Thursday 19 March 2020

Isolation abroad: Working in a foreign country after university

Guinevere shares experiences of, and tips for managing mental wellbeing when working in a foreign country after university.
- Guinevere

As you are reading this, you may be in your final year at university, or preparing for graduation, and unsure of the next step you’re going to take. Perhaps you are eager to remain where you are and expand your academic career, or find a job close to home. But maybe you are keen to travel abroad in which case, there are some things you’ll need to prepare for, for the sake of your mental health.

There’s plenty at stake when you decide to move away from the people and places you know, and make the journey to a foreign country. I studied in a town which, despite its charms, is best known for its potholes and water shortages. After four years of studying, I decided that it was time to travel, and travel far. After some deliberation, my choice was China, and my best friend and I headed off to China three months after graduation, to teach English as a second language.

As a South African, I was totally unaccustomed to and unprepared for life in China, despite my best efforts to prepare. There is a lot I can share about my experience, but here, I want to stress the importance of taking care of your mental health when living in a foreign country. Many factors can negatively impact your state of mind when you’ve moved far from home. There are, however, various solutions to these problems that I have come to learn.

1. Adjusting to a different climate

A change in weather patterns can drastically affect your mood, especially if you’ve moved from a warmer climate to one with icy winters, where you’re not getting as much Vitamin D as normal. Ensure that you are listening to watch your body needs, and prepare for weather that you are not used to (make sure you get enough sunlight during winter it can make the greatest difference!).

2. Mitigating the distance between you and your loved ones

Of course, you will be away from your loved ones, and this can be very trying, especially if you are in a different time zone. I have experienced tremendous loneliness in China, when all I wanted was to be at home, enjoying a meal with my family, or spending a night out with my friends or partner. Creating a scheduled Skype session with your mom, or grandpa, or cat, is really helpful. Knowing that there is a set date for you to spend quality video time with your loved ones is a true comfort, and it can shrink that distance, even if just the smallest bit.

3. Dealing with potential culture shock

No amount of research or discussions could have prepared me for the culture shock of moving from South Africa to China. I couldn’t speak or read Mandarin, and knew very little of the food or customs I was going to encounter. Having been here for eight months now, I have come to find it all a lot less challenging. Rather than remaining terrified, it is beneficial for you to explore your new surroundings in a foreign country. Find a way to log your experiences be it through writing, photography, or even vlogging. Keep in mind that you are not the first person to experience being a foreigner, and seek out others like yourself who can help you find your way. There are many online forums to join and find other people who are exploring like you. This can help fight that loneliness, and allow you to enjoy your time away from home rather than dreading each novel experience.

4. Practising self-care to manage your mental health

If you are already living with a mental illness, be aware of this and take precautions where necessary when you’re preparing to leave home. As someone who’s lived with depression for years, I knew that I had to stock up on my medication before leaving home. To be without my antidepressants and dealing with the stress of a different country would have been a nightmare. Whether or not you take medication, do make sure to take care of yourself: take a rest when necessary, check in with yourself, speak to a loved one when you’re feeling particularly low, and remind yourself that you have come this far. On my days off from work, I practise some forms of self-care, be it yoga, napping, watching a film, or applying a face mask. Rest days are just as important as the days when you’re busy working or exploring your new space.

There are various pros and cons of working overseas after university. You will never be fully prepared for it, but that’s part of the fun. It’s not for everybody, but with the right preparation and consideration for your mental well-being, it can be a wonderful experience.

For further information, advice and resources on looking after your wellbeing during a year abroad, click here. You can also find more information on managing your mental health after graduation here

Hi, I'm Guinevere. I recently graduated with English Honours at Rhodes University in South Africa, and am currently working as an ESL teacher in China. I've had depression and anxiety for many years, and want to share my experiences in the hopes of helping others. 

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