still believe that the advantages of this experience far outweigh the many disadvantages.

If you’re reading my articles and have a son or daughter graduating college in the U.S. without any means of gainful employment (or you are one yourself), consider teaching English as a second language overseas. I promise, the person who comes home will be better and stronger than the one that left.

Until Next Time…

-Justin

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2 thoughts on “Communication Breakdown

  1. I totally agree with your insights into the benefits of the experience but I’m not sure that I would be able to put myself in that situation. You are a more understanding and accepting individual because of it which makes the world just a little better place.

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