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Advice from an Expat Teaching and Traveling in Asia

Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China during Valerie's travels.
Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China during Valerie’s travels. Welcome to Valerie Hamer! Valerie, tell us about yourself.

Valerie: I am British, and in summer 2000 I moved to Tokyo for a couple of years. I’m still in Asia, though I now live in South Korea. In the UK I taught sociology and criminology at university, so teaching English was a new challenge.

These days I work at a university near Seoul, a great job that gives me a lot of free time to travel. In the past eleven years I’ve been to Thailand, Taiwan, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, America, The Netherlands and Eastern Europe, as well as traveling extensively within Japan and South Korea.

TT: Fantastic! Tell us more about your travels.

V: It took me a while to get into travelling solo, but by the time I went to China I was an expert. It’s great to be free to do what you want, which included a hair raising trip around Beijing as a passenger on a motorbike/sidecar combo. You can read more about this and see a video here. I’m more of a flashpacker than a backpacker, and the upmarket hostel I stayed in was a good way to meet interesting people from all backgrounds and age groups. We formed a kind of informal club, meeting every evening in the bar to share our stories. Being around the corner to Tiananmen square was really convenient, though I found the military presence in the area a little disturbing.

Teacher-traveler Valerie, herself.
Valerie, herself.

TT: I bet. How did you find this travel opportunity?

V: I always Google around to find unusual things to do in a new location. That’s how I came across the bike tour.

TT: How did you find the money to fund this travel?

V: Saving any extra cash I make from overtime work is my usual method of funding trips. It’s also very easy to save half your salary here, so that helps.

TT: That’s good to know! Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful or funny.

V: Children selling souvenirs pester the life out of you around Cambodia’s tourist attractions. One day I was dashing to use the bathroom when I saw a swarm of them approaching. I managed to beat them into the building, but of course they were ready for me when I emerged.

A young teenager made her pitch, offering various items which I had no intention of buying. There’s a limit to what you can carry in a backpack and I have to be ruthless. Putting on my best teacher voice I told them straight that I wanted nothing. She smiled sweetly and told me that “nothing costs two dollars.” I had to laugh, she will go far in life I hope.

Famous photo of the atrocities during the Vietnam War.
Famous photo of one atrocity during the Vietnam War: Napalm attack.

TT: What a story! How have your travels impacted you as a teacher?

V: I find traveling to places without a shared language really helps me empathise with my students.

TT: Absolutely. How have your travels impacted you as a person?

V: Sometimes it’s hard to be grateful for what you have. Spending time in places where the people have suffered from war, genocide and poverty helps to create perspective. Cambodia changed me; I have never met such wonderfully warm and peaceful-hearted people and look forward to returning someday. It’s sobering to learn about the terrible things they have experienced.

TT: What advice do you have for other educators who are dreaming of travel or travelers who want to teach?

"Beer hoi" during Valerie's Vietnam travels.
“Beer hoi” during Valerie’s Vietnam travels.

V: If you want to get into teaching English I strongly recommend the CELTA course. I did mine in Vietnam, and it is the very best grounding for even a short term career in this field. An advantage of taking the course abroad is the chance to live for a month or so in another country.

That is quite a different experience from just passing through. Because the CELTA is very intensive there isn’t much free time, but we did manage a Saturday night at one of the infamous ‘beer hoi’ corners. Think home brew at pennies a pint!

South Korea offers some of the best financial opportunities for teachers, but other parts of Asia are catching up. For those with home country teaching qualifications and experiences there are different options, including very nice public school jobs in Taiwan and beyond. Check out my blog for information on South Korea, teaching and expat life in general.

TT: Valerie, thanks so much for this useful and inspirational interview. Best of luck and keep up your great teaching and traveling! Readers, what questions or comments do you have for Valerie?


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