Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Decisions, Decisions...

With the recruitment season for international schools upon us, and especially with one of the international-school job fairs having taken place close to home in Bangkok just last week, I got to thinking (more than usual) about the decision we'll be making ourselves later this year: whether we will be staying in Thailand, moving on to another country, or going home to the U.S. at the end of the school year in 2015.

In about nine months, the first decision we'll have to make is whether we'll be staying a third year in Thailand. Getting more experience and finances are two main reasons for us to stay. First, my husband could start getting experience and training to teach International Baccalaureate classes, which, along with his decade-plus years of teaching experience, would make him very attractive to other international schools, most of which have that program. He already has experience teaching the Middle Years Programme, which is the IB program for lower grades (middle to lower high school). In addition, the school will have several special-education teaching positions open next school year, and the school has pretty much told me that one of them is mine if I can get provisional certification for next year and if I am willing to work on getting my expired teaching certificate reinstated while I am teaching next year. So working here for two years would also make me more attractive to other international schools, and make us both marketable as a teaching couple with only one dependent. The other incentive for us to stay here another year is that, after three years here, my husband would get to keep 50 percent of the matching that the school makes to his retirement fund.

The thing is, we haven't exactly been completely thrilled with the education our son is getting here, so we don't think staying another year just to receive a small amount of extra money and for us to get one more year of experience is worth the cost to our son's education. Not to mention, I'm not crazy about living where we live now. After having just been to other Asian cities where we were able to walk everywhere and had so many options when it came to activities and food, coming back to this mind-numbingly dull suburb of Bangkok has been excruciating. Where we live now is very similar to, if not worse than, many sleepy American suburbs. At least in the suburbs of D.C., there were always things going on, for adults, children, and families alike. There was diversity in the people. While I strongly suspect that I would feel very differently about life here if we were living in, or close to, downtown Bangkok instead of its suburbs, the fact is that we can't live downtown. The commute to and from school every day would kill any quality of life we gain by moving there. And I refuse to subject a seven-year-old to an even earlier wake-up time and long commutes on a daily basis, even if most other parents at the school have no problems with it.

So at this point, we are leaning towards not staying a third year here. After that decision is made comes the more difficult decision -- whether to continue living abroad or move back home, where my husband has a teaching position being held for him by our county that he can return to if we go home after two years abroad. If we decided to stay abroad, my husband would have to resign from our county and reapply for a job should we ever return. Luckily, even after we make our decision about whether to stay in Thailand, we will still have until the spring of 2015 before we have to give an answer to our school system back home.

Right now, we have no idea what we are going to do; our feelings about this change from day to day, sometimes even from hour to hour. Back in November, I was, finally, beginning to settle in and get into the routine of life. I could see us living and working abroad for an extended period of time. Then December came and we left the country for vacation, and now I feel as if I'm back to square one. Since coming back to Thailand, I've spent many waking hours dreaming about returning to the U.S., where there is an abundance of things to do, see, and eat. Back home is where my friends and family are. Back home, everything is comfortable, familiar, and convenient.

Still, there are many times when I feel I have more living abroad to experience before heading home permanently. And if we go home after our two years here, we may never get the chance to work abroad again. Most teachers who do this are in their 20s or at most early 30s. There are some who begin teaching abroad around our age or in their 50s, but those who begin around our age have been doing this for at least a decade and plan to retire here, and those who are in their 50s have already retired from U.S. schools, so they already have retirement funds in the U.S. and don't need to worry about paying for college for their kids (they all have grown kids already). Most international schools have an age cut-off, so many teachers in their late 40s, 50s, and early 60s have trouble getting teaching jobs at international schools.

In the long run, if I return to teaching, and we get a situation with a good school (for all three of us) in a nice city somewhere, we would consider staying there until our son graduates from high school. For starters, we don't want to move him around too much, so if we get jobs at a good school and we're happy there, it would be a no-brainer. Then there's all the traveling we'd get to do if we stayed abroad. And since leaving the U.S., we have all felt so much less stressed and much more relaxed; it's really good on my mental health not having to hear about all the political wrangling going on day in and day out, news about all the horrible things happening, and all the fighting over things that can and should be handled using common sense. I know every country has its own set of problems, but there is something about life in the U.S. that can be unnecessarily stressful and frustrating -- despite all the comforts and conveniences available there -- that I have not heard of expats experiencing in other countries.

The biggest incentive to stay abroad is a financial one, of course. If I returned to teaching, having two incomes would put us in a great place financially in the long run. There is a teaching couple here who started teaching abroad in Shanghai ten years ago, when they were around our age. In that time, they have not only been able to build up their retirement funds, travel extensively, and live a comfortable life, but they also have been able to save an additional $200,000 to pay for their daughter's attendance at an expensive, private university in California. She graduates in May this year. We look to them as an example of what our lives could be should we stay, and it's very tempting to base our decision on just this.

But there are other considerations. Would I be happy returning to teaching? To be honest, I miss the intellectual stimulation that working as a lawyer provided, and teaching as a special education teacher (as opposed to teaching a specific content area) would not give me the intellectual stimulation that I want. Also, I may want to try my hand at other career options that may not be realizable abroad. And we wonder about the long-term effects of raising our son overseas: would it cause him to feel out-of-place and disconnected wherever he goes, just as moving to and growing up in the U.S. did to me? The students at our school all seem very accepting and are used to seeing friends come and go, and my son seems to be very much at home here and more confident about himself than before, but who knows what it'll be like once he hits middle and high school? Then there's home in the U.S., which we know we would really miss for many years to come should we decide to stay abroad. Staying abroad also may mean letting go of the plans of things we wanted to do in the U.S. Last, but not least, there are my parents, who are getting on in age, so I would really like to be around for them. I also want my son to be able to see them more often and continue his relationship with them. I am always surprised to hear other expat families here say that they don't miss the U.S. or their families and friends back home, or brush aside questions about their children's relationships with their families, even though they haven't been here for that many more years than we have.

It's a difficult decision to make, and it's hard to sort out all the factors when different aspects of our lives are pulling us in different directions. We are really hoping that our visit home this summer will provide some clarity, so we will be able to make this decision with confidence early next school year.

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