Costa Rica Classroom had a great article recently, the gist of which was — to get the most out of your time in TEFL, be prepared to adapt. I think this is an excellent insight, and agree that you will have a much better time if you not only come with fewer expectations about how things should be, but also acknowledge the expectations you do have.
A few things I’ve noticed:
Getting into the habit of taking off your shoes when you enter a home, ordering in a foreign language or dressing a certain way are not that hard. But getting rid of the feeling that you should be able to dress however you want, or that things should run on at least somewhat of a schedule, or (fill in the basic idea here) are much harder. And realizing things aren’t as they seem they should be can be pretty frustrating; there is something to be said for trying to reason that out. Even if you can’t get rid of that feeling, realizing that part of the issue is that very feeling, and not solely the situation, may help getting over it.
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Another challenge I’ve found is the inability to tell if something really is a cultural difference or if it is just characteristic of the particular situation you are in. For example: Getting paid late (or not getting paid). Strangers asking personal questions. Machismo. Can you generalize from the actions of a few people that this is a cultural trait and as such is immune to criticism?
Most of us would be very willing to attribute some of these to cultural difference but if someone tried to justify others as such we would scoff (“We just told you that to be polite — it’s acceptable in our culture to mislead someone in order to get them to do what you want.”). I’m not saying this happens all over the place, but the point is, most of us would say that’s wrong, even if it does happen regularly in a place. While striving be accepting of different cultures is good and well, in practice, there are aspects of other cultures that most of us do more or less agree are just not okay. And sometimes individual people are just odd, and their behavior shouldn’t be taken to necessarily represent a cultural value.
Even taking all this into account…I still agree that being prepared to adapt will make your time abroad much more pleasant!