What's it like to move from the Gulf to Asia as an expat teacher?

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Today's guest post is from Amy French, who taught in Qatar and then moved to Vietnam to work- two very different places! In this blog, she describes her experiences in both places and lists the biggest differences between life as an expat teacher in Qatar and in Vietnam.

You can connect with Amy on Instagram: adventureswithmissamy or Twitter: @amymayfrench

How I initially got into teaching abroad

When I was in secondary school a Scottish charity called Project Trust came in to speak to us about taking a year out traveling and volunteering overseas. I had recently watched a video 'Where the hell is Matt?' in which Matt dances all over the world and I really wanted to travel. I was only 17 when I finished school and although I was already planning on studying to become a History Teacher, I jumped at the opportunity to go overseas and volunteer as a teaching assistant. I spent one year in Malaysia at a local all-girls school where I assisted in teaching English through games, singing, and acting. I LOVED this experience, I met so many amazing people working in education and learned about the international school scene. After my year overseas I returned and completed my degree in History, Politics, and Education keeping my itchy feet happy by working in summer camps in Italy or Ski repping in France for university groups. As my NQT year in Scotland came to its natural end, I got onto TES to look for jobs and contacted people I had met in Malaysia. I was very lucky to have teacher friends and family and was able to get an idea of what I was looking for and so I ended up in Qatar for my first international teaching post!

What I like best about being an expat teacher

I have loved the opportunities afforded to me being an expat teacher. International teachers don't always stay in positions for as long as they might in the UK so because of this leadership and development opportunities are often plentiful meaning if your ambitious there are opportunities for you to move into positions of responsibility. I also love the diversity of the staff and student populations at international schools, I have made friends for life all over the world and as a result, been able to travel to countries like South Africa and India and be shown around by someone who grew up there. This also has made me a better educator as I am able to learn about different cultures and incorporate this into my teaching.

What do you find most challenging about teaching overseas?

The thing I find most challenging about teaching overseas (especially during COVID) is the time I have to spend away from my family. Having said that, because international schools usually give an annual return airfare to your home country, I am often able to see my family at least once a year and because we have spent time apart that time together is always very special. Also, we are very lucky to live in a digital age and Facetime/WhatsApp and social media help you to keep connected.

My experience in Qatar

Qatar was my first experience working overseas as a qualified teacher and I wasn't 100% sure what to expect but I really enjoyed living and working there. Qatar was relatively unheard of when I first went in 2016 and is only now becoming more well-known because of the upcoming World Cup which they are hosting in 2022. It's a small country based around the city of Doha and has an amazing (and growing) city skyline. Because I came from the Highlands of Scotland where there wasn't a huge amount happening this was the perfect place for me as it wasn't too overwhelming but still had plenty to offer!

Qatar has nearly 365 days of sun a year and it is so easy to communicate and find your way around because everyone speaks English, and it is such a compact county. Most schools pay well and because your salary is tax-free this means that you can save a lot of your salary. In addition, some schools allow you to do extra tutoring (my school's rate was 250QAR per hour/50 GBP) and so you are sometimes able to significantly increase your salary. The lifestyle is very nice in Qatar, many of the hotels are 5-star and have high levels of service and there is some of the best food in the world available. There are malls everywhere packed with western shops and you can buy pretty much anything you want/need if you're willing to pay! Souq Waqif is a great place to go if you want to experience a local market and there are some fantastic Middle Eastern restaurants there too. The culture and museum scene is growing rapidly and the Museum of Islamic Art is one of the best I have ever been to. Qatar is/was becoming a great travel hub and Qatar Airways is a great airline to fly with, as a resident getting in and out of the airport is seamless and makes traveling really easy!

THE HEAT! Oh my goodness, you have never experienced heat until you have been in the desert in July, it really is unbearable and makes doing anything outdoors impossible. Having said that for the hottest parts of the year (July-August) you are on school holiday and so it's rarely a bother. The driving is also some of the worst I have seen in the world, many people have large 4x4s which they like to drive as fast as they possibly can, and in any lane they like, it really is dangerous and quite scary and not for the faint-hearted! Like I mentioned earlier you can get anything you like but that comes at a price, alcohol, in particular, is taxed at a high rate and is much more expensive than anywhere else in the world. The blockade was also a big con and one of the reasons I moved on, it meant we were unable to fly directly to many of the UAE countries and had implications on costs of many things especially flights.

My experience in Vietnam

Vietnam is an amazing country with such a diverse landscape when compared to Qatar where I came from. Before COVID hit and the borders were closed, in my first 6 months here I was able to travel cheaply and easily to Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, and Indonesia. Vietnam is also unique in that many international schools cover the tax on your salary as well as offering housing allowance and so although some salaries may appear lower than the Middle East for example your saving power is actually greater because your salary is your own and most things here are really cheap. Travel within Vietnam is also great which has made the border closures slightly more tolerable as we have been able to travel to the beaches in the south and see turtles hatching in Con Dao as well as visit the local tribes in the mountains of Sapa.

In Hanoi, there is a huge amount of development taking place and in 10 years I think it will be a really amazing city. For the time being the road system isn't designed to cope with the amount of traffic and so a 5km journey can often take a lot longer than it should. They have been developing a metro system (parts of which have been delayed for nearly 10 years now) which might help alleviate the traffic if it ever gets opened. The pollution as a result of the traffic and huge population in Hanoi is therefore quite bad and the air quality like in other Asian cities is often a risk. In addition, as a vegetarian, I am not really able to enjoy local food. Pho, the most famous dish often has a meat stock and different meats in it and hot pot where meat and fish get cooked together is really popular here.

The biggest differences between life as an expat teacher in Qatar and in Vietnam

Culturally Vietnam and Qatar couldn't be more different. In Qatar, although I never had to cover my hair or wear a Hijab, I would always cover my shoulders and wear things below the knee. In Vietnam, you can wear anything you want, people where we live often walk around in vests or what looks like pajamas and so I am not conscious about what I wear.

Secondly, the price of things in Asia is naturally a lot cheaper than in the Middle East if you shop locally, but when it comes to buying things imported from the UK or specific dietary requirements such as dairy-free milk there is little difference in cost when comparing Qatar and Vietnam prices as both are more expensive than the UK due to import fees.

In terms of teaching in Vietnam, I am not as restricted by religion/culture as to what I can teach. I am still sensitive to the cultures but in Qatar, there were things which if you taught could land you in a lot of trouble that in the UK you wouldn't have thought twice about.

Recommendations for teachers who are hoping to move from the Gulf to Asia

  • Consider your reasons for wanting to move carefully. If they are strictly financial then you need to think about the pension/tax schemes in different Asian countries and make sure they work with your savings goals.
  • Research the schools and where possible contact people who work in Asia already to get a better sense of what the ethos and lifestyle is like
  • Ask about the location of the school and the commute to work, especially if the school is in one of the busier Asian cities
  • Think about pollution- this is quite bad in some places and if you are sensitive to air quality this can have an impact on your happiness there

The best place to connect with me and find out more

You can connect with me on Instagram: adventureswithmissamy or Twitter: @amymayfrench


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